AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST DIVISION PREVIEW
With the baseball season beginning, it’s time to take a look at the teams in the AL East and weigh their chances to contend both for the MLB crown and for a division title. Bodog’s Baseball Futures offer the betting lines used in this article.
Tampa Bay Rays
Odds to Win World Series: 25/1
Odds to Win AL Pennant: 11/1
Odds to Win AL East: +800
2010: 96-66, 1st in AL East
The Rays had a glaring hole in their lineup last year despite their overall success. In 2008, they were first in the league in WXRL (Win Expectation Above Replacement, Lineup Adjusted) and fell to 11th in 2009, and the team went from being a 97 win standout team to an 84 win team in 2009. The solution was clear to Rays management and coaches: the team needed a closer. Rays owner Stuart Sternberg said on December 4th 2009 that the team would not be bringing in a “$7 million closer,” and yet, somehow they did indeed find a way to do just that, as the Braves made a salary dump move and jettisoned closer Rafael Soriano to Tampa.
The Rays have been able to get things done on a shoestring budget. In 2008, the franchise won the division crown despite rostering only a $43.8 million payroll. In 2009, they increased their payroll by 44% and they beat out two teams that combined to pay out more than five times that in salary and the teams drew nearly four times as many fans and the Rays.
The Rays have built a good pitching staff through their farm system. Four of their five starters are their own products (the exception being Matt Garza), including David Price, the first overall pick in 2007 and who was considered to be one of, if not the top, prospect going into the 2009 season. Tampa’s starters all ranked in the top 32 in SNLVAR (Support Nuetral Lineup-adjusted Value Added Replacement).
Despite playing in one of the best hitter’s parks in the MLB, Tampa still only ranked 13th in batting average. However, they were fourth in “True Average” because they led the league in walks. Ben Zobrist and Pena were both in the top 6 in walks. Franchise cornerstone Evan Longoria tied Josh Hamilton for the league lead in WARP (Wins above replacement player) and ranked 6th in TAv (True Average), while Carl Crawford ranked 11th in True Average.
The reason the Rays won the AL East but are still +800 to win it again has to do with the Rays having lost Carl Crawford and Pena. The move made sense for the Rays, who are looking to replace Crawford with a top prospect in Desmond Jennings, whose upside has been said to be greater than Crawford’s. Pena is going to be more difficult to replace, and there isn’t any solid plan in tact to provide that replacement.
For the Rays to continue to hang with the Yankees and Red Sox, they are going to have to make some moves. They have a surplus of young pitching talent that they could deal to fill the number of holes that they have offensively. They have the talent to possibly repeat as division champs, but to be taken seriously as contenders they are going to have to improve their hitting.
New York Yankees
Odds to Win World Series: 7/1
Odds to Win AL Pennant: 7/2
Odds to Win AL East: +190
2010: 95-67, 2st in AL East
For a team with such a healthy record and such a promising season at one point (On September 4th they were 86-50 with the best record in baseball), the Yankees found a way to fall apart when it counted most – during the stretch run of the regular season (They closed the season 9-17 through the last 26 games) and into the playoffs against the Texas Rangers after beating the Twins.
GM Brian Cashman had to admit that the Yankees were beginning to show signs of their age with their lack of endurance and sustainability. “We didn’t look old against Minnesota (in the division series) and that was a week before. Texas made us look old.” The problem, of course, is that the Yankees did not merely look old; they are old. They had the fourth oldest hitters and the second oldest pitching staff in the major leagues.
Clearly, it is win now for the Yankees, and thankfully for fans and management, and as indicated by Bodog odds, they are in a position to do so. Unfortunately, and on the other hand, the team is not getting any better from last season and the only way to counteract their horrid play in September is to write it off as a fluke. Whether or not this is plausible and fair is a matter of debate of course, as when a team begins to get up in years, injuries and inconsistencies can plague them horribly.
The team really only has three “young” players: Robinson Cano, Brett Gardner, and Jesus Montero (who may not even get the chance to play being saddled behind Russell Martin). Cano is a legitimate star and represents the future of the franchise, when they eventually do decide to implode the roster and rebuild (if they ever do; they could flounder in mediocrity for years due to the pressure put on the Yankees by their fans). The Yankees made it clear through their lack of pursuit of young pitchers to replace an aging staff that they have no plans to rebuild immediately and are instead looking to make another postseason run with the same players as last year.
Just two years removed from a 2009 championship team, the Yankees are still one of the favorites to win the crown this year. They still have a very potent lineup offensively, and with the exception of a catatonic Jeter, their defense is still exceptional too. There may not be much saved for the future, but the Yankees appear poised to make another run at a title.
Boston Red Sox
Odds to Win World Series: 9/2
Odds to Win AL Pennant: 11/5
Odds to Win AL East: -160
2010: 89-73, 3rd in AL East
To call last season a failure for the Red Sox because they failed to reach the post season would not be a fair judgment. They lost over 1,100 days in player injuries to the DL and had to cope with the decision to let Jason Bay walk to the Mets, a move widely criticized as one that would cripple the Boston hitting rotation.
