3-19-10: 2010 MLB Preview - AL East

Hello again everybody...

Hope your week has gone well. I'm still enjoying the sun and warmth of Phoenix, and quite frankly, I don't want to leave. But real life beckons and I'll be back to Minnesota sooner than later.

But while I'm here, there are a couple of matters to attend to.

First of all, welcome to the first ever edition of Writing for the Cycle.

Regular readers know that I'm apt to write about anything and everything related to sports (as well as things sometimes totally un-related to sports), but that the bulk of my writing tends to focus on baseball and college football. So when I started brainstorming new titles, I looked for terms and phrases related to those two sports. After wracking my brain and annoying the bejabbers out of some of my friends, I finally settled on Writing for the Cycle as my new title. Hopefully you get the baseball-related reference.

And as long as I was creating a new title, I decided to create a new look for the blog as well. Most of the changes are simply cosmetic (new page structure, new color scheme, etc.). The picture below the title is a work in progress. Currently, you see a shot of Surprise Stadium in picturesque Surprise, AZ. That'll change as the year goes by, though I'm not entirely sure how regularly.

I've also made some tweaks along the right-hand information column. You're going to start seeing dates included in the titles (makes searching the archives easier). And I've separated my “links” into two groups. One for fellow bloggers/web-artists, and another for professional writers I reference and enjoy. I tried to catch everyone who's linked to me, but if I've missed anybody, please shoot me an email (the address is located along the right-hand column) and I'll get you on that list promptly. I'm always happy to advertise for fellow writers!

One last change I'll point out (though it's one I'm not entirely happy with). The new layout doesn't recognize my old shortcut for truncating posts. So I've begun adding a line that directs you to click on the title of a post in order to see it in its full form once I've truncated it. Not as convenient, but I'm limited by the whims of the fine folks at Google.

If you have any thoughts, comments, questions or suggestions about the new layout, please send me an email and let me know! I'm always looking for ways to make the blog better-looking and more functional, so pass along any thoughts you might have.

As I said on Friday, the content will be much the same, so hopefully you enjoy this new incarnation as much as you did the old one!

Vive le Writing for the Cycle!

The second matter to attend to today is to kick off my 2010 MLB Preview columns. As I did last year, I've separated the Preview into 7 different columns. One for each division, and a seventh for post-season predictions. If you'd care to review last year's columns, they're not hard to find. Scroll down to the archives. Click on “2009” and then “March” and away you go. I'll also link to the equivalent column from last year as I publish each of this year's columns.

Make sense? I thought it might.

We begin this year's edition of the MLB Preview with the division containing the defending champions (those damned Yankees), the AL East. Will the Yankees repeat as Division Champs? Have the Red Sox (whom I hate) done enough in the off-season to catch New York? Should we be sleeping on the Tampa Bay Rays? All that and more is on the way...

Off we go!

”Beware of all enterprises which require new clothes.”
- Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862), American author, poet, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, historian, philosopher and leading transcendentalist

WftC translation? Never trust a man who wears a suit for a living. Think about it. There's something there.

Also, how do you style yourself a surveyor and yet are critical of “development”? Isn't that what surveyors do? Mark off land for development? Or am I way off here?

«Read the rest of the column by clicking on the title»

Baseball season's just around the corner. Time to kick off my...

2010 MLB Preview: AL East

Last year's AL East column can be read here.

This year's predictions:

1. New York Yankees: Last year the Yankees went 103-59, won the AL East, won the AL Pennant, and won the World Series.

...and that's why we're leading off the 2010 Preview with the AL East. Credit goes where credit is due, and the Yankees won it all in 2009.

I'm not going to predict today whether they'll repeat as World Champions in 2010, but I will say that I fully expect them to win the East again.

The Yankees have made changes to their line-up. Left Fielder Johnny Damon and DH Hideki Matsui have moved on. And in a strange move for the Bombers, instead of going out and signing free agents to huge contracts, they made a solid trade and are plugging holes with reasonably-price free agents.

CF Curtis Granderson comes over from Detroit in the Yankees' biggest move of the off-season. There was speculation that he'd take over lead-off duties, but it looks like manager Joe Girardi plans to hit him later in the order.

