Win Total Bets - AL East
March 29, 2014
By Bruce Marshall
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When was the last time the New York Yankees (86½) were undervalued? While the baseball world suffers from bad case of Red Sox fever and the media concerns itself with Derek Jeter's retirement tour, GM Brian Cashman has quickly reassembled a contender in The Bronx. After struggling with sorts such as Lyle Overbay, Kevin Youkilis, and Vernon Wells to plug gaps a year ago, Cashman has presented skipper Joe Girardi with the likes of CF Jacoby Ellsbury, RF Carlos Beltran, and C Brian McCann to better fill out the lineup card this season and to help cushion the departure of 2B Robinson Cano to Seattle. The addition of supreme table-setter Ellsbury was critical, as in one blow the Yanks were able to weaken their eternal enemy Bosox while providing themselves with perhaps the bigs' best catalyst at the top of the order. It also signals a change in philosophy by Cashman, no longer simply hoping to outslug every opponent, as the new-look Yanks will put more of a premium on defense and manufacturing runs. Moreover, this season they also do not have to worry about the many distractions caused by A-Rod. Cashman also hopes his big-bucks signing of potential ace righthander Masahiro Tanaka (24-0 last season in Japan!) will bolster a staff that could use CC Sabathia bouncing back from a very subpar campaign (4.78 ERA), at least by his standards. There are some obvious potential trip wires beyond Sabathia, as 1B Mark Teixeira and Jeter are off injury-plagued years, and the projected lineup could consist entirely of players on the long side of 30 years old. One of those, however, 38-year-old Alfonso Soriano, could flourish in the DH role after hitting 17 homers following his trade-deadline acquisition from the Cubs in late July. Blame for the slowdown of the farm system also lies mostly at the feet of Cashman, although his response to last year's stumble was more sensible than what team prexy Hank Steinbrenner's dad might have done a generation ago. On paper, Cashman's roster upgrades look good...enough to look "over" in The Bronx.
We thought the price was too light a year ago on the Baltimore Orioles (80½) and were rewarded accordingly when the Birds stayed on the periphery of the wild card chase into September and handily cashed the "over" with 85 wins. But there is no room to stand still in the AL East, especially if the Yankees are rejuvenated and the Blue Jays improve as many expect. And there were also concerns throughout March in Sarasota relating to star 3B Manny Machado's slow recovery from knee surgery, which is likely to keep him out well into May. As a result, Buck Showalter's likely opening-day lineup is filled with so many potential weak spots (such as David Lough in LF, Ryan Flaherty taking Machado's place at 3B, either ex-A Jemile Weeks or rookie Jonathon Schoop at 2B, and "all-attitude" Delmon Young at DH) that shrewd opposing pitchers can likely work around the likes of Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, Chris Davis, and J.J. Hardy. We haven't even begun to mention the staff, which is crossing its fingers that late-signee Ubaldo Jimenez can anchor the rotation after his recent revival with the Indians; some observers believe Jimenez is more likely to regress to his later days in Colorado, as the shorter Camden Yards dimensions may prove much more problematic than the bigger park in Cleveland. Counting upon any help from the oft-injured Johan Santana (throwing slow toss-like in spring and at best available sometime in the summer) is not much more risky than trusting the rest of the staff, which is also gambling that Tommy Hunter can emerge as an effective closer after some success in a brief audition for the role late last season. Too many question marks to get excited, with Machado's absence for the first potion of the season and shaky pitching suggesting a sub-.500 campaign in Baltimore. It's an "under" for us in Birdland.
