Now that spring training in under way and the words "Cactus" and "Grapefruit” take on mew meaning, it's time to make ridiculous predictions that will lose meaning in the six seconds after they are written. Anyway, here we go, starting with the AL East:
1. New York Yankees
The Yankees, freed of around 80 million dollars worth of bad contracts seemingly went out and signed every type-A free agent they could find. Their new rotation—buoyed with A.J. Burnett and C.C. Sabathia and which happily ends the days of signing Sidney Ponson to help their rotation—makes them the equals with the Red Sox and Rays in the pitching department. And with the addition of Mark Texiera, now anchoring the lineup at the 3-spot, their lineup is more potent than last year’s. In addition, young Brett Gardner should win the CF job and add much-needed speed to their offense, which looked slow, if not lethargic last year. The potential problems are with some of the vets: Does Posada come back from surgery? Can Rivera do it for one more year? Odds are yes to both, and that the Yankees make it to the postseason after the one year off.
2. Tampa Rays
Kazmir, Shields, Garza, Sonnanstine, Price, and Wade Davis. Whew…There's no doubt, the Rays can toss the ball. The MLB’s third-rated team ERA should get even better on the mound what with David Price getting a full year under his belt and Wade Davis biding his time until the eventual call-up. The problem last year—if being the runner-up in the World could be constituted as having a problem—was a dearth of power. Enter Pat Burrell, signed in the off-season, to add punch in the middle of a lineup that sometimes lacked it last year. Another problem may be the pen—one of last year's strengths—where closer Troy Percival will close at the age of 39. However, the Rays have a bunch of young arms, including Grant Balfour and J.P. Howell who can chip in and close out games. All in all, not bad. Enough for second place in the AL East anyway.
3. Boston Red Sox
You have a rotation that includes Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jon Lester, and a pen that features probably the most dominating young reliever in Jonathan Papelbon. Your team offense was rated 3rd last year, with a collective .280 BA and a 1st-ranked .358 OBP. And this year, you get arguable your two most important offensive players back healthy in David Ortiz and Mike Lowell. And that's only good enough for 3rd in the AL East? Maybe. The Sox weren't huge players in the off-season—getting scooped by the Yankees in the Texiera sweepstakes—but making small, shrewd moves in getting Rocco Baldelli as a 4th outfielder, John Smoltz as a mid-season starter and trading Coco Crisp for Ramon Ramirez as a reliever. All nice pickups. However, considering the Rays and Yankees got appreciably better since last year (both in free agency and in young players getting experience), while the Red Sox mostly remained mostly standing still, the early odds are that Le Sox Rouge will be the ones outside, looking in, come October.
4. Baltimore Orioles
It may have finally occurred to the Orioles ownership, as they watched the young upstart Rays make it to the World Series, that the time has come to scrap the free agent plan they've had for a while, and start to build from within. And this off-season, they've done well in that department, resigning homegrown stars, Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis to long deals, and founding a core on which to build. Also, they traded for Felix Pie joining young CF Adam Jones in the outfield to give the Orioles a fast, defense-strong outfield. Also, Matt Wieters, their young catching prospect has been lighting up the minors and could be called up mid-season. All well and good. However, the problem lies in the pitching. Jeremy Guthrie has been good so far, and Koji Uehara was good in Japan. After that, who knows? Baltimore's time should be coming. Just not this year.
5. Toronto Blue Jays
There's already been talk of trading Roy Halladay, the team's ace starter, and starting a rebuilding phase. And Opening Day is over a month away. The outlook is not good for the Blue Jays, and with reason. The team's strength, its pitching, has been hit hard this off-season, both by free agent defection and by the injury bug. A.J. Burnett left for the Yankees, Shaun Marcum isn't due back from elbow surgery until 2010, and Dustin McGowan from shoulder surgery, not till May at the earliest. By then it might be too late. On the other hand, their lineup, their weak link last year—a .399 OBP—gets a jolt from rookie Travis Snider, who by all accounts is a can't miss-prospect and a future anchor in the Blue Jays lineup. However, Vernon Wells already is injured this spring. Not a good omen for the Jays, going into the season.
Tomorrow, The AL Central