Quick poll: Blue Jays tops in AL East
I’m not a pollster. I’m not nearly as smart as Nate Silver. But I conducted a random, unscientific survey Monday evening. You may be interested to learn what I found.
As the Toronto Blue Jays’ acquisition of R.A. Dickey raised the question once more — What in the name of Joe Carter is going on in the American League East? — I asked 20 trusted scouts and executives around the game to give me their predictions on which teams will finish first (and last) in baseball’s most-talked-about division.
Predictions were based on rosters as they stood Monday and therefore subject to change before Opening Day. None of the 20 respondents came from AL East clubs. (Hey, I had to have something of a controlled variable.)
Among my findings:
… The Industry views the Blue Jays as the clear frontrunner. They received 13 of 20 votes, or 65 percent. Offseason blockbusters tend to have that effect — even for a team that last made the playoffs in Year 1 of the Clinton administration.
… The Industry thinks the 2012 Orioles were a fluke. They were picked to finish last by 10 of the 20 voters, despite returning most of the players who produced a 93-win season and the franchise’s first postseason berth in 15 years.
… The Industry isn’t impressed by Boston’s offseason moves. The Red Sox were the only team that didn’t receive a first-place vote, and they garnered the second most last-place votes (six).
Naturally, this means the Red Sox will win the World Series while the Blue Jays become a fifth-place flop.
In truth, handicapping the AL East is baseball’s new “it” debate. (You’ll be missed, Miguel Cabrera vs. Mike Trout.) Not long ago, only the most partisan prognosticators would pick a team other than New York or Boston to win the division. Now, one could have the Yankees and Red Sox in the bottom two spots without a public berating on Twitter.
OK, maybe that’s going too far.
But you get the point. The Blue Jays are poised to change the divisional paradigm, as the Rays and Orioles did before them. In the end, a talented team will finish last.
Since I’m the one who initiated this exercise, I’d better make my prediction public so as to confirm that all of you are in agreement. (That’s true, right?) I will give myself the same wiggle room that I afforded the survey participants: This is based on the current rosters, as if the season opened in mid-December — with Dickey pitching beneath Toronto’s retractable dome.
So here I am, tiptoeing onto the limb with everyone else, hoping I’m not the one who splinters the bark under the weight of expectations.
The survey voters are correct: At this moment, the Blue Jays have the most talent of any club in the AL East. That’s a powerful statement for Canadian baseball fans who have waited nearly two decades for their team to be relevant again. But the most talented baseball teams don’t always win. In fact, they usually don’t.
Ask this year’s Angels.
My chief concerns with the Blue Jays have to do with pitching durability and overall chemistry. The Dickey trade adroitly addresses the first issue. Dickey is a top-of-the-rotation workhorse, leading the NL this year with 233-2/3 innings. His risk of undergoing Tommy John ligament surgery is nil … because the knuckleballer’s right arm doesn’t have an ulnar collateral ligament. The Jays needed Dickey’s dependability, given age- or health-related concerns about every other starter in the rotation: Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow.
The chemistry question is harder to define. The team’s clubhouse environment turned toxic near the end of the 2012 season. The cast has changed so much that the dynamic is bound to be different when pitchers and catchers report to Dunedin, Fla., in two months’ time. But between Colby Rasmus’ aloofness and Brett Lawrie’s excitability, the team’s overall temperament is not easily defined. And now this group is supposed to win, following the arrival of accomplished veterans like Dickey, Buehrle, Johnson, Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio, and, yes, the previously performance-enhanced Melky Cabrera.
Who will lead them? Jose Bautista — brilliant, bilingual, a 50-homer slugger — is the best candidate. He’s currently recovering from wrist surgery. He needs to be the Jays’ dominant presence, on and off the field, for this expensive-yet-sensible gamble to work.
