By Greg Hudson
With the start of a new baseball season just a month away, Major League Baseball is ramping up with spring training and invites for young prospects to get a shot at a big-league roster spot. But the off-season has been full of big moves, big contracts, and big news about major teams and players that will have a big impact this season.
To preview the 2014 season, Starting Point Sports is taking a look at each division in the coming days, starting with the American League East.
Baltimore Orioles (85-77, 3rd in 2013)
The Orioles will be frustrated after failing to make the playoffs in 2013 despite securing a winning record for a second year running, as young players continued to develop into a fearsome lineup that featured Chris “Crush” Davis and Manny Machado at the corner infield positions and Adam Jones and Nick Markakis in the outfield. An underwhelming pitching rotation led by Chris Tillman struggled at times, but a sensational bullpen kept them in the hunt for a wildcard spot until a late surge from the Texas Rangers knocked them out of contention in the final weeks of the season.
The off-season acquisition of Ubaldo Jimenez should provide more stability to an otherwise unaltered pitching staff. The Birds have also signed veteran outfielder Delmon Young, who may prove valuable as the season progresses and they look to get back in the hunt for October baseball.
Boston Red Sox (97-65, 1st in 2013)
It was a tale of two seasons in Beantown, as the Sox went from Zeros to Heroes in 2013. After a disappoiting 2012 season that saw the perennial playoff team fall to the basement of the AL East, the Sox were a revelation in 2013, winning the AL East, the American League pennant, and the World Series. They got their largely through their high-powered offense, which led the league in runs scored, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, and put together a .277 season batting average. Pitching was no less impressive, with the starting rotation providing 95 quality starts and 67 wins. The big weakness in the Sox squad was the bullpen, especially in the closer role, earning only 33 of 57 save opportunities.
But the Sox didn’t focus on the bullpen in the offseason, though they did pick up starting pitcher Chris Capuano who will only add to the quality in the rotation. Grady Sizemore, an ex-Indian who hasn’t played in the majors since 2011, was an interesting acquisition. I look forward to seeing whether or not he features at all this season.
New York Yankees (85-77, 4th in 2013)
The Yankees are a team in transition, and a transition made all the more moving by the announcement that the 2014 season will be Derek Jeter’s final season. The most important player in Yankees pinstripes in the past two decades and the final tie connecting the glory days of the late 1990s to the futile string of seasons in the past decade, he will leave a hole that will be almost impossible to fill.
But more concerning for Yankee fans this season will be all the other holes the Yankees have to fill. Suspended third baseman Alex Rodriguez may or may not be missed, but the lack of a quality replacement leaves the Yankees short in terms of power, compounded by the departure of Robinson Cano. Injury-plagued first baseman Mark Texeira will be an unknown quantity in his return this year.
The signing of All-Star outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury will more than make up for the departure of Curtis Granderson, but the biggest acquisition was Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, pipped as a future Cy Young winner. But pitchers coming to the majors from Japan have historically been either great successes or great failures, as both Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka can attest. The quality of his season could well be the deciding factor in whether or not the Yanks get back into the hunt for October in an increasingly competitive division.
Tampa Bay Rays (92-71, 2nd in 2013)
The Rays squeaked into the playoffs last season after beating the Texas Rangers in a special win-or-go-home game to decide the final playoff spot, the first time since 1999 that a team that won 90 games failed to make the playoffs. The Rays dreams fell short in the playoffs, but the Rays will be pleased with the performances of their young up-and-coming stars, namely breakout phenom Wil Myers and lights-out pitcher Chris Archer.
The Rays haven’t done much to their roster in the offseason, which speaks to the strength of their drafts in recent years. The team has invited several non-roster players to try out for a big-league spot this year, including 2013 draftee Ryne Stanek, a top pitching prospect, and other highly-rated minor-leaguers Taylor Guerrieri and Oscar Hernandez. The Rays clearly think the future of the team already lies in the organization, and that says a lot about a club.
Toronto Blue Jays (74-88, 5th in 2013)
The Blue Jays have been the only AL East team not to contend for a playoff position in the past five seasons. Their 2013 season continued a recent trend of poor pitching and middle-of-the-road hitting that put them within 15 games of a .500 record, thanks to an unusually high run output, despite ranking just 15th in batting average and on-base percentage, thanks in no small part to the speed of players like Jose Reyes and Edwin Encarnacion, and the power of slugger Jose Bautista.
The Jays’ biggest weakness continues to be starting pitching, as the organization failed to make any notable signings during the off-season. But 2012 NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey will hope that his second season in Toronto will be a comeback year after a thoroughly disappointing season in defense of his Cy Young award. Mark Buerhle will also be hoping to return to the lights-out quality he produced during his days in Chicago. The Jays will need them to pull it off too, if they want to climb out of the basement of baseball’s most competitive division.
Prediction: In the end, despite some big moves in and out of the teams in the division, there won’t be that much change in the overall standings. The gulf in quality between the top three teams and the bottom two teams is just too much for either team to overcome. But look for the Orioles to be there in September fighting for the second wildcard spot.
1st: Red Sox
2nd: Rays *wildcard
3rd: Orioles *wildcard
5th: Blue Jays