Tagged: Brandon Morrow

Yankees, Rays Look To Be Class Of Tough A.L. East

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.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

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!

 

 

Cano Swats Two Homers As Phelps Handcuffs Jays

GAME 43

YANKEES 7, BLUE JAYS 2

Just ask any pitcher in baseball and they will tell you that the most dangerous hitter in any lineup is a great hitter who has been in the throes of a slump. Brandon Morrow could tell you a whole lot about what Robinson Cano did to him on Saturday.

Cano hit a pair of two-run home runs off Morrow and David Phelps gave up up just one run over seven innings as New York ran its season record against Toronto to 8-1 in front of a paid crowd of 45,557 at Yankee Stadium.

Cano followed a two-out RBI single by Brett Gardner off Morrow (1-3) in the third inning with a high looping line drive into the first row of the short porch in right-field that extended the Yankees’ lead to 3-0.

Two innings later he connected off Morrow again for a two-out, two-run shot that landed over the Yankees’ bullpen in right-center field. It was Cano’s second multi-homer game of the season and he now leads the team in batting average (.295), home runs (12) and RBIs (31).

Meanwhile, Phelps (2-2) held the power-laden Jays to six hits and three walks while he struck out eight batters in what was the longest start of his major-league career.

The Blue Jays only managed to score off Phelps in the fourth inning when Adam Lind laced a one-out double to center and Colby Rasmus lined a two-out single off the wall in right-field to score Lind to draw the Jays to within two runs at 3-1.

But Phelps frustrated the Blue Jays most of the day because they had a multiple scoring opportunities taken away from them. They ended the day 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position.

The Jays had two runners on and two out  with Lind at the plate in the first when Phelps picked off Jose Bautista at second base to end the inning.

Maicer Izturis and Emilio Bonifacio both reached first on singles to begin the third inning but Melky Cabrera was retired on a double play and Edwin Encarnacion struck out swinging.

Cabrera reached on a one-out double in the fifth but Bautista flew out and Encarnacion was retired on a diving stop of a hard grounder by Jayson Nix and a great scoop of a Nix’s throw by Lyle Overbay at first.

In stark contrast, the Yankees took advantage of some misplays by the Blue Jays.

Nix singled off Morrow to begin the third inning and rookie David Adams then hit a hot come-backer to Morrow. However, Morrow bobbled it and had to settle for throwing out Adams, allowing Nix to reach second. One out later Gardner drove him in with a single and Cano followed with the first of his two home runs.

After Cano had padded the Yankees’ lead to 5-1 in the fifth, David Robertson came on in the eighth in relief of Phelps and surrendered a one-out solo home run to Encarnacion.

But the Yankees put the game away in the bottom of the inning after Izturis committed a throwing error on a ball off the bat of Vernon Wells. Travis Hafner, who was starting his first game since May 13 due to soreness in his right shoulder, blasted a two-run home run down the line in right-field.

With the victory the Yankees improved their season record to 27-16 and they remain a game ahead of the second-place Boston Red Sox in the American League East. The Blue Jays fell to 17-26 and they are last in the division a staggering 10 games behind the Yankees.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Phelps is pitching as if he does not want to return to the bullpen. In his last two starts, Phelps has given up just two runs on 10 hits and eight walks while he has fanned 15 in 13 2/3 innings. That is an ERA of 1.32 despite the high walk total. It might be very hard for Ivan Nova (sore right triceps) to reclaim his starting spot when he is activated from the disabled list.
  • Cano entered play on Saturday in the midst of an eight-game slump where he was 6-for-32 (.188) with a home run and six RBIs. But he busted out of it in a big way against the Blue Jays by going 2-for-4 with two home runs, two runs scored and four RBIs. Cano did not hit his 12th home run last season until June 17, when the Yankees were playing their 65th game. So he is a month ahead of what was a career-best home run pace in 2012.
  • Hafner’s home run in the eighth was his seventh home run of the season and he has 20 RBIs. Hafner was bothered with soreness in what has been a chronic right shoulder for him and he was given a cortisone shot earlier in the week to relieve the pain. It appears the soreness is gone. The Yankees suffered a bit without his power presence in the lineup.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • Adams was unable to extend his hitting steak since he was called up from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to four games. He was 0-for-3 with a strikeout and he did not get a ball past the infield.  Despite the unproductive afternoon, Adams is impressing the Yankees with his approach at the plate and his defense has been better than advertised.
  • Curtis Granderson came in hitting .364 but he was 0-for-4 on Saturday and his average dipped to .267. Granderson also misjudged Rasmus’ liner off the right-field wall in playing his very first major-league game in right-field. Manager Joe Girardi opted to rest Ichiro Suzuki and played Granderson in right to keep Gardner in center-field.
  • Robertson looked a little shaky in the eighth in giving up a home run to Encarnacion and a single J.P. Arencibia before he retired the last two hitters. It was first time Robertson has given up  a run since an appearance against the Houston Astros on May 30, a span of seven games.

