Results tagged ‘ Matt Wieters ’

Taking Stock of the AL East

spt-121008-yanks-ichiro-scores.nbcsports-story-612The sharks are circling.

For the better part of the last two decades the American League East has been dominated by the big fish, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Recently the Tampa Bay Rays have been able to break into that triumvirate to steal a couple of playoff births and division titles. Last season brought more parity and more disturbance to the big budget empires with the Baltimore Orioles surprise run to 94 wins and a Wild Card spot, leaving only the Toronto Blue Jays out in the cold.

But this offseason, the established order in the AL East may finally be fully overthrown. The Yankees are old, injured, and cutting payroll back to a modest $189 million. The Red Sox are coming off their worst season since 1981 and they aren’t signing any of the big name players either, instead opting for character guys on short-term deals. Toronto (yes, Toronto) is ramping up payroll and making franchise-altering trades to add a staff full of pitchers, one that includes 2012 NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. Tampa Bay is doing their usual thing, trading for young, unproven talent while rebuilding on the cheap. And Baltimore, well, they’ve stood pat thus far.

The sharks are circling. From the looks of it, everybody has a shot in the AL East. No other division in baseball can say that. So why don’t we take an early peak at the division race, position by position, to see where things stand?

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Charmed Season in the Charm City

The Baltimore Orioles, tied for 1st in the AL East, are in action today and currently involved in yet another extra innings game, this time against the 3rd place Tampa Bay Rays. The Orioles are 80-62 and just 2 wins from their first season over .500 since 1997, but they have the run differential of a 69-73 teams, because they’ve been outscored by 21 runs. It’s a baffling feat, particularly in the AL East, which is routinely baseball’s toughest division, and it’s just a part of what makes this team one of the quirkiest in baseball history. Don’t believe me? Well then, let’s take a look at some of the facts.

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Evaluating How Catchers Control the Opposition’s Running Game

One of the toughest things to quantify in all of sports is a catcher’s value on defense. Their are so many responsibilities and subtle nuances that go into being a quality Major League backstop. The best of the best are able to deftly juggle the responsibilities of managing a pitching staff, framing borderline pitches, blocking pitches, holding base runners, throwing said runners out when they attempt to steal, and much, much more. Recently I’ve been doing some research into catching defense and I have been somewhat unsatisfied by both the traditional statistics (caught stealing %, passed balls, and so on) and by the advanced metrics (URZ and defensive runs saved). A few excellent studies in particular have been done to analyze a catcher’s ability to frame pitches, but otherwise most analysis is left to judgment. I’ve been compiling some of my own numbers relating to catchers controlling the base running game in order to gain a better understanding of who the best backstops in baseball really are, and I’d like to share some of my findings today.

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Which Surprise Team is Most Likely to Stick Around?

The first 2 months of the baseball season has produced quite a few teams rebounding from poor 2011 seasons. Some of these teams, like Miami, went out and spent big to turn things around. Other teams saw internal improvement from 2011, like the improvement of Adam Jones, leading to more runs scored, fewer runs allowed, and more victories. Let’s take a look at the chances for the 3 biggest turnaround teams of 2012, starting with the biggest surprise of all, the Baltimore Orioles.

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Blocking the Plate with Matt Wieters

One of the most exciting plays in all of baseball is a close play at the plate. The strong-armed outfielder trying to throw the swift, speedy base runner, while the poor, poor catcher is stuck standing still, hoping the baseball beats the runner, allowing him crucial seconds before being plowed into by a freight train. Some catchers around the league are particularly adept at blocking the plate, which is a very important defensive skill, one that can take away runs and turnaround ballgames. Matt Wieters is currently the best in the Majors at blocking the plate so let’s take a look at a few of the reasons why.

Wieters discussed the art of blocking the plate on MLB Network during Spring Training. He talked about his mindset, “This is your plate and they’re gonna have to go through you” and how to prevent an injury. “The main thing is to have your knee and your foot pointing down the 3rd base line.” This is also important because it takes away the closest part of the plate to the base runner. He also talks about making sure you let the ball get to you, because reaching out takes more time, and then making sure you have possession of the ball before making the tag. You can tell that this is a very important skill for Wieters and his diligence in blocking the plate is paying off for the Orioles on the scoreboard.

Wieters is also particularly adept to blocking the plate in part because of his large frame. He is officially listed at 6’5″ and 240 pounds. That makes him one of the larger catchers in the league, and a tough player to bowl over for opposing runners. Sean Rodriguez, one of the runners in the highlight, said, after running into Wieters  “He’s definitely a lot bigger than me. I was out. His foot was in front of the bag so I got nowhere to slide. I have to get him and see if I could knock it loose. He held on to it. Credit to him.”

