2013 Interactive AL East Preview

Baseball games that count are right around the corner, and the American League East is as unpredictable as I can ever remember it. Any team could conceivably win the division, and any team could finish last, even those that only play nine games a year in Baltimore. Has that ever been true of this group in the five-team era?

Last year, I enlisted some of my favorite baseball writers to help with a division preview, from the perspective of a fan of each team. Despite mixed results (ok, I was basically the only fool in the group), everyone agreed to participate again. In order of their favorite teams’ finish in 2012, here’s my esteemed panel:

Dan McCloskey of Left Field and High Heat Stats, whose prescience I attributed to pseudonym Charles Simone last year, writes about the Yankees under his own name this time around.

Theo Gerome of Hot Corner Harbor, who is as prolific as any writer on the web, covering not only Major League Baseball plast and present, but the Cape Cod Baseball League, tackles the Orioles, and is probably thrilled to be listed second here this year. Theo hit all the right notes in describing why the Orioles might not be horrible last year, but in the end, he thought they’d finish right where the rest of us picked them.

Jonathan Mitchell of MLB Dirt, DRaysBay, and State Lines weighs in with characteristic optimism on the always-entertaining Rays.

The Org Guy of Tao of Stieb gets to try and make sense of all the Blue Jays’ moves this offseason, which will make them either World Series champs or the Toronto Blue Jays.

I’ll cover the Red Sox and their band of middling free agent gap-fillers. Hopefully I’ll do a little better than last year, which is to say I won’t be off by more than 35. Let’s get on with it.

What is your team’s ceiling? What has to go right for your team to win the AL East?

Dan McCloskey on the Yankees:
“As always, the Yankees’ ceiling is a World Series victory, although it seems less likely this year than in years past. Frankly, because of the age of the roster and the loss of a few not insignificant players (Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Rafael Soriano) who weren’t replaced, it’s hard to imagine the 2013 Yankees not being a little worse than last year’s squad.

That said, a little worse could mean they win 90-92 games and wind up on top of a very competitive division in which the strength of all five teams prevent any one from rising above. Or, it could result in a wild card berth. [Is it just me, or does the phrase “wild card berth” sound more football than baseball?] As we all know, especially fans of the San Francisco Giants, once a team reaches the playoffs, anything can happen.

Pretty much every player on the Yankees is a question mark, either due to age, sub-par performance last year, attempting to come back from injury, or some combination of those factors. The only sure things—to the extent sure things actually exist in today’s game—who will fill important roles on the team are CC Sabathia, Robinson Cano and the catching tandem of Chris Stewart/Francisco Cervelli. The latter duo, of course, is only a sure thing relative to very low expectations.

But, realistically speaking, the two most important factors for the Yankees to come out on top of the division are:
1.The ability of an aging pitching staff to reasonably approximate last year’s performance, in order to make up for what certainly will be diminished production on the offensive side of the ledger.
2.A resurgent season from either Mark Teixeira or Curtis Granderson, the latter of whom’s comeback from a rough second half of 2012 is complicated by the fact he’ll miss at least the first month of the season with a broken arm.”

Theo Gerome on the Orioles:
“Well, the AL East will be tough. Baltimore could win the East, but it’ll likely come through a combination of them hitting their ceiling and the some of the other teams disappointing.

First, the other teams, since that’ll be quicker. The Yankees would have to be hit by their age pretty hard. Derek Jeter, Kevin Youkilis, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda, and Ichiro (or some large combination of that group) all start to look really old and/or get hurt. That’s actually a fairly believable scenario, I think. Maybe not certain, but definitely reasonable.

The Blue Jays would have to disappoint, but looking at their roster, it could happen. They do need to make up 20-odd games in the standings, at least based on last year’s finished. Maybe Josh Johnson and Jose Reyes get hurt, like they frequently do. Maybe Jose Bautista gets injured again. Maybe RA Dickey, Melky Cabrera, and Edwin Encarnacion aren’t as good as they were last year. I wouldn’t call all of that likely, but they are working with a thinner margin of error, and it’s all very much in the realm of possibility.

