With the season rapidly approaching (pitchers and catchers today!), it seems like time to take an informal stab at what might happen this year in our lovely, confused division. After a season that saw Boston finish last and Baltimore finish second, and an offseason that saw Toronto acquire R.A. Dickey and half the Marlins, it's a bit hard to figure how things will turn out. So I figured I'd think about what could happen to each team, imagining the best and worst-case scenario for each club. The teams are listed in order of their 2012 finish.
New York Yankees (2012: 95-67)
Best-case: Despite the loss of Russell Martin and Nick Swisher, the Yankees offense doesn't miss a beat. Curtis Granderson continues to take advantage of the short porch in right, Mark Teixeira regains his power stroke, and newly acquired third baseman Kevin Youkilis stays healthy and contributes his famed on-base skills near the top of the order. Robinson Cano has another MVP-caliber season, and whispers begin of his taking the mantle of True Yankeedom from Derek Jeter. The pitching staff, anchored by CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, logs solid innings all year, and a healthy Mariano Rivera is dominant as ever in what is likely his final year. The Yankees add another division crown to their already well-supplied stash.
Worst-case: The loss of Alex Rodriguez to injury was merely the first in a long series of blows to the Yanks. Jeter continues his late-career slide, Youk is hampered by injuries all season, and Teixeira continues to hit like James Loney. Robinson Cano has another MVP-caliber season, and loud yelling about his selfish, stat-grubbing attitude rings forth on talk radio. Sabathia's innings load begins to finally weigh him down as the season goes on, and Kuroda is unable to replicate his 2012 success. The Yankees stumble into fourth place, and grumble at home as they watch Russell Martin and the wild-card Pirates in the playoffs.
Baltimore Orioles (2012: 93-69)
Best-case: Adam Jones continues to play at a high level, Matt Wieters fully lives up to his pre-major-league hype, and JJ Hardy puts up another solid season. A full season of Manny Machado provides the offense with an additional boost. The pitching staff, though not spectacular, puts up another season of solid results, with Dylan Bundy getting a midseason callup and making a strong play for Rookie of the Year. Baltimore wins fewer games this year than last, but in the tighter American League, it's good enough for a wild-card berth.
Worst-case: We decide this year to include Baltimore in our preview of AL East contenders, thus reminding Buck Showalter's squad that they are, in fact, the Orioles. Jones drops off a bit, Wieters continues to be defensively brilliant but slips offensively, and Machado takes a step back. The pitching staff's results can't match last year's, and it's another season of batting practice at Camden. Even a midseason callup of Bundy can't do much to stop the bleeding, although he pitches extremely well. New Mariner Robert Andino hits two home runs and one miserable bloop double against Baltimore, because of course he does. Although the future around Machado and Bundy is bright, this year ends with another last-place finish.
Tampa Bay Rays (2012: 90-72)
Best-case: While most teams would face serious issues after trading a top starter like James Shields, Tampa's pitcher-production machine doesn't miss a beat. Matt Moore makes a serious bid for staff ace, putting up numbers that rival reigning Cy winner David Price. Chris Archer also proves worthy of the early hype, and Tampa's rotation leads the league in ERA by a healthy margin. At least part of this can be chalked up to the fact that Tampa's pitchers don't have to face Wil Myers, who immediately begins clubbing homers upon his callup. Myers provides a third big bat to support Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist, and Tampa wins the division for the third time in six years.
Worst-case: The loss of Shields proves a bit much, as the younger pitchers of Tampa's staff, while talented, can't quite shoulder the innings load of a full season. Moore regresses in his second season, and Jeremy Hellickson and Alex Cobb are around league-average. Myers is called up in May, but proves unable to adjust to big-league pitching. He struggles through several months, getting bounced around in the order a bit, although he starts to figure it out late, hitting seven home runs in September. Unfortunately, it's too late, as Tampa's offensive woes were too much to overcome, and the Rays finish the year in third again.
Toronto Blue Jays (2012: 73-89)
Best-case: Jose Bautista, fully recovered from his wrist injury, terrorizes AL pitching to the tune of 48 homers. New shortstop and leadoff man Jose Reyes scores 125 runs and steals 45 bases, including three in a late June game at Fenway, triggering a two-hour "trade Salty now" poopfit on Boston talk radio the next morning. Nobody notices this offensive explosion, however, as the real story in Toronto is the triple Cy Young threat of R.A. Dickey, Brandon Morrow, and Josh Johnson. Dickey's knuckleball proves perfectly suited to the dome, Morrow builds on his promising 2012 season, and Johnson, having moved from Florida's healthcare system to Canada's, finally enjoys an injury-free year. The Jays roar into the playoffs as AL East champs.
Worst-case: Bautista's wrist continues to bother him as he puts up a season more similar to his 2012 numbers than his stellar 2010-11. Reyes proves much less of a jackass than Yunel Escobar, which is good. Unfortunately, he also proves far less durable, as the Rogers Centre turf chews up his already-questionable hamstrings. Morrow and Ricky Romero continue their run as the biggest fantasy teases this side of Ricky Nolasco. Johnson again has two stellar months interspersed with four missed or injury-ravaged ones. Dickey's knuckler works out well in the dome, but gets hammered every time he pitches in the harsher climes of Fenway, NuYankee, or Camden. Toronto never really falls apart, but never really contends either, and finishes a close fourth. Again.
Boston Red Sox (2012: 69-93)
Best-case: John Farrell proves that he is, in fact, a wizard. Jon Lester regains his dominant form, leading the staff in a Cy Young-caliber campaign. Clay Buchholz's back holds up, and his changeup dazzles hitters all year. Solid years from Ryan Dempster, John Lackey, and Felix Doubront leave the Sox with a surprisingly impressive rotation. The bullpen is lights-out all year, thanks in large part to the return of Daniel Bard's slider. David Ortiz, fully recovered from his Achilles injury, continues his late-career resurgence. Mike Napoli instantly takes to Fenway Park, and provides a thunderous cleanup presence behind Papi. Jacoby Ellsbury recovers some of his 2011 power stroke, and with Reid Brignac out of the division, manages to play all year. Behind the solid pitching and the powerful offense, Boston returns to the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Local writers chalk it up to Jonny Gomes' haircut and laughter.
Worst-case: The pitching doesn't get its act back together. Lester's slide in 2012 proves long-lasting, and Buchholz continues to struggle with back issues. Dempster's adjustment to a full season in the AL proves unpleasant, and Lackey can't find the command that once made him a good pitcher. Napoli goes down early with a hip injury, forcing the Sox to use Lyle Overbay for most of the season. Ortiz's heel continues to bother him, though he does still hit 20 homers. Ellsbury actually stays healthy, but doesn't come near his 2011 production. While there are fewer public clubhouse squabbles, the team's solid chemistry can only take them so far. A fire-sale trade at the deadline brings in some solid prospects, further restocking the team for a 2015 return to glory. For 2013, though, it leaves them settling for last place again.
Upon looking these over, the thing that startles me is how plausible all of them are. Last week, a friend asked me what the Red Sox (and the division overall) would do this year, and my exact response was *puzzled shrug*. I could see any of these scenarios shaking out, but for now I think I might have to stick with the shrug. It's gonna be one hell of a year.