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MLB Baseball Preview 2013: American League East

New Blue Jays Team
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Our season preview will get your geared up for the upcoming season as we rundown each division covering the ins and outs of all 30 teams.

Let’s take a look at the American League East — a division that will definitely see a huge shift in power. Long gone are the days of the Evil Empire and the Sox battling for AL East supremacy. The new look Blue Jays could turn into the AL version of the last place Miami Marlins of last season or take the AL East crown. The Orioles will need to get off to just as good a start as they did in their 2012 campaign and the Rays always make things interesting at the end of the season.

Here is how I think the AL East will shakedown once the calendar turns to Fall.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

Toronto Blue Jays
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The Junior Circuit’s biggest newsmakers this offseason pushed their chips all in and appeared to have picked the best time to pounce with perennial powers New York and Boston having dipped from their normal perch.

Strength: They fortified their team quite a bit, but they are powered by their lineup. In fact, they will barely miss third baseman Brett Lawrie who is slated to start the season on the disabled list with a rib cage injury. The emergence of Edwin Encarnacion joining forces with Jose Bautista gives them one of the most powerful three-four combos in the game. The star power brought in – namely Jose Reyes and Josh Johnson in the Miami trade – overshadowed smaller moves like Emilio Bonifacio (who also came from Miami) and Maicer Izturis (signed away from the Angels) who both give them a ton of flexibility and strengthen the back third of the lineup. Melky Cabrera likely won’t hit .346 like he did last year before being suspended for PEDs, but he is a perfect two-hitter for this team.

Weakness: They have essentially used their starting pitcher depth before the season even starts by sending Ricky Romero down to High-A and promoting J.A. Happ into the fifth starter spot. Romero labored through a terrible 2012 and somehow looked worse in Spring Training so he was shipped to High-A to right himself. They did the same thing with Roy Halladay back in 2001 and that worked pretty well, so hopefully Romero can get his once promising career back on track.

Player/Pitcher on the Rise: Brandon Morrow is someone we have been waiting on for some time as he has shown glimpses of stardom in the past, but hasn’t quite been able to get everything in order for one big season. In my AL Bold Predictions piece, I tabbed him for a huge 2013.

Player/Pitcher on the Decline: Mark Buehrle has proven himself in the American League so I’m not expecting a complete implosion with his transition back over, but he is 34 years old and his component skills just aren’t that strong so I see a low-4.00s ERA in 200 innings. That will be fine for the Blue Jays because they don’t need him to be a major component of their rotation, but fantasy players might expect another sub-4.00 ERA and I wouldn’t bet on it.

Prospect to Watch: I’m cheating here since he’s no longer rookie qualified and thus not exactly a prospect, but Anthony Gose is a guy who has Colby Rasmus on notice. And another terrible year from Rasmus will help Gose squeeze his way into the lineup. His speed is transcendent and his defense is already major league ready. It’s just a matter of his hitting that has to come along. He wasn’t too sharp at the dish in his 189 plate appearances last year with a 622 OPS, but he was also just 21 years old. Keep an eye out for him.

Prediction: 90-72, AL East Champions

TAMPA BAY RAYS

Tampa Bay Rays
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Strength: It has been the same since they rose to prominence back in 2008: their starting pitching. In fact, it is so strong that they were confident enough to deal James Shields to improve their offense. Even with that trade, they still don’t have space for all of their capable starting pitchers as Chris Archer was sent down and Jeff Niemann lost out on the fifth starter’s role to Roberto Hernandez (formerly Fausto Carmona). David Price – the reigning Cy Young Award winner – leads the charge, but youngster Matt Moore gives the team a pair of dynamic lefties sure to give the AL East fits all summer.

Weakness: The aforementioned lineup is still a weakness because the reinforcement they got in the Shields trade – Wil Myers – won’t be around for a little while. Unfortunately we can’t pin down exactly what that “little while” will be because if he signs one of long-term Tampa deals, he’ll be up immediately and if not, he’s headed back to Triple-A. The lineup is probably better than most assume, but it’s the weak spot. Evan Longoria needs to stay healthy and be an MVP candidate while the real key is Desmond Jennings taking a major step forward as the team’s leadoff hitter.

