Friday, March 30, 2007

TATB's Long-Awaited, Half-Assed, Red Sox-Slanted Spring Training Preview Capsules: AL East

(Sixth in a six-part series, teams listed in predicted order of finish).

Foul pops and other observations: I pick the Red Sox every year, and every year the Yankees win the division. Time to break out the old reverse jinx, fellas . . . Not that the Yankees' lineup isn't championship-quality. Superstar-to-be Robinson Cano hit .342 last year, trailing only Joe Mauer and Derek Jeter in the AL. He'll bat eighth. Yikes . . . Derek Jeter's numbers matched his reputation last season. I'm not saying he should have won the MVP, but he was much more valuable to the Yankees than Justin Morneau was to the Twins . . . All right, I'm ready to admit it now. Letting Johnny Damon go was a massive mistake, and yes, it still looks weird to see him clean-shaven and neutered into the True Yankee cult . . .You tell me which vitamins he's taking, and then I'll tell you what kind of season Jason Giambi will have . . . I don't care if he hits 45 homers (and he damn well might): If A-Rod is back with the Yankees in 2008, I'll eat a bowl of Joe Torre's nose hair . . . Though it's hard to believe now that he was once considered the next Dale Murphy, Josh Phelps is a decent gamble at first base. He has 57 homers in 1,203 career at-bats, and he won't be 28 until next month . . . Jorge Posada has declined slightly at the plate, but he's a far better defensive catcher than he was in the days when Cone and Clemens, among others, disliked throwing to him . . . But about that starting pitching . . . When Carl Pavano is your opening day starter, you know there are some issues, no matter what the circumstances . . . Nineteen-game winner Chien-Ming Wang is a lightning rod for debate between the scouts and the stat guys. Scouts will tell you Wang can be a top-of-the-rotation starter because of his tremendous sinker, which produces groundout after groundout when he is on. The stat guys look at his strikeout rate (barely three per nine innings last year) and tell you no pitcher in history has ever succeeded for any length of time with such a pathetic K-rate. I'm rooting for the stat guys on this one . . . Maybe Andy Pettitte will be the answer (though rumor has it that he has Dr. Jobe on speed dial), but if the starters aren't better than expected, Scott Proctor's right arm will be hanging by a thread by August . . . The most similar pitcher to Mike Mussina, according to baseballreference: Juan Marichal. Not bad company . . . The drama is unmatched, but 18 regular-season games between the Sox and the Yankees? That's getting to be too many for my nerves.

Breakthrough player: Philip Hughes. He'll be a major factor as soon as he arrives.

Breakdown player: A-Rod. Emotionally, not physically.

Completely random Bill James stat: A-Rod led American League players in fielding errors with 14. (That excludes throwing errors.)

(Extended preview capsule coming Monday. How's that for a cop out?)

Foul pops and other observations: The Jays will prove a worthy summer-long opponent to the Sox and Yankees, but come September, they'll be looking up at the big boys . . . Why? They don't have the lineup depth of the Yankees or the pitching depth of the Sox . . . Roy Halladay is the ace of the division, capable of winning a Cy Young award in any given year. But he's followed by perennial tease A.J. Burnett, erratic Gustavo Chacin, journeyman Tomo Ohka, and, almost unfathomably, atrocious slopballer Josh Towers, who beat out Victor Zambrano for the fifth spot. Halladay and Burnett need to win 40 games between them just to make the rest of the rotation sufferable . . . It would help if Chacin, who was 4-0 against the Sox last year, could stay healthy, but he's already in John Gibbons's doghouse and is Toronto's early frontrunner for the Hillenbrand/Lilly Award, given annually to the Jay who is most likely to get sucker-punched by his manager . . . This lineup will score some runs, though anyone expecting Frank Thomas to duplicate his comeback season Oakland is probably a member of the Ricciardi family. Thomas played in in just 108 games the previous two seasons, and he'll be 39 next month . . . Vernon Wells is one of the premier all-around players in the American League, a class act who is just now hitting his prime . . . and yet, I get this nagging sense that he should be better. His numbers stagnated after his breakout 2003, when he went .317-33-117, and he hit just .272 in '04 and .269 in '05 before bouncing back at .303-33-106 last year. Given his ability (and paycheck), he needs to build on those numbers rather than regress again . . . The rumors are so prevalent that you have to figure there is some truth to them, but I can't understand why the Jays would consider dealing Alex Rios. He was on his way to putting up Wells-like numbers before he was sidetracked by a staph infection . . . Sox fans won't complain that two longtime pests have moved on, Frank Catalanotto to Texas and lefty Ted Lilly to the Chicago Cubs. Now if we could just do something about Reed Johnson and Gregg Zaun.