The Red Sox’s downfall is pretty easy to see, too. They finished 26 games out last year, but like the Blue Jays, they’ve overhauled their roster. But is the set of Mike Napoli, Ryan Dempster, Stephen Drew, Shane Victorino, and Joel Hanrahan really the place to go looking for a 20-win improvement? I mean, sure, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Jacoby Ellsbury, and David Ortiz will all probably pick up some value lost to injuries and lost effectiveness too. But the team will also be without half a season of Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis, and their rotation is currently Lester-Buchholz-Dempster-Felix Doubront-John Lackey. That’s…not at all inspiring, to say the least.

I’m actually very high on the Rays right now. Losing B.J. Upton and James Shields will hurt, but they are getting a full season of Evan Longoria and Wil Myers, and the rotation comes with a lot of potential. Still, there are definitely question marks still present. The rest of their infield is Jose Molina, James Loney, Kelly Johnson, and Yunel Escobar. Luke Scott is their DH. Again, there’s potential here, but it definitely looks less solid than I first thought.

So what about the Orioles? Where might they improve? Adam Jones and Matt Wieters started strong last year, then fell off a bit. They could keep it up for a full season, maybe with a MVP-type season for one of them. Manny Machado will be up for a full season-maybe he has an All-Star-type year in him. Maybe Nick Markakis, Nolan Reimold, or Brian Roberts can put their injuries behind them. Jason Hammel might play at his level from last year, but make ten more starts. Chris Tillman showed promise after his call-up. Zach Britton showed promise the year before that. Maybe Miguel Gonzalez or Steve Johnson are for real. Failing that, maybe Kevin Gausmann or Dylan Bundy gets the call late in the season. There are a lot of maybes, but if those go right, it could lead to an Orioles team that more than makes up for the drop-off in the bullpen.”

Jonathan Mitchell on the Rays:
“The Tampa Bay Rays have the makings of a team that could contend for not only the American League East title but for the World Series title. The Rays have two of the top seven position players according to fWAR since 2009, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner, possibly the best defense in the game, top prospects in Wil Myers, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, and Alex Colome who are all MLB-ready or near MLB-ready, and the most forward-thinking manager and front office in the game. But, losing James Shields and B.J. Upton hurts, and the Rays cannot afford to lose Longoria to injury again. The Rays will need their stars to stay healthy and they need the offense to put up a few more runs to reach their ceiling.”

The Org Guy on the Blue Jays:
“It’s an odd feeling for Blue Jays fans to consider the ceiling of their chosen team and realize that for the first time in, oh, 15 years, that ceiling is a season of 90 to 95 wins and an American League East title. It’s an odd feeling because for the last decade and a half, the best fans could do was hope for a bunch of things to break just right, and if they did, then maybe — MAYBE — the team could sniff the post-season.

You have to live north of the border to have a real sense of just how different things feel about the 2013 Blue Jays. Sportscasts and talk radio shows throughout the fall and winter are usually dominated by hockey, whether it’s the NHL or lower-level junior competition. Baseball is the afterthought. I don’t need to recap all the acquisitions and departures for you, but not only did Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos completely revamp the major league roster this off-season; he did it in a way that made a largely dormant fan base sit up and take notice. People are paying attention to the Blue Jays again in Canada.

Sure, during the 20-year dry spell we’ve endured, Jays fans have seen big names come to town before — Roger Clemens, AJ Burnett, Frank Thomas — but it never felt like it was part of a real plan to solidify the major league roster in a way that was intended to do anything more than just get some more butts in seats for a while. This off-season has appeared to be more of the culmination of a plan, such as it is, than previous efforts that seemed a lot more like flying by the seat of our pants.

Yet for all the talk about how Anthopoulos made his move for 2013 sensing weakness in New York, Boston, Tampa and Baltimore, he’s been the first to tell anyone who ascribes that motive to him that they’re off base. The East will be an enormously tough division in which to put up a 90 win season.

To do it, the Jays have to stay healthy. This seems obvious to the point of cliché , but Jays fans are pretty neurotic when it comes to injury after watching 60% of the starting rotation go down in a five day period last summer, watching a rogue’s gallery of relievers parade through the bullpen and losing the likes of Jose Bautista and Brett Lawrie for extended periods. But health won’t be enough. They can’t afford for many players on the roster to take steps backward. A team that gets the best of RA Dickey, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, and Melky Cabrera, just to name a few, will be competitive. A repeat power performance from Edwin Encarnacion and another MVP-caliber season from Jose Bautista would help immensely too. But none of those things are certain. They have to play the games, they tell me, and you don’t get any pennants for winning the off-season.”