Player/Pitcher on the Rise: Like Morrow from the Jays, Moore also made my AL Bold Predictions as I see a huge step forward for him in 2013 including 210 strikeouts. The young lefty turned the corner last year in a Memorial Day gem against Chris Sale when he struck out 10 and allowed just two runs in a tough loss where Sale fanned 15 while giving the Rays just one run. Including that game, Moore posted a 3.31 ERA in his final 127.7 innings and even had some stretches where his command was much sharper than it had been in April and early May.

Player/Pitcher on the Decline: This one is easy as there is just no way a 36-year old Fernando Rodney can match 2012’s dream season. He can remain extremely effective and his sparkling rate stats (27% K, 5% BB) might stay intact, but the 0.60 ERA and 0.78 WHIP just have to come up, right? It would be fun to be wrong here because it would mean two record-setting seasons in a row from a scrap heap reliever who was struggling to be better than replacement level, but I’m safely laying my money down on a regression toward something like 2.50 ERA and 1.05 WHIP – both of which are still excellent.

Prospect to Watch: I know I should make the tough choice and just pick one, but I think both previously mentioned farmhands – Archer and Myers – are going to make a significant impact on this team in 2013. Even if Archer doesn’t squeeze his way into the rotation, he should be a force out of the bullpen in the second half. Meanwhile Myers can be inserted into the lineup in a number of permutations as the team has incredible flexibility with their other pieces.

Prediction: 89-73, AL Wildcard

NEW YORK YANKEES

New York Yankees
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Strength: Right now you would be hard-pressed to get even Yankees fans to list something here. They’ve been decimated by injuries and this isn’t your usual high-powered Yankees team that we’ve seen pretty much yearly since 2006, but it’s not some bottom feeder, either. All the focus on the lineup misses the fact that the rotation is solid. Meanwhile, the bullpen remains the strength and it is a big reason why they won’t be a total flop this year. Even if their backend guys like Ivan Nova and David Phelps, or even Andy Pettitte who is 41 years old can’t go much more than five innings, they have a strong bullpen that can shorten games highlighted by David Robertson and Mariano Rivera essentially ending games for the opposing offense after seven innings.

Weakness: It is the lineup, but even that might be temporary. First off any lineup with one of the absolute best players in baseball can only be so bad. Robinson Cano is the stabilizing force in the middle of that lineup while Brett Gardner and a rejuvenated Ichiro Suzuki aren’t bad as table setters. The early season success will hinge on whether or not Kevin Youkilis has anything left in the tank. If so, they have a solid top four and they can piece together their bottom five as they wait for Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, and Mark Teixeira to return. I guess Alex Rodriguez, too, but he can’t even think about coming back until sometime in June.

Player/Pitcher on the Rise: When the entire team is 900 years old, it’s hard to find emerging assets. I think Gardner has another level to his game that he will start to bring forth in 2013. He can hit .300 with a .400 on-base percentage while stealing a ton of bases. The key will be staying healthy after missing almost all of 2012.

Player/Pitcher on the Decline: Again, the team is 900 years old. Virtually everyone who isn’t Gardner, Nova, or Robertson can fit here.

Prospect to Watch: They’ve got some solid prospects, but most are extremely far away so they can’t even leverage their farm to cover these holes created by injury. Their catcher situation is an utter disaster right now and Austin Romine could find his way up at some point this year. He definitely needs some more Triple-A reps, though. He has a 610 OPS there in just 21 games and his nine-game MLB stint was quite a bit worse (358) back in 2011. With Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli, you can understand why they might want to rush Romine.

Prediction: 87-75

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

Baltimore Orioles
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Strength: They didn’t do much to reinforce their surprise 93-win team from a year ago, one that everyone saw as a pretty obvious regression candidate. Even if their rotation and bullpen do return to earth this year, their lineup still looks like a force. It will hinge on the health of Nick Markakis and Brian Roberts, both of whom seem to be perpetually injured. The heart of the order with Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, and Chris Davis still looks like one of baseball’s strongest. There is a ton of upside in third baseman Manny Machado, but at 20 years old, it may still be a year or two away.