BOMBER BANTER

The Yankees did some more roster shuffling on Saturday. The team acquired infielder Reid Brignac from the Colorado Rockies in return for cash considerations. To make room on the roster, the team designated for assignment infielder Alberto Gonzalez. Brignac, 27, is a career .228 hitter who is capable of playing second base, third base and shortstop. Brignac was batting .250 with one home run with Colorado when he was designated for assignment last week. Brignac also played  for the Tampa Bay Rays. General manager Brian Cashman said Brignac, a left-handed hitter, will platoon with both Adams at third and Nix at shortstop.  . . .  Joba Chamberlain (strained right oblique) played long toss on Saturday and soon will throw a bullpen session that likely will lead to a rehab assignment.

ON DECK

The Yankees can sweep the Blue Jays in their three-game series with a victory on Sunday.

Left-hander CC Sabathia (4-3, 3.19 ERA) will start for the Yankees. Sabathia gave up three runs (two earned) in 6 1/3 innings against the Mariners on Tuesday and did not get a decision. Sabathia is 14-4 with a 3.00 ERA lifetime against the Blue Jays.

For the second consecutive outing Sabathia will be facing off against a fellow Cy Young Award winner. The Blue Jays will be countering with 2012 National League Cy Young Award winner R.A.Dickey (3-5, 4.83 ERA). Dickey allowed two runs on six hits and two walks and he fanned 10 against the San Francisco Giants on Tuesday. He is 3-2 with a 3.25 ERA against the Yankees.

Game-time will be 1:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast by the YES Network.

 

Hiroki Dokey: Kuroda Clips Blue Jays’ Wings Again

GAME 42

YANKEES 5, BLUE JAYS 0

While the injuries seem to mount for the New York Yankees on a daily basis there are pretty much three things the team had going its favor on Friday: They were playing the Toronto Blue Jays, they had Hiroki Kuroda on the mound and they have not lost more than two games in a row this season.

Kuroda pitched two-hit shutout baseball over eight innings as New York  snapped a two-game losing streak by defeating Toronto for the seventh time in eight games this season in front of paid crowd of 40,008 at Yankee Stadium.

Melky Cabrera led off the game with a double and Edwin Encarnacion laced a one-out single in the seventh and those were the only two hits the Blue Jays could muster off of the 38-year-old right-hander. Kuroda walked one and struck out five batters to run his career record against the Blue Jays to 4-1.

Meanwhile, the Yankees scored the only run they really needed in the bottom of the first inning when Brett Gardner rolled a leadoff triple to the wall in left-center off left-hander Mark Buehrle (1-3), who entered the game with a 1-9 record against the Yankees and his last victory against them was way back in 2004.

After Buehrle walked Jayson Nix, Robinson Cano scored Gardner with a infield groundout.

The rookie tandem of David Adams and Austin Romine sparked the rest of the Yankees’ offense.

Adams led off the fifth with a single to left-field and Romine followed one-out later with a single to left that advanced Adams to second. After Gardner drew a walk to load the bases, Nix drove in Adams with a sacrifice fly.

The Yankees added three runs by getting to Buehrle and reliever Aaron Loup in the seventh.

Adams again started the rally with a leadoff double off the wall in left-field and Ichiro Suzuki dropped down a bunt single that advanced Adams to third. Romine then chased Buehrle with an RBI double in the left-field corner.

