AL East showdown: Position rankings

January, 30, 2012
1/30/12
11:23
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Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia and Ben ZobristUS PresswireThe three best second baseman in the majors may all reside in the AL East.
Let's pull out the napkin and head over to baseball's toughest division. We'll rank each position, awards five points for finishing first, four for second (and so on) and then tally everything up.

If you missed the earlier entries in our series, here they are: AL Central, NL East, NL West.

Catcher
1. Matt Wieters, Orioles
2. Russell Martin, Yankees
3. J.P. Arencibia, Blue Jays
4. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Red Sox
5. Jose Molina, Rays

OK, maybe Wieters isn't the superstar many projected after he hit .355 in the minors in 2008, but he became one of the top five catchers in the majors in 2011, hitting 22 home runs and winning a deserving Gold Glove. Remember, he's not 26 until May; there's still room for more improvement with the bat. Martin rates ahead of Arencibia and Salty based on better on-base skills, not that he was anything special there. The Rays say Molina will save the team runs with his defense and pitch-framing abilities, but he's never had 300 plate appearances before.

First base
1. Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox
2. Mark Teixeira, Yankees
3. Carlos Pena, Rays
4. Adam Lind, Blue Jays
5. Chris Davis, Orioles

For a strong division, it's a pretty mediocre group of first basemen once you get past Gonzalez. Even Teixeira posted a disappointing .248/.341/.494 line, although a .239 average on balls in play suggest he could raise those triple-slash figures. Still, he's got five years left at $22.5 million and you wonder how ugly that contract will be looking by the end. Remember when Lind had that monster season?

Second base
1. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox
2. Robinson Cano, Yankees
3. Ben Zobrist, Rays
4. Kelly Johnson, Blue Jays
5. Brian Roberts/Robert Andino, Orioles

Yankees fans will hoot and holler, but Pedroia had a 38-point advantage in on-base percentage and carries the better glove. Cano's edge in power doesn't make up for that and the various mutations of WAR all suggest Pedroia is the superior player. Some will argue that Zobrist is the equal of those two and maybe he was in 2011, but there's also a slight fear that he may hit closer to his 2010 levels (.238/.345/.353). Still, his versatility is important, and you might see him playing right field against left-handers with Jeff Keppinger playing second.

Third base
1. Evan Longoria, Rays
2. Alex Rodriguez, Yankees
3. Brett Lawrie, Blue Jays
4. Kevin Youkilis, Red Sox
5. Mark Reynolds, Orioles

It's an easy call at No. 1 with Longoria, and if you want an AL MVP for 2012, he might be my guy. Two seasons ago, he had 140 strikeouts and 72 walks; he cut that ratio to almost even in 2011. He'll hit much better than .244 this season. I was tempted to rate Lawrie second based on his impressive 43-game stint (.580 slugging!) and the recent injury histories of A-Rod and Youkilis. I'll split the difference. Reynolds hit 37 home runs but gave it all away with his glove after fielding .897. He's worked this offseason to lose some weight to hopefully improve his defense. I can't say I've heard similar reports about Youkilis.

Shortstop
1. Yunel Escobar, Blue Jays
2. J.J. Hardy, Orioles
3. Derek Jeter, Yankees
4. Sean Rodriguez/Reid Brignac, Rays
5. Mike Aviles/Nick Punto, Red Sox

After missing most of April and hitting two home runs in May, Hardy belted 28 over the final four months to finish 10th in the AL with 30. I'd like to see a higher OBP (.310), and while he twice hit 24-plus homers with the Brewers, he also hit 17 over the previous two seasons. Escobar had a .369 OBP, like Hardy carries a solid glove and has been more consistent. I give him the slight edge based on health and reliability. Jeter has essentially morphed into a singles hitter whose lack of range makes him a liability on defense. That's still enough to rank No. 3 in this division.

Left field
1. Brett Gardner, Yankees
2. Desmond Jennings, Rays
3. Carl Crawford, Red Sox
4. Eric Thames, Blue Jays
5. Nolan Reimold, Orioles

No, I'm not100 percent comfortable with this ranking, but Gardner might have been the best defensive player in the majors in 2011, Alex Gordon's left field Gold Glove notwithstanding. Jennings tore it up after his midseason call-up, but he got exposed down the stretch, hitting .160 with 27 strikeouts in September. But Crawford's wrist surgery this month and abysmal 2011 put a big red flag next to his name. Thames was never a big prospect, but showed promise as a rookie, and Ben Francisco is around to serve as right-handed platoon partner.

