For the past three seasons, the ultra-competitive AL East has been contested among the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays. That won’t change in 2011, although the plucky, small-market Rays will have a harder task than ever before due to an offseason in which their roster suffered great losses to free agency. The Orioles will be less of a pushover opponent than they have in years and the Blue Jays will continue to be solid if unspectacular, but given the capabilities of the teams at the top of the standings, their progress will be difficult to see with the naked eye.
Baseball Prospectus’s projection system, PECOTA, forecasts the performance of every player in baseball from the majors to the minors. These projections, combined with estimates of playing time, allow us to project the standings. This is how it sees baseball’s toughest division shaking out in 2011.
Boston Red Sox: 92-70 projected 2011 record
Why They Might Win: A reloaded and presumably healthy offense invigorated by Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez will get all the attention, but PECOTA sees the real improvement as being due to a strong starting rotation aided by a rebound season from Josh Beckett and a deeper bullpen.
Why They Might Not Win: PECOTA expects the Sox to drop nearly 50 runs allowed from last year’s total, a tall order if Beckett, John Lackey, and Daisuke Matsuzaka don’t deliver on past performances. “Jarrod Saltalamacchia: Everyday Catcher” seems a series unlikely to get a full order of episodes, and between he and reserve Jason Varitek, opponents may once again run wild.
Player Who Could Surprise: He’s already an All-Star, but Adrian Gonzalez could be due for a real breakout in Fenway Park. Petco limited his offensive output; he hit .307/.381/.579 in Padres road games vs. just .267/.367/.442 at home. PECOTA foresees .281/.379/.502 rates and 31 home runs, but that projection might prove to be too conservative.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Beckett. A return to his 2007-2009 form (3.71 ERA) would make good on PECOTA’s overall pitching prediction by itself, but back injuries tend to recur. If he and his projected 3.95 ERA are on the shelf for any period of time, the Sox will have to fall back on the aged Tim Wakefield or Alfredo Aceves, who has back problems of his own.
New York Yankees 91-71 projected 2011 record
Why They Might Win: With the exceptions of Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher, several Yankees disappointed at the plate last year and yet they still led the league in runs scored. They should be potent again this year, with PECOTA calling for them to lead the division in runs scored. The bullpen, with its Rafael Soriano-to-Mariano Rivera endgame, should be a standout.
Why They Might Not Win: Because the richest team in baseball has Bartolo Colon, Sergio Mitre, and Freddy Garcia competing for rotation spots after the Yankees learned that money can’t buy you happiness—or Cliff Lee.
Player Who Could Surprise: Curtis Granderson. After a late season tutoring session with Kevin Long, Granderson started hitting left-handed pitchers (.286/.375/.500 in a small sample) for the first time in his career. PECOTA expects Granderson to hit .257/.333/.460, but it doesn’t know about Long’s lessons.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Derek Jeter. Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez still have room to rebound, but Jeter couldn’t get the ball off the ground last year. PECOTA’s .281/.350/.389 projection offers faint hope for the 37-year-old shortstop.
Tampa Bay Rays: 84-78 projected 2011 record
Why They Might Win: Rays starters had the third-best ERA in the league. Replacing Matt Garza, whose 15-10 record belied a mediocre season, with top prospect Jeremy Hellickson, should further strengthen the unit. If James Shields can come back from the 6.09 ERA he put up from June on and Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis can recover from some late-season, post-injury doldrums, the Rays could again have a truly outstanding rotation.
Why They Might Not Win: Almost the entirety of last season’s bullpen is gone and the replacements have names like Farnsworth and Peralta. Joe Maddon is the game’s most creative manager, but it would take an act of sorcery to create a bullpen as good as last year’s best-in-AL unit. In addition, with Carl Crawford having decamped to Boston, Evan Longoria may feel lonely as the only top-flight hitter in the lineup. According to PECOTA, the Rays will drop nearly 60 runs of offense and allow over 60 more.
