Defections could drop Rays behind Jays

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:13 AM ET

The American League East is the glamour division in Major League Baseball.

Steinbrenner money, the bright lights of Manhattan, the rabid fans of Red Sox Nation, big names and even bigger salaries, the sun, surf and a division pennant in Tampa, the soap operas that unfold almost annually with the Orioles.

Oh, and the Blue Jays. Remember them? They once meant something in this town, in fact there were a couple Octobers when they stopped traffic from Pincher Creek to Come-by-Chance.

Well, they’re back.

Maybe not in a Joe Carter “touch ‘em all” and see you at the parade kind of way, but for the first time in almost a generation, this is a team that can make some noise - other than the sound of another season being flushed down the AL East drain.

The Yankees and Red Sox emerge from spring training the unquestioned favorites to win this division and the Rays remain an unknown factor. But the Blue Jays are no longer anybody’s patsies and even the moribund Orioles are looking a bit of a darkhorse. The American League East is to baseball what the Division of Death is to World Cup soccer. Four of the teams, Boston, New York, Tampa and Toronto, rank in Fox’s top 17 clubs with the Red Sox and Yankees in the top four.

With the addition of outfielder Carl Crawford and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, the Bosox are picked in most polls to advance to the World Series — and face the Phillies. Former AL MVP Dustin Pedroia missed over half the season and Jacoby Ellsbury only played in 18 games last season so both should contribute more.

Terry Francona has guided the Red Sox to two World Series titles (2004 and ‘07) in seven seasons and if the pitching holds up he could be diving into a third.

The Yankees suffered their biggest loss before the season even started failing to sign Cliff Lee. Instead general manager Brian Cashman watched Andy Pettitte retire and had to settle for signing Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia. That’s like going to the auto dealership to check out a shiny new Lexus; but settling for a used 10-year old Windstar. It runs. But everyone knows it’s only a matter of time before the wheels fall off.

Free-agent reliever Rafael Soriano, who saved 45 games for Tampa last season, gives the Yankees one of the deepest bullpens, with holdover Mariano Rivera, in the league. In hindsight not a bad move because if the Yankees rotation blows up — and there are indications this spring it will - this team is going to need all the relief help it can muster.

The Jays had their own spring setback with Brandon Morrow starting the season on the injured list. Aaron Hill has been slow coming back from injury and supposed-closer Frankie Francisco is already having arm trouble.

New manager John Farrell has watched David Purcey get beat up, had setup man Octavio Dotel come up wounded, and there are questions about J.P. Arencibia’s bat and how well a rookie catcher can handle a young, and potentially fragile, untested, pitching staff. And the fretting over whether Jose Bautista can come close to duplicating last year’s 59-homer season (unlikely) can’t start soon enough.

But what this spring has shown is that the Jays won’t be the only team playing the wah-wah trombone.

Even the Red Sox’ pre-destined road to glory has its potholes; even the gilded Yankees’ roster has a hint of tarnish.

The Jays have a rugged early-season schedule in April/May that includes 20 road games with a west-coast swing and stops in New York, Texas, Boston and Tampa. That should give a fair indication how Toronto’s Kiddie Korps will fare against baseball’s big dogs. Left-hander Ricky Romero will be the Opening Day starter just two seasons after barely making Toronto’s roster. He’s still just 26. Then there are Brandon Morrow (who starts the season on the injured list), also 26 and Brett Cecil, who is 24. Kyle Drabek is 23 and Jesse Litsch is 25. It is a team with a hint of future glory, perhaps not yet this season, but someday soon.

1. Boston (third, 89-73)

Adrian Beltre is gone but with the addition of Crawford and Gonzalez and a nucleus including Kevin Youkilis and Jacoby Ellsbury this is a solid lineup.

The only real question revolves around pitching. It’s talented enough. Problem is, are they healthy enough? Youngsters Jon Lester (3.25 ERA) and Clay Buchholz (2.33 ERA) had breakout seasons with 17 and 19 wins respectively. But what happens after that is trickier to follow than Tim Wakefield’s knuckler.

John Lackey and Josh Beckett could make this rotation one of baseball’s best. But Beckett

is coming off the worst season of his career (a 6-6 record, 5.78 ERA, plus a bad back) and he’s not had a great spring. The 2007 championship hero is, at the age of 30, a major question mark.

The No. 5 starter is Daisuke Matsuzaka, who also scuffled early this spring. All of which had manager Terry Francona toying with moving Alfredo Aceves in as a starter. Or Wakefield. That’s a lot of uncertainty for a team that’s supposedly a sure thing.

