Editor’s note: This is the first of six daily previews of the Major League Baseball divisions and projected standings for 2013 to run through Saturday, March 30. At the keyboard is Pierce Jefferson. Our local Memphis reporter in 2012 will be authoring a weekly column each Monday this season in which he will review happenings around MLB, and especially in the National League Central.
1. Toronto Blue Jays
Overall W-L Record in 2012: 73-89, 4th in AL East
Pitching: 4.64 ERA ranked 26th in MLB
Hitting: .716 OPS ranked 17th in MLB
Lineup: A move that mostly went unnoticed, Edwin Encarnacion had a Jose Bautista-esque breakout year in 2012 by belting 42 home runs with a slash line of .280/.384/.557. If you believe that last year is more indicative of what he’s capable of putting up in 2013 as opposed to his subsequent .334, .305, and .320 OBP of the past three seasons then the Jays’ offense looks much better. Speaking of Bautista, he’s coming off season-ending surgery to his left wrist, but by all indications he should be fully healthy to again pound the ball out of Rogers Centre and every other AL ballpark alike.
Jose Reyes joins the lineup in a blockbuster trade with the Miami Marlins that shocked the baseball world. He fits at the top of the lineup along with Melky Cabrera, who is coming off a 50-game suspension and a career season. Emilio Bonifacio (second base) and Reyes should provide plenty of speed, while Rajai Davis (46 stolen bases in 2012) will do so off the bench. The Jays have a very intriguing, multi-talented lineup.
Pitching: To say that the 2013 rotation will be vastly improved is an understatement. The Jays let their 2013 intentions be known by the blockbuster trade with Miami and then in another separate deal with the Mets to acquire 2012 NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, who will be their Opening Day starter. Following Dickey will be Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle (who has plenty of AL experience), Brandon Morrow, and Ricky Romero. If Morrow replicates his 2012 numbers (2.96 ERA) and Romero can hone his command after seeing it erode after two previously solid seasons, the Jays will have a formidable rotation, able to compete within the AL.
The Blue Jays had 12 different pitchers make a start last season and 16 other relievers pitch at least 20 innings. A recipe for disaster, their pitching unfolded last year and became one of the worst staffs in the majors. Casey Janssen will return as closer, while Sergio Santos remains ready to take over if Janssen falters. Darren Oliver, who might be the best lefty reliever in the game, will also come back to fortify the later innings after threatening to retire if he didn’t get a raise, but later relenting.
Outlook: I almost wanted to intentionally to discard the Blue Jays from winning the East. We’ve seen it all before. A team makes a slew of mega-additions to their club expecting a championship caliber season only to see it unfold before it begins (Miami Marlins of 2012, Los Angeles Lakers of 2012-13). The Blue Jays aren’t without their question marks. Will Johnson remain healthy? How will Bautista respond to wrist surgery? Can Santos bounce back? Their minor league system is also depleted after the trades. However, the Jays have the makings of a special team in 2013.
2. Tampa Bay Rays
Overall W-L Record in 2012: 90-72, 3rd in AL East
Pitching: 3.19 ERA ranked 1st in MLB
Hitting: .711 OPS ranked 20th in MLB
Lineup: Ben Zobrist is quite possibly the most underrated position player in baseball, and he once again provided a steady presence in the lineup and all over the field for the Rays in 2012. Expect the same in 2013. If they want a chance at making the playoffs after missing out last year by three games, they need Evan Longoria in more than the 74 games he played last year due to injury.
Replacing Carlos Pena and B.J. Upton in the lineup are James Loney and Kelly Johnson, so you have to expect a drop in production there. Yunel Escobar was an unheralded, yet solid move as the talented, yet immature shortstop may create a consistent presence at the top of the lineup. Desmond Jennings has the chance to turn some heads with a breakout year and will need to do so for the Rays’ sake to make up for the loss of Upton.