Wieters positioning is also superb. He stays exactly where a catcher is supposed to, on the top corner of the plate, which allows him to receive the throw as soon as possible, while taking away the closest part of the plate from the base runner. This positioning also has the double effect of allowing Wieters to quickly move out of the way if the ball isn’t in time, which can be helpful in preventing injuries over the course of a long season. Base runners either have to go around him or through him, neither of which is an exciting proposition.

His block in the 1st video preserved a game the Orioles went on to win, and his block in the 2nd video ended a rally by Tampa Bay, allowing the Orioles to come back and win. These are crucial plays over the course of the season, and they show Matt Wieters toughness and are part of the reason he is a Gold Glove catcher.

April’s All-Stars: American League

Now that April is in the books, and with All-Star voting already underway, it’s a good time to look at the American League’s best, by position, so far.

Catcher- Matt Wieters, Baltimore Orioles

The toughest position to choose from in either league, because of the excellent quality of play to date from Joe Mauer, who leads AL catchers in batting average and steals, AJ Pierzynski, who is hitting .309 with 4 homers, and Mike Napoli, who has crushed 7 homers already. I decided to go with Wieters, who plays behind the plate every game, unlike Mauer and Napoli, and who excels defensively, unlike Pierzynski. Wieters is hitting .279 with 6 homers and 15 RBI, helping Baltimore get off to a surprising start.

1st base- Paul Konerko, Chicago White Sox

Konerko has been mashing the ball on the South Side, crushing for a .383/.444/.679 slash that puts him in the early MVP discussion. The slugging 1st baseman has also hit 5 homers, which put him over 400 for his career, and has driven in 15. He is the White Sox leader in the clubhouse, and has helped propel the team to a 2nd place start after the 1st month. This is one of the deepest positions in baseball, so we will see how long Paulie can hold on to the top spot.

2nd base- Ian Kinsler, Texas Rangers

Kinsler has been the spark at the top of the Rangers finely tuned machine of an offense, leading baseball in runs scored with 24. He’s also hitting a robust .298 while blasting 5 homers out of the leadoff spot.

Shortstop- Derek Jeter, New York Yankees

This one isn’t even close, as Jeter is the only AL shortstop hitting above .300. He is currently off to one of the best starts to a season in his career, hitting .389 with 4 homers and 13 RBI out of the leadoff spot. He has also scored 16 runs and leads all of baseball in hits. He is also driving the ball to the outfield again, something he struggled with early last season.

3rd Base- Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays

Longoria injured his knee last night, attempting to steal 2nd, which has really put a damper on what was shaping up to be his finest professional season. Longoria has hit .349/.433/.561, spraying the ball to all fields and showing good power, with 4 homers to go with 19 ribbies. Hopefully he won’t have to miss more that a week or two, because he has some competition at 3rd with Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Beltre.

UPDATE: Longoria has a partially torn hamstring and will miss anywhere from 4-8 weeks. This is a massive blow to Tampa Bay and will undoubtedly hurt their offense. The Rays have plenty of depth, but losing your best player is tough for any team to overcome and will probably cost the Rays a couple wins.

Outfield- Josh Hamilton, Texas Rangers

Hamilton, along with Matt Kemp, has been playing in his own stratosphere early in 2012. He is hitting .395/.438/.744 and has compiled a major league leading 64 total bases in a scant 22 games. He also leads the American League in homeruns and RBI and may have a legitimate shot at the Triple Crown, if he can stay healthy.

Outfield- Josh Willingham, Minnesota Twins

Josh Willingham has arguably been the most valuable free agent pickup to date. He’s driving the ball to all fields, posting an outstanding .347/.447/.681 with 5 taters. He may not stay in Minnesota for long, because if the Twins don’t get their pitching sorted out, Willingham would bring back a big return from an outfield or slap hitting team around the deadline.

Outfield- Adam Jones, Baltimore Orioles

Adam Jones has been the other driving force behind the Orioles offense so far, hitting .333 and driving in 12. He has shown an All-Star level mix of power and speed, slugging 6 homers and stealing 4 bases, while scoring 18 runs. Other candidates for this last spot include: Yoenis Cespedes, Curtis Granderson, Nolan Reimold, and Nick Swisher, who is having a career-best start to his season.

Designated Hitter- David Ortiz, Boston Red Sox

Ortiz is having quite the season so far in Boston leading baseball in batting average, at .405 and OPS at 1.184. He has buoyed the Red Sox with his steady demeanor and production, leading the team in RBI and homers.

Right-handed pitcher- Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox

What a comeback so far for Jake Peavy, who is currently 3-1 with a 1.67 ERA for the Sox. He’s already thrown 37 innings and has struck out a robust 33 while only walking 5 so far, for an excellent 6.6 K/BB. His WHIP of .690 leads baseball, as does his ERA+, which accounts for park factors and sits at an absurd 252. He will have some regression to the mean, but this is an excellent start for the righty.

