MLB 2015: Opening Day Questions, American League East

MLB

Baltimore Orioles

Did the Orioles do enough to fill the holes left by the departures of Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz?

Markakis is not the great loss that he’s implied to be, but replacing Cruz’s 40 homers is nearly impossible to do with a single player. However, if the Orioles get 15-20 homers from Matt Wieters; if Chris Davis can add 8-10 homers from his somewhat disappointing 26 in 2014; if Manny Machado chips in 20-25; if Steve Pearce can contribute 75 percent of what he provided last season, then the Orioles can make up for Cruz’s departure.

Can they repeat?

Yes. Manager Buck Showalter’s strategic skills are worth a significant amount over the course of a season. It’s difficult to quantify what it is a manager adds or subtracts, but Showalter’s attention to detail and tweaking, as well as his lack of tolerance for that which other managers accept as an unavoidable consequence of managing in today’s game will make any team at least five games better than their on-paper talents indicate. The AL East is as weak as it’s been in 25 years and the Orioles, with Showlater, can take advantage of that and win the division again.

Boston Red Sox

Are the Red Sox as “smart” as their reputation and a lucky World Series win implies?

For all the supposed “brilliance” that comes from the front office led by general manager Ben Cherington, his tenure has not been a good one but for that one miracle year of 2013 when everything went right and they won the World Series. That title occurred in spite of a patched together roster loaded with best case scenario free agents and a manager, John Farrell, who’s had one winning season in his career – the year he won the World Series – and is widely acknowledged as not being very good at in-game strategy.

Much of the “success” the Red Sox have had hinges on that one year. Had they finished where many expected them to that year in the middle of the pack with 82 to 85 wins, that would be half-a-decade of massive payrolls and more massive disappointments.

But that’s revisionist history. They did win that World Series in 2013, buying them time and the belief that they’re a template organization others should copy. The reality depends on your point-of-view. The objective truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

As for 2015, this is a weirdly constructed team. They’ve stuck Hanley Ramirez in left field; are trusting Dustin Pedroia to stay healthy; acquired the fat and in-season lackadaisical Pablo Sandoval to play third; have lost their prospective starting catcher Christian Vazquez to Tommy John surgery; are hoping for a major bounce back year from Xander Bogaerts; their starting rotation is stacked with a sum-of-the-parts crew adding up to an average sum and no intimidating ace; and the bullpen is something of a mess.

Can they overcome these issues?

Although the concept hasn’t even been broached for fear of the expectation and demand that they actually do it, the Red Sox can always demote Bogaerts if he doesn’t hit, stick Ramirez at short and live with his shady defense, and put one of the endless array of outfielders in left field.

Ryan Hanigan can handle the catching duties suitably until Blake Swihart is recalled to share the job. They have a deep farm system and can dip into it to make a move on Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto, or any other “name” arm that comes available. Bullpens are fluctuating, so who knows whether Edward Mujica, Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehara or anyone else will emerge and dominate in the late innings?

The weakness of the division and their resources will let them stay in the race.

New York Yankees

Can they count on the key to their season – Masahiro Tanaka – and what if he falters?

I’d written months ago that the Yankees were handling Tanaka’s torn elbow ligament correctly by letting him pitch until he can no longer pitch and then he should go for surgery when he can’t. Now, however, there are troubling signs regarding his health. Tanaka has stated that he’s altered his motion to accommodate his injury. His velocity is noticeably reduced. He’s also adjusted his repertoire to accommodate the injury. All of these factors will lead to the idea that he’s pitching hurt, changing his tactics to mitigate the pain, and is moving forward through an injury instead of functioning normally in spite of it.

Obviously, they can’t count on him for the entire season. In fact, it seems as if they’ll go start-to-start and hope for the best. This leads to the question as to whether the doctors gave him the option of pitching without the surgery if and only if he can stand it. He’s saying that he can stand it when the statements and acts say he can’t.

