Sunday, March 15, 2009

MLB Preview #4
American League East

New York Yankees

Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Johnny Damon LF
Derek Jeter SS
Mark Teixeira 1B
Alex Rodriguez 3B
Hideki Matsui DH
Jorge Posada C
Xavier Nady RF
Robinson Cano 2B
Brett Gardner/Nick Swisher/Melky Cabrera CF

CC Sabathia
AJ Burnett
Chien-Ming Wang
Andy Pettitte
Joba Chamberlain
Phillip Hughes
Alfredo Aceves
Ian Kennedy
Dan Giese

Sure, the lineup takes a hit with the loss of Alex Rodriguez. But an offense that was one of the best in 2008 shouldn't have any trouble going into 2009, with or without A-Rod. Sure, Damon, Jeter, Matsui, and Posada are all a year older, but they're still very effective hitters. The open competition in center should only help the club, especially if Nick Swisher manages to fully bounce back from a down 2008. Swisher is a luxury the Yanks can afford to trade, but they may want to wait until after the start of the season so Swisher can bounce back and New York can sell high.

Thirty-three year old utility infielder Cody Ransom is expected to fill in a third base to start the season, with help from former Royals shortstop Angel Berroa. Jose Molina, meanwhile, returns as the backup catcher.

A common theme in these previews is that it takes two aces to have any success in the playoffs. With the addition of CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett, the Yankees now have three - and possibly four if Joba Chamberlain can live up to his hype. Injuries will be a concern for Burnett, Wang, and the aging Pettitte. If any of the starters miss significant time, it will be up to guys like Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy to live up to the expectations placed upon them.

Mariano Rivera is back as the Yankees closer, and even if Joba Chamberlain sticks in the rotation, Rivera will have a decent support staff. Damaso Marte may be the only recognizable setup man, but he's not the only capable reliever the Yanks carry. Brian Bruney posted a 1.83 ERA in 2008, and Jose Veras and Edwar Ramirez each came in under 4.00.

Boston Red Sox

Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Jacoby Ellsbury CF
Dustin Pedroia 2B
David Ortiz DH
Kevin Youkilis 1B
Mike Lowell 3B
JD Drew RF
Jason Bay LF
Jason Varitek C
Julio Lugo/Jed Lowrie SS

Josh Beckett
Jon Lester
Daisuke Matsuzaka
Tim Wakefield
Brad Penny
John Smoltz
Justin Masterson
David Pauley

It was addition by subtraction in 2008 for Boston, as they traded a disgruntled Manny Ramirez for Jason Bay and still made the playoffs. This year, they'll see if that formula can carry them through an entire season. Early indications show that it can. The Red Sox are strong (and virtually interchangeable) from lineup spots one through seven, but the last two places are question marks. Jason Varitek was resigned by Boston for lack of a better option, but he'll need to hit much better than he did last year to keep his starting job. At shortstop, Jed Lowrie has essentially won the position by default after Julio Lugo injured his knee.

Josh Bard is back for his second try as Tim Wakefield's personal catcher. Bard was booed out of town last time, while his team captain remained surprisingly silent over Bard's knuckleball-handling troubles. If Bard can hit like he has over the past few years, he may just take the everyday job from that captain. In the outfield, Rocco Baldelli was added as a backup and spot starter. Mark Kotsay and Brad Wilkerson are also on the roster, but they may see more time at first base than in the outfield. That leaves the infield, where depth was already an issue before the loss of Lugo (and before Pedroia was pulled from the WBC). It appears that that utility spot is up for grabs between a handful of non-roster invitees, including journeyman Nick Green.

Tampa Bay Rays

Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Akinori Iwamura 2B
Carl Crawford LF
BJ Upton CF
Carlos Pena 1B
Evan Longoria 3B
Pat Burrell DH
Dioner Navarro C
Gabe Gross RF
Jason Bartlett SS

Jamie Shields
Scott Kazmir
Matt Garza
Andy Sonnanstine
David Price
Mitch Talbot
Jeff Niemman
Jason Hammel

Yes, Baseball Prospectus expects the Rays to finish in third place in the East in 2009. But that doesn't mean their 2008 success was a fluke. Yes, the team is due for some regression, but BP still predicts them to win a whopping 95 games and finish just one game behind the wild card-winning Red Sox. Part of the reason is that a majority of their core is still intact. Two revolving door players in right field, Eric Hinske and Rocco Baldelli, are gone, but Gabe Gross is back. In addition, Gross will be challenged by young outfielder Matt Joyce, who was practically stolen from the Tigers in exchange for Edwin Jackson. Speaking of steals, Tampa Bay also got a steal of a deal in picking up Pat Burrell on the cheap. This lineup may not have the name recognition of New York's, but Baseball Prospectus actually predicts the Rays to outscore the Yankees this year. I wouldn't be surprise if they gave Boston a run for their offensive money as well.

In addition to Matt Joyce, the Rays also have Gabe Kapler as an outfield option off the bench. Willy Aybar returns as the club's utility infielder, and Morgan Ensberg and Adam Kennedy will also battle for backup infield spots.

