The American League East is a division loaded with talent. It consists of a world champion, a playoff team, the winningest franchise in baseball history and two power-laden clubs with some pitching. Of those five teams it is possible that three teams could claim playoff spots. Let’s look into the magic ball and see what we can predict. In no particular order let’s look at the teams:
NEW YORK YANKEES
After an injury-marred 2013 season managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner loosened the pursestrings and allowed general manager Brian Cashman to throw out nearly $500 million to free agents. That brought in the best available pitching free agent in Masahiro Tanaka, the best in catcher available in Brian McCann, two All-Star outfielders in Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, a left-hander for the bullpen in Matt Thornton and two important infielders in Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts.
Needless to say the Yankees are not planning on winning 85 games and missing the playoffs as they did in 2013.
Added to what the Yankees already had, this team is loaded for a playoff run. The rotation is five deep with CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, Tanaka and the sensational return of Michael Pineda this spring has the other teams in the division worried. Only the Tampa Bay Rays can boast a rotation close to this and they only have four healthy starters at the moment.
The bullpen is missing Mariano Rivera and no one will tell you that David Robertson will make anyone forget the greatest closer in history. But no one can believe he can’t do as well as Rafael Soriano did in 2012. The rest of the bullpen has undergone a makeover because of the loss of Boone Logan and Joba Chamberlain. Shawn Kelley and Thornton will handle the late-inning work. The addition of 6-foot-8 rookie Dellin Betances is going to give the bullpen depth because Betances might have the best stuff of the group.
Add to this corps three starting pitchers shifted to the bullpen, David Phelps, Adam Warren and left-hander Vidal Nuno. Phelps and Warren are holdovers from last season and Nuno, 26, gives the Yankees a second lefty to go with Thornton.
The Yankees only need to hope that Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter return to form. They both missed virtually all of the 2013 season and both are being counted upon to help the offense. They also are hoping that Johnson can fill in for the suspended Alex Rodriguez and Roberts can fill the huge hole left by the childish and petulant departure of Robinson Cano. The Yankees issued Cano’s No. 24 to spring training invitee Scott Sizemore. That tells you what they think of Cano after he left.
Ellsbury will combine with Brett Gardner to provide speed and daring on the bases. McCann and Beltran will join Teixeira and last season’s acquisition Alfonso Soriano to give the Yankees a lot of power in the middle of the lineup. Johnson and Roberts can provide double-digits power as well at the bottom of the order.
The bench features the catcher many teams wanted this spring in Francisco Cervelli, All-Star outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and a pair of hot-hitting rookie infielders in Dean Anna and Yangervis Solarte. Slick-fielding shortstop Brendan Ryan starts the season on the disabled list with an upper-back injury.
Top to bottom the Yankees are loaded with talent, power, speed, a great rotation, a solid bullpen and a versatile bench. They will go a long way in deciding who wins the division and who ends up in the playoffs.
TAMPA BAY RAYS
The Rays are a product of a similar model that used to keep afloat the small-market Minnesota Twins. You try and keep a small corps of good young players together long enough to win until they start leaving via free agency. Of course, this method requires that you keep all the plates spinning at once for a long, long time.
If you don’t you lose.
The Rays were fortunate to keep left-hander David Price off the open market for a year. He will join left-hander Matt Moore and right-handers Alex Cobb and Chris Archer to provide the only rotation in the division that can rival the Yankees. Jeremy Hellickson begins the season on the disabled list but he has not been real effective when he has been healthy so I am not sure how his season will go.
The Rays dumped Fernando Rodney because he blew too many saves and was shaky in those he did save. Enter former Rays right-hander Grant Balfour, who was not signed by some other teams because of some medical questions. Balfour has only had one season as a closer and there is no guarantee the Rays can get another season out of him.
The rest of the bullpen is good. Balfour’s fellow senior citizen, Joel Peralta, is the setup man. He is joined by lefty Jake McGee and former closer Heath Bell. Right-handers Josh Lueke, Brandon Gomes and lefty long man Cesar Ramos round out a pretty solid corps.
The Rays are really lacking speed this season. Their only real base-stealing threat is Desmond Jennings, who is been doing a very bad imitation of Carl Crawford since he arrived.
Now the Rays are looking to generate lots of power with Evan Longoria and Will Myers in the middle of the lineup. The problem is Matt Joyce is coming off a disappointing season and he has not lived up to expectations at all. They also have to hope an aging Ben Zobrist can bounce back after a down 2013 campaign.
