3-23-09: 2009 MLB Preview: AL East

Hello again everybody...

Your faithful correspondent writes you today from the newly minted "Phoenix home office". I safely arrived in the Valley of the Sun on Saturday, and have already taken in the first ballgame of my trip. More on that in a moment.

I know some of you think it's the height of ridiculousness that I continue to update my blog whilst on vacation, so allow me to explain. I'm one of those people who view vacations as opportunities to rest and relax more than as sight-seeing adventures. Not that there aren't sights to see, and I'll take some of those in. But I'll also be spending copious amounts of time just kicking it on my parents porch, enjoying being outside looking at a clear, blue sky. And since writing is an enjoyable activity for me, I'll knock out a few columns while I'm enjoying the fresh air.

So think me nuts if you like. But that's just how we here at The Sports Take roll!

So before I get to today's portion of the 2009 MLB Preview, a brief bit about the game I attended yesterday. The Kansas City Royals hosted the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Greater Orange County in the Republic of California in these United States on this planet we call Earth. At least I think that's how their name goes.

What separated yesterday's contest from most you'll see in Spring Training was the stiff wind that was blowing out to center field. The wind was so strong in fact that when a ball was fouled off behind home plate and took a track that should've led it over the grandstand behind the stadium, there were several times when the wind blew the ball all the way back into the field of play.

Not only did the wind turn foul balls into playable balls, but it also turned routine fly balls into home runs. My folks and I didn't have the presence of mind to keep count from the beginning, but from about the 3rd inning on, we counted 10 home runs. And our guesstimate is that the game exceeded a baker's dozen. The final score was: L.A. 18, Kansas City 12. Yes, that's right, 30 runs combined. And just to put a point on it, the two teams combined for 40 hits.

Those of you who know me, know that as a baseball fan, I prefer the 1-0, 2-1 style pitcher's duels. They tend to move along more crisply and every pitch means something. So, needless to say, this game yesterday wasn't really my style. Fortunately, with only two mid-inning pitching changes, the game still came in around 3 hours and 15 minutes. Not entirely ridiculous.

And when I checked the rest of the Cactus League scoreboard, it was clear that this wasn't the only "wind aided" game on the docket. Every game except one had at least one team with double-digit runs, and several of them had two.

So that was yesterday. I don't think we're attending any games today. But there are plenty more to come, including a potential double-header on Tuesday. So I'll have more to report then I'm sure.

On to today's column! Friday I previewed the home division of the 2008 World Champs. Today I tackle the division containing the other World Series participant. In 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays shocked the baseball world by not only winning the AL East, but by making it all the way to the World Series. Can the Rays repeat that result? Or will the Red Sox (whom I hate) resume their control of that division? And what about the Yankees? As usual, they spent a lot of money in the off-season. Will it pay off? I'll discuss!

"A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."
- Thomas Mann (1875-1955), German novelist, philanthropist and 1928 Nobel laureate

I think what he's getting at is that writers find writing more difficult because they expect more from their writing. Fortunately, I don't have a ton of time to kvetch about these suckers, so it's not quite as difficult as I could make it!

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The second edition of the 2009 MLB Preview focuses on the division containing the other World Series participant. Without further ado...

2009 MLB Preview: AL East

1. Boston Red Sox (whom I hate) - Last year, the Red Sox (whom I hate) finished 95-67. They were the American League Wild Card and lost to the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALCS.

First of all, let me say this: I hate this pick, I hate this pick, I hate this pick!

But I can't help it. When you break down the lineups and pitching rosters for all 5 AL East teams, I don't see how you can go any other way. The Red Sox (whom I hate) are just that deep.

Start with their line-up. They have the 2008 AL MVP hitting second. Second for chrissakes! That just doesn't happen. 1-7, their hitters - Ellsbury, Pedroia, Ortiz, Youklis, Bay, Drew and Lowell - (assuming they stay healthy and that's a tricky assumption) are as good as any in the league. Ortiz and Lowell are both trying to come back from injury-plagued years. Lowell they can afford to be slow in coming back. But if Ortiz's production continues to suffer, that could hurt the team quite a bit.