Instead, Derek Jeter takes over at the top of the line-up. Believe it or not, Jeter's in a contract year. But the club's already announced that it'll hold off extending anybody until the season's over, so I doubt it'll be much of a distraction. Nick Johnson is one of the free-agents the Yanks brought in for the 2010 season. This is his second stint in New York, and he'll likely get the bulk of the DH at-bats for the Yankees. He can also back-up Teixeira at first. Speaking of Tex, he'll bat third and be followed by Alex Rodriguez. With 69 home runs and 222 RBI between them, that's perhaps the most lethal 3-/4-hitter combination in all of baseball. They'll likely be followed by catcher Jorge Posada and 2B Robinson Cano before getting to the outfield trio of Granderson, Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner.

Two things I can promise you about this line-up. One, there will be additions over the course of the season. If New York didn't make a big splash to try and replace Damon and Matsui in the off-season, it's only because they thought they could get better value during the year. I just can't fathom them not getting some help in left before it's said and done. Two, maybe they won't lead the league in runs scored this season - although it's hardly impossible - but they should lead the AL East. And when you combine that offense with their starting rotation, you get a division winner more often than not.

The first four in the Yankees rotation are set: CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Andy Pettite all return from the 2009 Championship squad. They'll be joined by Javier Vasquez (also starting his second run with New York) for sure. Who holds down the 5th spot is up for debate. Joba Chamberlain spent most of last year starting for the Yankees, but spent time in the bullpen during the post-season. So New York still has that quandary to deal with. Do they want Joba to be a solid, if unspectacular starter? Or do they want him as a lights-out set-up man? I think it comes down to how Phil Hughes pitches in Spring Training. If he looks like he's ready to start, then perhaps Joba's better served in the pen.

Speaking of that bullpen, it'll be anchored, as usual by Mariano Rivera. He may be getting up there in years, but he's still as effective a closer as you could ask for. Prior to him? That's where the Yankees are vulnerable. Hughes did an okay job setting up last year, but Joba would be better. Outside of them, you're getting to the Alfredo Aceves', Chad Gaudin's and Sergio Mitre's of the world. Not names that are scaring anybody.

Bottom Line: With a couple of smart mid-season moves, the Yankees have the ability to top 100 wins again. In my mind, 95 will win them the division. And even without any additions, there's no way they're more than eight games worse than they were last year.

2. Boston Red Sox (whom I hate): In 2009, the Red Sox (whom I hate) went 95-67, won the AL Wild Card and were defeated by the LA Angels in the ALDS.

The Red Sox (whom I hate) are also dealing with turnover in their lineup. Gone is Jason Bay and his 36 home runs and 119 RBI. Coming in are CF Mike Cameron, 2B Marco Scutaro, and 3B Adrian Beltre. Beltre's power numbers slipped significantly last year, but the Sox (whom I hate) are counting on a resurgence with Fenway's famed Green Monster waiting to be peppered by Beltre liners. Also joining the Red Sox (whom I hate) is P John Lackey, who'll form a formidable duo with Josh Beckett. Boston (whom I hate) is emphasizing pitching and defense this year. Whether that will work to the tune of an AL East title is to be determined.

Jacoby Ellsbury is their likely lead-off man. He's been “on the come” for a few years now and he'll need to step up and show whether he's got the stuff or not for Boston (whom I hate) to have a chance in the East. He's followed by 2008 MVP Dustin Pedroia. Catcher Victor Martinez who came over in a mid-season deal with Cleveland last year bats third. 1B, dirtball and perennial pain in the ass, Kevin Youklis is their likely clean-up hitter. Then comes DH David Ortiz. Which Papi will it be this year? The one who struggled mightily early? Or the one who finished strong and wound up with 28 home runs and 99 RBI? The answer to that question will go a long way in determining Boston's (whom I hate) fate in 2010. CF Cameron, RF J.D. Drew, Beltre and Scutaro round out the line-up.