Tanaka’s situation is often equated with that of Adam Wainwright who pitched with the same injury for five years before the ligament finally blew, but Wainwright never publicly admitted he had changed his motion or strategy due to the injury as Tanaka is doing now. If this is the situation, them maybe he should just have the surgery and get it over with.

Will Hal Steinbrenner and Randy Levine let GM Brian Cashman clean house if the team is spiraling?

It’s hard to fathom the Yankees ever punting a season in large part because they’re so immersed in both the reputation as consummate “winners” and selling tickets for their star-studded show. What they need to realize is that a large percentage of “Yankees die-hards” who spend money on the product became “Yankees die-hards” in 1998. They won’t go see a substandard product and they certainly won’t pay the prices to go to Yankee Stadium to sit through it.

The other problem they have is the profound lack of marketable players. No one is taking CC Sabathia. Might they be able to move Brian McCann? Would another team take Alex Rodriguez off their hands if the Yankees pay the bulk of his salary just to get him away from them once and for all? I can absolutely see the Miami Marlins doing that. If Mark Teixeira is hitting, can they move him? What about Jacoby Ellsbury? Brett Gardner? Carlos Beltran?

The odds are no one’s taking any of these players, but Cashman would dearly love to get rid of all of them to bolster the farm system, clear salary, and open spots for the supposedly hot hitting prospects they have coming through the pipeline.

But Hal and Levine won’t let him because of the message it sends even though it was similarly short-sighted decisions that got the organization in this position in the first place. Yankees fans had better savor the words “first place” in any context since it’s about the closest they’ll get to it this year.

Tampa Bay Rays

Will the team collapse without Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon?

On the contrary, the departures of Friedman and Maddon reinvigorate the franchise and they made a series of moves to bolster a weak farm system. While Friedman and Maddon were obviously integral to the team’s success, there’s such a thing as stagnation and a spark stemming from change. The idea that Friedman was the sole voice in making all the decisions and that his absence will spur the entire franchise to come undone is silly. There’s no single voice in any organization and the freedom from the expectations that Friedman’s success created has allowed the Rays to move forward and make moves – dumping Wil Myers, Jeremy Hellickson and Joel Peralta – they might not have made had they stood pat in the front office.

Maddon leaping out of the contractual escape hatch actually did the Rays a favor. They were able to get rid of players Maddon wanted on the roster like Jose Molina and Sean Rodriguez. They no longer have to endure his canned quirkiness and the arrogance fomented by the sudden public recognition he received as the “best” manager in baseball.

While the players will say all the right things about their former manager, what he did was inordinately selfish and despicable as he took another person’s job by usurping Rick Renteria with the Chicago Cubs. His act had grown tiresome and the young and energetic Kevin Cash is a new voice with a different message that won’t be as me-centric as it had become with Maddon.

Toronto Blue Jays

Is this the last call for this Blue Jays group?

Put it this way, they’re going to need a new team president when Paul Beeston retires after the season and the new boss – whoever it is (and it still might be Dan Duquette) – will want to bring in his own people and likely gut the place of these faltering veterans. That means GM Alex Anthopoulos and manager John Gibbons know where they stand: win or else.

It’s not an absurd demand considering the financial freedom that Anthopoulos was given and the underachievement of this club. For years, there was the complaint that the Blue Jays would have been good enough to make the playoffs had they not been stuck in a division with the Yankees and Red Sox. Now that the entire division is down and there’s a gaping hole for the Blue Jays to charge through, they haven’t done it. On paper, they’ve improved significantly with Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson. They still have Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes and Edwin Encarnacion. But their pitching is questionable, they’ve gutted the farm system, lost Marcus Stroman for the year, and are functioning with Brett Cecil as their closer.

Can they finally win?

Can they? Yes. Will they? No.

After annually expecting them to finally fulfill their potential and have a little luck, eventually the reality will hit home that this is what they are and they need to make structural changes from the ground up to alter the culture. It’s just not going to work with this nucleus and it has to be changed starting with the front office.

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