Tagged: Jeremy Hellickson

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!

 

 

Red-Hot Kuroda Cools Off Rangers With Shutout

GAME 102

YANKEES 2, RANGERS 0

It was hard to figure out on Thursday which was hotter, the steamy weather in Texas or red-hot right-hander Hiroki Kuroda. Judging by the results the answer was clearly Kuroda.

It was as if the 38-year-old veteran doused the Rangers bats with some ice-cold water as he shut them out over seven innings for his third straight victory over his past three starts and New York got just enough offense to gain a split with Texas in their four-game series in front of 35,139 fans at Rangers Ballpark.

Kuroda (10-6) held the Rangers to six hits and a walk while he struck out three as he threw 100 pitches (61 for strikes) on a sun-splashed afternoon in plus 90-degree weather.

David Robertson pitched a perfect eighth and Mariano Rivera, on a day he was honored by the Rangers in his last visit to Arlington, TX, tossed a scoreless ninth to earn his 33rd save in 35 opportunities this season.

Kuroda was locked in a pitchers’ duel with Rangers left-hander Derek Holland until the top of the sixth inning, when the Yankees were able to push across a run.

Light-hitting backup catcher Austin Romine opened the sixth with a double, part of his first major-league game in which he delivered three hits. Ichiro Suzuki advanced Romine to third by laying down a sacrifice bunt and Brent Lillibridge scored Romine by slapping the first pitch into left for an RBI double.

The Yankees added a run in the eighth when Robinson Cano laced a one-out double that chased Holland.

Vernon Wells greeted right-hander Tanner Scheppers with a single that advanced Cano to third and Eduardo Nunez scored Cano when he beat out a potential double-play ball.

Holland (8-6) was charged with two runs on eight hits and one walk while he fanned two batters in 7 1/3 innings.

Holland threw a complete-game shutout against the Yankees on June 27 at Yankee Stadium for his only career victory against them. After taking the loss on Thursday, Holland is now 1-6 against the Yankees.

With the victory the Yankees improved their season ledger to 54-48. They are in fourth place in the American League East and they trail the first-place Boston Red Sox by 6 1/2 games. The Rangers fell to 56-46.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Kuroda is on a real hot streak on the mound. In his past four starts, Kuroda is 3-0, giving up only two earned runs on 20 hits and five walks while striking out 16 in 26 innings. That is an ERA of 0.69 and a WHIP of 0.96. Pitching for a team that does not support him with a lot of runs does not seem to bother him one bit. Kuroda is second in the American League to Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners in ERA with a 2.51 mark.
  • Lillibridge came through with what turned out to be his second big hit of the series against the Rangers in the sixth. He drove in the game-tying run in the ninth inning off Rangers closer Joe Nathan in Tuesday’s 5-4 victory. The 29-year-old utility man had only two hits in 11 at-bats in the three games he started in the series but he sure made them count.
  • Romine’s three-hit game is the culmination of some hard work in the batting cage to sharpen up his swing. On July 8, the rookie was hitting an anemic .132. But in his past four starts, he is 7-for-14 (.500) with four doubles, three runs scored and two RBIs. That has raised Romine’s season average to .193.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

Kuroda pitched a gem, the bullpen held the lead and the offense was opportunistic with Brett Gardner, Chris Stewart and Travis Hafner on the bench and three rookies and a journeyman third baseman in the lineup. How this team wins as much as it does is beyond words. No complaints here.

