Posted 03/24/2009 at 03:04 AM
Today’s focus is on a pair of AL East entries that have been experiencing radically different fortunes of late. One team has put their mythical curse to rest and they’re now expected to contend every season. The other has a rich history, but has been nothing short of horrendous lately. The Baltimore Orioles used to be a franchise that could counted on almost annually to be somewhere in the pennant hunt. But that was before Peter Angelos bought the team and began earning a reputation as a free spending but meddlesome owner who far too frequently overrode the decision of the baseball people he’d hired. The results have been a disaster. Unlike many of the consistent losers who have used limited market size and finances as an excuse for their shortcomings, the O’s have never been shy about opening the wallet. But they’ve made far too many foolish purchases and managed to ignore the farm system along the way. Things are finally changing for the Orioles as Angelos has evidently figured out that he doesn’t know more than his management team. And for the first time in ages, things are beginning to look much brighter for the Birds. It may not show in the standings this season, but there’s no doubt that the Orioles are at last a franchise that is back on the rise. The Orioles have the best prospect in the game among those players yet to taste the big leagues in catcher Matt Wieters. He’s ready right now, although the O’s may keep him on the farm for a month to ease him in (and save a year before Wieters is eligible for arbitration). But make no mistake, the future is now the present and Wieters will soon be getting lots of time on the nightly highlight reels. And he’s not the only top prospect on the way. Pitchers Chris Tillman and Brian Matusz are extremely well regarded and possess top of the rotation potential. Jake Arrieta is another talented young arm and some scouts think he projects even higher than Tillman and Matusz. If this trio progresses as expected, the O’s are looking at what could be a devastating rotation down the road. The top young position talent has already arrived. Nick Markakis has been inked to a lengthy extension and Adam Jones looks like a rising star. I like the Felix Pie pickup from the Cubs. Pie may never figure things out, but the tools are all there and he could prove to be an absolute steal for the Birds. Then there’s the heart and soul of this team, Brian Roberts. He’s as underrated as any player in the game, and the best move Baltimore may have made was deciding to finally stop talking about trading Roberts, instead signing him to a multi-year deal. So the future for the Orioles finally looks bright. The present is still on the bleak side, although I do believe this team will at least improve on last year’s ugly ledger. They should score their share of runs this season. I like the first four spots in the order quite a bit, with Roberts, Jones, Markakis and Aubrey Huff capable of doing plenty of damage. The rest of the lineup is a bit sketchy. Add in Weiters and it gets even better. The bottom of the order is more questionable. I’m not sure Melvin Mora has another big year in him, the DH spot is average at best with Luke Scott getting most of the starts. Pie remains a question mark and Cesar Izturis has trouble staying healthy. Izturis does, however, clearly upgrade the Orioles infield defensively, especially with the well below average Mora at the hot corner. The staff is substandard and will remain that way till the young guns are ready. Jeremy Guthrie is miscast as an ace, although he has emerged as a quality middle of the rotation hurler. Koji Uehara will likely be the short term #2, and he’s likely seen better days. The rest of the present rotation is terrible. The bullpen isn’t very good, either. The Orioles have the misfortune of residing in baseball’s best division, so climbing the ladder will not be easy. But I do feel they’re at least on their way, and I believe the O’s could well vacate the cellar this year. I project the Orioles for fourth place and about 75 wins. But there’s finally light at the end of what has been a blacked out tunnel. ——– The Boston Red Sox just missed grabbing a third World Series title in five years in 2008. Injuries likely cost them the AL East and a playoff series against the upstart Rays. David Ortiz had wrist issues that sapped his power, Mike Lowell was rendered mostly useless with a bad hip and Josh Beckett was too banged up to deliver his usual clutch performances on the mound. The fact that the Red Sox came as close as they did with the walking wounded, as well as being saddled with an unreliable bullpen that let several leads get away, was in itself pretty impressive. That’s not even factoring in the bizarre Manny Ramirez episode that was a huge mid-season distraction for this team. So the natural conclusion is that with a return to good health for three of their stars, a major upgrade in the pen and a Manny-free clubhouse, the Red Sox are now the team to beat, right? Well, sort of, but not necessarily. There’s no guarantee Big Papi will ever be what he was a couple of years ago. He’s two years older and wrist injuries sometimes never heal completely. Lowell is no spring chicken and he’s coming off a serious surgery. Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis had absolutely awesome 2008 seasons and repeating those numbers sure isn’t automatic. Jason Bay is a very solid player, but he’s not going to give opposing pitchers the shakes a la Manny. Jason Varitek was an offensive liability last season and while the team captain still calls a great game, he’s no longer adept at throwing out opposing base stealers. Jacoby Ellsbury had a good enough rookie season, but the Sox also had the luxury of inputting Coco Crisp into the lineup when Ellsbury floundered, and Crisp is now in Kansas City. JD Drew is already dinged up (there’s a real shocker) and it’s only March. That’s a load of question marks on offense, and while this team will clearly be solid offensively, they may not be as explosive as they’ve been in most recent years, and they may actually have to be on the lookout for a power hitter come trade deadline time. That mostly depends on Ortiz. The pitching outlook is much brighter. Expect Beckett to come roaring back from what was a bad year by his standards. Daisuke Matsuzaka is one of the best I’ve seen in his ability to somehow wiggle off the hook after getting himself in jam after jam. Jon Lester could be the best young lefty in the game. The back of the rotation is less settled, but it could end up being outstanding if Brad Penny and eventually John Smoltz are healthy. Tim Wakefield is still on hand to knuckle his way to a handful of victories. Michael Bowden is just about ready and the hope is that talented Clay Buchholz gets it together at some point. The Red Sox have a great closer in Jonathan Papelbon. Getting to Papelbon was a problem last season, but the setup corps in much stronger this season. Boston will very tough to beat late if they have the lead this time around. Terry Francona has established himself as one of the game’s best skippers and I have no doubt he’s going to pilot the Bosox to another strong season. They won 95 games with all the problems last season, and I would think they can reach that level again this year. Whether that will be enough to win the powerful AL East is uncertain but I certainly think the Red Sox are at least on course to reach the playoffs once again.