With spring training in their rear-view mirror and the 2015 season about to start, the question is where will the New York Yankees finish in the American League East. The Yankees have failed to make the playoffs the past two seasons and many experts believe it will be three. But with the additions the Yankees made could they possibly have a surprise in store. Here is how I project it.
NEW YORK YANKEES
First of all, let’s admit that this is not your father’s A.L. East. There is NO dominant team in the division and there is not much separation between any of the five teams in terms of talent.
That said, the Yankees come into 2015 building around the foundation they began with their half-billion dollar investment last winter with the signings of outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, catcher Brian McCann and right-handed pitcher Masahiro Tanaka.
Those free agents were added to the holdovers in shortstop Derek Jeter, first baseman Mark Teixeira, outfielder Brett Gardner and left-hander CC Sabathia.
General manager Brian Cashman actually started the rebuilding process for 2015 last summer by retaining a number of players they acquired around the trade deadline or later such as third baseman Chase Headley, second baseman Stephen Drew, outfielder Chris Young and left-hander Chris Capuano.
With the retirement of Jeter, the loss of free-agent closer David Robertson and right-hander’s Hiroki Kuroda’s decision to end his career pitching in his native Japan, Cashman was forced to shuffle the deck by using young pitchers like right-handers David Phelps and Shane Greene and left-hander Manny Banuelos to bring in right-hander Nathan Eovaldi, backup first baseman and outfielder Garrett Jones, starting shortstop Didi Gregorius and relievers David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve.
Cashman also used cash to lure free-agent left-hander Andrew Miller to bolster the bullpen around rookie sensation Dellin Betances.
The result is a team that features a starting lineup of eight players ranging in age from 31 to Alex Rodriguez at 39. The former starting third baseman is returning from a year-long performance-enhancing drug suspension to become the team’s designated hitter.
Only Gregarious at age 25 is considered young.
However, the rotation features a 26-year-old in Tanaka, a 26-year-old in Michael Pineda and a 25-year-old in Eovaldi. A spring injury to 36-year-old Capuano has thrust 27-year-old Adam Warren into the No. 5 slot. So the only pitcher over 27 in the Yankees rotation is Sabathia, who is 34. When is the last time you could say that about the Yankees’ rotation?
The bullpen will center around Betances, 26, and Miller, 28, who are – at least for now – going share the closing duties. If both pitch as they have up to now, it will be a very good shutdown pair because neither have been hit hard by righties or lefties.
The concern will be with the setup spots. Warren is in the rotation so the Yankees will be counting on the right-handed Carpenter, 29, and left-handed Justin Wilson, 27, who was acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates with Cashman using the team’s catching surplus to deal away Francisco Cervelli.
If Carpenter and Wilson are successful, the bullpen will have a chance to be very good. If they fail, it could be a long season. Warren’s shift back to the bullpen with the return of both Capuano and right-hander Ivan Nova from Tommy John surgery in June can only be a big plus for the group.
Esmil Rogers, 29, will handle long relief. Shreve, 24, gives Girardi a third left-hander and 6-foot-8 right-hander Chris Martin has 95-mile-per-hour stuff that moves on an extreme downward plane. This trio looks solid and give Girardi credit for being a master of managing bullpens.
All spring long the Yankees struggled to score runs. It was not too much different from the way the offense struggled last season.
A pair of speed demons – Ellsbury and Gardner – are stacked on top of the lineup. The idea is to get them on base as much as possible and let them use their speed to get into scoring position for the middle of the lineup.
Both combined to steal 60 bases in what both players admittedly could call an off year. So they hope they can top 80 this season.
The whole strategy rests upon the middle of the order bouncing back from injuries and off years in 2015.
The third batter, Beltran, incurred painful bone chips in his right elbow and ended up posting the worst numbers of his career.
The cleanup hitter, Teixiera, was still limited by a sore right wrist and other injuries and posted only 22 home runs.
Although the fifth hitter, McCann, did crack 23 home runs and drive 78 runs, he only batted .232. So the Yankees would like him to hit closer to his career .272 average this season.
That is plenty of firepower but it seems like a fragile situation counting on Beltran, who will be 38 on April 24 and Teixeira, who will be 35 on April 11.
Behind McCann may be the one diamond-in-the-rough player who is primed for huge season in Headley, 30, who hit 31 homers and drove in 115 runs for the San Diego Padres in 2012. Back issues have hampered him for the past two seasons but he seems healthy now.
He batted .305 with three homers and eight RBIs this spring and the former Gold Glove winner has been flashing some serious leather at third base.
It is unclear how much A-Rod will contribute from the DH spot. Rodriguez has not played more than 138 games since his Most Valuable Player season in 2007. Hip surgeries, nagging other ailments and the drug suspension have teamed with Father Time to make him an unknown quantity.
This spring, Rodriguez batted .267 with three homers and four RBIs and he did not look overmatched at the plate. But it is hard to know what A-Rod will provide until the bells rings on the regular season.
Nowhere did the Yankees look more vulnerable last season than at second base. After Robinson Cano took his power, his .300 average and his Gold Glove defensive skills to Seattle, the Yankees tried veteran Brian Roberts at the position.
But his batting and fielding skills eroded over four seasons of injuries and the Yankees cut him loose in July in favor of Drew, who had never played second base in the pro baseball. Drew also was dealing with a season-long hitting slump that saw him bat only .162 between the Boston Red Sox and the Yankees.
Drew started this spring very slowly but emerged to bat over .470 in the final three weeks with three home runs. Drew has been working with the Yankees’ new hitting coach Jeff Petland and it seems to have been paying some dividends. The Yankees would settle for Drew batting .250 or so with 15 homers and 65 RBIs this season. Those had been norms for Drew in his previous seasons.
Though it was sad to see the 20-year era of Jeter’s career at shortstop come to an end, the Yankees are very hopeful they have an emerging star in the making in Gregorius.
What fans immediately saw this spring is that Gregorius has outstanding range, great hands and an powerful and accurate arm. The Yankees believe his defense will be upgrade since Jeter’s range had been so limited the past several years.
Jeter batted .256 in his final season and the Yankees hope that Gregorius can possibly top that average this season largely batting ninth. When Gregorius was in Arizona, manager Kirk Gibson benched him against left-handers because he has batted only .150 in his career against them.
But the Yankees allowed him to hit against left-handers this spring and Gregorius did not seem to look bad against them. So, for now, Girardi is content with playing his young shortstop every day.
The bench is solid and features power-hitting right-hander Young and power-hitting left-hander Jones. Young, 31, had an exceptional spring and he brings athleticism to all three outfield spots he plays and a potential deadly bat against left-handed pitching.
Jones, 33, hit 15 homers for the Miami Marlins last season and he seems to have the perfect swing for Yankee Stadium. Jones will primarily back up Teixeira at first and he can also play the corner outfield spots, if needed.
Backup infielder Brendan Ryan, 33, had a spring he would rather forget. First, he was delayed at the start with a back injury he sustained lifting weights. After he returned, Ryan ended up pulling a right calf muscle last week and he will start the season on the disabled list.
Ryan brings a slick glove to second, shortstop and third base – although short is where he really shines in the field. But he can’t hit a lick. He has no power and he is a career .234 hitter.
The Yankees obtained infielder Gregorio Petit from the Houston Astros in exchange for cash in the last week of the spring. So Petit, 30, will assume Ryan’s role despite having played on only 62 major-league games with the Oakland Athletics and the Astros. He has batted .278 in just 151 at-bats. He will be a stopgap until Ryan is healthy again.
John Ryan Murphy, 23, managed to hold off a challenge from veteran Austin Romine this spring to remain the backup to McCann. Murphy batted .284 with a homer and nine RBIs in 32 games last season and the Yankees rave about his defense behind the plate.
But the biggest secret the Yankees are carrying with them now lies in the young players they were able to showcase this spring. For the first time in a very long time the Yankees have a number of very good prospects and some positional depth at the minor-league level that could be factors this season.
But the promise is even brighter longer term.
Right-handed starters Luis Severino and Domingo German (obtained in the trade for Phelps and Martin Prado) and left-handed starter Ian Clarkin along with left-handed reliever Jacob Lindgren and right-handed relievers Nick Rumbelow and Jose Ramirez are in the pipeline and moving quickly to the majors.
