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March 22, 2005

Prospectus Today

AL East Preview

by Joe Sheehan

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Thirteen days.

Everyone counting, raise your hands.

That's what I thought.

Thirteen days from now, the Yankees and Red Sox open the 2005 baseball season. I'm ready. Enough steroids and congressmen and stadium deals and "he signed for what?" moments. Let's get this party started.

With that attitude, I'll kick off my season previews with a look at the division that opens a day before everyone else's, the AL East.

It's become rote to expect the Yankees and Red Sox to duel for the division title, with the loser expected to reach the postseason through the back door. While that could once again happen, as it has the past two seasons, I'm not nearly convinced that it's likely.

The Yankees have an aging roster that includes virtually no players who can be expected to improve substantially on their 2004 performances. Sure, Derek Jeter could be better, as could Alex Rodriguez and Mike Mussina, but all are at ages where performance slides away from a peak, rather than towards one. Jason Giambi should be better than he was last year, the worst of his career. A bounceback to the .275/.380/.470 line I'm projecting would be a boost for a Yankee team that suffered through subpar performance at first base and DH in his absence.

With all that, though, the lineup just isn't impressive by Yankee standards. The first base/DH situation, comprising Tino Martinez and Ruben Sierra, is going to be a sinkhole, as will second base as Tony Womack returns to his established level. Bernie Williams is just another guy at .270/.350/.440, and Jorge Posada will be a good player, just not the fringe MVP candidate he was at his peak. The Yankee bench won't be a factor--it hasn't been good since 1998 or so, and won't be this year. The Yankees will be hard-pressed to get within 30 runs of last year's 897, and may struggle to reach 850.

They're not likely to get that back on the defensive side. The acquisition of Randy Johnson should help, although the range of possible outcomes for a 42-year-old with knee problems is pretty wide. The other two big pitching acquisitions, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, will be innings guys at best, and run machines at worst. The two, who combined for 408 2/3 innings of 3.13 ERA ball last season, are much more likely to reverse those figures--313 innings of 4.08 ball--as repeat them. Frankly, I think 313 innings of 4.08 ball is optimistic, and expect a bit more work at an even lower performance level. Both pitchers will give up many more hits and home runs, driving up their ERAs. I like Mike Mussina to return to his established level.

The patches in the Yankee bullpen should help, although the insistence on treating Mike Stanton, who isn't terribly tough on lefties, as a specialist could cost them some runs. Getting Felix Rodriguez for Kenny Lofton adds another power right-hander for the middle innings, a key piece that was missing last season, I don't care how good Joe Torre thinks Tanyon Sturtze looked. Few teams match their back end, of course, with Mariano Rivera and Tom Gordon.

The Yankees' run prevention took a big step backwards last year, as they gave up more than 800 tallies for the first time since 2000. They could well repeat that feat in 2005, and will certainly not be much below that figure. They're more reliant on their defense, not less, and the Yankees defense is just not good. I project them to allow 805 runs, which combined with the fall-off in offense, would mean they'd struggle to get much past 90 wins.

That should leave the division wide open for the Red Sox. The World Champions avoided the trap of becoming too attached to the players who'd won them a title, save for an overly generous contract handed out to Jason Varitek. Given the options available had they lost their backstop, however, the short-term benefit of having him may end up being worth paying through the nose for his decline.

The 2004 Red Sox had one of the deepest rosters in recent memory, and the 2005 team will be much the same. In stark contrast to the Yankees, the Red Sox have good players who can contribute all over their bench, no players within hailing distance of replacement level in their lineup, and relative bargains in the rotation. The manner in which they've stocked the roster, top to bottom, is a huge credit to the organization.

Like the Yankees, the Sox are getting up there in years. Free-agent signing Edgar Renteria will probably be the youngest player in the Opening Day lineup, and that by at least a full year. With so much of the offense that scored 949 runs last year moving into and through their thirties--Bill Mueller is 34, while Varitek, Kevin Millar and Manny Ramirez are all 33--some fallback can be expected, at least to the 900-run level. The Sox' key weapon for making this up is Trot Nixon, who followed up a monster '03 campaign (.306/.396/.578) by missing most of '04 with back and leg problems. He hit when he played, and a full season from him would go a long way towards keeping the Sox above 900 runs.

The Sox pitching--and make no mistake, this has been a terrific pitching staff for a while now--is something of a mystery this year. They've brought in Matt Clement and David Wells to bolster the rotation. Clement is a good fit, a right-handed strikeout pitcher whose control has improved considerably since his first few seasons. He'll have to fill the innings that Pedro Martinez left behind. Wells, now 41, comes in off of yet another innings-munching season. I just don't see him--lefty, pitches to contact, gets fly balls--as a good match for Fenway Park or this Sox defense. I think his ERA could explode above 5.00, and I'd be surprised if he threw 180 innings this year.

