Team: New York Yankees
Prediction: 91-71, 1st place
Why they’ll be better: If their young starting pitching — Ian Kennedy, Phil Hughes and eventually, Joba Chamberlain, can live up to even half of their hype, they’ll have one of the better starting staffs in the league to go along with one of the top offenses.
Why they’ll be worse: Their bullpen past Mariano Rivera is very shaky, which might force manager Joe Girardi to keep Joba the Hutt in the bullpen the entire year, which may hinder his development and cost the Yankees a potential ace.
Key Player: 1B Jason Giambi — if he can stay healthy and actually play 1B, they’ll be able to squeeze everyone in the lineup – otherwise Morgan Ensberg or Shelley Duncan will split time and one of Giambi, Hideki Matsui, Bobby Abreu and Johnny Damon will have to ride the bench.
Outlook: This is an interesting season for the Bronx Bombers as they try to retool and incorporate some of their youngsters while still trying to contend. They passed on Johan Santana, which left their farm system intact, but if they slip behind the Red Sox I could see the new Steinbrenner, Hank, force GM Brian Cashman to make a midseason panic trade. I think 91 wins is about right.
Team: Boston Red Sox
Prediction: 91-71, 2nd place
Why they’ll be better: They won the World Series last year and on paper, they may be even better – Manny Ramirez should have a better season, Julio Lugo should at least be not horrendous, and they get full seasons out of Jacoby Taco Bellsbury, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester. There aren’t too many candidates for drop-offs as no one played way above their head last season.
Why they’ll be worse: The rotation is teetering on the edge of disaster, with ace Josh Beckett battling health issues, Curt Schilling is out indefinitely, Tim Wakefield is 65 years old and who knows what you’re going to get out of Daisuke Matsuzaka or Buchholz. This could fall apart fast, and if Julian Tavarez makes more than 5-10 starts, you know the Sox are in trouble.
Key Player: LHP Jon Lester – people forget that pre-cancer, Lester was a top-tier prospect and lefties with his stuff don’t grow on trees. With Schilling out for at least half the season and Beckett’s health a question mark, they need 30 solid starts out of Lester to stabilize the rotation.
Outlook: The defending World Champions return essentially the same team that won it all last season but as with any championship team, a lot has to go right to repeat. They avoided major injuries last season, their old guys staved off decline and their young guys stepped up. While I think they’ll probably beat that 91 win projection, that reflects the risk of the good fortune from last season turning on its head.
Team: Toronto Blue Jays
Prediction: 86-76, 3rd place
Why they’ll be better: If guys like Alex Rios and Aaron Hill can build upon their breakout seasons, if Vernon Wells can rebound from his terrible 2007 and if Scott Rolen comes back healthy, they will have a solid lineup with a strong middle of the order. The return of All-Star closer B.J. Ryan will bolster a strong bullpen in what could arguably be the league’s best all-around pitching staff.
Why they’ll be worse: If Rolen is truly finished and Wells doesn’t figure it out, they’ll struggle to improve upon their 10th place offense from 2007. A.J. Burnett always comes with injury concerns and their 3-4-5 of Dustin McGowan, Shaun Marcum, and Jesse Litsch are all young and could easily decline.
Key Player: RHP McGowan – A one-time top prospect now healthy and in the rotation, McGowan has the stuff to be a top-of-the-rotation starter and if he builds upon his strong performance from the 2nd half of last season, he, Burnett and Roy Halladay could form the best 1-2-3 in the league.
Outlook: While they have a much smaller margin for error than the two-headed monster ahead of them in the division, the Blue Jays could take advantage of what could be a relatively down year in both the Yankees’ and Red Sox’ cycles as those two teams try to break in young players. If they stay healthy and get lucky, they could contend for the playoffs.
Team: Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays
Prediction: 81-81, 4th place
Why they’ll be better: A much-improved pitching staff (with new acquisitions Troy Percival and Matt Garza) and defense will help improve upon their league-worst runs allowed total of a year ago. While potential Rookie of the Year Evan Longoria was sent to the minors, he’ll be back soon and add to an already potent lineup led by Carl Crawford and Bossman Junior Upton.
Why they’ll be worse: They’ll still be the youngest team in the league and have potential holes in RF and at C. Carlos Pena might come back down to earth. The back end of their bullpen is still shaky and depending on two 38 year olds in Percival and Al Reyes at the front end could be trouble. Ace Scott Kazmir will miss some time at the beginning of the year and if they don’t get 25-30 starts from him, they won’t approach .500.
Key Player(s): RHP Garza – He has some of the best stuff of anyone in the game – a high 90s fastball and wicked breaking stuff and if he can command it, he’ll be an All-Star. If he can’t, the Rays may regret dealing all-world talent Delmon Young for him.
Outlook: The Rays have never won more than 70 games in their 10 year existence, but this will be the year they do. Some people have predicted that they’ll contend this year, but with the best farm system in the game, their time is just beginning – they’ll be better in 2009 and be one of the best teams in baseball in 2010.
Team: Baltimore Orioles
Prediction: 72-90, 5th place
Why they’ll be better: It’s hard to imagine they will, having dealt their best hitter (Miguel Tejada) and best pitcher (Erik Bedard) from a team that only won 69 games a year ago. Nick Markakis is one of the game’s best all-around young players and Adam Jones is a bona fide 5-tool player. Their offense isn’t awful, but….
Why they’ll be worse: Their pitching is. Jeremy Guthrie came out of nowhere last year so expect some regression, Daniel Cabrera is a perpetual tease and Adam Loewen is coming off a major injury. Those three are the only ones with a chance at being decent major league starters, and the back end of the bullpen is pretty atrocious. Also, Brian Roberts, probably their best hitter, will most likely not be an Oriole by the end of the year.
Key Player(s): CF Jones – The most talented player in the organization and getting better every year, Jones has the pressure of being the prize from the Bedard trade. He has the talent to be one of the better players in the league, but is still raw and needs to improve his plate discipline.
Outlook: The Orioles are years away from contending, especially in the difficult AL East. The numbers in my projections tend to converge to the mean, so most teams won’t stray too far from .500 – but don’t let that 72-90 prediction fool you. This is the worst team in the AL and they’ll be lucky to hit that projection and have a good chance of losing 100. On top of that, their farm system is pretty weak so O’s fans better get used to the cellar.
Tomorrow: AL Central