Player Who Could Surprise: Manny Ramirez looked so weak during his Chicago sojourn (one home run in 88 plate appearances) that it’s easy to forget that he hit quite well when available to the Dodgers (.311/.405/.510) and was dealing with a calf injury and a hernia. A Manny resurgence will depend on if he’s engaged, but if Maddon can get and hold his attention, the bat shouldn’t be a problem. A conservative PECOTA calls for him to hit .269/.380/.462.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Top outfield prospect Desmond Jennings. PECOTA expects him to hit just five home runs in 395 PAs, not surprising for a player with his leadoff hitter’s skills. But with Upton hitting just 29 home runs over the last two seasons, Johnny Damon dropping from 24 to eight last season, and Ben Zobrist, who lost 17 home runs between 2009 and 2010, expected to get a lot of swings as the right fielder, the outfield is going to lack pop. It’s not clear when Jennings will come up, but when he does he won’t provide the kind of lift the pasture patrol needs.
Baltimore Orioles 82-80 projected 2011 record
Why They Might Win: They’ll win if they somehow get furloughed to one of the Central divisions, where the competition is less intense. Otherwise, they will have to settle for enjoying the fruits of a vastly improved offense due to the addition of four veterans to the lineup. Given 13 consecutive losing seasons, a .500 record would be an accomplishment worth celebrating.
Why They Might Not Win: The vets were available to the O’s for a reason: Vlad Guerrero and Derrek Lee are aging, J.J. Hardy is notoriously inconsistent, and Mark Reynolds is a career .235/.323/.461 hitter outside of Phoenix who failed to hit .200 last year. PECOTA sees him roughly duplicating those rates with bad defense. Although the pitching should continue to improve, particularly if top prospect Zach Britton joins the staff at some point this season, there won’t be enough offense to make a decisive difference.
Player Who Could Surprise: Hardy. Although the 50 home runs he hit from 2007 to 2008 seem a long time ago and his overall 2010 numbers were mediocre, once he got over an injured wrist, he hit .304/.363/.442 in the second half. He’ll be a revelation after two years of Cesar Izturis and should exceed his PECOTA-projected .261/.319/.414 rates.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Matt Wieters. While fandom still waits for the soon to be 25-year-old catcher to make good on his terrific minor-league numbers, PECOTA has stopped looking for a breakout, calling for a .268/.341/.419 season. Names like Ryan Doumit and Ryan Garko are starting to show up among his comparables, two too many mediocre Ryans for a future star.
Toronto Blue Jays 76-86 projected 2011 record
Why They Might Win: The young starting rotation and rebuilt bullpen could defy PECOTA’s projection and refuse to add 50 runs to last season’s total under new manager/former pitching coach John Farrell, while Adam Lind and Travis Snider finally click, allowing the offense to hold its ground.
Why They Might Not Win: Ricky Romero regresses to the 4.75 ERA PECOTA calls for, Brett Cecil adds half a run to his ERA, and Kyle Drabek (predicted 4.94 ERA in 85.2 innings) has a rough transition to the majors, making the absence of Shaun Marcum more keenly felt. In addition, Vernon Wells’ contract might have been an albatross, but his bat (in even-numbered seasons) was not; it’s a long fall from him to Rajai Davis and his projected .267/.313/.377 season.
Player Who Could Surprise: Rookie catcher J.P. Arencibia. After a two-home run debut, the rookie didn’t hit in his remaining 10 games, but his power production is for real and with only a slight improvement on his projection (.253/.290/.483, 26 home runs in 474 at-bats) he should approximate or surpass John Buck’s production of last year.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Bautista could be the surprise (if he hits another 50 home runs) or disappointment (if he doesn’t). Very few players have been consistent at the 50-home run level, and Bautista is more likely a new George Foster or Brady Anderson than a late-career Babe Ruth. PECOTA isn’t aware of the adjusted swing that touched off his homer barrage, but even so, its calling for 29 home runs seems entirely reasonable.