Opening Night is a mere four hours away so let's get to the toughest division in baseball: the AL East!
1. New York Yankees Call it a homer pick but I believe it's totally logical. The Yankees were an 89 win team last year in a down year in which they had awful starting pitching at the beginning of the year--Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy--and awful starting pitching in the middle of the year--Sidney Ponson and Darrell Rasner. The rotation has been fixed by bringing in CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, along with re-adding Chien-Ming Wang and finally making the smart move by putting Joba Chamberlain into the starting rotation. The Yankees also have a great bullpen, led by Mariano Rivera. Young Phil Coke will be with the team for an entire season and he was brilliant in his time last year, as well as in spring training. Damaso Marte is a solid pitcher with a good track record and Jonathan Albaladejo has excellent potential. Jose Veras and Edwar Ramirez are "wild cards" in some minds, but I don't think so. They may not be all-stars, but they're incredibly solid. The Yankees also have a great lineup to put out on the field. While they'll be without A-Rod for at least the first month, adding Mark Teixeira will help alleviate that, along with a healthy Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui. Even if A-Rod's absence becomes an issue at the plate, the Yankees can win with pitching.
STRENGTHS: For the first time in a while, pitching is the main strength of the New York Yankees. The starting rotation could be the best in all of baseball when it's all said and done and the bullpen is also very good, even without Joba in the "all-important" eighth inning. The offense can probably still put up well over 800 runs this season, even if A-Rod is out for a while, so that's a strength, too.
WEAKNESSES: Staying healthy could be a problem for the Yankees. Johnny Damon and Derek Jeter are no spring chickens, Jorge's coming off shoulder surgery, and Hideki Matsui has the knees of an old woman. A.J. Burnett has a history of injuries, but he appears to have conditioned himself well enough to put those problems in the past. Health risks are an issue for any team, and the Yankees are no exception. If I had to pick an on field weakness for the Bronx Bombers, I'd say defense up the middle could be a problem. Jorge's never been great defensively, Jeter is Jeter, and Cano is all over the damn place. However, the OF defense has the chance to be stellar with Damon in left, Gardner in center and (hopefully later when Girardi realizes he may've made a mistake by starting Nady) Swisher in right.
Player to Watch: Jorge Posada. Jorge is the most underrated Yankee and one of the most underrated players of his generation. His absence from the lineup last year was the main reason the offense struggled as badly as it did. If Jorge can come back and catch 100-120 games, the Yankee offense should recover. If he can't, well, at least they have the pitching to make up for it.
2. Boston Red Sox The Sawx will finish in second and grab the wildcard again in '09. They return a great top three in Diauske, Josh Beckett, and Jon Lester, but after that, it's kind of shaky. Brad Penny and John Smoltz are health risks, Clay Buccholz is as unproven as Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy and Justin Masterson has been moved to the pen full time. Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia are coming off of career years (that they're unlikely to repeat or improve upon), Jason Bay is playing a full season with the Monster to his left, and David Ortiz is still a good hitter. Boston's lineup should be fine if Oritz and Mike Lowell stay healthy. However, I don't think they've got the rotation to keep up with the Yankees this season.
STRENGTHS: Boston has a very good bullpen. The Yankees were better as relievers last year (Yankees: 3.73 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 8.7 K/9; Sox: 4.00 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 7.8 K/9) but don't tell anyone at ESPN. Regardless, Boston's pen is a strength and the addition of Takashi Saito could improve it even more.
WEAKNESSES: Like the Yankees: health. After the Yankees grabbed three of the four top free agents out there (Tex, CC, A.J.), the Sox went shopping for cheaper players. They got John Smoltz, Brad Penny, Takashi Saito, and Rocco Baldelli. These are good pick ups because they're low-risk, high reward. However, they're all giant red flags for injury. Penny's coming off a 94 inning season, Smoltz won't be ready til May, and Saito's shoulder caused the Dodgers to not even give him a second look. Rocco Baldelli is a great story and someone we can all root for, but his health is a serious question and any returns he gives Boston will probably be minimal. If these players perform well, Theo Epstein once again looks like a genius. However, if they don't, he could come off looking foolish.
