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February 17, 2010

Division Preview

AL East

by Tommy Bennett

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The American League East has produced the eventual AL pennant winner in each of the last three seasons and seven of the last 10. In the 2000s, AL East teams (well, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, really) won four World Series. In six of the last seven years, the AL East has also produced the wild-card team. Almost without question, the AL East is the toughest division to win in baseball.

Our projection system, PECOTA, projects the performance of every player on every team for this season. When combined with our most recent playing-time forecasts, we can project the standings. Traditionally, the Yankees and Red Sox are the behemoths that exert tremendous gravity on the other three teams, effectively weighing down their schedules 36 times a year. Somehow, in this most extreme of competitive environments, new hope is managing to grow.

Boston Red Sox

Projected record: 94-68

Why They Might Win: PECOTA projects the Red Sox to allow just 677 runs, the fewest since winning the World Series in 2007. Their defense, which ranked 18th in the majors last year in our park-adjusted efficiency rankings, has been drastically improved with the additions of Mike Cameron and Adrian Beltre. The addition of John Lackey to the pair of aces in Josh Beckett and Jon Lester gives the Red Sox what is probably the strongest three-starter combination in baseball.

Why They Might Not Win: The Red Sox are unlikely to score as many runs this year as they did last year (872)-PECOTA projects them for 808. They have effectively swapped Jason Bay out for Cameron, a downgrade offensively. Marco Scutaro, while an upgrade over the ghosts of Red Sox shortstops past, is not a great hitter. Their offensive core is aging, increasing the risk of injury.

Player Who Could Surprise: Clay Buchholz has tantalized fans with his promise but has yet to find consistent success. Heading into his age-25 season, PECOTA projects Buchholz to pitch 152 innings with a 10-7 record and 3.89 ERA. Behind the top three, Buchholz could provide a nifty bit of production at the back of the rotation.

Player Who Could Disappoint: Scutaro was signed with the hope he would stop the revolving door at shortstop; PECOTA sees him as a competent yet unspectacular player. Although he put up a .379 on-base percentage last season while Red Sox shortstops combined for a .297 mark, PECOTA projects his batting average to slip to .278 and his OBP to drop to .362 while showing hardly any power.

New York Yankees

Projected record: 92-70

Why They Might Win: The Yankees are set to be a run-scoring juggernaut; PECOTA projects them to outscore all other teams, with 821 runs total. A full season of Alex Rodriguez plus the additions of Nick Johnson and Curtis Granderson means this lineup will be the toughest to get through in baseball.

Why They Might Not Win: The starting pitching, while helped by the addition of Javier Vazquez, is not as good as Boston's. The Yankees need Vazquez to limit his home runs allowed, which is a perennial problem for the fly-ball pitcher-and Joba Chamberlain needs to bring his good fastball every start. They'll win a lot of slugfests, but they can't win them all.

Player Who Could Surprise: After several on-again, off-again seasons, it appears Robinson Cano has found his groove. PECOTA agrees, and projects a .297/.338/.493 season; you'll see good defense from him in his age-27 season, a time when players often peak.

Player Who Could Disappoint: The Yankees brought back Andy Pettitte for another season, but PECOTA doesn't like the chances of him matching his 4.16 ERA from last season. Instead, he projects for a 4.71 ERA, which would be the worst of his career.

Tampa Bay Rays

Projected record: 91-71

Why They Might Win: The Rays project to be a well-balanced team, scoring 800 runs and allowing 699. They play good defense, have two strong front-line starting pitchers in Matt Garza and James Shields, and are young. They also have enviable depth, with prospects Jeremy Hellickson (P) and Desmond Jennings (OF) raring to make their major-league debuts.

Why They Might Not Win: The back of their rotation is in flux and contains question marks. Andy Sonnanstine was plain awful last season (6.77 ERA), and David Price and Jeff Niemann have yet to fully establish themselves. Additionally, despite the emergence of Ben Zobrist, they only have one legitimate offensive superstar in Evan Longoria.

Player Who Could Surprise: Wade Davis has been ranked by Kevin Goldstein as one of the Rays' top prospects before each of the last three seasons, and this year is no exception, as the right-hander is a five-star prospect. After putting up a 3.40 ERA at Triple-A last season, PECOTA sees Davis pitching 165 innings of 4.55 ERA ball. The only reason he might not do that is because Hellickson (who PECOTA projects for a 3.97 ERA in limited time) is nearly ready to take his rotation spot.

Player Who Could Disappoint: Many fans were hoping Pat Burrell would bounce back after a disappointing 2009. PECOTA is not optimistic. It projects a .241/.371/.443 line, which is an improvement-but not enough to be a productive DH in the AL East.

Baltimore Orioles

Projected record: 79-83

Why They Might Win: In any other division, the Orioles would probably be a contender. Although this probably isn't the year they put it all together, they are tantalizingly close to a return to respectability. They are projected to score 781 runs-fifth in the AL, but fourth in the East. The outfield of Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, and Nolan Reimold might be the best in the division. Starters Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman could have breakouts in their first full major-league seasons.

Why They Might Not Win: Their starting pitching is not yet where it needs to be. Kevin Millwood isn't as good as his ERA made him seem last year, so PECOTA projects Brad Bergesen to be the Orioles' starter with the lowest ERA at 4.40. This is not a formula for success.

Player Who Could Surprise: Jones started last year strong (.303/.357/.481 before the All-Star break), but cooled in the second half. PECOTA thinks he can do it all season this year, pegging him for .294/.350/.501. Even more noteworthy is his high "Breakout" score, which suggests a good probability that his production will improve by at least 20 percent over his established level of performance.

Player Who Could Disappoint: Millwood, despite a superficially strong ERA last season, has lost the ability to strike out batters at a high rate. PECOTA sees the writing on the wall and projects him for a pedestrian 4.71 ERA and just 5.8 strikeouts per nine innings.

Toronto Blue Jays

Projected record: 71-91

Why They Might Win: The Blue Jays have an uphill battle, but they've got a couple of young bats in Adam Lind and Brett Wallace, who could blossom into excellent hitters. If young pitchers Brandon Morrow and Marc Rzepczynski reach their potential, the team could catch potentially catch fire.

Why They Might Not Win: It would take just about everything going their way for them to win this year, including a turnaround from former top prospect Travis Snider and the emergence of someone to fill the large void left by trading ace Roy Halladay. They project to score just 702 runs, fewest in the AL, while playing in baseball's toughest division.

Player Who Could Surprise: Lind is on the cusp of superstardom. On the heels of a 35-homer season, PECOTA projects for more of the same: .279/.340/.495 with 31 homers. His top comparables include former All-Stars Harold Baines and Ryan Klesko.

Player Who Could Disappoint: Ricky Romero is a former first-round draft pick (chosen between Ryan Braun and Troy Tulowitzki), so when he dazzled in his major- league debut last season, many fans hoped his promise had finally been realized. However, PECOTA-taking into account a minor-league track record that was not particularly strong-envisions a 4.82 ERA, which suggests he may not spend the whole season in the rotation.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Related Content:  PECOTA,  The Who,  Year Of The Injury

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