What stops me from using that as an excuse to pick someone else to win the division is the Red Sox (whom I hate) pitching staff. Josh Becket, John Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka all return as the top three starters. Brad Penny joins the club as a free agent to be their fourth starter. And knuckleballer Tim Wakefield rounds out the starting 5.

The Boston bullpen is as deep as ever. Even if Jonathan Papplebon is still baseball's biggest spaz, he's a reliable closer. And when you look at the other names down there: Saito, Masterson, Okajima, Delcarmen and Ramon Ramirez who they got from Kansas City in the off season - holy cow is their bullpen good. And don't forget there's a 300-game winner, John Smoltz, who's beginning the season on the DL, but will be with the club mid-season to add a veteran presence.

Bottom Line: The Red Sox (whom I hate) are deep and talented. If their hitters stay healthy, there's no reason they shouldn't win the AL East and make another run at a World Series title.

(Aside: Damn, that was painful to write. Maybe Mr. Mann was right after all!)

2. Tampa Bay Rays - Last year the Rays finished 97-65. They won the AL East pennant and defeated Boston in the ALCS. They lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series.

All great stories encounter bumps in the road. And I think the Rays are due for at least a small one this year. I take nothing away from their accomplishments from last year. I just don't think they're as deep, or as able to make a move to shore up a weakness as the Red Sox (whom I hate) are.

Their line-up is solid. They've got power and speed enough for anybody. When they're able to add a bat like Pat Burrel's and hit him 6th, you know they're pretty deep. But Evan Longoria could be poised for a sophomore slump. And Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton start the year with injury concerns. That could all clear up by mid season, but the Rays don't have a ton of guys they can go to if it doesn't.

Their pitching staff is remarkably talented, but also remarkably young. James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza and Andy Sonnanstine all had fantastic seasons last year. At least one or two of them are due for a reality check, no? And if they falter, where do the Rays go? Rookie sensation David Price may begin the season in the minors to give him regular work, so he's an option. But after that? I don't know.

What really worries me about the Rays is their bullpen. Veteran Troy Percival is still their closer, but he showed last year that the odds of him making it through an entire campaign healthy are virtually nil. There is talent in the Rays' pen, and if Jason Isringhausen can overcome his injury problems, there'll be some depth too. But there aren't a lot of defined roles, and if Joe Maddon can't iron that out, the Rays could have some rough late-inning losses.

Bottom Line: The Rays shouldn't be a flash in the pan story. There's a lot of talent on this team. They play in a meat-grinder of a division, but considering the success they had last year, I don't think it's unrealistic to expect them to contend again this year. I just think Boston's a little better.

3. New York Yankees - Last year the Yankees finished 89-73 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1995.

As usual, the Yanks spent more money on free agents than anybody else in the off-season. They added CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett to shore up their pitching staff. And in a coup, lured 1B Mark Teixeira away from a pending deal with the Red Sox (whom I hate).

So after all that money, why am I picking them to finish 3rd and miss the playoffs again? As we've learned over and over, money doesn't necessarily guarantee success in baseball.

There's no question that the Yankees starting staff is greatly improved. Sabathia, Burnett and Chein-Ming Wang form a solid 1-2-3 starting core. And with Andy Pettite and Joba Chamberlain rounding out the starting five, it's hard to argue the Yankees aren't better in that regard.

Their bullpen is still solid at the end with Mariano Rivera closing. But it's between the starters and the closers that things get dicey. Damaso Marte isn't bad, but after him it gets sketchy in a hurry. It isn't ridiculous to suggest that the Yankees could've saved the money they spent on Burnett and gone after a better set-up option (Putz from the Mariners? Fuentes from the Rockies?) to help get more leads into Rivera's hands.

