PTBN’s 2014 American League East Preview

For, lo, the winter is past, The rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth; The time of the singing of birds is come, And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.

This is, of course, how Ernie Harwell, beloved longtime voice of the Detroit Tigers, would kick off each and every baseball season.

So, I thought it would be fitting if I borrowed it to kick off my 2014 Major League Baseball season previews.

But, first, an introduction is probably in order.

My name is Joel Barnhart and I’m a new voice here at Place to Be Nation. I’ll be writing primarily about hot topics in MLB and player profiles throughout the upcoming season.

I’ve been a sportswriter for over a decade, mostly part-time stuff for my local paper, with a heavy emphasis on the ole’ bat-and-ball game. I’ve been a baseball fan for over 20 years, with most of my fandom centered around my home-state Detroit Tigers.

This first piece on PTBN will be an American League season preview, with the National League to follow. In the interest of keeping things simple, I’ll be breaking things down by division, beginning with the American League East for the first in a six-part series.

All teams are listed in my predicted order of finish in the division. I am hesitant to predict the playoffs, though, because trying to guess the first team to win 11 games in October is a fool’s errand. (Cop out, or ridiculous amount of truth?!?!)

The Red Sox have a bulls-eye on their backs after winning the World Series last year.
The Red Sox have a bulls-eye on their backs after winning the World Series last year.

BOSTON RED SOX

2013: 97-65, 1st in A.L. East, won World Series

Key additions: C A.J. Pierzynski

Key losses: OF Jacoby Ellsbury, C Jarrod Saltalamacchia

Strengths: Beards, overall offense, mix of youth and veterans, payroll

Weakness: Regression, defense, relying on youth for two key spots (SS, CF), Barbasol

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few months, you know that the Boston Red Sox have a rather large bulls-eye after winning their third World Series of this century in 2013, defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in six games last October.

Last year’s success was built on the idea of intangibles like team chemistry and facial hair growth. While we do not have metrics for these two all-important team-building concepts, it must be said that the Red Sox’ down year of only 69 wins in 2012 seems like a blip rather than the sign of impending doom many thought it to be just a year ago.

This is a team that is a smart mix of youth and experience with just the right balance of player development and payroll. When those ingredients are mixed properly, it’s a recipe for success.

The strength of this team is its offense. The Red Sox led the Major Leagues in multiple offensive categories, including total bases (2,521), runs scored (853), slugging percentage (.446), and on- base percentage (.349).

While losing a catalyst like Ellsbury hurts, the team seems comfortable in replacing him with youngster Jackie Bradley, Jr. While the 24-year-old Bradley hit just .189 in 107 plate appearances with Boston in 2013, he did post a .275/.374/.469 line at Triple-A Pawtucket. If he fails, veteran Grady Sizemore is currently in spring training earning his keep as a fallback option.

Another top prospect that will have a significant role with Boston is 21-year-old Xander Bogaerts, who will head into the season as the team’s starting shortstop. He hit just .250 during 18 regular season games for Boston, but also posted a .296 average with a .412 on-base percentage in 27 postseason at-bats, ramping up the expectations for the young Aruban.

Behind the plate, the Red Sox allowed Jarrod Saltalamacchia and his exceptionally long last name to depart for a 3-year deal with the Miami Marlins, while Boston added former Texas Ranger Chuck Norris… err A.J. Pierzynski, who at age 37, is looking for one more ring. Pierzynski slugged 17 home runs in 134 games for Texas last season and should provide a modest upgrade over the departed Saltalamaccia.*

*Has there been another transaction in MLB history with so few players (2) with such lengthy last names as Pierzynski (10 letters) and Saltalamacchia (14 letters)?

The rest of the Boston lineup remains the same, with David Ortiz anchoring things at DH, along with second baseman Dustin Pedroia sparking the team on both offense and defense. First baseman Mike Napoli, third sacker Will Middlebrooks, plus corner outfielders Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava, and Jonny Gomes round out a top-shelf lineup for Beantown.

Boston has a solid, if unspectacular, starting rotation filled with comeback stories, be it No. 1 starter Jon Lester (from a 4.82 ERA in 2012 to a 3.75 in 2013), No. 2 Clay Buchholz, (who missed about half the season but still managed a 1.74 ERA in 16 starts), to No. 3 John Lackey (who missed all of 2012, then started 29 games in 2013). No. 4 starter Jake Peavy posted a lot of similar numbers following his mid-season trade from Chicago, but at 33, Peavy does not need to be — nor does he have to be — an ace. He should be one of the AL’s best fourth starters. Fifth man Felix Doubront is probably an improvement over Ryan Dempster, who was in line to round out Boston’s rotation until he decided not to pitch in 2013.

