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Just about three weeks into the season, baseball is led by two teams in virtually every category.  Both have won more than two-thirds of their games and took several in pretty dominating fashion.  One will most likely win the AL East this season, while the other will settle for the wild card.  These two teams will most likely face each other in the ALCS this season, too.

After wins again on Saturday, the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays are dominating.  At 12-5 and 13-5, respectively, they boast the two best records in baseball this season.  With Philadelphia, they are the only teams to have scored more than 90 runs in the majors and along with Minnesota, the only teams to allow less than 63 runs in the American League.

Since losing two of three from the Yankees earlier in April, the Rays are and impressive 10-2, sweeping Baltimore and Boston – not to mention in Baltimore and Boston – along the way.  The Yankees have been almost as impressive, going 9-3 in that span, sweeping Texas and taking three of five from the LA Angels.

When you seem them on the field, the two teams seem to be in a whole other league.  Both are dominant offensively and defensively.  Both boast speedy outfields with defense-minded infielders who happen to hit very well.

Of the nine players on the Yankees with 50 or more at-bats, 5 are hitting over .300 and seven of the nine boast on-base percentages of .350 or greater.  Robinson Cano has earned the fifth spot in the order after getting off to a great start.  He’s hitting .369 with 13 RBI and 4 homers – all team highs.

The Yankee rotation has four pitchers with very good outings this season, including two almost no-hitters from CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes.  Andy Pettitte leads the team and is tied for the league-lead in wins, with 3, and leads the league with a 1.29 ERA.  Mariano Rivera leads the league in saves, with 6.

The Tampa Bay offense is far less impressive from a numbers standpoint, but somehow they manage to get on base and score runs.  They only have one hitter with 50 AB hitting over .300 – Carl Crawford – but the Rays seem to make it happen when it counts.  Seven guys have 8 or more RBI this season, putting each on pace for 100+ this season.  Carlos Pena, at a staggering 17 RBI, is on pace for 229.  And he’s hitting only .233.

On the mound, the Rays are a little more impressive with Matt Garza sitting at 3-1 with a 2.17 ERA and 25 strikeouts.  David Price and James Shields each have 2 wins apiece.  Rafael Soriano has been a half-way decent closer, with 4 saves on the season, but he’s no Rivera.

I have a feeling these teams will battle strong throughout the season.  Boston has begun the season 7-10 and can’t figure out how to hit or pitch consistently.  I think they won’t finish under .500 this season, but I don’t think they’ll challenge either of these teams for a playoff spot this season.  Baltimore and Toronto are not strong either.

The road to the World Series will most likely travel through the Bronx or St Pete in October.  The two teams next face off on May 19 in the Bronx with the Yankees in the midst of a tough 7-game homestand.

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Continuing on with season previews, I’m going to tackle the AL West all in one post.

2009 Standings:

1.) LA Angels 97-65 (Swept Boston in ALDS; Lost ALCS to Yankees)

2.) Texas Rangers 87-75

3.) Seattle Mariners 85-77

4.) Oakland A’s 75-87

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim:

Key Losses: John Lakey-P (free agent); Chone Figgins-2B (free agent); Vladamir Guerrero-OF/DH (free agent);

Key Additions: Hideki Matsui-DH (free agent);

The Angels have a great coach in Mike Scioscia and have been a traditional powerhouse for most of the last decade, but this season appears to be the first the team fails to make the postseason in quite some time.  The team lost three “A-Quality” players and added one “B” player.   Their lineup will score runs but mostly only to try to keep up with the runs their pitching staff will allow.  Outside of Ace Jered Weaver, who has the potential to be a 20-game winner, and Brian Fuentes who was one of the top three closers in the game last season, the pitching staff is underwhelming.

The team let Ace John Lackey leave for the Red Sox, leadoff man Chone Figgins go to the Mariners and slugger Vladimir Guerrero go to the Rangers and made virtually no effort to replace them.  Hideki Matsui is a great guy and a clutch hitter, but I still think I take Guerrero.  Even if the Angels are fortunate enough to make the playoffs, they won’t make it past the divisional series.

2010 Prediction: 87-75, 3rd AL West

Seattle Mariners:

Key Additions: Chone Figgins-2B (free agent);Cliff Lee-P (trade); Milton Bradley-OF;

This team looks very strong, especially with the additions of Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins.  I like the 1-2 combination of Lee and Felix Hernandez, who is probably the best pitcher in the league under 25 years old.  The runner-up for the 2009 AL CY Young was 19-5 last season with an astonishing 2.49 ERA.  Expect him to be better this year.

The rest of the rotation is sketchy at best, but the rest of the division isn’t that strong and if one other starter steps up, the Mariner’s might have what they need to make the postseason.  I like the first five hitters in their lineup, Ichiro Suzuki, Chone Figgins, Franklin Gutierrez, Milton Bradley and Ken Griffey,Jr.  Junior is looking stronger this spring after off-season knee surgery and this might well be his last season.  Expect Ichiro to continue his dominance at the plate and in center and if Bradley can keep his positive attitude, he could have a phenomenal year at the plate.