The additions of James Loney at first base and Yunel Escober at shortstop helped the offense and defense last season. They hope Ryan Hanigan can provide defense and leadership behind the plate this season.
As always, manager Joe Maddon will mix in spare parts like Sean Rodriguez, David DeJesus and Jose Molina. In addition, he will shift his defense to drive opponents nuts, But if the Rays should falter, Price will be on the trading block before the league deadline. If that happens, the Rays season is over.
In any event, this will be Price’s last year with the Rays and the Rays have to roll the dice they win the division this year. Otherwise, it’s lights out at Tropicana Field for their fan base of 7,500. If things don’t pick up at the gate the team could be headed elsewhere.
BOSTON RED SOX
Most Yankee fans forgot what happened in 2013 so we will leave it at that.
The Red Sox prospects for 2014 would seem to be bright. After all, they hope to have the same rotation they finished with back this year.
They are counting on Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront to be just as good in 2014. Problem is Lester is notch below what an ace should be. Look at most fantasy drafts this season and you will find Lester going in the middle rounds because of his high ERA and even higher walks-to-innings-pitched (WHIP) ratio.
Clay Buchholz also is going late in drafts because he has had a hard time staying healthy. His recurring back problems are not going away. He can only treat it to stay on track.
Lackey and Peavy are also on the north side of their usefulness. Both are crafty veteran pitchers and they will win their share on guile. But this group pales in comparison to the Rays and Yankees. That does not even take into account Doubront, who if you look as his 2013 numbers you wonder why the Red Sox like him so much.
To be sure, Koji Uehara was a miracle worker for them after the Bosox tried a number of unsuccessful closers since Jonathan Papelbon left years ago. But Uehara turns 39 on Wednesday and there is no net for him if he fails to do what he did late last season.
Boston does have lefty Andrew Miller and Junichi Tazawa back and they added Edward Mujica. But they do not have Craig Breslow at the start of the season and this bullpen is just a lot less deep than it was in 2013.
The same can be said for the starting lineup. Instead of bringing Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Daniel Nava off the bench they will have to play to fill holes when Ellsbury, Stephen Drew and Jarrod Saltalamacchia left the team.
Grady Sizemore actually beat out Bradley in center but the Red Sox know they can’t just run the oft-injured former All-Star out there every day. Bogarerts at short, Will Middlebrooks at third and center are unsettled positions with unknown quantities in them. A.J. Pierzynski takes over behind the plate and should be an offensive upgrade from Salty but teams are going to run wild on him on the bases.
The Red Sox just hope they can get another year out of fading DH David Ortiz, who at age 38 is well beyond borrowed time. He had a horrible spring and players at 38 do not get better. They fade.
The Red Sox will still revolve around Dustin Pedroia at second and they just hope that Shane Victorino (who begins the season injured), Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes, Mike Carp can still do what they did last season. But as we know it is hard to repeat as champion. The last team to do it was, well, the New York Yankees in 1998, 1999 and 2000. Red Sox Nation remembers that period of time.
So I do not think there is going to much in the way of magic at Fenway this season. It just not in the cards.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
The Jays are all about redemption.
They gave a fading infielder out of Pittsburgh Pirates and a disappointing third baseman out of the Cincinnati Reds a place on the team and they were rewarded with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. Those two players form the most feared middle-of-the-order pair in baseball. Both could easily hit more than 40 homers apiece.
The Blue Jays even rehired manager John Gibbons even after they fired him three years ago.
So the Blue Jays were the cool team to pick in 2013 after they added Melky Cabrera and Jose Reyes to what they already had in Adam Lind, Brett Lawrie and Colby Rasmus. But their recipe for success did not count on a complete meltdown of their starting rotation.
Ace R.A. Dickey pitched with a bad back, Brandon Morrow was also hurt and former ace Ricky Romero forgot completely how to pitch successfully. Last season was just not pretty for the Jays.
But they have renewed hope in 2014. Dickey is healthy again and Mark Buehrle can still eat up innings with his soft-tossing junk. Add to that a healthy Morrow and you have the makings of a staff, But the other two spots will go to Drew Hutchison, who at 23 hopes he can establish himself as a starter this year, and an old friend Dustin McGowan, who last pitched as a regular in the Jays rotation in 2008. he is now 32 and he is an expert in rehabs.