Center field
1. Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox
2. Curtis Granderson, Yankees
3. B.J. Upton, Rays
4. Adam Jones, Orioles
5. Colby Rasmus, Blue Jays

Obviously, there's a chance Ellsbury doesn't maintain the power stroke he developed in 2011 that pushed him to a second-place finish in the AL MVP vote. But there's also a chance Granderson doesn't maintain his ability to hit left-handers -- 16 home runs, the most in the majors, after hitting just 20 in his career prior to 2011. Jones hit .280 while Upton hit .243; despite that, Upton actually got on base more. Throw in his edge with the glove and he's the clear No. 3, which doesn't mean Jones doesn't have a big season in him if he learns to control the strike zone better. Rasmus was a very good player with the Cardinals in 2010, hitting .276/.361/.498. He was not a good player in 2011. He's 25; don't write him off yet.

Right field
1. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
2. Matt Joyce, Rays
3. Nick Swisher, Yankees
4. Nick Markakis, Orioles
5. Cody Ross/Ryan Sweeney, Red Sox

Well ... Bautista is the easy one here. You can rank the next three in any order and I won't put up a big fight. Joyce can't really hit lefties, but if Zobrist ends up playing part-time out there I think Tampa's overall production will trump what Swisher gives the Yankees. Markakis had surgery on his abdominal muscles in early January and will miss the start of spring training; he's expected to be ready by Opening Day.

Designated hitter
1. David Ortiz, Red Sox
2. Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays
3. Luke Scott, Rays
4. Wilson Betemit, Orioles
5. Eduardo Nunez, Yankees

The Yankees don't really have a full-time DH as of now, so you'll probably end up seeing a lot of Rodriguez and Jeter here, with Nunez filling in for them in the infield. Adjust this ranking as you deem necessary.

No. 1 starter
1. CC Sabathia, Yankees
2. James Shields, Rays
3. Ricky Romero, Blue Jays
4. Josh Beckett, Red Sox
5. Jeremy Guthrie, Orioles

Whether you want Shields or David Price as Tampa's No. 1 starter, I have to give the edge to Sabathia. Last two seasons:

Sabathia: 475 innings, 439 hits, 135 BB, 427 SO, 37 HR
Shields: 452.2 innings, 441 hits, 116 BB, 412 SO, 60 HR
Price: 433 innings, 362 hits, 142 BB, 406 SO, 37 HR

If I ranked them individually, I'd go Sabathia, Price and Shields, with the acknowledgement that Price actually took a big step forward in 2011, despite the increase in ERA. He pitched more innings, increased his strikeout rate and lowered his walk rate. But Sabathia has done this over a period of years, so for now he's still the best pitcher in the division. Beckett had a 2.89 ERA in 2011, thanks in part to a low .249 average on balls in play. But he's reached 200 innings just once the past four seasons, while Romero is coming off a 225-inning campaign. Poor Jeremy Guthrie, an underrated pitcher who probably would have had a better career with just about any other organization and ballpark. (Imagine him in Minnesota, with a bigger park and better outfield defense.)

No. 2 starter
1. David Price, Rays
2. Jon Lester, Red Sox
3. Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees
4. Brandon Morrow, Blue Jays
5. Zach Britton, Orioles

Lester has a .691 career winning percentage, but I'm still waiting for him to make The Leap, from All-Star to Cy Young contender (he did finish fourth in the 2010 vote, so I'm admittedly nitpicking a little). But there's room for improvement: He walked 3.5 batters per nine last season and failed to pitch 200 innings for the first time since 2007. His strikeout/walk ratio has also declined two straight years from 2009. Morrow led the AL in strikeout rate last season and just needs to learn to go deeper into games and pitch better with runners on base. Britton had a solid rookie campaign, and ranking him fifth here isn't a reflection on his upside, which remains high.

No. 3 starter
1. Michael Pineda, Yankees
2. Jeremy Hellickson, Rays
3. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox
4. Tsuyoshi Wada, Orioles
5. Brett Cecil, Blue Jays

Let's put it this way: The Yankees aren't trading Jesus Montero for Hellickson. Rays' fans will undoubtedly point to Hellickson's 2.95 ERA versus Pineda's 3.74 as rookies, but Pineda averaged 3.5 more strikeouts per nine innings ... while walking fewer hitters. That's why scouts view him as a pitcher with ace potential and Hellickson as a pitcher who tops out as a middle-of-the-rotation starter. Hellickson's .224 average allowed on balls in play was the lowest by a starter since 1988. I don't see him coming close to that mark again and thus having difficulty repeating his rookie numbers. Buchholz is a mixed bag of health questions and potential, although his 2011 numbers are probably a more accurate reflection of his abilities than that fancy 2010 ERA. Wada is a 31-year-old left-hander who posted a 1.51 ERA in 184 innings in Japan last year. He's a finesse guy who throws in the upper 80s, but has the proverbial "knows how to pitch" tag. There's a chance he ends up in the bullpen. Cecil got sent down to Triple-A for two months after a poor April, and while he pitched well in July, he's got to cut down on the home runs (22 in 123.2 innings) to keep a job.