Pitching: Leading the best pitching staff in the majors last year, Cy Young Award winner David Price will once again return to anchor the rotation in what could be one of his last years in a Rays uniform. Though they lost James Shields in a trade to the Royals, Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore will return to fill out one of the best 1-2-3 in the majors. Moore could come closer to being the top lefty in the game. Alex Cobb and Jeff Niemann will slide in the final spots in the rotation, while Chris Archer will get a chance to make a significant contribution should one go down.
It’s questionable what to expect out of Fernando Rodney in 2013. Do you get the guy who walked only 15 batters while fanning 76 batters over 74 2/3 flawless innings or do you get the guy who walked 155 batters over 266 2/3 innings the past five years? If you get the former, you should expect the same results out of the best pitching staff in the majors last year.
Outlook: With the East’s best starting rotation, a solid bullpen, and a capable enough lineup, the Rays could very well win the division. As long as Longoria stays healthy and Zobrist does what he’s been doing for most of his career, the Rays should win another 90 games. It would be nice to see them add another power bat, though.
3. New York Yankees
Overall W-L Record in 2012: 95-67, 1st in AL East
Pitching: 3.85 ERA ranked 12th in MLB
Hitting: .790 OPS ranked 1st in MLB
Lineup: The Yankees were dealt a blow this offseason when it was announced that third baseman Alex Rodriguez would miss at least half of the 2013 season following hip surgery. As if that wasn’t enough, the baseball gods saw fit to deal them blow after blow when Mark Teixeira strained a wrist tendon that would put him out through at least mid-May, and Curtis Granderson will miss the same amount of time with a fractured right forearm. With the departure of Russell Martin, Raul Ibanez, and Nick Swisher, the Yankees waved goodbye to 64 home runs from their starting lineup (82 if you count the absence of A-Rod).
The only major addition the Yankees made to the offense was former nemesis Kevin Youkilis, who will join Ichiro Suzuki in a newly-formed lineup. They will see a boost with the return of Brett Gardner and his ~40 stolen bases, but you can’t hide the fact that through at least May and possibly longer, the bottom half of the lineup is going to consist of Travis Hafner, Brennan Boesch/Vernon Wells, Chris Stewart, and Juan Rivera.
On Sunday, the Yankees acquired outfielder Wells from the Angels and will pick up $13 million of the remaining $42 million on his contract through 2014. In an odd move, the Yankees will overpay an already vastly overpaid player for a questionable upgrade in their lineup.
Pitching: New York returns all five starters from what was a solid rotation last year. Signing Hiroki Kuroda and convincing Andy Pettitte to come out of retirement were brilliant moves that fortified the pitching staff. They recently signed Chien-Ming Wang to provide insurance should Ivan Nova fail or any of the starters go down with injury. Led by C.C. Sabathia, the Yankees should at least feel confident in their rotation this year.
The Yankees will gladly welcome the best closer of all time back to close out games, though since-departed Rafael Soriano did an impeccable job for them last season. Mariano Rivera will be complimented with David Robertson, one of the best set-up men in the game and his likely successor.
Outlook: More than capable of making the playoffs this year, the Yankees will have to overcome serious injuries to their starting lineup, a 38-year old Derek Jeter coming off a broken ankle, and genuine age concerns. Their top talent in the minors in Mason Williams, Slade Heathcott, Gary Sanchez, and Tyler Austin are all at least two years away.
4. Baltimore Orioles
Overall W-L Record in 2012: 93-69, 2nd in AL East; Wild Card
Pitching: 3.90 ERA ranked 14th in MLB
Hitting: .728 OPS ranked 12th in MLB
Lineup: The Orioles waved goodbye to Mark Reynolds and his 23 home runs, as well as Robert Andino, who made the most starts at second base. Though they return most of their lineup that slugged 214 home runs last year (2nd in MLB), they face question marks both at second base and left field. Brian Roberts is back at second, but as a 35-year old who hasn’t made more than 60 starts since 2009, there is huge concern over his durability and production value. Oft-injured but talented Nolan Reimold will get every opportunity to assert his presence as the everyday left fielder, though Nate McLouth will provide insurance backing him up.
