Long gone are the days when the battle for the American East title was a high-payroll showdown between the Red Sox and Yankees. The old rivals are now challenged by three well-stocked clubs that are in position to be in the postseason hunt all summer long.
Buck Showalter’s never-say-fold Orioles surprised most of baseball with last season’s surge to the postseason, mostly on the back of a no-name bullpen. The Blue Jays may have let John Farrell go, but they’ve revamped their roster this offseason and gone off their usual game plan to make a couple of blockbuster trades, taking on some big salaries in the process. And Joe Maddon’s Rays always find a way to be in the mix when the leaves start to turn with a stellar pitching staff and young outfielder Wil Myers injection into the lineup.
So with spring training just a month away, let’s take a look at the state of the five teams in the AL East and let you predict the 1-through-5 order of finish at the end.
5. Baltimore Orioles
2012: 93-69, 2d place, 2 games back, wild card winners
2013 projection: 79-83, 5th place, 14 games back
Was last year a fluke? The Orioles had a Cinderella season and played in the postseason for the first time in 15 years. The bullpen was the star as Buck Showalter’s easy-going bunch cruised to a 29-9 record in one-run games and posted a 16-2 mark in extra innings in 2012. Unlike years past, the O’s did not fold when the going got tough, going 37-18 in August and September to qualify for the playoffs, where they beat the Rangers in the wild-card game playoff and took the Yankees to five games in the divisional series before it all came to an end.
What’s changed? Third baseman Mark Reynolds, who had 23 home runs and 69 RBIs in 2012, became a free agent and signed with the Indians. Manny Machado, the 20-year-old who made an immediate impact with Baltimore when he was called up last August, will be the full-time third baseman to start the season. Machado hit .262 with 17 extra-base and 26 RBIs in 191 at-bats in his rookie season.
Jim Thome, the 42-year-old slugging DH who hit three homers in 28 games with Baltimore at the end of last season, won’t be returning. The versatile Wilson Betemit, who chipped in with 12 homers last season, is slated be the designated hitter.
Second baseman Robert Andino signed with the Mariners as a free agent in the offseason. Orioles veteran Brian Roberts, who had season-ending hip surgery in August, is expected to be ready to play second in 2013. Over the last three seasons, Roberts has played in only 115 games because of concussion issues.
The starting pitching staff will start the season with a different look from the 2012 rotation. The Orioles will get the benefit of having Jason Hammel, Miguel Gonzalez, and Chris Tillman ready to start the season instead of relying on Jake Arietta, Zach Britton, Tommy Hunter, and Brian Matusz to match up with better-armed competition as they did last year.
Veteran lefthander Joe Saunders, who came over from the Diamondbacks in August, was granted free agency in October.
What’s stayed the same? Baltimore banged out 214 home runs and scored 712 runs last season and nearly all of the Orioles’ big boppers are retuning. DH Chris Davis, who led the wild card champs with 33 home runs, is expected to move over to first base.
Budding star outfielder and 2012 MVP candidate and Gold Glove winner Adam Jones and his 32 homers will be batting cleanup.
Right fielder Nick Markakis, who played in only 104 games last season due to a fractured thumb, should be back for a full season. In more than 420 at-bats leading off last season, he hit .298/.363/.471 with 28 doubles and 13 home runs.
General manager Dan Duquette re-signed 31-year-old outfielder Nate McLouth, who hit .268 with seven homers after coming over from the Pirates, for a tidy $2 million
Outfielder Nolan Reimold, who showed early power last April, should also be back healthy for a full season after suffering from a herniated disk that landed him on the DL for most of 2012.
Catcher Matt Wieters, who belted 23 bombs in 2012 in addition to taking home a Gold Glove award, is back behind the plate along with Luis Martinez, selected off waivers off Texas, as part of the back up plan.
2012 AL Gold Glove award winner J.J. Hardy returns at shortstop with Brian Roberts at second base.
On the mound, righthander Jason Hammel is the de facto staff ace. After spending the previous three seasons in Colorado, Hammell went 8-6 with a 3.43 ERA in 20 starts for Baltimore last season.
