Baseball Preview: AL East

I am helping to initiate Carleton’s first sports publication, The DL, which should come out this week. This is my portion of our “Baseball Preview” section.

AL EAST

My Predicted Standings:

New York Yankees     96-66

Boston Red Sox           93-69

Tampa Bay Rays          92-70

Toronto Blue Jays        81-81

Baltimore Orioles        65-97

New York Yankees

Overview: The Yankees, after winning 97 games last season, made significant upgrades to their pitching staff without losing much on the offensive side, thus all but assuring that they will be in the running for division champs again.

Players to Watch:

Alex Rodriguez – Not that people won’t be watching A-Rod anyway, but after an injury-ridden and disappointing 2011, he will be one of the keys to the Yankees’ offense.  A-Rod’s wrist problems severely affected his power in 2011, as he put up only 16 homeruns and a .461 slugging percentage.  After some experimental procedures in Germany, Rodriguez is supposedly 100% healthy, and could put up big numbers despite the fact that he will turn 37 in July.  The age and health are major concerns, but A-Rod still has enough pure talent for a bounce-back season.

Michael Pineda – The Yankees made a splash this offseason, trading top catching/DH prospect Jesus Montero for Seattle’s young flamethrower.  Pineda shone in his rookie debut with the Mariners, pitching 170 innings with a 3.74 ERA.  His strikeout and walk rates show an even better pitcher than that, and at 23, he can only improve.  The big question for him coming to New York will be whether he can perfect his third pitch, the changeup.  As a fastball-slider pitcher, Pineda was good, but with an above-average changeup, he could soon overtake Sabathia as the Yankees’ ace.

Boston Red Sox

Overview: The quiet offseason for the Red Sox has been overblown, as their team has barely changed since last year, when they were predicted by some to be “the greatest team of all time.”  The Sox still have one of the best offenses in baseball, and along with some bounce-back years from the pitching staff, they should give their longtime rivals a run for their money.

Players to Watch:

Carl Crawford – The Red Sox signed Crawford, one of the best outfielders in the game, to a huge $142 contract in 2011, and he was a disappointment to say the least.  After putting up 5 seasons with a .300+ batting average and over 44 stolen bases in 6 years, Crawford fell apart, posting a .255/.289/.405 line with only 18 swiped bags.  Whether his problems were mental or physical is unclear, but a significant improvement from Crawford would greatly increase Boston’s chances of a division title and justify the huge contract they gave him.

Daniel Bard – Bard spent three years as Boston’s eighth-inning guy, blowing hitters away with a 100 MPH fastball.  The Red Sox announced this off-season, however, that they plan on using Bard as a starter to begin 2012, a role he has not had since single-A ball in 2007.  Given the rotation problems for the Red Sox, this move could pay off, but it could also backfire, as Bard has the potential to be one of the top closers in baseball.

Tampa Bay Rays

Overview: The Rays, after pulling off one of the biggest comebacks in history last year, have tons of room to improve.  Their defense is rock solid, and if their young starters can live up to expectations, they have a chance to be the best team in baseball.

Players to Watch:

Desmond Jennings: After spending what seemed like ages in the Rays’ farm system, the top prospect rose to expectations in the second half of 2012, flashing surprising power and unsurprising speed and defense.  Jennings is just the next in line of speedy centerfielders with elite defense and a great bat to come through the Rays’ system, but he may be the best one yet.  If he can keep hitting for power and improve his contact, Jennings could be at the core of a great Rays offense.

Matt Moore – Like Jennings, Moore blazed through the Rays’ farm system, posting an absurd 12.68 K/9 in almost 500 innings.  Though he only pitched 19 innings in 2011 (including the postseason), he showed that he can be as dominant as anyone, striking out 11 Yankees in just 5 innings in a September game and shutting out the Rangers in the first game of the playoffs.  If he lived up to lofty expectations, expect Moore to be one of the most dominant pitchers in the game.

Toronto Blue Jays

Overview: If the Blue Jays were in any other division, they may have a solid chance at making the playoffs, but in the AL East, they are unfortunately left in the shadow of the above three.  However, they have the talent to be over .500 in 2012 and make a run for the playoffs in the following years.

Players to Watch:

Brett Lawrie – As much as I wanted to put Jose Bautista here, I just couldn’t ignore one of the most hyped hitters for 2012.  Lawrie put up video-game-like numbers in AAA (in an extreme hitter’s league, to be fair), and continued to mash in his brief stint in the big leagues.  Along with his superb .293/.373/.580 line, Lawrie showed elite defense at third base, an aspect of his game that was a question mark.  Though we still do not know if he is going to sustain that great defense, his bat is hard to argue with.  He could consistently put up 30/30 numbers in his prime, and along with Bautista, may catapult the Blue Jays into contention in the near future.

Brandon Morrow – Morrow is one of the most electric pitchers in the game, as evidenced by his 17 strikeout one-hitter in 2010, but so far his ERA hasn’t matched his elite strikeout rate and improving command.  It is unclear whether Morrow is the next Ricky Nolasco – a pitcher who consistently underperforms his peripheral skills – or just an unlucky soul ready to breakout in a big way.  If it’s the latter, as Blue Jays fans hope it is, then be prepared for Morrow to blow away all hitters like he blew away the Rays in that 2010 game.

Baltimore Orioles

Overview: Oh the poor Orioles.  In a division with three powerhouses and one soon-to-be, they just don’t stand a chance for years to come.  Trading mediocre (but arguably their best) pitcher Jeremy Guthrie for mediocre pitcher Jason Hammel and middle reliever Matt Lindstrom did little to improve the team, so expect another depressing 60-something win year for Baltimore.

Players to Watch:

Matt Wieters – Wieters, nicknamed “God” by his college teammates, was Baseball America’s number one prospect coming into the 2009 season and was being compared to some of the greatest offensive catchers of our time, Mike Piazza and Jorge Posada.  He fell far short of expectations in his first two years in the majors, however, and many quickly labeled him an overhyped bust.  In 2011, however, he had a solid season, batting .262 and hitting 22 homers; though this was much worse than his initial projections, Wieters was still one of the most valuable catchers in the majors.  He is still only 25 years old, and even if he doesn’t reach the Hall of Fame expectations of 2009, he could still be among the most valuable players in the game.

Zach Britton: There’s not much exciting about the Orioles’ pitching staff, so Orioles fans will have to settle for Britton, a 24 year old left-handed sinkerballer who had an unspectacular debut in 2011.  Britton pitched 154 innings with a 4.61 ERA, though his peripherals and age point to an improvement going forward.  The Orioles’ former top prospect is not as exciting as pitchers like Moore because of his mediocre strikeout rate, but his high groundball rate could make him a very solid middle-of-the-rotation starter – which means number 1 starter on the O’s – in a few years.  If everything goes well he could be the one bright spot in a depressing Orioles pitching staff.

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