Bryan O’Connor on the Red Sox:
The Red Sox won 69 games in 2012 and tinkered around the edges this offseason, rather than making any drastic changes, whether to compete right away or to get younger and cheaper. It’s hard to see them picking up the 20+ games it would take to make the playoffs, but there’s still a lot of talent on the roster.

Any possibility that the Sox rebound in ’13 is predicated on the return to prominence of what was not-all-that-long-ago considered their young core. I don’t think Jacoby Ellsbury will ever be the MVP-type player he was in 2011 again, but he could be a five-to-six win player if he’s healthy this year, which would go a long way. Similarly, a healthy Dustin Pedroia can be expected to put up five or more wins. If Boston is good this year, it’s probably because those guys are stars and because Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are effective. Although there might be slightly more rotation depth than last year, with Ryan Dempster a better bet to be adequate than Josh Beckett, and with Rubby de la Rosa and Allen Webster waiting in the wings, a lot hinges on Lester and Buchholz. Anything approximating 2010 Lester and Buchholz makes the Red Sox a good team. Anything less might mean a trade deadline selloff.

Beyond that core, this team will be successful if Mike Napoli hits for the Red Sox the way he’s always hit against them, if Will Middlebrooks takes a big step forward with more playing time, and if the Saltalamacchia/Ross catching platoon provides value on both sides of the ball, which is very possible. Add it all up, and this could be a 90-93 win team, which would probably be worth a playoff spot, if only a Wild Card.

It feels a little odd calling 93 wins Boston’s ceiling, when the Orioles won that many games with half the talent last year, but I’m comfortable with that pick. If they replayed the 2012 season a thousand times, the O’s might win 93 games one more time. The Red Sox feel like a .500 team to me, maybe a game or two better, so I think I can declare with something like 95 percent confidence that they’ll win 93 games or fewer. Anything better would include a healthy dose of luck, something Boston hasn’t seen since all of its teams were reeling off championships almost a decade ago.

What’s the floor for your team this season? What has to go wrong for them to miss the playoffs?

Dan McCloskey on the Yankees:
“It’s inarguable the Yankees are a worse team on paper than last year’s model, so I could easily see them finishing third or fourth in an improved AL East this year. I suppose they could even finish last, but I’m guessing the Orioles will return to their rightful place or the Red Sox won’t rebound much from last year’s disaster.

The Yankees will rely more on pitching than they have since the dynasty years, and two of the pitchers they’re counting on the most (Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte) will be a combined 79 years old by mid-season. A third (Mariano Rivera) is 43 and attempting to rebound from what would have been a career-ending injury to almost any other 42-year old. Add to that the fact they’ll pin their hopes on a couple younger pitchers (Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova) who’ve been far from models of consistency and you can see why some folks are ready to write the team’s obituary a little prematurely.”

Theo Gerome on the Orioles:
“There’s the obvious answer of the bullpen imploding. The team went 29-9 last season in one-run games, a .763 winning percentage. For a team that only got in to the postseason as a Wild Card, that’s an incredibly small margin of error to be working with. Even winning two-thirds of their one-run games (a still impressive 25-13) would have dropped them out of October. As volatile as bullpens can be, that is a very real possibility.

What else could go wrong? A lot is riding on maybes going right, if you haven’t noticed yet. Maybe Matt Wieters and Adam Jones have MVP-type years, but maybe they fall back to where they were before last year. Maybe holes in Manny Machado’s game become exposed and he has a sophomore slump. Maybe Nick Markakis, Nolan Reimold, and Brian Roberts are all hurt and/or awful. Same goes for Jason Hammel; or, even worse, maybe last year was a fluke. Maybe all of the other pitchers I mentioned are flukes as well.

In all honesty, I don’t think all of that will happen, but it can. And really, I feel that way about all of those maybes turning out as their earlier-mentioned best case scenarios; maybe some of them will happen, but almost certainly not all of them. This looks like a middling team with the chance to go to extremes either way, but my instinct is to say that they’re probably around an 81-win team.”