Wei-Yin Chen impressed many in his first MLB season. The lefty went 12-11 in 32 starts, logging a 4.02 ERA.
Chris Tillman was 9-3 in 15 games started with a 2.93 ERA. The 24-year-old was impressive in his fourth season and should be effective in the middle of the rotation.
Miguel Gonzalez, who stepped up with a strong performance against the Yankees in last season’s ALDS, finished the year 9-4 with a 3.25 ERA in 15 starts.
Lefty Zach Britton or righty Brian Matusz could land the fifth starter spot unless Duquette acquires another pitcher before the start of the season. Jake Arrieta and Dylan Bundy could also help the rotation at some point.
The bullpen was the cornerstone of the Orioles success in 2012, led by Jim Johnson’s team-record 51 saves. Darren O’Day, Pedro Strop, Troy Patton, Steve Johnson, and Luis Ayala, all with sub-3.00 ERAs in 2012, will also be returning.
Let the regression begin. There won’t be as many days in the playoff race for Duquette’s club in 2013. Duke hasn’t done much to improve the Orioles this offseason and may be relying on the bullpen to carry the team again. The rotation remains a relative weak spot for Baltimore, which rolled out 12 different starting pitchers in 2012. The bet here is that the breaks don’t go Baltimore’s way and the O’s fall on hard times as the bullpen can’t repeat its greatness and the competition catches up them. Even the lowly Red Sox pass them by.
4. Boston Red Sox
2012: 69-93, 5th place, 26 games behind
2013 projection: 80-82, 4th place, 13 games behind
Plenty of new faces, but can they contend? Things can’t get much worse this season for the Red Sox after the team stumbled to a last place finish under controversial manager Bobby Valentine last season. Ineffective starting pitching sunk the Sox on the field as Boston’s rotation posted a 48-72 mark with a combined 5.19 ERA, good enough to rank No. 27 in all of MLB.
What’s changed? Almost everything. The well-respected John Farrell has returned to Boston to replace the much-maligned Valentine. The cost included starting shortstop Mike Aviles.
Gone are malcontent starter Josh Beckett, the prickly Adrian Gonzalez, and the underperforming Carl Crawford and in came a slew of replacements via trade and free agency. Newcomers include first baseman Mike Napoli, a notorious Red Sox killer with the Rangers who we now know has a very serious hip condition, and right fielder Shane Victorino, another acquisition coming off a down year, who will each be on the books for $39 million over three years. Veteran Jonny Gomes was signed for $10 million to platoon in left field along with the returning Ryan Sweeney, signed when Ryan Kalish was diagnosed with needing shoulder surgery.
Also new are shortstop Stephen Drew, backup catcher David Ross, starter Ryan Dempster, solid set-up reliever Koji Uehara, and newly acquired closer Joel Hanrahan.
And for the first time since 2007, Red Sox fans and AL batters won’t have Daisuke Matsuzaka to knock around.
Drew, two years removed from an ankle fracture, is the latest to get a shot at shortstop in a one-year deal to replace Aviles as banjo-hitting prospect Jose Iglesias will get more time to develop. Drew hit .223 in 2012 and was limited to 79 games with an ankle injury.
Former Dodger pitchers Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster will most likely have opportunities to impress.
There’s also a new look to the back-end of the bullpen with Hanrahan, who had 36 saves and 67 strikeouts in 59 2/3 innings for the Pirates last season, closing out games. Former injury-riddled closer Andrew Bailey, speculated to be on the trading block, will set up Hanrahan. Underwhelming reliever Mark Melancon was also shipped out in the Hanrahan deal.
Clubhouse chemistry is expected to be harmonious as general manager Ben Cherington made a conscious effort to change the culture and infuse the team with some new energy and attitude.