Left-handed pitcher- Drew Smyly, Detroit Tigers

The young 22-year-old was a blip on the radar before the season started, and a month later he leads all qualifying pitchers in ERA, at 1.23. He has only pitched 22 innings so far, but has struck out 22 while only allowing 1.182 base runners to reach per 9. He isn’t afraid to throw any pitch in any count and looks to be the real deal.

Relief pitcher- Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles

Johnson probably won’t occupy this spot for long, but right now he has a league leading 7 saves without allowing a run in any of his 8.2 innings pitched. Fernando Rodney has also been excellent, and apart from blowing an Opening Day save, Mariano Rivera has not allowed a run.

The AL East is a Mess

With the calendar turning over to May baseball will truly begin to heat up. We’ve had some surprises and some disappointments, and the next month of baseball will do a lot to clear up a rather cloudy picture, particularly in the AL East. Baseball’s best division has lived up to its name once again this season, producing 5 teams playing quality baseball. The AL East already looks like it could produce 3 playoff teams this year, so let’s take a look at which team has the best odds, and which has an inside track to winning the division title.

Currently every team in the AL East is sitting at or above .500, with Tampa Bay holding a slight lead at 15-8. Baltimore has been surprisingly scrappy, dominating the Blue Jays 5-1 but struggling against the Yankees dropping all 4. The Yankees were swept to start the year in Tampa, but pummeled the Red Sox in Fenway. Boston has rebounded after another slow start, going 7-1 in their last 8 games, and Toronto has feasted on a weak schedule of AL Central teams. All of these clubs have struggled with pitching except for Baltimore, which has the 8th best staff in baseball. Everyone outside of Baltimore has been an offensive powerhouse, taking 4 of the top 8 spots in runs scored, with Boston leading the pack.

If Tampa’s offense remains this potent, they immediately become the new favorites in the AL East. The Rays have a legitimately excellent pitching staff and that fact will boar its way out as the season progresses. It’s their offense that was an issue a year ago, and so far that has been the team’s real strength. Evan Longoria hit .329/.433/.561 with 4 homes and 19 RBIs and is potential MVP candidate if Josh Hamilton cools down. Carlos Pena has been one of the best free agent signings in baseball so far hitting for a .900 OPS while playing excellent defense at 1st. Matt Joyce and Luke Scott each have 5 homers, giving the Rays a nice mix of power to go with the speed of Desmond Jennings, who has stolen 6 bases.

The starting pitching is in place for a 95-win campaign if the Rays can sort out the early bullpen issues. New closer Fernando Rodney has been excellent, but the rest of the pen has been leaky. Burke Badenhop and Joel Perralta both have more than 10 appearances and still have ERAs over 7.00. The Rays may need to use former starter Wade Davis in more high leverage situations if the rest of the pen doesn’t improve. Davis has been excellent, posting a sub-2.50 ERA in 11.2 innings so far in his first season in the bullpen. Tampa also just concluded the best series victory of any team this season, defeating the Rangers in 3 games in Arlington, no easy task. The Rays are already out to an early lead, and look to be a strong contender for a playoff spot, so I’d put their odds at:

40% division title/80% playoff spot

UPDATE: Longoria has a partially torn hamstring and will miss anywhere from 4-8 weeks. This is a massive blow to Tampa Bay and will undoubtedly hurt their offense. The Rays have plenty of depth, but losing your best player is tough for any team to overcome.

Baltimore’s pitching staff has been their key to success so far, led by the impressive Jason Hammel. Hammel is 3-1 with a 1.97 ERA in 32 innings, striking out a solid 8.4 per 9. He throws a good fastball, plus slider, and a solid curve, so his success will probably continue to some degree. The other Japanese import, Wei-Yin Chen has also been pitching his socks off, posting a 2.22 ERA in 24 innings. Matt Wieters and Adam Jones have also been important to Baltimore’s success, with each hitting 6 big flies so far.

The bullpen has also done a stand-up job and has been the best in baseball, with a 2.03 ERA. Jim Johnson already has 7 saves while not allowing a run. Luis Ayala also hasn’t given up a single run in the 11 innings he has pitched, and Darren O’Day has only given up 1. However, the Orioles have struggled against the traditional powerhouses and more than likely the favorites will start to pummel Baltimore pitching, pushing the O’s back down to the cellar. Their odds:

0% division title/5% playoff spot

The New York Yankees pitching staff has been absolutely brutal so far, ranking 20th in baseball.  The only reason that ranking isn’t any worse is because the Yankees bullpen has been excellent so far, ranking 3rd in baseball in ERA. CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda have both shown signs of improvement after early struggles, so their problems are probably going to be short-lived. Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia, not so much. Garcia has already been demoted to the bullpen after being shelled for 19 earned runs in 13 innings with an astronomically bad WHIP of 2.195. David Phelps, who has saved the Yankees in long relief, gets a call-up to the rotation, where his lower 90s fastball and ability to command the strike zone should play nicely.