Player to Watch: Diasuke Matsuzaka was so lucky last year it's not even funny. His ERA was due for a correction all year and he never got it. It's highly unlikely he can continue pitching at a very high level while walking so many people. We'll have to watch this year to see if that ERA gets corrected.
3. Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays The Rays came out of no where and won the AL East last year, ultimately falling short to the Phillies in the World Series. They had a great blend of young talent, good pitching, and good defense last year, and they return basically the same team with a few additions. So, why the third place finish? It has nothing to do with them playing with "expectations" this year like Steve Phillips has said, but rather the fact that they, too, were a little lucky last year. All five of their starters made at least 27 starts. That sort of health is beyond lucky. I will be shocked if that trend repeats itself this year. While I'm more or less confident that Shields and Garza can stay healthy, I'm unsure about Kazmir's health (regardless of how good he is) and Andy Sonnanstine could revert to his '07 form.
STRENGTHS: If the starters stay healthy, they could push for second against Boston. They have a great top three, just like Boston and New York, but with David Price's demotion to the AAA, it may not be great. However, when he gets called up, they'll be alright. The starting staff should be their best feature this year, with their defense in a close second.
WEAKNESSES: The Rays' lineup doesn't scream "fantastic" (9th in runs scored last year, 13th/4th/8th in AVG/OBP/SLG in the AL) but it's not too bad either. The addition of Pat Burrell to DH is a very good one and will add some power to the middle of the lineup but there are some questions: Will B.J. Upton's power come around? Will Evan Longoria continue to hit at such a high level? Can Carl Crawford bounce back? Can Dioner Navarro repeat a career year?
Player to Watch: Evan Longoria. I mean, come on. Is this even in question? The reigning AL Rookie of the Year will have all eyes on him this year, watching for a sophomore slump. This slick fielding power hitting third baseman could be the best player on the Rays this year and for years to come.
It's worth noting here that I think the division race will be a very fierce competition all year. The top three teams will most likely be separated by no more than 3-4 games at the end of the year. I don't see any team winning more than 95 games in this incredibly tough division, either.
4. Baltimore Orioles The O's are gonna climb out of the cellar this year. However, it's not because of any real improvement, but rather the fact that the Jays are pretty dismal this year.
STRENGTHS: The OF trio of Scott--Jones--Markakis is probably the best defensive trio in all of baseball and they will probably be the core of Baltimore's offense as well. Markakis is a budding star and should be a household name by the end of '09.
WEAKNESSES: Pitching. Jeremy Guthrie is no slouch, but he's absolutely nothing to write home about. Sadly for the O's, he's their "ace." Guthrie's not like Sidney Ponson or anything, but he's also no where near Kazmir, Beckett, and Sabathia. After him, it really doesn't get much better. If the O's had a better offense, they could possibly hit their way out of such bad pitching but...they really don't. Their offense was middle of the road last season (8/8/5 in AVG/OBP/SLG) and that was with Aubrey Huff's 2nd best season and Luke Scott's 2nd best season.
Player to Watch: The next Jesus: Matt Weiters. Sorry, just thought I'd add to the hyperbole around him. He's going to be great, probably not this season, but he will contend for the AL ROY award.
5. Toronto Blue Jays Ugh. I almost feel bad for the Jays. They were 7 games under their pytahg record in '08 (damn bad luck!) and if they played in other divisions, they could be a contender. However, they've now lost A.J. Burnett to the Yankees and Shaun Marcum to Tommy John Surgery.
STRENGTHS: Roy Halladay. That's about it, really. The offense could improve this year, though, as Alex Rios continues to develop and Vernon Wells had a bounce back '08 (sign of good to come?) and the addition of Travis Snider. The bullpen outside is also a strength. But with a rotation like that, will it matter?
WEAKNESSES: Rotation. Am I overstating this? Perhaps, but I really don't see the Jays having a strong pitching season.
Player to Watch: Travis Snider. He's my pre-season AL ROY pick.
On another note, my girlfriend and I bought tickets to Saturday May 16th's game against the Twins. I'm absolutely pumped for my first trip to the new Stadium. Enjoy the game tonight and celebrate the start of REAL BASEBALL! LET'S GO YANKEES!