The bullpen could be impregnable if Jonathan Papelbon regains form. He lost seven games, blew eight saves and gave up seven home runs in 67 innings last year, yet remains the closer. Although his saves total stayed almost the same, his ERA rose from 1.85 to 3.90 in 2010. The Bosox have no shortage of capable replacements in Daniel Bard, Bobby Jenks, and Dan Wheeler.

2. New York Yankees (second, 95-67)

Nobody has a more formidable offence than New York.

The Yankees resigned Derek Jeter to a veteran offence that just wears down pitchers through nine innings. From Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixiera, to Gold Glove second baseman Robinson Cano, this lineup never lets a pitcher relax.

Much like the Red Sox, if there is an Achilles heel, it will be on the pitching side. With Lee picking Philadelphia and Pettitte retired, the rotation looks like it could fall apart in a New York minute.

CC Sabathia is a perennial Cy Young contender and Phil Hughes has an upside — but also a 4.19 ERA and the Jays beat him like a jungle drum. Freddy Garcia and Ivan Nova start the season in the rotation with Bartolo Colon in the bullpen.

And, who knows which A.J. Burnett shows up? He hasn’t had an ERA under 3.75 since 2005. His 13 wins helped them to a championship in 2009 but last year they might as well have hung a “Kick Me” sign on his uniform.

Of course, when a team can score runs like the Yankees, maybe it doesn’t so much matter who they have pitching.

3. Toronto (fourth, 85-77)

There have been no imprudent promises of championships but there is evidence that fans are buying into general manager Alex Anthopoulos’ enthusiasm and rebuilding plan.

The home opener is sold out.

Farrell seems to have instilled enthusiasm in a team no longer intent on living or dying with the home run. Farrell has reintroduced the concept of speed, attention to detail and a new aggressiveness (if spring training is to be any indication) that has rarely been in evidence since the days Alomar and White turned the SkyDome into a track meet.

Romero, who two seasons ago was considered a bust, gets the Opening Day start. Drafted sixth overall in 2005, one spot ahead of Rockies sensation Troy Tulowitzki, he was a mediocre 16-21 in the minors prompting former general manager J.P. Ricciardi to ponder in a 2008 article in Sports Illustrated that the team “had made the wrong decision”.

Now, after going 14-9 with a 2.73 ERA last year and with Shaun Marcum traded to the Brewers, he’s the staff ace. He is followed in the rotation by Kyle Drabek, Brett Cecil, Jo-Jo Reyes and Jesse Litsch.

It’s a rotation in flux — but no more than those in Boston or New York. The difference is that the Red Sox and Yankees are flipping a coin with bigger names.

Questions surround the health of Francisco and Dotel meaning Jon Rauch opens the season as the closer with Jason Frasor and Shawn Camp as eighth-inning wingmen.

This is a team that needs to strike out less and get on base more. New centre fielder Rajai Davis has led the go-go offence this spring. He stole 50 bases in 2010 compared to just 58 by the entire Toronto team last year.

Things are looking up ... but, for one more season, anything further up than third place would be a huge surprise.

Tampa Bay (first, 96-66)

The Rays have been torn apart by a mass exodus including Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena and Rafael Soriano who helped them win the division in 2010.

The Rays can’t compete financially with the big boys in the division, but manager Joe Maddon finds a way to keep his teams competitive with youth, exhuberance and an ability to find veterans (this year he’s counting on Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon) who might have a little gas yet in the tank.

The Rays already have outstanding starting pitching, led by David Price. Their system has also developed James Shields, Wade Davis, Jeremy Hellickson, and Jeff Niemann.

A year ago, the Rays had the best bullpen in the AL, saving 51 games with a 3.33 ERA. But Soriano, Wheeler and Joaquin Benoit are gone and not easily replaced. Losing all that talent will keep the Rays closer to the bottom than the top in 2011.

Baltimore (fifth, 66-96)

Derrek Lee and Mark Reynolds on the corners combined for 79 homers in 2009. Brian Roberts and J.J. Hardy up the middle had 33 homers and 40 stolen bases in 2008. Vladimir Guerrero hit .300, 29 homers, 115 RBIs last year.

Catcher Matt Wieters has yet to deliver after being named Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect in 2009 and the pitching staff is young and prone to mistakes but it’s not all horrible. Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta show promise they might develop as top-of-the-rotation pitchers. Former Blue Jay Kevin Gregg and Koji Uehara will look after the closing duties.

No big whoop! But, it at least gives Orioles fans a reason to come back to Camden Yards, other than Boog Powell’s BBQ stand.


Videos

Photos