Second basemen Rob Refsnyder and Jose Pirela tore the cover off the ball this spring and their presence at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre is just a taste of what is the horizon with outfielders Slade Heathcott and Ramon Flores also knocking on the door.
Right-hander Chase Whitley, 25, had a 1.17 ERA this spring and he still not crack the bullpen. You have to figure he is going to get a call-up to the 25-man roster at some point. Keep an eye also on Bryan Mitchell, who will be 24 this month. Mitchell drew rave reviews when he fanned Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez back-to-back in a five-inning effort in a split-squad game in Lakeland, FL, on April 2.
At Double-A Trenton will be prospects such as outfielder Aaron Judge and first baseman Greg Bird, both of whom looked undaunted by major-league pitching this spring.
Catching prospect Gary Sanchez, 23, is also not too far away from contributing in the major leagues.
Though Yankee fans and the Yankee front office never has shown much patience with its young prospects in the past, this group might just force the front office to use them and perhaps the revolving door of signing aging free agents will finally end.
Should the Yankees falter as what so many experts are predicting this season. The young players who are on the way could be a foundation to build around, It is there to see. It is just up to Cashman and the Yankee front office not to screw it up.
Here now is my brief assessment of the other four teams in the division and my prediction for the order of finish in 2015.
This is a team that ran away with this division last season. But it is hard to see them as a “great” team.
Their ace is a very pedestrian Chris Tillman. Their offense lost outfielders Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis. They also are likely to be without Matt Wieters to start the season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Ditto for shortstop J.J. Hardy, who has left shoulder injury.
With all that they still have Adam Jones, Manny Machado and they are really hoping that Chris Davis recovers his home-run stroke.
Though Tillman is not a true ace they do have Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzales and Bud Norris to form a solid foursome. The bullpen with closer Zach Britton and setup guys Darren O’Day and Tommy Hunter is top notch.
They also have one of the best managers in baseball in Buck Showalter. So in Baltimore there is hope the O’s can repeat.
A lot depends on how new outfielders Alejandro De Aza and Travis Snider do to make up for the losses of Cruz and Markakis.
BOSTON RED SOX
This team flopped in 2014 and yet many are picking them to win the title in 2015.
Most of that is based on their offense. To Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli, the Red Sox have added Hanley Ramirez, Mookie Betts and Pablo Sandoval.
They are also hoping for better seasons and health from Xander Bogaerts and Shane Victorino.
However, it is hard to look at the rotation and see anything but potential disaster.
Clay Buchholz was 8-11 with a 6.34 ERA and is considered the ace. Rick Porcello did have a 15-13 record and a 3.43 ERA with the Tigers. But Justin Masterson was 7-9 with a 5.88 with the Cleveland Indians and the St. Louis Cardinals.
Lefty Wade Miley was 8-12 with a 4.34 ERA for the Arizona Diamondbacks. A better offense will help him but he is not anything close to Jon Lester, who the Red Sox traded last season and were unable to re-sign as a free agent.
No. 5 starter Joe Kelly (6-4, 4.20 ERA with the Cardinals) starts the season on the disabled list with right bicep injury. In addition, closer Koji Uehara, who just turned 40, is also on the disabled list with a hamstring injury so Edward Mujica and his 49 career saves are it for now.
There is no doubt that the Red Sox will be capable of scoring runs. The question is will it be enough runs to cover a pitching staff and an underbelly of a bullpen that could really exploited?
Add that up to the fact that catcher Christian Vazquez is out for the season to undergo Tommy John surgery on his right elbow and you have enough doubts about the Red Sox to make it unlikely they are a good choice to win this division.
The Toronto Blue Jays tried this approach last season and it did not work.
TAMPA BAY RAYS
This team seemingly lost everything so quickly that their home radio station, WDAE, is not very enthusiastic about them.
Manager Joe Maddon and his screwy ideas that seem to work on shifting is gone. General manager Andrew Friedman, who introduced sabermetrics and advanced scouting techniques to the organization that built this team, is also gone.
The team’s best pitcher in David Price was traded last season and now is pitching for the Detroit Tigers. Their second-best pitcher, Matt Moore, is not expected back until June because he is recovering from Tommy John surgery.
This spring they incurred injuries to their best remaining pitcher Alex Cobb. Their closer, Jake McGee, will miss the first month.
They also traded away offensive contributors such as Wil Myers, Ben Zobrist, Yunel Escobar and Matt Joyce.
The team’s offense can be wrapped up in third baseman Evan Longoria and a lot of hope and praying.
They are counting on production out of rookie outfielder Steven Souza Jr., who batted .130 this spring and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who the Indians discarded saying he could not play shortstop and he was not the hitter he was in 2011 (25 home runs and 92 RBIs).
They are still hoping that Desmond Jennings just shows one little spark of the long-departed Carl Crawford. But it is not looking like it will happen.
This could amount to one of the weakest hitting teams in baseball in 2015 and it could be worse without Maddon running the show.
Granted, Cobb, Moore, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi could form a solid rotation when they are all healthy. The question is can the Rays tread water long enough to see that happen?
Though McGee, Grant Balfour and Brad Boxberger form a solid trio at the back of the bullpen, the Rays are counting on a pair of former failed relievers in Kevin Jepsen and Ernesto Frieri to help out in the middle innings.
They also do not have a decent lefty beyond McGee. Ouch!
After many years of dealing with their obnoxious cowbell-ringing fans – all of about 7,000 of them a game – it appears that the bloom is off the rose and the cowbells will eventually fall silent this season unless there is some sort of miracle new manager Kevin Cash can create.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
This was the sexy choice to win the division in 2014. Funny thing is, I would have selected them to win this season if young right-hander Marcus Stroman did suffer knee injury that will force him to miss the entire season.
Stroman would have formed a nice 1-2 punch with right-hander Drew Hutchison, who at 24 has progressed so much as a pitcher he is starting on Opening Day ahead of Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey and veteran Mark Buehrle.
To that they have added a pair of young pitchers in left-hander Daniel Norris and right-hander Aaron Sanchez, who looked to be the team’s closer in waiting until the team opted to use him as a starter instead.
The bullpen is untested but it has closer Brett Cecil. There is a lot untested pitchers in the mix behind him but 20-year-old Miguel Castro may end being something special as he gets his feet wet in the majors.
Like the Red Sox, the Blue Jays never have to worry about scoring runs. Add to the thundering power of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion the bat of third baseman Josh Donaldson, who hit 29 home runs and drove in 98 runs for the Athletics in their cavernous ballpark.
You would think Donaldson will love the Rogers Centre.
Though the Jays will miss line-drive machine Melky Cabrera, they still have Jose Reyes and they have also added catcher Russell Martin, who can hit 20 homers and run a pitching staff like a pitching coach.
So there is a lot to like.
The question is after losing Adam Lind and Colby Rasmus the Blue Jays are trotting a pair of young outfielders in Dalton Pompey (center) and Kevin Pillar (left). Much of what the Blue Jays do will revolve around what they do.
They also have a new second baseman in Devon Travis.
It is hard to pick a team to win with so many new players in the lineup like Pillar, Pompey and Travis. This team is carrying six rookies!
But the real test of how the Blue Jays do in 2015 will hinge on its pitching staff. Stroman was a much bigger loss than I think the Blue Jays can overcome.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1) BALTIMORE ORIOLES (92-70)
2) TORONTO BLUE JAYS (86-76)
3) NEW YORK YANKEES (84-78)
4) BOSTON RED SOX (80-82)
5) TAMPA BAY RAYS (76-86) Hello Montreal!
The Orioles will fall back to the pack but not enough to make much difference. The Blue Jays actually could have won it with Stroman, but now they will fall short and they will not win the wildcard either. I was tempted to pick the Yankees for second because Tanaka, Pineda and Eovaldi are all primed for excellent seasons. But the offense this spring was woefully lacking and it looks as if they will lose a lot of 4-3 and 3-2 games unless make a deal for a young slugger like Giancarlo Stanton. The Yankees just do not have that stud in the middle of the order and it will hurt. The Red Sox will be the Red Flops mainly because their pitching is not as good as people believe it is. Their bullpen also is much weaker without Miller. About all that the “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval is good for is twining with Ortiz to advertise for a doughnut shop. Ramirez is talented but he also is moody and can give up when things are not going well. Ask the Marlins and Dodgers. As for the Rays, their collapse could not have come at a worse time for them when attendance and TV viewership is dropping. The owner wants to have a new stadium built despite the fact that they are tied to dumpy and ugly Tropicana Field for many more years. That is why it is inevitable that the team will be sold and shifted to another city like Montreal soon. Tre bien!
