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March 27, 2003

Prospectus Today

AL East Preview

by Joe Sheehan

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The American League East is moving slowly from a 2-3 configuration to a 2-1-2, as the Toronto Blue Jays put together not just a good team, but an organization that will sustain success. The division will be 3-2 by 2005, but for now, it's the same rivals dueling for supremacy.

Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox have had some of the best core talent in baseball for the last four years, with Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez. This year, however, they have the best supporting cast they've had in a while. Combined with some cracks in the Yankee Wall, the added depth should be enough to slide them into first place for the first time since 1997.

The big story in Boston is that the Sox are going without a closer. Now, that's usually reported as "...without a traditional closer," which is phrasing I could do without. The current position of closer is really just 15-20 years old, and calling something younger than me "traditional" doesn't feel right.

No, the Red Sox's plan for their bullpen is akin to the bullpens of the 1970s, less about designated roles and more about getting an effective pitcher into the game and letting him pitch for a while. Sox relievers will pitch more often and in shorter stints than, say, the 1977 Red Sox relievers did, but their use will be governed less by the save statistic and more by matchups and performance.

Many people will wait to see how the Red Sox do to determine if the experiment is a success. I won't: It's a great idea, and if it doesn't work out, if the Sox lose some games in the late innings, it doesn't change the fact that this method of running a bullpen is clearly better than the save-centric model of the last decade. The Sox will have a competitive advantage over the rest of the league if they stick with this plan, and that advantage will show up in the standings.

The bullpen is loaded with cheap, hard-throwing arms, matching what is now a bench loaded with guys who can put runs on the board. The Sox will rotate Kevin Millar, Shea Hillenbrand, Bill Mueller, David Ortiz and Jeremy Giambi though four lineup spots, a far cry from the Tony Clark/Rey Sanchez lineups of 2002. The Sox now have a top offensive team, right there with the Yankees as the best in the league, and could well end up leading the AL in runs and EqA.

Along with the improved offense may come some defensive problems. Of the new Sox, only Mueller isn't a defensive liability, so they'll need to continue to be among the league leaders in pitching strikeouts--they've finished in the top two the last three years--suppressing the number of times Giambi and Millar and Todd Walker are asked to make a play.

No discussion of the Sox is complete without a discussion of Pedro Martinez, who made 30 starts and threw 199 1/3 innings last year despite rumblings--ones I heard and shared--that pain in his shoulder was going to cut his season short. I was badly wrong in declaring Martinez done, and am out of the prediction game as regards his arm. That said, the Sox need him to be available for another 200 innings in 2003, and getting any less from him is probably the difference between a division title and another disappointing year.

The Sox will score a bunch of runs this year, and if they won't prevent them as readily--their defense will see to that--the net effect should still keep them well above 90 wins.

New York Yankees

The Yankees ended last season cowering from a hail of line drives slashed by Angels hitters, smashes that found green grass and highlighted just how bad a defensive team the Yankees had become. They did nothing to address that in the off-season, and go into 2003 with the same core problem they had in 2002: an up-the-middle defense that allows far too many singles and doubles.

The situation may deteriorate in 2003, as the Yankees' pitching staff seems likely to strike out fewer batters and leave more chances for Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter and Alfonso Soriano to practice relay throws and cutoff plays. The rotation hasn't shown any loss of power; in fact, Roger Clemens had his best K rate as a Yankee, and there are no significant negative trends in any Yankee starter's record. However, the season-opening injuries to Mariano Rivera and Steve Karsay, along with the losses of Ramiro Mendoza and Mike Stanton to free agency, mean that the team could open the season with NRI Juan Acevedo and Chris Hammond, who was yak hunting in the Pyrenees 18 months ago, sharing the high-leverage relief innings. That's a recipe for early-season problems that could put the Yankees behind the Red Sox to stay.

The Yankees are certainly going to score. Adding Hideki Matsui to the league's best offense should push them over 900 runs and keep them atop the AL by any measure. But neither Matsui nor Jose Contreras addresses the Yankees' defensive issues, meaning George Steinbrenner has spent $40 million without fixing the team's core problem. If that sounds like a game plan from the Culture Club/Duran Duran era, well, you've got good ears.