What’s stayed the same? Outside of newly signed innings-eater Ryan Dempster, who the Sox are looking to have a better showing against AL batters than he had in his 12 starts with the Rangers last season that yielded a 5.09 ERA, the Red Sox will begin the 2013 campaign with essentially the same starting rotation whose poor performance was the primary reason for the poor results last season.
Jon Lester, who posted a 9-14 record with a 4.82 ERA, Clay Buchholz, 11-8 with a 4.56 ERA, and 34-year-old John Lackey, returning from Tommy John surgery, will be expected to have bounce-back years while they hope Felix Doubront can stay strong and improve on his impressive early showing in 2012 before finishing 11-10 with a 4.86 ERA.
Jacoby Ellsbury is back for what might be his final season in Boston and the hope is he can get back to the near-MVP season in 2011, when he hit .321 with 32 home runs and 105 RBIs.
Even with all the new faces at Fenway, David Ortiz (.318 with 23 home runs) and Dustin Pedroia (.290 with 15 home runs) remain the de facto leaders of the team. The Red Sox are looking at the veterans to stay healthy and put up the big offensive production numbers that will be needed in a lineup that, on paper, lacks some punch.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who struggled at the end of the season the last two years, is expected to be back behind the plate for the majority of the games while the enigma that is Daniel Bard returns and the hope is that Farrell can help find the magic that made Bard one of the league’s most prized relievers just two years ago.
The good news is that the Red Sox don’t have Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett anymore. The bad news is that the Red Sox don’t have Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett anymore. There’s plenty of change coming to Boston, but did the team really upgrade? Has Ben Cherington done enough to rebuild the starting pitching rotation? Are there enough impact bats in a new dirt-doggy lineup? Those are the key questions.
There were some definite improvements made, specifically to the bench and the back end of the bullpen.
There is the possibility that the Red Sox will repeat as basement dwellers in the AL East, mostly because the starting pitching remains suspect even if Lester and Buchholz return to form under Farrell, their former pitching coach. And while they’ve added some new arms to the staff and bats to the lineup, most of the new position players are coming off down years. Meanwhile the competition, outside of the Yankees, is much improved from just a couple of years ago. Look for Boston to finish closer to the bottom than the top of the division. The prediction here is for a fourth place finish that will leave the Sox on the outside looking in on the postseason for the fourth consecutive year.
3. New York Yankees
2012: 95-67, 1st place, 2 games ahead
2013 projection: 85-77, 3d place, 8 games back
Is there enough magic for one more run? The Yankees claimed the AL East title last year for the 13th time since 1995 before getting swept by the Tigers in the ALCS. The more things changed for the other teams in the AL East this winter, the more they’ve stayed the same for the Bronx Bombers, who shied away from making any major moves thus far. The defending AL East champs won 95 games last season despite battling injuries that are often commonplace with an aging team.
What’s changed? Some veterans left the Big Apple for smaller markets this offseason.
Nick Swisher turned down a qualifying offer before signing with the Cleveland Indians.
Veteran catcher Russell Martin signed a two-year deal with the Pirates, and infielder Eric Chavez will be with the Diamondbacks in 2013. While Francisco Cervelli is expected to start the season, the hope is that Austin Romine will eventually handle the duties at catcher with Chris Stewart, or possibly Bobby Wilson also waiting in the wings.
Free agent outfielder and late-inning long-baller Raul Ibanez will be playing in Seattle next season.
Outfielder Brett Gardner, who missed most of 2012 with an elbow injury, will be back to start the 2013 campaign, penciled in as the left fielder.
In years past, the Yankees might have been the frontrunners for marquee free agents, but these aren’t George Steinbrenner’s Yankees. New York had needs, but GM Brian Cashman stood on the sidelines while big prize outfielder Josh Hamilton secured a five-year, $125 million deal from the Angels and pitcher Zack Greinke landed a six-year, $147 million contract with the Dodgers. While The Boss would traditionally take on big contracts with wild abandon, his son, Hal Steinbrenner, is now looking to keep payroll under the luxury tax threshold of $189 million by 2014.