I said earlier that the Red Sox (whom I hate) will be leaning heavily on their pitching staff. And fortunately for them, they've got a darned good one. Josh Beckett is their ace, and is entering the final year of his contract. His talent's never been in question, but his work ethic is another matter. That shouldn't be an issue this season, as he'll be out to try and earn one more big deal before entering the final phase of his career. Newly acquired John Lackey will pitch second in Boston's (whom I hate) rotation. Lackey went 11-8 with a 3.83 ERA for the Angels last season and signed a large contract as a free agent. He won't be counted on to anchor the rotation, but a few poor outings will light up the Boston (whom I hate) fans all the same. Jon Lester's a lock to be their third starter. After that Daisuke Matsuzaka, Clay Buchholz and Tim Wakefield will have to be sorted out for the 4th and 5th spots. My guess is that Wakefield starts in the pen, but fills Matsuzaka's slot after Daisuke manages to get himself hurt... again.

Jonathan Papelbon remains the Boston (whom I hate) closer... for now. Daniel Bard showed signs early last season of being a future closer - right up until the Yankees pounded him in a critical series. So who knows? It seems like Red Sox (whom I hate) management isn't terribly high on Papel-spaz, so it won't surprise me if he doesn't finish the season anchoring the bullpen. Boston (whom I hate) has a ton of arms to choose from to fill out the bullpen. Ramon Ramierez, Manny Delcarmen and Hideki Okajima seem like locks. Guys like Boof Bonser, Brian Shouse and Jorge Sosa could easily fill out the roster.

Bottom Line: Boston's (whom I hate) pitching depth is their greatest strength. If they can move a pitcher (Clay Buchholz?) somewhere for a big bat (Adrian Gonzalez?) they may have what it takes to make a run at the Yankees. As they stand, I think they'll be battling a certain team from the AL Central for the Wild Card.

3. Tampa Bay Rays: Last year the Rays went 84-78 and finished 3rd in the AL East.

I know, it's boring to pick the same top 3 as they finished in 2009. But nobody seems to have done enough to seriously shake things up.

Remember when 84-78 would've been reason for a parade in Tampa? But following a campaign that saw the Rays make the World Series in 2008, it was something of a disappointment. Unfortunately for Tampa, I think 85-90 wins is their ceiling again this season.

Their line-up remains largely unchanged from 2009. SS Jason Bartlett is a solid player, if not a spectacular lead-off man. LF Carl Crawford enters the last year of his contract trying to show he deserves a big extension. 3B Evan Longoria was an MVP candidate last year, and there's no reason to think he'll be anything but as good this year. 1B Carlos Pena is also entering the final year of a contract, so he'll be playing to get paid as well. 2B Ben Zobrist was a big surprise for Tampa last year. If Joe Maddon can keep him to one position (2B/OF) this season, he could be huge for the Rays' line-up. CF B.J. Upton keeps showing flashes, but can never seem to put everything together. Perhaps the big contract his younger brother just signed in Arizona will motivate him. DH Pat Burrell (who was something of a disappointment last year), RF Matt Joyce and C Dioner Navarro round out Tampa's line-up.

The Rays' rotation is the key to their success this year. After a surprisingly good 2008, they took a step back in 2009. Whether they regain their '08 form in 2010 may decide their season. James Shields and Matt Garza are their 1 and 2 pitchers. Though not necessarily in that order. David Price probably slots third, though he's still trying to live up to the “phenom” tag he was slapped with during Tampa's '08 playoff run. After Price it's Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis and Andy Sonnanstine battling for the last two spots.

The bullpen is anchored by new addition Rafael Soriano who comes over from Atlanta to take on the closing duties. Tampa had a whale of a time finishing games last year, so Soriano, who had 27 saves for Atlanta last year, should be a key addition. J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler form the rest of the core of the bullpen. Randy Choate and Lance Cormier round out a decent relief staff.

Bottom Line: If things come together just right for the Rays, they could have another 2008 run in them. But I think they probably finish third for the second year in a row, and will have a devil of a time trying to figure out whether they sign or trade guys like Crawford and Pena.

4. Baltimore Orioles: Last year, the Orioles finished 64-98 and were fifth in the AL East.

So how do I pick a team that nearly lost 100 games in '09 to not finish last? Because they've got a lot of talented youth and made a savvy addition to their starting rotation. That's why.

