Cover your heads, rest of baseball. The American League East placed four of its teams among the top six in last year's final Hit List rankings at Baseball Prospectus and the whole division just got a whole lot better. Things look so grim for the A.L. West and A.L. Central in 2009; it's possible that the five teams in the A.L. East finish with better records than every other team save for the division winners. Tigers fans, Mariners fans, Indians fans, I say to you this: don't expect to win many inter-division games on the east coast this year. Yes, even against the Orioles.
New additions to the division are highlighted by the triumvirate of Yankee excess, CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira. But hey, oldsters like John Smoltz, Brad Penny and Jason Isringhausen showed up on a lark, and, most interesting of all, J.P. Ricciardi added zero free agents. The Xtreme Depressionⓒ is hitting Canada too, y'all! With additions come subtractions too. Say goodbye to Bobby Abreu, Jason Giambi, Carl Pavano, Mike Mussina, and Sidney Ponson. I guess the other teams lost players too, but who really gives a darn about Coco Crisp? Amirite?
So strap on your clapping gloves, people, and get ready to witness the audacity of high hopes, the apocalypse of high salaries, and the anxiety of high VORPs. Ladies and gentlemen, the 2009 American League East, after the jump:
5. Toronto Blue Jays
- Roy Halladay is still a Blue Jay. Curse the trade rumors and tear down the Ricciardi rantings. As long as Roy is still in Blue Jay Town, the kiddies will all show up once every five games to see utter dominance displayed in human form. Even a down year for Roy is an up year for most chumps. Will he win 20 games with a worsening offense? Probably not. Will he delight even non-Blue Jay fans with his professionalism and perfect curveball? Heck yes.
- Brett Cecil is learning how to pitch. Perhaps the lithe lefty won't get more than 15 starts, but those 15 starts will be enough to make Lloyd the Barber and his Bloor Street buddies brag boastfully 'bout Brett for years to come.
- The Rogers Centre is the only stadium in baseball you can get a Molson XXX and a faux-Montreal smoked meat sammich.
- The offense is atrocious and might get outscored by 29 teams. When the cornerstone of your lineup peaked at age 25 and is on a slow descent into Rondell White territory, it's time to start from scratch and hope young kids like Travis Snider and Adam Lind can become productive. Or just call up Frank Thomas, I hear he needs work. If a Blue Jay collects 20 tater tots, it'll be a miracle
- After Halladay, the rotation falls off a steep cliff. Jesse Litsch and David Purcey might put out a full season with 100 ERA+ numbers, but that ain't gonna carry this team to the promised land. And if Scott Richmond makes more than 20 starts, I'll poop in J.P. Ricciardi's hat.
- U.S. Dollar to Canadian Dollar conversion rate is turning the wrong way.
A disappointing 76 win season that causes thousands of Ontario residents to mutter a collective, "What's that? Baseball season's over already?" before going back to YouTube to watch videos like this. Relaxing! Also, Marco Scutaro will attempt to build the world's largest Lego structure in the shape of a llama in the Jays clubhouse until Lyle Overbay tries to eat it.
4. Baltimore Orioles
- A rejuvenated offense that will blast opponents in a totally hip, new, in-your-face manner. Camden Yards is a doubles park and I'm about to make a totally unsubstantiated prediction: the Orioles will set the record for most doubles by a team in a single season. Brian Roberts, Adam Jones, and Melvin Mora can all hit hard enough to bounce a fastball over the outfield walls, while Nick Markakis, Aubrey Huff, and Ty Wigginton are authentic sluggers. These dudes will double their pleasure and double their fun.
- Rookie catcher Matt Wieters already has a couple dozen Rookie of the Year votes in his back pocket. The good people at Baseball Prospectus are projecting Wieters to amass a ridiculously good .946 OPS which would be the best rate in history among rookie catchers, topping even Mike Piazza's .931 rate in 1993. He'll make hay in this lineup. And then Cesar Izturis will try to eat the hay.
- Ryan Freel brought Farney with him from Cincinnati.
- They've got perhaps one of the worst rotations outside of Arlington. Nobody on this pitching staff inspires fear in the hearts of batters; they don't have anyone bringing the heat or making bats miss. About the only group Jeremy Guthrie should be an ace on is a cycling team. Koji Uehara might come from the mysterious Orient but the only question O's fans will ask is how this dude can give up so many tater tots. Danys Baez, Mark Hendrickson, Rich Hill, Matt Albers...that sounds like four guys in a hacky wedding band, not a major league rotation.
- Kevin Gracie probably already shredded his season tickets.
A still improving 79 win season, swarms of Red Sox, Yankees, and now even Rays fans invading Camden Yards to cheer on the road team, and a worsening drinking problem for manager Dave Trembley.
3. Tampa Bay Rays
- They're defending AL Champions. For the first time in their history, teams fear the Rays because not only have they had success, they've had balanced success with a mostly young and still improving team. No longer can the Yanks count on 15 easy wins at the expense of a division doormat.
- They've got a sexy rotation. Ace Scott Kazmir leads a group of starters who could all easily find their ERAs south of 4.00 in 2009. Most exciting among the starters is David Price, baseball's Barack Obama. The towering lefty's slider will eat you alive.
- Pat Burrell is a real designated hitter. Pat the Bat switches leagues for the first time in his life and can finally settle into a position where the only kind of glove he'll need is a batting glove. The righteous righty can bash ding-dongs with the best of 'em and can protect Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena in the lineup. Neat.