No. 4 starter
1. Ivan Nova, Yankees
2. Wade Davis, Rays
3. Daniel Bard, Red Sox
4. Henderson Alvarez, Blue Jays
5. Wei-Yin Chen, Orioles

Bard has the most upside of this group, but obviously is big wild card as he moves to the rotation. Alvarez is a strike-throwing machine who reached the majors at 21 and pitched well in 10 starts. As long as he keeps the ball on the ground he has a chance to be a solid big league starter. Chen is another of Dan Duquette's imports, a 26-year-old lefty from Taiwan who pitched in Japan. Chen had a 2.48 ERA over the past four seasons and throws harder than Wada.

No. 5 starter
1. Matt Moore, Rays
2. Phil Hughes/A.J. Burnett, Yankees
3. Dustin McGowan, Blue Jays
4. Brian Matusz/Alfredo Simon/Tommy Hunter/Chris Tillman, Orioles
5. Felix Doubront/Andrew Miller, Red Sox

Besides his obvious potential as the best pitching prospect in the game, Moore isn't necessarily on a tight innings limit. He'll be 23 in June, and he did throw 174 innings last season between the minors, majors and postseason. So even a 20-inning increase gets him close to 200 if the Rays want to push him.

Closer
1. Mariano Rivera, Yankees
2. Sergio Santos, Blue Jays
3. Andrew Bailey, Red Sox
4. Jim Johnson, Orioles
5. Kyle Farnsworth, Rays

He's 42, but Rivera remains as effective as ever even as he's lost a little velocity off his famous cut fastball. Santos has the big fastball, big K rate and looks ready to become one of the elite closers in the game. Bailey has missed time with injuries the past two seasons and has thrown just 90.2 innings over that span -- less than Johnson threw last year, when he ranked second to Alfredo Aceves in the majors in relief innings. Johnson relies on a hard, sinking fastball and assumed closer duties from Kevin Gregg late last season. Despite a 2.80 ERA over the past two seasons, call me a little skeptical about Farnsworth. But Joe Maddon did a job of limiting his innings, and Farnsworth responded with the best strikeout/walk ratio of his career. Maybe he can do it again.

Bullpen
1. Yankees -- David Robertson, Rafael Soriano, Boone Logan, Cory Wade, Freddy Garcia
2. Blue Jays -- Casey Janssen, Darren Oliver, Jason Frasor, Jesse Litsch, Carlos Villanueva
3. Red Sox -- Mark Melancon, Alfredo Aceves, Matt Albers, Franklin Morales, Bobby Jenks
4. Rays -- Joel Peralta, J.P. Howell, Jake McGee, Fernando Rodney, Brandon Gomes
5. Orioles -- Kevin Gregg, Troy Patton, Jason Berken, Darren O'Day, Pedro Strop

The Yankees' easily led the AL with a 3.12 bullpen ERA in 2011, and while you can quibble about the lack of a second lefty (and even Logan allowed all four of his home runs to lefties), Soriano and Robertson project as a tough seventh-eighth inning duo. The Blue Jays have upgraded their pen with the additions of Santos and Oliver, although at 41 the veteran lefty doesn't come without risk. I like Boston's top two, but once you get down to Albers, Morales and Jenks, you're playing with fire. Maddon worked magic with Tampa's pen a year ago, pulling a 3.73 ERA out of them.

Intangibles
1. Rays
2. Yankees
3. Blue Jays
4. Red Sox
5. Orioles

The Rays have the best manager in baseball, they have starting pitching to spare (Jeff Niemann, Alex Cobb), they have versatility in the lineup and they have The Little Engine That Could attitude. The Yankees also have depth in the rotation, and always bring that professionalism to the park. Yes, some of their key parts are getting old, but guys like A-Rod and Jeter will want to prove their skeptics wrong. The Jays are turning things around and building a terrific foundation; now if the only fans will return to support what should be an exciting team. If Lawrie and Rasmus hit and the rotation comes through, this team could be in the playoff chase.

Final tally
1. Yankees, 64 points
2. Rays, 53 points
3. Red Sox, 48 points
4. Blue Jays, 46 points
5. Orioles, 29 points

Baseball's best division should be another dogfight, especially with the Blue Jays and Orioles potentially improved from last season. On the back of the napkin, the Yankees once again look like division favorites. The Rays always seem to find a way to exceed expectations, and have won two of the past four division titles. The Red Sox haven't finished first since 2007, and have undeniable question marks up and down the pitching staff; maybe they'll sign Edwin Jackson. Could they be headed towards a third straight season without a postseason appearance? As for the Orioles, maybe they should request a transfer to the AL Central.

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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