6/7/09

Trimester Checkup: AL East

It's about a third of the way through the 162 game grind, so we're going to take a look at the various divisions and tell you who's coming up in the world, who's fading, players to keep an eye on, and what moves the teams should make to better themselves for the rest of the season.  KCSD: believing we're MLB GM material since 2009!

Let's kick this business off with baseball's most competitive division - the AL East.  As of this writing, they boast 4 teams with .500 or better records, which ain't too shabby in our eyes.

1. New York Yankees, 33-23.

2. Boston Red Sox, 33-24.

3. Toronto Blue Jays, 32-27.

4. Tampa Bay Rays, 29-29.

5. Baltimore Orioles, 24-33.

The biggest surprise thusfar has got to be the Blue Jays' offense.  We were as bearish as anyone on their chances to contend with what looked like a punchless offense that goes unrivaled north of the border.  Which goes without saying, we guess.  But lo and behold, they're scoring 5 runs a game, 8th best in MLB - yet only 4th best in the division, which goes to show you how potent the AL East is.  If anything, we'd have guessed that the Jays' pitching would have to be elite to keep them relevant, but while Doc Halladay has, of course, been outstanding, the rest of the staff has been mediocre.  Even with Halladay's superior start to the season, the unit's 4.62 runs allowed per game clocks in at 14th in MLB.  If they are to maintain their pace and remain contenders late into the season, the Jays are going to have to step that up, since we aren't of the opinion that, say, Aaron Hill and Marco Scutaro are suddenly world beaters at the dish.  But other than Matt Holliday, who would be the cure for a lot of team's ills, we can't see an easily upgradeable spot as long as the hitters somehow maintain their torrid pace; as such, trading for a pitcher may be the best way to hang around.  The problem for the Jays is, with the Red Sox and Yankees ahead of them, and the Rays probably a better overall team, it doesn't make sense to sell the farm to acquire a Jake Peavy or Matt Holliday, since that won't be enough to put them over the top.  We're glad we're not Jays fans.

The biggest disappointment in our eyes has got to be last year's Cinderella story, the Rays.  This was an easy choice; projected by some (us) to win the Series after an unexpected AL Pennant last year, the Rays are playing .500 baseball on the heels of wildly disappointing performances from stars like Scott Kazmir, Pat Burrell, B.J. Upton (remember when we thought he was gonna be MVP?) and down years from guys like Dioner Navarro and Andy Sonnanstine.  Their bullpen has, of course, regressed some to post numbers more akin to what we'd expect from the motley crew; they're lucky that Jason Bartlett (!), Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, and Ben Zobrist (!!) have been hitting like it's their job.  Akinori Iwamura's also gone for the year now, which is a shame considering that he was posting his best offensive year since hopping the ocean, though it does give the Rays more at bats for Ben Zobrist to continue to prove his mettle.  And on the bright side, some guy named David Price finally made his for-good-this-time debut; he should provide a nice shot in the arm with his strikeout stuff and fresh arm.  As for fixes, maybe Matt Joyce could get some more ABs...other than that, they might have to trade for someone.  But you've gotta think Upton, Burrell, and Navarro should start putting up numbers like we've been expecting, so there's no holes to fill in the lineup.  We recommend seeing if they can't flip Scott Kazmir for some pitching help. It's unlikely, but that's the place where they can stand to make the biggest improvements, and Kazmir's star is falling quickly.  Best trade him while they still can.

The biggest question mark the rest of the way?  Whether David Ortiz is done or not.  If Ortiz can regain his slugging form, the Red Sox have a lineup that can hang with the Rays in terms of 1-9 balance, and it'll be huge having contributions from Big Papi make up for what they're going to lose in Jason Varitek's inevitable dropoff.  They have so much talent in the rotation that they can compensate for either of the two hitters being terrible, but if both of them start hitting like little leaguers, the back end depth that was supposed to be a Sox strength but has instead been shoddy patchwork may reveal itself as their undoing.  John Smoltz will help, and Clay Buchholz is (still) waiting in the wings while Brad Penny and Daisuke Matsuzaka continue to struggle, but neither the rehabbing Smoltz nor the green Buchholz are sure things.  