- They're defending AL Champions. Teams are going to want to beat their asses and shame them for being young and hard-headed.
- It's going to take a village to fill out three outfield positions. With young Fernando Perez out for most of the season with a wrist ouchie and B.J. Upton always a question mark while still recovering from labrum surgery, outfield depth might be a problem. Still, overmanagin' Joe Maddon might be better off having fewer options like the two Gabes, team grandpa Carl Crawford, and newly acquired Matt Joyce.
- The bullpen has become somewhat tenuous. Trever Miller is gone, Troy Percival has one foot in the grave and one foot on a banana peel, and Jason Isringhausen is a cute spring addition but not the answer here. Can setup men Dan Wheeler, Grant Balfour, and Chad Bradford continue their 2008 success? That might make the difference between third place and a wild card appearance for the Rays.
A somewhat disappointing third place finish despite amassing 92 wins, thousands of championship rings for sale on eBay, and team mascot Raymond loses his friggin' mind after ingesting some LSD-laden cheddar and pretzel Combos.
2. Boston Red Sox
- The Sox have a delicious and nutritious offense that's part of a balanced breakfast. Despite trading away cereal-named Coco Crisp, the Sox lineup is tough from top to bottom (as long as Jed Lowrie is allowed to win the shortstop job over just-over-replacement-level Julio Lugo). MVP Dustin Pedroia is the keystone but David Ortiz must overcome his wrist ouchies and return to his 2007 form to keep the runs scoring.
- Three of the best pitchers around will allow Tito to experiment with slots 4 and 5. Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Jon Lester are guaranteed to do yeoman's work for about 90 starts, which leaves about 70 starts that Terry Francona must divide among Tim Wakefield, Clay Buchholz, Justin Masterson, and two pitchers snagged off the trash pile, John Smoltz and Brad Penny. If he can swing 30 quality starts from this ragged bunch, the Sox will be alright.
- Rocco friggin Baldelli. Do you realize a team hasn't won the American League without Rocco Baldelli on its roster in over 17 months? He's a lucky charm!
- Ligaments tear and bones bruise. Muscles ache and mitochondria get tired. This team's success rests on too many questions about team health; regulars Jason Bay, Mike Lowell, and Jason Varitek are worn out, while pitchers Josh Beckett and Brad Penny are coming off a tough 2008 that saw one dude suffer from back pain and another dude visited the DL thrice with shoulder issues. Also, Jon Lester has cancer, Rocco Baldelli gets tired sometimes, and Jacoby Ellsbury's hip is made of graham crackers.
- Julio Lugo is not a good baseball player. He grounds into double plays and he makes a ton of errors in the field. He doesn't hit for power and he can't draw a walk. The only three reasons he hasn't been released yet are (a) Jed Lowrie is unproven (b) his salary is exorbitant and (c) he has salacious photos of Wally the Green Monster engaged in flagrante delicto with Jerry Remy.
- This nonsense still exists.
A wild-card winning 95 wins, John Henry figures out a way to add 35 more seats dangling from the Pesky Pole at Fenway, an easy dispatching of the A's in the division series, and a heart-wrenching sweep in the ALCS at the hands of...
1. New York Yankees
- The best rotation in baseball. If the gallant return of Wang, Pettitte and Chamberlain wasn't good enough for you, the gargantuan free agent signings of well-initialed CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett will provide a tidy one-two punch from April to September and hopefully into October. Will this be the year Sabathia notches more strikeouts than baserunners allowed? It's not as crazy as it sounds...Randy Johnson once struck out 372 hitters while allowing just 270 men to reach base.
- The best first baseman in the American League. Hit the bricks, Youkilis: Mark Teixeira is here to out-glove, out-hit, and out-slug you. With A-Rod on the D.L., Tex becomes the go-to RBI guy and the guy that most excites Yankees fans when striding to the plate. No pressure, fella, but I'm guaranteeing 25 tater tots, 100 RBI, and an OPS over 900.
- Mariano Rivera is a machine sent from the future to destroy your comeback chances. Give the Yanks a late lead and Mo will preserve it like so many delicious late-summer fruits. He'll strike you out with his one-pitch repertoire and will build a Panamanian church for every save he notches. Another 35+ save season? Ho-hum.
- Besides strikeout kings Sabathia, Chamberlain, and Burnett, the other pitchers rely too much on the defense behind them. Andy Pettitte and Chien-Ming Wang are two of the most notable wormballers around, and if Mark Teixeira's sexy range and super glove cannot off-set the fielding misadventures of Jeter and Cano, Pettitte and Wang might give up many groundball singles. Also, Johnny Damon has a noodle arm.
- Too many games against the Rays, Sox, Orioles, and Jays. The A.L. East is like the Big East; it simply attracts the best talent around and the teams will beat each other up over their 80 or so intra-division games.
- Too many players on the verge of Kris' Creampuff feature. Can you imagine Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui, A.J. Burnett, and Johnny Damon all sharing column space on a single Friday? It gives me a tingly feeling that I don't like very much. Also, Alex Rodriguez had friggin' hip surgery and is missing anywhere from a third to a half of the season. I cannot stress personal safety enough, kids.
What, you thought I wouldn't play favorites here and actually pick the Yankees to finish somewhere other than first? You can accuse me of being a total homer (and you'd be right) but really, if the good parts of this team hold up mitigate the bad parts, this is a 99-win team that might not score 1,000 runs but will do a heckuva job preventing runs, and will return to the World Series for the first time since 2003.