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AL East Preview

   by Bryan Leonard - 03/02/2008

In recent years, many have predicated that the AL East will be a three-team dogfight, with Toronto spending big along with the money mad Yankees and Red Sox. It happened two years ago when the Blue Jays edged into second place, but injuries derailed them in 2007. Barring injuries, 2008 shapes up as a three-team race of AL titans.

Defending champion Boston had a quiet offseason. They resigned veteran 3B Mike Lowell and pitcher Curt Schilling, then were only minor bidders in the Johan Santana sweepstakes, driving up the minor league talent price to keep him away from the Yankees. It worked, as NY stood pat and Santana went to the NL East.

Boston has plenty of veteran talent, but the real remarkable transformation of this team is the corps of young players that GM Theo Epstein promised would happen when he took over in 2002. The starting pitching has rare ace in 27-year old Josh Beckett (20-7, 3.27 ERA), the only 20-game winner in baseball the last two years. Beckett shined in October of 2003, winning a title with the Marlins, and boasted quiet confidence last summer as the Sox approached the playoffs. He continually said he wanted the ball and loved the October spotlight, then delivered in spectacular fashion.

He teams with 26-year old former Japanese star Daisuke Matsuzaka (15-12, 4.40 ERA), who had an up and down first season. He walked too many batters, but his stuff is outstanding. Some are pointing out that Beckett struggled in 2006, his first in the AL, taking a year to find a groove, so Dice-K might blossom into a 20-game winner this season. Likely not. Matsuzaka still has a lot to learn about American hitters and culture. Still, the two form an outstanding young one-two punch.

Schilling is on the shelf with a shoulder injury and probably won’t be able to pitch much, if it all. He’s expected out until August. The fact is, the Sox weren’t counting on him for 200 innings. They are still well armed with 41-year old Tim Wakefield (17-12, 4.76 ERA), and a pair of kids in 24-year old lefty Jon Lester and 23-year old Clay Buchholz. Lester got much of the ink after pitching the clinching game of the World Series, but fantasy players should take note of Buchholz, who went 3-1 with a no-hitter. His stuff is outstanding and he has great upside.

It will be interesting to watch kids like CF Jacoby Ellsbury and 2B Dustin Pedroia, along with Manny Ramirez and DH David Ortiz (.332, 52 doubles, 35 homers, 117 RBI). Ortiz will be fascinating to watch, as he was terrific in 2007 despite playing most of the year with a leg injury which required offseason surgery. AL pitchers don’t want to see him return to this 2006 numbers: 54 home runs and 137 RBI!

The Yankees were also quiet in the offseason, after getting stung with another first-round playoff exit, this time by the Indians, despite a $200-million+ payroll. This offense will be sensational, but what about the pitching? For starters, NY has a new manager in Joe Girardi.

He will have a lefty/righty one-two punch with 35-year old lefty Andy Pettitte and 27-year old Chien-Ming Wang. Pettitte returned to the AL last season and went 15-9 with 4.05 ERA, good but not great. He had a trying offseason, named in the Mitchell Report and coming clean about his minor use of steroids, which didn’t help his friend Roger Clemens. Age is certainly a concern, as he allowed 238 hits in 215 innings.

Wang is the ace after winning 19 games two straight years, but he has flopped in the postseason. The rest of the rotation has major concerns. 39-year old Mike Mussina (11-10, 5.15, 152 IP) appears finished, and they are counting on the kids to step up in 23-year old righty Phil Hughes (5-3, 4.46 ERA) and 23-year old righty Ian Kennedy (1.89 ERA in 19 IP). Think they’ll be paging Clemens again in June?

Toronto’s pitching staff might make them the biggest Wild Card of all. Like the Yankees, the Jays have loads of offense but the pitching has battled injuries. There’s certainly tremendous upside. Like Boston, the Jays have a true ace in his prime in Roy Halladay (16-5), the 2003 Cy Young Award winner.

31-year old A.J. Burnett has great stuff but hasn’t battled elbow problems, going 10-8 with a 3.75 ERA last summer. All the injuries in 2007 allowed Toronto to bring up several kid pitchers, and the results were very positive. 26-year old Shaun Marcum stepped in to go 12-6 with a 4.13 ERA in 159 innings as opponents hit just .249 off him. Jesse Litsch and Dustin McGowan are two other young arms, while the bullpen hopes to have a healthy closer in B.J. Ryan. These three AL East giants should be knocking each other silly all summer and whoever has the healthiest pitching will likely prevail.

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