The Yankees did sign former Red Sox Kevin Youkilis to play third base to the tune of $12 million for one year to fill in for the rehabbing Alex Rodriguez.
Reliever Rafael Soriano is gone along with his 42 saves and top pitching prospect Manny Banuelos underwent Tommy John surgery in October and will not pitch at all next season.
What’s stayed the same? The Yankees are old and keep getting older. Captain Derek Jeter is now 38, coming off a solid season before suffering an ankle surgery in the ALCS, and was last seen limping around in a cast in South Beach packing a few extra pounds.
All-star second baseman Robinson Cano and slugging outfielder Curtis Granderson, both in their walk year, and first baseman Mark Teixeira, are all back to power the lineup. Teixeira’s average has been sliding the last three seasons, and he was slowed further by injuries in 2012. The Yankees will need him to put up the power numbers that saw him hit at least 30 home runs and at least 100 RBIs from 2004 through 2011. Cano had another big year in 2012, batting .313 with 33 home runs and 94 RBIs. Granderson hit 43 homers last season, but struck out 195 times.
The handsomely-paid Rodriguez is coming off another average season with only 18 homers and 57 RBIs and he isn’t expected to be ready until the second half in 2013 while he recovers from a hip injury.
Ten-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glove outfielder Ichiro Suzuki is back and is expected to patrol right field in Swisher’s absence. Suzuki was re-signed to a two year, $13 million deal.
Eduardo Nunez is expected to start at DH.
On the pitching end, five-time World Series champion Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, the world’s greatest closer who is coming back from knee surgery at 43-years-old, return on one-year deals. The 40-year-old Pettitte posted a 5-4 record with a 2.87 in a half-season of work in 2012.
Hiroki Kuroda, the Yankees’ best starter a year ago (16-11), re-signed for another season to join a rotation led by lefty ace CC Sabathia (15-6 with a 3.38 ERA), who had surgery to remove a bone spur in his left elbow in October.
Phil Hughes hopes to keep the ball in the park more this season after allowing 35 home runs to go along with a 16-13 record and 4.23 ERA in 2012.
Ivan Nova, who slumped to a 12-8 mark and 5.02 ERA in 2012, and David Phelps should be able to provide quality innings in the back end of the rotation until 23-year-old prized phenom Michael Pineda can come back from having surgery on his right shoulder last season.
David Robinson, Boone Logan, Clay Rapada, Joba Chamberlain, and old friend David Aardsma are expected to get the call leading up to Rivera in the Yankees bullpen.
It’s always dangerous to bet against the Yankees, who have won the AL East crown 13 times in the wild-card era and have been to the playoffs in 17 of the past 18 seasons. But father time will catch up with the banged-up Bombers in 2013 as a couple of younger teams should pass them by. The rotation, led by Sabathia, who is more of an injury risk, is loaded with question marks. The vaunted lineup has the potential to remind Yankee fans of the glory days one more time if Teixeira and eventually A-Rod can return to form, but the prediction here is for a third place finish for New York and coming up just a bit short for the second wild-card slot in the AL.
2. Tampa Bay Rays
2012: 90-72, 3d place, 5 games back
2013 projection: 90-72, 2d place, 3 games back, wild card berth
Do the additions and subtractions balance? After making the postseason in 2010 and 2011, the Rays finished out of the money in the AL postseason race last season. The Rays’ Achilles’ heel in 2012 was their inability to score runs and win close games. With No. 2 starter James Shields shipped off to Kansas City for the promise of slugging outfielder Wil Myers, the young starters will have to slide up a spot and try to replace the consistency that Shields provided the Rays for the past seven seasons.
What’s changed? The Rays shipped veteran righty James Shields and pitcher Wade Davis to Kansas City in order to get highly touted outfielder Wil Myers. The 22-year-old batted .314 in the minors last season with 37 home runs, including 22 in Triple-A. Desmond Jennings, who batted .246 last season, will move from left to center field with Myers on board.
