Just how good was the American League East in 2010? The New York Yankees and their $213 million payroll had to settle for second place, and the third place Boston Red Sox would have finished a spot higher in three of the other divisions—and that was just what their backups and still-green minor leaguers were able to accomplish filling in for the actual team that spent most of the season on the disabled list. Three of the top four (and four of the top seven) teams in Jay Jaffe's final Hit List of 2010 hailed from the AL East, and the second-best record of the last two months by any team in the AL came from the last-place Baltimore Orioles, who went 34-23 under new manager Buck Showalter.
How good will the American League East be in 2011? Those cellar-dwelling Orioles may be as good as a World Series winner. That is not a joke—the Orioles, who are likely to finish in last place in the East regardless of the quality of their team due to the four clubs in front of them, still project to put a quality roster on the field, one that puts them on par with a past World Champion: the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals.
Remember, for a moment, that 2006 Cardinals team. The images of Adam Wainwright coming out of the bullpen to shut down the opposition appear first, followed by Chris Carpenter leading the rotation, and of course, Albert Pujols as the driving force behind the offense. If your memory is great, you may also recall that Jeff Weaver played an important role by going 3-2 in the playoffs over 29 2/3 innings, and that David Eckstein took home the World Series MVP honors thanks to a .364/.391/.500 showing. We can safely assume there was hustle involved as well.
Now recall that this team won 83 games during the regular season, and could credit its eventual triumph more to a weak division and the old anything-can-happen-in-October maxim than its actual talent level. Of course, on a karmic level, Cardinals fans will take that—their organization of choice fielded some excellent clubs in the recent past that never went all the way, and the worst of the group just happened to be the one to seal the deal. That makes it okay to pick on them and compare them to a projected last-place team.
Outside of the aforementioned Pujols and Carpenter, the team lacked much of anything. The 2006 World Champions were built on the stars-and-scrubs model, with one of the top pitchers in the game, the undisputed most valuable player in the world, an assist from Scott Rolen, and then a precipitous drop in talent. Yadier Molina was still the fine fielder we know him as today, but he put together a line of just .216/.274/.321. The double-play combination of David Eckstein and Aaron Miles scrapped along, until Miles was replaced by Ron Belliard to provide more punch, while the outfield outside of center fielder Jim Edmonds was a mix-and-match set, with Chris Duncan (.293/.363/.589), So Taguchi (.266/.335/.351) and Juan Encarnacion (.278/.317/.443) manning the corners.
That group couldn't hit—the Cards combined for a .256 True Average as a team—but it could field a bit, as evidenced by a .697 Defensive Efficiency. That was a good thing for the pitching staff, whose second-best starter was Jeff Suppan—this was the season that earned him that infamous four-year, $42 million deal with the Brewers—since they also had to rely on Jason Marquis, Jeff Weaver, flopping-but-not-yet-flopped prospect Anthony Reyes, and the cursed remains of Mark Mulder. Sidney Ponson made 13 starts as well; the non-Carpenter starters combined for a 5.36 ERA over 717 innings. The bullpen wasn't particularly noteworthy either, finishing 15th in the majors in WXRL.
It's a wonder that those Cardinals managed a World Series appearance, never mind a victory, and in a way, it's a tribute to the old "baseball is a funny game" adage, though many also consider it a prime example of why the playoffs are a joke compared to the regular season. The Orioles wouldn't know, as they haven't seen October baseball from anywhere but their living rooms since 1997. While that doesn't figure to change soon, the fortunes of the organization have shifted. Their fine finish to the 2010 campaign has inspired confidence that they will enter the AL East fray sooner rather than later, and according to PECOTA, there may be something to that.
That 2006 Cardinals club couldn't hit, despite the presence of Pujols, Rolen, and Edmonds. While the O's don't have a single bopper like Pujols, as we suggested last month, they also don't have the holes of the Cards. PECOTA projects Baltimore for an above-average team TAv of .267, thanks to a balanced lineup. Matt Wieters hasn't become the offensive force that both scouts and PECOTA expected, but as far as catchers go, he is likely to be at least average at the plate. That, and a left field manned by Felix Pie and Nolan Reimold, may be the closest the offensive attack comes to a weak spot. Derrek Lee can still hit and field enough to contribute at first base. Brian Roberts is a massive upgrade over Ty Wigginton, Julio Lugo and the others who desecrated the keystone either offensively or defensively in his stead in 2010. Mark Reynolds isn't expected to be the offensive juggernaut he was in 2009, but PECOTA forecasts a .280 TAv thanks to a return to BABIP normalcy. J.J. Hardy doesn't need to hit like he did for the Brewers, as he is replacing Cesar Izturis, who hasn't hit well since Little League.
The outfield lacks a Jim Edmonds, but to be fair, so did the Cardinals’ lineup for 50-plus contests. Pie's bat hasn’t developed, but his glove works well in a corner. Adam Jones is teetering between stalled development and a breakout, but a .270 TAv and above-average defense in center would go a long way. Nick Markakis may not be the player everyone hoped he would be after his excellent 2008 season, but his last two years have still been well above-average, and PECOTA expects 2011 to be no different. The Cardinals didn't have a designated hitter in 2006, but even if they had he probably wouldn't have rivaled Luke Scott, who is expected to be as productive as Markakis at the plate.
The rotation lacks a Carpenter, but the Orioles have managed to build something useful just the same. The evolution of Brian Matusz took place in the last two months of 2010, and the result was a pitcher who may be ready to lead a rotation as soon as Opening Day. Jeremy Guthrie is no great shakes, but he is better than anything the 2006 Cardinals sent to the mound after their ace. Justin Duchscherer, who is an intriguing arm if healthy, is the likely third starter. After that, it's down to the kids: Brad Bergesen, Jake Arrieta, and Chris Tillman. Bergesen hasn't been able to replicate his minor-league strikeout rates over the course of nearly 300 major-league innings, but he has survived to this point thanks to slight groundball tendencies and above-average control. Arrieta and Tillman will fight for the final spot in spring training, but given the Duke's injury history, both of them may throw significant innings. Zach Britton, the left-handed five-star prospect sitting at Triple-A Norfolk, may force his way into the majors to replace an ineffective starter as well.
What the rotation lacks in experience, it makes up for in ceiling—the group has the potential to be somewhere between serviceable and high-quality. Such is the way with young pitchers, but serviceable pitching is something the 2006 Cardinals didn't have, meaning that this area too lies in the orange corner. Baltimore’s bullpen isn't deep, but like the ’06 Cards, the O’s have a handful of arms that can do the job in the newly-acquired Kevin Gregg, a (hopefully) healthy Mike Gonzalez, and the real gem of the group, Koji Uehara, who struck out 55 batters in 44 innings against just six walks last season.
As difficult as it may be to believe, this season's Orioles have a better lineup, an equivalent bullpen, and a rotation that is capable of being at least as good as (but more than likely better than) that of the 2006 Cardinals. The impressive—or depressing, depending on your viewpoint—thing is that while the Cardinals were able to pop open the champagne bottles in October, the Orioles will celebrate if they approach a .500 record or manage to exit the AL East basement. Unlike yesterday’s Cards, Baltimore doesn't have it easy in their division—the Rays, Yankees and Red Sox should all be among the leagues' finest once again in 2011, and the Jays are close to joining that group if they aren't there already. Being as good as a World Series champion may not bring much joy to the hearts of Baltimore fans who long to see the playoffs again, but at least the team is heading in the right direction for the first time in a long time, even if divisional geography makes theirs an uphill battle.