AL Preview: New Beasts in the East Edition
With Spring Training underway throughout baseball, we will take a look at the offseason moves made by the other American League teams. Two teams will be reviewed each Sunday until the beginning of the regular season. Previous previews include: TEX/HOU; OAK/LA; SEA/TOR; BOS/NYY
By Bob Toth
The Tampa Bay Rays and the Baltimore Orioles have easily been the surprises of the American League East division over each of the last several seasons.
The Orioles surprised the league and may have been the story of the season if not for the Oakland A’s streaking past the Texas Rangers in the final month of the year. The Orioles found a way to win without spending a lot of money, having star players, or even having a dominant rotation. They kept games close and won when they needed to, able to capitalize on big seasons by outfielder Adam Jones and closer Jim Johnson. They nearly stole the division from the New York Yankees and claimed one of the two wild card spots available.
Year in and year out, the Rays find a way to threaten and even compete in the East, despite operating with payroll expenses significantly less than that of two of its division rivals, the Boston Red Sox and Yankees. The team has earned a reputation of drafting well, often reaping the benefits of highly productive top draft picks, like David Price and Evan Longoria. While their recent drafts have not necessarily produced the results in the field yet, their pitching has remained their strength and has made up the difference.
With injuries already afflicting the Yankees, can either of the Orioles or Rays steal away the division with the odds more on their side than in years past? The time is now to make a push for either club.
The 2013 season may give more credence to whether the Orioles were good last season or just really lucky. Buck Showalter led the Orioles (93-69) on an amazing season that provided fans with more than their fair share of exciting finishes throughout the season.
Baltimore started fast, finishing the season’s first month at 14-9 while spending 16 games either tied or in sole possession of first place in the AL East. Four of their nine losses in the month came against the Yankees.
After spending the first week of May in second place, they won a 17-inning game against the Red Sox and reclaimed the division lead, one they would hold down the rest of the month. By May 31st, the Orioles had already played eight extra inning games and won six. Despite moving back into first place, the team was just 15-13 in the month and was outscored by their opponents.
June (13-13) and July (13-14) were carbon copies for the Orioles. While remaining close in the division, dropping no lower than third place, they allowed the opposition to score in bunches yet still found ways to win the close games. They scored 30 fewer runs than their opposition in June and 29 fewer in July.
The late summer months proved to be exactly what Baltimore needed. An August record of 18-9 and a September record of 19-9 pushed the Orioles right back into the division race. Over the course of the final month of the season, they were no further than two games out of the division lead and several times tied for the top spot in the East. While they could not overcome the Yankees, their record was good enough for a wild card birth.
In the first ever wild card series play-in game, they defeated the Rangers by a 5-1 final in Texas to set up a rematch with the Yankees. A back and forth series quickly developed, with each team alternating wins until the Yankees clinched a 3-1 final in New York to end the Orioles’ run.
Baltimore won games that counted the most. They finished with a 16-2 record in extra inning games, including winning the final 16 appearances. They won the close games, finishing 29-9 in one-run games. They did their damage within the division. In 18 matchups against each of their division rivals, they took 13 from Boston, ten from Tampa, and eleven from Toronto. They split the season series with New York.
With all that said, it makes the lack of movement on behalf of the Orioles organization in the time since one of the more confusing observations of the offseason.
Several players left the club via free agency. Most notably, slugging first baseman Mark Reynolds signed a one-year deal with Cleveland. Reynolds was one of the key players in their postseason push, hitting 15 of his 23 home runs in the season’s last two months. He had seven home runs and 14 RBI against the Yankees in 15 games. All seven of the home runs and eleven of those RBI came in his last two regular season series against them.
Pitcher Joe Saunders, acquired mid-way through the 2012 season in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks, signed in the Pacific Northwest with the Seattle Mariners on a one-year, $6.5 million deal. He finished his 2012 season 3-3 with a 3.63 ERA in Baltimore and 9-13 overall.
Jim Thome, another acquisition from their 2012 playoff run, remains a free agent in search of continuing his Hall of Fame career for one more year. He batted .257 and hit three home runs and had ten runs batted in while providing the club with a playoff-experienced veteran in the clubhouse.