Until the problem of inferior gloves at three key positions is dealt with, the Yankees will have a hard time issuing late October champagne showers. It has nothing to do with revenue sharing and luxury taxes, and everything to do with an inability to identify and solve a problem.

Toronto Blue Jays

Were I two years younger, I might pick the Jays to finish second and win the AL wild card. Alas, I'm a tiny bit wiser than I used to be, and my experience jumping the gun with the Twins and the Padres has taught me that discretion is best when projecting the improvement of young teams.

That said, the Jays are real close. They have great offensive depth, much of it with growth potential, and more young hitters in the upper minors. The Jays scored 813 runs last year, and I'd be surprised if they dipped below that level at any point in the next five years. They get OBP from five lineup spots, good power from seven, and only Carlos Delgado and the catchers lack speed.

The Jays have assembled a good pen on the cheap as well, with non-tenders Doug Creek and Jeff Tam supporting free, or almost-free, talent like Cliff Politte and Aquilino Lopez. It's a low-profile group that should be effective, even after Kelvim Escobar is sent to a contender during the season. The Jays rotation needs time, but has more depth than last year's version. The Jays probably won't use 13 starters again this season, or have just one qualifier for the ERA title. That kind of stability will make it easier to break in a Mark Hendrickson or, come July, a Jason Arnold.

All this won't be enough to make the Jays relevant in 2003, but it should start bringing the Toronto fans back to SkyDome, and establishing the Jays as a threat in 2004 and beyond.

Like the bottom of the AL Central, the worst two teams in the AL East could finish in either order. The lack of depth in the AL is just one reason why the National League is, at this moment in time, the superior circuit.

Baltimore Orioles

Ugh. There's a ton of dead weight on the roster, and it's not apparent what the organizational plan is. We'll have to see at least one Jim Beattie/Mike Flanagan draft to make a full evaluation.

The early signs haven't been encouraging. Picking up B.J. Surhoff was a bad sign that the O's still don't get why they've fallen and can't get up. Adding Greg Vaughn, as has been discussed, would just add to the team's glut of DHs without making any difference in the number of fans coming through the gates or number of wins they see.

The chief positive for the Orioles is the solid pen they feature, with Jorge Julio, Buddy Groom and Willis Roberts. A good bullpen on a team this bad is a luxury, and the two-headed GM would be well-served to dump all of them, especially the inexpensive Julio, on teams with more immediate needs. Making Julio the object of a Matt Mantei-style trade package would be one way to bring in the high-impact prospects the Orioles haven't had in years.

Camden Yards is a beautiful ballpark that houses a team not remotely worthy of it. Check back in 2005 to see if that has changed.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

This is barely a major-league franchise at this point, and while they have more prospects than the Orioles do, most of them are saddled with the kind of plate discipline that gets you held back in better organizations.

The Rocco Baldelli experiment is the best example of this. Baldelli shot through the Rays' system as a 20-year-old despite a 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the California League. He struck out 23 times without a single walk in 96 Triple-A at-bats, a significant sign that he is unprepared for the majors. Yet following a so-so spring--.261/.282/.551, 11 strikeouts, one walk--against assorted competition that's been more Krackel than Special Dark, Baldelli has been anointed the Opening Day center fielder.

I don't envy Lou Piniella, who took the D-Rays' managerial job for reasons other than baseball ones, but he seems to be making a bad situation worse. From choosing Baldelli to making Marlon Anderson--Marlon Anderson!--his right fielder to playing Rey Ordonez, Piniella seems to be caught between making the D-Rays as good as they can be right now and trying to set them up to contend down the road. There's not enough talent here to make either plan a viable one.

When he was hired, I was optimistic about Piniella's chances of doing good work in Tampa. I'm not anymore, and I think there's a decent chance that he'll complete just half of his four-year contract before moving into retirement.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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