The official big story of the
2011 pre-season according to Scoresheetwiz is the possible last place finish of mighty Rome, er, the New York Yankees.
We know the Red Sox are going
to be great – 1) having Pedroia, Youkilis, Burkett, Ellsbury, and Matsuzaka in likely much health this year; 2) having
Adrian Gonzalez replacing Adrian Beltre in the line-up, 3) Carl Crawford replacing an assortment of AAAA outfielders, and
4) adding Jenks and Wheeler to the bullpen … oooh, watch out, this is a candidate for best team in the history of baseball.
Despite losing Crawford, Wheeler,
Raphael Soriano, Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, Matt Garza, and Carlos Pena, Tampa Bay could hold ground. No organization
compares when it comes to their farm system’s productivity. A comeback or step-up from B.J. Upton is about all they
need to secure another second place finish. However, that had to be a good blow to the bullpen no matter how ready and able
their pitching prospects are. Plus Johnny Damon is a sad substitute for Carl Crawford. While playing more of Sean Rodriguez
and Matt Joyce is one option on hand, the Rays are waiting patiently for Desmond Jennings’ days to arrive. One way the
Rays will certainly be much better his year is having Manny Ramirez around to DH instead of Willy Aybar. Felipe Lopez gives
them a stronger infield bench.
From his well lauded trades,
Toronto’s Alex Anthopoulos has evidently been gearing up for 2012. His players aren’t buying that plan. Bret Lawrie
has been having the kind of spring that seems to resolve the final piece of the puzzle. They will send him down for awhile
to refine his new position thirdbase and avoid service time, while letting veteran Juan Rivera have a nice early season professional
assault on American League pitchers. As soon as Rivera starts to tire (assuming no other injuries occur), it will be time
to return Jose Bautista to the outfield in his place and bring up Lawrie. Both Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind are handling
firstbase well enough that one will back up the other and still get his at bats at DH. Kyle Drabek and Jesse Litsch are looking
prepared to give the Jays solid pitching in all five slots.
Of course, the Orioles are
long shots to pass the Yankees – or are they? It is not a long shot to have a bang of improvement from Adam Jones, Nolan
Reimold, Matt Wieters, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman, and Zach Britton plus the significant boost they’ll
enjoy from J.J. Hardy, Mark Reynolds, and Vladimir Guerrero. That is recipe for a vast improvement. It has happened before:
’08 Rays, ’91 Braves and Twins, etc.- and it doesn’t have to be nearly that type of large improvement just
to rise above a sinking ship.
The Yankees’ core includes
a 41 year old closer, a 37 year old shortstop, a 35 year old thirdbaseman, a 39 year old catcher turning DH, a 28 year old
secondbaseman coming off a career year, a 31 year old firstbaseman who has declined in each of the last two seasons, and a
30 year old 300+ pound pitching ace. Their old reliable no. 2 starter retired. And despite having all those old guys, the
Yankees do not have nearly the depth of Boston or Tampa Bay to fill in when necessary. This year the Yankees missed out on
buying the best pitcher available and had to dig deep into the discount bins in an attempt to fill two pitching slots. All
of this is a recipe for vast decline. However, one of those discount bin specials has been having a terrific spring and could
be the comeback of the year: Bartolo Colon. Farm system product Ivan Nova should be an acceptable choice as a 5th
starter. Jesus Montero should have an impact bat somewhere in the line-up soon. His catching is improving, but the Yankees
seem more intent on having a good defensive catcher – either Russell Martin who is attempting to return to his former
excellence or Austin Romine a highly regarded prospect who hit a mere .324 OBA and .402 Slugging last year in Trenton (AA).
The bullpen, at least, does look well prepared for the inevitable fall of Mo. Dave Robertson is probably the best set-up man
in the league. Newly added Raphael Soriano is an elite closer who will save Rivera and Robertson from getting overused. Joba
Chamberlain still has the potential to be great. The Yankees have two outstanding candidates for giving their rotation a boost
later in the year. Fast approaching are Dellin Betances (the 6’8” 23 year old New Yorker) and Manny Banuelos (the
5’10” 20 year old Mexican). However, their expected arrival time is not until September or sometime next year.
The Yankees have way too much
talent to drop below Baltimore, if the Orioles’ current and recent top prospects continue to disappoint. Toronto has
their share of question marks and Tampa Bay is certainly relying on their share of unproven talent. I am just pointing out
that a last place finish for the Yankees is something quite possible, but not very probable. I don’t want to take glee
in the fall of the Yankees. I have huge respect for Brian Cashman. Many fans vastly under-appreciate the challenges he has
no matter how much cash he has at his discretion. Hank Steinbrenner’s bluntness is refreshing, even if he might be misguided
sometimes. I admire how the Yankees have been such an international team over the last 20 years. I have a personal affinity
to the Yankees. The company my dad worked for had great season’s tickets at Yankee Stadium during their awesome late
1970s. My first Major League visit ever was to the Mantle-Maris-Ford-aging Berra Yankees. I always end up owning the most
Yankees on my fantasy team. However, these facts merely muffle the chortle I would have, if they finished in last place. Let’s
face it: we all enjoy seeing the high and mighty fall. Even if it doesn’t happen, this division will be fun to watch.