YANKEES 10, RAYS 2
David Price and CC Sabathia have squared off against each other nine times previous to Thursday and the Rays were 8-1 in those games. Price was 6-1 and Sabathia was 1-6. With those numbers you would have bet the house on Price and the Rays to win.
Well, if you did, you lost your house.
Sabathia pitched seven strong innings and had a triple play turned behind him while the Yankees hammered Price for six runs, including back-to-back homers by Alfonso Soriano and Brian McCann, as New York pummeled Tampa Bay in front of a paid crowd of 28,085 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, FL.
Sabathia (2-2) held the Rays to two runs (one earned) on seven hits and two walks while he struck out six in pitching what was his best game of the season.
The Yankees, meanwhile, helped Sabathia in the field by turning their third triple play behind him since 2010 in the second inning with Evan Longoria on second and Will Myers at first. Sean Rodriguez hit a two-hopper to the right of third baseman Yangervis Solarte. Solarte stepped on third to retire Longoria, fired to Brian Roberts at second to get Myers and first baseman Scott Sizemore – playing his first career game at first base – scooped Roberts’ low throw to first to beat Rodriguez.
Price (2-1) got off to bad start and never really recovered, giving up a run in the first when McCann laced an opposite-field, two-out single to score Jacoby Ellsbury.
The Yankees added three more runs in the second when Sizemore led off with a double and Roberts followed with an RBI triple. One out later, Ellsbury scored Roberts with a triple of his own and Ellsbury scored on Derek Jeter’s RBI single.
After the Rays scored an unearned run in the fourth when Logan Forsythe scooted home on a passed ball by McCann, the Yankees began putting the game away in the fifth inning when Soriano blasted his fourth home run of the season and McCann added his third with two out in the inning.
It was the second time this season that Soriano and McCann have hit consecutive homers.
Price was raked for 10 hits and one walk while he fanned six in five innings of work.
The Yankees added single runs in the sixth off Heath Bell and the seventh off Josh Lueke and they capped their 16-hit barrage in the ninth when Solarte blasted his first major-league homer with Soriano aboard off Rays closer Grant Balfour.
The Rays got a second run in the seventh when Rodriguez led off the frame with his third career home run off Sabathia.
With the victory, the Yankees have now won five games in row and they are 10-6 on the season They lead the American League East by two games over the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles. The Rays have now lost four in a row and they are 7-9, tied with Boston Red Sox for fourth place.
- Roberts played in his first game April 12 due to lower-back stiffness and he promptly went 3-for-5 with a double, a triple, two runs scored and two RBIs. Roberts had entered the game hitting only .129. The Yankees are counting on the 36-year-old switch-hitter to stay healthy this season.
- Solarte started the night by striking out twice against Price on change-ups. In his next three at-bats he hit a double off Price, a single off Bell and a homer off Balfour. His 3-for-5 night raised his season average from .348 to .373. He also started that triple play in the second inning. It is beginning to look like he 26-year-old Venezuelan infielder is the real deal and not just lucky.
- Soriano also was 3-for-5 with a pair of singles and a homer. Since starting the season 0-for-17, Soriano is 15-for-41 (.366) with four homers and five RBIs. Opponents may want to hope Soriano does not get REAL hot as he did last season when he was acquired by the Yankees at the trade deadline.
No negatives here. This team is rolling on offense, defense and with its pitching staff. When you club a division rival by eight runs on the road against a tough pitcher like Price you are doing something right.
First baseman Mark Teixeira played three innings in minor-league game at the team’s complex in Tampa, FL, on Thursday and he is expected to be activated from the 15-day disabled list on Sunday. Teixeira, 34, has been out since April 4 with a strained right hamstring. He is expected to play five innings in a minor-league game on Friday to prepare for his start on Sunday against the Rays. . . . Closer David Robertson threw a bullpen session on Thursday at Tropicana Field and he is on track to be activated next Tuesday, the first day he is eligible to come of the disabled list. Robertson, 29, has been recovering from a strained left groin. . . . Utility infielder Brendan Ryan, who has not played in a game since March 4 in spring training, is scheduled to play in minor-league game on Saturday. Ryan, who has been sidelined with a cervical nerve injury and an oblique strain, hopes to be able to be activated form the disabled list sometime in early May.
The Yankees will continue their four-game road series against the Rays on Friday.
Right-hander Hiroki Kuroda (2-1, 3.86 ERA) will get the starting assignment for the Yankees. Kuroda, 39, yielded four runs on six hits and three walks in six innings in a victory over the Red Sox on Saturday.
Left-hander Erik Bedard (0-0, 0.00 ERA), who was released by the Rays at the end of spring training only to be brought back, will be subbing for right-hander Alex Cobb, who is on the 15-day disabled list with a strained left oblique. Bedard, 35, was 2-2 with a 6.88 ERA in five games (three starts) in spring training.
Game-time will be at 7:10 p.m. EDT and the game will be broadcast nationally by the MLB Network and locally by the YES Network.
The American League East is a division loaded with talent. It consists of a world champion, a playoff team, the winningest franchise in baseball history and two power-laden clubs with some pitching. Of those five teams it is possible that three teams could claim playoff spots. Let’s look into the magic ball and see what we can predict. In no particular order let’s look at the teams:
NEW YORK YANKEES
After an injury-marred 2013 season managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner loosened the pursestrings and allowed general manager Brian Cashman to throw out nearly $500 million to free agents. That brought in the best available pitching free agent in Masahiro Tanaka, the best in catcher available in Brian McCann, two All-Star outfielders in Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, a left-hander for the bullpen in Matt Thornton and two important infielders in Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts.
Needless to say the Yankees are not planning on winning 85 games and missing the playoffs as they did in 2013.
Added to what the Yankees already had, this team is loaded for a playoff run. The rotation is five deep with CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, Tanaka and the sensational return of Michael Pineda this spring has the other teams in the division worried. Only the Tampa Bay Rays can boast a rotation close to this and they only have four healthy starters at the moment.
The bullpen is missing Mariano Rivera and no one will tell you that David Robertson will make anyone forget the greatest closer in history. But no one can believe he can’t do as well as Rafael Soriano did in 2012. The rest of the bullpen has undergone a makeover because of the loss of Boone Logan and Joba Chamberlain. Shawn Kelley and Thornton will handle the late-inning work. The addition of 6-foot-8 rookie Dellin Betances is going to give the bullpen depth because Betances might have the best stuff of the group.
Add to this corps three starting pitchers shifted to the bullpen, David Phelps, Adam Warren and left-hander Vidal Nuno. Phelps and Warren are holdovers from last season and Nuno, 26, gives the Yankees a second lefty to go with Thornton.
The Yankees only need to hope that Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter return to form. They both missed virtually all of the 2013 season and both are being counted upon to help the offense. They also are hoping that Johnson can fill in for the suspended Alex Rodriguez and Roberts can fill the huge hole left by the childish and petulant departure of Robinson Cano. The Yankees issued Cano’s No. 24 to spring training invitee Scott Sizemore. That tells you what they think of Cano after he left.
Ellsbury will combine with Brett Gardner to provide speed and daring on the bases. McCann and Beltran will join Teixeira and last season’s acquisition Alfonso Soriano to give the Yankees a lot of power in the middle of the lineup. Johnson and Roberts can provide double-digits power as well at the bottom of the order.
The bench features the catcher many teams wanted this spring in Francisco Cervelli, All-Star outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and a pair of hot-hitting rookie infielders in Dean Anna and Yangervis Solarte. Slick-fielding shortstop Brendan Ryan starts the season on the disabled list with an upper-back injury.
Top to bottom the Yankees are loaded with talent, power, speed, a great rotation, a solid bullpen and a versatile bench. They will go a long way in deciding who wins the division and who ends up in the playoffs.
