Looking Ahead to the AL East

With the Super Bowl over, the NBA and NHL playoffs two months away, and March Madness a month away, there really isn’t much going on in the sports world. This is the down time in sports where spring training is the next thing we look forward to.

Today marked “Truck Day” in Boston, a day where an 18-wheeler is filled with the baseball equipment and starts its drive down to Fort Myers for the start of spring training (which is 9 days away). Chances are Larry Lucchino will actually try to sell tickets to “Truck Day” next season.  Thousands of pink hats will pay $50 to sit on a curb and watch the equipment crew load a truck and then go home to friends saying, “I actually smelt the diesel!” Ok, I will relax.

To say that the Red Sox made big moves this off-season would be like saying Christina Aguilera only slipped up on the national anthem.  Unless you have been living under a pile of a snow this winter, (and that’s entirely possible) you know the Red Sox traded for Adrian Gonzalez and signed Carl Crawford.  They also revamped their bullpen bringing in Bobby Jenks, Dan Wheeler, Dennys Reyes, and Alfredo Aceves.  The Red Sox roster is as close to a dream team there can be for a team in Major League Baseball.  We have written about the Red Sox all winter and haven’t really talked about the rest of their division.

The AL East has been the most competitive division in baseball over the past 5 seasons. The Yankees, Rays, and even the Blue Jays have been as competitive as any contender.  While the Red Sox were making moves, the other teams in the division were active as well.  In case you haven’t been watching, here is a quick recap of what other teams in the AL East have done.

New York Yankees

Last season the mantra for Yankee fans was CC and Hughes, then pray for 3 days of rain.  Andy Pettitte started out 11-2 and then was injured and never fully recovered.  AJ Burnett and Javy Vasquez were equally awful.  Ivan Nova gave them hope for about a week and a half, but when it came playoff time the weak staff was exploited.  The Yankees will never lack in offense, although they are not getting younger.

This off-season started out with drama surrounding the re-signing of Derek Jeter. No one in baseball ever doubted that Jeter would re-sign, but the process took a lot longer than it had to.  He was eventually re-signed to a 3 year $45 million deal. They signed Russell Martin, a reclamation project after having surgery on his hip, to handle duties behind the plate. The Yanks also signed Andruw Jones hoping he could resurrect his career in the Bronx.

What did the Yankees do to improve their pitching? After whiffing in the Cliff Lee sweepstakes, losing him to the Phillies, they harpooned Bartolo Colon, discharged Mark Prior out of the infirmary, and bailed Freddy Garcia out of the drunk tank signing them to contracts.  Going into spring training, the Yankees boast a starting rotation of CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, AJ Burnett, Ivan Nova, and Sergio Mitre.

While I can crack as many jokes as I’d like at their lack of a rotation, the Yankees solidified their bullpen.  The best closer to ever take the mound re-signed with the Yanks to a two-year $30 million deal.  They then went out and picked up the American League Saves leader in Rafael Soriano to set up for Mariano Rivera.  While I think they may have over paid for Soriano ($33 million), they have effectively been able to make the game 7 innings as opposed to 9.

Off-season Grade- C

Toronto Blue Jays

GM Alex Anthopoulos pulled of the heist of the century by being able to get out from under the worst contract in baseball.  Back in December of 2006, the Blue Jays foolishly signed Vernon Wells to a 7 year $126 million dollar contract.  He also received a $25 million signing bonus. The contract is back loaded and he would receive $23 million in 2011, and $21 million in each of his final three seasons.  The problem is, Vernon Wells isn’t good! Anthopoulos was able to take advantage of a vulnerable Anaheim Angels franchise, sending Wells out west for Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera.  The Angels felt that Carl Crawford was all but theirs, but had the carpet swept out from under his feet by the Red Sox.  They then panicked and traded for Wells.This trade may not impact the Blue Jays this season but it will free up a lot of money for them to explore ways to improve their team.  They are no longer hindered by Wells.

The Blue Jays quietly have one of the best young rotations in baseball.  Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil, Kyle Drabek, and Jesse Litch are all under the age of 26.  They have a catcher that could be a favorite to win the Rookie of the Year in JP Arencibia, if he can learn to cut down his strike outs.  Also, let us not forget the Blue Jays have reigning home run king Jose Bautista (54 dingers) manning the hot corner.  The Jays did trade Napoli to the Rangers and got themselves a closer in Frank Francisco. They also have a strong bullpen with Jason Frasor, Shawn Camp, and Octavio Dotel.  It wouldn’t at all surprise me if this young Jays team makes considerable strides and finds themselves in wild card contention.

