Monday, April 02, 2007

AL East Preview 2007

Last season I made an AL East prediction here at COH. For what predictions are worth, I don’t think I did too badly. Of course, I picked the Yankees to finish first, which they did. I never expected the huge post-All Star collapse of the Red Sox in finishing second, but I believe I posted a picture of Big Papi pointing to the sky and captioned it, “Big Papi knows where to look for the Yankees in the standings this year.” If you have any interest in what I said about last season, you can follow the link to that post. This is about this year and the Canyon of Heroes pre-season prognostications on the American League East. Full predictions of the Awards and Playoff results will follow this team by team analysis, in addition to a quick look at what I thought this time last year.

New York Yankees

Manager: Joe Torre
2006 Record: 97-65 (.599) Finished 1st
2006 Pythagorean Win-Loss: 95-67 (.586)
2007 Predicted Win-Loss: 104-58 (.642)

The Yankees are still the team to beat in the AL East. Actually, the Yankees are still the team to beat in the entire sport. People who are down on the Bombers and their playoffs wilt often forget that the team posted the best record in baseball last year despite losing Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield for most of the year, and starting guys like Jaret Wright, Scott Erickson, Sidney Ponson, to name a few. This season I expect the team to produce runs at a clip similar to that of September 2006, when the team ran up 6.2 per game. The new look pitching gives me hope that we'll also see a lowering of the runs allowed to the tune of about 4.6 per game, or so. If that happens, the Yankees will win 100+ and run away with the division. I'll go with a 104-58 record and another AL East Division crown.

Player to Watch: Robinson Cano
I’m very high on Robby Cano. I was tempted to use this space to talk about A-Rod or Hideki Matsui, who I think will both challenge for the MVP this year A-Rod is still one of the game’s best 5 players, and will show it this year. Matsui is due for a huge season. I think a lot of Yankee pundits feel the same way, but there’s good reason. Matsui has shown 30+ home run power in the past, and there’s no reason to think that he won’t pound out that many in a comeback season in 2007. The time off probably helped to rejuvenate his body after the silly consecutive games streak was snapped. (I guess I did talk about A-Rod and Matsui in this space.) Cano’s 2006 was unreal. Last season I projected his pace out to 162 games and found some startling numbers. The pace he set after coming back from his injury was enough to duplicate some of Don Mattingly’s finest work. I am going to come out before the season starts and say that Robinson Cano will post the same kind of numbers for the Yankees that Donny Baseball famously produced (at 2nd base!). The home runs may not be there, but Cano is a doubles machine and could challenge the 50 mark in 2007.

Pitcher to Watch: Roger Clemens
I’m cheating a bit here, but I think Roger Clemens is the Yankees ace in the hole. There are plenty of doubters out there who feel that Clemens is both old and on his way to another team. The AL East will get to Clemens in those people’s books, and he’ll probably stay in Houston where he gets that cushy deal. I am not one of those people. I think Clemens will be one of the best 10 pitchers in the AL when he comes back, and I think he’ll pitch for the Yankees. I’ve been wrong in this space before with Clemens, but I’m banking on getting it right this time. If Rocket comes back to pitch for the Yankees in June, the AL East is as good as ours. We may not even need him, but he’d be the padlock on the top spot. Honorable mention goes to Phil Hughes who could have a big impact on the division race before all is said and done, Rocket or no.

Boston Red Sox
Manager: Terry Francona
2006 Record: 86-76 (.531) Finished 3rd
2006 Pythagorean Win-Loss: 81-81 (.500)
2007 Predicted Win-Loss: 93-69 (.574)

The Red Sox spent big in the offseason to acquire talent, both foreign and domestic. In the end, they had no choice. After a 3rd place finish in 2006, the big money New England club had a choice to make. Spend more money and buy a much talent as possible, or stick with the lip service that Theo Epstein provided the media at the trade deadline last year. Become the Yankees, or stick to your principles and die another slow painful death. Red Sox fans get incredibly irritated to hear that they’ve become the Yankees, but there no way to deny it. As a Yankee fan, I think it’s smart. If you have the money, spend it. For the perpetual underdog fan base in Boston, that idea is like kryptonite to their psyche. Nonetheless, the Blue Jays are on their way back to the playoff hunt and the Red Sox were in danger of heading back to the second division of the AL East. With their new additions, they have at least plugged the leaks, and at best pushed them over the top to win the division finally. I will split that one down the middle and say that the Red Sox bold moves were the first step back in an upward direction and they will finish second to the Yankees in 2007. Wild Card? Keep reading…..

Player to Watch: J. D. Drew
The Sox gambled HUGE on Drew. He is a spectacular talent with a long history of injury problems. His supporters will tell you that those injuries were the result of some freak accidents and misfortunes, and that there’s nothing in his history to suggest that he has chronic physical issues. His detractors will point out that whatever the cause of his injuries, they have been frequent and have kept him from playing a full season over the course of his career. The reasons behind his apparent fragility are not important. If Red Sox Nation gets a full season of J.D. Drew at his best, they will embrace him and celebrate his every move. As soon as he misses a few games he’ll be public enemy #1, and the Trot Nixon talk will begin in earnest. For what it’s worth, I expect him to miss some games, but I also expect him to be a very nice upgrade in the outfield for the Red Sox, and a much needed one at that.

