The high profile American League East made more changes than any other division in the game. The 2010 champs, Tampa Bay Rays, lost a lot of talent. The payroll conscious team will go with a young pitching staff that has plenty of talent. The hope is that some veteran bats will add some clout.
As usual, the Red Sox and Yankees made off-season moves with Boston looking like a much-improved team. The Yankees added veterans but the team already looks tired. The Orioles are improved and Toronto is weakened.
Here is how we see the American League East in 2011.
Tampa Bay Rays
Last year, this team benefited from outstanding pitching and timely hitting. The low payroll Rays received little help from first baseman Carlos Pena and relied on role players to fill big holes.
Tampa Bay lost ten players from last year’s divisional championship team. Gone are all-star leftfielder Carl Crawford, pitcher Matt Garza, key reliever Rafael Soriano, ace relievers Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, Randy Choate and Dan Wheeler. Pena is gone as are Jason Bartlett and catcher Dionero Navarro.
The Rays were active in the free agency market and landed designated hitter-left fielder Manny Ramirez, left fielder Johnny Damon, closer Kyle Farnsworth along with Joel Peralta and Felipe Lopez.
The loss of valued stars Crawford and Garza will be difficult to overcome. But, Tampa has a strong rotation and a 24-year old replacement for Garza. Jeremy Hellickson will be the fifth pitcher in the rotation and just may be the best fifth starter in the game. The rest of the rotation is solid with Cy Young Runner-up David Price, James Shields, Jeff Niemann and hard throwing Wade Davis. This is as good a rotation as is in the American League.
The lineup will feature catcher John Jaso in the leadoff spot, followed by Damon, third baseman Evan Longoria, dh Manny Ramirez, Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist, Dan Johnson, BJ Upton and shortstop Reid Brignac. Longoria will flourish hitting ahead of Ramirez. One of the keys to the Rays season is whether the veterans can stay on the field and if Johnny Damon can play a solid left field.
New York Yankees
The AL East Runner-ups lost seven players but added five key components. The most noticeable loss will be hulking Marcus Thames who proved to be a clutch performer. Javier Vasquez had a down year and will be replaced as a starter.
Key additions to the roster include reliever Rafael Soriano, starter Freddy Garcia and Pedro Feliciano. The biggest change will be in the catching position where former NL All-Star Russell Martin will be the everyday catcher replacing Jorge Posada, now a dh.
The Yankee lineup is solid. Derek Jeter will lead off, followed by Curtis Granderson, Mark Texiera, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher, Jorge Posada, Russell Martin and Brett Gardner. Texiera had a down year last season and will need to get his swing back to keep his sanity in New York. There are no easy outs in this lineup but there are some tired swingers in the lineup. These great hitters need some pep in their swings because the Yankee pitching staff looks unsettled.
CC Sabathia is the ace of the staff. He was tired at the end of last year. Phil Hughes moves up to the 2 slot followed by erratic AJ Burnett, Left handed fireballer Ivan Nova holds the fourth spot and either Sergio Mitre or Freddy Garcia will man the fifth slot. Burnett and Nova are wildcards who probably hold the fate of the team in their strong arms. Hughes may not matchup well with the league’s other number two’s.
The Yankee bullpen is anchored by all-world Mariano Rivera and a solid setup man in newly acquired Soriano. The bullpen is a definite asset. Regardless the retirement of Andy Pettite is a deep cut in the Yankee heart.
Boston Red Sox
Boston won 89 games and finished in third place in the AL East. Key Red Sox losses were Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez. These losses were offset by the additions of left field phenom Carl Crawford, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and a host of pitchers including Dan Wheeler and Alfredo Aceves from the Yanks.
The lineup has plenty of speed and will be on the move at every opportunity. Fleet footed Jacoby Ellsbury leads off ahead of Dustin Pedroia. Crawford bats third, Gonzalez at cleanup, then Kevin Youkilis, dh David Oritz, JD Drew, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and shortstop Marco Scutaro. The team is going to score lots of runs. Catching appear the only flaw in the everyday lineup.
The rotation will have a different look this year. Jon Lester will lead the staff followed by John Lackey, Clay Bucholz, Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Beckett missed much of last season and was ineffective in big games. Matsuzaka is better placed as a fifth starter.
The bullpen is improved. Jonathan Papelbon will close but get more help from Wheeler and Aceves. The Sox bullpen was hard hit last season.
The Toronto Blue Jayz
Shaun Marcum, Vernon Wells, John Buck, Lyle Overbay, Kevin Gregg, Scott Downs and Jeremy Accardo are gone. The surprising Blue Jays picked up John Rauch, Frank Francisco, Octavio Dotel, Juan Rivera, Jajai Davs, Edwin Encarnacion and Carlos Villanueva. The Jays will struggle to replace Marcum, Wells and Overbay.
The Jays are counting on the hot hitting of slugger Jose Bautista. The lineup is not as strong as last season’s and the pitching rotation is also weaker. The Jays always seem to exceed expectations but they are up against it in this division.
The starting lineup has CF Rajai Davis leading off then shortstop Yunel Escobar followed by Bautista, Adam Lind, Aaron Hill, Edwin Encarnacion at dh, Travis Snider. Juan Rivera in right field and catcher JP Arencibia. This is a far cry from the lineup that won 85 games last year.
The loss of Marcum leaves Ricky Romero as the ace of the staff followed by Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil, Kyle Drabek and Jo-Jo Reyes. The bullpen is on par with last season with Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch sharing the closer role.
The Baltimore Orioles
The O’s are looking to climb out of the AL East cellar and make a move toward the top. Finishing 66-96 last year, the O’s were aggressive in the off-season. Vladimir Guerrero adds a proven and dangerous dh to a corps of solid veterans. The Orioles also added 1b Derrick Lee, 3b Mark Reynolds and shortstop JJ Hardy. With Brian Roberts leading off and Markakis moving him along, the table will be set for Lee and Guerrero. Luke Scott will bat fifth followed by Reynolds, Jones, Wieters and Hardy.
The young pitching staff had some strong starts last season. A bit more seasoned, the live arms of Jeremy Guthrie and Brain Matusz will anchor the starters. If starters Justin Duchscherer, Jake Arrieta and Brad Bergeson can exceed .500, the O’s are on the move. Closers Koji Uehara and Kevin Gregg will be counted on to help the young starters.
It looks like change is on the horizon in the high profile American League East.
The Rays are counting on Ramirez, which is always dangerous and Damon, who has deficiencies in left field. Also, Shields and Hellickson must have successful seasons to stay in playoff position. Projected finish 2nd.
Last year’s runner-ups, The New York Yankees, made some prudent moves, but is relying on an aging lineup and the heavy arm of CC Sabathia. Martin behind the plate is a big improvement, but Hughes does not look like a number two starter and Burnett is a time bomb. Projected finish – 3rd
The Red Sox lost some talent but added more. This team has fleet feet and not one easy out in the lineup. David Ortiz needs to increase his bat speed but he has plenty of help with Crawford and Youkilis. Projected finish –1st
On paper, the Toronto Blue Jays seem to have lost ground. The development of a young pitching staff will have to be rapid if the Jays are to contend. Projected finish – 5th
The Baltimore Orioles just might reach the .500 mark. They could well be the spoilers in the division. Lee ad Guerrero must hit for the O’s to have a chance. Projected finish – 4th.