BOMBER BANTER

The Yankees reportedly are about “99 percent” complete on a deal that would return Chicago Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano back to the team with which he started his career. The deal likely will be announced on Friday. Soriano was in the Cubs’ starting lineup on Thursday but he was pulled from the game when Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein informed manager Dale Sveum of the impending deal. Soriano, 37, was hitting .254 with 17 home runs and 51 RBIs in 93 games with the Cubs. But Soriano has been on a home-run tear lately, hitting 10 home runs in his past 21 games with a .286 average, six doubles and 21 RBIs. Soriano began his major-league career with the Yankees in 1999 after his contract was purchased from a Japanese League team. He played with the Yankees through 2003 when he was traded to the Rangers for Alex Rodriguez.  . . .  Rodriguez underwent a physical examination by Dr. Dan Murphy in Tampa, FL, on Thursday that revealed the veteran third baseman had shown improvement with his strained left quad but that he will not be ready to be activated from the disabled list before Aug. 1. The Yankees said Rodriguez will remain at the team’s minor-league complex in Tampa until then. Rodriguez told reporters earlier in the day that he “was ready to play” on Friday but the Yankees disagreed with him, citing medical reports that indicate he was not quite ready to play.  . . .  Meanwhile, shortstop Derek Jeter ran the bases without any problems on Thursday at Rangers Ballpark and he hopes to be activated for Saturday’s game at Yankee Stadium against the Tampa Bay Rays. Jeter, 39, came off the disabled list on July 11 after recovering from surgery on his left ankle, but he sustained a strained right quad and had to be returned to the DL. Saturday is the earliest Jeter could be activated.

ON DECK

The Yankees open an important three-game weekend home series against division rival Tampa Bay.

The Yankees will open the series with left-hander CC Sabathia (9-8, 4.37 ERA). Sabathia got hammered for seven runs on nine hits in five innings on his 33rd birthday on Sunday in a loss to the Red Sox. He is 1-2 with a 7.29 ERA against the Rays this season and 11-11 with a 3.57 ERA in his career.

The Rays will start right-hander Jeremy Hellickson (9-3, 4.62 ERA). Hellickson held the Toronto Blue Jays to two runs on five hits for his ninth victory of the season. Hellickson is 3-1 with a 3.19 ERA in seven lifetime appearances against the Yankees.

Game-time will be 7:05 p.m. and the game will be telecast by MY9.

 

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. 

 

Tigers Claw Past Yankees On Cabrera’s Home Run

GAME 28

TIGERS 10, YANKEES 6

Miguel Cabrera broke a 4-4 tie in the seventh with a two-run home run that sparked a five-run inning as Detroit overcame what was once a 4-1 deficit to down New York on Saturday at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, FL.

Cabrera’s fourth homer of the spring came off Cody Eppley (0-2), who failed to retire any of the five batters he faced in the frame and he was charged with all five runs.

Right-hander Darin Downs (1-0) pitched a scoreless inning in the top of the seventh to get credit for the victory.

Andy Pettitte started the game for the Yankees and he pitched well until he was tagged for three runs in the fifth inning. He ended up giving up four runs on eight hits and one walk while striking out five in 6 1/3 innings.

The Yankees broke out on top on the strength of an RBI single by Eduardo Nunez in the third inning, a solo home run from Ben Francisco – one of two home runs he hit on the day – and a two-run double in the fifth inning off the bat of Kevin Youkilis.

With the loss the Yankees dropped to 11-17 this spring. The Tigers improved to 16-11.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Francisco’s solo shot in the fourth and two-run blast in the eighth were his first two home runs of the spring. Francisco, 31, may be a non-roster player but he is very quickly pushing his way into the outfield picture as part of a potential platoon with the lefty swinging Brennan Boesch. Francisco is hitting a sizzling .350 on the spring.
  • Pettitte pitched much better than his final line indicated. He was in command and looking like he was in midseason form in the first four innings. Discounting the bad inning, Pettitte gave up one run on four hits and one walk while striking out five. Pettitte, 40, said after the game he felt good about the outing and that he just got too many pitches up in that three-run third.
  • Youkilis snapped a small slump over the past week to drive in two big runs with his double with two out in the fifth inning off Detroit starter Anibal Sanchez. Youkilis now has eight RBIs this spring, which is second on the team behind outfielder Melky Mesa, who has 10.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • Eppley had one of those days he would like to forget. The sidewinding right-hander came into the game for Pettitte with one out in the sixth and proceeded to give up a single to Torii Hunter, the homer to Cabrera, a single to Quintin Berry, an RBI double to Victor Martinez and a RBI single to Matt Tuiasosopo before being removed from the game by manager Joe Girardi. Eppley is 0-2 with a 14.29 this spring. However, he likely still will make the 25-man roster.
  • On a day when the Yankees scored six runs on 14 hits, designated hitter Travis Hafner  –  once again  –  contributed nothing to the attack. Hafner, 35, was 0-for-3 and did not get a ball out of the infield. He is hitting .118 on the spring and may end up being a huge bust. Perhaps signing free agent Jim Thome would have made more sense.