Loup came in and Gardner greeted him with an RBI single to left to score Suzuki and Nix closed out the scoring with his second sac fly of the game.

With the victory, the Yankees improved to 26-16 and they hold a one-game lead in the American League East over the second-place Boston Red Sox. The Blue Jays fell to 17-25 and they are nine games out in last place in the division.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Kuroda, if it seems possible, is pitching even better than he did last season when he established his career high with 16 victories. For Kuroda it was his seventh straight quality start dating back to April 14. Kuroda also lowered his season ERA to 1.99, which is fourth best in the American League. His six victories are tied for third in the league. I will say this and believe me when I do: CC Sabathia may be the team’s ace but Kuroda is the Yankees’ best pitcher.
  • It may have seemed like an insignificant move at the time when the Yankees designated for assignment infielder Chris Nelson and recalled the 26-year-old Adams from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. But there was a big reason for the move: Adams can flat-out hit. He is proving it, too. He was 2-for-4 with two runs scored on Friday and he is 4-for-11 (.364 ) with two doubles and an RBI in his first three major-league games. Adams was hitting .316 in 27 games at Scranton and he is a .296 career minor-league hitter.
  • Romine came into the game hitting .063 but he took advantage of an injury to Chris Stewart to go 2-for-3 with a run scored and an RBI. Romine, 24, is going to be a work in progress as a hitter but his defense and throwing are top-flight. So when he contributes to the offense he deserves to be applauded for it.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • Cano is absolutely lost at the plate lately. He was 0-4 with a a strikeout despite his 27th RBI, which leads the team. He is 6-for-32 (.188) in his last eight games, which has lowered his season average from .314 to .291. Cano is getting back to his old habit of swinging at pitches way off the outside corner and in the dirt.
  • Vernon Wells came into the game owning the Blue Jays this season and Buehrle throughout his career. But he ended up going 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and he did not get a ball past the infield. He is 0-for-7 with four strikeouts in his past two games.
  • In fact, Buehrle and the Blue Jays shut down the No. 3 through No. 6 hitters in the Yankees’ lineup (Cano, Wells, Ben Francisco and Lyle Overbay) were 1-for-16 with one RBI but the No. 7 through No. 2 hitters (Adams, Suzuki, Romine, Gardner and Nix) were 6-for-13 with five runs scored and four RBIs.

BOMBER BANTER

NOTE: If you are absolutely fed up and ready to slit your wrists over the mounting injuries of the Yankees, please do yourself a service by not reading the following information.

Just before the game started the Yankees announced they have placed left-hander Andy Pettitte on the 15-day disabled list and they recalled rookie left-hander Vidal Nuno from Scranton to replace him in the rotation. Pettitte left his start on Thursday in the fifth inning with what was later diagnosed as a strain of the left trapezius muscle, located below in the neck in the back. General manager Brian Cashman said the injury is not serious and that he expects Pettitte to be back with the team after the 15 days are up. Pettitte becomes the 13th player to land on the DL this season.  . . .  Stewart, however, was able to dodge the disabled list for now. Cashman said Stewart suffered a mild strain in his left groin in the eighth inning of Thursday’s game against the Seattle Mariners and he is listed as day-to-day. In fact, Stewart would be able to catch in an emergency, Cashman told reporters. Romine will continue to start at catcher until Stewart recovers.

ON DECK

The Yankees will try get through another game without an injury as they continue their weekend three-game series against Toronto on Saturday.

Right-hander David Phelps (1-2, 4.33 ERA) will get the start for the Yankees. Phelps gave up just one run in 6 2/3 innings against the Cleveland Indians on Monday but he lost because Justin Masterson shut out the Yankees. Phelps is 1-0 with a 4.37 ERA lifetime against the Jays.

Toronto will counter with right-hander Brandon Morrow (1-2, 4.69 ERA). Morrow has missed his past two starts with back and neck issues. He is 5-3 with a 4.01 ERA in his career against the Yankees.

Game-time will be 1:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast by the YES Network.

 

Pettitte, Backed By 3 Homers, Clips Jays’ Wings

GAME 15

YANKEES 9, BLUE JAYS 4

A lot of the experts predicted the Toronto Blue Jays would win the American League East in 2013 and that the injury-riddled New York Yankees would finish in last place. I wonder after watching Friday’s game at Roger’s Centre if those so-called “experts” feel the same way.

