The Red Sox are going to need the ball to bounce the right way – a lot – if they want to win the American League East in 2013.
Last week, we highlighted three things the Sox will have to do well if they want to take the division. The list included bounce-back performances from a new shortstop, a bullpen that reaches its potential and a zealous use of platoons in the outfield.
It’s comforting for Boston fans to think that, yes, if our players take care of business and our manager is shrewd, we can host a playoff series at Fenway Park come October.
But the reality of the situation is that the Sox just aren’t that close to being the best team in the AL East. Once again, this is a team coming off a 69-win season in 2012. It’s also a team that just spent over $100 million on new players this winter; but there’s plenty of question marks about the kind of value those players can provide, too.
If the Red Sox are going to win the AL East – a division that featured three 90-win teams last year – they’re going to need more than peak performances from their own dugout.
The Sox are going to need to get a few breaks from their friendly rivals.
(Warning: These are by no means predictions or projections. I’m not insane. These are simply things that will probably have to happen if the Red Sox will have a chance at winning the division. Call it wishful, probably delusional thinking).
Damn Old Yankees
The Yankees are old. I don’t really know how else to say it. The players are downright ancient.
Relying on veterans hasn’t really hurt the Bombers in the past. This year could be different, though.
When Derek Jeter eventually comes back from injury, New York will have five guys 32 years or older in its starting lineup. The same can be said for rotation anchors CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, and the pitching staff only gets older once Andy Pettitte is added to the mix. And let’s not forget 43-year-old closer Mariano Rivera, who might never be the same after his injury last year.
It wouldn’t be surprising if the Yankees posted gaudy offensive numbers and were once again among the league leaders in home runs. But with a group of aging stars well past the peak of their primes, it also isn’t farfetched to think that they’ll struggle to keep it up through a 162-game season; especially in the AL East.
Injuries have already sidelined Jeter for at least part of the season and Alex Rodriguez for likely the entire 2013 campaign. It’s unrealistic to predict bone breaks or muscle tears for any player, but perfectly reasonable to peg these old Yankees to be more likely to suffer from the bangs and bruises of a grueling season.
The Red Sox, and the rest of the division, are banking that Father Time finally catches up to New York and keeps the Yankees out of the playoffs for just the second time since 1995.
Tampa Time Bomb
Everything the Tampa Bay Rays have done this offseason is so very Tampa Bay Rays-like.
It started when the Rays let homegrown center fielder B.J. Upton walk to Atlanta via free agency. No surprise there; the Rays simply don’t have the money to compete with other teams in an open market, and they’re not ashamed of it.
One of the final moves flew a bit under the radar, but it is the epitome of what GM Andrew Friedman has done during Tampa’s reign the past five years.
The Rays signed journeyman second baseman Kelly Johnson to a one-year deal last week. Johnson is 30 years old and coming off a pretty bad season, in which he hit .225/.313/.365. But he’s also just three years removed from a 5.8 fWAR campaign when he posted a .378 wOBA and played tremendous defense for the Blue Jays.
This is the kind of move that always tends to pay off for Tampa Bay. If history holds true, Johnson will finish in the top five for AL MVP, or something.
But this column is about what needs to happen if the Red Sox are going to win the division. In this world, then, none of Tampa Bay’s moves will work out.
Johnson will hit an empty .250 and play inferior defense. Controversial shortstop Yunel Escobar, also acquired this winter, will make another horribly offensive gesture and get suspended. James Loney will … well, he’ll continue to be James Loney.
Either way, the Rays are going to be in the mix for the division title. But each year, it’s those little moves that add up to the wins that allow Tampa to compete with the big boys in the American League.
If the Red Sox are going to leap frog the Rays, they’re going to need these moves to bust in 2013.
North-Of-The-Border Goes South
There may be a new sheriff in town this year in the AL East.
The Toronto Blue Jays started their offseason off strong, adding outfielder Melky Cabrera to an already-strong offense. But that move was petty compared to what was to come.
When the Blue Jays essentially bought the Miami Marlins, bringing over Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and Emilio Bonifacio in a blockbuster trade, they instantly became contenders to win the division. When Toronto added 2012 NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey in a trade with the Mets, it became a favorite to win the World Series.
With a power-packed offense, a new-look starting rotation and a deep bullpen full of high-strikeout power arms, the Blue Jays should be tough to beat this year. There don’t appear to be many weaknesses North of the border.
If Toronto is going to falter, though, it will be via its starting pitching. Dickey, Johnson, Buehrle, Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero should form one of the most formidable rotations in all of baseball in 2013. Then again, there is plenty of room for error from these five.
Dickey exhibited a lot of success last season due to a massive jump in strikeout rate. His K/9 was 8.86, by far the highest of his career — in his previous two seasons with the Mets, Dickey posted K/9 rates of 5.37 and 5.78, respectively. He was good, and durable, but he was not an ace. It’s certainly possible, maybe even likely that Dickey keeps up that high-strikeout pace now that he’s in the AL East. But if he doesn’t, the Jays won’t get what they paid for.
Johnson, not too long ago regarded as one of the best young pitchers in the National League, is coming off a decent 2012 campaign, but his career path has taken a dip since his superb run in 2009 and 2010. His fastball has dropped by more than 2 mph since 2010, and so has his strikeout rate (9.11 K/9 in 2010; 7.76 in 2012). Johnson did post 3.8 fWAR last year, but he’s clearly not the ace he once was.
Buehrle, entering his age-34 season, is just about a lock to post around 2 or 3 wins for the club. But again, he’s nothing special anymore; and a move to one of the league’s most explosive offensive divisions shouldn’t help a guy who doesn’t strike anyone out. Buehrle feasted in a putrid AL Central for years; 2013 could be a wake-up call for the lefty.
Morrow is also probably a lock for 2 or 3 wins, but Romero could be a problem at the back of the rotation. The southpaw posted just 0.5 fWAR in what was supposed to be a breakout season for the 28-year-old, thanks in large part to an astronomical 5.22 BB/9. If Romero can’t keep the walks down, expect an equally lackluster performance in 2013.
Again, this is all wishful thinking if you’re a Sox fan. But hey, it’s February. There are two whole months before reality sets in.
Might as well dream big.