The Boston bullpen became an exercise in the fungibility of relief last year, as Koji Uehara started the 2013 season in a middle relief role and ended up a postseason hero as the closer. Uehara, 39 shortly after Opening Day, will be in the latter role from the start this year. He will be backed up by several decent arms in Junichi Tazawa, Andrew Miller, Craig Breslow. Bullpens are roller coasters to be sure, but Boston still seems to be ascending with its group of late arms.

The Red Sox are definitely a team that will contend, as most defending World Champions are. That said, a bit of regression is likely for several hitters, as the team was remarkably healthy despite an average age just under 30. In a way, Boston’s 2014 is similar to that of the Yankees, although less severe: if the team stays healthy, it’s a potential 100-win juggernaut. If injuries strike, this is a team that is better equipped than the one in the Bronx, so worst-case is probably a win total in mid-to-low 80s. However, given the team’s strengths are pitching and pop, bet on best-case of 90+ win and another division title.

Evan Longoria anchors the Rays on offense and defense.
Evan Longoria anchors the Rays on offense and defense.

TAMPA BAY RAYS

2013: 92-71, 2nd in A.L. East

Key additions: RP Heath Bell, RP Grant Balfour, C Ryan Hanigan

Key losses: None

Strengths: Team defense, on-base percentage, pitching staff

Weaknesses: Payroll, bullpen regression, lack of power

Tampa Bay finished second in the majors in fielding percentage at .990, while also fourth in defensive efficiency, converting about 72% of all batted balls into outs.* Last year, the Rays’ entire starting infield was nominated for Gold Gloves at their respective positions.

*One of my goals is to mix in old-school and new-school methods here. I’m a believer in both having their benefits. The bottom line, though, is just to enjoy the game, however you do.

Tampa’s lineup is not built around a singular superstar, but rather a balanced group of hitters who work counts, get on base, and play to their individual strengths. While you won’t find a 40-homer bat in the Rays’ starting nine, what they do have a group that finished in the top ten in all of baseball in on-base percentage, doubles, slugging percentage, and total bases.

Third baseman Evan Longoria anchors both the offense and the defense. He played a career- high 160 games and led the team team with 39 doubles, 32 home runs, and 88 runs batted in. First baseman James Loney also had a strong debut season in Tampa, batting .299 with a .348 OBP. He smacked 13 homers while playing excellent defense at first base.

Utility player Ben Zobrist continues to be one of baseball’s best-kept secrets, as he had another great season while playing multiple positions. Zobrist started at second base 130 times for the Rays, with 39 appearances in right field, 21 at shortstop, with a handful of starts at DH, left field, and center field. Matt Joyce, when not spelling rookie Wil Myers or David DeJesus at the outfield corners, will see the bulk of Tampa’s DH time.

Rookie outfielder Myers, who will probably piss off Kansas City Royals’ fans for his entire career by simply existing in another uniform, was as advertised after being called up in midseason. He swatted 13 homers in 373 at-bats en route to the Rookie of the Year award and it looks like he’ll build on that to provide another 20-homer, 30-double bat for the Rays.

Tampa’s pitching staff is much like its lineup, in that there’s an anchor, followed by a lot of balance, but nothing else extraordinary. In the starting rotation, the Rays will start with 2012 Cy Young winner David Price, who posted a 10-8 record despite a 3.31 ERA. He’ll be followed in the rotation by two up-and-coming talents in righty Alex Cobb and lefty Matt Moore. Cobb, 25, went 11-3 with a 2.76 ERA last season in 143 ⅓ innings, while Moore, 24, won a team-high 17 games with a 3.29 ERA in 150 ⅓ frames.

Rounding out the Rays’ rotation will be Chris Archer, who put up a 3.22 ERA in 128 ⅔ innings, in the fourth spot, while highly regarded Jake Odorizzi, another piece from the James Shields-for-Myers heist of a year ago, fills out the fifth spot while Jeremy Hellickson recovers from offseason elbow surgery.

The Rays’ bullpen, which led the league in 2012 with a 2.88 ERA, slipped to seventh in 2013 with a 3.59 mark. Nevertheless, the pen returns a lot of talented arms and it should combine with the Rays’ rotation to make quick work out of a lot of A.L. opposition. The biggest moves in the pen for Tampa were the trade Arizona that brought former Diamondbacks’ closer Heath Bell to the Sunshine State, as well as the signing of former Oakland fireman Grant Balfour. Those two should add a lot of depth to an already good bullpen.