Off-season Grade- B+

Tampa Bay Rays

No team lost as much as the Rays did this off-season.  They lost the best player their franchise has ever seen in Crawford to a division rival.  They traded shortstop Jason Bartlett to the Padres for 4 prospects. They lost their bullpen (Soriano, Wheeler, Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, Randy Choate, and Chad Qualls) to free agency.  Carlos Pena signed with the Chicago Cubs.  They also traded their #2 starter Matt Garza to the Cubs for a slew of prospects.

With these decisions, it appeared the Rays were going with the all out youth movement.  This has worked repeatedly for the Marlins and it looked like the Rays were following suit.  They let Crawford go to open up room for top prospect Desmond Jennings (also a horse in the Rookie of the Year race).  They were allowed to move Garza because they too have a young, potentially strong rotation with David Price being the ace.  James Shields, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, and Jeremy Hellickson round out the staff.

But then the Rays went and did something very intriguing albeit bizarre.  They signed Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez.  Both are on the obvious downsides of their careers but will make the AL East rivalries even more fun to watch.  The Rays have Damon penciled in to left field. Manny signed a 1 year $2 million deal (somewhere David Ortiz is smiling wide with his $12 million) to be the designated hitter.  Part of me feels that these signings were simply to put fans in the seats down at the Trop.  Most of the fans down there are displaced Red Sox fans, and they no doubt remember what each of those guys meant to the Red Sox franchise.  While Johnny Damon is a leader and will be a good role model for the younger players. Manny Ramirez? Not so much.

The Rays also lost their entire bullpen and don’t have anyone in it currently that is notable.  I feel they will lose a slew of games in the late innings because of that very reason.

Off-season Grade- D

Baltimore Orioles

I don’t know why but I will try to write about the red-headed step child of the American League East.  Just let it be known that there is a better chance of me buying a Justin Bieber CD than there is of the Orioles contending anytime soon.

Unfortunately for the Orioles, their biggest story this off-season was relief pitcher Alfredo Simon being charged with murder in the Dominican Republic.  I am not trying to make light of this in anyway and I am just speaking factually.

In the beginning of the off-season they made a typical Peter Angelos (owner of the Orioles) move and traded for Mark Reynolds. Reynolds hits dingers and that’s about it.  2 years ago he hit 44 while hitting .260 and striking out 223 times! Last year, he hit 32 home runs, but he batted .198 and struck out 211 times.  Sure, chicks dig the long ball, but fans don’t dig the rest of the stat line, and it sure doesn’t win baseball games.

The Orioles also traded for JJ Hardy, making him their starting shortstop.  This would have been fine back in 2008 when Hardy hit .280 with 24 home runs and 74 runs batted in.  His last two seasons have been less than mediocre hitting .268 and .229 with no power numbers or run production to speak of.  They also brought in Derek Lee to play first base who is coming off of injury.

The Orioles big signing would have to be Vladimir Guerrero and that’s for him to play DH ($8 million for one year. Once again David Ortiz is laughing with $12 million).  His days of playing the outfield are over as evidenced by his atrocious play in the World Series last year.  It is no secret that Vlad is breaking down and not even close to the player he once was.

For the Orioles, it looks like another year spent in the basement.

Off Season Grade- D-

Looking at the AL East on paper, there is absolutely no way the Red Sox should not win the division by any less than 5 games.  But the games still need to be played.  Last year the Red Sox had a very good team but were decimated by injury and fell short of the playoffs.  In sports, and especially baseball, anything can happen.  That is why the play the games.

9 days left until spring training.  The countdown to Opening Day has begun.

