Authored by Andrew Perna - 7th April, 2012 - 11:34 am
The AL East has been the best division in baseball for quite some time and there should be four clubs with winning records when we close the book on the 2012 season. Even the Orioles, who finished in last place by 12 games, flirted with 70 wins last year.
The division had three of the top-five, and four of the top-seven teams in the American League in 2011, as well as three of the top-nine teams in all of baseball. The Yankees, Rays and Red Sox entered the season as the perceived frontrunners (as usual), but the Blue Jays will be a part of that conversation soon.
2011 Standings (Offensive Rank/Pitching Rank)
1. New York: 97-65 (2nd/11th)
2. Tampa Bay: 91-71 (15th/8th)
3. Boston: 90-72 (1st/22nd)
4. Toronto: 81-81 (6th/24th)
5. Baltimore: 69-83 (14th/30th)
As you would expect, they had one of the most explosive offenses in baseball last season. The reason they won the division, however, was their pitching staff. While the numbers were middling, they got much more than they expected from rookie Ivan Nova and low-risk veterans Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon.
The key in 2012 will be how Joe Girardi manages this aging roster in relation to rest, the batting order and the designated hitter slot. Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter form an old left side of the infield, while Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher are all over 30.
The Question Mark: Mark Teixeira -- His power numbers will be good, but his averages have to improve. His OBP has dipped from .410, to .383, .365 and .341 over the past four seasons.
The Key: Alex Rodriguez -- He has to play around 140 games and hit well.
The Lock: CC Sabathia -- 200-plus innings in five consecutive seasons.
Tampa Bay surged late to make the playoffs on the final night of the regular season thanks to a pitching staff that dominated most nights and shielded their anemic offense (for the American League) from too much criticism. They ranked right in the middle of baseball in runs (15th), while posting a decent on-base percentage (.322).
If they get the same type of production from their starting five, they will have a very good shot at winning the division outright because of the bats added this winter. Carlos Pena has returned, Luke Scott was signed and Desmond Jennings is another year older. Even without the talent level of their Northeast rivals, the Rays will always compete because of how well Joe Maddon handles his team.
The Question Mark: Jose Molina -- A full-time catcher that will turn 37 in June.
The Key: Matt Moore -- He burst on the scene in October, but can he sustain that type of effort over 25-plus starts?
The Lock: Evan Longoria -- He has one of the best-looking swings in the game and it is productive.
The Red Sox
The pitching staff is depleted, but the Red Sox will have one of the top three offenses in the game, which will keep them in the playoff race right up until late September. There is a lot of pessimism around Boston about the team, but if nothing else Bobby Valentine will help deflect some of the negative attention that has surrounded them since their famed collapse last fall.
Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis and Jacoby Ellsbury will have to hit together and with regularity because in addition to a somewhat shallow starting five, the bullpen will be weak early on with Andrew Bailey sidelined. It is hard to imagine at least one AL West team not grabbing one of the two Wild Card spots, but the additional berth is huge for Boston this season.
The Question Mark: Clay Buchholz -- Can he rebound from an injury-plagued 2011?
The Key: Kevin Youkilis -- Beer and chicken in the clubhouse or not, a healthy Youkilis gets them to the playoffs in 2011.
The Lock: Adrian Gonzalez -- In Season One, he was as good as advertised.
The Blue Jays
Toronto is expected to take a big step forward in 2012, improving upon a .500 season in which they represented themselves very well. They have enough Major League-ready talent to compete on a nightly basis, but the key to how far they can advance this year will be how quickly their youngsters mature.
Jose Bautista is the clear-cut star, but the Blue Jays have a host of young players that could be All-Stars in the coming seasons. If prospects like Brett Lawrie, J.P. Arencibia, Colby Rasmus and Henderson Alvarez have breakout seasons, there is no reason why Toronto will not play meaningful games in September.
The Question Mark: Colby Rasmus -- When will things finally click for him?
The Key: Ricky Romero -- The left-hander must be the anchor for John Farrell.
The Lock: Jose Bautista -- He proved in 2011 that he is the real deal.
Baltimore is the only team in this division that you can say with confidence will not contend over the next three years. They have good players -- Matt Wieters, Mark Reynolds and Nick Markakis -- but they have to play 70 or so games against the Yankees, Rays, Red Sox and Blue Jays each season.
They will hit, but their pitching is a huge question mark. Buck Showalter will begin the season with a five-man staff of Brian Matusz, Wei-Yin Chen, Jake Arrieta, Tommy Hunter and Jason Hammel. Chen has never started in the Major Leagues and the other four are a combined 92-98 in their careers with an ERA around 5.00.
The Question Mark: Brian Roberts -- How long will concussion issues sideline him?
The Key: Young Guns -- Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta must show signs of growth
The Lock: Mark Reynolds -- He will hit a ton of home runs and strike out even more.
The Projected Finish
1. Tampa Bay: They have expectations, but will meet them.
2. New York: Too old and without as much pitching depth as 2011.
3. Boston: The roster is too good to expect anything less than a Wild Card berth.
4. Toronto: Moving up in the standings will be very hard, even with a better record.
5. Baltimore: Moral victories may be more plentiful than actual wins.