Phil Hughes’ stay in the rotation is also probably near its conclusion, because when you give up 5 homers in 16 innings it makes it tough to win ballgames. 40-year-old Andy Pettitte should be on his way with the next couple of weeks, and if he has anything left in the tank, it will be an improvement.

The offense has gone about business as usual, ranking 3rd in baseball in runs scored, averaging 5.45 a game. The Yankees are 1st in baseball in homers, led by Curtis Granderson’s 8, and currently have 3 hitters with an OPS above .950, led by Derek Jeter’s 1.012. The offense is always present in New York, its just a matter of how much pitching the Yankees have, and this year it should be enough to get to the playoffs. Their odds:

30% division title/75% playoff spot

 

The Toronto Blue Jays have been an interesting team this year. They are batting .239 as a team, yet the Jays rank 8th in baseball in runs scored. They don’t walk an outstanding number of times, nor do they steal a ton of bases, ranking near the middle of the league in both categories. They have also done all of this while Jose Bautista is slumping, hitting an abysmal .181/.320/.313, with only 3 homers. Edwin Encarnacion has been the team’s best hitter mashing for a 1.054 OPS with 8 home runs and 21 RBI, both top 3 in the American League.

The starting pitching has also been improved; with 4 starters currently ranking as better than league average, led by Kyle Drabek. Drabek has struck out 26 batters in 30 innings, an excellent rate for a starter, while posting a 2.44 ERA. He has some command issues, which could get him in trouble against the patient lineups throughout the division, so it will be interesting to see if he can keep his runs allowed down going forward. Toronto has a weak bullpen that is already dealing with injury problems, so the margin of error here is thin, but if Bautista starts producing, Toronto’s pitching won’t have to be so precise. Their odds:

15% division title/35% playoff spot

After all the early fires and panicking in Boston, the Red Sox are quietly on a nice 7-1 run. The offense has been mashing, and already leads baseball in runs scored. David Ortiz is hitting a bananas .405/.457/.726, turning the clock back to 2005. Cody Ross has stepped up big time with injuries to Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsberry, hitting a solid .257 with good power, slugging 5 early homers. If Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez get going, the Red Sox lineup will turn into a pitcher’s worst nightmare. The only problem is that the pitching staff gives nearly all of Boston’s runs back.

So far the Red Sox have had the worst staff in baseball. The bullpen has been the main problem, also ranking last in baseball in ERA. Not that the starters have been any better, as only Daniel Bard ranks much above league average. Beckett and Lester have been positively mediocre, posting mid-4.00 ERAs, and Clay Buchholz has been an unmitigated disaster, posing a WHIP near 2.00 and an ERA above 8.00 in 29 innings. This kind of performance doomed the Red Sox a year ago, and it threatens to do so again. The current odds:

15% division title/30% playoff spot

Wei-Yin Chen’s Debut Against the Yankees

Yesterday’s Yankees-Orioles clash was an exciting game for quite a few reasons. It was the first opportunity to get a look at one of the most dominant pitchers from the Nippon Baseball League in Wei-Yin Chen. It was also a game that featured 2 of the finest shortstops in baseball, Derek Jeter and JJ Hardy.  By the end of 12 innings there had been, 5 wild pitches, a great relay throw to the plate, and countless clutch plays.

In the top of the 1st Derek Jeter came up to the plate and got the game started right for New York, smashing a homer deep to centerfield, well clear of the wall. Wei-Yin Chen looked a little nervous, much like Yu Darvish two nights ago, during the first inning. He admitted as much after the game saying “To be honest with you guys, this is my first major league outing. I was so nervous,” Chen said. “But after the first inning everything was fine for me.” His location was poor, and he was leaving plenty of pitches over the plate, and the Yankees hit him hard but only got the 1 run, leaving 2 men on base. Not to be outdone in the bottom of the 1st inning, JJ Hardy also took an upstairs fastball deep, tying the score at 1. From there the game really got interesting.

After escaping the 1st inning Wei-Yin Chen really began to settle in and show what he can do. Chen showed an array of pitches, featuring a lower 90s fastball, a plus changeup that Yankee hitters struggled with, and an average slider. He locates all 3 pitches well, keeping hitters off-balance, which is the mark of a successful big leaguer. At one point he ran of a streak of 12 consecutive batters retired. He looked every bit the part of a successful major league pitcher, and will fit nicely in the middle of the Orioles rotation. Chen is an excellent find for Baltimore, and their front office and scouts should be applauded for the pickup.

