Continuing from last week, here’s Part Two of my AL East breakdown.
(Part One can be found here.)
Tampa Bay Rays (90-73, 3rd in AL East)
In terms of trades, the Rays may have won the non-Toronto division for the offseason when they dealt James Shields to Kansas City for Wil Myers. Don’t get me wrong, Shields is a very good pitcher, but landing a young super-prospect with six years of team control? That’s impressive.
The question the Rays must answer, however, is how soon Myers will be ready? It’s a question that will play a major role in Tampa’s 2013 season.
Losing a pitcher like Shields is not an easy hurdle to overcome. He pitched 227.2 innings (5th in MLB) and despite a slow start, posted a 3.52 ERA (3.47 FIP) for the year, accounting for 4.6 fWAR. Shields’ 2013 wasn’t exactly one you’d tell your grandkids about, but was overwhelmingly valuable to what was an otherwise-young Tampa pitching staff after AL Cy Young winner David Price.
So how do the Rays plan to replace this production? That much is not clear. Matt Moore looks like a legitimate future stud, and further development from the young lefty could soften the blow of Shields’ departure. The kid has the potential to become one of the best lefties in baseball, and the sooner he gets there, the better for the Rays. Jeremy Hellickson continued to stubbornly defy his FIP (3.10 ERA vs 4.60 FIP!) in 2013, but it would seem incredibly unlikely the 2011 Rookie of the Year can carry on that trend going forward unless he can somehow find a way to miss bats at greater rate than his 6.31 K/9 of last year.
The Rays did seem to find a hidden gem last season in 24-year-old Alex Cobb. The righty produced a 3.67 FIP and 2.2 fWAR in 23 starts last season while maintaining a respectable 7.0 K/9 and even getting fairly unlucky in terms of HR/FB (12.8%). A fairly steady – if unspectacular – minor league pitcher, Cobb could come to play an important role for the Rays’ pitching in 2013 with Shields gone and Hellickson overdue for a somewhat spectacular regression. It’s been a fairly small sample size thus far, but if Cobb grows from his 2012 season, it’s not a stretch to see him settling in as a borderline #3 starter.
In all, the Rays’ pitching is younger without Shields and, most likely, a step or two behind. This is going to put more pressure on the Rays’ bats, who have never really been counted on to carry a team as consistently deep in the starting rotation as Tampa has been over the past several years.
That’s where Myers comes in.
The biggest offseason loss for the Rays’ offense was B.J. Upton, who will be manning center for the Atlanta Braves this season. (Full disclosure: I am not a fan of either Upton brother, but B.J. in particular I consider to be highly overvalued. That’s a discussion for another time, though.)
Upton’s departure cost the Rays 3.3 fWAR from 2012, as well as one of the team’s top power bats from last season. That’s the hole Myers has to fill. With Desmond Jennings shifting to center, his former corner spot is open for Myers to make the major league impact we’ve been told he’s capable of. If that happens, the Rays’ offense could be dangerous.
Myers naturally isn’t the only key piece. Evan Longoria – baseball writers’ perennial “Preseason MVP” – played only 74 games last season. I genuinely like Longoria, particularly his ability to field his position, but for a low-budget team like Tampa, he simply HAS to stay on the field. Put simply, if Longoria isn’t on the field for, say, 130 games or more, the Rays aren’t going anywhere. When he manages a full season, though, we’re talking about a guy whose floor is around 5 fWAR. Put together with Myers and the impossibly versatile Ben Zobrist – as well as supporting pieces like Matt Joyce, Ryan Roberts, and Desmond Jennings – and the Rays will be able to score some runs.
All this is to say that – like everybody in this freaking division – the Rays are a difficult team to project. To me, though, they’re still the Rays. Joe Maddon is still one of the best managers in the sport, and he’s always found ways to turn patchwork teams into winners. As unsettled as the AL East is this season, I’m tempted to take the Rays’ consistency over anybody else in the division. So, for now, that’s who I’m going with.
