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Rating the top three in the AL East

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  April 2, 2010 08:26 AM

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A year ago at this time, this was our forecast for the vaunted American League East: Rays, Red Sox, Yankees. And as any baseball person will tell you, 1-for-3 will get you into the Hall of Fame.

Tony Massarotti ranks the Big Three AL East teams in four major categories, and makes a prediction on how they'll finish in 2010:
Mazz's ranking
1st
2d
3d
HittingRaysRed SoxYankees
DefenseRed SoxRaysYankees
Starting pitchingYankeesRed SoxRays
BullpenRed SoxRaysYankees
How they'll finishRaysRed SoxYankees

This year, once again, the three best teams in the league – or, perhaps, in all of baseball? – reside in the AL East, where the Yankees, Sox and Rays (in that order) all finished in the top 10 in the majors in run differential during the 2009 campaign. (No other division had more than two teams in the top 10.) The only certainty is that one of those clubs will be absent from the playoffs again this year, and the likelihood is that two of those teams will be playing in October.

Over the last seven years, after all, the AL wild card team has come from the East on six occasions, the lone exception coming in 2006, the only time that a Red Sox team built by Theo Epstein failed to qualify for the postseason. Overall, 13 of the last 28 AL playoff participants have come from the East, as have five of the last seven league champions.

With the 2010 season opener now just hours away, here is a preview of the East in four fundamental areas – along with our annual projected order of finish:

HITTING

Woe is the team that travels to Boston, Tampa and New York. Last year, the Yankees (915), Red Sox (872) and Rays (803) ranked a respective first, third and fifth in the league in runs scored; they ranked first, second and fourth in OPS. What was a team like the Orioles to do during a three-city trip that covered essentially the entire East Coast?

Even following the departures of Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, it is hard to imagine anyone outscoring the Yankees, who have added, among others, Nick Johnson and Curtis Granderson to a lineup already including Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. The Yankees will score, particularly at home, where they hit a league-leading 136 home runs last year.

Despite that, the Yankees actually ranked second in runs scored at home behind, you guessed it, the Red Sox. In 2010, the question for the Sox offense concerns the departure of Jason Bay and the impact it will have on a lineup with a rather severe downhill slope after No. 4 hitter Kevin Youkilis.

As for Tampa, the Rays have fortified their catcher position with the addition of Kelly Shoppach and have prospect Desmond Jennings looming in right field; a year ago, those two positions (along with designated hitter) were among the weakest in the Tampa lineup. The Rays have a nice balance of power and speed, and logic suggests that their young hitters will continue to improve.

Offensive rankings: Yankees, Rays, Red Sox.

DEFENSE

Here’s something that may have been overlooked in Boston over the winter, particularly amid all that trendy talk of "run prevention," the modern name for the age-old concept of pitching and defense: last season, the Yankees scored worse than the Red Sox (and among the worst teams in baseball) in a variety of defensive metrics, and the Yankees won 103 regular season games en route to their 27th world title.

Yes, defense is important. But let’s not get silly here.

On the surface, even with the addition of Granderson (who scored similarly to Mike Cameron in some defensive metrics), the Yankees will lag behind in this area again. The Yankees are miles behind at third base and are suspect in right field, and catcher Jorge Posada always has been an offensive player. Are the Yankees an awful defensive team? No. But they’re not an elite one, either, though Mark Teixeira upgraded them considerably at first base last year.

Around the diamond, from catcher to right field, the Red Sox and Rays are among the deepest most balanced teams in baseball. The Red Sox have an obvious vulnerability behind the plate – they allowed a preposterous 151 steals last year – but they may now be as good or better than the Rays at every other position on the diamond. All joking aside, the Red Sox defense looks terrific – as does that of the Rays.

Defensive rankings: Red Sox, Rays, Yankees.

STARTING PITCHING

With the possible exceptions of the Seattle Mariners and Chicago White Sox, the three best rotations in the league all live in the upper 60 percent of the division. The Red Sox, Yankees, and Rays all have talent and depth, and health may ultimately determine who ends up first, second and third. There’s no point in belaboring the point here. All three rotations are quite good.

At the moment, the Rays (James Shields, Matt Garza, Jeff Niemann, David Price, Wade Davis) simply don’t have the firepower that Boston and New York possess, a fact that is largely the result of payroll. This year, including a prorated posting fee for signing Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Yankees and Red Sox will pay roughly $120 million combined to 11 starting pitchers (six for Boston, five for New York), a figure that is nearly double the entire projected payroll of the Rays.

Boston and New York should be better than Tampa in this area.

C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte, Javier Vazquez and Phil Hughes comprise a darned good group. The Red Sox don’t have an ace quite like Sabathia – though Jon Lester could get there – and their top three (with Josh Beckett and Jon Lackey joining Lester) are the best trio in the game. In fact, the Red Sox’ bottom three starters could easily pitch in the top half of many rotations.

This is close, folks, and the Rays really aren’t far behind.

Starting rotation rankings: Red Sox, Yankees, Rays.

RELIEF PITCHING

At the conclusion of last season, there was simply no doubt. With Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito amid a group that already included Jonathan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima and Daniel Bard, the Red Sox were positively stacked. Wagner and Saito have since relocated to Atlanta, stealing at least some of the firepower at the back end of games.

Meanwhile, the Rays appear to have secured themselves a legitimate closer (Rafael Soriano) while the Yankees have swapped Hughes (into the starting rotation) for Joba Chamberlain (now in the bullpen).

At the moment, given the shoulder ailment plaguing J.P. Howell, the Rays have significant concerns that will put additional pressure on Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler. If and when Howell returns, he and fellow divisional counterparts Daniel Bard (Sox) and Chamberlain (Yankees) could very well be the deciding factors in overall bullpen performance.

Chamberlain remains something of a wild card given his performance last year. Bard is still relatively unproven. The bullpens of both the Sox and Yanks start to get a little a suspect after the primary setup men – what bullpen doesn’t? – though it should be stressed that Hideki Okajima has been arguably the most consistent non-closer in the division over the last three years.

The bottom line: assuming health, this is very, very close. Soriano isn’t quite at the level of Papelbon and Mariano Rivera, but the Rays are third for now. Boston’s depth seems to give the Sox a slight edge over New York, but we all know how bullpens go.

Bullpen rankings: Red Sox, Yankees, Rays.

PREDICTION

Here’s the thing about the Yankees: last year, most everything went right. The older Yankees generally stayed healthy while the younger ones (especially Hughes) seemed to blossom, and New York hit stride at midseason. In their final 107 regular- and post-season games, the Yankees went 76-31, a pace that would produce a whopping 115 wins over the course of a 162-game schedule.

It wasn’t a fluke.

Are the Red Sox good? Of course they are. The questions about their offense have more to do with the Sox’ chances at a championship than they do anything else. Barring some sort of major shock, the Red Sox will absolutely, positively be in contention for a playoff spot late in the year, and general manager Theo Epstein has proven as deft as any GM in the game at identifying and addressing weakness at the trading deadline.

As for the Rays, they have the smallest margin for error given the obvious discrepancy in payroll with Boston and New York. Generally speaking, Tampa needs everything to go right. At the same time, the Rays have a deeper roster than they have had in the last few years, and they continue to draw from a farm system that is one of the best in baseball.

How they’ll finish: Yankees, Red Sox (wild card) and Rays.

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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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