Rest In Peace: Tony Gwynn May 9, 1960 – June 16, 2014

Maybe not a Yankee, but there’s no way to deny the grace and respect in which Mr. Padre played the grand ol’ game.  While the league was obsessed with juiced up homer hitters, Gwynn continued to put up his high average and on base numbers season after season.  Cancer once again has robbed us of a brilliant athlete and a good man.  Sorry about 1998, but I am sure the Hall of Fame was a pretty great consolation prize.  Thanks for everything.

The very flawed and wide open AL East

In case you haven’t noticed, the AL East is a dumpster fire this season. Here are the standings before we go any further:

AL East standings 050814

Yuck. All five teams are clustered together in mediocrity. Dan Syzmborski posted his updated ZiPS division projections yesterday based on what has already happened this year, and the system has the Blue Jays in last place at 80-82. It also has the other four AL East teams tied for first at 83-79. Keep in mind that’s not a prediction of what will happen, it’s just an estimate of each team’s talent level. Point is, the division is crazy close.

As we’ve seen the last few weeks, the Yankees are no doubt a flawed team. They need another starting pitcher and another infielder, and another bullpen arm wouldn’t hurt either. Playing better defense would help too. More than anything, they need players like Carlos Beltran, Derek Jeter, Brian McCann, and CC Sabathia to improve their performance going forward.

The Yankees are a flawed team and that’s okay because the other four AL East teams are flawed too. We’ve learned a lot these last five weeks. Here’s what we know about the division a little more than one month into the season.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
Overall Batting: 94 wRC+ (17th in MLB) and 4.32 R/G (9th)
Overall Rotation: 4.42 ERA (24th) and 4.32 FIP (25th)
Overall Bullpen: 3.81 ERA (16th) and 4.38 FIP (27th)
Defensive Efficiency: .683 (29th)

Machado. (Presswire)
Machado. (Presswire)

The O’s went into the offseason needing a starter and they still need a starter. Ubaldo Jimenez (5.19 ERA and 4.83 FIP) has not worked out so far — turns out making a bunch of starts against the Astros, White Sox, and Twins late last year didn’t mean he had turned his career around — and the Miguel Gonzalez (5.28 ERA and 4.86 FIP) magic has finally worn off. Bud Norris, Chris Tillman, and Wei-Yin Chen are solid but nothing more. The middle relief unit is also a mess, though the trio of Tommy Hunter, Zach Britton, and Darren O’Day have been outstanding. The other four guys are the problem. Now that Manny Machado is back and Chris Davis (oblique) will soon come off the DL, Baltimore will out-hit many of their pitching problems this summer. That strategy can work, we saw the Yankees do it from 2005-07. They do lack high on-base players to fully capitalize on their power, however.

BOSTON RED SOX
Overall Batting: 100 wRC+ (13th) and 4.15 R/G (16th)
Overall Rotation: 3.85 ERA (15th) and 3.83 FIP (14th)
Overall Bullpen: 3.14 ERA (9th) and 2.91 FIP (3rd)
Defensive Efficiency: .693 (22nd)

On paper, the Red Sox are the most complete team in the division. They’re average or better in every phase of the game, including defensively now that Shane Victorino (hamstring) is off the DL and Jackie Bradley Jr. has replaced Grady Sizemore as the regular center fielder. Bradley and A.J. Pierzynski are the lineup weak spots, Edward Mujica and Craig Breslow the bullpen laggers, and Felix Doubront the rotation drain. Jake Peavy’s walk and homer problems suggest he might perform worse going forward as well (3.09 ERA and 5.07 FIP). Otherwise Boston has productive players in just about every roster spot, a deep farm system, and a pretty big wallet. If they need help, they can go out and get almost anyone they want. The Red Sox are not as good as they were last year, nor are they as bad as they were for the first few weeks of this season.

New York Yankees
Overall Batting: 101 wRC+ (12th) and 4.27 R/G (10th)
Overall Rotation: 4.27 ERA (22th) and 3.88 FIP (16th)
Overall Bullpen: 3.91 ERA (19th) and 3.52 FIP (12th)
Defensive Efficiency: .690 (25th)

Outside of Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees have not had another reliable starter all season. Maybe Hiroki Kuroda will be that guy after his very good start against the Angels earlier this week and maybe Michael Pineda will be another one when he returns from his shoulder muscle problem. The back of the bullpen has been excellent. The lineup is being held back because of several underperformers, specifically Beltran and McCann. The Yankees have a ton of money, it’s just a question of how willing ownership is to use it to add players at midseason. The farm system is improving but it still remains to be seen whether other teams want some of their prospects in trades. But you knew all that already.