His counterpart on the mound, Freddy Garcia, struggled mightily all night with his command. Garcia threw 5 wild pitches, the most in one game since 1989, and was downright AJ Burnett-like. Garcia also walked 3 batters and hit another despite only making it through 4.2 innings.  His breaking pitches in particular were terrible, with at least 50% of them bouncing in the dirt. Some pitches were missing the plate by more than 2 feet. Two of Baltimore’s runs were directly attributable to Garcia’s wildness and it makes one wonder why Joe Girardi stuck with him for so long, because the Yankee bullpen was dynamite.

By the 6th inning, the O’s were cruising, up 4-1, when Chen began to wear down. As he approached 90 pitches his command started slipping, and he started leaving pitches out over the middle of the plate. The Yankees managed a couple of singles, and then Chen walked his first batter of the night, Curtis Granderson, to load ‘em up. With one out Andrew Jones hit a meager fly ball to right and Robinson Cano was able to tag-up and score on a slick slide at the plate. Showalter decided to leave the tiring Chen in the game to face Russell Martin, and he was able to induce a grounder to 3rd, where Mark “Iron Hands” Reynolds plays. Reynolds botched the play badly, allowing a 3rd run to score. The next batter Brett Gardner hit a sharp single and the game was tied at 4 and the Yankees had chased Chen from the game. A battle of the bullpens ensued.

For the next 3 innings neither team was able to push across a run and the game would go into extras. The Yankees had their best chance in the 7th inning, with Nick Swisher on 1st and Robinson Cano at the plate. Cano laced a sharp double down the 3rd base line and it went all the way to the wall, where Endy Chavez picked it up. Chavez fired the ball in to shortstop JJ Hardy, who was perfectly positioned 10-15 feet into the outfield grass along the foul line. Hardy turned and fired a perfect line drive strike to the plate from 120 feet away, just in time to nab a sliding Swisher. If either throw had been less than perfect Swisher would have scored. The Chavez-Hardy-Wieters relay was executed with textbook precision, and should be used as a model for how the play properly works.

By the 12th inning, the Yankees were able to muster another offensive rally. Robby Cano hit a leadoff double, and 3 batters later, Raul Ibanez brought him home with an RBI double. Mariano Rivera was brought in for the save, and collected the 604th of his illustrious career.

Box Score Observations:

-The final line for Wei-Yin Chen: 5.2 IP/4R/2ER/7H/1BB/6K/101 pitches. Chen showed me a lot of ability tonight. He has excellent control with and understands how to mix his pitches, which will serve him well. He could be the most productive pitcher on the Baltimore staff this season. The 26-year-old has a bright future ahead.

-The Yankees bullpen was superb. They pitched 7.1 innings, allowing no runs while striking out 12 batters. Corey Wade and David Phelps were both individually impressive, striking out 4 batters apiece.

-The middle infield is carrying the Yankees so far in the young season. Jeter and Cano are the only regulars hitting above .300, and they combined to go 5-12 with 3 runs, 3 extra-base hits, and 1 RBI. Both have played solid defense as well.

-The Yankees were 2-18 with runners in scoring position. Baltimore was 0-8. Ouch.

Division Previews: American League East

The American League East has long been considered the best in baseball for much of the new century. The division has sent 2 teams to the playoffs every year since 2007. With Tampa Bay’s emergence as a yearly contender, Toronto’s steady improvement, and the annual Yankees-Red Sox battle, the division boasts four serious contenders for the playoffs going into 2012 as well. Let’s take a look at each of these teams chances in 2012, as well as the chances of the Baltimore Orioles, who will more than likely spend their 5th season in a row in last place. Teams are listed by their 2011 standing and all statistics listed are from 2011.

New York Yankees

The New York Yankees’ offense is loaded, possessing some of the best players from last season and some of the best relics from the past decade. The 2012 lineup will revolve around Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano, and Mark Texiera, as it did last season. Granderson and Cano were exquisite last year, with each player finishing in the top-6 in MVP voting. Granderson in particular was a run producing machine last season leading all of baseball in runs scored with 136 and leading the AL in RBIs with 119. He was the perfect package of power and speed, complementing his 41 homers with 25 stolen bases. The Yankee lineup as a whole mirrored Granderson leading baseball in homeruns while finishing 4th in stolen bases. Mark Texiera, Nick Swisher, and Alex Rodriguez are all proven power commodities, so expect New York to once again finish near the top of baseball in home runs and runs scored. Teams who score more runs tend to have a greater margin for error in the playoff race, so the Yankees will be a factor all season.

The unsung hero for the Yankees is leftfielder Brett Gardner. Last season Gardner ranked as the best defensive outfielder, if you believe in the metrics, and was easily passes the eye test as a standout glove man. Gardner led the American League in steals a year ago and he transfers his superb speed over to defense as well. No player covers more space in the outfield, and his arm is more than adequate out in left. He would best be utilized as the leadoff hitter, but manager Joe Girardi seems inclined to use Derek Jeter in the spot once again. Jeter will still provide leadership, good at-bats, and base hits but his days of driving the ball with power to all fields are behind him. Look for this lineup to once again be elite and to produce another 850-900 run season, putting it near the top of the league. Teams who score more runs tend to have a greater margin for error in the playoff race, so the Yankees will be a factor all season.