The Yankees are going to be so much fun this year, you guys.
No, seriously. This could be a glorious year for Yankee-haters like myself. After all the drama surrounding the epic playoff collapse against the Tigers, you’d better believe the pressure’s going to be on in the Bronx. If there’s a team in the league that needs to get off to a fast start this year, it’s them, because patience is lacking in New York this season.
This year’s Yankees look more vulnerable than ever, as well. They’re certainly not getting any younger, and the loss of Nick Swisher in free agency leaves a large hole in the Yankees’ offense, one that I’m not convinced a healthy Brett Gardner is going to fill. Alex Rodriguez’s health limbo won’t help; it’s unknown at this time whether he’ll play in 2013 at all. Similarly, the Yankees’ big trade splash of last year, Michael Pineda, still has no timetable for a return, either.
The Yankees brought in a familiar face this offseason in Kevin Youkilis, who will likely man third base in Rodriguez’s absence, and then presumably become their DH when A-Rod returns. I’m skeptical as to how much value Youkilis has left; he’s below-average defensively at third base, and his bat has declined significantly in the past few seasons. Bill James projects Youk to post a .265/.371/.465 triple-slash in 2013, which seems optimistic, but if Youkilis can perform at close to that level, it would help replace Swisher’s production, at least.
Should Rodriguez miss most or all of 2013, however, this creates a problem for the Yankees. If there’s one thing that has been quite plainly illustrated over the past few seasons, it’s that Youkilis physically isn’t able to hold up at third for a full season. There are a lot of physical demands to playing the hot corner, and we saw what it did to Youk, who hasn’t played more than 120 games in a season since before the Adrian Gonzalez trade forced him off first base. Ideally, Youkilis would shift to the DH spot after briefly filling in for Rodriguez, but what happens if Rodriguez doesn’t return promptly?
It follows, then, that unlike your typical Yankees squad, pitching is going to be this team’s strength, even without Pineda. The starting rotation seems set with C.C. Sabathia, Hiroki “Should Have Come to Boston” Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes, and Ivan Nova. The bullpen should be solid even with Rafael Soriano now pitching for the Nationals, mostly because they’ll have the greatest closer of all-time back and ready to go. Should Pineda return (and there are no promises of that), I’d expect to see him in a bullpen role, at least at first.
The Yankees are in a difficult spot, at least for this year. They have very little in the way of young talent as their core continues to age, so for the moment, their long-term prospects are hazy. This season, I’d expect quality pitching and just enough offense to bring them close to the playoffs, but I’m not willing to go so far as to say they’ll make it.
So that’s what we’re looking at in terms of competition this season. The question now is: how do the Red Sox stack up?
It’s fairly easy to say that the only teams in the division to show notable short-term improvement this offseason were Boston and Toronto. But how improved are the Red Sox from last year’s 93 losses?
The answer, I think, is “very much.” Players like Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Joel Hanrahan, Koji Uehara, and Ryan Dempster filled immediate, pressing needs on this roster and will provide production right off the bat. Others like Jonny Gomes, David Ross, and Stephen Drew will have the opportunity to add value as role players. Overall, almost all of Ben Cherington’s moves were made with the next couple of seasons in mind, more as temporary help until our top prospects are ready to take the reigns.
In short, I think this Red Sox team will be decent. All five teams in the AL East this year have some chance at a division title, and while I think the Red Sox likely aren’t quite at that level, even being in contention will be a welcome change from last season. Ultimately, I think this year’s Sox finish in fourth, but not a huge margin behind the Rays, Blue Jays, or Yankees.
It will be a fun season with a likable team, and after last year, that seems like plenty to me.
Final Predicted Standings:
1st: Tampa Bay Rays
2nd: Toronto Blue Jays
3rd: New York Yankees
4th: Boston Red Sox
5th: Baltimore Orioles
How about you guys? What do you think the final standings are going to look like?