Breakthrough player: Aaron Hill. After a horrendous start last season, the former first-round pick show resilience in battling back to finish at .291. (It was tempting to pick Adam Lind here, but the slugging outfielder is beginning the season at Syracuse.)

Breakdown player: Thomas. The Big Hurt will be.

Completely random Bill James stat: Troy Glaus led the American League in home runs at home (25).

Foul pops and other observations: A once-great franchise slogs through another year of mediocrity and irrelevance . . . Wishy-washy and meddlesome owner Peter Angelos was somehow convinced to spend $42.4 million dollars renovating the bullpen. Unfortunately, each new reliever arrives at Camden Yards with a question mark next to his name, so this new bullpen is unlikely to draw comparisons to the '02 Angels . . . Chad Bradford couldn't handle the AL East gauntlet during his stint with the Sox in '05, Danys Baez had a 4.53 ERA in the National League last season, Scott Williamson seems to have Tommy John surgery every other season, and lefty specialist Jamie Walker allowed a Wasdinesque eight homers in 48 innings in '06 . . . The starting pitching isn't deep (see: Jaret Wright, third starter), but Opening Day starter Erik Bedard might have the best repertoire of any AL lefty not currently employed in Minnesota. He could win 18 . . . I'm skeptical that Daniel Cabrera will ever put it together. Mechanical problems are the bane of tall pitchers, and the 6-foot-8 inch Cabrera's command often goes on the fritz without warning . . . Miguel Tejada quietly batted a career-best .330 last season, with 24 homers and 100 RBIs, and he's living up the Orioles' legacy of dependable shortstops: he hasn't missed a game since 2000 . . . Kevin Millar had two more homers and eight fewer RBIs than the man who bumped him out of Boston, Kevin Youkilis. And he did it in 139 fewer at-bats . . . Aubrey Huff's home run and RBI totals have decreased three straight years, so I'm thinking he might not be up to the task of protecting Tejada . . . I was hardly shocked to see Brian Roberts's name mentioned in the Jason Grimsley case. He hit more homers in 2005 than he did in the first four seasons of his career combined, and he looks nothing like the Pedroia-sized singles hitter who first arrived in Baltimore in 2001.

Breakthrough player: Nick Markakis. He's a .310-25-95 season waiting to happen. The kid can rake.

Breakdown player: Melvin Mora. The 35-year-old dropped to 16 homers last year after hitting 27 in each of the previous two seasons.

Completely random Bill James stat: Cabrera led the AL in wild pitches (17) and walks (104).

Foul pops and other observations: It was tempting to pick them ahead of Baltimore due to their potent young offense, but they just don't have the pitching beyond ace Scott Kazmir . . . Despite their need (desperation?) for lively arms, GM Andrew Friedman was wise in not fulfilling the winter rumor and dealing Carl Crawford to Anaheim for Ervin Santana. Crawford is already among the elite players in the AL, he's only 24, and his home run totals have increased from 5 to 11 to 15 to 18 in his four full seasons. He's a franchise cornerstone, not a trading chip . . . Where did it go wrong for Jorge Cantu? After knocking in 117 runs two years ago, he finds himself in purgatory with the Durham Bulls while he waits to see if the front office will grant his trade request. There have to be more issues with him than the foot injury that derailed his '06 season . . . Jonny Gomes batted .216 with 20 homers while whiffing 116 times in 385 at-bats last year. Wonder if he's ever heard of Rob Deer . . . Assuming resists the urge to impale any umpires with his Louisville Slugger, Delmon Young will be a five-tool star sooner rather than later, but I'm not sure baseball's premier outfield prospect will hit for power right away. He whacked just 8 homers in 342 at-bats at Durham last season . . . With Young, Elijah Dukes, and B.J. Upton, the D-Rays seem to have cornered the market on prospects who are as troubled as they are talented. Wouldn't it be something if Josh Hamilton, given a second (or third . . . or fourth . . .) chance in Cincinnati, ends up being better than all of them?

Breakthrough player: Kazmir. This is the year he dominates everyone else the way he does the Red Sox.

Breakdown player: Rocco Baldelli. Injuries will continue to prevent the pride of Rhode Island from living up to his immense natural ability.

Completely random Bill James stat: Shawn Camp was second in the AL in relief wins with 7, trailing only Seattle's Julio Mateo.

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