Andy Pettitte showed no signs of any problems with his back in pitching into the eighth inning and the Yankees teed off on the Blue Jays for three home runs  –  two of them by former Blue Jays  –  as New York pounded Toronto in front of a paid crowd of 40,028.

Pettitte (3-0) gave up three runs on six hits and one walk while he struck out five in 7 1/3 innings to notch his 23rd career victory against the Blue Jays. The 40-year-old left-hander had not pitched in 10 days because his spot in the rotation was skipped due to back spasms.

Meanwhile, the Yankees were able to build Pettitte a huge lead early against right-hander Brandon Morrow (0-2).

The Yankees scored two runs in the opening frame on Travis Hafner’s RBI double and a RBI groundout off the bat of former Blue Jays Vernon Wells.

They added three more runs in the third inning on Hafner’s fifth home run of the season and a two-base throwing on Toronto center-fielder Colby Rasmus that allowed two unearned runs to score.

The Yankees finally chased Morrow in the sixth when former Blue Jay Lyle Overbay led off with a solo home run and Francisco Cervelli slapped an opposite-field ground-rule double.

Jays manager John Gibbons replaced Morrow with left-hander Brett Cecil and Brett Gardner greeted him with an RBI triple. Robinson Cano then scored Gardner and on an RBI groundout to make the score 8-1.

Wells, who was booed heavily by Blue Jays fans each time he was introduced, closed out the scoring for the Yankees by slapping a line-drive home run to left off Cecil in the seventh.

Morrow gave up seven runs (five earned) on nine hits and one walk and he struck out four in 5 1/3 innings of work.

With the victory, the Yankees improved to 9-6. The Blue Jays fell to 7-10.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Hafner’s early-season hot streak continued on Friday. He was 2-for-5 with a double, a home run,  a run scored and two RBIs. He now leads in the team in hitting with a .349 average. He also is tied for the team lead in home runs with Cano with five and second to Cano in RBIs with 10. 
  • Wells and Overbay came back to the Rogers Centre with a vengeance. They were a combined 3-for-10 with a single, two home runs and three RBIs. Both were booed heavily throughout the game by the fans that used to cheer them. But they both also got a measure of revenge of against the team for which they used to toil.
  • Pettitte did give up a leadoff triple to Rajai Davis that led to an RBI groundout by Melky Cabrera in the inning. He also gave up a two-run home run to Jose Bautista in the seventh following a Cabrera single. But the rest of night he was in command. He threw only 90 pitches on the night and 61 of them were strikes (68 percent). He also lowered his season ERA to 2.01.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • Kevin Youkilis was 0-for-4 and he is in a bit of batting slump over his past six games. He is 3-for-25 (.120) with no home runs or RBIs. That has lowered his season average from .424 to .293.
  • Eduardo Nunez is also in a bit of a batting funk. He was 0-for-4 and his season average is at .206. Nunez got the news on Thursday that he will have a chance to start at shortstop until Derek Jeter returns after the All-Star break but he might lose the role to Jayson Nix if he does not produce.
  • Shawn Kelley came in to pitch the final 1 2/3 innings and he could not resist giving up a solo home run to J. P. Arencibia with two outs in the ninth. Kelley has been tagged for four home runs in just seven innings over five appearances this season. His season ERA is 9.00.

BOMBER BANTER

For those baseball experts who thought the Yankees would be in big trouble without Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson on the disabled list and with free agents like Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Raul Ibanez and Eric Chavez elsewhere here is a statistic for you to chew on. The Yankees lead the American League with 25 homers.

ON DECK

The Yankees will continue their weekend three-game series in Toronto on Saturday.

Right-hander Hiroki Kuroda (2-1, 2.87 ERA) will start for the Yankees. Kuroda is coming off a complete-game shutout against the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday. He gave up five hits, walked none and fanned five. Kuroda, 38, is 2-1 with a 4.67 ERA lifetime against the Jays.

The Jays will counter with left-hander Mark Buehrle (1-0, 7.31 ERA). Buehrle shut down his former Chicago White Sox teammates on just two runs for his first victory of the season. He is 1-8 with a 6.38 ERA in his career against the Yankees.

