The AL East constitutes the final chapter in my six-part 2012 baseball preview. Somewhere in the back of my head, I think I made this my last division because I hoped the Red Sox would swing a trade for a starting pitcher right before I posted this. Hiroki Kuroda would’ve looked nice in a Sox uniform. Matt Garza, maybe? I’d even settle for John Danks. Alas, this division looks a lot like it did last year, with three-to-four very strong teams and the Orioles.
Most Improved Team
This one could go several ways, as the Orioles are a candidate to improve just because it’s hard to lose 93 games every year, the Red Sox had the win differential of a 95-win team in 2011 and played like a 105-win team from May to September, and the Blue Jays are often cited as a sleeping giant, with Brandon Morrow and Brett Lawrie about to burst out. I’ll go with the Rays though, due in small part to their acquisitions (Carlos Pena will hit more than Casey Kotchman and Jose Molina will make his pitchers better than Kelly Shoppach) and in large part to the majority of the team being on the right side of the aging curve. They’ll get a full season of Matt Moore and Desmond Jennings, David Price is entering his prime, and Evan Longoria may be the best player in the AL when he’s healthy. Jeremy Hellickson is likely to regress and Ben Zobrist may as well, but this is a young team that has made the playoffs three times in four years and may have the best rotation in the American League (depending on Yu Darvish’s adjustment). I see 95 wins and another run at the division title.
Least Improved Team
The Yankees were an unlikely 97-win team last year, should see regression from Curtis Granderson, and have way too many older players and injury risks. I would have picked them here if not for the two late-offseason moves that netted them Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda. Alas, I think the Red Sox are the pick. They went into 2011 with one of the strongest rosters in recent memory and tore up the league all summer. Three weaknesses tore their season apart- poor pitching depth, a lack of production from the corner outfield spots, and bad luck. The luck should reverse itself in 2012, but the team didn’t do much about the other issues. Carl Crawford should bounce back if healthy, but he may miss significant time in the spring. JD Drew and Josh Reddick are gone, and Cody Ross and Ryan Sweeney are in the fold. Say what you will about Drew’s style or his hideous 2011, but neither Ross nor Sweeney could dream of playing at the level Drew played at throughout the rest of his tenure in Boston (according to fangraphs, Drew was an above-average hitter, fielder, and baserunner every year from 2007 to 2010). More importantly, the pitching looks to be even shallower in 2012. Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves will try to step into the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation after spending their careers in the bullpen. It’s possible that one or both will succeed, but if the injury bug hits Clay Buchholz again, or an over-30 Josh Beckett, the thought of Carlos Silva in a Red Sox uniform isn’t much more comforting than that of a 46-year-old Tim Wakefield. Jonathan Papelbon, the best relief pitcher in the AL in 2011, won’t be missed much with Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon now on the roster, but those guys might not be handed as many leads as they’ll need to help their new team to the playoffs. I see another 90 wins unless there’s another trick up Ben Cherington’s sleeve.
My heart says it’s the Rays’ year, but the numbers say it’s the Yankees. Losing Jesus Montero won’t cost them more than a win, since he was called up late last season, Jorge Posada was on his last legs, and Bartolo Colon had faded down the stretch anyway. Kuroda and Pineda turn the rotation from middling to excellent, with Phil Hughes likely to return to 2010 form and Ivan Nova a competent fifth starter despite the almost inevitable regression from his 2011 newspaper stats. The offense is old, but they’ll still hit home runs, at least at home, and I see that being enough to win another 96 games and yet another division title. If the Rays hold them off, the Wild Card should still be there for the taking.
This will look familiar, but I see the division shaping up like this:
1. New York, 96-66
2. Tampa, 95-67
3. Boston, 90-72
4. Toronto, 82-80
18. Baltimore, 72-90
I won’t try to predict the postseason, which is a crapshoot even if one knows who’s in the tournament, until October.