I can’t bring myself to pick the Orioles last. I admire their grit and resourcefulness too much. This is the same team that came within one victory of the ALCS this year despite having only one starter — Wei-Yin Chen — start more than 20 games. According to STATS LLC, the last time a playoff team could say that was … well … never.
The numbers say a number of factors that tipped into the Orioles’ favor — one-run games, extra-inning games, bullpen performance — won’t be as kind to them in 2013. But the Orioles have a right to reject the way many industry observers are dismissing them. They have an excellent position-player core: Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Manny Machado, J.J. Hardy and Nick Markakis, the valuable leadoff man who didn’t play after Sept. 8 because of a broken left thumb.
The rotation improved amid the constant turnover, thanks to the emergence of Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman. Elite prospect Dylan Bundy made his major-league debut in September and isn’t far from having a huge impact. The Orioles actually were unlucky with the volume of injuries they suffered this year. With less attrition in 2013, they could be at least as good.
3. NEW YORK
Yes, we’re all having fun at the Yankees’ expense. I wrote last week that the Yankees had doled out $49 million in one-year contracts without improving the roster. And that is true.
But it bears repeating that the Yankees aren’t improving a team that won 95 games this year, most in the American League.
I suppose there will come a year when the Yankees don’t show up for the pennant race. It’s inevitable, just like the retirements of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Alex Rodriguez and Hiroki Kuroda — some sooner than others. But the Yankees have made it to the playoffs 17 times in 18 years, and their only whiff was an 89-win season in 2008. They’re always there.
This year, though, poses a particular challenge. Jeter, Rivera and Rodriguez are coming back from serious injuries, and A-Rod will miss the first half. The Yankees’ tightening budget has stifled general manager Brian Cashman’s efforts to fortify the club with younger stars. Regression is inevitable. But that’s the thing about a 95-win team: The Yankees can lose seven or eight more games this year and still make the playoffs.
4. TAMPA BAY
Unless Wil Myers is really good, really quickly, the 2013 Rays will have a tough time reaching the postseason.
Here’s why: Yes, the Rays were one of baseball’s best teams by the end of the 2012 regular season. If the injury-prone Evan Longoria had played 94 games instead of 74, the Rays would have made the playoffs. And in that event, there’s a fair chance they would have won the World Series. Their pitching staff was that good.
Many assume a healthy season for Longoria, combined with Myers’ arrival in the blockbuster trade with Kansas City, signifies a likely postseason playoff berth. But it’s not that simple. B.J. Upton, one of the premier speed/power threats in baseball, is gone. So is James Shields, a 200-inning ace. Upton and Shields were core players, and their absences will be felt in the AL East — even if the Yankees and Red Sox are not as formidable as they once were.
Another worry: What if closer Fernando Rodney — a good year/bad year type for much of his career — isn’t as historically dominant as he was in 2012?
And yet I like some of the moves the Red Sox made this offseason. I promise. I do.
The issue here is how far the team must go to reclaim its past glory. The Red Sox finished 26 games behind the Yankees this year, and the team immediately ahead of them in the standings — Toronto — has made the bigger offseason upgrades.
I wrote when the offseason began that Red Sox fans have the right to expect the 2013 team to reach the playoffs. But their moves since then have been about regaining respectability, not necessarily winning the 2013 World Series.
General manager Ben Cherington hired the respected John Farrell as manager and has signed high-character players, both necessary steps after the 2011 collapse and this year’s Bobby Valentine catastrophe. But at how many roster spots are the Red Sox clearly better than the Blue Jays? First base, with Mike Napoli (assuming his deal is completed). Second base, with Dustin Pedroia. Center field, with Jacoby Ellsbury. And that’s about it. The Blue Jays have the better rotation, not to mention a deeper bullpen.
Even though the Red Sox were a last-place team in 2012 — with their worst record in 47 years — to see them picked here is still jarring. But that is the strange new reality of the AL East, which was a seven-team division the last time Toronto won it in 1993.
Boston was in fifth place back then, too.