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2013 MLB Preview: AL East

We end our divisional previews with a possible changing of the guard on the East Coast.

Derek Jeter

The Yankees go Dumpster diving, the Orioles fight the big, bad regression monster, the Rays try for another run after losing two more big names, the Jays try to make good on their giant shopping spree, and the Red Sox chart a new path after their worst season in 47 years. Grantland’s countdown to Opening Day concludes with a look at the AL East.


LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
CF Brett Gardner (.259/.356/.362)
RF Ichiro Suzuki (.282/.311/.393)
2B Robinson Cano (.301/.361/.522)
3B Kevin Youkilis (.256/.363/.464)
DH Travis Hafner (.258/.353/.452)
LF Vernon Wells (.248/.291/.426)
1B Lyle Overbay (.235/.316/.384)
SS Eduardo Nunez (.265/.305/.363)
C Chris Stewart (.239/.305/.330)

Reports of the Yankees’ death have been … not greatly exaggerated. Let’s say, issued at a loud volume. One glance at the lineup above and you know this isn’t the same dominant Yankees team of the past two decades. The hope, of course, is that the replacement-level All-Stars are employed for only a short time. The Yanks have already found a very capable A-Rod replacement in Youkilis, who is a nice bounce-back candidate this year as long as his health holds up. Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, and Mark Teixeira will have to get well a lot quicker for this team to get back to the playoffs, though. You can mix and match a little with Brennan Boesch in left and try to take advantage of the one thing Wells still does well — hit lefties.1 You can hope that Nunez starts to fulfill some of his offensive potential and limits the number of casualties above the first-base dugout to under 50. Maybe Hafner plays 100 games for the first time since 2010. Maybe Ichiro staves off Father Time for another year. You should be legitimately bullish on Gardner, who’s still just 29, owns a career .355 on-base percentage, steals tons of bases, and plays spectacular defense.


He also, presumably, sleeps on top of a gigantic pile of money … which is a skill of sorts.

But the replacements can hold out only so long. There might not be any truly dominant teams in the AL East this year. But all five could conceivably finish above .500, and a bottom four of Wells, Overbay, Nunez, and Stewart won’t cut it for long — even with the Yankees’ solid pitching staff. The team remains committed to getting payroll under $189 million next year to reset luxury-tax penalties, though. So there’s not much to do here except wait. And hope.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
CC Sabathia (202, 3.37)
Hiroki Kuroda (186, 4.21)
Andy Pettitte (90, 3.78)
Ivan Nova (167, 4.49)
David Phelps (118, 4.41)

The pitching staff is clearly the Yankees’ biggest strength. But there are plenty of question marks here too. Phil Hughes starts the year on the disabled list. He’s supposed to be back around April 11, but needs to get through a couple of minor league starts with his back injury healed first. When he does come back, the Yankees will need to find a way to push the right-field fence back about 60 feet during his starts: Despite a strikeout-to-walk rate of better than 3.5-to-1 last year, Hughes posted a 4.23 ERA and 4.56 FIP, thanks to the highest fly ball rate and second-highest home run rate in the majors. Blame a freak leg injury for Pettitte making only 12 starts last year, but you have to wonder how much longer the 40-year-old lefty can produce at a high level. As for Nova … well, no one’s quite figured out what’s happening there — only the miserable Ervin Santana and Ricky Romero got their fastballs pummeled as badly last year as Nova did. Of course no rotation is perfect, and Sabathia and Kuroda give the Yankees an excellent shot at 425-plus terrific innings. I’m just a little less optimistic about the three-through-five spots than most.

In better news, Mo’s back, and the bullpen should be very good once again.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT: The DL brigade heals quickly, the Yankees go on a huge second-half run, and go into the playoffs with the roster of a 95-win team … even if they win only 88 or so to get there.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS WRONG: They miss the playoffs this year, and face an uphill battle next year too, with Cano facing free agency, a hard payroll cap, and an aging nucleus. Even in that scenario, you should be petrified of the Yankees once the spending limit’s lifted after 2014. A Dodgers-Yankees Cold War–style battle for $250 million free agents could be amazing theater.


LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
2B Brian Roberts (.244/.309/.363)
RF Nick Markakis (.281/.350/.428)
CF Adam Jones (.277/.326/.474)
C Matt Wieters (.256/.330/.433)
1B Chris Davis (.252/.308/.450)
SS J.J. Hardy (.258/.304/.424)
LF Nate McLouth (.231/.318/.379)
DH Nolan Reimold (.246/.322/.420)
3B Manny Machado (.252/.311/.418)

Lots of variance at the top and bottom of the order. A two-time All-Star who was once one of the best second basemen in the game, Roberts has played in 115 games over the past three seasons combined. At age 35, with all those injuries under his belt, any kind of positive contribution would be welcome. But realistically, the O’s will need to find a replacement, possibly soon. A neck injury wiped out the remainder of Reimold’s season for the second year in a row, but this time he managed only 16 games before hitting the shelf. He hit .279/.365/.466 as a 25-year-old rookie, but that was four years ago. Machado’s performance might be unpredictable this year as well, but he’s a 20-year-old mega-talent, so most of that variance leads toward upside. McLouth isn’t a high-variance player, but he’s also not very good anymore, his 55-game sample of decent performance in Baltimore notwithstanding.

Dan Duquette says he was happy enough with this team and its young core to leave most of the roster unchanged over the winter. Call that a case of Peter Angelos hoarding MASN money, or the Orioles becoming the new hara hachi bu champions of baseball. Either way, this lineup could and should have received multiple upgrades that never came.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
Jason Hammel (133, 3.59)
Wei-Yin Chen (156, 4.44)
Miguel Gonzalez (102, 4.59)
Chris Tillman (166, 4.44)
Jake Arrieta (145, 4.81)

Again, you like what the modest-pedigree guys did last year, and hope they can do it again in 2013. But why not hedge against less impressive results for Hammel, Chen, and Gonzalez, against a 29-9 record in one-run games last year that was one of the best in baseball history and also virtually impossible to repeat, against all the regression factors opposing a repeat of last season’s miraculous 93 wins? How hard would it have been to, say, top the two-year, $15.5 million offer the Diamondbacks made for Brandon McCarthy?

The good news is the O’s don’t have to (and almost certainly won’t) stick with this starting five for too long. Not when Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, Tommy Hunter, and especially all-world pitching prospect Dylan Bundy could step in at any time. It’s just that of that group, only Bundy might end up being a legitimate improvement over any of the incumbents. However the starters shake out, you can bet that heavy doses of a deep and talented relief corps, combined with lots of Buck Showalter voodoo, will need to be deployed for the Orioles to have a chance at another big season.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT: Everything already broke exactly right last year. Core players like Adam Jones, Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, and especially Machado are young enough to portend bigger numbers ahead. But the luck anvil that’s about to fall on this team’s head will make another wild-card run extremely difficult, even in a best-case scenario.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS WRONG: The O’s are a better team than they were last year, but still finish around .500, simply due to regression.


LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
CF Desmond Jennings (.252/.327/.390)
LF Matt Joyce (.246/.345/.437)
3B Evan Longoria (.263/.359/.486)
RF Ben Zobrist (.260/.362/.443)
DH Luke Scott (.241/.313/.441)
SS Yunel Escobar (.256/.322/.348)
1B James Loney (.259/.314/.369)
C Jose Molina (.232/.291/.350)
2B Kelly Johnson (.223/.313/.377)

Wil Myers por favor. Rápidamente. The Rays very well might’ve made the playoffs last year had Longoria not missed more than half the season with a hamstring injury. But even if Longoria plays 160 games this year and Jennings takes a step forward as the team’s new starting center fielder, this team sorely needs another big bat. While they wait for Myers’s free-agency clock to push back a year (that’ll happen in the second week of April) or for his arbitration clock to do the same (he’d need to be promoted in roughly late June or early July for that to happen), the Rays will get back to basics, playing a lineup that promises to rank among the league’s very best defensive units. The Longoria injury and other setbacks last year pushed Tampa Bay out of a top-five defensive ranking for the first time since 2007.2 Loney won’t hit, but he’ll still play the kind of elite defense the team missed as Carlos Pena showed his age last year. The sure-handed Escobar’s arrival as the team’s new shortstop pushes Zobrist to right field (and occasionally second base), where he’ll offer more defensive value. A natural center fielder, Jennings could excel now that he’s shifted over to that position, following B.J. Upton’s departure.


