Welcome to the first installment of the Baseball Nation divisional-preview roundtable, in which our two authors fearlessly predict what's going to happen. This is the first time we've done something like this. Don't look at last year's roundtable! That doesn't count! Those predictions were made under duress!
First up, the American League East:
Grant Brisbee: HOT BASEBALL CHAT
Rob Neyer: And you're inviting me to join in? /blush
Rob: Hey, I got a few. But hey, just one division at a time! Let's start with the American League East. I saw something on the Twitter machine today ... It's been TWENTY YEARS since both the Yankees and the Red Sox missed the playoffs. That seems like a long time to me, but it would seem an even longer time if you were a college student, in which case you wouldn't be able to remember a season like that. So what do you think? Is this the year?
Grant: Twenty years ago, I think I was wearing a Pantera shirt and trying not to acknowledge that I looked like Bill Gates with long hair and a Pantera shirt. Which leads me to be suspicious of the idea that the dual failure will happen again. It's been too long. But it's hard not to be somewhat pessimistic about both teams. I keep staring at the Yankees' projected lineup over at MLB Depth Charts. I know that Juan Rivera might start some games because of injury, and the same goes for Brennan Boesch ... but those guys are kind of awful. Like, '08 Pirates, what-are-you-doing bad.
Rob: Yeah. And you haven't even mentioned Vernon Wells. I admire your restraint. One big difference between now and 1993 ... back in your Pantera days, there weren't no Wild Cards ... and now there are two! In fact, in '93 the Yankees did finish with the third-best record in the American League; the Wild Card came in the next year, so they missed by just one season. Then again, in 1992 both the Yankees and Red Sox finished well below .500. So yes, it can happen.
I think that both you and I remained fairly sanguine about the Yankees' chances just a few weeks ago. But as the injuries mount and the Vernon Wellses arrive, it gets harder and harder to feel sanguine. It's now reached the point where I think the Yankees will finish third and the Red Sox fourth, with both indeed MIA in October.
Grant: Yep, I'm kind of over the Yankees right now. The Vernon Wells who broke the pundit's back, and all that. When it comes to optimism, where do you turn? Derek Jeter probably isn't 100 percent, and even if he were, he's going to fall off a cliff soon any way. It happens to everyone. Honus Wagner was one of the greatest shortstops ever, but I think he'd have a problem cracking 29 of the 30 starting lineups today (Astros), so it's not a slap to point out Jeter's age. It has to happen some time.
And then you've got Youkilis's decline over the last season and a half, Ichiro's decline (dead-cat bounce notwithstanding), and the black hole of catcher offense. Where do you go for optimism? The 30-year-old second baseman? Rough stuff, all around. I'd take the Red Sox third at this point.
Rob: Yeah, that's a fair point. At this point you can just toss O'S and SOX and YANKS into a hat and pluck them out randomly and I'd be just about as happy with those projected standings as any other. Funny thing is, there's still a pretty good chance that one of them will be in the hunt for a wild card. I just don't know which, and I suspect they don't either.
Funny thing about the Orioles, they've got seven or eight decent starting pitchers, but nothing resembling even a marginal Cy Young candidate. Which I think is why they're projected at roughly .500 this season after winning 93 last season. Well, that's one of the reasons. The other, I guess, is that they were among history's most miraculous teams last season. It is worth mentioning that their run differential was pretty damned good in the second half. But apparently PECOTA is not impressed.
Grant: I'll go one further and suggest that you can throw Jays and Rays into that same cap -- it's not like those teams are juggernauts, exactly. But first, the Orioles, which is a team that has been getting a lot of prognosticative pooh-poohing this spring. In the abstract, I like Hammel, I like Chen, and I like Tillman. Gonzalez is interesting, as is Matusz if he makes the rotation.
I'm not worried about the Orioles' pitching (he typed for the first time in his life). What worries me is the lineup. After Wieters at #4, it takes a long, long time to wrap around and get back to a guy I feel comfortable with as a sure-fire-can't-miss hitter in a major-league lineup. I like Machado's future, for example, but I'm not so sure about 2013. And to get back to Nick Markakis at #2, you have to pass guys like Chris Davis, Nate McLouth, Machado ... that's where they scare me, especially considering that the Yankees, Rays, and Jays should all have pretty strong rotations.
Rob: Machado's got some upside. So do Markakis, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters. But they're not going to get anything from the middle of the infield and left field's a big question mark and who knows if Chris Davis will keep hitting. Which isn't to say that anybody else in the division has a perfect lineup, either. I still think the Orioles' biggest problems are their lack of a real No. 1 (or No. 2) starter and their inability to duplicate last year's close-games magic. But they're a pretty good dark-horse pick, if anyone's looking for one of those.