Let's look at their line-up first. 2B Brian Roberts leads things off. He led the AL in doubles last season with 56, and presuming he can get his balky back healthy, he should be an excellent table-setter for them this season. LF Nolan Riemold hit a respectable .279 with 15 home runs and 45 RBI in his rookie campaign last season, and figures to be a fixture in the Orioles's outfield this year. RF Nick Markakis and CF Adam Jones both could be 3-hitters, but one of them will have to clean up, likely Jones. C Matt Wieters entered last year with the label “Joe Mauer with power”. That didn't prove to be true, as Wieters hit .288 with only 9 home runs and 43 RBI. That being said, Wieters has all the tools to be a world-class big league catcher. And now that he's had a good taste of the majors, he should be ready to improve on his rookie year. Miguel Tejada is back with Baltimore, this time to play third base in an attempt to extend his career. DH Luke Scott, 1B Garrett Atkins and SS Cesar Izturis round out a line-up with a lot of talent, but limited experience.

As much as Tejada's signing could benefit the Orioles, I like their addition of P Kevin Millwood more. No, he's not the front-line starter he once was, but Millwood brings a ton of experience to Baltimore's rotation and takes pressure off the rest of their young starters. Guys like Jeremy Guthrie, Brian Matusz and Brad Bergeson all stand to learn a ton from Millwood. As long as Kevin stays healthy, the kids also won't have to carry as many innings.

The bullpen is where Baltimore really falls short. They picked up lefty Mike Gonzalez from Atlanta to close. But he was shaky at best in that role for Atlanta last year. Jim Johnson and Keji Uehara form the rest of the back-end of the pen. Combined they went 6-10 with an ERA over 4. Not exactly lights-out. Cla Meredith, Mark Hendrickson, Dennis Sarafate... the list goes on. And it's not good.

Bottom Line: I want the Orioles to be good. It's better for baseball when they are. I trust GM Andy MacPhail as much as I trust any GM in baseball, and I love the young talent Baltimore has. Hopefully they improve over last season, and start threatening the .500 mark. If they can do that they should finish ahead of...

5. Toronto Blue Jays: Last year the Jays went 75-87 and finished fourth in the AL East.

Toronto didn't trade P Roy Halladay last year at the deadline as I anticipated. Instead they waited til this off-season to accomplish the task. They got some terrific players in return, no-doubt. But I believe the step-back I predicted last year is coming now in 2010.

RF Jose Bautista leads off for the Jays. And things get dicey from there... in a hurry. CF Vernon Wells hits second, and still challenges for “the most over-paid player in baseball”. 2B Aaron Hill is a nice player, but wouldn't hit third for any other team in this division. Adam Lind should DH most of the year and hit fourth. 3B Edwin Encarnacion hits fifth and melts down my spell checker. 1B Lyle Overbay hits sixth. C John Buck, LF Travis Snyder, and SS Alex Gonzalez round out an underwhelming line-up.

The rotation is young, but there's talent there. Ricky Romero was in the Rookie of the Year discussion last year with his 13-9 record. Shaun Marcum is finally healthy after Tommy John surgery. The two of them have the potential to form a solid 1-2 punch. But right now that's all it is. Potential. Brandon Morrow and Brian Tallet aren't bad as 3- and 4-pitchers. The trick for Toronto is going to be how long they can keep Kyle Drabek in the minors. He was the key in the Halladay trade, and might have had a shot to make Philly's rotation this season had he not been sent to Toronto. The Blue Jays say they want to take things slow and give him some more seasoning in the minors. But my guess is he forces his way to the big leagues sometime after Memorial Day.

The bullpen is a complete mess. Kevin Gregg is your ostensible closer. He had 23 saves for the Cubs last season. Hard to say how many chances he'll have for a bad club this year, but he at least provides some experience. The rest of the names in their bullpen you're unlikely to recognize, so I'll spare you the reading. Suffice to say, whatever efforts are extended by their starters, many will be wasted by a sub-par pen.

Bottom Line: Toronto's going nowhere but down in the standings this year. Perhaps they'll surprise me and hang on to fourth. I just think there's a lot more to like about what's going on with Baltimore this year, than there is with Toronto.

So there you have them. My picks for the 2010 AL East. I know. Not the most exciting prognostications, since they barely differ from the 2009 standings. But the more things change in the AL East, the more they stay the same.

That'll wrap things up for this week. I'll be back in the Cities (sad) on Monday. And back with more of my 2010 MLB Preview. This time, I'll be looking at the division with the other World Series participant, the NL East.

Until then, thanks for reading!

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