Masahiro Tanaka is a big new name for the Yankees.
Masahiro Tanaka is a big new name for the Yankees.

NEW YORK YANKEES

2013: 85-77, 3rd in A.L. East (tie)

Key additions: OF Jacoby Ellsbury, OF Carlos Beltran, C Brian McCann, SP Masahiro Tanaka

Key losses: 2B Robinson Cano, OF Curtis Granderson, RP Mariano Rivera

Team strengths: Starting pitching, outfield, catcher, payroll

Weaknesses: Infield, bullpen depth, overall offense, injury/age concerns

Since the inception of the current divisional format in 1995, the New York Yankees are the kings of this division, having won the East crown 13 times.

This year, however, if New York wants No. 14, it will need to need to overcome more obstacles than perhaps any time over the last 20 seasons.

First, the strengths of this team lie in its outfield and its payroll.

The offseason signings of center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and right fielder Carlos Beltran addressed two of the three outfield spots for the Yankees, while incumbent left fielder Brett Gardner is a strong left fielder.

With Ichiro Suzuki and Alfonso Soriano available to supply power and speed off the bench, the Yankees should easily boast the strongest outfield in the division.

The other big strength of the Yankees is, of course, their seemingly bottomless revenue stream, which lead to the signings of key players such as Ellsbury, Beltran, catcher Brian McCann, and starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. Those four contracts combined account of 22 years of service for more than $438 million. While New York had fantasies of remaining under MLB’s luxury tax threshold, that dream was shattered in pursuit of another division title.

The addition of McCann should benefit the Yankees significantly at the plate, although the long- term health of the 30-year-old former Atlanta Brave will be a question as his contract moves along. While the Yankees did sign arguably the most hyped international signing since Ichiro when they inked Tanaka from Japan’s Rakuten Golden Eagles for $155 million over seven years, it remains to be seen if New York’s rotation will be a strength or not.

No. 1 starter CC Sabathia lost a great deal of weight during the offseason, but worries about his decreased velocity and increasing physical wear-and-tear leave a lot of uncertainty around his 2014 performance. Hiroki Kuroda should slot in behind CC and provide a lot of good innings, but at 39, the Japanese import is pitching on borrowed time.

Tanaka probably slides into the next spot behind his countryman Kuroda. No one really knows what to expect from the 25-year-old right-hander. While it’s foolhardy to anticipate a 24-0 record stateside, if Tanaka can replicate Kuroda’s 2013 numbers of 200 innings, an ERA around 3.30, and double-digit wins, New York should be pleased with its investment.

The final two rotation spots will likely be filled by Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda. Nova had a strong third season in pinstripes. At age 27, Nova could post the best numbers of a No. 4 starter in the A.L. Pineda, coming back from shoulder injuries that have kept him out for two full seasons, is a major question mark, but if the 25-year-old comes close to his 2011 numbers with Seattle (9-10, 3.74 ERA, 173 K’s in 171 innings), New York could have a dominant starting five.

As with any team in the modern era, the bullpen will play a big role in how well New York fares this year. With the departure of Mariano Rivera, there’s a hole at the back end of the Yankee bullpen that has not existed since the Clinton administration’s first term, so it’s natural to question how effective new closer David Robertson will be. While the Yanks upgraded their outfield and starting rotation, they did little to address a bullpen that ranked 20th in MLB with a 3.66 ERA in 2013.

The Yankees also need to be concerned about a infield that is as questionable as it is brittle. First baseman Mark Teixeira, second baseman Brian Roberts, shortstop Derek Jeter, and third baseman Kelly Johnson all come with major durability concerns. Johnson, a utility player for Tampa Bay last season, led that group with 118 games played. Backups Eduardo Nunez, Brendan Ryan offer little offense if any of those four should go down. The DH spot, as is common for many teams, will be a revolving door for the Yanks.

Overall, this is a Yankees squad that faces concerns about keeping its “A-listers” on the field. If the team can fend off Father Time, look for them to challenge at the top of the division. If not, each injury becomes an anchor tethered to a sinking ship.

Chris Davis powers the Orioles.
Chris Davis powers the Orioles.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

2013: 85-77, 3rd in A.L. East (tie)

Key additions: SP Ubaldo Jimenez, OF Nelson Cruz, P Suk-min Yoon, OF David Lough, RP Ryan Webb, 2B Jemile Weeks

Key losses: RP Jim Johnson, OF Nate McLouth, SP Scott Feldman

Strengths: Defense, power, bullpen

Weaknesses: Starting pitching, on-base percentage

The Orioles were not quite able to replicate their 2012 success last year. It’s hardly surprising, as the 2012 squad was a good team propped up a bit by extraordinary luck in close games (29-9 in 1-run contests). They ended up 20-31 in such contests last year, en route to a tie with the Yankees for third in the division.