For the projected wins of a recent-memory World Series champion not named the Marlins to drop by nearly ten games is almost unprecedented. But the oddsmakers must suspect something is up, or is it down, with the Boston Red Sox (87½) after they streaked last year to their third crown since 2004. While manager John Farrell had little issue with the Boston press in last year's near full-season honeymoon, he could experience the notorious other side of the Beantown scribes this summer. The aforementioned loss of Jacoby Ellsbury to the Yankees could have a devastating impact on the lineup, which has no ready-made replacement at the top of the batting order. Farrell is also counting upon two rookies (SS Xander Bogaerts and CF Jackie Bradley) to step into the lineup full-time after they got limited exposure to the bigs a year ago. Bradley, in particular, struggled mightily in a brief debut, and Farrell might have to quickly resort to Plan B, vet Shane Victorino, to move from RF if Bradley falters again. There is still enough pop in the offense with 2B Dustin Pedroia, 1B Mike Napoli, and Big Papi at DH to score plenty of runs, but the real red flag for the Bosox is with the pitching staff, in particular if anything should happen to aces Clay Buccholz and Jon Lester. So thin is Farrell in depth that the likes of journeyman Chris Capuano and some untried prospects are all that is available (for the moment, at least) in reserve. More bullpen help was also necessitated in the offseason, resulting in the FA signing of Edward Mujica, who saved 37 games for the Cardinals last season before imploding in September, and is now available in case 38-year-old Koji Uehara is either worn down or proves not as impossible to hit as in his wondrous 2013. Farrell's ability to get the chemistry just right as he did last year is no easy task, perhaps further complicated by some key cogs (such as Lester and Ortiz) dealing with the distractions of their contract years. We know we're alienating Red Sox Nation, but it's an "under" for us at Fenway Park.
Having become the best-run franchise for the money in the AL since 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays (88½) have averaged over 90 wins since because of superb starting pitching, a fertile farm system, great managing by Joe Maddon, and a team-first approach by the franchise's leading players and pitchers. Now, the Rays might have fewer variables hanging over their heads than at any time during the past seven seasons. Although star lefty David Price is probably going elsewhere either at the trade deadline or at season's end, Tampa Bay will get at least part of one more outstanding season out of the ex-Vandy ace, and as usual there is plenty of depth in the staff, augmented by Matt Moore (17-4 last season), Alex Cobb, and the next possible phenom, Chris Archer, while Jeremy Hellickson's return date from elbow issues could be as early as mid-to-late May. Shrewd GM Andrew Friedman might have also lucked out in the offseason and upgraded his bullpen with the addition of ex-A's (and long-ago ex-Ray) FA closer Grant Balfour, who didn't pass an Orioles physical (only Peter Angelos knows why) and stayed on the market long enough for the Rays to slot him into the inconsistent Fernando Rodney's old role. Meanwhile, Friedman was rewarded by a couple of his typical Rays buy-low gambles a year ago when both 1B James Loney, who posted his best numbers since 2007, and LF David DeJesus, who appeared to be a late-season rental, were each signed to extended deals in the offseason and will continue to complement the likes of All-Star 3B Evan Longoria and 2013 Rookie of the Year and likely future All-Star CF Will Myers. So, while the media fawns as usual over the Red Sox and Yankees, the Rays are probably the division's best bet to make the postseason once again. It will make number one fan Dickie V. happy to know we're looking "over" again at The Trop as we are entertained as always by Dewayne Staats' excited description on Rays TV.
Last year at this time, many were getting ready to fit the Toronto Blue Jays (80½) with World Series rings. Didn't happen, and the playoff dry spell at Rogers Centre now extends to 21 years, back to Joe Carter's ninth-inning homer in Game Six of the '93 World Series off Mitch Williams and the Phillies. Along with the Maple Leafs' Stanley Cup drought at 47 years and counting, locals could be excused for turning their attention to the CFL Argos. Even after that big-contract mess in 2013, team prexy Paul Beeston is apparently giving GM Alex Anthopolous a mulligan, because much of last year's roster was back for another go this spring in Dunedin. Anthopolous wasn't nearly as active this offseason, hoping instead to get healthy years of out potential catalysts such as LF Melky Cabrera, SS Jose Reyes, and 3B Brett Lawrie, each hampered a year ago, while counting upon the likes of RF Jose Bautista, 1B Edwin Encarnacion, DH Adam Lind, and CF Colby Rasmus to keep hitting. Bash-ball might be the Jays' best chance, because we are a bit uncomfy with a pitching staff that has a lot of age at the top of the rotation (R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle) and a lot of questions thereafter, especially with the once-touted Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison off elbow surgeries. (Anthopolous would rather not rush top pitching prospects Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez.) We're not overly optimistic on a jump of seven or more wins above last season's mediocre 74-88 finish, but this could be a different team than a year ago if all of the pieces stay healthy. We'd rather pass at Rogers Centre...while keeping our eyes on the Argos.
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