Pitcher to Watch: Daisuke Matsuzaka
If you’ve come here to read this and expected to see another name here, you don’t know me very well. Matsuzaka is as close to being my favorite player as anyone can be. The Red Sox victory in the posting war has put my Matsuzaka fandom in a kind of strange acid trip of ambiguity, but my belief that he is one of the world’s top 5 pitchers is never in doubt. In Spring Training he flashed his ability on occasion, but was disappointed in his high walk totals, particularly over his last 2 starts. That said, he still baffled hitters and posted similar stats to his Japan ratios. I expect him to be on the Cy Young leader board this year, and I also expect that he’ll win one before his contract is up. Matsuzaka can’t save the Sox rotation on his own with a fat and aging Schilling unable to hold up in the second half, a talented but incomplete Josh Beckett, perfectly league average Tim Wakefield, and a host of question marks at the end of the list. He’ll do enough, however, to boost the team into the second place position in the AL East, if only by the thinnest of margins.

Toronto Blue Jays
Manager: John Gibbons
2006 Record: 87-75 (.537) Finished 2nd
2006 Pythagorean Win-Loss: 86-76 (.531)
2007 Predicted Win-Loss: 86-76 (.531)

The Jays are essentially the same team they were last year. The addition of Frank Thomas should help to provide a little more power in the middle of the lineup, and a healthy Alex Rios could build on his breakout campaign of a season earlier. You have to like the offense the Blue Jays are building. I’m afraid that beyond Roy Halladay there isn’t much pitching though. A.J. Burnett was a big money acquisition a year ago, but he isn’t the answer as a #2 guy, when the Yankees and Red Sox are throwing Mussina/Pettitte and Matsuzaka out there in that spot. The Jays will need to add an arm or two to the rotation to be in the class of their division rivals, but could easily do so in the near future. Whether they have enough to get to the Yankees is a tough bet, but the Red Sox have already been victimized once, and a wild card berth could be in the cards in the next couple of years.

Player to Watch: Alex Rios
Rios had the classic break out season in 2006 at the age of 25. Everything was there for this kid except consistent power, but he seemed to turn it on finally for the second place Jays. Will he do it again in 2007? The club’s position as defending second place holders may depend on Rios’ ability to show that he’s a legitimate talent rather than a flash in the pan kid with potential but no consistency. The rumor mill has had the Blue Jays shopping Rios for pitching this offseason, which could certainly materialize at some point before the deadline. Rios has enough value to bring back a quality arm in return, although to this point the Jays haven’t seen anything they like. Jon Lieber of the Phillies isn’t exactly what they had in mind.

Pitcher to Watch: Roy Halladay
This is a no brainer, and a bit of a cop out on my part. It’s no stretch to pick one of the best pitchers in the sport as a guy to watch, but there are question marks. Halladay is the make or break athlete for the Blue Jays, and a model for that label if there ever was one. The former Cy Young winner is the only legitimate starter in the Jays rotation, and must stay healthy all year for the club to have a chance. If he misses any time for the Toronto club, the season could be in jeopardy. He’s had injuries, and he’s missed time. There’s no reason to believe that it won’t happen again this year, hence my belief that Toronto will fall to third again this year, if only temporarily.

Baltimore Orioles
Manager: Sam Perlozzo
2006 Record: 70-92 (.432) Finished 4th
2006 Pythagorean Win-Loss: 69-93 (.426)
2007 Predicted Win-Loss: 73-89 (.451)

Do I even have to write this? It pains me to write about the Orioles. They’re bad. What’s more they’re barely relevant. Eric Bedard is good. Daniel Cabrera has some promise. Kris Benson is injured. Ramon Hernandez is a decent offensive catcher. Tejada is great. Mora is a pretty good hitter. Markakis is someone people are high on for some reason. Corey Patterson will never duplicate his 2006 season. Brian Roberts is strong for a middle infielder. Meh.

Player to Watch: Miguel Tejada
I’m looking for an MVP season out of Miguel Tejada. His motivation has to be in question in Baltimore, but the only chance he has of finding his way to a quality club is to show he still has it in him to win the big hardware. If there’s any question whether he is the same talent that won the award in Oakland, teams will try to lowball the O’s to get him. Angelos is too stubborn to be low-balled and somehow thinks this club can be competitive. For what it’s worth, I think that Miggy will have one of his finest seasons until after the trade deadline, when he’s still an Oriole, at which point he’ll catch a very lengthy cold.