TAMPA BAY RAYS
The Rays are a product of a similar model that used to keep afloat the small-market Minnesota Twins. You try and keep a small corps of good young players together long enough to win until they start leaving via free agency. Of course, this method requires that you keep all the plates spinning at once for a long, long time.
If you don’t you lose.
The Rays were fortunate to keep left-hander David Price off the open market for a year. He will join left-hander Matt Moore and right-handers Alex Cobb and Chris Archer to provide the only rotation in the division that can rival the Yankees. Jeremy Hellickson begins the season on the disabled list but he has not been real effective when he has been healthy so I am not sure how his season will go.
The Rays dumped Fernando Rodney because he blew too many saves and was shaky in those he did save. Enter former Rays right-hander Grant Balfour, who was not signed by some other teams because of some medical questions. Balfour has only had one season as a closer and there is no guarantee the Rays can get another season out of him.
The rest of the bullpen is good. Balfour’s fellow senior citizen, Joel Peralta, is the setup man. He is joined by lefty Jake McGee and former closer Heath Bell. Right-handers Josh Lueke, Brandon Gomes and lefty long man Cesar Ramos round out a pretty solid corps.
The Rays are really lacking speed this season. Their only real base-stealing threat is Desmond Jennings, who is been doing a very bad imitation of Carl Crawford since he arrived.
Now the Rays are looking to generate lots of power with Evan Longoria and Will Myers in the middle of the lineup. The problem is Matt Joyce is coming off a disappointing season and he has not lived up to expectations at all. They also have to hope an aging Ben Zobrist can bounce back after a down 2013 campaign.
The additions of James Loney at first base and Yunel Escober at shortstop helped the offense and defense last season. They hope Ryan Hanigan can provide defense and leadership behind the plate this season.
As always, manager Joe Maddon will mix in spare parts like Sean Rodriguez, David DeJesus and Jose Molina. In addition, he will shift his defense to drive opponents nuts, But if the Rays should falter, Price will be on the trading block before the league deadline. If that happens, the Rays season is over.
In any event, this will be Price’s last year with the Rays and the Rays have to roll the dice they win the division this year. Otherwise, it’s lights out at Tropicana Field for their fan base of 7,500. If things don’t pick up at the gate the team could be headed elsewhere.
BOSTON RED SOX
Most Yankee fans forgot what happened in 2013 so we will leave it at that.
The Red Sox prospects for 2014 would seem to be bright. After all, they hope to have the same rotation they finished with back this year.
They are counting on Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront to be just as good in 2014. Problem is Lester is notch below what an ace should be. Look at most fantasy drafts this season and you will find Lester going in the middle rounds because of his high ERA and even higher walks-to-innings-pitched (WHIP) ratio.
Clay Buchholz also is going late in drafts because he has had a hard time staying healthy. His recurring back problems are not going away. He can only treat it to stay on track.
Lackey and Peavy are also on the north side of their usefulness. Both are crafty veteran pitchers and they will win their share on guile. But this group pales in comparison to the Rays and Yankees. That does not even take into account Doubront, who if you look as his 2013 numbers you wonder why the Red Sox like him so much.
To be sure, Koji Uehara was a miracle worker for them after the Bosox tried a number of unsuccessful closers since Jonathan Papelbon left years ago. But Uehara turns 39 on Wednesday and there is no net for him if he fails to do what he did late last season.
Boston does have lefty Andrew Miller and Junichi Tazawa back and they added Edward Mujica. But they do not have Craig Breslow at the start of the season and this bullpen is just a lot less deep than it was in 2013.
The same can be said for the starting lineup. Instead of bringing Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Daniel Nava off the bench they will have to play to fill holes when Ellsbury, Stephen Drew and Jarrod Saltalamacchia left the team.
Grady Sizemore actually beat out Bradley in center but the Red Sox know they can’t just run the oft-injured former All-Star out there every day. Bogarerts at short, Will Middlebrooks at third and center are unsettled positions with unknown quantities in them. A.J. Pierzynski takes over behind the plate and should be an offensive upgrade from Salty but teams are going to run wild on him on the bases.
The Red Sox just hope they can get another year out of fading DH David Ortiz, who at age 38 is well beyond borrowed time. He had a horrible spring and players at 38 do not get better. They fade.
The Red Sox will still revolve around Dustin Pedroia at second and they just hope that Shane Victorino (who begins the season injured), Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes, Mike Carp can still do what they did last season. But as we know it is hard to repeat as champion. The last team to do it was, well, the New York Yankees in 1998, 1999 and 2000. Red Sox Nation remembers that period of time.
So I do not think there is going to much in the way of magic at Fenway this season. It just not in the cards.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
The Jays are all about redemption.
They gave a fading infielder out of Pittsburgh Pirates and a disappointing third baseman out of the Cincinnati Reds a place on the team and they were rewarded with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. Those two players form the most feared middle-of-the-order pair in baseball. Both could easily hit more than 40 homers apiece.
The Blue Jays even rehired manager John Gibbons even after they fired him three years ago.
So the Blue Jays were the cool team to pick in 2013 after they added Melky Cabrera and Jose Reyes to what they already had in Adam Lind, Brett Lawrie and Colby Rasmus. But their recipe for success did not count on a complete meltdown of their starting rotation.
Ace R.A. Dickey pitched with a bad back, Brandon Morrow was also hurt and former ace Ricky Romero forgot completely how to pitch successfully. Last season was just not pretty for the Jays.
But they have renewed hope in 2014. Dickey is healthy again and Mark Buehrle can still eat up innings with his soft-tossing junk. Add to that a healthy Morrow and you have the makings of a staff, But the other two spots will go to Drew Hutchison, who at 23 hopes he can establish himself as a starter this year, and an old friend Dustin McGowan, who last pitched as a regular in the Jays rotation in 2008. he is now 32 and he is an expert in rehabs.
Now that is some reclamation project.
Casey Janssen fell into the closer role when Sergio Santos was injured and now both form a nice tandem at the end of the game. Lefty Brett Cecil and hard-throwing righty Steve Delabar make the Jays bullpen one of the best in the division this season.
But bullpens have a way of wearing down when the starters do not succeed and have to be taken out early. In the rough and tumble American League East, the Blue Jays rotation just lacks the ability to hang with the big boys.
There is no doubt their offense is impressive. They will hit their share of home runs. But they also will lose a lot of games by scores of 9-7 and 8-5 because of this shaky rotation.
Cashman pointed out this spring what was painfully obvious. The luck the Orioles used to make the playoffs in 2012 was bound to be paid for in 2013. Orioles manager Buck Showalter took offense. But the truth always hurts, Buck.
The Orioles did not win those one-run and extra-inning games they won in 2012 and they finished with the Yankees in a tie for third place in 2014.
It is hard to see how the Orioles make it much better in 2014 even with the addition of right-handers Ubaldo Jimenez and Bud Norris and outfielder Nelson Cruz.
The issue with the Orioles is the same as last season. The starters Jimenez, Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen and Norris are all fine pitchers in their own right but who, for Pete’s sake, is the ace? And is that ace better than the pitchers they face routinely like David Price, Masahiro Tanaka, Clay Buchholz, R.A. Dickey or Matt Moore?
The answer is no and Showalter will learn that quickly.
Jimenez is just a middling starter and Norris just looked good compared to all the awful pitchers the Astros kept running out there. Neither make the Orioles much better.
The addition of Cruz is curious because the Orioles are loaded with offense in mega-power threat Chris Davis added to Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, and J.J. Hardy. Cruz adds to that power but it is hard to see how that helps keep runs of the board.
The Orioles bullpen also took a major hit when Jim Johnson left for Oakland and took the 101 saves he recorded for the O’s the past two seasons with him. The Orioles are asking journeyman right-hander Tommy Hunter to do a job he has never done before and close games.
They did not add much around him either. They still rely on right-hander Darren O’Day and left-hander Brian Matusz to set up. Getting to them may be an issue because none of the rest of Orioles bullpen is really proven.
So Showalter just has to hope that his team can score runs in droves night after night to cover for a weak pitching staff. The mix of this starting staff and bullpen may be the worst in the division because the Blue Jays actually boast a much stronger bullpen.