Game-time will be 1:07 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast by the YES Network.

 

Yankees Will Prevail In 2013’s ‘Game Of Thrones’

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.

STARK REALITY

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.

PREDICTED FINISH

  1. YANKEES
  2. BLUE JAYS
  3. RAYS
  4. ORIOLES
  5. 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. 

 

6-Run Third Allows CC, Yanks To Cruise By Twins

GAME 155

YANKEES 8, TWINS 2

It is bad enough that the Minnesota Twins have struggled to beat the Yankees during Ron Gardenhire’s reign as manager. But when you add in the fact they have been unable to beat CC Sabathia while he has sported a Yankee uniform then you can just imagine how things went for the Twins on Wednesday.

The Yankees sent 11 men to the plate as they erupted for six runs in the third inning and Sabathia tossed eight dominant innings to collect his 14th victory as New York clinched both the season series and three-game road series against Minnesota in front of 33,251 at Target Field.

Sabathia (14-6) gave up two runs on six hits and a walk while he struck 10 to run his record against the Twins since he joined the Yankees in 2009, including playoff games, to 10-0 with a 1.96 ERA . The victory also was Sabathia’s first victory since Aug. 24 and broke a personal three-game losing streak.

The Yankees also maintained their 1 1/2-game lead over the second-place Baltimore Orioles in the American League East with only seven games left to play.

The Twins led the Yankees 1-0 on a one-out single by Matt Carson that scored Ryan Doumit from second in the second inning.

That lead was short-lived, however, when Chris Dickerson slapped a one-out single up the middle off Twins reliever Brian Duensing in the third inning. Ichiro Suzuki added a single to center of his own and Derek Jeter drew a walk to load the bases.

Robinson Cano then smacked a scorching line-drive double over the head of right-fielder Ben Revere in right-field to score Dickerson and Suzuki as Jeter advanced to third.

Nick Swisher blooped a single into right-field to score Jeter and Curtis Granderson followed with a two-run triple off the right-field wall.

Duensing then threw a pitch to Eric Chavez in the dirt that eluded Doumit and Granderson scored easily to give Sabathia and the Yankees a comfortable 6-1 cushion.

The Yankees added a pair of runs in the sixth inning on a leadoff double by Raul Ibanez off reliever Anthony Swarzak and a one-out, two-run home run off the bat of Dickerson for his second home run of the season.

Duensing (4-11) was pressed into service with two out in the second inning because starting pitcher Samuel Deduno was forced to leave the game with severe irritation in his left eye that impaired his vision.

Duensing gave up six runs on five hits and two walks while he struck out one in one inning of work.

The Twins scored a run in the seventh when Jamey Carroll and Alexi Casilla strung together a pair of two-out singles and rookie Pedro Florimon scored Carroll when he hit a ball that caromed off Sabathia’s left shin and rolled into right-field.

But, Sabathia was firmly in control of the game. Among his 10 strikeouts, the last five were called and he also struck out Joe Mauer, who entered the contest the second-leading hitter in the American League at .326, the first three times he faced him on just nine pitches. Mauer finished the game 0-for-4.

The Yankees won their 90th game of the season – versus 65 losses – and its the 11th season in the past 12 years the Yankees have won at least 90 games. They also have won the last six season series against the Twins, whose season record fell to 65-91.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Don’t take my word for how good Sabathia was, let Mauer tell it: “That’s the best I’ve seen him, and I’ve been watching him for a long time.” Sabathia threw 108 pitches – his third highest pitch count of the season – and 89 of them were strikes. That is a 75% strike percentage. Sabathia not only registered 94 mph on his fastball but he had superior command of it through out the contest.
  • Despite the fact that Gardenhire brought in a left-hander to replace the right-handed Deduno, lefty sluggers Cano and Granderson came through with a pair of two-run extra-base hits to give Sabathia all the run support he really needed. Though neither Cano or Granderson are having career years, Granderson has 97 RBIs and Cano has 82.
  • Dickerson got a rare start in left-field and took advantage of it by going 2-for-4 with a home run and two RBIs. Because of the Yankees overload at the outfield position, Dickerson does not figure in the team’s plans with its postseason roster. But it is good to see someone from the September call-ups contribute at a crucial point of the season.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

In a game where Sabathia was in total command and the offense scored eight runs despite the fact Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira were not in the lineup you really can’t find fault with anything in this one. The Yankees’ best defense against losing the A.l. East title is just to keep winning and they have won 12 of their last 16 games.