BOMBER BANTER

Derek Jeter grounded out in each of his four at-bats in a minor-league game played against the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate at the Yankees’ spring complex in Tampa. Jeter did not run hard on his surgically repaired left ankle but Jeter remains  confident he will be able to be ready to play on Opening Day.  . . .  It was made official on Saturday: The Yankees announced they have signed right-hander Chien-Ming Wang to minor-league contract. Wang, 32, won 55 games over a four-year span with the Yankees, including two seasons in which he won 19 games. He was 6-6 with a 4.94 in 21 games with Washington Nationals last season.  . . .  Vidal Nuno has opened eyes this spring enough to be in the running for a spot in the bullpen, according to general manager Brian Cashman. With left-handed specialist Clay Rapada recovering from bursitis in his throwing shoulder, Nuno has a shot to make the 25-man roster. The 25-year-old lefty is 1-1 with a 0.68 ERA this spring.  . . .  Boesch was examined by a team doctor on Saturday and his sore left ribcage checked out fine. Girardi said Boesch could return to the lineup on Tuesday or Wednesday.

ON DECK

The Yankees return to George M. Steinbrenner Field to play host to the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday.

Right-hander Adam Warren will start for the Yankees and he will be opposed by right-hander Jeremy Hellickson.

Game-time will be 1:05 EDT and the game will be telecast locally by the YES Network and nationally by the MLB Network.

 

Nova Seeks To Rekindle His Lofty Orbit In 2013

The New York Yankees will enter spring training with a virtually set starting rotation. That is a luxury among major-league clubs but there are some concerns about the staff and how effective it will be. Let’s examine each starter individually in a five-part series.

PART 5

IVAN NOVA (12-8, 5.02 ERA)

Entering the 2012 season it was not surprising that the Yankees believed they had something special in right-hander Ivan Nova. After all, Nova was nothing short of sensational in his rookie season, going 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA.

Despite the fact he was demoted for a month in midseason, Nova came back and refused to lose another game for the rest of the season. At age 25, Nova seemed to have past fellow minor leaguers like Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, David Phelps and Hector Noesi and even was outshining older Yankee young pitchers like Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain.

However, Nova’s path to stardom took a long detour in 2012 and he enters 2013 with no guarantee he will even be able to keep his job as the team’s fifth starter.

Nova, now 26, struggled mightily in spring training last season, posting a 1-2 record with a 8.06 ERA in six starts and it did not get much better as the 2012 season unfolded.

In June, Nova posted a 3-0 mark with a 1.26 ERA. But in the other five months his ERAs were: 5.18 in April, 5.87 in May, 5.97 in July, 7.03 in August and 6.23 in September. Nova was so bad that manager Joe Girardi took him out of the rotation entirely in September and inserted the rookie right-hander Phelps in his place.

Command of Nova’s pitches was his undoing in 2012.

At times Nova’s curve would desert him and at other times it was his normally electric slider. On occasion he could not throw either for strikes. So Nova was forced to use his fastball when he was behind in the count and hitters took advantage by blasting him for 28 home runs in just 170 1/3 innings (a home run every 6.1 innings).

For Nova it was a stunning reversal and the doubts about his ability to rebound are swirling even before he reports to spring camp in Tampa, FL. Phelps, 26, who was 4-4 with a 3.34 ERA in 33 appearances (11 starts) last season, is coming into the spring with the expressed intent of taking Nova’s job away from him.

Competition is a healthy thing but Nova has never shied away from it since he came up as cocky youngster at the tail end of the 2011 season and posted 1-2 record with a 4.50 ERA in seven starts.

Truth be told, Nova – scouts will tell you – may actually have the best stuff of any starter on the Yankees’ roster, including CC Sabathia.

Some in Nova’s camp point out that a number of rookie pitchers tend to regress a bit in their second seasons. Tampa Bay Rays rookie right-hander Jeremy Hellickson beat out Nova for the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 2011 by going 13-10 with a 2.95 ERA.