The Yankees biggest issue last season was starting pitching and GM Brian Cashman spent most of the offseason trying to shore up that weakness. The Yankees staff, led by CC Sabathia and a fierce bullpen, was borderline elite however, allowing the 10th fewest runs in baseball. If the acquisitions of Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda as well as the return of Andy Pettitte give the Yankees the deepest staff in baseball. Sabathia will more than likely repeat what he’s done the past few season which is good for about 19 wins and a low 3.00 ERA. Replacing 190 sub-par AJ Burnett innings (ERA+ of 86 last season) with anything around average should do wonders for New York and add a couple wins on last years total as well. If Phil Hughes continues to pitch as well as he has in Spring Training, he will give the Yankees a potent rotation 1 through 5. His velocity has been sitting around 92-94, up 6 mph from a year ago, and he’s weighs about 15 pounds less.

The Yankee bullpen was the strength of last year’s team and should be excellent once again. Led by Mariano Rivera and David Robertson the Yankees posses two of the five most valuable relievers in all of baseball from last year. The Yankees will be tough to beat once again if they take a lead into the 7th inning.

Overall this team appears to be stronger than last year’s edition, which won the division and finished the regular season as the #1 seed in the playoffs. The Yankees will probably finish with a top-5 offense and a top-10 pitching staff which is a recipe for another playoff birth. With the largest payroll in the game nothing less than a title is expected in New York and October is where this team will be judged.

Tampa Bay Rays

The 2011 Tampa Bay Rays will forever be remembered for their incredible comeback to pass the Red Sox for the final playoff spot. The team was formidable, possessing the best pitching staff in the American League and winning 91 games. The 2012 edition looks to be a strong contender for a repeat appearance in the playoffs, but much of their success will come down to scoring enough runs.

The Tampa Bay offense was middle of the pack a season ago, finishing 8th in the AL in runs scored. Teams with that sort of scoring capability rarely make the playoffs. The good news for the 2012 team is that they should be a bit more powerful and could be getting some bounce back season out of their most talented player Evan Longoria. Longoria struggled with his batting average somewhat last season, hitting only .244 with his Batting Average on Balls in Play, BABIP, sitting at a paltry .239. The league average is .300. This means that Longoria was probably somewhat unlucky last season and should see improvement with his average. That could mean an increase in his power numbers which were already substantial last season, seeing as he hit 31 homeruns.

The rest of the Tampa lineup is a grab bag between low average/high power players like Carlos Pena, and speed types like BJ Upton or Desmond Jennings. Jennings had some solid success during his 63 game stint with last year’s Rays team. He stole 20 bases at a solid 77% success rate, while hitting 10 homers, and showing a good glove in the outfield. He will have a much more increased role on the 2012 team and could improve the offense by stealing more than 40 bases and hitting for 15 or so homeruns. BJ Upton and Matt Joyce round out an above average defensive outfield and each player brings some pop to the plate. Another important player for Tampa Bay is utility superstar Ben Zobrist.

Zobrist spent most of 2011 at 2nd base after spending most of 2010 in the outfield. He perfectly fills any defensive role that manager Joe Maddon needs, playing well at any position. In addition to playing excellent defense around the diamond, Zobrist brings a multi-dimensional bat to the plate as well. He can draw a walk, with two career seasons of 90 or more, he can hit for power, with two seasons of 20 or more homers, and he can steal bases, averaging 20 over the last 3 seasons. He’s an extremely useful, versatile player that any big league manager would love to have.

The Tampa Bay pitching staff was the best in the American League a year ago and could be even better in 2012. Matt Moore, hero of their lone playoff win, should pitch at least 150 innings after only receiving 9.1 during the regular season last year. He has ace potential, in before 2011 he was the highest rated minor league pitcher by Baseball America, and is not the only one on the staff. David Price, Cy Young runner-up in 2010, is also a near lock to throw 200+ quality innings. I expect that his 2012 will be another Cy Young worthy campaign, and he could win as many as 20 games while striking out over 200. James Shields had his strongest season of his career in 2011, and will look to repeat that in 2012. He had a 2.82 ERA last year and gives the Rays a three headed monster at the top of the rotation.

In addition to being top heavy the Rays have enviable depth as well, with Jeremy Hellickson, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, and Alex Cobb all competing for a starting spot. If the bullpen comes together as it has the past 2 season behind Kyle Farnsworth, the Rays will again allow the fewest runs in the American League, and remain a threat to win 90+ games.