Now that is some reclamation project.
Casey Janssen fell into the closer role when Sergio Santos was injured and now both form a nice tandem at the end of the game. Lefty Brett Cecil and hard-throwing righty Steve Delabar make the Jays bullpen one of the best in the division this season.
But bullpens have a way of wearing down when the starters do not succeed and have to be taken out early. In the rough and tumble American League East, the Blue Jays rotation just lacks the ability to hang with the big boys.
There is no doubt their offense is impressive. They will hit their share of home runs. But they also will lose a lot of games by scores of 9-7 and 8-5 because of this shaky rotation.
Cashman pointed out this spring what was painfully obvious. The luck the Orioles used to make the playoffs in 2012 was bound to be paid for in 2013. Orioles manager Buck Showalter took offense. But the truth always hurts, Buck.
The Orioles did not win those one-run and extra-inning games they won in 2012 and they finished with the Yankees in a tie for third place in 2014.
It is hard to see how the Orioles make it much better in 2014 even with the addition of right-handers Ubaldo Jimenez and Bud Norris and outfielder Nelson Cruz.
The issue with the Orioles is the same as last season. The starters Jimenez, Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen and Norris are all fine pitchers in their own right but who, for Pete’s sake, is the ace? And is that ace better than the pitchers they face routinely like David Price, Masahiro Tanaka, Clay Buchholz, R.A. Dickey or Matt Moore?
The answer is no and Showalter will learn that quickly.
Jimenez is just a middling starter and Norris just looked good compared to all the awful pitchers the Astros kept running out there. Neither make the Orioles much better.
The addition of Cruz is curious because the Orioles are loaded with offense in mega-power threat Chris Davis added to Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, and J.J. Hardy. Cruz adds to that power but it is hard to see how that helps keep runs of the board.
The Orioles bullpen also took a major hit when Jim Johnson left for Oakland and took the 101 saves he recorded for the O’s the past two seasons with him. The Orioles are asking journeyman right-hander Tommy Hunter to do a job he has never done before and close games.
They did not add much around him either. They still rely on right-hander Darren O’Day and left-hander Brian Matusz to set up. Getting to them may be an issue because none of the rest of Orioles bullpen is really proven.
So Showalter just has to hope that his team can score runs in droves night after night to cover for a weak pitching staff. The mix of this starting staff and bullpen may be the worst in the division because the Blue Jays actually boast a much stronger bullpen.
Showalter may be an excellent manager but he can’t turn cubic zirconium into diamonds. There just no magic left for the Orioles.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1) NEW YORK YANKEES
2) TAMPA BAY RAYS
3) BOSTON RED SOX
4) TORONTO BLUE JAYS
5) BALTIMORE ORIOLES
I see a close race between the Rays and Yankees and both will easily make the playoffs. The Red Sox will not collapse but I do see them fading as the season progresses when their rotation routinely starts breaking down. The Blue Jays will win their share of games with their offense and bullpen. But there will be days when good pitching will beat good hitting. On those days the Blue Jays will lose. The same for the Orioles. If they do not average seven runs a game they are in a heap of trouble. No team can do that consistently enough and no one can in this tough division. They will fall to the basement with a loud thud. Sorry, Buck. The truth hurts, huh!
YANKEES 7, RAYS 5
Hitters always talk about being patient at the plate, especially when they are mired in a slump. On Saturday the Yankees proved their patience with the Rays’ pitching staff and with slumping outfielder Vernon Wells.
They ended up being handsomely rewarded with a victory.
The Rays issued a season high nine walks to the Yankees and Wells broke an 0-for-11 slide with a pinch-hit two-out bases-clearing double in the seventh inning that rallied New York to a come-from-behind victory over Tampa Bay in front of a paid Yankee Stadium crowd of 46,013.
The Yankees began the bottom the seventh inning trailing 5-3 when reliever Joel Peralta issued a leadoff walk to Robinson Cano and one out later Lyle Overbay stroked a double to advance Cano to third.
Peralta (1-4) then sealed his fate in the game by issuing yet another walk to load the bases to rookie Zoilo Almonte, who had already driven in three runs earlier in the game.