Last season, Hellickson was below .500 with a 10-11 ledger.

The previous two A.L. Rookie of the Year winners were relievers Neftali Feliz of the Texas Rangers in 2010 and Andrew Bailey of the Oakland Athletics in 2009 and neither have had smooth sailing in their years since. The last National League rookie starting pitcher to win the award was Dontrelle Willis of the then Florida Marlins in 2003 and how did his career turn out?

So Nova enters 2013 with some lingering doubts surrounding him but he also has a chance to return to his 2011 form. Spring training will be a pivotal time for him to prove the problems with his command are over and he can be trusted to pitch consistently every fifth day for the Yankees.

In addition, the Yankees would be foolish to give up on Nova so soon. Nova can be downright untouchable when he is on. Who can forget his heroic “relief” performance in the rain-delayed Game 1 in the American League Division Series against the Detroit Tigers in 2011?

Nova throws a mid-90s fastball and compliments it with an excellent curve. When he was demoted in 2011 he added a devastating slider to the mix and he was unbeatable when he returned. He was the Yankees best pitcher this side of Sabathia.

That is probably why Nova’s 2012 travails were so baffling to Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild. Physically there was nothing wrong with Nova. But the command of his pitches seemed to elude him throughout the season.

The fact Nova turned in a 12-8 record was a testimony to his competitiveness, which has always been a hallmark for him. Nova is simply not afraid of hitters and he does not back down even when he is getting hit hard. Who can forget after Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays took him deep in his first September 2010 start that Nova buzzed Bautista inside his next time up?

Nope, fear is not in Nova’s lexicon.

That just might serve him well when he battles Phelps for the fifth starter job this spring. Nova ceratinly has to be better simply because it hard to believe he can be any worse than he was last season.

Nova also has a lot of things in his favor. He simply has better stuff than Phelps. His fastball is better and his breaking pitches have more bite. The question will simply come down to that command issue that plagued him.

Phelps is not exactly a marginal starter just trying to hang onto a major-league job either.

After four seasons in the minors in which Phelps was 38-15 and the highest ERA he recorded was the 2.99 mark he posted in 2011, Phelps entered the 2012 season behind Nova, Banuelos, Betances, Adam Warren and D.J. Mitchell despite the fact he was named the organization’s Pitcher of the Year in 2011.

The ex-Notre Dame star was 0-1 with a sparkling 2.08 ERA in seven appearances last spring, which earned him a surprise spot on the roster in the bullpen.

Phelps immediately impressed Girardi with his ability to attack the strike zone when he was called into games. Though Phelps is considered to have a rather pedestrian assortment of pitches, he proved early on that he was still able to get major-league hitters out using nearly pinpoint control.

He struck out 96 batters in 99 2/3 innings last season and Girardi had no qualms about using him as a spot starter, including his stint replacing Nova in late September.

So if Nova thinks that Phelps is just going to cede that No. 5 spot to him he is in for a big surprise. Phelps has always dealt with scouts doubting his abilities to pitch in the major leagues. That has fueled Phelps and he would love nothing more than to prove those scouts wrong.

The fact that the No. 5 spot comes down to two young right-handers who both came out of the Yankees’ farm system is also a testament to the efforts general manager Brian Cashman has made to invest heavily in scouting, signing the best pitchers he can find and keeping them rather them trading them to other teams.

Teams in the current era have been trying to develop the best young pitching they can find and they try to sign the best of them to long-term deals to retain them up to their 30s. That is why you do not see many young quality pitchers become free agents anymore.

So unless the Yankees either trade for a young pitcher like Michael Pineda or develop a Nova and/or Phelps they are going to have a tough time fielding a pitching staff going forward.

Cashman planned ahead and now Nova and Phelps could both play a big role toward making the Yankees’ 2013 a successful one.

Whoever wins the job will mean the loser more than likely will become the long reliever and spot starter for the team. Nova has much less experience in the bullpen and his command issues could get him sent out to Triple A early of he fails to throw strikes out of the bullpen.

But the smart money is that Nova will keep his role and Phelps will resume his in the bullpen.

Nova has come too far in the Yankees’ minor-league system to let this opportunity slip away from him. Of course, Phelps won’t back down either.