I can be followed on Twitter @ScottieNTCF


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The Ed Smith Sensation

 

In a recent trip to Sarasota, Florida, I visited The Ed Smith Stadium, the newly acquired spring training facility for the Baltimore Orioles. Actually, I broke into the stadium with my father, through an unlocked but chained gate entrance. Running through puddles in the cracked cement of an in-progress renovation job, ignorantly wearing sandals expecting a welcomed “nice day” as opposed to the New England blizzards, I felt, smelled, and tasted the baseball season. On every major league team website is a four day countdown to the spring training arrival of catchers and pitchers, but without a countdown, without an awareness of time or season, I walked through the door of baseball anticipation amidst a record breaking winter. For the first time in this decade, I am through worrying about the continuation of the steroid era. I am through worrying about the submergence of the Baltimore Orioles organization. I am through worrying about my heroes being taken out by Canseco cowards who flip the script on convention, and won’t go down themselves without the ship. Stepping through the bleacher caves and into the empty stadium, home to the Cincinnati Reds for the past ten years, I see now the Orioles “fun bird” logo freshly painted atop the home dugout, and the once red trim now orange, and on this day, drenched in a fresh Gulf shower, blistering sights and sounds of Spring emotion. There is a sensation that overwhelms me, coming only typically to me in the North East, some time between late March, and the first pitch on opening day. The sensation is a heightened remembrance; the nervous sun beaten black of a little league uniform, the unfamiliar feel of a cup or a new glove. (There no two things closer to a boy growing up than his dog and a brand new baseball glove.) I felt like a kid again, seeing baseball for the first time, in a whole new light. Was it the breaking and entering that made me feel such a childish rebelliousness? Perhaps. But past my mischievous glare, through the drops of rain dripping patterns of the brim of my hat, I saw a playing field which will never be touched by sell-out egos and un-swallowed pride. I see a field touched by cleats of men who fight to play baseball for a team I love. I see a field where hearts and minds will be tested, beyond pissing in a cup, beyond Congressional hearings. I saw a field where bats and balls, gloves, arms and legs will decide futures and define pasts. I did not see anything heroic come out of the steroid scandal, other than those who were not accused. I see only heroics in the young, untainted desires and dreams of a new generation.

I have always stuck to one truth, that I use as a fall back to rekindle my love of the game, every time the flame of my fandom candle is blown to the edge of darkness. This truth revolves around three names, ambassadors to the game, ambassadors to my generation; Ken Griffey Jr., Cal Ripken Jr. and Derek Jeter. I convinced myself that if these three men were to ever be mentioned, were to ever have their names go down in the annuls of steroid history, baseball as I know it, would never be the same. Baseball as I know it however, is more than Major League Baseball, and it’s more than the heroics of the players I have loved. I never had any stake in McGwire or Sosa, never any liking for Bonds or Clemens, and even if I had, I do not think I would have been taken out by the news of their betrayals. Baseball now, for me, is this Ed Smith sensation. It is this four day anticipation. Baseball fandom is a lifestyle, and I feel comfortable, for the first time in ten years, to throw my chips back in, and watch baseball again, for the right reasons. I do not feel like this will be a record breaking season, if records can even be considered to exist in such an era. I do, however, feel like this is a time for new heroes to immerge, for baseball to become a past time once again, an no longer the spectacle, the joke, or the bad example. I have to reference the post before mine, referring to the stacked defensive force of the Boston Red Sox, this upcoming season. I look forward to watching the reemergence of this such philosophy, not just as a continuation in Red Sox Nation, but across the league. I look forward to watching young players make it through their own Ed Smith Stadium experiences, and bring back the lost arts of the game. I will spend this next season counting small ball plays, hit and runs, BUNTS, cut-offs, and most importantly, the lost necessity for a an outfielder with a strong and accurate arm. (See: Roberto Clemente, Vladimir Guerrero, Ichiro…) I feel like baseball is due to make a comeback this year, and in the wake of what hopefully will be the last we hear of the steroid era dominance, I feel we as fans must welcome it with open arms.

The Divine Comedy as a Baltimore Tragedy; Tejada Returns

Dante Alighieri wrote of an afterlife consisting of three worlds, three choices, three completely different outcomes. The Comedy that it has been, for the last fifteen years, to be an Orioles fan, among the champions of the East, has been less than comical, however comparative to Dante’s work in that it harbors three completely different stages of fandom. A year out of the players strike, 1995, Cal Ripken breaks Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak, and enough has already been said to symbolize where this season fits into the equation. Two years out the players strike, 1996, Brady Anderson shows off his “Situation” on the cover of S.I. and 50 HRs later, the O’s fight their way into the Championship Series. In 1997, still under the helm of Davey Johnson, introduced an entirely new level of ownership stupidity on Peter Angelos’ part, who later fires Johnson for his refusal to deal with Roberto Alomar as a prima donna. That year however, yielded yet another Championship Series arrival for the O’s, and with a lineup of Ripken, Alomar, Palmiero, Mussina, Erickson, and newly acquired Jimmy Key, it was truly a Paradise.