Showalter may be an excellent manager but he can’t turn cubic zirconium into diamonds. There just no magic left for the Orioles.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1) NEW YORK YANKEES
2) TAMPA BAY RAYS
3) BOSTON RED SOX
4) TORONTO BLUE JAYS
5) BALTIMORE ORIOLES
I see a close race between the Rays and Yankees and both will easily make the playoffs. The Red Sox will not collapse but I do see them fading as the season progresses when their rotation routinely starts breaking down. The Blue Jays will win their share of games with their offense and bullpen. But there will be days when good pitching will beat good hitting. On those days the Blue Jays will lose. The same for the Orioles. If they do not average seven runs a game they are in a heap of trouble. No team can do that consistently enough and no one can in this tough division. They will fall to the basement with a loud thud. Sorry, Buck. The truth hurts, huh!
YANKEES 3, RAYS 2 (11 INNINGS)
When the New York Yankees acquired Alfonso Soriano from the Chicago Cubs on July 26 they desperately needed him for his power from the right side. As a bonus, they also got whatever was left in his 37-year-old legs.
On Sunday the Yankees found out there was still plenty left in those old legs to help win them an important game against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Soriano delivered a one-out double in the top of the 11th inning, then stole third and scored on Curtis Granderson’s sacrifice fly as New York salvaged the final game of a crucial weekend series against Tampa Bay in front of a paid crowd of 34,078.
With the game tied at 2-2, Soriano lined a 2-1 pitch from Jamey Wright (2-2) into left field for a double. With Granderson at the plate, Soriano then surprised the Rays by taking off for third and sliding in head first ahead of the throw from catcher Jose Lobaton.
Granderson then skied the next pitch into deep center-field to score Soriano easily with what proved to be the winning run.
Boone Logan (4-2), who came into the game in the bottom of the 10th with one on and one out to retire Lobaton on a inning-ending double play, was credited with the victory.
Mariano Rivera needed only six pitches to retire the Rays in order in the bottom of the 11th to earn his 38th save of the season and notch only the Yankees’ sixth victory in their past 22 games at Tropicana Field dating back to July 21, 2011.
The game featured a pitching duel between a pair of young right-handers in 26-year-old Ivan Nova for the Yankees and 25-year-old Alex Cobb for the Rays.
The Rays struck in the bottom of the first off Nova when newly acquired David DeJesus led off with a single, Ben Zobrist drew a walk and Evan Longoria plated DeJesus with a sharp single to left.
But the Yankees responded in the top of the fourth when Robinson Cano lifted a one-out line-drive opposite-field home run to left for his 24th home run of the season to knot the score at 1-1.
The Yankees then took the lead in the top of the sixth when Ichiro Suzuki reached first on an infield chopper to second. Cano then followed with a double to the wall in right-center for his 84th RBI of the season.
But the lead was short-lived because in the bottom of the inning, Longoria launched a blast into the left-field bleachers off Nova with out to even the game back up at 2-2.
Cobb gave up two runs on seven hits and three walks while he struck out five in 5 1/3 innings.
Nova also yielded two runs on six hits and six walks while he fanned three in 6 2/3 innings.
The Yankees bullpen of Shawn Kelley, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Logan and Rivera held the Rays hitless and scoreless over the final 4 1/3 innings to give the Yankees the opportunity to win the game in extra innings.
With the victory the Yankees improved their season record to 69-61 and they are seven games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox in the American League East. However, the Yankees drew to within 3 1/2 games in the wild card standings. The Rays fell to 74-54.
- Soriano continues to pay dividends as a trade-deadline acquisition. He was 2-for-5 with a single, a double, a stolen base and a run scored. Along with his 26 home runs this season (nine with the Yankees), Soriano has stolen 14 bases (four with the Yankees). That is most stolen bases Soriano has racked up since he stole 19 bases for the Cubs in 2008. Along with his 384 career homers Soriano has 284 career steals.
- Cano entered Sunday’s game with just one single in his past 12 at-bats. But he heated back up Sunday, going 3-for-5 with a single, a double and a homer, a run scored and two RBIs, In his past eight games, Cano is 15-for-34 (.441) with two homers and eight RBIs. His season average is .307, one point below his career batting average of .308.
- The Yankees won with their bullpen, some timely double plays and some great throwing from Chris Stewart behind the plate. The bullpen shut the Rays down without a hit over 4 1/3 innings. The Yankees turned four double plays on the Rays including one with the bases loaded in the first, one in the third, one in the fourth and one to end the bottom of the 10th. Stewart nailed Yunel Escobar attempting to steal in the fifth and then gunned down DeJesus in the seventh. Stewart has thrown out 15 out of 48 base-stealers this season (31 percent), which is just below his 33 percent career average.
- Nova walked two batters in the first inning and ended up issuing six walks overall, a season high for him. Nova entered the game having walked 27 batters in 93 2/3 innings, which is less than three walks per nine innings. But he was bailed out by the four double plays and Stewart’s arm.
- Mark Reynolds connected for a home run in his first at-bat as a Yankee on Aug. 16 at Fenway Park against the Red Sox. Since then he is 4-for-25 (.160) with nine strikeouts. On Sunday, playing third base in place of resting Alex Rodriguez, Reynolds was 0-for-4 with three strikeouts.
Derek Jeter completed a three-game stint with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and will be in uniform with the Yankees on Monday when they open a series with the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. Jeter, who was a rehabbing a strained right calf, was 3-for-9 with one walk, a double, two runs scored and an RBI. The Yankees want Jeter to take it easy running the bases so they may keep him healthy as much as possible for the final 32 games. In order to get Jeter on the roster the Yankees are expected to trim one of their 13 pitchers.
After sweeping the Jays in four games at Yankee Stadium they will try to sweep them for three at Rogers Centre.
Right-hander Phil Hughes (4-12, 4.88 ERA). Hughes held the Blue Jays to two runs over six innings but did not get a decision. It was his 11th quality start of the season but he has not won a game in his past eight starts. He is 5-5 with a 4.80 ERA lifetime against the Jays.
Knuckleball specialist R.A. Dickey (9-12, 4.49 ERA) will match up again with the Yankees. Dickey gave a two-run home run to Soriano in the eighth inning on Wednesday to end up with a loss in his last start. He is 3-3 with a 3.44 ERA in his career against the Yankees.
Game-time will be 7:07 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast by the YES Network.
YANKEES 4, RAYS 3 (11 Innings)
Teams that win often seem to have this never-say-die attitude that carries them through difficult spots in games. The New York Yankees faced that in the ninth inning on Saturday when they were down 3-1 with two out and Tampa Bay Rays closer Fernando Rodney on the mound with a 3-2 count on Lyle Overbay.
The Rays were within one strike of victory but Overbay drew a crucial walk and the Yankees rallied to tie the score in the ninth and Overbay smacked a two-out solo home run in the 11th inning to give New York a dramatic come-from-behind victory over Tampa Bay in front of 25,874 at Tropicana Field.
After Overbay walked, Rodney was called for a balk that allowed Overbay to take second. Then pinch-hitter Brennan Boesch, who was just called up on Saturday to take the roster spot of injured outfielder Curtis Granderson, slapped an excuse-me-swing opposite-field double to left to score Overbay.
The Yankees then tied it when they were again down to their final strike as Brett Gardner poked a 1-2 pitch into centerfield that allowed Boesch to score just ahead of the throw of Desmond Jennings and the tag applied by catcher Jose Lobaton.
Rodney, who sported an 0.60 ERA and saved 48 games in 2012, has now blown a major-league-leading five saves this season and his ERA is 5.40.
Ivan Nova further frustrated the Rays in the 10th inning when he walked Ben Zobrist to load the bases with one out. But Nova escaped the jam by striking out James Loney swinging and retiring Matt Joyce on a routine grounder.
That set the stage for Overbay’s heroics in the 11th inning against right-hander Josh Lueke (0-2).
With two out and 1-0 count on him, Overbay drove an inside fastball deep into the rightfield bleachers for eighth home run of the season.
Mariano Rivera, showing a huge contrast between the teams’ two closers, came in the bottom of the 11th and he needed only nine pitches to strike out Lobaton swinging, getting Yunel Escobar on a routine groundout and fanning Jennings swinging to end the contest.
