Fans face off: Who will win the AL East?
Rooters for the Red Sox, Rays, and Yankees make their case
We asked a die hard fan from each of the three AL East contenders -- the Red Sox, Rays, and Yankees -- to give us their reasons why their favorite team will prevail in what promises to be baseball's toughest division. Here are their arguments ...
Why the Red Sox will win the EastBy Ron Sen
Mark it down: The Red Sox will capture their third World Series championship in the new millennium, working hard -- and more importantly, intelligently -- to win baseball's best division and roll through October.
From front to back, the Sox pitching staff has the stuff of champions. Josh Beckett is set to reemerge as a true ace. Jon Lester will continue to evolve into one of the game's premier lefthanders. Daisuke Matsuzaka builds on his 18-win season and WBC success this spring. Brad Penny, Tim Wakefield, and the Killer B's (Buchholz and Bowden) vie for the final spots in baseball's deepest rotation. And the Money Guy awaits, as forever young John Smoltz rehabs, author of a 2.65 postseason ERA in 24 series.
A revitalized bullpen features closer Jonathan Papelbon, unscored upon in 25 postseason innings. He holds court with the "lay down the law" firm of Saito, Delcarmen, Okajima, Ramirez, and Lopez. Justin (Bull from "Night Court") Masterson can start, relieve, or bring cookies to Don and Jerry. And we wait for Daniel Bard's heater that brings visions of sugarplums to Red Sox Nation.
The Sox smartly emphasize balance between run prevention and run generation, and return their best defense in ages without Dr. Strangeglove in left, capably replaced by Jason Bay. J.D. Drew will squish the injury bug, and Jacoby Ellsbury should adjust to the hard stuff down and in, will add more thefts than anyone from "The Exchange," score 100 runs, and run down more flies than "CSI."
With a lot to prove, Jason Varitek will have a mean reversion season. Mike Lowell's return adds stability to an experienced infield with two rich, productive, happy campers in Kevin Youkilis and reigning MVP Dustin Pedroia. Big Papi returns to health.
Tampa finds repeating as division champion a Herculean task. The stars aligned last year for the cowbelles, but the brass ring eluded them, just as the division title does in 2009. Tampa thrived under the Butch Cassidy "who are those guys?" scenario that played out in 2008. The formidable Rays won't sneak up on anybody this season; perfect pitching health never occurs in consecutive seasons.
In New York, intangibles come into play more than ever, as the Yankees squabble over A-Rod's tarnish and the Rodriguez-Teixeira feud, lingering from their time as teammates in Texas, erupts into scenes that only Wes Craven fans can love. And that's once A-Rod actually returns from hip surgery. Sox fans won't have to needle A-Rod about his peccadilloes as he misses their first five meetings. Once again, baseball aficionados and Red Sox Nation have a common enemy.
The Sox shopped at Target this offseason while the Yankees (no accident with a GM named Cash-man) spent like Michael Douglas in "Wall Street." Boston has reserve funds for a rainy day, while the Yankees have a TARP 3.0 application in with the Federal Reserve after unloading half a billion dollars on Mr. T, a future WWE ultra-heavyweight champion, and another pitcher who belongs in the Peabody Museum glass flowers case.
The Red Sox have John Henry and New York has Bernie Madoff. Boras raked the Yankees over the coals while Theo Epstein got the better of Great Scott. The New Yankee Stadium cost $1.6 billion as our economy faces the biggest slowdown in 80 years.
Karma rules. So too will the Red Sox.
Red Sox fan Ron Sen is the founder of the Red Sox Reality Check fan blog.
Why the Rays will win the EastBy Scott Caruso
Pop quiz: Why did the Tampa Bay Rays win the American League East in 2008?
If you answered, "Because 25 players managed to all have career years at the same time," you obviously weren't paying very close attention.
If you answered, "Because Joe Maddon is a master of voodoo magic and he summoned unholy spirits to the Rays' aid," you're a little closer, but still not there.
The correct answer is, of course, pitching and defense. The Rays shocked the world -- and even the most optimistic of fans -- by controlling the most difficult division in baseball for the majority of the season and going to the playoffs for the first time in their history. They did it all on the back of top-notch starters, gutsy relief pitchers, and sometimes-flashy, always-solid defensive play.
So, can the Rays do it again? You betcha.
The top four horses from the 2008 rotation return a year older and wiser. The eldest of those starters, James Shields, will be just 27 this year. Whether it's Shields's wicked changeup, Scott Kazmir's filthy slider, Matt Garza's electric fastball, or Andy Sonnanstine's darting cutter, each pitcher brings something different to the table.
If that's not enough, the Rays have David Price -- only the top pitching prospect in the sport -- hovering at Durham waiting to grab the fifth starter spot from either Jeff Niemann or Jason Hammel, both former top prospects in their own right.
The Rays also trot out a deep bullpen featuring two of the top closers of the past decade -- Troy Percival and Jason Isringhausen. Percival says he's recovered fully from the injuries that robbed him of his effectiveness in the second half last season, and Isringhausen has come into camp determined to show that last year's struggles in St. Louis were a fluke.