To be fair, they finished sixth as measured by Ultimate Zone Rating.

The Rays will catch the ball, they’ll run, shift, platoon, do everything they can to get the most out of a limited lineup. Let’s just hope they don’t play service-time footsie too long with a player who’ll likely become the team’s second-best hitter the minute he steps on the field. In what figures to be a very competitive AL East again, every week spent without Myers on the field will be a missed opportunity.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
David Price (208, 3.22)
Jeremy Hellickson (167, 4.30)
Matt Moore (171, 3.74)
Alex Cobb (149, 4.13)
Jeff Niemann (104, 4.16)

The first thing you should know about Rays pitchers — this year and every year — is that they’re not doing it alone. Between that always-strong defense, on-point defensive positioning by Joe Maddon and his staff, and a ballpark that doesn’t have the same reputation as offense-deadening Dodger Stadium or Petco Park but delivers similar results, Rays hurlers probably aren’t quite as great as their superficial stats would seem to indicate.3


Hellickson in particular befuddles analysts, who’ve made multiple attempts to unlock the mystery of his perennially microscopic ERAs, numbers that are so low that even accounting for defense and park effect doesn’t fully solve the riddle.

That caveat aside, this is going to be a great staff again in 2013, even with James Shields relocated to Kansas City. Moore dropped his ERA by nearly a run and a half after the All-Star break last year and looks set to make good on his monstrous minor league numbers and become one of this year’s biggest pitching breakouts. Cobb comes with much less hype, but he’s a strike zone–pounding, ground ball–inducing metronome who should pick up a lot of the slack left behind by Shields’s departure, maybe as soon as this season. The bet here is that neither Niemann nor Roberto Hernandez4 finishes the year in the no. 5 spot. The beauty of this pitching staff lies in its quality but also its depth, whether it’s Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, and Alex Colome poised to break into the rotation, or a very deep bullpen behind brim-tilting, plantain-wielding, arrow-shooting madman Fernando Rodney that has even more reinforcements standing by at Triple-A.


At press time it wasn’t yet confirmed who would be the Rays’ fifth starter, though Niemann was granted the double-wide locker at the Trop that Shields used last year, if you want to call that a sign.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT: Pitching, defense, and the Longoria-Myers show propel the Rays to the World Series.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS WRONG: It’s hard to see this team being truly bad with this much pitching, even if it can’t catch a break. But an 83-win season and another playoff miss are certainly possible if the Rays can’t hit.


LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
SS Jose Reyes (.293/.345/.450)
LF Melky Cabrera (.294/.341/.455)
RF Jose Bautista (.266/.394/.557)
1B Edwin Encarnacion (.273/.361/.508)
CF Colby Rasmus (.242/.313/.438)
DH Adam Lind (.263/.318/.451)
C J.P. Arencibia (.233/.285/.457)
2B Emilio Bonifacio (.254/.314/.327)
3B Maicer Izturis (.270/.332/.373)

We’re about to find out what a complete makeover can do. Four of the nine members of the Opening Day lineup will be new additions to the team, following the Jeffrey Loria–is-a-genius trade and a pair of shrewd, lost-cost pickups in Cabrera and Izturis. The new additions, along with a hopefully healthy Bautista, will be most welcome: While the terrible pitching staff deservedly got much of the blame for last year’s awful season, the Jays weren’t a particularly good offensive team in 2012 either. When Brett Lawrie comes back, we’ll see a lineup packed with power and speed, capable of generating runs in a lot of ways. And if, say, Adam Lind continues with his quest for world out-making domination, GM Alex Anthopoulos has the will, the prospects, and now the support of ownership to go trade for someone better.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
R.A. Dickey (194, 4.03)
Brandon Morrow (154, 3.71)
Mark Buehrle (176, 4.37)
Josh Johnson (149, 3.57)
J.A. Happ (131, 4.77)

There’s no disputing that this rotation will be way, way, way better than last year’s Chernobylers. For one thing, Ricky Romero has been banished to the furthest reaches of space, which is to say, Single-A Dunedin. But this is about far more than addition by subtraction. After shocking the world by reeling in Johnson and Buehrle from the Fish, Anthopoulos made another splashy move, grabbing Dickey from the Mets for top catching prospect Travis D’Arnaud and three others. The Jays can now look to prospects like Kyle Drabek (due back from Tommy John surgery this summer) as a source of depth, rather than as would-be saviors for a busted season. The bullpen should be better, too, with Sergio Santos back after pitching only five innings last year and strikeout-firing setup man Steve Delabar onboard for a full season after coming over in a midseason trade last year from Seattle.