Boston Red Sox

Boston has had an interesting offseason to say the least. The chicken and beer thing has become a national joke that just won’t die, Theo Epstien left for Chicago, Bobby Valentine was hired to bring some order back to the clubhouse, and closer Jonathan Paplebon left town only to be replaced by Andrew Bailey. In addition John Lackey went down for the year, Daisuke Matsuzaka won’t pitch for the big league team until May at the earliest, and Andrew Bard is being brought into the rotation.

On the offensive side of the ball however the Red Sox should be just fine. They ranked first in baseball in runs scored and have the firepower to do it again. They’re led by a fierce top of the order featuring Jacoby Ellsberry, Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, and David Ortiz. Gonzalez and Ortiz each brought the power last season, with both ranking in the top 10 in baseball in OPS+, a key indicator for sluggers. Gonzalez hit a massive .338/.410/.548 slash line with 45 doubles and 27 homers. If the power numbers return to previous norms (he once hit 40 homers playing half his games in cavernous Petco Park) he could lead the league in homeruns. Jacoby Ellsberry is also a good bet to repeat much of his strong 2011 season which saw him massively increase his power hitting 32 homers and driving in over 100 while mostly hitting leadoff.

The Red Sox lineup could also see some improvement on last year’s run total if some players such as Kevin Youkilis and Carl Crawford improve on disappointing seasons in 2011. Youkilis was still an All-Star a season ago but he only played in 120 games, marking the 3rd straight season he’s missed 25 games or more, and was abysmal after the break. In the second half he only played in 37 games an hit an unplayable .199/.314/.346. If his play over the course of the season resembles what it was during his first half, a more robust .285/.399/.512, and he stays healthy the Sox lineup gets a quite a bit tougher. Crawford’s struggles a season ago were well documented. He seemed to lose all his speed, all his bat speed, and all his range in the outfield all at once. The Red Sox better hope 2011 was just an aberration because they are still on the hook for 5 more seasons at about $20 million a year.

Last season it wasn’t the Red Sox offense that let them down but their pitching, which ranked 21st in baseball. Teams who have a bottom-10 offense or pitching staff rarely make it to October, so what happened to Boston at the end of last season was not a fluke. A season ago Boston gave 310 innings to John Lackey, 6.41 ERA, and Tim Wakefield, 5.12 ERA. The fact that both pitchers were still able to finish with records around .500 is a minor miracle and a testament to the strength of the Boston attack. The Red Sox intend to replace those innings with at least 75 more from Clay Buchholz, and the rest split between former relievers Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves.

Clay Buchholz, when healthy, has the potential to be a #2 pitcher. In 2010 he led the American League in ERA+ at a phenomenal 187(ERA was 2.33) while throwing 173 innings. Last season he pitched moderately well in the 80 the Red Sox got out of him, posting a 3.48 ERA. If the Red Sox could get even that out of Buchholz they will be able to add 2-4 wins and get a playoff spot. If either experiment with Bard or Aceves works the Red Sox will have a solid rotation provided that neither Lester or Beckett decline too much. Beckett is going into his age 32 season and could begin to see some slip in his performance, which will be worth keeping an eye on.

The 2012 Red Sox looked prime for a comeback and return to the playoffs after a 2 year absence. The team will once again have an elite offense capable of keeping them in any game. The bullpen may be a spot of weakness, with the loss of so many quality arms from a year ago, but if Andrew Bailey can handle the Boston spotlight, it should be around average as a whole. The media will more than likely hail Bobby V if he guides this team to the playoffs, but he will have very little impact on that. Boston will only go as far as its pitching can take them, which should be good enough for the playoffs. Remember this team had an expected record based on runs scored/against of 94-68 a season ago and has the offensive talent to win about that many games regardless of pitching.

Toronto Blue Jays

Toronto, much like the Red Sox, was an offensive powerhouse being held back by lousy pitching. The Blue Jays produced an elite 743 runs, good for 6th in baseball, but finished an awful 25th in runs allowed. The team was rumored to be interested in Yu Darvish in the offseason, but with Texas winning his rights the Jays will go into 2012 with a similar rotation to the one that got battered last season.

Ricky Romero was the lone bright spot on what was otherwise an entirely above league average staff. Romero posted a 2.92 ERA pitching against some of baseball’s best offenses and struck out 7 batters per 9 innings. The rest of the under-28 rotation returning, Brendan Morrow and Brett Cecil disappointed a year ago.

Morrow has shown great potential, striking out an elite 10+ batters per 9 the last 2 seasons he’s pitched. His issue appears to be control, where he is walking 3-4 batters a game. His walk rate has improved over the past 3 seasons so maybe this is the year he puts it together and breaks out as a true ace. The bottom of the rotation is currently comprised of youngsters Henderson Alvarez and Dustin McGowen. Neither pitcher has been considered much more than bottom of the rotation filler coming up through the minors and those type of pitchers tend to get hit hard in this division. Toronto’s best shot at competing this season is going to be improvement from within, as the team was quiet on the free agent market offensively as well.