Left-hander Jake McGee replaced Peralta and struck out Jayson Nix. McGee then had David Adams down in the count 1-2 but ended up walking him when his 3-2 pitch sailed outside to allow Cano to score.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi then sent up Wells to pinch-hit for Chris Stewart. Wells laced a 1-2 fastball into the gap in right-center and the ball bounced just short of the warning track and deflected back on the field off the glove of a fan. The umpires awarded Wells second base and waved all three runners in to allow the Yankees to take a 7-5 lead.
The four-run outburst handed the victory to starter CC Sabathia (8-5), who was sailing along with a 3-1 lead in the sixth inning until the Rays forced the Yankees into walking Evan Longoria to load the bases with two out.
But rookie Wil Myers ruined the strategy by lofting a 1-2 pitch that hit the top of the wall in right-center and was knocked into the stands off Brett Gardner’s glove for a grand-slam home run. It was Myers’ first major-league home run.
After Longoria opened the scoring against Sabathia by hitting his 17th home run of the season to lead off the second inning, the Yankees rallied in their half of the third – thanks to some shoddy defense by the Rays.
Gardner led off the frame by slapping an infield roller to James Loney at first but starting pitcher Alex Colome dropped the toss from Loney for an error. After Ichiro Suzuki hit into a fielder’s choice that erased Gardner, Cano slapped a single to left and Travis Hafner hit an infield roller against an exaggerated shift on which shortstop Yunel Escobar could not make a play.
One out later, Almonte followed up his 3-to-4 night on Friday with a two-out a single to center that scored Suzuki and Cano and gave the Yankees a 2-1 lead.
The Yankees tacked on another run two innings later thanks to some more sloppy Rays’ defense and Colome’s wildness.
With one out, Cano drew a walk and when Travis Hafner bounced a routine ball to Loney at first, Loney fired the ball wide of second to allow Cano to reach third. Colome then loaded the bases by issuing a walk to Overbay.
Almonte then worked his way into a 3-2 count before Colome missed wide to force in Cano with another run.
Colome was then removed after pitching 4 1/3 innings, yielding three unearned runs on five hits and five walks and he struck out three batters in what was only his second major-league start.
Sabathia, meanwhile, allowed five runs on five hits while he walked two and struck out two in seven innings.
David Robertson pitched a perfect eighth and Mariano Rivera hurled a scoreless ninth to earn his 26th save in 27 chances this season. Rivera also notched his 65th save out of 67 career save opportunities against the Rays. He has blown only one save against the Rays since the 2005 season.
The victory improved the Yankees’ season ledger to 41-33 and, combined with the loss by the Boston Red Sox to the Detroit Tigers, the Yankees climbed to within 2 1/2 games of the first-place Bosox in the American League East. They trail Boston only two games in the loss column. The Rays fell to 38-37 and they dropped percentage points behind the Toronto Blue Jays in last place in the division.
- The Almonte Legend in the Bronx is reaching epic proportions. He was 1-for-2 with two walks, a run scored and three RBIs on Saturday. In four games (two of them starts), the 24-year-old switch-hitter is 5-for-8 (.625) with a home run and four RBIs. We may not be seeing Wells reclaim left-field just yet. Almonte is looking every bit as impressive as he did when he opened eyes during spring training in 2012. The kid has great awareness of the strike zone, shows patience and the ball just leaps off his bat when he connects.
- Wells deserves a lot of credit for hanging in on a tough at-bat against the hard-throwing McGee. Wells had only nine hits in his past 89 at-bats and he was hitting just .102 in June. His double was his first extra-base hit since May 31. Down quickly on the count 0-2, Wells fouled off a tough fastball and took a ball before he went with a McGee fastball for an opposite-field double. Perhaps Almonte’s success has Wells worried about his future role with the team. It is a great motivator.
- Though Sabathia gave up five runs in seven innings, the two mistakes to Longoria and Myers cost him all five runs. Take those two hits away and Sabathia would have shut out the Rays on three hits and two walks in seven innings. Sabathia drew his career record against the Rays even at 11-11.
- Gardner had a real bad day. He was 0-for-5 with two strikeouts and he did not get a ball out of the infield all day. In addition, his glove actually did tip Myers’ fly ball into the seats for a grand slam. His leap was just a beat late and he perhaps should have tried to tip the ball back into the field of play. It really did cost Sabathia.
- Stewart was 0-for-3, including a strikeout and a double-play ball. Stewart is mired in a bit of tailspin at the plate. He is 0-for-12 in his four starts and his season average has dipped from .277 to .250.