If Chris Davis can replicate what he did last year (33 HR), they’ll have a formidable infield with Manny Machado, J.J. Hardy, and Chris Davis. Matt Wieters could be ready to step to another level offensively this season and cement himself as one of the best overall catchers in the game next to Buster Posey and Yadier Molina.
Pitching: The Orioles made the playoffs though their rotation was in perpetual motion, with 12 different starters making at least two starts throughout the season. To make up for the instability in their rotation, the Orioles went out this offseason and did… well, they did relatively nothing. Baltimore will churn out Wei-Yin Chen (4.02), Jason Hammel (3.43), Chris Tillman (2.93), Miguel Gonzalez (3.25), and their pick out of a slew of back-end starters, including Jair Jurrjens, Zach Britton, Jake Arietta, Steve Johnson, and Brian Matusz among others.
Their staff is full of mid-rotation to back-end starters, so they’ll need Tillman to live up to his potential this season. Prospects Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman are two of the best in the game and while Bundy could see time in the second half, both aren’t likely to be significant contributors until 2014.
A key to their 2012 season was their bullpen, which accumulated a 3.00 ERA, and it should be no different in 2013. Jim Johnson will return as closer (his 51 saves led MLB), and he will be complemented with Pedro Strop and Darren O’Day.
Outlook: The Orioles did something nobody outside of Maryland thought they were capable of in 2012 and captured a Wild Card spot, finishing two games behind the New York Yankees for the AL East crown. They did this with the help of their uncanny performance in one-run games, which amounted to an overall record of 29-9 for the season. That .763 winning percentage ranks 3rd best in MLB history.
Baltimore should have a steady offense with an average rotation and solid bullpen, but there is no possible way they are going to repeat their record in one-run games from last season. Expect an exciting team capable of capturing a Wild Card spot if everything goes right, but they are more likely to finish in the middle or bottom of the NL East.
5. Boston Red Sox
Overall W-L Record in 2012: 69-93, 5th in AL East
Pitching: 4.70 ERA ranked 27th in MLB
Hitting: .730 OPS ranked 11th in MLB
Lineup: Boston entered 2012 with optimism and a new manager in Bobby Valentine. Both were quickly erased. Will Middlebrooks and David Ortiz anchored the offense to help the Red Sox hover around .500 for the first half of the season. However, with one of the worst pitching staffs in the majors, the Red Sox were forced to deal Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, along with Josh Beckett to the Dodgers in a deadline shocker.
From there, the offense plummeted along with their record. The Red Sox made a slew of moves to bolster their offense this offseason. They acquired Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew, and Mike Napoli, the latter whose deal was reduced to one year based on major concerns with his hip. Facing health issues wirh Drew, Napoli, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Ortiz (limited to 90 games last year), Boston is going to have to be very fortunate to avoid any this season. If healthy, they have a fairly solid lineup.
Pitching: This was the bane of their existence in 2012. The “ace” of their staff last year was Clay Buchholz, whose 4.56 ERA led their staff in 29 starts. Jon Lester’s production also took a nosedive to the tune of a 4.82 ERA. Entering 2013 with 3/5 of their rotation intact, Boston replaced Josh Beckett with Ryan Dempster and also return John Lackey, who missed all of 2012 with Tommy John surgery.
While you can expect Lester’s stats to fall back closer in tune with his career, their two through five look less than impressive. Dempster’s stats fell off the face of the earth upon being acquired by the Rangers last year, and it’s questionable how he will evolve in the AL East after posting less than stellar numbers in 2011.
The Red Sox overhauled their bullpen to the point where it should be a plus in 2013. Joel Hanrahan will close out games, followed by Koji Uehara and Andrew Bailey, who missed most of last season after being acquired from the A’s.
Outlook: With health concerns in their lineup and a below-average rotation, their improved bullpen will not be enough to enable them to escape the cellar of the East. The Red Sox host a very talented minor league system, so things could definitely turn around when Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley are ready to join the lineup, followed by Matt Barnes and Allen Webster in the rotation.
Pierce Jefferson can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
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