Friday, February 29, 2008

MLB Preview '08: AL East

by Christopher Reardon

If there are any holdovers from my old blog The Baseball Beat still reading NORMAL, then you know that every year I run a series of entries previewing the upcoming baseball season and all my picks thereof. Because The Baseball Beat and most of my other blogs have sort of been absorbed by NORMAL, I figured I would run my MLB Preview for the 2008 season over here at the old blogazine, and what better way to start things off than by taking picks in NORMAL's home division, the American League East. Just bear in mind while reading my previews that injuries, trades, and various other baseball miscellany can make huge waves in the leagues, and things can change with the drop of the hat. That said, let's get on with the show.

1. Boston Red Sox, 97-65
At the risk of sounding biased, I really do think my Sox will win the division again this season. In my defense, I haven't always chosen Boston to be number one, although I did last year and I was (ahem) right. The fact of the matter is that when it comes to post-season play in the AL East, you're talking about two teams: the Sox and the Yankees. And the Sox, returning most of their players from the World Series winning 2008 campaign, are the best set up to make a repeat. In the rotation, Josh Beckett will again be a Cy Young contender, John Lester and Clay Buchholz will prove that they are both more than ready for a full year in the bigs, and Curt Schilling... well... Curt Schilling remains the biggest DB in all of sports. I believe we'll see an improvement in the lineup as David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez bounce back from "down" years and the young studs continue to show that they are the future of Boston's title contentions. Most of all, though, I think some of the players in their second years with Boston will show huge improvements. History (and Beckett) has shown us that it can take an entire season to adjust to the added pressure in Boston, which bodes well for J.D. Drew (who really came on at the end of last season and in the post-season), Julio Lugo (who will be out to prove the Red Sox front office right in coveting him all these years), and especially Daisuke Matsuzaka (who won't be hounded quite so thoroughly by the Japanese media in his second year in the states). Remember, Boston won the division and the World Series while a handful of their stars were not playing to their full potential. If they can get 100% out of their full squad this season, chances are the Red Sox will run away with the division in '08.

2. New York Yankees, 94-68
As I said, it's basically a two-horse race in the AL East, and the Yankees aren't quite ready for pasture yet. They still have the most potent offense in the sport (with the possible exception of Detroit) and they have a few young guns on the pitching staff who are primed to do big things in the majors. Chien-ming Wang will always be a stud in the Bronx, and Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina are veteran arms who will probably eat a lot of innings, but the real meat of New York's rotation comes in the form of a handful of young men who will have a lot of pressure put on them as the Yankees seek to return to the World Series for the first time since their loss to the Marlins in 2003. Phillip Hughes showed he can compete at the major league level last year by going 5-3 with a 4.46 ERA in his thirteen starts, while Joba Chamberlain blew everyone away with his bullpen stint, throwing in nineteen games while allowing just earned run while striking out 34 hitters. Chamberlain may start the season back in the bullpen, but he may also compete for the fifth starter's job along with Ian Kennedy, who impressed last season by allowing just four earned runs and striking out fifteen hitters in his three starts. Still, there are simply too many questions and too little experience in the Yankees rotation for it to really compete with Boston's, yet New York's offense will always be one of the most revered in the league. The only questions there are who will get the bulk of the time at DH, right field, and first base as Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon, Wilson Betemit, and Jason Giambi platoon those positions. Powered by their offense, the Yanks may again have the stuff to win the wildcard, but they'll see some tough competition from the Indians and the Mariners.

3. Toronto Blue Jays, 88-74
Playing in the AL East just isn't fair. The Blue Jays have come close, taking second place from the Red Sox in Boston's injury-addled 2006 campaign, but that's about as far as they'll go. They do feature perhaps the most underrated pitching rotation in the bigs with names like Roy Halliday, A.J. Burnett and Dustin McGowan. And their offense isn't too shabby either with sluggers like Vernon Wells, Frank Thomas, Alex Rios, and Scott Rolen in the mix. In fact, if all cylinders fire early and often for Toronto, they may indeed have what it takes to reclaim the number two spot in the AL East. But that's a gigantic "if." These guys are simply not winners. Toronto's roster is built for some success in the regular season, but when your team is in the same division as the Red Sox and the Yankees, it must be difficult to really prepare a team for the post-season every year, knowing that it will take a miracle for it to happen. Who knows, 2008 may be that miracle season, but I wouldn't bet on it.

4. Tampa Bay Rays, 77-85
Every year I pick the Rays to finally make it out of the AL East basement, and every year the team manages to disappoint me, often tallying the worst record in the major leagues along the way. They simply do not have the mind-set needed to win. That said, this team features too much talent from top to bottom not to make some things happen this season. Pitcher Scott Kazmir has perhaps the most talent of any left hander in the American League (especially now that Johan Santana is in the NL), James Shields won twelve games last year, and the addition of Matt Garza will only help the rotation. On offense guys like Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford, Akinori Iwamura, and B.J. Upton should make some pretty big waves in a tough division. I look for the Rays to surprise just about every year, and they do just about everything but, but I really think 2008 is the year they finally move up in the AL East standings.

5. Baltimore Orioles, 72-90
Apparently the brass in Baltimore has finally come to accept the fact that they are not going to win anytime soon, so during the off-season they unloaded some of their big names and picked up a few quality players in return. Gone are Miguel Tejada and Eric Bedard, and it looks like Brian Roberts may be next. The Tejada and Roberts moves make total sense to me as the team rebuilds as these are two big names (with big contracts - especially Miggy's exorbitant thirteen million each of the next two seasons) who are soon to be mired in controversy over their involvement in performance enhancing drugs. The Bedard trade I'm a bit more skeptical about, as he is the kind of pitcher you build a team around, but chances were the Orioles would lose contractual control over him before they for a winning squad, and so it would all be for naught unless they signed yet another huge contract that will only hurt them in the end. So the Orioles go into the 2008 season anchored by names like Daniel Cabrera and Aubrey Huff, with absolutely no chance of winning. I give them the benefit of the doubt (and three more wins than last year) because a team made of a lot of young talent (like all the prospects they Os pulled from Seattle and Houston) tends to mesh well together and surprise a lot of people.

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