Derek Jeter returned to Yankee Stadium on Saturday to take batting practice and be with the team. Before New York’s game against Tampa Bay, Jeter took batting practice and later fielded some ground balls. Jeter will return to Tampa on Sunday. . . . Alex Rodriguez took five simulated at-bats on Friday in Tampa, FL., as he continues to make his way back from hip surgery. Girardi said he isn’t sure when Rodriguez would be able to play in rehab games, but thinks he would need to run the bases more before taking that next step.
The Yankees will have a chance to win the four-game weekend series with Tampa Bay with a victory on Sunday.
The Yankees will recall right-hander Ivan Nova (2-1, 5.16 ERA) from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to start the game. Nova was 2-0 with a 2.04 ERA at Scranton. His last start for the Yankees was on April 29. He is 6-1 with a 2.98 ERA in his career against the Rays.
The Rays will counter with rookie right-hander Chris Archer 1-3, 5.03 ERA). Archer allowed three runs on five hits and five walks in 4 2/3 innings in a loss against the Red Sox on Tuesday. In his four starts this season, he has made it past the fifth inning only once. He has never faced the Yankees.
Game-time will be 2:05 p.m. EDT in order to accommodate the 67th Old-Timers’ Day festivities, which will begin at 11:15 a.m. The game will be telecast nationally by TBS and locally by the YES Network.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
As spring training camps open it is time to look at the American League East competition for the New York Yankees. How will the other teams fare as they gear up to dethrone the 2011 division champions? Do these teams have the pitching? Is there enough offense? Let’s see.
PART 3 – TAMPA BAY RAYS
Last season was supposed to be the time that the Tampa Bay Rays dropped from contention in the American League East. After all, they lost their star outfielder in Carl Crawford, their slugging first baseman Carlos Pena, their league-leading closer in Rafael Soriano and almost all the elements of what was a very good bullpen in 2010.
Yet, the Rays made the playoffs with a miracle finish that overtook a Boston Red Sox team that choked its way to the finish line. The Rays qualified with a 91-71 record but they lost in the first round of the A.L. Division Series against the Texas Rangers.
What is in store for the Rays in 2012? Do they have another miracle or two left in them?
It is real easy to see what the Rays strategy is for 2012. Run out the best five starters you have and keep them in the game as long as you can to cover up a weak middle of the bullpen and hope the offense can muster enough stolen bases and home runs to eke out a victory.
Right-hander James Shields was the poster boy for this team. In 2010, he was 13-15 with a 5.18 ERA. Last season, he was 16-12 with a 2.82 ERA and 11 complete games. The question is will Shields pitch like he did in 2010 or 2011? As the dean of the staff at age 30, his fortunes will set the tone for the rest of the staff.
The ace of this staff was supposed to have been David Price, who was 19-6 with a 2.72 ERA in 2010. Price, 26, fell from his perch with a 12-13 mark and a 3.49 ERA. The problem is that Price is basically a one-pitch pitcher: his fastball. His breaking stuff was inconsistent and as a result he was a .500 pitcher. Price needs to harness control of his slider and develop even a decent change-up in order to be successful.
Many people were stunned the Rays dealt Matt Garza to the Chicago Cubs. But the Rays knew they had rookie right-hander Jeremy Hellickson ready to jump into the rotation. Heliickson, 24, pitched as the Rays hoped with a 13-10 record and a 2.95 ERA. While Price is still searching for a change-up, Hellickson uses his as a weapon and the Rays hope he gets even better.
The Rays used right-handers Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann in the No. 4 and No. 5 spots last season. But both pitchers struggled with command and injuries in 2011.
Davis, 26, was 11-10 with a 4.45 ERA in 29 starts and Niemann was 11-7 with a 4.06 ERA in 23 starts.
One of these two pitchers is likely to lose their starting spot this spring. The Rays believe 22-year-old left-hander Matt Moore may be ready for prime time in 2012. Moore made one start during the regular season, a five-inning shutout of the Yankees. Then he threw a gem to defeat the Texas Rangers in the ALDS. Moore is a consensus pick to follow Hellickson as A.L. Rookie of the Year.
Though this is the best rotation in the division, there are still concerns. If Shields and Price do not pitch well and Hellickson and Moore do not follow up on their success, the Rays are in big trouble. This is a team that does not have much of Plan B behind its five starters.
The Rays luck in 2011 even extended to their bullpen in 2011.