TAMPA BAY RAYS
Overall Batting: 108 wRC+ (7th) and 4.24 R/G (11th)
Overall Rotation: 4.44 ERA (25th) and 3.76 FIP (11th)
Overall Bullpen: 4.17 ERA (23rd) and 4.23 FIP (22nd)
Defensive Efficiency: .701 (18th)

For the first time in a long time, the Rays have serious pitching problems. Matt Moore is lost for the year with Tommy John surgery, and both Jeremy Hellickson (elbow) and Alex Cobb (oblique) are still weeks away from returning to the rotation. They’ve been stuck relying on Erik Bedard, Jake Odorizzi, and Cesar Ramos to make starts. Those guys wouldn’t be anywhere near their pitching staff the last couple of seasons. The offense is fine but the bullpen is weak because it’s been worked hard thanks to the shaky rotation, though replacing Heath Bell with Brad Boxberger will help somewhat. Unlike the other teams in the division, Tampa doesn’t really have the financial wherewithal (or the prospects, at this point) to go out and make a trade to improve their weakness. They’re just trying to get by until Hellickson and Cobb return, hoping they’ll be the difference makers.

Imagine Dioner Navarro being your biggest offseason move. (Abelimages/Getty)
Imagine Dioner Navarro being your biggest offseason move. (Abelimages/Getty)

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Overall Batting: 111 wRC+ (4th) and 4.88 R/G (5th)
Overall Rotation: 4.04 ERA (19th) and 3.75 FIP (10th)
Overall Bullpen: 4.94 ERA (27th) and 4.23 FIP (23rd)
Defensive Efficiency: .692 (24th)

You didn’t need the updated ZiPS projections to tell you Toronto is the weakest team in the division. They have a top heavy lineup with several black holes (second and third bases, in particular), one and a half starters (Mark Buehrle and Drew Hutchison, maybe R.A. Dickey on a good day), and a disaster of a bullpen. They gutted the farm system last offseason and are reportedly up against their payroll limit. Money is so tight that several players offered to deferred salary this winter if it helped the team sign then-free agent Ervin Santana. That blows my mind. In a division of flawed teams, the Jays have the most and biggest holes. That doesn’t mean they can’t make life miserable this season though. They’re always a pain.

* * *

The AL East has been the best division in baseball over the last 15 years or so, and I don’t even think it was close. At first it was just the Yankees and Red Sox, then the Rays got in on the fun, then two years ago the Orioles started making noise.

Instead of evolving into a division of powerhouses, it’s currently a division of mediocrity. It’s a collection of good but not great teams right now. The opportunity is there for any one of the five clubs to run away with the division but right now no one seems to want it. A blockbuster trade or unexpected development (like, say, a prospect coming up and having immediate impact) could decide the AL East.

2014 Season Preview: The AL East

Over the last 15-20 years or so, no division has been as consistently tough as the AL East. The Yankees and Red Sox have dominated the top two spots, and in recent years both the Rays and Orioles have become more serious threats. The AL East has produced 15 of the 21 AL wildcard teams since the system was introduced in 1995, giving you an idea of how many great teams it’s housed. How is the division competition looking heading into 2014? Here’s a breakdown.

Ubaldo. (Presswire)
Ubaldo. (Presswire)

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
Notable Additions: RHP Ubaldo Jimenez, OF Nelson Cruz, RHP Ryan Webb, RHP Suk-Min Yoon, OF/DH Delmon Young
Notable Losses: RHP Scott Feldman, RHP Jason Hammel, RHP Jim Johnson, OF Nate McLouth

This isn’t a loss in the sense that he was on the team and now he’s not, but it’s certainly worth mentioning that third baseman Manny Machado will start the season on the DL following offseason knee surgery. He should return sometime in April.