Additional Baltimore acquisitions were similarly uninspiring.
Danny Valencia (Boston), Alexi Casilla (Minnesota), and Russ Canzler (New York via Cleveland via Toronto via Cleveland) were claimed via waivers to provide the club with potential bench depth pieces. Valencia showed promise in 2011 with the Twins after slugging 15 home runs in 154 games. Last season, he was dealt to the Red Sox during the season after 34 games batting below the Mendoza line. In 10 games in Boston, the average dipped to .143. Casilla gives the club a backup option at second base in the event that Brian Roberts again struggles to remain healthy for a full season; he has not done so since 2009. Canzler batted .269 for the Indians after his late-season promotion from Columbus, where he was amongst the team leaders in home runs there with 22.
Former Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Jair Jurrjens was signed to a minor league deal, just one year removed from an All-Star appearance and a 13-6 record with a 2.96 ERA in 2011.
These minor additions were brought in to supplement a strong offense.
Adam Jones returns to man center field. He played every game last season and hit .287 with 32 home runs and 82 RBI while earning his second All-Star nod.
Catcher Matt Wieters earned his second consecutive All-Star appearance behind the plate in addition to his second straight Gold Glove award. He was second on the team with 83 RBI and slugged 23 home runs and 27 doubles of his own.
Designated hitter/outfielder/first baseman Chris Davis flashed some impressive power numbers in his first full season in Baltimore. Acquired from Texas in the Koji Uehara trade the previous trade deadline, he led the team with 33 home runs and 85 runs driven in. He also earned a win as a pitcher, striking out a pair in two innings of work in the 17-inning win over Boston in May.
The pitching side of the game was anchored by closer Jim Johnson, who led a strong bullpen with 71 appearances and a league-best 51 saves. He was honored with an All-Star game appearance and won the 2012 AL Rolaids Relief Award. A relief corp of Darren O’Day, Pedro Strop, Luis Ayala, Troy Patton, and Kevin Gregg helped to get the ball into his hands with a lead on the line.
The Orioles and the Indians have faced off 1,978 times in their long histories. The Indians have a substantial lead in the series, 1,115-844 (.569). Last season, the two clubs were balanced in head-to-head games, with each team winning four games. Five runs split the two clubs overall offensive production. The Indians only claimed one game at home against the O’s, but took three of four at Camden Yards. Three of Baltimore’s wins were decided by two runs or less and were saved by Johnson.
In addition to the mentioned connections between Baltimore and Cleveland with Reynolds and Canzler, infielder Niuman Romero is in camp with Baltimore. The former Indians infielder signed with the Orioles this offseason. He spent 10 games with Cleveland in 2009 and spent last season with Erie, Detroit’s Double-A team.
The Orioles will have a tough battle again in the East and will need similar production from the players returning to the club this season. They will need a solid contribution from a starting rotation with more question marks than certainty. A similar pinch of luck again could not hurt their chances, but will be difficult to replicate.
Tampa Bay finds a way to compete each and every year, regardless of the financial contributions made by the front office. They have a history of building solidly through the draft and have done exceptionally well to develop starting pitching, a commodity that no team could have too much of.
Similarly to the Orioles, Joe Maddon’s Rays (90-72) got out to a quick start. A 15-8 record in April had the team sitting atop the division. A month later after winning 14 of 28 games, the team was still tied for first place.
A pair of three-game losing streaks and a four gamer to boot dropped the Rays out of the top spot and all the way to fourth place, seven and a half games back, by July 1st. Impressive months of August (17-11) and September/October (19-11) would help them briefly reach second place again and get within a game and a half of the lead in the East, but they were never able to fully overcome the distance.
Much of their success in 2012 could be attributed to easily the best pitcher developed in the short history of the organization, David Price. Proof of the dedication to scouting and drafting top tier talent arms, he was rewarded for his on-the-field contributions last season with his first AL Cy Young Award and third straight All-Star appearance. He paced the Rays and the league with a 20-5 record and a 2.56 ERA in 31 starts. It marked the fourth straight season that Price reached double-digits in wins. The number one pick in the 2007 draft hit the big leagues in his next season and has been a threat every year since. He will again be the Opening Day starter for the Rays in a few weeks.
