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Breaking down the AL East

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  April 2, 2009 09:44 AM

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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Red Sox, Rays, and Yankees. Come the end of September, at least one of these teams will not belong.

Tony Massarotti ranks the Big Three AL East teams in four major categories, and makes a prediction on how they'll finish:
Mazz's ranking
1st
2d
3d
HittingRaysRed SoxYankees
DefenseRed SoxRaysYankees
Starting pitchingYankeesRed SoxRays
BullpenRed SoxRaysYankees
How they'll finishRaysRed SoxYankees
And so as spring training draws to a close, let there be no doubt: the American League East is the best division in baseball. Boston, Tampa Bay, and New York won a combined 281 games last season, easily outdistancing the top three teams in any other division. The third-place Yankees won enough games to finish first in two other divisions -- the National League West and the AL Central -- and yet New York missed the playoffs for the first time since the infamous work stoppage that wiped out the conclusion of the 1994 season.

Over the winter, the Red Sox, Rays and Yankees all made changes and upgrades -- all via different means. Thwarted in the Mark Teixeira sweepstakes, the Red Sox went low-risk, high-reward. The Rays dabbled a little in the trade market, a little in free agency. The Yankees tossed around hundreds of millions of dollars as if they were the federal government.

Where will these teams end up in 2009? Time will tell. In the interim, here's a brief breakdown of all three clubs in the four fundamental areas of the game -- followed by a prediction.

HITTING
Last season, the Red Sox, Yankees, and Rays finished a respective second, seventh and ninth in the league in runs scored. While the Red Sox lineup essentially remains unchanged, Tampa has upgraded its two weakest areas -- right field (Matt Joyce) and designated hitter (Pat Burrell) -- while the Yankees signed Teixeira to a whopping eight-year, $180 million contract.

For all of the changes that took place in the American League last year, here was one of the most dramatic: the Red Sox and Yankees appeared to lose whatever offensive advantage they once had at catcher. One of the key reasons the Red Sox and Yankees have dominated offensively over the last several years is the production they have received from, respectively, Jason Varitek and Jorge Posada. Those players are now huge question marks entering 2009, and the truth is that Tampa has the best offensive catcher (Dioner Navarro) of the three teams.

The Rays are young. Red Sox and Yankees are both aging some, and the Red Sox have recent injury history at third base (Mike Lowell), right field (J.D. Drew) and designated hitter (David Ortiz). For a team with a payroll in the range of $200 million, the Yankees have a disturbingly weak offensive outfield and, lest we forget, an injured Alex Rodriguez. There are far more questions in Boston and New York than there are in Tampa, where the Rays may just be starting to blossom.

Offensive ranking: Rays, Red Sox, Yankees.

DEFENSE
Maybe it is merely a coincidence, but now that we are in the age of drug testing, defensive is becoming an emphasis again. One of the reasons the Red Sox were willing to offer Teixeira the biggest contract in club history was because of his defensive skill. As two-way players go, Teixeira is one of the more complete performers in the game.

Last season, defense in the AL East generally was exceptional. In order, based on fewest errors, the Yankees, Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Rays finished first, second, third and fourth in the league. Sox officials, among others, will tell you that errors are an inaccurate way to measure defensive efficiency, but the point is that none of those clubs made a lot of mistakes.

As much as Theo Epstein has received credit for building offensive powerhouses during his tenure as Sox GM, his last three teams have finished in the top three in the league in defense. Depending on what happens at shortstop, that isn't likely to change in 2009. Tampa similarly has an average or above average defender at most every position on the diamond -- second base (Akinori Iwamura) and right field (Gabe Gross/Joyce) may be the exceptions -- but the Rays may have better range at the other positions than any team in baseball.

The Yankees? In their case, the numbers are a little deceiving. New York will have the speedy Brett Gardner in center to open the year, but the defense on the left side of the field -- shortstop (Derek Jeter), third base (Rodriguez) and left field (Johnny Damon) is now suspect. Range has given way to age. Again, New York has questions.

Defensive ranking: Red Sox, Rays, Yankees.

STARTING PITCHING
We'll never truly know what difference a healthy Josh Beckett might have made last season, but we can be certain of this: If Beckett repeats his numbers from last season (12-10, 4.03 ERA), the Red Sox could get run over. The rotations of the Red Sox, Rays, and Yankees are positively stacked from top to bottom, and health may very well determine which team gets the most out of its starters.