Jonathan Mitchell on the Rays:
“The Rays have the floor of a low-80s win team. But, for this to happen, they would have to lose Longoria and/or Zobrist to injury, which would lead to them being just far enough out of contention come July that they would likely trade their current assets and start focusing fully on 2014 and beyond. I have a hard time envisioning this happening, though.”

The Org Guy on the Blue Jays:
“Perhaps it’s 20 years of having cautious pessimism drilled into me when it comes to them, but despite the hype, there actually doesn’t seem like that much at all that has to go wrong for the Jays to miss the playoffs and hit a floor of another 4th place finish. Some of that relates to the quality of the division, but some of it relates to lingering questions about the team.

There’s a flamethrowing bullpen — made up of a lot of guys who’ve only been successful for extremely short periods, if at all.

There’s precocious talent in Colby Rasmus and Brett Lawrie — talent that hasn’t burst onto the scene the way many would have hoped in their respective tenures of fewer than two full seasons in Toronto.

There’s a bit of pop in the DH and catcher positions with Adam Lind and J.P. Arencibia — but serious concerns about their ability to get on base.

There’s a core of upper-tier talent on the roster — a core that’s barely played together, to say nothing of the fact that many members of that core haven’t played in the American League at all.

Negative outcomes in more than a couple of those little dichotomies could make all the pre-season love for the Blue Jays turn sour in a big hurry.”

Bryan O’Connor on the Red Sox:
Last year, I said the Red Sox’s floor was a .500 season. They finished 12 games worse than that. They probably had more talent on their roster last year, with Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis still in the fold. Does that mean this team might lose 100? I suppose so, but it would take a lot of things going wrong for that to happen.

I mentioned Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz above. These guys should pitch 400 or more innings this season, so their effectiveness is crucial. Lester’s WAR has dropped each of the last three seasons, due primarily a drop in his strikeout rate, from 26.7% in 2009 all the way down to 19.0% in 2012. Lester can be effective striking out 19% of opposing hitters, but he’ll have to limit homers (he gave up 1.1 per nine innings in 12) to do so. Buchholz has been a FIP-beater his whole career, but I’m not sure he’s logged enough effective innings to belong in the Matt Cain/Jered Weaver set, from whom we expect great ERAs despite weak peripherals. If these two bomb the way Lester and Beckett did last year, the Red Sox may be a bad team. Ryan Dempster won’t be an ace in the AL East. Felix Doubront may strike out a lot of guys, but he still has adjustments to make, and John Lackey seems about as likely to strangle John Farrell with his shoelace as he is to pitch like he did with the Angels years ago.

This team should hit, but they’re not the lock for 1,000 runs they looked like in 2011. If they find ways to lose the 2-1 games and the 13-12 games, as they did so artfully last year, they could be under .500 at the trade deadline, which could mean a sell-off and another year with fewer than 70 wins. Last place is more likely than first.

How do you see the division playing out? Is there one team you’re particularly afraid of?

Dan McCloskey on the Yankees:
“Let’s not try to kid ourselves that any team other than the Blue Jays has even a remote chance to win the AL East this year. They’re easily as much of a lock to win the division as the Red Sox were in 2011.

If you don’t get my point here, what I’m basically trying to say is I have no idea. Prognosticating is kind of a futile endeavor, in my opinion. But hey, Bryan asked me and it’s kind of fun to look back later and see how bad your predictions were, so what the heck.

Seriously, though, I think any of the five teams could win the AL East. But, I’ll call the Blue Jays the favorite, although I’m less confident of that pick than I was of the Red Sox two years ago.”

Theo Gerome on the Orioles:
“Like I said, my first thought is to call the Orioles a middling team with potential. I think that will make them a fourth-place team though, as there are three teams in the division that I would say are better at this point in time.

I see the Blue Jays as the favorites. This is the type of prediction that is designed to blow up in my face halfway through the year, and you can tell by its preface: I know they finished 22 games out of first place last year. But, with all of their additions, plus some shakiness in the Rays, Yankees, and Orioles, I think they are the team to beat.

I think the Rays finish second. I may be leaning too heavily on their youth and potential, but again, I expect big things from Ben Zobrist, David Price, a full season of Evan Longoria, and the rest of Tampa Bay. I think Wil Myers will make an immediate impact, too, and I expect one of Matt Moore or Jeremy Hellickson (probably Moore) to take over as team co-ace. Those might be overly optimistic, but that still my thinking. I can see them as a 90-win team or so, more or less where they finished last year.