While Baltimore will bring back most of its team from last year, the team made a few moves during the offseason, although a couple others were squashed by mercurial owner Peter Angelos. The team appeared to ink free agent closer Grant Balfour and outfielder Tyler Colvin, only for mysteriously unfavorable physicals to send those two to Tampa Bay and San Francisco, respectively, instead of the Charm City.

Despite those obstacles, Baltimore should contend for the division again this season, thanks to light-tower power up and down the lineup and a defense that ranks among baseball’s best. The team led the A.L. with a .991 fielding percentage, while committing just 54 errors. The team was also third with 463 double plays turned, although you could argue that being a result of a shaky pitching staff that allowed too many baserunners.

The pitching staff has bright spots, however, with the signing of Ubaldo Jimenez, erstwhile ace of the Cleveland Indians. Jimenez, 30, went 13-9 with a 3.30 ERA atop Cleveland’s rotation last season. If he can repeat that for Baltimore, it would a welcome sight. The Orioles’ No. 2 starter is emerging righty Chris Tillman, who led the team with 16 wins over 206 ⅓ innings.

After those two, however, it gets a bit dicey, but there’s talent on the way. The bottom 60% of Baltimore’s rotation consists of Wei-Yen Chen (7-7), Bud Norris (4-3), and probably Miguel Gonzalez (11-8). If one of those three gets bumped to the bullpen, it will be good news for O’s fans, because that means former first-round draft choices Kevin Gausman or Dylan Bundy have started to deliver on their potential.

The Orioles’ bullpen was another strength last year, delivering a 3.52 ERA that was sixth in the league. Despite missing out on Balfour, Baltimore has several intriguing in-house replacements for the ninth inning, including Darren O’Day (2.18, 59 Ks in 62 innings), Tommy Hunter (2.81, 68 Ks in 86 ⅓ innings), and perhaps Norris is he does not make the rotation.

Baltimore’s offense is led by Chris Davis at first base. Davis, 28, led baseball with 53 home runs last season, while batting .286 with a .370 on-base percentage. While he strikes out a ton (199 last year), the power is legit and Davis makes enough adjustments to keep his rate stats above-average.

Third baseman Manny Machado is another emerging talent, but he’ll likely miss the start of 2014 after injuring his knee late in the 2013 season. Still, at just 21 years of age, Machado looks like a star, swatting 14 home runs and playing remarkable defense as a displaced shortstop. Of course, Machado shifted to his right because of veteran J.J. Hardy, who played his typical great defense while hitting 25 home runs, tying for the MLB lead at the position.

Second base was a sinkhole for Baltimore last year, O’s trotted out several different starters at the keystone. Departed Brian Roberts led the team with 60 games started at the position. Newcomer Jemile Weeks, acquired from Oakland for closer Jim Johnson, played just eight games last season, batting .111, but he’ll have the inside track at the starting job over prospect Jonathan Schoop.

The Oriole outfield, while not as talented as the infield, is a very solid group, led by centerfielder Adam Jones, who hit 35 doubles and 33 home runs last season, while playing Gold Glove defense and walking about as often as I eat salad. (Which is to say, not enough.)

Jones was flanked last year by Nick Markakis in right and mostly Nate McLouth in left. The former will return in 2014, but the latter has moved on to the Washington Nationals. Markakis should provide his usually good defense in right, along with okay power (24 doubles, 10 home runs in 2013) in the the No. 2 spot in Buck Showalter’s lineup. Taking over in left will be free agent signing Nelson Cruz, late of the Texas Rangers. Cruz, who served a 50-game PED suspension last year and has all the defensive grace of a mule, settled for a one-year, $8 million pact from the O’s after launching 27 home runs in 109 games for the Rangers. How he will fare outside of the hitters’ bonanza in Arlington will go a long way in determining his value to Baltimore.

Finally, the O’s should continue to get good overall production from catcher Matt Wieters. While he hasn’t lived up to the minor-league demigod status he created when climbing through, Wieters has become a solid MLB backstop, winning a Gold Glove last year, while hitting 22 homers and 29 doubles, acceptable numbers for a catcher, despite the eye-gougingly bad average (.235) and on-base numbers (.287).