Speaking of which, I'll bet that less has been written about the Rays this off-season than any other team in the American League East. In a sense, they've become sort of boring. Just good every year with very little real (or rather, expensive) drama. They're going to miss James Shields quite a bit this season and James Loney seems like an idiosyncratic choice to play first base. But I'll be surprised if they aren't in the thick of it.
Grant: That thing about the Orioles lineup wrapping around applies to the Rays, too. It starts at #5, with Luke Scott. It's been a couple of years since he's been good, and he's the #5. From there, there are some serious pennies in the wishing well with Yunel Escobar, Loney, and Kelly Johnson. That's not even mentioning Jose Molina, who should be full of pitch-framey goodness, but not much of a hitter. They kind of remind me of the 2009 or 2010 Giants ... and there's a big difference between those two teams.
Rob: In the grand scheme of things it's not a huge deal, but I'm trying to figure out who's going to play first base for the Rays when there's a lefty on the mound ... because they're way too smart to let Loney do that, right? Seems like Ryan Roberts might be a good platoon partner, and Shelley Duncan's hit five home runs this spring. I really was stunned when the Rays signed Loney, but they must have a) some reason to think he'll find his swing, and b) some platooning ideas.
The good news for the Rays is that they didn't get anything from their catchers or their first basemen last year, either. And yet they somehow managed to win 90 games.
Grant: Right. I still see them as serious contenders, but their 5-9 is kind of iffy, and it's easy to minimize the loss of James Shields, too. Wil Myers is a great pickup for the Rays and what they're trying to do, but it came at a cost. The difference between Shields and Jeff Niemann or Alex Cobb ... it probably isn't a huge difference, but I'd bet on Shields having one of his good-to-great years before either of those two have their first. (I still like Cobb and Niemann. But, all things being equal, I like Shields more, so I can't pretend the pitching staff didn't take a bit of a hit. And it's not like the lineup reinforcements were inspiring.)
Rob: Before moving along, we should probably acknowledge the possibility that Myers comes up in April or May and gives the lineup a real boost. They've also got two starting-pitcher prospects, Jake Odorizzi and Chris Archer, who give them a great deal of depth.
Grant: Noted, though I'm wary of predicting instant success for Myers. He's still young, with obvious contact caveats. I don't know if he's a one-man cavalry just yet.
Rob: Now, about those front-running Blue Jays ... I think they're clearly the favorites, but they're hardly perfect. The good news is that Melky Cabrera and Jose Bautista seem to be all the way back. The bad news is that Brett Lawrie's hurt, Edwin Encarnacion's still lamed up, and Colby Rasmus is still Colby Rasmus.
Grant: It's always wise to be wary of 90-loss teams suddenly becoming favorites, but the Blue Jays had an interesting strategy.
Step 1: Find the worst parts of the team.
Step 2: Remove them.
Step 3: Replace them with better players.
The new Moneyball! Still, you're right about those question marks. While Anthopolous was lauded for stealing Rasmus away, shouldn't the benefit of the doubt go to the Cardinals by now when it comes to youngish hitters? As in, when the Cardinals give up on a guy, maybe there's something we're not seeing. And we're getting pretty far removed from the last time Rasmus was a plus hitter.
I'm also a little stunned that Adam Lind is still around, but now we're just nitpicking.
Rob: Yeah, Lind ... At 29 (almost 30!) he's probably not going to suddenly start hitting in the majors. But those Triple-A stats ... He might still be useful as a platoon guy, in a pinch. You're right, though: If Adam Lind sucking up spring-training plate appearances is your biggest problem, you're probably in pretty good shape.
Actually, the Jays' biggest problem is probably Ricky Romero, who entered the spring with a line on the No. 5 starter's job, but doesn't seem to have solved whatever mystery murdered his statistics last season. Mark Buehrle's struggled, too, though with him it's probably just a silly blip. I suppose the Jays' biggest problem is going to be J.A. Happ in the starting rotation (if Romero's not). But if Josh Johnson's healthy enough to make 30 starts, I really doubt if anyone's going to notice the No. 5 guy.
Grant: Happ's an okay gamble at #5, assuming he wins the job. I don't know when he became such a strikeout maven, but he's always been an intriguing player because of his size and left-handedness. If Bautista's healthy and Johnson's healthy, I don't see another team catching them. But those are some pretty freaky ifs.
Rob: So anyway I'm going …
3. Red Sox
… just for fun. Who you got?
Grant: Wait, that's exactly what I was going to do, dammit. No fair. But I'll go …
4. Red Sox
Just kidding about that Red Sox-at-third bit, if only because I know the Yankees will pull something out of their backside.
Rob: Uh, considering what the Yankees pulled out of their backside yesterday, I'm not 110-percent sure there's a lot left down there.