The Tampa Bay Rays won the AL East for the second time in three seasons last year, winning 96 games, one better than the New York Yankees.
The departure of several players to free agency, most notably Carl Crawford (Red Sox), Carlos Pena (Cubs), Rafael Soriano (Yankees), Joaquin Benoit (Tigers) and Matt Garza (Cubs), will make this season challenging for the Rays.
Will the Yankees or Red Sox reclaim the top spot in 2011?
Tampa Bay Rays
Several new players – Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, Kyle Farnsworth and non-roster invitee Casey Kotchman, to name a few, will be counted on to continue the Rays’ success. But it’s Tampa’s starting rotation that’ll tell the story this year for the Rays. If they pitch as well as expected, the team will continue to succeed. David Price will get the opening day start, with James Shields, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, and Jeremy Hellickson finishing out the rotation.
Evan Longoria will start at third base, and will either bat in front of or behind Manny, whomever Joe Maddon feels will produce from those slots. Dan Johnson will be the primary starter at first base, with Damon and Kotchman possibly getting some starts. Ben Zobrist will be an everyday platoon player, getting starts in right field, at second base, and perhaps first base, where he’s seen action this spring.
Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac will get most of the playing time at shortstop and second base. John Jaso and Kelly Shoppach will probably split time behind the plate, as Maddon likes to play matchup on a regular basis. B.J. Upton, the starting center fielder, will look to put up better numbers, as he’s pain free for the first time in almost two years.
With the departure of Soriano and Benoit, it will be closer by committee on the Gulf Coast, with J.P. Howell (out indefinitely, shoulder surgery, possible May return), Kyle Farnsworth, Jake McGee, and non-roster invitee Juan Cruz the most likely candidates to finish the game.
Maddon is very optimistic about this up and coming season, as the new faces will present yet another challenge for the philosophical manager.
The Rays may not win the division, but they will give Boston and New York a run for their money, even with a payroll lower than it has been in the past three seasons.
Prediction: I see the Rays winning 90 plus games, and battling it out with either New York or Boston, for the Wild Card spot.
New York Yankees
The Yankees finished one game behind the Rays last season at 95-67. So what do the big money Yanks do? Sign Rafael Soriano and Russell Martin to hopefully get that game or two back this season.
Looking at the starting lineup, it is impossible to think the Yankees don’t make the playoffs. The team is loaded with All Stars C.C. Sabathia(’03, ’04, ’07, ’10), Phil Hughes (’10), Mark Teixeira(’05, ’09, ’10), Robinson Cano (’10), Derek Jeter(’98-02, ’04, ’06-10), Alex Rodriguez (’96-’98, ’00-08, ’10), Nick Swisher (’10), Curtis Granderson (’09), Jorge Posada(’01-’03, ’07), Russell Martin (’07-‘ 08), Mariano Rivera (’97, ’99-01, ’02, ’04-06, ’08-’10) and Rafael Soriano (’10) to name a few.
I just about named an All Star for every spot in the lineup. Did I forget to mention Andruw Jones (’00, ’02-’03, ’05-’06), Bartolo Colon (’98, ’05) and Freddy Garcia (’01-’02). Mark Prior (’03) is another former All Star, who’s also a non-roster invitee with Colon and Garcia.
With all the talent the Yankees have, they still have to play baseball, which is a team game. Can manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild get the team to play as one? Can A.J. Burnett find his control? Will Derek Jeter have a better year, or will he continue to break down? Will A-Rod and Teixeira continue to produce? If the answer is yes to all these questions, the Yankees will win 100 games this year.
The Yankees will have hot streaks where they win 12 out of 15 games all year, but can they avoid the streaks the other way, i.e. losing 7 of 10?
Prediction: New York will be on top of the division all year, more than likely winning over 90 games this year, challenging Boston and Tampa Bay all summer. This is going to be an exciting race.
Boston Red Sox
The injury bug plagued the Red Sox last season, as Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Jacoby Ellsbury lost considerable playing time. Still, Boston finished the season at 89-73, only seven games behind the Rays.