Weakness: Bullpen performance is usually the major difference in these surprise teams and their regression the following year sends the team back down the standings. I think there will be some of that in 2013 for the O’s, but it’s not a bullpen devoid of talent. Darren O’Day and Pedro Strop are a good bridge to closer Jim Johnson and Brian Matusz was a revelation out of the pen late in the season on into the playoffs. He could be the key to preventing too much regression. There aren’t too many glaring weaknesses with this team, but it’s also not a special team that jumps off the page screaming another 93 wins.

Player/Pitcher on the Rise: Machado is most certainly on the rise, but like I said it may take a while, so I’ll pick Wieters. He was expected to cure cancer with his base hits when he came up in 2009, but he hasn’t had that superstar season just yet. At 27, he’s entering his prime and looks ready to become that overpowering force who garners MVP consideration.

Player/Pitcher on the Decline: While I think the power will be there, Davis will struggle to hit .270 again if he continues to strikeout at a 30 percent clip. Guys striking out that often are usually no better than .240 hitters with guys like Drew Stubbs (.213), Adam Dunn (.204), and Carlos Pena (.197) showing exactly how bad it can be when you swing and miss that much.

Prospect to Watch: It has to be Dylan Bundy. He is arguably the top prospect in all of baseball. If both he and Machado prove ready sooner than expected (i.e. this year) then they may well be able to follow up 2012 with another playoff season. It is hard to believe Bundy was a high school product given the way he pitched across three levels last year as a 19-year old in his first year as a pro. Well, four levels if you count his 1.7 innings with the Orioles. He shows four plus pitches at any given time and already has advanced control. His upside is superstar ace.

Prediction: 82-80

BOSTON RED SOX

Boston Red Sox
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Strength: Oof, no facet of this team appeals to me all that much as the lineup has a lot of downside outside of Dustin Pedroia and the rotation is a bunch of question marks behind Jon Lester. As such, I think the bullpen is their biggest asset on paper. I actually like the earlier guys like Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara more than Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey.

Hanrahan had some good results last year, but his 14 percent walk rate and 1.2 HR/9 are concerning, meanwhile Bailey has never shown the ability to stay healthy. Tazawa was excellent in 44 innings last year fanning 26 percent of the batters he faced while walking just three percent. Uehara has been even better and done so for three straight years. He has a 33 percent strikeout rate and three percent walk rate in 145 innings. His 1.2 HR/9 rate is likely why he has never been inserted to a closer’s role.

Weakness: Injury risk. Every team has it, of course, but the best indicator of future injury is previous injury putting Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Napoli, Will Middlebrooks, Clay Buchholz, and John Lackey at risk in particular. Meanwhile David Ortiz and Stephen Drew – two key parts of their lineup – are already slated to start the season on the disabled list.

Player/Pitcher on the Rise: Jackie Bradley Jr. has made the team out of camp in large part because of the injuries, but the 23-year old prospect could force way into staying if he performs immediately. He has just 61 games at Double-A under his belt, but an advanced approach at the plate and a huge spring (.419 average and 1120 OPS) helped him take advantage of the lack of an everyday option in left field.

Player/Pitcher on the Decline: Victorino’s sudden inability to hit righties was a major problem in 2012 as he hit a career worst .229 in 472 plate appearances with an ugly 629 OPS. In fact, he has struggled against righties in two of the last three years. If he can’t turn that trend around, then his days as an above average asset are done.

Prospect to Watch: Allen Webster had the pitching version of Bradley’s spring, but couldn’t quite force his way onto the club. Like Bradley, he hasn’t been past Double-A having thrown the bulk of his 494 pro innings there (213). He posted an ugly 5.04 ERA in 91 innings at Double-A in 2011, but improved last year with a 3.55 in 122 innings. He needs to improve his control a bit, but he does an amazing job keeping the ball down and limiting home runs that would make those walks especially problematic. In fact, he allowed just two home runs in his 131 total innings last year. He will start the season in Triple-A, but I would expect to see him in the majors at some point.

Prediction: 78-84

 

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