Here are some moves we think these teams need to make to tighten themselves up for the rest of the season, since the McLouth trade broke the seal on deals.

  • The Yankees should trade INF Ramiro Pena and RHP Alfredo Aceves to the White Sox for INF Alexei Ramirez.  The Cuban Missile should see his power numbers rebound a bit, and with the Yankees' lack of depth and power in the infield, Ramirez's bat could have a useful bit of punch.  The White Sox aren't going anywhere, and with the way they rushed SS Gordon Beckham to the bigs, Ramirez may or may not be part of the plan going forward.
  • The Red Sox should call up RHP Clay Buchholz.  The primo pitching prospect has been dominating in the minors for too long not to get starts over the likes of Brad Penny.  How much longer can they leave this kid down there?
  • The Rays should trade LHP Scott Kazmir and SS Reid Brignac to the Indians for OF Nick Weglarz and C Kelly Shoppach.  The Indians could call up Carlos Santana to serve as Victor Martinez's catching partner, slot Kazmir into the rotation behind Cliff Lee, slide SS Jhonny Peralta to the bench since his star seems to be falling, and improve their chances to win the tepid AL Central.  The Rays get another impact bat in the outfield/DH mix as well as a backstop who can take over if Navarro remains as bad as he's been this season.
  • The Jays should decide if they're going to go for broke on the back of an overperforming offense or not.  Or if they can even really go for broke at any point in the near future.  It's really an awkward point for the Jays, since they have impact prospects who will be ready at a point in the future when the Sox/Yanks/Rays triumverate may be weaker, but not enough significant depth to get impact talent that can play right now.  We don't envy anyone running front office duties for the Jays right now or in the near future.  Our best recommendation?  Just soak in Roy Halladay's pitching genius.
  • The Orioles already made their best moves by starting the youth movement.  OF Nolan Reimold and C Matt Wieters are tossing in their lot to improve a stacked young lineup, and while the pitching still sucks, newcomers Matt Albers, Troy Patton, David Hernandez, Rich Hill, and Koji Uehara provide some nice depth with the potential to be more.  Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, and Brandon Erbe have even greater potential than the above group and have yet to make their debuts.  Our recommendation is for the O's to trade George Sherrill, a bullpen arm making too much money, for any infield prospect help they can get.  We don't care who they get, as long as it's someone who's more than organizational filler.  And give some of the Tillman-Matusz-Arrieta-Erbe group a chance to show what they've got in September at the latest.

As for our prognosis on how this'll go the rest of the way, we're still going to stand by the Rays to come back and win this division.  The Yankees have been great, but we're not of the belief that they'll be able to muster enough pop from their lineup as summer stretches on and their age/injury problems come into sharper focus.  The starting pitching has been great, and we love the depth, but the bullpen's been subpar, and Mariano Rivera's been anything but automatic this year as age takes its toll on Mr. Sandman.  The Red Sox are going to see Jason Varitek come down to last year's levels, and we don't think David Ortiz is going to show any signs of life - he's done.  The rotation's good, but we still trust Tampa's more.  If Kazmir can turn it around, or the Rays can flip him and call up any one of their elite prospects, they'll have a 1-5 capable of beating anyone.  The lineup's too good not to start hitting as a complete unit; once Upton, Burrell, and Navarro step up, they'll be a force.  The Jays just don't have enough pieces right now to win, and their lineup is going to start performing like we thought it would.  And the Orioles are an exciting young team...but they play in the AL East. Sorry, kids.

Predicted Final Standings:

1. Tampa Bay Rays

2. New York Yankees

3. Boston Red Sox

4. Toronto Blue Jays

5. Baltimore Orioles

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