Thursday, March 30, 2006

The AL East Preview
By Ben Valentine

There may not have been a division with as much action and movement as the AL East this off season. The Red Sox were wheeling and dealing, sometimes with a GM, sometimes without. In the process they snared Josh Beckett to sure up their rotation and recently got young slugger Willy Mo Pena. Meanwhile the Yankees’ biggest problem last season was their starting pitching. So what does the Boss do? Johnny Damon, say hello to a razor and 53 million dollars. But no one spent like Toronto Blue Jays GM JP Riccardi, who brought in AJ Burnett and BJ Ryan along with trading for Troy Glaus and Lyle Overbay, giving him the names to compete with the big boys. But did he get the talent? What of Leo Mazzone and those O’s pitchers? Or how about the Wild Things that are masquerading as starting pitchers down in Tampa? All this, suggested team mottos and more in your Sportszilla AL East Preview.

Boston Red Sox: “Ortiz is the Manny, Beckett is the Schilling and Theo is Dio-fied.”

Why they should win the division: The perfect symbol of a division with lots of offense and suspect starting pitching, the Red Sox may not have the best in either category but they have the most solid combination of the two. The offense isn’t as deep as the Yankees, but feature two of the best three hitters in the division in Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. Coco Crisp will be more than an adequate replacement for Johnny Damon, even if the Sox did overpay to get him. Josh Beckett and Curt Schilling are the top 1-2 punch in the division, providing they stay healthy.

Why Sox fans may scream “curses!”: The pitching could always break down. Schilling wasn’t the same pitcher after returning last season. Keith Foulke is a huge question mark. What can be expected from the pen? Third base will be a downgrade with the loss of Bill Mueller.

The verdict: While there are questions, the pitching, barring a complete breakdown should be enough to get by. Matt Clement and Tim Wakefield aren’t stars, but they are bona fide third starters. David Wells isn’t great but the Sox could always turn to Jon Papelbon in a pinch. Bullpens, especially in the regular season, are extremely overrated. Decent middle relievers are always available on the trade market. With that offense, the staff will be enough to win the division.

New York Yankees: “Pitching?! We don’t need no stinking pitching!”

Why they could win the division: Outside of the Devil Rays, there is no team that is going to be as reliant on its offense to bail its pitching out on most nights as the Yankees will be. The good news for the Bombers is they’ll have the fire power to do it; there isn’t a position in their lineup which is a hole. The weakest link maybe DH Bernie Williams, but most teams would love if their worst hitter had the potential to drive in 50-70 RBI. Randy Johnson isn’t quite as dominant as he used to be, but his peripherals suggest he’s still one of the best pitchers in the game. The team spent a lot of money on their pen yet again, and came back with talent in Kyle Farnsworth, Mike Myers and Octavio Dotel. Of course, Mariano Rivera is still one of the best closers in the game.

Why Mount Steinbrenner will erupt: The starting pitching, outside of Johnson, might be the worst in the division. And that includes the Devil Rays. Mike Mussina is on a serious decline, though it’s possible he could still be third starter quality. Carl Pavano could be the same, if he’s healthy. Despite their second halves last season, K/9 and K:BB ratios suggest both Shawn Chacon and Chien Mein Wang pitched above their heads. Both figure to take a huge step back and will be at best fourth starters. I expect they’ll be worse than that. The pen might be improved, but the Yankees have invested in big money relievers before; Steve Karsay, Paul Quantrill and even Flash Gordon didn’t pay off like the organization hoped.

The verdict: Runs, runs, runs. Expect lots of them in Yankee games this season. The team was on the borderline of missing the playoffs last season and didn’t do anything to improve its weakest link, the starting staff. The offense is phenomenal, but with the improvement in division, and the expected growth of the Indians’ young players, this figures to be the year the Yankees miss the postseason.

Toronto Blue Jays: “Get used to our three abbreviations: AJ, BJ and DL.”

Why they’ve got a shot: The Blue Jays followed up a solid season with a spending spree in the off season, picking up Burnett, Ryan, Glaus and Overbay. They now posses a potent lineup from top to bottom and a couple of underrated pitchers in Josh Towers (a very good back end guy) and Roy Halladay, who is one of the top five pitchers in baseball.