Last year, the Rays had the luxury of having too many capable starting pitchers. This year is no different. Even after trading away Edwin Jackson, Tampa Bay still has to decide whether they want to move David Price to the rotation or keep him in the bullpen. Price, Baseball America's number two overall prospect this year, was lights out in last year's ALCS, earning an extended save in the game that sent Tampa Bay to the World Series.

Of course, the nice thing about the Price decision is that Tampa Bay also has a glut of talent in the bullpen. Troy Percival is back as the club's closer, aided by Chad Bradford, Dan Wheeler, JP Howell, Grant Balfour, and Brian Shouse. Former Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen will also compete for a spot in the Rays pen.

Baltimore Orioles

Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Brian Roberts2B
Melvin Mora 3B
Nick Markakis RF
Aubrey Huff 1B
Adam Jones CF
Luke Scott DH
Greg Zaun/Matt Wieters C
Cesar Izturis SS
Felix Pie LF

Jeremy Guthrie
Koji Uehara
Rich Hill
Adam Eaton
Danys Baez
Hayden Penn
David Pauley
Radhames Liz
Bradley Bergensen
Chris Waters
Dennis Sarfate
Brian Bass
Matt Albers

Baltimore's offense showed good improvement in 2008, and that improvement should continue in 2008. The lineup starts off with solid professional hitters in Brian Roberts and Melvin Mora. Next come three unheralded starsin Nick Markakis, Aubrey Huff, and Adam Jones, all of whom outperformed their 2008 expectations. Markakis became a legitimate star in 2008. Huff had always been a good hitter, but he was just phenomenal towards the end of last year. And who would have guessed that Seattle would regret trading a then-unpolished Adam Jones for Cy Young candidate Erik Bedard? The bottom of the Orioles lineup still has question marks, but one of those questions will be answered as soon as Matt Wieters makes his MLB debut. Baseball America considers Wieters the top prospect in all of baseball, and he's a great hitter regardless of position. He's enough to make this author regret joining an NL-only fantasy league this summer.

The Orioles have some recognizable and versatile veterans fighting for backup spots. Chris Gomez can play four positions (the four infield spots), Ryan Freel and Ty Wigginton five (2B, 3B, LF, and RF for both, CF for Freel, and 1B for Wigginton), and Jolbert Cabrera seven (everywhere except pitcher and catcher).

It's easy to say that Baltimore's starting pitching is its weak spot. But this example illustrates that perfectly: up for a spot in the rotation is Danys Baez, who hasn't pitched in the Majors since 2007, and who hasn't started since 2002.

If there's one good thing about Baltimore's pitching staff, it's that their bullpen seems to produce All Star closers year after year. This season's edition still has current closer George Sherrill and former closer Chris Ray. Also providing relief for the Orioles are veterans Jamie Walker and Mark Hendrickson.

Toronto Blue Jays

Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Aaron Hill/Joe Inglett 2B
Adam Lind LF
Alex Rios RF
Vernon Wells CF
Scott Rolen 3B
Travis Snider DH
Lyle Overbay 1B
Rod Barajas C
John McDonald/Marco Scutaro SS

Roy Halladay
Jesse Litsch
David Pursey
Casey Janssen
Scott Richmond
Matt Clement
Brett Cecil
Shaun Marcum
Dustin McGowan

I'm beginning with Toronto's starting pitching, because their rotation was arguably the best in the game in 2008 (a fact few people knew). Unfortunately, they lost AJ Burnett to free agency, and Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan begin the year injured. Marcum and McGowan were two big reasons for the rotation's success in 2008, and the Blue Jays will have trouble filling their spots. After all, they can only ride ace Roy Halladay so much, no matter how good he is. One of the contenders for a rotation spot is Matt Clement, a poor man's Mark Prior who went from dominating Cubs starter to disabled has-been in less than a year.

Closing for Toronto is one of Baltimore's former stoppers, BJ Ryan. Notable Blue Jays relievers include Jason Frasor, Jeremy Accardo, and swingman Brian Tallet. Matt Bush, the number one overall pick of the 2004 draft as a shortstop by the Padres, will try to resurrect his career and make the Blue Jays as a relief pitcher.

As hard as it is for Toronto fans to think "what if" if their 2008 rotation was still intact, it's even harder when you see the pieces added to their batting order. Sure, none of their middle infielders are much with the bat. But adding Travis Snider to a lineup where Alex Rios, Vernon Wells, and Scott Rolen play at least 150 games, and there's a force to be reckoned with. Of course, all three outfielders - Rios, Wells, and Adam Lind, have struggled to live up to unfair expectations. But even if they just ignore the critics and do what they're capable of doing, this lineup can win some ballgames.

Toronto is obviously deep when it comes to defensive middle infielders, as can be seen by the options in the starting lineup. They also have some choices on the corners, with Jose Bautista and Kevin Millar coming off the bench. In addition, both Michael Barrett and Raul Chavez are more than capable as backup catchers. The depth problem comes in the outfield, where Travis Snider may have to play on days when Millar or even Lind DH.