How do the Rays plan on getting it to Percringhausen (or is that Isringval)? With a deep and balanced set of arms that should be able to navigate out of any situation. J.P. Howell and Brian Shouse come from the left side. The former is able to tantalize righthanded hitters with one of the finest changeups in the division and the latter brings a pedigree as one of the National League's top specialists in recent years. From the right side, Grant Balfour will blow the Yankees away with his 98 mile-per-hour fastball while Dan Wheeler's late movement will have the Red Sox popping up fastballs they were sure were ticketed for Lansdowne Street. There isn't a team around that can match the Rays' depth of arms, from Chad Bradford to Joe Nelson to a half-dozen others at Durham.
To support those pitchers, the Rays feature one of the best defenses of the past 20 years. Carlos Pena was the rightful winner of the Gold Glove at first base. Akinori Iwamura has a shortstop's range and a third baseman's arm at second. Jason Bartlett has long been considered one of the American League's slickest-fielding shortstops (and he wasn't voted the Rays' MVP in 2008 because of his bat, that's for sure). Evan Longoria is going to win the Gold Glove many times over.
With the speed of Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton, balls hit in the left-center-field gap are going to die a horrible death. Gabe Gross has remarkable reflexes in right, while Gabe Kapler is perhaps the most athletic player the Rays have on the roster.
And so, I have a new question for you: Why will the Tampa Bay Rays win the American League East again in 2009? Now you know the answer.
Rays fan Scott Caruso is the main contributor for the Rays of Light fan blog.
Why the Yankees will win the EastBy Stephen Macary
The 2008 season for the Yankees marked the end of an era in many ways. Joe Girardi took over for Joe Torre in the managerial hot seat, and the Yankees won 89 games but missed the postseason for the first time since the early '90s. Yankee Stadium went dark for the last time, and without October baseball. Injuries to the pitching staff (Chien-Ming Wang, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes) and key positional players (Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui) led to a disappointing season in the Bronx.
It won't happen again. General manager Brian Cashman had his work cut out for him over the winter, and he delivered with significant additions to the pitching staff and the lineup. Out with the old -- Bobby Abreu and Jason Giambi departed as free agents, while 20-game winner Mike Mussina retired -- and in with the new. The Yankees threw millions of dollars free agents CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and A.J. Burnett and should be significantly stronger up and down the board because of it. With good health, you're looking at the 2009 World Series champions.
Let's begin with this pitching, which was clearly Cashman's biggest priority this offseason. They now have an ace in his prime in C (Cheeseburger) C (Cheeseburger) Sabathia. Burnett is an experienced power arm, and as long as he avoids the Carl Pavano Memorial MRI Tube, he should have a great season. The Yankees will benefit from the return to health of Wang, Andy Pettitte can still deliver as the No. 4 starter, and Joba Chamberlain, with his outstanding four-pitch repertoire, will eventually emerge as the staff ace.
The rotation has the makings of the best in baseball. The bullpen, admittedly, could be an issue beyond Cooperstown-bound Mariano Rivera, who is still going strong at 39. The Yankees had issues with the bridge to Rivera last year after Chamberlain joined the roatation. Brian Bruney and lefthander Damaso Marte should be the best eighth-inning options for the Yankees. The bullpen won't prevent the Yankees from competing for the AL East title, but it isn't the division's best.
Their infield, however, is the tops in the AL East, at least once Alex Rodriguez returns from his hip injury. Teixeira -- sorry, Sox fans -- is outstanding from both sides of the plate and plays Gold Glove defense at first. Second baseman Robinson Cano had a subpar 2008 season but he should have a much better season after an intensive offseason workout program. Derek Jeter is still steady, strong, clutch, and the leader of the team. While he may not cover as much ground as before, he still positions himself well to make the plays and gets the big hits when needed. And I fully expect A-Rod to use his admission of performance-enhancing drug use as incentive to have a monster year. Behind the plate, Posada hopes to rebound from injury to have a solid season. His presence is key both offensively and the handling of the revamped pitching staff.
The outfield is not the club's strongest area. Most entrenched is right fielder Xavier Nady, who hit 12 homers after coming over from the Pirates in July. Johnny Damon will play almost every day in different spots, and Matsui will also play a lot in left field and at DH. Speedy but unproven Brett Gardner beat out disappointing Melky Cabrera in center field.
This is not a flawless team, but for all of their issues last season, the Yankees still won 89 games. Given their additions, it's logical to expect the Yankees to challenge for 100 wins. That said, their rivals in Boston are strong and Tampa Bay will not relinquish the division title without a fight. Expect the Yankees to win 95 games and win the AL East title. They will go on to beat the Indians in the ALCS and the Cubs in the World Series. Sorry, Sox fans, but the Yankees will reign again.
Stephen Macary (also known as Steve from Waltham to Boston sports radio listeners) is a lifelong Yankees fan and president of the Santa Claus Anonymous charity.