2010 Prediction: 90-72, 2nd AL West

Texas Rangers:

Key Losses: Hank Blalok-DH

Key Additions: Vladimir Guerrero-OF/DH (free agent); Rich Harden-P

This scrappy little team really seems to represent the underdog team really well.  The Rangers haven’t made it to the postseason since ’99 and they have pretty much had a lock on the bottom of the division for most of that time.  After a great start to the 2009 season, the team faltered down the homestretch amid a plague of injuries, allowing the Angels to capture the division.

Team president Nolan Ryan really appears to have done well with this team.  He has gotten involved with the pitching, implementing some intriguing strategies that may well make this rotation exceed expectations.  I also like the addition of Rich Harden to an already decent rotation.

Michael Young, Josh Hamilton, Vladimir Guerrero, and Nelson Cruz are a great 2-5 in the opening day lineup and will have to be responsible for most of the runs generated.  Ian Kinsler starts the season on the DL but could add a potent sixth hitter to that lineup.  I think the Rangers have enough this season to take the division and challenge in the playoffs.  As long as everyone stays healthy.

2010 Prediction: 91-71, 1st AL West

Oakland Athletics:

Key Additions: Ben Sheets-P (free agent/injury);

It’s hard for the whole moneyball concept to work when your players are constantly on the disabled list.  The A’s have unfortunately gone from contenders year-in and year-out to divisional bottom feeders.  Outside of Ben Sheets and Eric Chavez, I don’t really like anyone on the team.

I’m not saying this team won’t build back to greatness, in fact this may be a part of that path.  Unfortunately, this team does not have the lineup or pitching to challenge in even this division.

2010 Prediction: 71-91, 4th AL West


2009 Record: 75-87 (.463), 4th AL East
Key Losses: Roy Halladay-SP (trade); Marco Scutaro-SS (free agent)

Key Additions: Shaun Marcum-SP (injury); John Buck-C (free agent); Jose Molina-C (free agent); Alex Gonzalez-SS (free agent)

Like every team this time of year, the 2010 Toronto Blue Jays are excited about their chances, but this is a team destined for the bottom of the division.

The Blue Jays traded away one of the best pitchers in the league, Roy Halladay, for a group of prospects, none of whom will be in the opening day lineup.  This is clearly a team in transition and rebuilding.

The 2009 version of the team started strong and even lead the division in wins for some time.  Slowly, the team broke down and rumors of a mid-season trade of Halladay distracted the team and led them to a 75-87 finish.  After Halladay was traded to the Phillies, the team didn’t add any big free agent names and even cut payroll.  It’s clear the front office doesn’t expect much this year.

Fortunately, their farm system is a little stronger.

The starting rotation is weak, and the opening day starter is Shaun Marcom, who missed the entire 2009 season with an elbow injury.  Marcom has a promising career record at 24-17, but he hasn’t pitched more than 159 innings in a season, more than 12 wins in a season or 123 strikeouts in a season.  He does not represent the ace a team needs and will have a lot of pressure due to high expectations.  Still, he has potential and will have a lot of opportunity as the Jays’ number one starter.

After Marcum are second year pitchers Ricky Romero and Marc Rzepczynski and two former relievers, Brandon Morrow and Brian Tallet.  The closer is Jason Frasor, who had 11 saves and 57 2/3 innings pitched.  The bullpen is unproven and not intimidating to opposing hitters.

At the plate, the Jays have….no one.  Well it’s not that bad, the team did score 798 runs last season but no one really scares an opposing pitcher and last season’s team was lucky at the plate.  Vernon Wells used to hit 100 RBI a season…used to.  His last decent season was 2006 and he has not played a full season without injury since 2003.  Left fielder Travis Snider is their most promising young player and has the potential to hit 20+ homers and 75+ RBI.

With a below average pitching staff, the Blue Jays will find themselves down early  and often in games and require a team that surprisingly hit 798 runs last season and added no amazing bats in the off-season to find a way to increase that offense to make up for bad pitching.

Couple that with the fact that the Jays live and work in the AL East amongst three of the best five teams in the American League (54 games against Rays, Yankees and Red Sox) and this team is headed for the basement of the division.

2010 Prediction: 66-96, 5th in AL East

If I had been born and raised in Maryland instead of just living here the past twelve years, I’d be rooting for the team I’m writing a preview of: the Baltimore Orioles.

Twelve straight losing seasons has taken a hit on the once-proud franchise and its fan base. With their glorious stadium opening in 1992, things looked promising with their marquee shortstop-turned-3B superstar Cal Ripken, the Orioles were the team to beat in the AL East in the early 1990s — until Peter Angelos bought the team. Since then, nothing has gone right except for the ability for the team to get high draft picks, and it will pay off dividends this season.