They replaced Soriano with former Yankee scapegoat Kyle Farnsworth as their closer and Farnsworth ended up pitching well. (Yankee fans may let out a primal scream now). Yep, Farnsworth, was 5-1 with a 2.18 ERA and he saved 25 games out of 31 chances.
Journeyman right-hander Joel Peralta also did a nice job replacing Joaquin Benoit, who left to sign with Detroit. Peralta, 35, was 3-4 with a 2.93 ERA and he added six saves. Veteran right-hander Juan Cruz also helped tighten up the bullpen in the late innings but he was allowed to leave as a free agent.
So the Rays will be building their bullpen around Farnsworth and Peralta in 2012.
The Rays did pick up former closer Fernando Rodney from the Los Angeles Angels. Rodney, 34, has good stuff but has been bothered with back problems. He was 3-4 with 4.50 ERA with the Angels in 2011.
The Rays are hoping left-hander J.P. Howell will get over his arm problems and pitch like he did in 2009 when he was 7-5 with a 2.84 ERA. In 2011, Howell struggled and was 2-3 with 6.16 ERA in 46 games.
The Rays bullpen likely will be rounded out by disappointing left-hander Jake McGee, right-hander Brandon Gomes and the loser of the battle between Davis and Niemann for the final spot in the rotation.
There is no guarantee Farnsworth and Peralta will pitch like they did in 2011. There also is some real soft spots in middle relief and the lack of an effective left-hander may really hurt in a division filled with lefty hitters like Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz, Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira.
That means manager Joe Maddon might be forced to leave his starters in the game longer than he might like to cover up the deficiencies and that takes its toll on those starters late in the season. The bullpen is an area of some concern.
The Rays have always been a running team who like to bunt, take extra bases and force opponents into making errors. The loss of Crawford did not change that in 2011. However, the Rays newest emphasis is on the home run.
The Rays had five players hit 16 or more home runs in 2011 and they re-signed first baseman Carlos Pena as a free agent and he hit 28 for the Cubs last season.
The team still revolves around third baseman Evan Longoria, who shook off another season of injuries to hit .244 with 31 home runs and 99 RBIs. The batting average has to be worrisome but Longoria is the team’s only real all-around threat as a hitter and power source.
The Rays also was boosted by a comeback season from Ben Zobrist, who hit .269 with 20 home runs and 91 RBIs. He will likely play a lot at second base and some in right-field as he did last season.
The Rays also rely on the power and speed of centerfielder B.J. Upton, who hit .243 with 23 home runs, 81 RBIs and 36 stolen bases.
Rookie Desmond Jennings arrived and he played well in 63 games. He hit .259 with 10 home runs and 25 RBIs as the team’s leadoff hitter. The Rays have high hopes he will surpass Crawford as an athlete and player.
The Rays also caught a bit of luck when Matt Joyce finally began to live up to the promise he showed with the Detroit Tigers. Joyce started off hot but collapsed badly after the All-Star break. He finished with a .277 batting average with 19 home runs and 77 RBIs as a platoon right-fielder and DH.
Sean Rodriguez figures to be the primary shortstop in 2012 though he hit just .223 with eight homers and 36 RBIs. That is because incumbent shortstop Reid Brignac was worse, hitting .193 with one home run and 15 RBIs.
The Rays also reshuffled their catchers for 2012 and they are looking to start former Yankee backup Jose Molina as a starter after he hit .281 with the Blue Jays. Molina, 36, was signed because the Rays were getting beat at their own game. Teams like the Yankees and Rangers were stealing on them at will.
Molina figures to end that with his defensive abilities and arm. However, an offense that relies on the stolen base will be slowed considerably with Molina on base. That is the big tradeoff.
To show how much more the Rays are valuing power, look no further than the signing of left-hander Luke Scott as the team’s primary DH. Scott averaged 28 home runs from 2008 through 2010 with the Orioles before injuries short-circuited his 2011 season. Scott and Joyce will certainly slow down any running game. But the Rays will hit their share of home runs in 2012.
Maddon uses his bench a lot and he will again in 2012.
Brignac will battle career backup Eliot Johnson for the backup middle infield job. Johnson is the better hitter but Brignac is a bit better on defense.
For a while it looked Sam Fuld was going to be the next Pete Rose. Instead, reality set in and he ended up being the next Reggie Willits. But Fuld does provide speed and effort off the bench as an occasional outfield starter and pinch-runner.