The Rays also acquired shortstop Yunel Escobar from the Marlins. Escobar batted .253 with nine home runs and 51 RBIs in a career-high 145 games. The Rays should now have some stability at the position after using Elliot Johnson, Ben Zobrist, and Sean Rodriguez at short in 2012.
First baseman Carlos Peña, who batted only .197 last season, is taking his talents to Houston to be the Astros’ DH while light-hitting James Loney, who had a cup of the coffee with the Red Sox after the trade heard ‘round the world, joins the Rays to play first base.
Infielder Jeff Keppinger, who hit .325 for the Rays last season, signed a 3-year deal to play for the White Sox.
The Rays also have to replace B.J. Upton’s 28 home runs and 78 RBIs as the Braves signed the free-agent outfielder to a $75 million contract in the offseason.
What’s stayed the same? Tampa Bay again will look to Evan Longoria to be the big power bat in the lineup. The All-Star third baseman signed a $100 million contract extension in the offseason, but played in only 74 games last season because of a partially torn left hamstring. He still managed to hit 17 homers and drive in 55.
Ben Zobrist, 20 homers and 74 RBIs last season, returns at second base and is expected to bat ahead of Longoria in the third spot and outfielder Matt Joyce, who batted .241 with 17 homers and 59 RBIs, will hit behind Longoria.
Ryan Roberts, who hit .235 between Arizona and Tampa Bay in 2012, moves over to DH as Luke Scott, no friend to Red Sox fans, is gone.
Veteran Jose Molina, 37, is back behind the plate.
Even with No. 2 starter Shields gone, the Rays are expected to have plenty of quality pitching depth.
Reigning Cy Young Award winner David Price, 20-5 with a 2.56 ERA and 205 strikeouts, is back to lead a staff that was ranked the best in the majors last season with a combined 3.34 ERA.
25-year-old Jeremy Hellickson, the 2011 Rookie of the Year, chipped in with 177 innings, a 10-11 record, and 3.10 ERA last season.
Matt Moore, the 23-year-old lefty with the big upside, went 11-11 with a 3.81 ERA in his first full season and finished 2012 strong.
Former first-round draft choice Jeff Niemann, 2-3 with a 3.08 ERA in eight starts, and 25-year-old righty Alex Cobb, 11-9 with a 4.03 ERA, are expected to round out the rotation with help from Chris Archer, the Rays’ No. 2 prospect, who made his major league debut last season.
Fernando Rodney, who closed 48 games and finished with a 0.60 ERA last season, will close again with help from Jake McGee, Joel Peralta, and Cesar Ramos.
Can the young arms now leading the Rays pitching staff excel without Shields? Can Longoria stay on the field and put up the big power numbers for six months? Those are the big questions the Sons of Joe Maddon must answer. All eyes will also be on Myers and how much impact his bat brings to the middle of a lineup that has struggled to score runs when it needed them. If the pitching holds up and if the Rays, who finished 12th in the AL in runs scored last season, can find a way to score, don’t be surprised if they are knocking on the door to the playoffs yet again. The prediction here is second place in the AL East and another trip to the postseason as one of the wild-card representatives in the American League.
1. Toronto Blue Jays
2012: 73-89, 4th place, 22 games back
2013 projection: 93-69, 1st place, 3 games ahead
Revamped team the favorite: The great starting pitching collapse and other assorted injuries sank John Farrell’s Blue Jays in 2012. But this is a totally revamped Blue Jays squad and after some major deals to bring in veteran talent. Toronto goes into the spring as the prohibitive favorite in the American League East.
What’s changed? Wheeling and dealing general manager Alex Anthopoulos decided to make some noise in the wide-open AL East in the offseason. Ten new major-league ready players have come in and 13 players have been sent packing this offseason.