Offense: Angelos finally did something decent and brought in Andy MacPhail to clean up the franchise, and in the years since, I’ve seen the Orioles become a decent team to watch every time I visit Camden Yards. There are several stars on the team to keep an eye out for. The first is Adam Jones. Jones has shown improvement during his first two years in Baltimore. If he stays healthy in 2010 we could see big things from Jones atop the Orioles lineup.

With their No. 7 pick in the 2003 draft the Orioles selected Nick Markakis. Markakis had a stellar 2008. 2009 was an all-around down year for him. It’s unlikely Markakis will have an off season again, so he should anchor the middle of the lineup.

The star of the future is catcher Matt Wieters. When drafted in 2007, he didn’t play until 2008 and that season earned him the top spot in Baseball America’s Top 100 for 2009. The Orioles opened him in AAA but called him up after 163 PA, installing him as their primary catcher. He hit well, though he didn’t quite live up to the considerable hype surrounding him. Watch for him to break out in a big way this season.

Last but not least, Luke Scott is another player to watch. He will primarily fit into the DH role while serving as a back-up outfielder.

Pitching: Admittedly, the pitching rotation is pretty poor for the Orioles, with such young arms. To combat that, the Orioles traded for Kevin Millwood to give them a veteran presence on the mound and in the clubhouse. The O’s have Jeremy Guthrie right behind Millwood to offer a decent 1-2 punch. There are other pitchers to keep an eye on.

One is Brad Bergesen, a fourth-round pick in 2004 and a high school teammate of Phil Hughes,  made great strides in 2008, leading to his call-up in 2009. A comebacker off the shin cut short his 2009 season, but Bergesen has looked good this spring and will slot in behind Guthrie.

The No. 4 overall pick in 2008, Brad Matusz signed late and missed the minor league season. His first full professional season was 2009 and he cracked the Major League rotation. He features an above average fastball, curveball, and slider, and is working on improving his changeup.

The bullpen doesn’t appear strong at all. With Chris Ray gone Jim Johnson will assume the primary setup role. He was excellent in 2008, throwing 68.2 innings and posting a 2.23 ERA. Behind him Mark Hendrickson will be the long man and Koji Uehara will slot in somewhere once he comes back from his hamstring issues.

Prediction: They are at least better than the Blue Jays, but not ready to contend yet. They have two potential top of the rotation arms in the rotation to start the year and then have another who nearly cracked the Opening Day rotation. Beyond that their # 3, 4, 5, 7, and 8 prospects are all pitchers. If they head into next season with Matusz, Bergesen, and Tillman with one or two of those prospects in tow, we could see big things in 2011. As for 2010, unless something big goes wrong that the O’s will climb out of the AL East cellar and finish ahead of the Jays. The Orioles have better hitting and better pitching in the current talent column, and really they have better future talent as well.

81-83, Fourth Place

This week Trevor and I will be doing team by team previews for the AL East and will do divisional previews for the AL Central and AL West.

Tonight I’ll preview one of the teams that will content for the divisional crown — the Rays.

Offense: The Rays had one of the game’s best offenses in 2009. They hit .263-.343-.439 last year. The 803 total runs they scored isn’t as high as the Yankees but their lineup remains largely unchanged heading into the new season.

Tampa Bay is led largely by All-Star 3B Evan Longoria, along with Carlos Pena and Ben Zobrist, who emerged in a good way last year. Finally, entering into his final season before what’s sure to be a bidding war that includes the Yankees, CF Carl Crawford rounds up the potent lineup for the Rays.

Defense: Tampa’s defense is one of the best in the AL, if not the majors. They saved 69.5 runs defensively last season, with Longoria and Crawford rated as the two best defensive players at their position over the last two years. Who can’t forget Crawford’s catch in the All Star game last year in St. Louis?

Pitching: The Rays have the game’s best young rotation. Jamie Shields is 28, and he’s followed by Matt Garza (26), Jeff Niemann (27), David Price (24), and Wade Davis (24). Those five will combine to make about $9.5M in 2010.

The biggest move of Tampa’s offseason was landing a bonafide closer in Rafael Soriano. After burning through Troy Percival and Jason Isringhausen, manager Joe Maddon went with a closer by committee approach that saw J.P. Howell getting the majority of the saves and save opportunities last season. This season they will rank on top with the Yankees and Red Sox and their 9th inning is pretty much locked up now.

Outlook: The Rays have mastered the concept of player development and building from within, which is the only way they can compete with the Yankees and the Red Sox. With talk of a reduced payroll in 2011 and Pena, Crawford, Soriano, Burrell, and Balfour all set to become free agents after the season, this is probably the last hurrah for this Rays’ team as presently constructed. This current team is very, very good and could easily win 90 games and make a run at the division crowd.

Third place, 92-70.

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