BOMBER BANTER

Rodriguez was held out of the lineup and did not play on Wednesday due to a sore left foot after he fouled a ball of the foot in the eighth inning of Tuesday’s game. Rodriguez stayed in the game but he said the foot stiffened up overnight. Though no X-rays were ordered, manager Joe Girardi believes Rodriguez will be available to play on Thursday.  . . .  Brett Gardner was used as a ninth inning defensive replacement in left-field, marking his first game action since he suffered a strained right elbow making a diving catch in a game ironically against the Twins on April 17. Both Gardner and veteran reliever David Aardsma were activated off the disabled on Tuesday and the team designated for assignment infielder Steve Pearce and left-handed reliever Justin Thomas to make room for them on the roster.

ON DECK

The Yankees make their final road stop of the season in Toronto to begin a four-game series with the Blue Jays on Thursday.

Right-hander Ivan Nova (12-7, 4.94 ERA) will start the series for the Yankees. Nova could not make it out of the third inning in his last start against the Oakland Athletics on Saturday. But the Yankees won the game 10-9 in the 14th inning. Nova is 3-1 with a 3.45 ERA in his career against the Jays.

Right-hander Brandon Morrow (8-7, 3.28 ERA) will get the start for the Blue Jays. Morrow was tagged for four runs in five innings and he walked a season-high four in his last start against the Tampa Bay Rays. He is 4-2 with a 4.08 ERA lifetime against the Yankees.

Game-time will be 7:07 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast by the YES Network.

 

Power Shifts In A.L. East But Yankees Still Reign


Today marks the beginning of the 2012 season for the New York Yankees. After a 33-game spring schedule, the team took shape. How will they finish in the American League East? What about the other teams in the division? How will they do this season? Let’s take a look.

Last season marked a titanic shift in the division.

After the Boston Red Sox recorded the biggest implosion in major-league history in September, they are no longer looked upon as an elite in this division. The loss of general manager Theo Epstein and the decision to blame Terry Francona for the team’s demise were bad enough.

But the real shock was to watch the Red Sox take a different approach to trying to fix the team this winter. Instead of just going out and aggressively signing the best free agents available and making bold trades to infuse new blood, the Bosox actually started a coupon-clipping method of solving their problems.

The big names that could have helped them went elsewhere and the Red Sox found that their once-vaunted minor-league system was bereft of immediate-impact talent.

They begin the 2012 season with one of the most important positions on the team left n the hands of someone inexperienced.

If ever this was a microcosm of the Red Sox problems this is it. They allowed Jonathan Papelbon to walk away via free agency. Maligned for his foibles and his occasional blown saves, Papelbon was still an important piece of the success of the franchise. The fans and the press treatment of him bit the team in the rear end.

To replace him the Red Sox traded for Andrew Bailey of the Oakland A’s, a competent closer who at the same time has had a series of arm ailments that have slowed his development. At the end of spring training, Bailey came up with a thumb injury that will require surgery to repair. He will miss two months – at least.

The Red Sox also traded for Houston Astros closer Mark Melancon. The conventional wisdom was Melanco would replace Bailey. After all, why trade for a closer if he is not going to close? But new manager Bobby Valentine announced that jack-of-all-trades (and master of none) reliever Alfredo Aceves would close instead.

Welcome to Red Sox Nation’s worst nightmare. On Opening Day, Aceves coughed the winning run in a non-save situation.

If there is anyone out there who honestly believes this team can win the A.L. East, I want to know what you are smoking.

There are only two elite teams in this division and they are the Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Rays had an interesting spring where they played a lot like the some of the teams in 1960s like the Dodgers and White Sox, who were so deep in pitching talent they shut out any team. However, at the same time, the offense is so bad that scoring runs is going to take some real effort.

