AL East preview: Rest of division catching up to Yankees, Red Sox
The Red Sox loaded up by adding Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford
The Yankees have major question marks in their starting rotation
The Orioles got a big boost from new manager Buck Showalter; will it last?
With the defending division champion Rays having faded a bit in the wake of losing Carl Crawford and their entire bullpen, the similarly-constructed Yankees and Red Sox are once again set to do battle atop the division, with both likely to make the playoffs regardless of the order of their finish. The bottom half of the division is catching up, however, as the Blue Jays boast pitching and power, and the Orioles look to build on their hot finish to the 2010 season under new manager Buck Showalter with young pitching and veteran bats.
WINTER GRADE: A
The Orioles overhauled their infield, getting three years of third baseman Mark Reynolds for a pair of undistinguished righty relievers, upgrading shortstop on both sides when the Twins gifted them with J.J. Hardy for another pair of relief arms, and taking an up-side gamble on Derrek Lee, something which paid off for the Braves down the stretch last year. They also added designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero on a one-year, $8 million deal similar to Lee's, and journeyman closer Kevin Gregg, who joins a strong end-game in the bullpen with the re-signed Koji Uehara.
THREE KEY QUESTIONS:
1. Can Adam Jones and/or Matt Wieters make the Leap?
Centerfielder Jones appeared on the verge of a breakout with a big first half in 2009 which earned him an All-Star selection, but injuries dashed his second half and he stumbled out of the gate last year. Still, he hit .302/.351/.475 from June 1 through the end of the season and is still just 25. That's less than a year older than Wieters, the fifth-overall pick in the 2007 draft and a supposed can't-miss catching stud, who followed up his disappointing rookie campaign with a sharp drop in his line-drive rate and a resulting plunge in batting average last year, from .288 to .249.
2. When will Zach Britton join the rotation?
Britton, a lefty groundballer who dominated the Grapefruit League this spring, is the Orioles' top prospect and projects as a potential ace. He'll open the season in Triple-A, but could be in the major league rotation by the end of April and could emerge as the best of a talented young crop of starters soon after.
3. Can the O's cash in as sellers at the trading deadline?
Finally, with veterans such as Guerrero, Lee, and Uehara signed to one-year deals without no-trade clauses, and Hardy, outfielder Luke Scott, and lefty reliever Mike Gonzalez also due to become free agents after the season, the Orioles have a lot to offer contending clubs looking to fill holes at the deadline. For a team trying to go from rebuilding to winning, there's an opportunity there to add a key piece or two to aid in that transition.
Buck Showalter, manager
The Orioles were 32-73 (.407) last year before Showalter took over as their manager on August 3. They then went 34-23 (.596) under their new skipper. According to research done by Ben Lindbergh and Steven Goldman of Baseball Prospectus, that was the second biggest improvement over the final 57 games of a season in baseball history and the greatest managerial turn around ever. However, the 1907 Cardinals, the one team to enjoy a larger improvement down the stretch, were actually worse the following year than they had been before their turnaround. So was the Buck bump real or illusory? Well, Showalter did effect big improvements in his second season in each of his three previous managerial stops, but all that we can we can quantify about the 2010 O's is that they were much better at preventing runs after Showalter's arrival, in part because of some coincidental defensive upgrades. This year, Showalter has brought in his own coaching staff, and the Orioles' prospect-heavy rotation and revamped infield defense offer hope that those stingy ways can continue, but expecting the Orioles to continue to play at a near-.600 clip, or even at a winning pace, is unreasonable.
"The warm fuzzies from Baltimore's second half last season have dissipated some. This club has not taken a step forward by any stretch. They've got the makings of a pretty good staff. When June comes around, Zach Britton will be in the rotation because he's better than some of them right now. In spring training last year the phenom for the Orioles was Brian Matusz; this year it's Britton."