The Blue Jays offense has been fairly robust the past 2 seasons, led by the surprising emergence of Jose Bautista. Bautista has led baseball in homers each of the past 2 years hitting a combined 97. His slash line last year was an absurd .302/.447/.608 and he led baseball with an outstanding 181 OPS+. Pitchers fear Bautista more than any other hitter as well, walking him a league leading 132 times in 2011 after 100 walks in 2010. His production is real and will not just disappear overnight. Bautista will be one of the most frightening hitters to face for any American League pitcher.

The rest of the offense is still young and features Brett Lawrie, Eric Thames, and Colby Rasmus. Rasmus was received in the Edwin Jackson trade that pushed St. Louis over the top in 2011 and struggled badly in adjusting to life in the AL. He hit .173 after the trade slugging only 3 homers in 35 games. He will have to improve his numbers in 2011 or risk being considered a bust at the age of 25.

On the opposite end of the spectrum last year was Canadian-native Brett Lawrie, who immediately became a fan favorite. In Lawrie’s 45 game stint, the 12 year old hit .293/.373/.580 and could be a future star at 3rd. He has good power, hitting 9 homeruns, and good speed, stealing 7 bases in a neat 8 attempts. If he continues to improve Toronto will have 2 mashers in the middle of their lineup.

Overall the Blue Jays are probably looking at another year in 4th place. The team just doesn’t appear to have the pitching to compete with the rest of the American League field, even if Morrow improves and has a breakout season. Had the team been able to acquire Darvish the outlook might be different, but the Blue Jays will just have to wait until next offseason to get a big name pitcher.

Baltimore Orioles

There hasn’t been a whole lot to get excited about in Baltimore for the past decade. The franchise is completely broken at this point and in dire need of repair. They hired Dan Duquette, formerly of the Boston Red Sox  from over a decade ago, to be their GM this offseason and the move was widely met with question marks. The roster he inherits is mostly bare possessing only a few usable assets in Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, and JJ Hardy. The pitching staff is a wasteland where arms go to die, backed by one of the worst defenses in baseball.

The Orioles offense last season was surprisingly mediocre, rating in the middle of the league in runs scored, even outscoring Tampa Bay. Matt Wieters had a breakout 2nd half and his defense was superb last season, garnering him the Gold Glove. He has a rocket arm behind the plate and he is quick to throw to 2nd, catching 37% of stealers a year ago. He’s a good bet to hit 30 home runs and drive in nearly 100 RBIs. Mark Reynolds is also back to reprise his 30 homer/200 strikeout routine. The JJ Hardy will be hard pressed to repeat his 30 homer season but 25 shouldn’t be out of the question, giving the Orioles some good pop at shortstop.

The pitching staff was easily the worst in baseball last year, allowing nearly 60 more runs than anyone else for a staggering 860. No starter even rated as league average, granted Mark Reynolds was single handedly killing the staff with his atrocious defense. Last year Reynolds topped all of baseball in errors for the 3rd time in his career with 31. Reynolds has little range and looks as if he is trying to field the ball with oven mitts on his hands. Even when he makes a clean play he is prone to overthrow first badly, giving the opposition extra bases.

To look on the bright side, the good news is that most of the O’s 2012 staff is young or completely unproven. Zach Britton showed promise a year ago but even his numbers were rough. It was only 2 seasons ago that Brian Matusz was a highly rated prospect who finished 5th in the Rookie of the Year voting. Wei-Yin Chin and Tsuyoshi Wada could offer some cheap value or just as easily implode. Chen has been a fairly dominant pitcher in the Nippon Pro League who has a slider forkball and 87-91 mph fastball. Wada has a fastball that sits between 84-88 mph and could have some issue with getting hit hard and doesn’t appear to have starter material in the MLB.

Some potential is here but the Orioles will probably allow the most runs in baseball again, guaranteeing them the cellar for another year.

Predictions:

*New York Yankees
*Boston Red Sox
Tampa Bay Rays
Toronto Blue Jays
Baltimore Orioles

AL East MVP: Adrian Gonzalez
AL East Cy Young: CC Sabathia

This division will be a dogfight and could be won by either New York, Boston, or Tampa. I think that all three of these teams will be a threat to win 90 games and the AL East will capture at least 1 Wild Card spot. I like New York to finish on top because they have pitching depth to rival Tampa Bay and offensive fire power on par with the Red Sox. Tampa will probably boast a league average offense leaving them vulnerable to missing the playoffs, and if Boston doesn’t get their pitching situation straight they could miss the playoffs for a 3rd straight year. Until Toronto and Baltimore improve their pitching situations neither team will be a true contender, although Toronto has the firepower to again finish around .500. This division has 3 potential World Series teams, and if either Boston, New York, or Tampa fit all the pieces of the puzzle together, look out.

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