The following 10 years would lead to nine 4th place finishes in the A.L. East, and to keep with the comparison, lead the O’s straight, into what Dante calls, the Inferno. Now there was nothing sacred about the Albert Belle acquisition, and there was nothing sacred about sheltering some of the biggest names to come out of the steroid era, but the comparison between these circles of the Inferno cannot stop simply at sacrilegious dealings of a broken organization.  Now the centralized idea behind this post, revolves around the current acquisition of former, soon to return, Oriole, Miguel Tejada. Be on the lookout for how he fits into this Inferno, and how he contributed to the Purgatory to follow. The First Circle of Hell, is Limbo, the hope for something greater. No organization, up for argument, holds more superstars expecting greatness over the last ten years, only to leave disappointed, than the Baltimore Orioles. There is no greater example of this than Miguel Tejada himself, who played at less and less of a compete level, as his expectations slowly dwindled. Tejada would later leave for Houston after telling the O’s management he would spend the rest of his career with Baltimore. Miggy is truly a virtuous pagan of his generation. The Second Circle is Lust, obviously personified by Roberto Alomar who in 1996  knowingly refused to inform his girlfriend at the time that he had HIV, and on the field tried giving it to major league umpire John Hirschbeck. Alomar left the O’s in peril as there woes began in the 98′ season. The Third Circle is Gluttony represented by the Orioles in the form of short lived first baseman/DH Walter Young who inexplicably appeared in 14 games in 2005 weighing in at a Major League Baseball record 322 lbs, and than, for no reason at all, vanished (designated for assignment). The Fourth Circle is Greed represented by the 2001 All Star game where Cal Ripken Jr. steals the SS position from A-Rod, and if that wasn’t bad enough, steals Chan Ho Park’s meatball. It has been said that A-Rod began taking muscle enhancers because his pride was so hurt, and Chan Ho Park took up Jiu Jitsu. The Fifth Circle is Wrath and Sloth, both perfectly personified by Jay Gibbons and his uncanny ability to break the Camden Yards Warehouse windows in practice, yet unconsciously sleep walk his way into steroid allegations and a mop hair cut. The Sixth Circle is Heresy, and how could that not be represented by Jerry Hairston Jr., if not for how close his name is to the word Heresy, but for his current home as a New York Yankee. (See also: Mike Mussina) The Seventh Circle is Violence, whose gates used to be guarded by the Minotaur, until he was caught by Albert Belle trying to take a picture of him at practice, and Belle pile drove him by the horns into home plate at Camden Yards. The Eighth Circle is Fraud, and though I could name drop a full roster of juicers (Palmiero, Roberts, Sosa, Segui, etc.), I will stick with one name, and for a non-steroid related incident. In 2008 it was made public that not only did Miguel Tejada lie about his age by two years, but wasn’t a Tejada at all. He was in fact, a Tejeda. Miguel Tejeda, the nameless, ageless, outspoken, traitor the Baltimore organization.

The Ninth and Final Circle leads us slowly but surely out of the Inferno and into the Purgatory, which is the indifferent acceptance that is the Baltimore Orioles. In the recent one year, 6 million dollar commitment to Miguel Tejeda, the Orioles have made a commitment to this indifference, and they have committed an act of baseball Treason. The tenacious Tejeda gave up his right to play for the Orioles, though who would want it, when he pulled a Damon and went back on his word, and pulled a Ramirez and slacked off to get traded. The Orioles however, unlike the Red Sox will not finish in either of the top two seeds in the A.L. East. They will finish, 4th in the A.L., in a payment of homage to the Purgatory they are and will remain in, until the moves they make are relevant to future endeavors, and not to the trials and tribulations of so many memories of their embarrassing past. Perhaps Adam Jones and Nick Markakis can ride the O’s chariot back to Paradise, but it appears that journey won’t be happening for quite some time.