The problem is that the Bay decision really had no bearing on the lack of success. The team’s three best hitters (Victor Martinez, Kevin Youkilis, and Dustin Pedroia) missed a combined 163 games and the pitching staff didn’t stay healthy either, making it near impossible for the Red Sox to compete with a patchwork of gap filling players, players with no real long term prospects in the team’s plan for success.
Oddly enough, despite the injury curse, the Red Sox remained one of the best offensive teams in baseball. They had a true batting average of .273, the best in the American league, down slightly from 2009 (.277), but nonetheless the best in the American League. As the season wore on, the Sox ended up using players that doubtlessly belonged in the minor leagues, and yet the Sox remained in playoff contention until the final week of the season.
The reason, of course, for a team that hit the ball so well the only way to lose is pitching. Despite having talented hurlers Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Clay Buchholz, the Red Sox ended up with one of the worst pitching staffs in recent memory; again, largely due to injuries. Boston ranked 25th in WXRL. From August 1st onward, the WXRL was 0.4, 29th in the majors. The Red Sox lacked a third option in the pen and the result was too much wear and tear on Bard and Papelbon, a move that ultimately led to collapses late in games as Bard and Papelbon threw way too many innings.
The Sox enter the 2011 season as a strong offensive team, however. Despite losing Martinez and Adrian Beltre, they did acquire Adrian Gonzalez, one of the top hitters in the MLB. Gonzalez will likely more than replace the loss of Beltre and should fuel the Sox’s offense to be one of the better in the league. They also signed Carl Crawford to a very fat and hefty contract and expect him to add a lot of firepower at the leadoff position. And as bad as the pitching was last year, the staff is still very strong and could potentially be one of the best in baseball.
Toronto Blue Jays
Odds to Win World Series: 50/1
Odds to Win AL Pennant: 25/1
Odds to Win AL East: +1600
2010: 85-77, 4th in AL East
For a team with a plus-.500 record, the future could not possibly be more bleak than the Toronto Blue Jays’. Former GM J.P. Ricciardi absolutely decimated the farm system through bad trades and left the Jays with an albatross contract in Vernon Wells, further inhibiting the team’s ability to retool, restructure, and ultimately, rebuild.
Alex Anthopoulos came in and attempted to remedy that issue by expanding the scouting budget and hiring a ton of scouts, but building a farm system takes time and it will be years before the Blue Jays begin to reap the benefits of Anthopoulos’ work. Fortunately, the Jays were able to strike prospect gold when they dealt away Roy Halladay, bringing in three top 100 prospects to grow in the minor leagues. Later trades involving Alex Gonzalez, Brandon Morrow, and Brett Wallace brought in still more prospects and it signaled that the Jays have fully entered rebuilding mode by cutting ties with their top players for future studs. They further continued that trend by dealing their best pitcher, Shaun Marcum, for second baseman Brett Lawrie. These moves are the reason that the Jays are such long shots despite a decent record last year. Last year represented the last hold-over from a previously more talented major league roster.
Clearly, the Jays are using the Tampa Bay Rays as their blueprint for success. The teams play in the same division and it took years of building through the farm system for the Rays to emerge as a true powerhouse. They have assembled a nice collection of cheap pitching talent and should be able to build their team around that talent. If nothing else, they could ship out a pitcher or two for a hitter or two that hits for average, since the Jays already have enough power (They hit 257 homers last year, the third most EVER) to bring in the hitters once they get on base.
While the Jays’ chances of winning much of anything this year are very remote, the acquisition of so many prospects does bode well for the future and Jays fans know that for every stay in the cellar of the AL East, there is a future chance that one day they will follow the path of the Rays and ascend to the top after years of floundering in mediocrity.
Odds to Win World Series: 75/1
Odds to Win AL Pennant: 35/1
Odds to Win AL East: +1800
2010: 66-96, Last (5th) in AL East
The Orioles haven’t been relevant in the AL since the days of Cal Ripken Jr. and have continually started the season well enough just to fall apart in the second half of the year and lead themselves to another cellar dweller type of year that Baltimore fans are beginning to tire of. Then, the Orioles began to signal change by hiring Buck Showalter. The result was nearly miraculous. The O’s closed the season with a 34-23 record under Showalter and proved the value of having a top tier manager coaching the team. Had that pace been maintained all season, the O’s would have sat atop the AL East, instead of at the bottom of it.
The turnaround is perplexing. The manager Showalter replaced, Trembley, was known for being able to do all the right things with young lineups. What did Showalter actually do that brought about such a dramatic change in the O’s fortunes? There were no ground breaking trades or call ups and few reasons to pinpoint the drastic shift in results. The real reason for the success was improved defense, but how could that in any way be attributed to a switch in managers? Indeed, a large part of Showalters’ success could probably be attributed to mere aberration and pure luck. For O’s fans to read too much into it and build grandiose hopes for this season would be a grave error leading to ultimate disappointment.
The Orioles do have a very strong collection of young pitching talent that could eventually help propel them to relevance. Staff ace Jeremy Guthrie posted a 4.57 ERA, but ended up with just an 11-14 record because he didn’t get the run production from the offense. They also have a great prospect in Zach Britton, who probably will be called up at some point this season and will further strengthen the pitching staff.
The Orioles made it known at the end of last season that they would deal any of their strong veterans for young talent and they will be wise to continue that trend since this season offers little hope for the O’s, even if they did finish last season with an inexplicably strong bang.