At DH, Baltimore will probably go with some combination of Cruz, Davis, Wieters, Markakis, and Nolan Reimold, so expect about 20 homers, 75 RBIs out of that revolving door for the O’s.

The last three years have seen the Orioles go from a 69-win squad, to a playoff-bound 93-win team, to last season’s 85-game winners. While the team’s remarkable defense and power should keep them in a lot of games, the starting pitching is the key. If Gausman and/or Bundy step up, this team is a contender. If they don’t, it looks like more “not-quite-yet” frustration for the Orange & Black Attack.

Jose Bautista and the Blue Jays look to bounce back after a bust of a 2013 season.
Jose Bautista and the Blue Jays look to bounce back after a bust of a 2013 season.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

2013: 74-88, 5th place in A.L. East

Key additions: C Dioner Navarro

Key losses: C J.P. Arencibia, SP Josh Johnson, IF Mark DeRosa

Strengths: Power, bullpen, um, uh … The Kids in the Hall?

Weaknesses: Starting pitching, defense, health concerns

The Toronto Blue Jays entered that 2013 season with high expectations, fresh off a blockbuster 12-player trade with the Miami Marlins and the addition of 2012 Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. But those expectations never became reality, as most of the players acquired from Miami got hurt, regressed, fizzled out, or both. And Dickey? Well, he just did not have another career year, that’s all.

The Jays were middle-of-the-pack across MLB in most offensive categories, but they did end up fourth in the league with 185 home runs, including five everyday players (Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Adam Lind, Colby Rasmus, and Arencibia) that hit 21 or more round-trippers. Four of those five will be back in 2014, with Arencibia taking his poor defense (11 errors and 12 passed balls) and retched offense (.194/.258/.458 in 474 at-bats) to Texas. Nevertheless, Toronto should still have plenty of pop this year.

All those home runs mean nothing if table-setters Jose Reyes (at shortstop) and Melky Cabrera (in left field) are not on the field because outside of those two, this is not a team that gets on base well enough. Reyes, when healthy, is a dynamic presence in the leadoff spot, thanks to his .292 career batting average and .342 on-base percentage. However, the shortstop acquired from Miami played in just 93 games last season due to a severe ankle injury in April. Cabrera was signed to a 2-year contract by Toronto after a PED suspension and he ended up playing in only 88 contests due to a variety of injuries as well. Cabrera was not the only Jays’ outfielder to miss time last year, as center fielder Rasmus and right fielder Bautista both played in 118 games apiece.

The Blue Jays’ infield is probably not a strength, but it cannot be called a weakness either. First baseman Adam Lind is an adequate fielder, but the Jays have him there because the DH spot is occupied by 30-homer slugger Encarnacion, the best hitter (and worst fielder) on Canada’s team. Second base will be manned by rookie Ryan Goins, who hit .252 in 34 late-season games last season. Reyes will be at short again, with third base manned by third-year player Brett Lawrie, an all-out player whose aggressive style limited him to just 107 games, in which he managed 11 homers and 18 doubles in a season where many had predicted a breakout for the Canadian native.

While Dickey did not post the numbers expected of him atop the rotation, he was durable, topping 200 innings for the third straight year. Rotation-mate Mark Buehrle outdid that, though, exceeding 200 frames for the 13th time in his 14th year career. He won 12 games with a 4.15 ERA. Those were the only two bright spots for Toronto’s starters in 2014, as the Jays ended up with a 4.81 staff ERA, ahead of only the Minnesota Twins in the A.L.

Penciled into the remaining three slots are right handers Brandon Morrow, Drew Hutchison, and lefty J.A. Happ. Those three are typically filler and the same health concerns that plague the starting lineup apply here, particularly to Morrow and Happ, although Happ’s missed time last year with due to being hit with a line drive last May.

Toronto’s bullpen should continue to be a strength, though. It ranked fourth in the league last year with a 3.37 ERA, and featured two All-Stars in setup men Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar, along with closer Casey Janssen. Overall, I don’t see the Jays markedly improving over their 2013 finish. They have the talent to play spoiler, but too many things would have to go perfectly for this flawed group to avoid the division basement again in 2014.

Next will be the A.L. Central, followed by the A.L. West, and then we’ll venture into the National League!

Author: Joel Barnhart

A big-time baseball nerd, Joel is currently teaching English as a Second Language in San Antonio, Texas. In addition to his MLB passion, he enjoys good whiskey, good music, good movies, and good friends. He is currently engaged in an ongoing 12-year online debate over the merits of bubble wrap.