The Orioles played the market well and landed both Jimenez and Cruz on favorable contracts. They sorely lacked an ace and while Ubaldo might be the most unpredictable pitcher in the game, he can be absolutely dominant for long stretches of time. Baltimore got a weak .245/.293/.405 (87 wRC+) batting line out of their DHs last season, so Cruz and even Young should help correct that problem. Between Cruz, Chris Davis, and Adam Jones, the O’s have three guys who could legitimately hit 30+ homers. They hit 24 more homeruns than any other team last season and added yet another power hitter this winter.

Even though Johnson always seems to blow games against the Yankees — he blew four of his last nine save chances against them and also took a loss after entering a tie game — the Orioles are worse off in the late innings without him. Webb is underrated and I’m sure Tommy Hunter will be fine in the ninth inning, but Johnson was a very good workhorse reliever and that will be missed. Baltimore is better than they were last season because of Jimenez and Cruz, though I’m not sure if they’re good enough to make a serious run at a wildcard spot. I guess it depends on how long Machado is out, which Jimenez shows up, and how the bullpen shakes out without Johnson.

BOSTON RED SOX
Notable Additions: RHP Burke Badenhop, LHP Chris Capuano, RHP Edward Mujica, C A.J. Pierzynski
Notable Losses: RHP Ryan Dempster, SS Stephen Drew, OF Jacoby Ellsbury, C Jarrod Saltalamacchia

I assume the Red Sox will not re-sign Drew at this point, which means they lost three key up-the-middle position players this winter. Grady Sizemore has had a great spring, but replacing Ellsbury with him is the poor man’s version of replacing Robinson Cano with Brian Roberts. Jackie Bradley Jr., last spring’s MVP, is the backup plan there. Pierzynski takes over for Salty, and rookie Xander Bogaerts will replace Drew. He’s a stud and appears poised to be a force for years to come.

Boston has earned some leeway after winning the World Series, but they lost a lot of good players this winter and are counting mostly on internal solutions to replace the lost production. That’s dicey, especially when talking about prospects. If Bogaerts or either of the center fielders don’t produce, the Sox will be left scrambling. Luckily for them, the pitching staff is deep and stalwarts like Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz are still around to anchor the lineup. The Red Sox have a great farm system and a ton of money, so they have the wherewithal to address any needs at midseason. That said, they won the division by 5.5 games last year and the gap appears to have closed a bit.

TAMPA BAY RAYS
Notable Additions: RHP Grant Balfour, RHP Heath Bell, C Ryan Hanigan
Notable Losses: RHP Roberto Hernandez, RHP Fernando Rodney, DH Luke Scott, RHP Jamey Wright

Old face, old place. (Presswire)
Old face, old place. (Presswire)

The Rays will be without Jeremy Hellickson for a few weeks following offseason elbow surgery. They still have David Price and Alex Cobb to front the rotation, but Matt Moore is having a real problem throwing strikes this spring. Like 15 walks in 14.1 innings problem. Chris Archer had a strong rookie season and rookie Jake Odorizzi will replace Hellickson for the time being. Tampa always seems to crank out quality young starters, but with Moore struggling and Odorizzi projecting as more of a back-end arm than anything else, their staff seems more vulnerable than it has been at any point in the last five of six years.

After getting great production from one-year gems like Casey Kotchman and Jeff Keppinger, the Rays doubled down on James Loney and re-signed him to a three-year, $21M contract this offseason. That is the largest free agent contract the team had handed out since the current ownership group took over in 2005. Full seasons of Wil Myers and David DeJesus should boost an offense — DeJesus isn’t great, but remember, he’s replacing Sam Fuld — that ranked third in baseball with a 108 wRC+ last summer. Going from Rodney and Wright to Balfour and Bell is probably an upgrade, especially in terms in 2014 performance. Rodney and Wright are 37 and 39, after all. Tampa improved this winter after winning 92 games a wildcard spot a year ago, so of course they’ll be right back in the thick of the race this year.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Notable Additions: C Dioner Navarro
Notable Losses: C J.P. Arencibia, OF Rajai Davis, RHP Josh Johnson

It’s unbelievable the Blue Jays did nothing this winter, isn’t it? They made all those moves last offseason and were such a colossal disappointment in 2013, yet nothing. They signed Navarro, who was nearly out of baseball three years ago. GM Alex Anthopoulos appeared to be playing the board a bit with the pitching market, presumably hoping to grab Jimenez or Ervin Santana on a cheap contract, but instead came up empty. The rotation includes the reliable Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey, the unpredictable Brandon Morrow, J.A. Happ, and righty Drew Hutchison fresh off Tommy John surgery.