Wade Miller's inability to open the season means that a bad idea involving Bronson Arroyo--the Sox third-best starter last year--won't be implemented. He'll open the year in the rotation and deserves to stay there all season. He could make the All-Star team and put up an ERA in the low 3.00s for the season. I expect him to be one of the ten best starters in what is suddenly a pitching-thin league.

Arroyo not being in the bullpen does leave it with an age problem, but the players they have back there throw strikes and miss bats. It doesn't look like Byung-Hyun Kim will make any contributions, leaving Matt Mantei to step in and help Mike Timlin in front of Keith Foulke. This year's pen won't be the problematic one of '03, but you can expect less effectiveness, and a midseason deal to add a reliever. With that, they'll stay under 800 runs allowed.

The Red Sox were better than the Yankees last year, and they're better than them this year. They'll win the division, likely without much drama.

The rest of this division is a bit more interesting than in past years, and had the Yankees not added Johnson--or if Johnson's knees restrict him to a half-season or less--it's not inconceivable that a couple of teams could push them for second place in this division. I've been touting the Indians so much as a sleeper that I think they've lost that status. When I look around for another team that could surprise, I end up landing on the Orioles.

The addition of Sammy Sosa, who even in decline is a pretty good hitter, gives them a lineup that runs eight deep. Unfortunately, much of that core is old--Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and Javy Lopez are all 34 and older, and OBP monster Melvin Mora is 33. In fact, for a team that has been rebuilding for most of this century, the Orioles have a paucity of young players. On Opening Day, outfielders Larry Bigbie and Luis Matos will be the only players 27 or under in the starting lineup.

The Orioles can score the 820-840 runs an AL contender must score. Run prevention will be the determining factor, however, and they lose a lot of ground here. The rotation doesn't strike out a ton of hitters--only Erik Bedard crossed the 7.0 K/9 mark--which puts a lot of pressure on a defense that is actually pretty good up the middle but shaky on the corners. The bullpen is strong from the left side, with B.J. Ryan, Steve Kline and John Parrish. The right side doesn't approach that level, although adding Steve Reed gives Lee Mazzilli a chance to aggressively chase matchups with big-platoon-split relievers.

For the Orioles to push to 87 wins this year, they'll need Sidney Ponson to sustain his effectiveness for a full season, get production from center field, and have the Old Birds in the middle of the lineup hold it together for one more year. It could happen, the same way that everything went right for the '89 team. The Orioles should score 830 runs and allow about that figure; their ability to ratchet the second figure down will determine how big a surprise they can be.

The Blue Jays don't have quite that upside this year, but are better-positioned for the future. Their apparent collapse last season was more about injuries than a lack of core talent, although the back end of the roster was a problem all year, and may be again in '05. Just getting complete, healthy seasons from Roy Halladay, Vernon Wells and Orlando Hudson will be worth 7-8 wins over last year. Alexis Rios was rushed to the majors and didn't embarrass himself; obsessing over his one home run in 426 at-bats is silly given his talent and the other things he did well.

They will miss Carlos Delgado, as they have no one on hand who can replace his combination of OBP and power. Corey Koskie won't come close, of course. The Jays will have to hope that incremental improvements at five lineup spots--through health and through development--cover the loss of their longtime masher.

Their pitching staff will be better. Full seasons of Halladay and David Bush, Brandon League in the bullpen, and the presence of a decent lefty in Scott Schoeneweis will all help the Jays ratchet down their runs allowed, perhaps by as many as 50 runs. That, along with improvement in the offense despite the loss of Delgado, should make for a .500 team.

A lot of things went right for the Devil Rays last year, and they still went 70-91. This year, two guys have quit in March and they've brought in Alex Sanchez to be part of the solution. There are some good players here--Carl Crawford is on a slow path to stardom, and Jorge Cantu could be the team's All-Star, given the other AL second basemen--but then you look around and see Sanchez and Alex Gonzalez and Toby Hall, and you wonder if 700 runs is even remotely possible.

They're going to allow many more than that. The 2008 rotation, with Jeff Neimann and Scott Kazmir, will be good. This year's is going to give that one a very low bar to scale. The bullpen is stronger, but just by comparison, and is prone to giving up a lot of home runs. If the D-Rays avoid 100 losses--they could lose 55 games just inside the division--it'll be an upset.

Projected standings:


             Record     RS    RA
Red Sox       95-67    908   798
Yankees       87-75    865   838
Orioles       84-78    833   825
Blue Jays     80-82    765   784
Devil Rays   58-104    662   886
--

One of the great things about missing your deadline: getting to cover stuff that happens while you're catching up. Barry Bonds is apparently out until midseason with his right knee injury. There's no way to soft-sell this: the Giants are DOA without Bonds, the only player on their roster who is better than even money to post an OBP above league average. Without him, the Giants are one of the five worst teams in baseball, unable to sustain an offense, and with a horrific defense.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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