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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American League East—2012 Present and 2013 Future

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Let’s look at the current construction of each club and make an honest appraisal of their 2012 status and 2013 future. We’ll start with the AL East.

Baltimore Orioles

As an excuse to justify how brilliant they are and that their numbers are never wrong, it’s en vogue for the stats-obsessed to repeatedly reference how “lucky” the Orioles are because of their negative run differential and that their record under the shaky metric of the Pythagorean Win Theorem has them 12 games worse than their actual record.

The Orioles have three major attributes: they hit the ball out of the park; they have a deep bullpen; and they have a manager in Buck Showalter who knows how to push the right buttons. Bullpens fluctuate so there’s no guarantee that will continue into 2013; they’ll still have players who hit the ball out of the park; and Showalter is discussing a contract extension.

Their starting rotation are all in their mid-20s and they have young players Dylan Bundy and Manny Machado set to make contributions. The Orioles may take a step back next year, but they’ve turned the corner from a laughingstock where no player would choose to go unless they’re overpaid or without options to a viable destination with a plan and a chance to win. And they have a great shot at the playoffs this season.

New York Yankees

Anyone speculating about Joe Girardi’s job security is looking for a scapegoat and trying to distract from the real culprits in the team’s inconsistency and age: Brian Cashman and, to a lesser extent, the Steinbrenners.

If this team doesn’t make the playoffs, they’re going to have to make structural changes to the roster. The constant discussion of their 10 games lead in July is glossing over the fact that they’ve had one good month—June when they went 20-7. Aside from that, they’re around a .500 team and making the playoffs in 2012 is in jeopardy. They’re old, expensive, and worn down. It remains to be seen what this veteran crew is going to have left in the tank even if they do make the playoffs

All of a sudden criticism has been extended to hitting coach Kevin Long for the slide of Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, among others. Long might be gone, playoffs or not. The Yankees minor league system is dwindling in stature and legitimate prospects, thereby limiting what they’ll be able to acquire on the market; their open decision to try and reduce payroll to prevent luxury tax implications will also reduce their options to improve the team on the fly.

If they fall from the playoffs or are a one-and-done scenario, I’d fire Cashman not just for his incompetent trade for Michael Pineda and failure to address needs at the trading deadline, but also because I still have an issue with him having written a reference on team letterhead for either his girlfriend or a woman that was blackmailing him. His judgment on and off the field is highly questionable.

Maybe it’s time for Billy Eppler to get a chance or to even bring back Gene Michael for a 2-3 year run as GM.

Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays are loaded with young pitching, aggressive in making trades, and build a different bullpen every year with the refuse of other clubs. Because they are operating under severe financial constraints and the scrutiny around them is limited, they can do what they want and live with a season of 83-79 or worse to get back to 95 wins the next season. This is what they are and how they’ll remain under the current management.

Toronto Blue Jays

Edwin Encarnacion hit his 40th home run last night. He joins Jose Bautista as a journeyman player who suddenly starting hitting the ball out of the park with a ridiculous frequency for the Blue Jays. But they’re still the same team that discovers a player for whom it clicked in his late-20s, and winds up with a win total between 75-83 and is in third or fourth place in the division.

Their manager John Farrell is in demand to take over the Red Sox and the Blue Jays don’t sound all that bothered about it. Their entire starting rotation has spent time on the disabled list for one malady or another. Their offense is flashy, but as inconsistent as their would-be star pitcher Brandon Morrow.

It’s just off in Toronto. They do noticeable things like make aggressive trades, hit homers and steal bases, but they don’t win. I don’t hear people referring to GM Alex Anthopoulos as a genius much anymore. What are they thinking North of the border when they spent so many years jumping at the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays like a child trying to recover a confiscated toy, then see the Red Sox come apart, the Yankees vulnerable, and the Rays beatable and that it’s the Orioles and not the Blue Jays who are taking advantage?

I thought the Blue Jays would take the next step this season, but that belief has been prevalent for a decade and they’re frozen in place. I’m not picking them again unless they make significant changes on and off the field.