WINTER GRADE: A
Let's see: Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler as the third and fourth best righties in the bullpen. That on top of 89 wins and the healthy returns of Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, and Jacoby Ellsbury. Not bad. Of course, one could argue that the upgrade to Gonzalez at first base and Youkilis at third base over Youkilis at first and Adrian Beltre at third may not be all that large when you take defense into account, that Crawford's range, a large part of his overall value, is wasted in Fenway Park's shallow left field and his contract could prove disastrous in the long-term, and that the Sox were convinced that Ellsbury wasn't viable defensively in centerfield just a year ago. Still, the upside of this team is tremendous.
THREE KEY QUESTIONS:
1. Can they stay healthy?
If the Red Sox had stayed healthy, they probably would have won the division last year. Instead they lost Dustin Pedroia for 98 days, Kevin Youkilis for 62, Mike Cameron for 101 and Jacoby Ellsbury for all but 18 games. Josh Beckett missed roughly a dozen starts, Daisuke Matsuzaka missed a handful, and none of that counts day-to-day absences and aches or the resulting poor performances from attempting to play through injury. Health is a major factor for any team, but it's one the Red Sox and their fans are hyper-aware of coming off last season.
2. Can David Ortiz continue to defy nature?
Ortiz appeared to be in fairly obvious decline in 2008 and 2009 and started 2010 ice cold, but he flipped the switch in May and looked almost like his old self the rest of the way. Still, players with his body type tend to deteriorate quickly in their mid-30s. Ortiz, who at the very least seems to have lost the ability to hit lefties, is 35 this year.
3. Is there a catcher in the house?
Jarrod Saltalamacchia was once a top prospect, but approaching his 26th birthday with a .248/.315/.386 career major league line, this might be his last chance to eke out a career as a major league starter. That line is almost a dead match for that of the average major league catcher last year, which would do the trick if Salty was similarly average at throwing out runners, but he's well below. His backup is 38-year-old team mascot Jason Varitek, who has hit .217/.310/.386 over the past three years while being similarly permissive with baserunners. Don't be surprised if those two make room for newly acquired Michael McKenry, a 26-year-old out of the Rockies system with strong catch-and-throw skills and a similar offensive projection.
John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka
The only meaningful difference between the Yankees and Red Sox heading into the season is the relative depth in their starting rotations. Even there, the top three men are fairly analogous: Jon Lester and CC Sabathia are big-time lefty aces; Clay Buchholz and Phil Hughes are former top prospects coming off their first full seasons in a big league rotation, both of whom have almost equal potential to take a step forward or backward; Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett are at times surly former Marlins teammates with checkered injury histories who struggle to pitch as well as their stuff says they should. That boils the division down to the difference between the duo of John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka and their Yankee counterparts, veteran Freddy Garcia and rookie Ivan Nova. Matsuzaka has been a massive disappointment and is hardly a better bet than Garcia at this point, but Lackey pitched well in the second half of 2010 and gives the Sox a clear advantage. If Lackey struggles or gets hurt, however, Boston's advantage could disappear with him.
"That's some kind of deep lineup. If you take a cylinder away from this engine, it's still a Ferrari. Adrian Gonzalez could very possibly be a monster on that team and Carl Crawford's a big game-changer for this club but they have to keep Kevin Youkilis healthy. He has to provide that righthanded presence, much like Dustin Pedroia, who's the igniter for his club. David Ortiz has been great this spring. He's got his bat speed back."
WINTER GRADE: C-
Desperate for rotation help, the Yankees pinned their hopes on a pair of 30-something lefties who ultimately went with their hearts rather than their wallets and left the Yankees to pick through the non-roster detritus for Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon and Kevin Millwood. It's hard to blame general manager Brian Cashman for Cliff Lee and Andy Pettitte spurning his advances, but "nice try" doesn't cut it in the Bronx. The Yankees also overpaid Derek Jeter to return despite the fact that he was never really going to leave and burned their top pick in what promises to be a fruitful 2011 amateur draft when a front-office executive went over Cashman's head and signed Rafael Soriano to a bizarre three-year deal with opt-outs after each season. The Yankees made some nice moves to reinforce their bench, and Russell Martin could be a good stop-gap behind the plate while top prospect Jesus Montero tunes up in Triple-A, but it won't mean much if they can't count on their back-end starters to keep them in games.