In the off season the Red Sox acquired Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, which will help bolster an already potent offense. David Ortiz will have the pleasure of hitting in the middle of four great hitters, and Terry Francona will have an easy job filling out the batting order.
You could draw the names from a hat to put together this lineup. It could go like this: Scutaro, Pedroia, Crawford, Ortiz, Gonzalez, Youkilis, Drew, Saltalamacchia, Ellsbury. That’s just me — and it was easy — but I know it will probably be totally different coming from Francona. Jed Lowrie will get some time at shortstop, Mike Cameron will be the fourth outfielder, and Jason Varitek will mentor and be backup to Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
The starting rotation will consist of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Bobby Jenks will pitch the eighth inning and Jonathan Papelbon will be the closer, looking to rebound from a disappointing 2010 season. Non-Roster invitee Andrew Miller, a southpaw, could get a spot in the bullpen.
The Red Sox have everything they need to win, again. Can they stay healthy, and will the talent on paper show up on the field? The AL East is a very tough division, and playing the Yankees and Rays, along with a better Oriole team will make it a tough task.
Prediction: I do see the Red Sox winning 90-95 games, which would put them fighting for the division, but more than likely battling it out with the Rays for the Wild Card spot.
Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays had a pretty good year last season, finishing at 85-77, eleven games out of first place. The Jays lost Vernon Wells to the Angels, and Lyle Overbay went to the Pirates. Rajai Davis came over from Oakland and Jaun Rivera joins Toronto from Los Angeles, while Travis Snider will get a chance to play everyday in right field.
The infield starters will be Adam Lind, Aaron Hill, Yunel Escobar and Jose Bautista, who led the league in homeruns last season with 54. Edwin Encarnacion will DH and play some first base. J.P. Arencibia will get a majority of starts behind the dish, and should he falter Jose Molina will take over.
The starting rotation looks to be set with Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil, Kyle Drabek and Jesse Litch. Marc Rzepczynski will be available if any of the five have injury issues. Frank Francisco, acquired from Texas, looks to have won the closer job. Octavio Dotel will be the set up man, unless Francisco doesn’t perform or is slowed by injury, at which time Dotelwill become the closer.
First year manager John Farrell, who spent the last four seasons as the Red Sox pitching coach, will bring a different kind of baseball north of the border. This being his first season, I see some growing pains headed their way. Farrell already knows the AL East is tough, and now he will experience it from a whole new angle.
Prediction: If the Jays can win 80 games this year, I would consider that a success. But Toronto will more than likely finish last in the division.
Buck Showalter took over the manager job on August 2nd last season, and the Orioles went 34-23 with him calling the shots, finishing last in the division at 66-96.
I think Baltimore will continue to improve, as they acquired Derek Lee, J.J. Hardy and Mark Reynolds to solidify the infield, and hopefully give the offense a jolt. Brian Roberts will play second base, and looks to stay healthy as neck and back issues allowed to play in only 59 games last season.
The outfield is set with Nick Markakis in right, Adam Jones in center, and Felix Pie in left. Nolan Reimold will be the fourth outfielder; Jake Fox, who can play catcher, first base and some outfield, and Cesar Izturis will fill the bench as backups; Vladimir Guerrero will be the primary DH, with Luke Scott getting some starts between DH and first base.
Matt Wieters will get most of the starts at catcher, and Craig Tatum could be his backup with a good spring. Jeremy Guthrie, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Brad Bergesen and Justin Duchscherer will fill the rotation, with Chris Tillman going to the minors unless an injury occurs. Kevin Gregg, who faltered last year, will be given a chance at closing again. Koji Uehara will be the setup man unless Gregg has issues again. Non-Roster invitees Mark Hendrickson, Brendan Harris, Nick Green and Randy Winn will get good looks in the spring.
All signs point to a better year for Baltimore. If the acquisitions of Lee, Reynolds, Guerrero and Hardy help the offense be more consistent, they’ll give the rest of the division fits, causing a log jam at the top of the AL East. The Orioles could be a surprise this year.
Prediction: I think they can win 8o plus games this year, which still only gets them out of the cellar in the East, finishing in fourth place.
(All rosters are taken from mlb.com active rosters, depth charts and non-roster invitee lists as of 03-20-11)