Tampa had some substantial losses from the previous club, starting with outfielder B.J. Upton, who signed a five-year, $75.25 million contract with the Atlanta Braves. Upton once again supplied power to the offense with a career-high 28 home runs. He reached 20 homer – 20 stolen base status for the second straight year and the third time in his career. His batting average for the fourth straight year failed to exceed .250, and his strikeout total climbed to a new career-worst.
Free agent first baseman Carlos Pena signed with the Houston Astros, taking his .197 batting average and 182 strikeouts with him. He played in 160 games for the Rays, leading the club in 2012, and hit 19 home runs while driving in 61 runs.
Left-handed first baseman James Loney, formerly of the Red Sox and Dodgers, was brought in to replace Pena. He batted .249 in 144 games between Los Angeles and Boston last season.
A surprise trade with the Royals sent starting pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis and shortstop Elliot Johnson to Kansas City in exchange for prospects Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, and Patrick Leonard.
Shields has been an inning-eating machine for the Rays through each of the last six seasons. He has pitched no fewer than 203 innings in that span. Last season, he was 15-10 with a 3.52 ERA in 33 starts. He threw two shutouts among his three complete games. He is in the final season of a six-year contract he originally signed in Tampa, but the Royals control a $12 million team option for the 2014 season.
The Rays replaced Johnson at shortstop with Yunel Escobar. Tampa acquired him from the Miami Marlins for a minor league infielder shortly after the Marlins received him as one of the players returned in their massive trade with Toronto.
The team signed former Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Roberto Hernandez to compete for a spot on the pitching staff. His contract has incentives in place for him as either a starter or as a reliever.
Third baseman Evan Longoria returns to the club after playing in less than half of Tampa’s games last year after spending significant time on the disabled list with a left hamstring injury. In limited action, he still managed to hit 17 home runs while batting .289 and driving in 55 runs. He remains a key offensive ingredient for the Rays’ success.
Outfielder Matt Joyce hopes to return to his former All-Star status. After a good start to his 2012 campaign, he missed a month with an oblique injury. Prior to the injury in 62 games, he was batting .279 with 11 home runs and 34 RBI. In the exact same number of games after his return, he batted just .202 with six home runs and 25 runs batted in.
The bullpen is led by Fernando Rodney. Tied for the team high with 76 appearances last season, he finished 65 games and saved 48. Most impressive of his numbers was his staggering 0.60 ERA he maintained on the season. He allowed just nine runs all season, only five of which were earned, and just two home runs.
Myers is a highly touted player worth watching. He is the fourth-rated prospect by both Baseball America and MLB.com for the 2013 season. He hit 37 home runs, batted .314, drove in 109 runs, and had a .987 OPS in 134 games at Double-A and Triple-A for the Royals last year. The previous season, he batted .315 with 14 home runs and 83 RBI in 126 games. The former catcher saw the majority of his playing time in center field last season, but has also played third base and right field over each of the last two years. The 22-year-old was reassigned to minor league camp by the Rays on Saturday and will begin the 2013 season in Triple-A Durham.
In their short history, the Rays have fared poorly against Cleveland. The Indians lead all-time series with a winning percentage of .613, good for the third-best percentage of any American League team against Tampa and the single-best head-to-head percentage for the Tribe against any AL opponent. They lead the series 73-46 and have owned Tampa at Progressive Field, winning 42 of the 60 matchups. Last season, the two clubs split the series at four games a piece and each team went 2-2 on their home turfs.
The Rays have more than a handful of former Indians in camp looking for spots on their 2013 roster. In addition to Hernandez, Shelley Duncan, Chris Gimenez, Nick Weglarz, Chris Archer, Jamey Wright, J.D. Martin, and Luke Scott are with the club. Weglarz, Archer, Martin, and Scott never reached the majors with the Cleveland organization.
Tampa finds a way every year to be in the mix. If one of their plethora of starters is able to step up and at least replace the production of Shields, they could once again find themselves in the mix in the East. A healthy, full season of Longoria could not hurt them either.
Next week, we dive into the Indians’ AL Central Division rivals of the Midwest, the Kansas City Royals and the Minnesota Twins.
Photo: Getty Images