Boston Red Sox

On some level, I understand what they did when they hired Bobby Valentine to replace Terry Francona. I’m not one who’s seeing their atrocious season as validating Francona is some bizarre way. He and Theo Epstein take as much responsibility if not more as Larry Lucchino and Valentine in 2012. They were trying to move forward with the roster as it was, make a few tweaks here and there, and see if it got better. It didn’t and it’s not Valentine’s fault.

They got rid of Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, and Carl Crawford, saved money and bolstered the farm system. But if you think they’re going to hire Farrell or whoever; sign a few free agents with the available money or make a big trade and they’ll be back to where they were as World Series favorites, you’ve got another thing coming. There’s a lot of work to do in Boston and it’s not going to be a short-term process. If they go half-in/half-out and try to straddle the line as they did last winter, expect more of the same in 2013.

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American League East Predicted Standings

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American League East Predicted Standings:

1. New York Yankees                        94       68         —

2. Toronto Blue Jays                         87       75           7

3. Tampa Bay Rays                            85       77           9

4. Boston Red Sox                             81       81          13

5. Baltimore Orioles                           65       97          29

New York Yankees

The Yankees benefited greatly from the lack of decisively bold movements and drastic improvements of their rivals. While they’re repeating prior mistakes with paranoia and pitcher-babying, they have the offense, abundance of starting pitching and deep bullpen to again rise to the top of the division.

The bench is something that will have to be addressed as the season moves along because Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones aren’t suitable backups regardless of the Yankees’ propaganda machine unequivocally stating that they are.

Expect Alex Rodriguez to have a comeback season and hope that the overwhelming pressure they’re putting on Michael Pineda doesn’t haunt them.

Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays needed a name arm or a name bat to be a preseason favorite and didn’t get either.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t contend; it means that they’re going to have to get big seasons from young players Brett Lawrie, Yunel Escobar and Henderson Alvarez. Sergio Santos must prove he can close for a full season and throw strikes; Brandon Morrow has to develop into a trustworthy top-tier starter without restrictions.

I picked Jose Bautista as the AL MVP.

Tampa Bay Rays

Again forced to scrounge around the bargain bins, they reunited with Carlos Pena to increase their power at first base. The Rays have been good and lucky in finding bullpen arms who fit into their system and rejuvenate stalled careers—running a club that way is rife with risks that eventually it’s not going to work.

B.J. Upton will play like a maniac all season as he heads for free agency.

With their young starting pitching, they could make it to the World Series or falter and be out of contention to put such stars as Upton, James Shields and David Price in play for a trade at mid-season.

I’ve got them somewhere in the middle.

Boston Red Sox

It’s chaos.

Who’s running things?

Is there any cohesion between John Henry, Larry Lucchino, Ben Cherington and Bobby Valentine?

At least when Theo Epstein was there—like it or not—you knew there was one person mostly in charge; now with Theo gone and Lucchino grasping for power; Henry providing self-protectionist alibis; Cherington marginalized; and Bobby V being…Bobby V, there are going to be voices, whispers, Machiavellian power plays and rampant dysfunction the likes which have not been seen in Boston since 2001.

Are they making the types of moves that laid the foundation of their annual championship contending teams from 2003-2010 or are they desperately trying to patch holes and find “name” people to replace the “name” people who are gone?

I like Valentine, but his polarizing personality can go both ways. The Red Sox starting rotation is short and they have black spots in their lineup at shortstop, right field and possibly catcher.

It’s a time bomb with Valentine and Josh Beckett.

Baltimore Orioles

I don’t hear much about Buck Showalter’s status as a miracle worker after the team came apart last season.

Following a hot start, they reverted to being the Orioles of the past 15 years.

Dan Duquette has received unfair criticism and there’s a lack of context in the good work he did as the Expos’ and Red Sox’ GM, but a lack of talent is a lack of talent; an impossible division is an impossible division; and until they develop their young arms and stick to a strategy for the long term, there’s not much that will change in Baltimore.

Duquette must be allowed to take the marketable players—notably Nick Markakis and Adam Jones—and see what types of offers he can get for them to replenish the system with multiple players. They’re not going to do the Orioles any good as Orioles.

Far more in depth analysis is in my book, Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide, now available.

Click here for a full sample of team predictions/projections. My book can be purchased on KindleSmashwordsBN and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

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