Rookie Jose Lobaton will likely back up Molina. Lobaton hit .118 in 34 at-bats last season. The Rays do have a hitting catcher in Robinson Chirinos, however, his inability to throw base-stealers make him a project behind the plate for right now.
This bench is merely adequate. Maddon will use it a lot but there is not much of substance to it.
The 1963 Los Angeles Dodgers may be most interesting world championship team in history. They beat the Yankees in four straight games to win the World Series despite having one power hitter in Frank Howard, who led the team with 28 home runs. Outfielder Tommy Davis led the team with 88 RBIs.
How did they win? Well, they had Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Johnny Podres combine to win 58 games and they had Maury Wills and Davis’ brother, Willie, combine to steal 65 bases.
So they relied on pitching, defense, line-drive hitters and speed and athleticism to win. This is similar to what the Rays would like to build in 2012.
They will go as far as their rotation will allow them to go. Maddon will have to rely on them a lot.
As far as offense goes, Maddon is actually counting more on the home run than the stolen base because only Jennings, Upton and Zobrist are consistent base stealers. Maddon will use his other players like Longoria and Rodriguez to steal in certain situations.
But this team did need the Red Sox to go through a monumental collapse to make it 2011. I do not think their luck extends to 2012. They will not fall precipitously as they should have last season. But I do not see them winning the division. They look to be a contender for second place with the Red Sox. Nothing more and nothing less.
ON THURSDAY – PART 4 BOSTON RED SOX
YANKEES 5, RAYS 4
When Derek Jeter steps into baseball history he does it with a flourish.
On a day when “The Captain” needed just two hits to join 27 immortal members of the 3,000 hit club, he collected five. With Jeter noted as the most prolific singles hitter in Yankee history, his 3,000 hit was a home run. Revered for his patented inside-out swing that sends most of hits to right, the future Hall-of-Fame shortstop only drove only one to the opposite field.
Oh, and on a day when he could have been happy going 4-for-4, Jeter merely stroked an RBI single in the bottom of the eighth inning that drove in the game-winning run as the Yankees downed Tampa Bay on Saturday afternoon in front of a sellout crowd of 48,103 raucous and excited fans at Yankee Stadium.
Wearing his familiar No. 2, Jeter strolled to the plate with one out and nobody on in the third inning, having singled to left for hit No. 2,999 off Rays left-hander David Price in the first inning. The crowd rose to its feet to honor the only Yankee shortstop they have known for the past 17 seasons. I-phones, cellphones and cameras were poised to record the event.
After fouling off two pitches in a 3-2 count, at exactly 2 p.m. Eastern time Jeter measured up a Price hanging slider and he connected with the ball and sent it soaring majestically into the first row of the second deck in the left-field bleachers. The home run was Jeter’s third of the season and it tied the game at 1-1. But those facts seem to be meaningless to the wild celebration that followed.
His 17-year teammate and close friend, Jorge Posada was the first player to reach him after he crossed home plate and gave him a big hug. The rest of the Yankees, including fellow 17-year teammate Mariano Rivera and manager Joe Girardi followed suit as the whole team poured out of the dugout in succession. Jeter then disappeared into the dugout and then came out for one final curtain call to the event for the fans.
Jeter is only the second player to reach the 3,000-hit mark via a home run. Former teammate Wade Boggs did it, ironically with Tampa Bay, on Aug, 7, 1999. Jeter, already the Yankees all-time hit leader, also becomes the only player in the long and rich tradition of the Yankee franchise to reach 3,000 hits.
“It means a lot,” Jeter said. “It’s a number that has meant a lot in the history of the game, because not too many people have done it before. To be the only Yankee to do it … to be the only Yankee to do anything is pretty special.”
Meanwhile, the Yankees and Rays played in a seesaw affair all afternoon.
The Yankees took a 2-1 lead on the Rays after Jeter’s historic homer when Russell Martin singled in Curtis Granderson. However, Yankees starter A.J. Burnett could not hold the lead for long. He gave up a two-out, two-run home run to B.J. Upton in the top of the fourth.
Jeter then started a two-run rally in the fifth with a leadoff double down the left-field corner. Granderson then shot a ball down the right-field line for a single that scored Jeter with the tying run. After a Mark Teixeira single advanced Graderson to third, Robinson Cano lifted a sacrifice fly to left to give the Yankees the lead back.