But better doesn’t necessarily mean great. We’ve been waiting on a 220-inning, Cy Young–caliber season from Morrow since John A. Macdonald’s first term.5 Johnson’s track record of health isn’t much better. Buehrle’s numbers faded last year, and it’s worth wondering how he’ll fare pitching in the AL East at age 34. We should probably learn to stop doubting Dickey at this point, but you have to expect at least some pullback after his magical 2012 season. Bottom line, the Jays will be better this year, and their pitching will be a lot better. But after a run-prevention tire fire last year that stoked a 73-win season, Toronto’s first division title in 20 years is far from guaranteed — even given that amazing shopping spree.


Canadian joke. Look it up, non-hosers.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT: The Jays do get that division title, breaking the third-longest active playoffs-less streak in baseball. With a loaded lineup, deep bench, and a tireless ace, they’d be tough to beat if they get there.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS WRONG: They’re a much better team than last year, but win 85 games or so, falling a bit short of the postseason party.


LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
CF Jacoby Ellsbury (.284/.335/.445)
RF Shane Victorino (.267/.331/.425)
2B Dustin Pedroia (.289/.361/.456)
1B Mike Napoli (.248/.350/.488)
3B Will Middlebrooks (.255/.294/.434)
DH Jonny Gomes (.240/.336/.423)
C Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.227/.291/.431)
LF Jackie Bradley (.249/.335/.367)
SS Jose Iglesias (.254/.300/.304)

The Sox endured lots of criticism for signing some seemingly expensive free-agent pickups over the winter. It’s true that Victorino isn’t much of a hitter against right-handed pitching, and that’s unlikely to improve with age. It’s also true that Napoli’s hip problems make him a significant health risk, and that a two-year deal for Ryan Dempster is iffy given that the veteran right-hander turns 36 in a month. But this was a truly awful team last year. Forget all the off-field drama. Multiple injuries to front-line players forced the Sox to field a lineup and pitching staff riddled with replacement-level talent. It’s highly unlikely that any of the new arrivals making eight figures a year will put up star-caliber numbers. But they’ll make the team better, and make it respectable, which counts for something when you’re trying to keep your paying customers happy. Not to mention that $13 million a year for slightly above-average players isn’t out of line, given where the game’s finances have gone.

After all that, this should be an intriguing Boston nine. Outfield phenom Bradley blew away the Grapefruit League, convincing management to give him an everyday job a little earlier than expected. Ellsbury, Pedroia, and Middlebrooks should hopefully be healthier than last year. When Ortiz comes back, this should be a multifaceted and perfectly competent offense.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
Jon Lester (188, 3.78)
Clay Buchholz (147, 4.30)
Ryan Dempster (163, 4.18)
Felix Doubront (122, 4.21)
John Lackey (127, 4.74)

Dempster and Lackey are the new additions, one from the free-agent ranks, the other from a long injury rehab and some pretty hard-core Jenny Craiging. Doubront is a stealth breakout candidate, while Lester and Buchholz are prime examples of the “it can’t possibly get any worse” theory. The bullpen, a source of unlimited tsuris last year, should be more stable, with Joel Hanrahan brought in to close, the massively underrated Koji Uehara acquired to set up, and a new season that can’t possibly bring as much bad luck as 2013 did.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT: It might seem crazy after last year’s 93-loss debacle, but there’s 85-win upside on this club, maybe even a smidge better. It might seem weird to say this given their big payroll and usually high expectations, but if you’re looking for a surprise team this season, you won’t find many better candidates than the Sox.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS WRONG: You mean worse than losing more games than you have since 1965, staging a clubhouse mutiny, having your fans turn against you, and faring worse than the Padres, Mets, and Royals? We’ve already been into the abyss. It can only get better from here.