Pitcher to Watch: Daniel Cabrera
Daniel Cabrera’s name is always on the tip of your tongue when you talk about the Baltimore Orioles. He’s a classic “upside” pitcher that only needs to do this or that to be successful. That’s the big catch. Those guys are always disappointing because they are “if only” players their whole careers. I think this is one of those guys. Cabrera has zero control. He can’t throw strikes consistently. No matter how hard Leo Mazzone works with Cabrera, there’s only so far he can go, in my opinion. I do think he’ll get better, and I think he’ll have one of the finest years he’ll ever put up. It still won’t be enough for Baltimore, and he won’t repeat it very often going forward. Fantasy keeper leagues beware. Enjoy the ride in 2007, but don’t hang on.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Manager: Joe Maddon
2006 Record: 61-101 (.377) Finished 5th
2006 Pythagorean Win-Loss: 65-97 (.401)
2007 Predicted Win-Loss: 70-92 (.432)

I picked the Rays to finish fourth last year. I thought the Orioles were so bad that the Tampa club could finally leapfrog them out of the basement. I was wrong, but not by much. This year I’m going less bold, but putting the Rays in the hunt for 4th. The Rays are even better in 2007 than they were in 2006, thanks to a stocked farm system that’s going to get a chance in the bigs this season. Delmon Young will be up full time, and we’ll get plenty of B.J. Upton. Scott Kazmir is set to join the elite pitchers of the sport this season as he turns 23. Carl Crawford may not be long for Tampa, but he will be around this year to make things exciting and push the floundering boys of Florida to a more promising future. There's an outside shot that they could catch the O's, but it would require more than the 9 game improvement that I'm already predicting and a worse record than 2006 by the O's as well. Could happen.

Player to Watch: Delmon Young
With the flip of a bat, Young’s season went from one of great promise to one of incredibly sour taste. People began to doubt that the kid who had flashed so much potential would be able to cast aside his anger (think Albert Belle) and reach the level of play that had him as the first pick of the amateur draft a few years ago. This year, Delmon Young is starting again. It looks like he’s going to be with the big boys for good, and he couldn’t be happier. Part of his attitude, at least, was attributed to frustration at toiling in the minors. Call it youthful lack of patience. There will be none of that in 2007, and we should begin to see the talent emerge that everyone has been anticipating for a few years. He should look to his brother’s example to understand how easy it is to waste a chance at The Show, and stay out of trouble at all costs. Watch him.

Pitcher to Watch: Scott Kazmir
Kazmir is a known quantity to everyone in the sport not named Steve Phillips. Every year that passes shows why Phillips is the dumbest man in the sport. We know this from watching and listening to him on ESPN, and we have proof of it from seeing Scott Kazmir become an elite pitcher on a club other than the one in Flushing. This season will be a year for Kazmir to prove that he can stay healthy. Should he be able to do that, he’ll be a perennial Cy Young candidate. The key to his success will be that enormous K-rate of 10+ that he features. Not many guys in the sport can maintain a 10+ K/9, but I think it’s safe to say that Kaz will make a run at it for several more years.

2006 Predictions
American League

East: Yankees
Central: White Sox
West: Athletics
Wild Card: Red Sox

AL Champs: Yankees
AL MVP: Derek Jeter
AL Cy Young: Johan Santana

2006 AL East Predicted vs. Actual Order of Finish:

1. Yankees (97-65) vs. (97-65)
2. Red Sox (92-70) vs. (86-76)
3. Blue Jays (85-77) vs. (87-75)
4. Devil Rays (72-90) vs. (61-101)
5. Orioles (65-97) vs. (70-92)

National League

East: Mets
Central: Cardinals
West: Dodgers
Wild Card: Braves

NL Champs: Cardinals
NL MVP: Albert Pujols
NL Cy Young: Pedro Martinez

World Series: New York Yankees defeat St. Louis Cardinals

I was close on several things. Jeter as MVP was a very good prediction, as he should have won. I'll take credit for that one as well as predicting the exact Yankees record on the season. Santana's Cy Young, the Mets division crown, and Pujols and the Cards success were also good, but relatively easy to predict. I flopped on the White Sox division crown, and I really should have known better. Those pitchers all overachieved and it was unlikely that they would do it again a year later. I also flopped on predicting the D-Rays record, losing that one by 11 games. Pedro for Cy Young? Oof. How about this year?

2007 Predictions
American League

East: NY Yankees
Central: Detroit Tigers
West: Los Angeles Angels of Orange County and Southern Cali-fornication
Wild Card: Cleveland Indians

AL Champs: Yankees
AL MVP: Manny Ramirez
AL Cy Young: Johan Santana

National League

East: Mets
Central: Cardinals
West: Padres
Wild Card: Cubs

NL Champs: Cardinals
NL MVP: Albert Pujols
NL Cy Young: Roy Oswalt

World Series: New York Yankees defeat St. Louis Cardinals

I'm going with the same World Series that I predicted last season. I'm a little worried about the Cardinals, actually. The Mets need pitching to get them in the playoffs, but may get Pedro back to make that run. I also picked the Padres to win the NL West, largely on the strength of pitching. I like the idea of Peavy and Young fronting a group of veterans. I could be way off. I have the Cubs as the wild card. I guess that has something to do with my belief in Carlos Zambrano and the guys falling in line behind him. If Prior ever comes back and is half as good as he once was.....just maybe. The AL is straight forward, except that I chose Manny Being Manny as my MVP. I think he's the best hitter in the AL and he'll show everyone in a big way this year.

Let's get ready to rumble. See you tomorrow!!!!! Go Yanks!