And though I never thought I'd say this, it's entirely possible that the Yanks will have trouble scoring runs. Their line-up is getting old in a hurry. Their lead-off man is 35. Derek Jeter's on the back side of his career. Hideki Matsui won't be allowed to play in the field until June. There are still questions about how often Jorge Posada will be able to catch. And, of course, A-Roid is starting the year on the DL with a hip problem which could conceivably be degenerative, and possibly cost him the season, if not his career.

It's not all doom and gloom for the Yankees. They did at Teixeira. Xavier Nady is back and is a nice option in the 7-hole. And Nick Swisher will help a lot coming off the bench.

Bottom Line: Given the division they play in, and the quality of the teams their competing against, I can't rate the Yanks any higher than third. Their starters could carry the club for enough time to prove me wrong, but even with all the money the Yanks spent, there are several red flags yet to be fixed.

4. Baltimore Orioles - Last year the Orioles finished 68-93. They finished 5th in the AL East and missed the playoffs.

Oh how once mighty franchises can fall. In the 70's and early 80's the O's were a model MLB franchise. Since then, owner Peter Angelos has demanded more and more control and produced less and less results.

There are glimmers of hope however. The trade that sent Erik Bedard to Seattle was a boon for Baltimore in terms of young talent. Adam Jones is an outstanding prospect and should solidify his hold on the center field job this year. George Sherrill has become the Orioles' closer. And there are still 3 more minor league pitchers that came over in the deal with a shot at making an impact. All in all, a good deal for Baltimore.

Then there's super-rookie catcher Matt Weiters. Reports vary as to whether he'll begin the year in the minors, or go north with the big club. Either way, expect to see him in a Baltimore uniform no later than June. And once he comes up, he'll stick. I've heard him described as "Joe Mauer with more power". If he comes even close to fulfilling that promise, he'll be in the running for AL Rookie of the Year.

The problem, as usual, for Baltimore is their pitching. Their starting staff is a question mark, at best. And besides Sherrill at the back end of the bullpen, there's nobody that inspires a lot of confidence down there.

Bottom Line: The O's have some young offensive talent. Enough to give the big boys in the East some headaches from time to time. But ultimately, they're not a contender.

5. Toronto Blue Jays - Last year the Jays finished 86-76. They finished in 4th place in the AL East and missed the playoffs.

The Blue Jays have been treading water for years, and I think it's finally time that they took a serious step back. So serious that it wouldn't surprise me if they decided to see what they could get for Roy Halladay at the deadline and start over completely.

Halladay anchors and otherwise unremarkable pitching staff. But there's no doubt that he's one of the top pitchers in all of baseball. If you have to blow your team up and start over, he's not a bad trading chip to have.

The Jays' bullpen is also unremarkable other than their closer B.J. Ryan. And given his arm troubles last year, as well as the soreness that kept him out of the WBC this Spring, his best service to Toronto could come as a trading chip as well.

Their line-up is getting old, and is only moderately talented to begin with. Scott Rolen is probably their biggest bat, but has a bevy of health issues. Vernon Wells had a rotten year this year. Toronto fans hope he can rebound this year, but given the lack of help around him, it's hard to count on that. Alex Rios may be the only young, up and coming talent on the club. And that's not saying much!

Bottom Line: It's time to blow this thing up and rebuild. That's not an easy decision to make. In a bad economy, it's tough to give your fans another excuse to not buy tickets. But in the long run, that may be what's in the Jays' best interests. Either way, their ceiling is 4th in this division.

So there you have it. Pencil in the Red Sox (whom I hate) as your 2009 AL East winners. It won't shock me if the Rays repeat as division champs, but I have to call them like I see them. And the Red Sox (whom I hate) look that damned good.

That's all for today. Check back on Wednesday when the 2009 MLB Preview continues. My friends to the East who love to see Bernie on his slide will be especially interested! Until then, thanks for reading!

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