Why they’ll be feeling blue: Burnett figures to be mediocre coming from one of the best pitchers parks in the NL over to a solid hitter’s park in the AL, especially in the power laden AL East after pitching in the offensively challenged NL East. That’s when he actually pitches, of course. Halladay is injury prone, as is Glaus. The biggest hole is the middle of the staff. Gustavo Chacin had a nice rookie year, but his K:BB ratio (1.73) and BB/9 (3.10) means he’ll need to show serious improvement if he’s to be as effective. Ted Lilly’s been a fourth starter/fifth starter his whole career. Nothing’s changing that now.

The verdict: The Jays improved, and much like the big spenders of last off season, the Mets did last year, figure to make a solid run into September. However, like the Mets that is where they will come up short. The offense can only compensate for the question marks in the rotation so much.

Baltimore Orioles: “Introducing our off season prize, Leo--- Kris Benson! ---Anna B. Wuz Here!”

Why they’ve got an outside shot: This team did get off to a great start last year and led the division into June. They also underwent a terrible second half collapse as their dearth of pitching caught up with them. This year Leo Mazzone looks to mold the most talented arms in the division into pitchers. Mazzone’s track record is so good, it’s impossible to ignore. If he can knock down the walk rates of Eric Bedard and Daniel Cabrera along with continuing Bruce Chen on whatever he started doing last year, the O’s could have the best rotation in the East.

Why Anna and Angelos won’t be happy: Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine Mazzone will have that big of an effect in one season on all of these guys. So like the rest of the division, the pitching will be the team’s downfall. Expect Bedard to make solid strides but Cabrera to continue to be up and down. Kris Benson had gopher ball problems at Shea. It’s going to get much worse at Camden Yards. At 31, Rodrigo Lopez isn’t getting much better than he is now. The pen could be solid, with veterans LaTroy Hawkins and Jim Brower, but both of those guys tend to be up or down, as most middle relievers are.

The verdict: The O’s of 2006 look a lot like the O’s of 2005. With a couple of their young pitchers most likely to improve, that should mean some more W’s this season. But in a division this powerful, a few more wins will need to translate into at least 90 overall, and that’s not happening.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays: “Wild Thing. You Make My Heart Sing…”

Why they’ve got a puncher’s chance: (No really) The Rays have been the perennial bottom feeders in this division, and while that may not change this season, they are on the right track. Their offense has the potential to be explosive, led by stolen base machine Carl Crawford. Second baseman Jorge Cantu, Aubrey Huff and youngster Jonny Gomes form a potentially deadly middle of the order. If this team ever brought up BJ Upton and Delmon Young, along with the return of Rocco Baldelli, they could be one of deepest offenses in baseball. The power extends to the starting rotation as well, led by Scott Kazmir who was one of the top pitchers in baseball last year in K/9 at 8.41. Both Seth McClung and Casey Fossum struck out more than seven batters per nine last year. Watch out for former top prospect Edwin Jackson as well. This squad is the definition of potential.

Why they’re the Devil Rays: Those starters will also walk the ball park. Kazmir and the rest of the staff are all over the place, with the former Mets prospect walking nearly five batters per nine! McClung actually does walk five batters per nine and Fossum is up near three and a half. With control issues like that, all three will struggle to be consistent. Meanwhile, the Rays won’t bring up Upton and who knows how long they’ll keep Young in the minors. Their bullpen is a question mark.

The verdict: With their offense and power arms, the D-Rays are very much like the Orioles of last year. They could easily get off to a fast start or go on a few winning streaks during the season if their starters can have a couple of games where they find the strike zone. But inconsistency will doom them and they’ll probably end up in last again. However watch out for this team in 2007. With a few moves, maybe trading one those outfielders for a pitcher, the Rays could be a good sleeper pick next year.

Final Standings:
Red Sox
Yankees
Blue Jays
Orioles
Devil Rays

In other words, the same way it’s been for the last few years, with the Yankees and Sox flipping spots at the top. Yes, the more things change the more they stay the same.

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