Rivera earned his 18th save in 18 chances this season.
The Yankees opened the scoring in the first inning off left-hander Matt Moore, who entered the game 8-0 with a 2.29 ERA.
Gardner opened the contest with a double in the rightfield corner and he scored two outs later on a lined single up the middle by Travis Hafner.
The Yankees held that lead until the Rays finally got to rookie left-hander Vidal Nuno in the fifth on a one-out double by Jose Molina and a two-out RBI double by Jennings to tie it at 1-1.
Moore left after six innings having given up five hits and two walks while he struck out a pair.
Nuno opened the seventh by giving up a leadoff single to Loney.
The usually reliable bullpen of the Yankees, however, was unable to keep the Rays from scoring a pair runs in the frame. Shawn Kelley yielded a double to the pinch-hitting Joyce and Boone Logan was unable to keep pinch-hitter Kelly Johnson from stroking an RBI single that scored Loney.
Joyce was able to score on a fielder’s choice when a ball off the bat of Escobar was fielded by Jayson Nix but catcher Austin Romine was unable to prevent Joyce from sliding home underneath his tag.
But, fortunately for the Yankees, they did not give up when they were down 3-1.
In fact, after having their American League record 19-game winning streak when they scored first in a game snapped in Baltimore on Tuesday, they were able to make it 20-1 behind Overbay’s remarkable at-bats in the ninth and the 11th.
With the victory the Yankees improved their season mark to 30-18 and they remain a full game ahead of the second-place Boston Red Sox in the American League East. The Rays not only have lost the three-game series but they dropped to 24-24, six games behind the Yankees in fourth place in the division.
- Overbay, 36, may be hitting only .255, but he is providing the Yankees with some quality at-bats, clutch hits and nearly flawless defense at first base. His eight home runs are tied for third on the club and his 28 RBIs are second on the team to Robinson Cano’s 34. It is going to be hard for Yankees to cut Overbay loose when Mark Teixeira returns but they may be forced into it.
- Nuno, 25, was absolutely brilliant in his second major-league start. He surrendered two runs on five hits and one walk while he struck out two over six innings. That means Nuno has given up just one run on eight hits and four walks while fanning five in 11 innings in those two starts. That is an ERA of 0.82.
- Gardner started the Yankees off with a leadoff double and he scored the Yankees’ first run in the first. In the ninth he delivered a key two-out RBI single that tied the game. Very quietly Gardner is beginning to pick up his offensive game. He has delivered at least one hit in eight of his past nine starts and he is 10-for-33 (.303) with a home run and five RBIs during that span. In fact, his two-run home run in the fourth inning was a key blow in Friday’s victory over the Rays.
- Kelley and Logan did not do their jobs in the seventh inning and it cost the Yankees two big runs. Kelley was unable to retire Joyce and Logan was victimized by the lefty-swininging Johnson. One run was charged to Nuno and the other was charged to Kelley. But both Kelley and Logan should be ashamed of themselves for the way they pitched.
- It is official: Vernon Wells is in a full-blown slump at the plate. He was 0-for-5 in the game and he did not get a ball out of the infield. He is also 0-for-10 in the series and he also has no hits in his past 11 at-bats. That has lowered his season average to .270 and it is falling fast.
The Yankees placed Granderson on the 15-day disabled list with a fractured knuckle on his left pinky finger and he is expected to be sidelined for at least four weeks. Boeach, 27, was recalled from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he was hitting just .179. Boesch hit .209 with two homers and five RBIs in 20 games in his earlier stint with the Yankees. . . . The Yankees also on Saturday claimed right-hander David Huff off waivers from the Cleveland Indians. Huff, 28, made three relief appearances for the Indians, giving up five runs in three innings. He was 3-1 with a 4.07 ERA in nine games (two starts) with Triple-A Columbus. To make room on the 40-man roster, the Yankees designated for assignment left-hander Francisco Rondon. . . . Hiroki Kuroda completed a full bullpen session on Saturday and he said he believes he will have no problem making his next start on Tuesday at Citi Field against the New York Mets. Kuroda was struck in the right calf on Wednesday in a game against the Orioles. Meanwhile, David Phelps reported that his right forearm felt a little sore after he was struck by a ball off the bat of Zobrist in the eighth inning of Friday’s game against the Rays. Phelps is scheduled to pitch in Wednesday’s game against the Mets but that will depend if he is able to throw a bullpen session. . . . Left-hander Andy Pettitte (sore left trapezius muscle) said he felt fine after a bullpen session on Saturday and he expects to come off the 15-day disabled list on June 1, when he is eligible to be activated.
The Yankees will have their brooms out on Sunday for a potential sweep of the Rays at Tropicana Field.
Left-hander CC Sabathia (4-3, 3.43 ERA) will start for the Yankees. Sabathia settled for this third straight no-decision after allowing a one-run lead to slip away against the Orioles in the seventh inning on Monday. He is 10-10 with a 3.30 ERA lifetime against the Rays.
Sabathia will be opposed by right-hander Alex Cobb (5-2, 2.73 ERA). Cobb held the Toronto Blue Jays to one run on three hits in 6 1/3 innings for a victory. He is 2-1 with a 2.22 ERA in his career against the Yankees.
Game-time will be 1:40 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by TBS and locally by the YES Network.
YANKEES 4, RAYS 3
Ichiro Suzuki entered Tuesday’s game batting just .200 and it was beginning to look as if all those years of playing baseball were starting to take its toll. But the Tampa Bay Rays found out there is no hitter more dangerous than a great hitter in the throes of a horrible slump.
Suzuki slapped a two-out bases loaded single off reliever Fernando Rodney to drive in two runs to break a 2-2 tie in the ninth inning as New York edged Tampa Bay in front of an embarrassingly small paid crowd of 17,644 at Tropicana Field.
David Robertson (1-0) pitched a perfect ninth inning in relief of starter Phil Hughes to earn credit for the victory. Though Evan Longoria greeted him with a first-pitch home run in the bottom of ninth, Mariano Rivera retired the next three hitters to earn his sixth save in as many chances this season.
Robinson Cano started the ninth inning with a single off Rays starter David Price (0-2). Rays manager Joe Maddon then elected to bring Rodney to face left-hander Vernon Wells.
Wells struck out but Cano was able to swipe second base, which forced Maddon to walk pinch-hitter Travis Hafner intentionally to set up a potential double play.
However, Lyle Overbay was able able to draw a walk on a 3-2 pitch from Rodney to load the bases and, after Chris Stewart popped out, Suzuki came to the plate.
Suzuki also was instrumental in allowing the Yankees to tie the game in the eighth with a one-out single and he advanced to third on a single to left by Jayson Nix. He then scored on a infield groundout by Brett Gardner.
Price entered the eighth with a 2-1 lead on a two-out RBI single by Jose Molina that scored Matt Joyce.
Price gave up three runs on eight hits and no walks while he struck out five in eight-plus innings of work.
However, Hughes matched him pitch-for-pitch after a shaky first inning in which he gave up a walk to Desmond Jennings, a double by Ryan Roberts and sacrifice fly to Ben Zobrist that scored Jennings.
Hughes then settled in giving up just two runs on six hits and two walks and he struck out six batters in seven innings. It was his second consecutive strong outing but he has received a no decisions in both of them.
With the victory the Yankees improved their season ledger to 11-8. The Rays fell to 9-11.
- Suzuki, 39, has had the Yankees concerned because he slumped miserably in the final three weeks of spring training and began the season in the same hitting funk. Manager Joe Girardi elected to bench him in favor of Brennan Boesch twice against left-handers in the past week. Hopefully his two hits in the last two innings, scoring the game-tying run and driving in the game-winning runs will get him going.
- In his last two starts, Hughes has given up four runs on 12 hits and two walks and he has fanned 12 in 14 innings. After giving up the sacrifice fly to Zobrist in the first inning, Hughes retired 16 of the next 19 batters he faced until he opened the seventh inning by walking Joyce. Joyce eventually scored on Molina’s hit and it likely cost Hughes the victory. But Hughes is pitching well after two dreadful starts to begin the season. He lowered his season ERA to 5.14.