I guess the good news for Toronto is that their offense is dynamite, at least when healthy. Edwin Encarnacion might be the most unheralded great hitter in the game (82 BB, 66 XBH, 62 K in 2013) and Jose Bautista is still a force, so the middle of the order is set. Colby Rasmus has a ton of power and others like Melky Cabrera, Adam Lind, and Brett Lawrie will contribute from time to time. Jose Reyes is dynamic but also prone to injury, and sure enough an MRI revealed a minor hamstring strain just yesterday. He might not be ready for the start of the season. Ryan Goins, who is slated to be the regular second baseman, will move over to replace Reyes to short if need be. He might be the worst everyday player in baseball. In the conversation, at least. The Blue Jays are banking on health and steps forward from guys like Hutchison and Rasmus to improve the team, and even if they get that, they still might only be the fourth or fifth best team in the division.

* * *

On paper, I think you can argue the Yankees are anywhere from the best to fourth best team in the division. They’ve obviously upgraded but so have the Rays and Orioles, all while the Red Sox lost some key pieces. The top four teams in the division are more scrunched together this season, which means the race will be more tougher and more exciting deep into the season. Injuries and unexpected performances, both good and bad, will play an even bigger role in determining the AL East this summer. The division is again very good and there are four teams to be reckoned with. (Sorry, Blue Jays.)

Open Thread: 2/23 Camp Notes

(Presswire)
Popeye forearms. (Presswire)

Just one more day of workouts left until the Yankees start playing real, live Spring Training games. Here’s the news from Tampa.

  • Chad Jennings has the day’s workout groups. Ivan Nova threw a bullpen session while Michael Pineda headlines the guys who threw live batting practice. John Ryan Murphy caught Pineda and said he was “jumpy” while facing hitters for the first time in camp. “I’ve seen him better than he was today,” he added.
  • Vidal Nuno (Tuesday vs. Florida State), Nova (Wednesday @ Pirates), David Phelps (Thursday vs. Pirates on YES) and Adam Warren (Friday @ Tigers) will start the team’s first four exhibition games. All are expected to throw about two innings. No word on when Masahiro Tanaka or any of the other guys will make their Grapefruit League debuts. [Jorge Castillo, Jennings]
  • Derek Jeter, meanwhile, will make his spring debut in Thursday’s game. He didn’t play in his first game until the middle of March last year. Jeter also said he expects to travel to Panama for the two exhibition games against the Marlins next month. [Mark Feinsand, Castillo]
  • Nik Turley, who was held out of workouts this weekend due to some tightness in his pitching arm, will be shut down for a full week “just to make sure (he’s alright),” said Joe Girardi. “All the tests came back fine.” [Jennings]
  • Following tomorrow’s workout, the Yankees will hold their annual team-bonding exercise. It’s expected to be a pool tournament. [George King]

This is your nightly open thread. The Nets are playing tonight and the Olympics closing cermonies are on as well. I’ll miss ‘em, I’ll admit it. Talk about anything and everything right here. Have at it.

Open Thread: 2/21 Camp Notes

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Happy Friday everyone. Spring Training is fully underway now that position players are in camp and in just a few days, the Yankees will open their slate of Grapefruit League games. Here’s the latest from Tampa.

  • Chad Jennings has the day’s workout groups. Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, and Ivan Nova were among those to throw live batting practice. Kelly Johnson spent time working out at first base, which is important because he has 18 career innings at the position and is slated to serve as Mark Teixeira‘s backup this year.
  • Joe Girardi confirmed Tanaka will be allowed to face AL East clubs in exhibition games. The team typically tries to hide their stop starters from rival clubs, but they feel it’s important for Tanaka to face MLB caliber hitters. [Jennings]
  • Teixeira said he is “probably a week to ten days” away from facing live pitchers in batting practice. He won’t get into a Spring Training game until early March, as expected. [George King]
  • Slade Heathcott, meanwhile, still has not started hitting or fielding drills after having offseason knee surgery, so he’s behind the other position players. [Jennings]

Here is your open thread for the night. The Knicks are playing and the Olympics are still going on as well. Talk about those games, Spring Training, or anything else right here. Have at it.