About a year ago the Boston Herald not-so-subtly declared the 2011 Boston Red Sox the “The Best Team Ever!” What a difference a year makes. Well, what a difference an unprecedented 30 day collapse featuring “Chicken and Beer Gate” and a nightly appearance of out-of-shape Red Sox starters, which culminated in the ugly dismissal of the only manager to bring Boston a World Series title since Woodrow Wilson was in office. Let’s not forget “The Chosen One,” Theo Epstein, left a franchise he grew up 10 minutes away from for a franchise that still blames Steve Bartman and a black cat for not winning anything in over a hundred years. Meanwhile, Red Sox principal owner John Henry bought Liverpool (nothing says “I’m in touch with the Boston fan base” like buying a Soccer team for half a billion dollars) and openly blamed his Baseball Operations team for signing Carl Crawford. And because the Red Sox wanted to continue their roller-coaster ride in 2011 they opted to hire a manager more famous for what he claims he has accomplished off the field than what he has actually accomplished on the field (hey, maybe he did really invent the wrap sandwich).
So where are we one year later? The Yankees, thanks in part to a blockbuster Friday night when they acquired Michael Pineda from the Mariners and Hiroki Kuroda in free agency, are the AL East favorites. Tampa is unanimously thought to be better than Boston, primarily because of their starting pitching. The powerhouses in the American League (Anaheim, Detroit, and Texas) have all seemingly passed Boston by. If you were to rank the AL teams now (I know, foolish) Boston would fall somewhere around the 6th rank. Not bad for most teams, but a notable fall from grace just 12 months after being deemed March World Series champs.
As Spring Training games get underway this weekend, let’s preview the major AL East players; three teams that could all make the playoffs in the new 2012 format.
New York Yankees
Goal: Business as usual, to win a World Series
Strength: Pitching staff
On paper, the Yankees starting rotation is as good as it’s been since ‘03 when their five-man rotation featured Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, David Wells, and Jeff Weaver—as complete of a rotation as you are going to find. For 2012 the Yankees have built a rotation behind Sabathia that has both youth and experience.
The pitching staff does not end with the rotation. The Yankees bullpen was phenomenal last year, highlighted by a break-out performance by David Robertson (whom many feel is in line to be the heir apparent to Mariano). Soriano will be returning—hopefully healthy—and the Yankees can look forward to getting Chamberlain back sometime around the All Star break.
Weakness: Aging offense
While the Yankees lineup in 2012 is still near the top five in all of baseball, it is not the juggernaut it was just two season ago. Derek Jeter is aging quickly and will probably need some significant time off in the middle of the season in order to stay fresh. Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez are both on the downswing, A-Rod more so than Teixeira. The Yankees will look to Cano and Granderson to have repeat performances from last year in order to stabilize the aging offense.
Biggest area of need: A left-hander out of the bullpen
Boone Logan is just too inconsistent to count on in big situations; his OPS-against was more than 100 points higher to left-handed batters last season than right-handed. The Yankees need to find a better lefty out of the ‘pen.
Tampa Bay Rays
Goal: To make the playoffs and attract some fans in the process
Strength: Starting rotation
Last year the Rays had four guys start 29 or more games, all of which pitched 184 or more innings. How? They are young, talented, and only getting better.
As good as their rotation is, their offense is equally as bad. Without Evan Longoria, this is a Triple-A lineup at best.
Biggest area of need: Offense
The Rays scored 16 fewer runs than the league average last season (and one less than the Baltimore Orioles), yet somehow managed to make the playoffs. The Rays will need to score more in order to make the playoffs again.
Boston Red Sox
Goal: Erase the memory of last September
Despite missing the playoffs by going 7-20 in September, the Red Sox did manage to finish first in runs scored, second in batting average, first in on-base-percentage, first in slugging percentage, and first in OPS last season. All the big players are returning: Ellsbury, Pedroia, Gonzalez, Youkilis, and Ortiz; and if they can get anything out of Crawford the Red Sox offense will be their strength again in 2012.
Weakness: Starting rotation depth
Lester, Beckett, and Buccholz have the potential to be the anchor of a great rotation, but Beckett has been unreliable since 2007, Buccholz is returning from a broken back and has shown no ability to stay healthy for a full season, Lackey will miss the entire season with Tommy-John surgery, and Dice-K won’t be ready until the All Star break because of his Tommy-John. The Sox will also count on Daniel Bard to make a successful transition to the rotation, something we have seen both Chamberlain and Hughes struggle with.
Biggest area of need: Shortstop
The Red Sox could use depth in their rotation, but they could also use a shortstop. Boston does not currently have a major league shortstop on their roster. But hey, not many balls are hit that way, right?