In all of baseball, assuming health, the only team that might be able to match rotations with the Red Sox, Rays, and Yankees this season is the Los Angeles Angels, who could have a group of John Lackey, Ervin Santana, Kelvim Escobar, Joe Saunders, and Jered Waever. (At the moment, though, the Angels are quite banged up.) Beyond that, the best rotations in baseball all are in the AL East, which should make for some riveting head-to-head competition.

For the Rays, the obvious variable here is David Price, the phenom who will begin the season at Triple-A but could eventually join a rotation that includes James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, and Andy Sonnanstine. The Red Sox have added Brad Penny behind the foursome of Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Tim Wakefield. The Red Sox have depth behind those five, too, with John Smoltz, Clay Buchholz, and Michael Bowden all available to make potential contributions.

Of the near half-billion dollars the Yankees spent on their roster over the winter, about $243 million was invested in CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, the new Nos. 1 and 2 starters. Chien-Ming Wang and Andy Pettitte return for the Nos. 3 and 4 spots and Joba Chamberlain is currently No. 5. If the Yankees stay healthy -- and, admittedly, that's a big if -- their rotation looks absolutely awesome.

Starting rotation ranking: Yankees, Red Sox, Rays (but it's close).

RELIEF PITCHING
Last year, based on both ERA and winning percentage, the Red Sox bullpen ranked behind both the Rays and Yankees. Of course, it improved tremendously once Justin Masterson joined the group, which makes the early-season numbers much less relevant.

Can you name the Yankees' set-up crew? Just because you aren't impressed by the likes of Brian Bruney (a 1.83 ERA last year) or Jose Veras (3.59), do not underestimate them. Also, keep an eye on 25-year-old lefthander Phil Coke, who had a strong spring (1.32 ERA) after posting a 0.61 ERA in 12 appearances last year. And please don't put much stock into the argument that Mariano Rivera is aging. Last season, at age 38, he had 77 strikeouts and six walks.

In Tampa, the big question concerns setup men J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour, who were positively brilliant last season. Can they do it again? For all of the talk about the closing situation, the Rays have a skilled manager (Joe Maddon) who can choose between Troy Percival, Jason Isringhausen (who will begin the season on the DL with an elbow injury) and even Dan Wheeler. Where Joe Girardi is a major variable with the Yankees -- why aren't more people talking about this? -- Maddon makes the Tampa bullpen better.

As for the Red Sox, Theo Epstein has added Ramon Ramirez and Takashi Saito to a group that pitched well in the final two months last year. Daniel Bard is on the way. Again, assuming health, the Red Sox have a lot of firepower and a lot of options, and they have a manager and pitching coach who know how to get the most out of their arms.

Bullpen ranking: Red Sox, Rays, Yankees (with the disclaimer that New York is better than people think).

PREDICTION
With the possible exception of football, injuries play no bigger role in any sport as they do in baseball. The Red Sox entered last season as defending World Series champions and looked fully capable of repeating; by midseason, Beckett, Lowell, and Ortiz were all damaged to some degree. As for the Yankees, as mediocre as they seemed at times, they still won 89 games despite losing, among others, Posada and Wang.

The Rays? They generally stayed healthy, which may have been nothing more than good fortune. Of course, younger players generally have a better chance of making it through a 162-game schedule. Tampa's biggest challenge this year may be dealing with expectation, something the Rays generally did not have to confront in 2008.

At the end of the day, Tampa appears to have the youngest, healthiest team. The Red Sox appear to have the deepest. The Yankees need a lot of things to go right to keep their best team on the field, though New York obviously has the financial resources to plug just about any hole that might spring up during a pennant race.

How they'll finish: Rays (division winner), Red Sox (wild card), Yankees.

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The final chapter on Teixeira and How Red Sox pitchers work the strike zone Jan. 7, 2009 and July 17, 2009. Some actual reporting – an obsession with Mark Teixeira and the art of pitching.
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Behind Garnett and James, Celtics and Heat are digging in June 4, 2012. Improbably, the Celtics pushed the Heat to the limit.
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Thrill is back for Patriots Jan. 30, 2012. Another Super Bowl has even Bill Belichick musing.
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You’ve got to believe June 15, 2011. On the morning of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, we all had reason to believe.
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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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