They held that lead until David Robertson surrendered a long leadoff triple to deep center by Johnny Damon. Ben Zobrist scored Damon with a single to center on a drawn-in Yankee infield.
But Jeter got his chance to be the day’s hero in the bottom of the inning.
Eduardo Nunez, replacing an injured Alex Rodriguez at third, opened the frame with a leadoff double off reliever Joel Peralta (2-4). Brett Gardner bunted Nunez to third and Jeter followed a single to center on the Rays’ drawn-in infield to score the eventual winning run.
Robertson (2-0) was the winner despite giving up a run for the first time since June 9, a span of 11 appearances. Rivera pitched a perfect ninth to earn his 22nd save in 26 chances in his first appearance since a blown save against the Mets on July 3, when he first noticed a right triceps injury that sidelined him all this week.
With the victory, the Yankees broke a string of four losses in their past five games. They improved their season ledger to 52-35 and they still trail the Boston Red Sox in the American League East by one game. The Rays dropped to 49-40 and they are five games out of first.
- Jeter’s five hits on Saturday raised his season average from .257 to .270. After going 0-for-4 in his first game off the disabled list on Monday in Cleveland, Jeter is 9-for-19 (.474) with four doubles and a home run. It is the first time Jeter has reached the .270 mark this season since May 12.
- Rivera’s ninth inning was perfect with one strike out and it only took him 11 pitches to dispatch Sean Rodriguez, Kelly Shoppach and Justin Ruggiano in order. Though Rivera pitched effectively, he has decided not to pitch in Tuesday’s All-Star Game in order to rest the triceps injury during the break.
- Burnett actually pitched good enough to earn the victory. He ended up giving up three runs on only three hits and three walks and he fanned nine batters, most of them with his curveball. However, of the three hits Burnett gave up, two of them reached the bleachers. Matt Joyce hit a solo home run with two out in the second inning. Upton hit his two-run shot two innings later.
- Granderson was 1-for-4 with a walk, drove in a run and scored two runs in the game. The two runs scored increases his major league-leading total to 79, which is nine runs better than Toronto’s Jose Bautista, who is second.
On a day in which Jeter made Yankee history and he led the team to victory with Rivera looking sharp, it is hard to find fault with anything.
The lucky fan who caught Jeter’s 3,000th hit was 23-year-old Christian Lopez, a Verizon sales rep from Highland Mills, N.Y. Instead of asking for a princely sum of money to return the ball to Jeter, Lopez only asked to meet Jeter and get a few signed balls. The Yankees security staff whisked him away and he was given three signed bats, three signed balls and two signed jerseys. In addition, the Yankees gave Fernandez four front-row Legends tickets to Sunday’s game and four Champions Suite tickets for the remainder of the season, including if the Yankees make the postseason. . . . Alex Rodriguez said on Saturday that he will seek a second opinion on his right knee. An MRI taken on Friday revealed Rodriguez has a slightly torn meniscus. Dr. Lee Kaplan will examine Rodriguez’s right knee in Miami on Monday and then Rodriguez will decide whether to have surgery, which would sideline the All-Star third baseman for about a month. Rodriguez already has opted out of the All-Star Game. Rodriguez originally injured the knee on June 19 in a game against the Cubs in Wrigley Field. Rodriguez has not hit a home run since June 11 at Yankee Stadium in a game against the Indians. . . . Outfielder Nick Swisher was not on the lineup on Saturday so he could rest his ailing left quad muscle. Swisher injured his left leg running down Zobrist’s triple to leadoff Thursday’s game with the Rays. No further tests are planned on Swisher and he is listed as day-to-day. Andruw Jones started in right-field on Saturday and batted seventh.
The Yankees will complete what ended up being a three-game series with the Rays on Sunday and it also will be the last game before the All-Star break.
The Yankees will attempt to win the series with lefty ace CC Sabathia (12-4, 2.90 ERA) on the mound. Sabathia has won nine of his last 10 starts and he is coming off a game in which he shut out the Indians and struck out 11 over seven innings. He is 8-5 with a 3.24 ERA in his career against the Rays.
The Rays will counter with All-Star right-hander James Shields (8-6,2.47 ERA). Shields allowed three runs (two earned) on six hits and three walks in seven innings on Monday against the Twins. He is 3-9 with a 4.83 ERA against the Yankees in his career.
Game-time will be at 1:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast by the YES Network.