I wrote in my 2011 MLB Preview blog that I will be doing a blog specifically previewing the AL East, and I have finally gotten around to it. I will start in last place and continue to the top. To start, I'd just like to say that this is an improved division from the past few years all around, but there isn't a third favorite along with Boston and New York. Without further ado, my predictions for 2011.
5. Baltimore Orioles 75-87
This is a Baltimore Orioles team that has been ready for a 10 win improvement for a couple of years now, and I believe this is the year. There are a few reasons for that. Even though manager Buck Showalter downplayed Theo's GMing ability, he did a great job with the O's last year. As a team, they finished the season 30 games under .500. However, in the last 57 games, when Showalter was brought in, the team played 11 games above .500. That's a considerable improvement. I also expect a somewhat breakout year from catcher Matt Weiters. He was expected to be a stud in the bigs, but has disappointed thus far. This is his third year, and the one I believe he begins to ascend to the heights he was expected to reach. These two things, along with the addition of Vladimir Guerrero, should let the Orioles be competitive. Their pitching isn't there yet, so they won't be able to legitimately content until that improves.
4. Toronto Blue Jays 79-82
The Jays had a typical Blue Jays season last year, finishing in 4th place with a record of 85-77. It seems every year they play slightly above .500, but never seem to seriously threaten for a playoff bid. I see another 4th place finish this year, but in a slightly weaker division, that is going to hold a worse record. The biggest move the Blue Jays made in the offseason was signing 3B Jose Bautista to a 5 year, $65 million contract. Last season, Bautista hit 54 home runs and knocked in 124 RBI. At 29 years old, it was 38 more home runs than he has ever hit in his career. While he may be a late bloomer and be a solid power hitter, I don't believe he is worth that contract and will not perform to the level he did in 2010. With the absence of Vernon Wells, and the fact that this is the first year under former Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell, I think the Jays will regress a bit.
3. Tampa Bay Rays 85-77
The Rays had a Florida Marlinsesque firesale after the year, being unable to resign top free agents Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano and Carlos Pena, as well as trading away starting pitcher and spitting extraordinaire Matt Garza. However, they decided to take a page out of the 2004 Red Sox playbook by signing former Idiots Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. Their lineup still features All Star Evan Longoria, along with Ben Zobrist, and BJ Upton. That is a formidable lineup to go along with a good, young starting rotation. To balance out the loss of Garza, they will enter the year with prospect Jeremy Hellickson as their fifth starter. Hellickson pitched well in the 10 appearances he made in 2010, and the Rays expect more of the same this year. I think Joe Maddon will be able to lead this team that last so much in the offseason to a respectable 2011.
2. New York Yankees 94-68
We are back to the AL East we all know an love in 2011, with the Red Sox and the Yankees as the two prohibitive favorites to win the division, with the other expected to contend for the Wild Card. The big news coming out of Yankee camp over the winter was them missing out on prized free agent Cliff Lee, who joined the Super Rotation in Philadelphia. To go along with that loss, they also lost longtime starter Andy Pettitte to retirement. Because of this, their rotation is expected to be a bit weak this year. They still have my Cy Young winner C.C. Sabathia and 2010 breakout star Phil Hughes. Behind them, it's a little less sure. A.J Burnett has proven to be a head case and is impossible to gauge how he will pitch night in and night out. In the four spot they have Ivan Nova. The fifth spot came down to a competition between Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon, a competition that would have been awesome in 2005. However, their offense still can rely on Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, MVP hopeful Robinson Cano and a declining Derek Jeter. This lineup, along with the top of their rotation and a bullpen with Mariano Rivera, should be able to carry the Yankees to playoff contention.
1. Boston Red Sox 98-64
All month, I have been previewing the individuals in the starting lineup and rotation for the 2011 Red Sox. I have also already told you that I expect the Red Sox to win the AL Pennant and lose to the Phillies in the World Series. I expect a big year out of the Red Sox lineup, which may be the best I've ever seen at Fenway. I predict Adrain Gonzalez will win MVP, and Crawford and Ellsbury running the bases should cause havoc. As for the rotation, as long as one of Lackey, Beckett and Dice-K put up good numbers, and another puts up decent numbers, this team should be playing in October. Their bullpen looks great on paper. Their last four arms in the 'pen (Papelbon, Jenks, Bard and Wheeler) all have closer stuff, and three of them have closed. They have depth at all positions and are prepared for minor injuries. Barring any major injuries, the Red Sox will win the AL East.