Don’t get me wrong. The Rays and manager Joe Maddon have ways of scoring. Carlos Pena may struggle to keep his average around .190 but he will likely hit 30 home runs. Evan Longoria, surrounded by lightweights, will be pitched around and his average will suffer also. But he will win his share of 2-1 games with home runs.

Desmond Jennings, B.J. Upton and the rest of Rays also use their feet to create havoc on the bases. That will get them their share of runs at times. But the old adage “You can’t steal first base” comes into play. The Rays have to reach base in order to steal bases. This team also lacks the athleticism past teams had when Carl Crawford was here.

How many bases will catcher Jose Molina steal? I rest my case.

No, the Rays’ sole means of winning comes with their starting rotation. James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore and Jeff Niemann are the center of the ballclub. The Rays have attempted to build a bullpen around them but they begin the season with their closer, Kyle Farnsworth, on the disabled list with a sore elbow.

That is huge red flag to me.

Could you say that the Yankees would be favored to win a championship with Mariano Rivera on the DL and expected to miss two months like Bailey? How about if Rivera complained he had a sore elbow?

Nope. No matter how stacked your pitching staff is you have to have a closer and Farnsworth is the best the Rays had in 2011. If he is lost for a long period of time, it puts pressure on Maddon to “shorten” his bullpen. That means keeping his starters on the mound longer than most managers would allow.

That exposes them to possibly losing close games because starters do run out of steam at some point. While a manager like Charlie Manuel might take Cliff Lee out after 121 pitches because he has Papelbon and a deep bullpen, Maddon may say let’s let Price get out of this in the eighth because I do not think J.P. Howell has been effective lately.

It becomes a slippery slope and you start lengthening and lengthening your starters until they begin wearing down.

That is my concern with the Rays.

In addition, they do not have the money and means to ever go to a Plan B. What they have on the roster has to work or they fall.

One team that intrigues me is the Blue Jays.

They already have Jose Bautista. You add to that third baseman Brett Lawrie and a bunch of guys who hit the ball hard and you have the makings of a great offense. Too bad the Rays do not have this offense.

The Blue Jays will put a lot of runs on the board. They have a lot of power and line-drive hitters top to bottom in the lineup.

However, their pitching revolves around Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow. Brett Cecil has been sent to the minors and Dustin McGowan’s comeback has been slowed by injury.  Their bullpen does have a closer in Sergio Santos they stole from the White Sox and a former closer in Francisco Cordero they signed from the Reds.

If manager Jon Farrell can piece enough starters to go six, the Blue Jays just might have what it take to pass the Red Sox in third place in this division. Stranger things have happened.

The one given in the division is where the Orioles will finish. Mismanagement, bad luck and foolish spending have really derailed this franchise.

Buck Showalter is a good manager but this team is mired with problems. The young pitching the Orioles counted on has failed to take the big leap forward they expected.

They made big bets on players like Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis and Adam Jones and they have underwhelmed. They lack a big bopper like a Bautista who can change a game. Instead, they can build around emerging star catcher Matt Wieters.

That just about sums up the Orioles.

Now we come to the Yankees.

They won 97 games last season despite the fact Alex Rodriguez played in 99 games, only Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano had good seasons with the bat and their rotation contained Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon.

How many will they win when they get a healthy season out of Rodriguez, more of their hitters have better seasons with the bat and a rotation that now has Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, a healthy Phil Hughes to go along with ace lefty CC Sabathia?

Their bullpen even without Joba Chamberlain is loaded with Rivera closing like he always has at age 42 and David Robertson and Rafael Soriano shortening games to six innings.

The team has closed the pitching gap with the Rays and their offense is simply the best in the division. Add to that the division’s best bullpen and a veteran bench and you have the makings of another A.L. East title for the team in the Bronx.

I have not seen evidence that would contradict the premise. The only thing that could derail the Yankees is the age of the team. Injuries also are a great equalizer. But, other than a bad spate of injuries there is nothing that will stop this team in 2012.

Here is the predicted order of finish:

1) New York Yankees 

2) Tampa Bay Rays (Wild Card)

3) Toronto Blue Jays

4) Boston Red Sox

5) Baltimore Orioles

If this order holds up, look for Valentine to be scanning the help wanted ads in October. He already has the team hating him. If it gets much worse he might be scanning those ads in July.