The Yankees led the division last year by 2 games, but I think age will finally catch up to them…in the form of a winning record but a missed playoff spot. I mean, they do have some good players, with Robinson Cano and CC Sabathia chief among them. People have been predicting that the Yankees will have their age catch up with them for years now, and I think it will technically happen this year…it just probably won’t be as bad of a fall as some people seem to think.

I still see the Red Sox finishing last. They’re sort of the opposite of the Jays; they finished 26 games out last year, and made a lot of changes, but those changes just don’t seem like the big upgrades Toronto made. The rotation still seems very patchwork, too. In the end, I think they’ll be a middling-to-bad team (say, mid- to low-70 wins), thanks in part to their tough division.

So there you have it. I’m officially going with Blue Jays-Rays-Yankees-Orioles-Red Sox. Now that I’ve done that, hopefully I’ve jinxed the other teams enough for the Orioles to take the division. And if that doesn’t work…then I actually got the prediction right. I’ll take that too. Either way, I’m set for 2013.”

Jonathan Mitchell on the Rays:
“I see the Rays and Jays both making the playoffs and the Yankees and Orioles taking a step backwards. The one team that frightens me, and most American League East pitchers, is the Toronto Blue Jays. That lineup and rotation have the ability to win 95+ games and contend for a World Series title.”

The Org Guy on the Blue Jays:
“This might be the first time in a long time that I’ve actually been afraid of the Yankees, Red Sox or Rays, because I’m far more accustomed to being resigned to their superiority and anticipating tough games and a losing record against them. Now I’m scared of all of them (maybe even the Orioles) because I feel like they can very easily take a sledgehammer to my hopes and dreams of post-season baseball whenever they meet for a series.

But spring is when we’re supposed to be optimistic, so I’ll make my prediction of a first place finish for the Blue Jays in 2013, with 93 wins. I’ll pick the Yankees second, the Rays third, Red Sox fourth and Orioles fifth. Fortune favours the bold.”

Bryan O’Connor on the Red Sox:
I fear the Blue Jays, both because I think they may be a 100-win juggernaut and because I spent much of my childhood rooting for Toronto and I would be a little hurt if this team suffered another rash of injuries and didn’t live up to expectations. I like RA Dickey and Brandon Morrow too much to see them get eaten alive by the AL East. Then again, I like the Red Sox too much to see Dickey and Morrow mow them down four times each.

I fear the Rays because they do everything right. They waste no money on corner positions or expensive relievers. They invest in up-the-middle talent and starting pitching and plug holes elsewhere as needed. Their roster isn’t intimidating in 2013, but their pitching might be good enough to win 95 games.

I fear the Yankees because I always do. I fear that Robinson Cano and CC Sabathia might just be good enough to carry the cast of “Cocoon” to yet another division title. I fear that Curtis Granderson’s injury might lead to the beginning of Brett Gardner’s reign in
center field, where he’ll save 30 more runs than Granderson would have and get on base more often, only to see Granderson thrive as a left fielder, hitting 35 homers in a short season.

I fear the Orioles because the same paranormal activity that caused one of the least talented teams in baseball to win every close game they played might hang around them for another year.

Three of these fears are logical. That’s why I see the Red Sox finishing fourth. 82 wins seems like a safe bet, although it’s likely that if this team can’t win 86 or 87 and contend, they’ll sell off assets and lose 90 again. I see Toronto winning the division with 89 or 90 wins, while Tampa and New York fight the Rangers and A’s for the Wild Card (though the Angels are no lock in the West). I see the Sox battling the Orioles for fourth place throughout much of the season, and I don’t see myself getting much pleasure out of Boston winning that battle.

There’s lots of consensus here, from all agreeing that the Jays are the best team in the division to no one having much confidence in the Jays actually winning the division. We all think the Yankees are old, but no one’s quite ready to write them off. We all think the Orioles and Red Sox will regress toward the mean after shockingly diametrical seasons in 2012. And we all know the Rays can pitch.

It’s an exciting time to be a fan of an AL East team. I hope you enjoy the ride as much as we will. And I hope you check out the great work at Left Field, Hot Corner Harbor, MLB Dirt, and Tao of Stieb.

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