In November, the baseball world was jolted off its axis when the Jays and Marlins got together for a seven-player megadeal. Toronto sent shortstop Yunel Escobar, starter Henderson Alvarez, infielder Adeiny Hechavarria, catcher Jeff Mathis, and three minor leaguers to Miami in exchange for four-time All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes, Marlins staff ace Josh Johnson, gritty lefthander Mark Buehrle, infielder Emilio Bonifacio, and catcher John Buck. The 29-year-old Reyes slumped to .287 in Miami last season
The Jays next signed free-agent outfielder Melky Cabrera — of 50-game suspension fame — to a two year, $16 million contract.
Bonifacio, who hit .258 in 64 games with the Marlins last season, will replace Kelly Johnson at second base.
About a month after the trade, the Blue Jays sent two highly ranked prospects to the Mets for reigning NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey and gave the 38-year-old knuckleballer a $25 millon contract extension. Dickey, Tim Wakefield’s co-star in the 2012 documentary ‘Knuckleball!’, struck out 230 batters to go along with a 20-6 record and 2.73 ERA with the Mets last season, but it’s always dangerous to have a knuckleballer as the ace of your staff. The Jays also picked up catchers Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas in the deal.
Josh Johnson (8-14, 3.81 ERA), who becomes a free agent after the coming season, has not thrown as hard or been as effective since experiencing shoulder problems in 2011, and the former Marlins ace will have to adjust to facing the big bats in the American League in 2013.
Mark Buehrle, who went 13-13 with a 3.74 ERA for Miami last season, joins the starting staff. The 33-year-old lefty and durable former White Sox stalwart has pitched at least 200 inning for 12 consecutive seasons.
Last but not least, John Farrell is out and old manager John Gibbons is back as Blue Jays manager. No matter who is on the field, Gibbons will have to stress fundamentals as Farrell’s Jay were woeful in the field and on the basepaths in 2012.
What’s stayed the same? Super-slugging right fielder Jose Bautista is back to hammer away after a wrist injury limited him to just 332 at-bats last year.
Center fielder Colby Rasmus, who broke out with 23 homers and 75 RBIs last season, will also return.
Emerging star Edwin Encarnacion, 42 homers and 100 RBIs in 2012, is back to handle DH/first base duties along with Adam Lind.
Brett Lawrie, who hit .273 with 11 homers in 494 at-bats, will be back at third base.
J.P. Arencibia is expected to be the starting catcher.
Starter Brandon Morrow blossomed with a 2.96 ERA to go along with a 10-7 record in 2012 and the enigmatic Ricky Romero, looking to stay healthy and bounce back from a 9-14 record and 5.77 ERA, return to the Jays’ rotation, but with the acquisitions of Dickey, Johnson, and Buehrle, they drop down from 1-2 to 4-5 in 2013. Romero, last year’s Opening Day starter who sported a .292 ERA in 2011, is coming back off elbow surgery at the end of last season.
Relievers Sergio Santos, back from an extended stay on the DL in 2012, and Casey Janssen could battle it out to earn the closer job.
Old friend Darren Oliver will be returning to Blue Jays for his 20th season to help the bullpen from the left side.
On paper, the Jays look like they have all the pieces in place to win the division and return to the World Series for the first time since ‘93. But what happens on the field is always another story in Toronto.
Like with everyone else in the AL East, there are important questions to be answered. Was Cabrera a performance-enhanced fluke last season in San Francisco? Will Jose Reyes bounce back to become an impact player in the AL or will he show to be an aging shortstop on the downside of his career?
The Jays’ rotation has the potential to be the best in the division, but how Dickey, Buehrle and Johnson hold up and adjust to the American League remains to be seen. The bullpen remains the weak spot. And the new high expectations put the Jays in a different light and it will be interesting to see how they respond to being the frontrunners.
Even with all the questions surrounding the new cast of characters in the Toronto clubhouse, the first place pick goes to the talent-rich Jays. For the first time since Joe Carter ripped a one-out, three-run walk-off home run to clinch the ’93 series off of Phillies closer Mitch Williams, Jays fans could be cheering north of the border deep into October.
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