Friday, December 28, 2012

The AL East conundrum.

           Overall, the AL East has been an incredibly difficult division to compete in over the last decade or two, and with the Jays having made huge splashes in acquiring roughly one third of the talent in the NL East, the Red Sox signing two more catchers, and the Yankees resigning some of the most important pieces from their post season run last year, while letting two other pieces walk away without so much as a finger raised by Cashman, one would be forced to assume that the division has changed some this year.

           The division has changed significantly; there is no baseball mind who would argue that the landscape in the AL East is changing for 2013. Not necessarily the standings though. Many analysts are still painting the Yanks as a 1st place team, despite losing Russell Martin, Nick Swisher, and letting Rafael Soriano walk away. I don’t know exactly how accurate that is, Martin is an excellent backstop, both for his framing abilities and the fact that he brings some power and on base percentage to the equation that many replacements wouldn’t offer. Francisco Cervelli will be a fine replacement, offering less power but similar defense as well as the ability to play third base if need be. Chris Stewart has a pretty light bat and while he’s cited as a defensive specialist, that is a tag given to him more due to his light hitting than his actual (and slightly dubious) defensive abilities. Austin Romine is the biggest wildcard of the three, having very little major league experience. He projects to have a weaker than average bat at the position, but provide solid defense. Swisher is perhaps the hardest of the three to replace in earnest. Ichiro Suzuki will replace him in right field, but Swisher provided a balanced approach between average defense, above average power, and high on base percentage, Ichiro’s game hinges on his potentially gold glove worthy fielding, his speed on the base paths, and his unbelievably high contact rate at the plate. Soriano, who stepped in to replace an injured Mariano Rivera was largely expendable however. That is not to say that someone of Soriano’s particular skill set is not valuable to the Yankees, but because of their otherwise very strong bullpen and the number of cheap middle innings relievers, moving everyone up one spot in the depth chart would not hinder the Yankees in a practical sense. With plenty of time to acquire a more powerful outfield bat to help rest the light hitting Brett Gardner and Suzuki and/or a game changing catcher the Yanks certainly remain a very dangerous team despite the turnover.

           The Red Sox have spent half of last year and the bulk of this offseason retooling the entire team, from trading Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Carl Crawford to the Dodgers for several pieces and salary relief, to their recent trade for Joel Hanrahan the Red Sox have shown no particular sentiment toward their own players. This may well play to their benefit; the Sox have retooled well so far, having acquired yet another catcher, and potentially will finalize their deal with Mike Napoli soon. The Sox have a potentially very powerful rotation, despite last year’s utter failings. Jon Lester and Clay Bucholtz are both extremely good pitchers, whether they showed it last year or not. Combining their talents with the overall value of their lineup the Red Sox should be notably more competitive than they were one year ago.

           The Orioles have made almost no moves this year, and the kind of statistical anomaly that allowed them to reach the postseason last year doesn’t seem as likely without making any real push at another piece or two. Letting Mark Reynolds walk away isn’t immediately addition by subtraction. His strikeout rate was atrocious, but he does put the ball in the seats and that’s not a bad talent to have. He’s a hack 3rd baseman for sure, but he can handle first just fine, and there’s certainly value in a player like Reynolds. That said, the Orioles can still make moves this offseason, and may surprise me, but I’d call for them to regress given the improbability of their record last year. Having scored only 7 more runs than they allowed for the year while winning 93 games. That’s some serious statistical outlier material there. If the O’s don’t make some serious headway on that run differential, I could see them sliding back to being a .500 team this year.

           The Rays haven’t made any great strides forward either, though trading James Shields and Wade Davis isn’t exactly as devastating as some have made it seem. While Tampa did give up an exceptional starter they are also a pitching machine, and seem to churn out starters on an annual basis. The team could use a bit more pop, and losing BJ Upton isn’t going to help them there, but with such a strong starting rotation I find it hard to believe that they’ll fall out of contention early. The Rays may be looking at 3rd in the division again this year, but it should be awfully difficult to count them out.

           The Blue Jays are, well, better. They’ve traded for roughly half of last year’s Marlins team, RA Dickey, and signed Melky Cabrera all in about a month. Between Dickey and Buehrle their rotation has instantly become very solid while they have also added two (potentially) very strong multi tooled players in Jose Reyes and Cabrera. The questions surrounding Cabrera’s PED use give me some pause in saying that he will be a very effective addition, but even as a league average bat he will provide solid defense in any of the three outfield spots, though his range is probably best suited to a corner. Reyes, while a very capable shortstop, is an injury risk. That certainly won’t be made better by playing 82 games on the fake turf of the Rogers Center. The Jays have a chance to really take a step forward within the division, I won’t argue for even a moment that their rotation isn’t better now, but their other additions are questionable to me. I don’t think that they have the right pieces in place to be a real postseason run, but they should make the AL East a more interesting division for the next few years, especially if this is how Alex Anthopoulos plans to really move the team forward over the next few years.

           As per Bob Dylan, “The times; they are a changing.” I see the division shaking out to still see the Yankees in the playoffs, whether the division or a wildcard I don’t know. The Red Sox I feel will miss the post season again, while the Blue Jays make a push for a playoff berth. The Orioles are poised to regress significantly, while the Rays are a serious question mark to me, They’re worse right now than they were last season, but they have a track record of being surprisingly competitive regardless of the moves they make/miss. It’s certainly a different world when the Yankees are concerned with their spending and the Blue Jays have transformed their team by taking on large contracts.

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