- Cano was 2-for-4 and both his hits set up runs. After Eduardo Nunez reached first to lead off the fourth inning on a wild pitch on a swinging third strike, Cano advanced him third on a single. Wells then drove in Nunez with an opposite-field single to right that tied the game at 1-1. Cano raised his season average to .342, which currently leads the team.
- It is just about decision time for the Yankees on Ben Francisco, who started for a second consecutive game as the designated hitter. Francisco was 0-for-3 in the game and he is hitting a miserable .080 on the season after hitting a combined .308 with eight doubles, three homers and nine RBIs for the Cleveland Indians and the Yankees in spring training. The Yankees chose to keep Francisco over Juan Rivera, though Rivera also had a good spring. Rivera is currently a free agent and could be signed by any club.
- The Yankees are finding out their Achilles’ heel is left-handed pitching. With Kevin Youkilis out of the lineup for a third straight game with lower back stiffness, the Yankees were forced to start Francisco at DH in place of Hafner, the lefty swinging Overbay at first and Nix at third. After Matt Moore shut them down on one run and two hits on Monday, Price held them to two runs on seven hits on Tuesday until the ninth inning when they rallied off the right-handed Rodney.
- The Yankees were 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position until Suzuki delivered his game-winning single in the ninth.
Youkilis was held out of the lineup for a third straight game on Tuesday and he now is not expected to play until Thursday. Youkilis originally injured the back in the fifth inning of Saturday’s game in Toronto against the Blue Jays and re-aggravated the injury on Monday during batting practice in St. Petersburg, FL. . . . Mark Teixeira admitted on Tuesday that he will not meet his stated goal to return to the lineup by May 1. Though Teixiera has been cleared to take dry swings from both sides of the plate, he has not advanced far enough to begin hitting a baseball. Instead of remaining in Tampa to continue his workouts, Teixiera will return with the team to New York after Wednesday’s game. . . . Derek Jeter will be in New York on Thursday and will hold a press conference. Jeter, who found out last week that he sustained another small fracture in his surgically repaired left ankle, has not made any public comment since he learned will be out until after the All-Star break.
The Yankees will have a chance to win the rubber game of their three-game set with the Rays on Wednesday.
Veteran left-hander Andy Pettitte (3-0, 2.01 ERA) will start for the Yankees. Pettitte is coming off another strong 7 1/3 innings in a victory over the Blue Jays on Friday. Pettitte, 40, gave up three runs on six hits and a walk while he struck out five. In his last 10 seasons, Pettitte is 16-5 with a 4.13 ERA against the Rays.
The Rays will start right-hander Alex Cobb (2-1, 2.53 ERA). Cobb also allowed three runs in 7 1/3 innings in a victory over the Oakland Athletics on Friday. He is 1-1 with a 3.15 ERA in three career starts against the Yankees.
Game-time will be 7:10 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast by the YES Network.
The New York Yankees open defense of their American League East championship on Monday against the Boston Red Sox with pundits and even their own fans criticizing them for their many injuries and their reluctance over the past few years for opening their wallets to get quality young players. I will try to examine how I believe the division race stacks up and predict how it might go. You may be surprised by my conclusion.
REAL LIFE GAME OF THRONES
If you are a fan of HBO’s series “Game of Thrones” you might notice that the American League East is a lot like the many kingdoms in the show.
The Yankees, with their money and dominance, are a lot like the Lannisters. The Boston Red Sox are a lot like the Starks, highly principled and loyal folk who fight the good fight only to suffer myriad indignities and failures. Of course, you also have those teams like the Toronto Blue Jays, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Baltimore Orioles who also are swirling around the periphery of Kings Landing believing they have a rightful claim to wear the crown.
The 2013 season will play out a lot like the television series and I can tell you why I believe that.
A DOMINANT KING
Since 1995 the Yankees have only missed the American League playoffs once (in 2008) and they have won the division championship in 16 of the past 17 seasons. If that is not dominance than what is? Like the Lannisters, the Steinbrenner family has lavished riches of the kingdom on the best knights to defend the realm and their loyal subjects have been a fairly happy lot for the most part.
But their knights have grown old and their battle wounds have been severe. Some are ready for the fight in 2013 but others are not. Their apparent weakness has given their rivals confidence they take the crown away and you saw that play out this spring.
THE KING NORTH OF THE WALL
The Blue Jays had a legendary team in the early 1990s and they won two world championships during that period. But since then they have fallen into a barren abyss of failure. But their general manager Alex Anthropoulos engineered a winter campaign to load his roster with the best players the Miami Marlins and New York Mets could offer him.
They boast a starting lineup with the speedy Jose Reyes and a line-drive hitting machine in Melky Cabrera to add to their long-ball threats Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. They also pried away National League Cy Young Award-winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets to add to right-hander Josh Johnson and left-hander Mark Buerhle from the Marlins to form a strong rotation with their own holdover Brandon Morrow.
The kings of North think they now have a team that storm the wall protecting the kingdoms that lie s to the south such as Kings Landing in 2013.
But there are some warning signs that could give them pause before they are able to proclaim victory.
One is the Blue Jays’ bullpen. I was listening to their broadcasters this spring lamenting about how weak this group appears to be.
Closer Casey Janssen is coming off shoulder surgery and they HOPE he will available for Opening Day. Behind him is failed closer Sergio Santos and his awful 7.88 spring ERA and Esmil Rogers and his 6.39 ERA.
Of all the teams in the A.L. East, this bullpen projects to be the worst in the division, especially if Janssen is unable to capture lightning in a bottle and return as the closer he was last season when he saved 22 of 25 games. The Blue Jays may have to cover there bullpen weakness by asking their starters to go longer than they should.
That tends to weaken the starters and it also could be discouraging when the offense builds a 6-1 lead after six innings and they end up losing the game 7-6. That will get mighty old for the Rogers Centre faithful this summer.
The offense has its own issues.
Third baseman Brett Lawrie plays the game all out and he also tends to get hurt a lot. He enters the season banged up and there are questions about how good centerfielder Colby Rasmus, catcher J.P. Arencibia and designated hitter Adam Lind really are. They have yet to establish themselves as quality major-league players.
There also is a major questions about whether Reyes, whose talents in the past have been held back by leg issues, will be able to play a full season on the hard artificial surface of Rogers Centre without issues at age 29.
So instead of automatically installing them as the kings of this division, you may want to look deeper into these drawbacks. Teams do not win championships on paper. Just ask the 2012 Marlins.
THE LORDS OF BALTIMORE
The Orioles remind me of the twisted and tortured King Stannis, who attacked Kings Landing in season two of the “Game of Thrones” only to be turned back at the gates by the eldest of the Lannisters and his men just as if seemed they were winning.
Stannis had a magical sorceress behind him convincing him that he could win the battle, but he failed in the end. She later told him he still could prevail even as he was licking his wounds in defeat. Manager Buck Showalter is much like this sorceress. His skill of masking weaknesses and enhancing strengths of a ballclub made the Orioles seem much stronger than they appeared to be in 2012.
They won such a ridiculous amount of one-run and extra-inning games that they qualified for the playoffs as a wild card only to be dispatched in Game 5 of the American League Division Series by the CC of Sabathia. They were at the gates of the kingdom of The Bronx only to be turned away by their elders, Prince Derek Jeter and the eldest of Lannisters, Raul of of the House Ibanez.
Showalter still believes his charges can storm the gates of the castle and take the throne in 2013. But, unlike most teams in this division, he did not add much of anything to this team. He is largely counting on the same black magic of 2012, which rarely happens.
Those one-run victories in 2012 can easily turn into one-run losses in 2013. Those extra-inning miracles can become extra-inning nightmares a year later.
Their rotation of Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Jake Arrieta really scares no one. Nobody is going to get up out of bed at the hotel and say “Oh no, we have no chance of winning because Arrieta is pitching tonight!”
The bullpen with closer Jim Johnson is solid but hardly merits superlatives.
The team largely returns the same cast in 2012 minus Mark Reynolds and with the return of second baseman Brian Roberts, who has not played a full season in the majors since 2009.
Adam Jones and Matt Wieters are marvelous talents and Nick Markakis is healthy after missing the stretch run. But I have to wonder if all the magic Showalter spun in 2012 really will return in 2013. Teams like this usually fall back to the pack and that is what I see for the Birds.