So that means that watching these two compete this spring will be the most fun to watch this spring.

 

Rays End Late Rally, Ruin Kuroda’s Yankee Debut

GAME 2

RAYS 8, YANKEES 6

Luke Scott slapped a two-out bases-loaded single to drive in two runs in the first inning as Tampa Bay built a 8-2 lead and held on late to edge New York on Saturday at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, FL.

David Price (1-0) gave up two runs on five hits and four walks and he struck out five in 6 1/3 innings to pick up the win. Hiroki Kuroda (0-1) surrendered six runs (four earned) on eight hits and four walks and he fanned two in 5 2/3 innings to lose in his Yankee debut.

Fernando Rodney came in to face Alex Rodriguez as the tying run with two out in the ninth and he retired him on an infield grounder to pick up a save.

The Yankees rallied to put four runs on the board in the ninth, including a three-run home run by Nick Swisher off Joel Peralta, only to ultimately come up shorr.

The Yankees are 0-2 on the young season and the Rays are 2-0.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Not much was positive on this night though Swisher’s first home run of the season did bring the Yankees back from a 8-3 deficit to an within two runs in the ninth. He guessed fastball on an 1-0 count and got it from  Peralta and deposited the ball deep into the right-field bleachers. Swisher was 1-for-3 with two walks on the night.
  • Pinch-hitting for Andruw Jones in the ninth, Raul Ibanez hit a line drive to center-fielder Desmond Jennings to score Curtis Granderson, who had begun the inning with a triple off reliever Josh Lueke. Ibanez now has five RBIs in the first two games of the season.
  • Cory Wade was the only pitcher who seemed to know what he was doing on Saturday. He faced five batters and retired all of them, three by strikeout. Wade had struggled a lot during spring training and it was unclear if it would carry over to the regular season. But based on his first appearance, it looks as if Wade has straightened himself out.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • Kuroda was very disappointing after having an exceptional spring. His command was off (four walks) and he looked to be pitching tentatively all night. After Scott’s two-run single in the first, the Rays added a RBI single by Carlos Pena in the second, a solo home run by Matt Joyce in the third and RBI hits by Scott and Jennings in the sixth, which finally chased the 37-year-old right-hander.
  • Lefty specialist Clay Rapada, who drew raves all spring when he recorded an 0.90 ERA, was ineffective in his Yankee debut also. He walked the lefty-swinging Pena to open the seventh. Then he gave up a disputed home run to Evan Longoria that the umpires used TV replays to change into a double. However, the ruling did not matter when the lefty-swinging Joyce slapped a bloop single to left to score both Pena and Longoria. In the long run, those runs really hurt the most.
  • The Yankees are getting frustrated by the Rays’ defensive shifts, which have taken away hit after hit in the series. Rodriguez’s game-ending groundout was stopped by second baseman Sean Rodriguez, who was positioned up the middle, right where A-Rod hit it. A fitting end to a frustrating night.

BOMBER BANTER

Manager Joe Girardi opted to shift his lineup against the left-handed Price. He slotted Swisher in the No. 2 spot and moved Granderson into Swisher’s No. 6 spot. He also played Jones in left and benched Brett Gardner. Girardi said Swisher has a high on-base percentage against lefties and he might be used as the No. 2 hitter against lefties this season. He also said Gardner will still get playing time against lefties this season.  . . .  Girardi is considering giving Rodriguez a day off on Sunday after Derek Jeter was used as the DH on Saturday and Eduardo Nunez played shortstop. Girardi said Eric Chavez would replace Rodriguez in the lineup. Russell Martin also could sit in favor of new backup catcher Chris Stewart.

ON DECK

The Yankees look to salvage a game on Sunday in their finale with the Rays.

Phil Hughes will get the start for the Yankees. Hughes, 25, is looking to rebound from an injury-plagued 2011 campaign. Hughes is 403 with a 4.01 ERA lifetime against the Rays.

The Rays will counter with second-year right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, who was 13-10 in his rookie season. Hellickson is 2-1 with a 4.10 ERA against the Yankees in his career.

Game-time will be 1:40 p.m. 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.