DRAGONS AT THE PORT CITY
The Tampa Bay Rays remind of the Targaryens, who once sat upon the throne in 2008 when they faced the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series but have been unable to mount the offensive to get back there.
They have been trapped wandering in a hot climate in Florida and they have been restricted by the lack of soldiers and a lack of money to really win it all.
One year they lose Carl Crawford and Matt Garza. Another year they lose B.J. Upton and James Shields. They try to compensate with their own farm system because they lack money to compete with the Lannisters or the Starks of this division.
They only have the fire of their small but growing dragons who someday might destroy the mightier armies they have to face. For now, it appears the dragons are way too small and too inexperienced to go the entire distance.
The Rays rely on a pitching staff led by the American League Cy Young Award-winner David Price. How ironic that a team that has to pinch its pennies would be beholden to man named Price.
Behind him on promising youngsters like Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson and Alex Cobb. But there are problems here.
Hellickson spent most of the spring throwing much less than fire at opposing batters. He was rocked often and ended up with a 6.75 ERA. Moore did not fare much better. His velocity was way off and his command was even worse. He finished the spring much better but his once-high promise has faded some.
The Rays have to rely on these pitchers and their bullpen led by reclamation project Fernando Rodney and his 48 saves because the offense leaves a lot to be desired.
Without Upton, the Rays will have to rely on Evan Longoria even more for power. Longoria himself has a problem staying healthy and, if he is missing for any portion of the season, the Rays can kiss their hopes bye-bye.
They have a semblance of an offense with Longoria, Ben Zobrist, Desmond Jennings and new shortstop Yunel Escobar. But they also are starting guys like Matt Joyce and Luke Scott, who have not proven they can establish careers for themselves and help a team win.
They also are still counting on Jose Molina to do a bulk of the catching at age 37.
The Targaryens in the television series did not have enough money to purchase the ships to ford the sea leading back to Kings Landing. That kind of jives with the subjects who live in Tampa, FL, who are unwilling to lay down their riches or mount their horses to ford the bridge that leads to the Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.
The low attendance puts even more stringent strains on the team’s coffers to keep players like Price in the kingdom for their entire careers.
The Rays, with their young dragons, should remain afloat long enough to mount a serious challenge to take the throne. But the rich Lannisters in the Bronx still have the wisdom and wherewithal to stem the tide. Like in the series, men do not blindly follow the bravest warriors but remain loyal to the men with the gold.
The gold remains in the Bronx.
THE STARKS OF BOSTON
In Season Two of “Game of Thrones” the elder Stark loses his head, the eldest daughter is enslaved to the Lannister king, the youngest daughter is lost in the hinterlands, the two youngest boys have their home burned while the man’s widow and the eldest son plot to overthrow and vanquish the Lanisters to avenge the patriarch’s death.
That pretty much wraps up the Red Sox of 2012. Winterfell befell Landsdowne.
Their king (Bobby Valentine) had his head lopped off and served to the media, they abandoned their home fans and cast adrift a lot of their high-priced talent in order to restock and rebuild to defeat their arch-enemy in the rich Bronx. It was indeed a completely lost season for the Red Sox and the Starks.
They hold out hope that a new manager (Jon Farrell) and a team built around Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury will help get them back to the promised land they have failed to reach since 2007. In fact, they have failed to make the playoffs in the last three seasons.
They want left-hander Jon Lester and right-hander Clay Buccholz to pitch better while young Felix Doubront develops and they pray retreads Ryan Dempster and John Lackey (all kingdoms must have their lackeys) have something left. The problem is that this was the division’s worst pitching staff in 2012 and no swordsmanship will make it much better in 2013.
The bullpen has undergone a two purges since Jonathan Papelbon rode off for the riches of the Phillies. They are now hoping a Pirate can plug the leaks in the hull of the bullpen. Joel Hanrahan has come over from Pittsburgh to be the closer while former closer Andrew Bailey and lost child Daniel Bard try to figure out what happened to their talent.
Bailey is the team’s setup man while the Bard (in true Shakespearean fashion) has been cast into the dungeons of the minor leagues. For shame, for shame!
It also appears that the kingdom’s version of Hodor, David Ortiz, is finally showing signs that those seasons of carrying excess weight have a price. He has a bad heel and he can’t even trot, let alone run. Without Ortiz, most of the power and production will fall upon first baseman Mike Napoli.
There are lots of weaknesses everywhere, including shortstop (Stephen Drew, really?) and catcher, where Jarrod Saltalamacchia hits home runs in small bunches and strikes out in major droves.
Though young outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. promises to give the Fenway faithful something to cheer about when the team is dredging the bottom depths of the division, the ponderous weight of the anchor of this foundering team will keep them from even getting a whiff of the roses near the Iron Throne.
THE RICHES OF KINGS LANDING
The Evil Empire in the Bronx has paid its knights Alex Rodriguez, Jeter, Sabathia, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Mark Teixeira handsomely over the years. Along with the reward of titles and championships, the team has also fallen short of its goals of late due to injury and the age of these players.
It actually started last season when spring injuries to Michael Pineda and Joba Chamberlain was just a mere hint of what 2012 would bring. Rodriguez missed time, CC pitched with a sore elbow, Pettitte was lost for a time, Jeter hobbled until he broke in the playoffs,
Speedy outfielder Brett Gardner played in only 18 games.
So why should 2013 be any different?
The rich Lannisters are already missing Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Ibanez, Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones because payroll concerns were such they were ordered to cut back on their excesses.
Injuries to Teixera, Curtis Granderson, Phil Hughes and a slow recovery by Jeter this spring heightened the concerns of fans who have loyally followed this team over the years. The town criers, the scribes and pundits all denounced this team and said it was dead. They would not win the title in 2013.
They may even finish last.
But an odd thing happened on Friday. The team that was battered all spring played a Washington Nationals team that many say will win the world championship in 2013 fell to the Yankees. Oh, it was just an exhibition game. I know it did not count.
But what you saw in the Yankees was a semblance of a very good team. Pettitte pitched well and the bullpen proved to be as strong as ever.
The major surprise was the offense with Robinson Cano, Kevin Youkilis, Eduardo Nunez and Vernon Wells seemed to respond and it all seemed to come together in one cohesive package.
Rays manager Joe Maddon said earlier this spring that he fails to believe that the Yankees will be bad in 2013. He said he thinks they will be as difficult to beat as they always have been. I agree.
You see injuries do heal. The Yankees will get Jeter, Hughes, Granderson and Teixeira back at some point this season. They also might get Rodriguez back.
They are a team that has always gotten off to slow starts and got better as the season moved along. I see the same scenario this season.
The pitching with Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Pettitte, Hughes, Ivan Nova and David Phelps is deep. They have Rivera in the bullpen for one last season and David Robertson, Chamberlain and Boone Logan form a strong setup group for the King of Closing.
The offense features the two best singles hitters of their generation in Ichiro Suzuki and Jeter along with the speedy Gardner. Cano, who is due to become a very rich free agent signing after the 2013 season, is poised for breakout season of offense and defense. He could very well win the Most Valuable Player award this season.
Youkilis looks like the Youkilis of 2007, when he led the rival Red Sox to their last championship. You add Granderson and Teixera to that and you have a good offense to go along with strong pitching.
The “new guys” Wells, Brennan Boesch, Ben Francisco and Travis Hafner will have pressure on them to keep the team afloat until the stars come back. They might fail but they can’t be any worse than last season’s Yankees that failed to hit with runners in scoring position.
It also behooves manager Joe Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman that the Yankees are looked upon as dead meat awaiting a fork to be thrust into them. Perhaps lower expectations is a good thing for the Yankees after always being the team expected to win.
Girardi has a chance to really manage this season and Cashman has staked his reputation by finding these veteran pieces to fill in while the wounded heal in the tent.
That is why I truly believe that some how, some way the Yankees, the rich Lannisters of the Bronx, will have just enough to win this division again.
They may stumble in the playoffs. That is almost as much expected by their fans. But I do see victory here.
- BLUE JAYS
- RED SOX
For fans of the show “King of Thrones” I must add a note that Season Three premieres tonight at 9 p.m. EDT on HBO. If you liked this analogy to the A.L. East please pause a moment miladies and milords to send me a raven.