Diamond Mind: AL East

We see the Yankees again taking the AL East comfortably, by the biggest margin of any division winner. Heading into 2006, it seemed that the East (courtesy of the Yankees and Red Sox), had taken up permanent ownership of the wild card. Surprise! Despite the greater depth of competition in the AL Central, the wild card came out of the Central in 2006. While the Tigers have the highest win total in our projected wild-card standings, the Central took the wild card in 44 percent of the seasons we simulated, while the East came out on top 47 percent of the time, and the Blue Jays and Red Sox figure to be in the wild-card hunt right down to the wire.

New York Yankees
Projection: 1st, 96-66, division title 72 percent, wild card 11 percent

It's April 2, Opening Day, and Yankee Stadium is packed. The Yankees' starting lineup is being introduced, the names echoing over the PA. "And warming up in the bullpen, the starting pitcher, Carl Pavano."

Is there an evil eye trained on Yankees starters? In 2005, they used 14 different ones; in 2006, 12. They begin 2007 with Chien-Ming Wang out for at least the month of April (an injury that occurred after our simulations were run and so was not taken into account); potential replacements Jeff Karstens and Humberto Sanchez both with sore elbows; Andy Pettitte struggling with back spasms; and Kei Igawa searching for the strike zone.

On the one hand, the Yankees have made 12 straight trips to the postseason, and they've overcome many serious injuries to do it. On the other, the closest they've come to the World Series since it was snatched from their grasp by the Red Sox in 2004 is signing the guy who caught the ball for the final out that year, Doug Mientkiewicz, for 2007.

Despite lengthy injuries in 2006 to Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui and Robinson Cano, the Yankees topped all of baseball with a massive 930 runs scored. We project them to come out well on top again in 2007 with 937.

With their vaunted payroll advantage, and 12 straight postseason appearances, for this team it's all about World Series wins. There was a lot of buzz about prime prospect Phil Hughes when camp began, and the prospect of Roger Clemens waiting in the wings. It's par for the course when talking about the Yankees that, in a preseason preview, the main question ends up being whether their rotation come playoff time will set up strongly enough to return them to the Promised Land.

Toronto Blue Jays
2nd, 88-74, division title 18 percent, wild card 19 percent

It's funny how sometimes a decent season can leave a team and its fans with a bad aftertaste, while a disappointing season nevertheless can leave behind a positive afterglow. The Blue Jays certainly fall in the latter category. After a huge free-agent plunge before the 2006 season, they fell out of the wild-card race early, then endured a period of midseason turmoil in the dugout and clubhouse with the Hillenbrand and Lilly incidents. By season's end, however, thanks in part to the struggles of the Red Sox, they found themselves in second place in the East, their first finish higher than third since 1993 (the second of their back-to-back championship seasons).

The Blue Jays certainly have the look of an up-and-coming team. They actually scored 70 less runs in 2006 than the runs created formula predicted, suggesting that, with a bit more efficiency, they could increase their scoring in 2007 just by repeating their overall offensive output in 2006 (and that's without any added production from new DH Frank Thomas or hot-shot prospect Adam Lind).

For my money, whether the Blue Jays take the next step, from respectable also-ran to a postseason berth, depends on a few key players: Troy Glaus and Thomas on offense, and A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan on the mound. Although closing the gap to the Yankees in the AL East would be a tall order, if these four players can remain healthy and productive, and barring any major problems cropping up elsewhere, Toronto would have as good a shot at the wild-card spot as any.

Boston Red Sox
3rd, 86-76, division title 9.5 percent, wild card 15 percent

We can hear the cries echoing from Red Sox Nation. "86 wins? Are you out of your freakin' minds?!"

Before the 2006 season we projected 86 wins for the Red Sox, which is exactly how many games they won. If the Blue Jays' season was a feel-good disappointment, the Red Sox season certainly was the opposite, although, considering Boston actually was outscored by five runs (820 runs scored to 825 runs allowed), 86 wins was a pretty decent result.

So Boston made some big changes, signing J.D. Drew to replace Trot Nixon in right and Julio Lugo to replace Alex Gonzalez at short; committing to rookie Dustin Pedroia to replace Mark Loretta at second; and, of course, adding Daisuke Matsuzaka to the starting rotation. Then there were the changes they didn't make: Manny Ramirez remains in left, and Jonathan Papelbon reprises the closer's role.

Take all of these changes, mix well, simulate the 2007 season 200 times over, and we once again have projected Boston for 86 wins and another third-place finish. So how is it possible that the Sox were only moderately better than average in our simulations?

Scoring isn't the problem. The 2007 Red Sox lineup may not be in the same class as the one in New York, or remind anyone of the 2003-04 version, but it trailed only the Yankees in offense in our simulations.

The problem was pitching. Despite the addition of Matsuzaka (projected to be one of the league's better starters), the team finished ninth in the league in run prevention in the simulations.

How is that possible? Let us count the ways:

1. Fenway Park. Just as it makes the hitters look better than they really are, it makes it more difficult for the pitchers to post good numbers.

2. The schedule. Boston plays almost half its games in a division with no below-average lineups and a couple of good to great ones, and every interleague opponent is projected to be average or better in scoring in the NL.

3. Age. Three key guys (Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield and Mike Timlin) are 40-plus.

4. Bullpen. Except for Papelbon, nobody goes into the season projected to be better than league average.

5. 2006. Our projections put more weight on recent performances, so they may be a little pessimistic for players like Beckett, Wakefield and Timlin, coming off disappointing seasons.

So, it's quite possible that the Sox will end up playing a whole bunch of 8-6 games, and while they're likely to win more than they'll lose, that's not a proven formula for big-time success. For the Sox to be an elite contender, several members of the pitching staff need to step up.

Can they? Just about everyone on the staff has posted one or more big-league seasons in which they were much better than how we project them for 2007. It's asking too much to expect all of them to return to peak form in unison, but it's not much of a stretch to imagine, say, Schilling and Beckett. If that happens, and there are no big negative surprises, this club could be a legitimate threat to win it all.

Baltimore Orioles
Projection: 4th, 76-86, division title 0.8 percent, wild card 2 percent

Chad Bradford, 3 years, $10.5 million; Jamie Walker, 3 years, $12 million; Danys Baez, 3 years, $19 million.

We could stop right there, but that wouldn't really be fair to Orioles fans, although it might be merciful.

Aubrey Huff, 3 years, $20 million; Jay Payton, 2 years, $9.5 million; Kevin Millar, 1 year, $2.75 million.

Can you hear the gap between the Orioles and the Yankees, Blue Jays and Red Sox closing yet?

No review of the Orioles would be complete without mentioning two noteworthy streaks from the 2006 season. Miguel Tejada hit fewer homers (24) in 2006 than in any season since 1999, but he managed that many despite going 126 consecutive at-bats from Aug. 22 to Sept. 23 without one. That was no match, however, for up-and-comer Nick Markakis, who went homer-less for three solid months, 205 at bats from April 15 to July 15, yet still ended the season with 16.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Projection: 5th, 70-92, no postseason appearances

It's hardly original to question how Tampa Bay can be expected to compete in the AL East with Boardwalk and Park Place (a.k.a. the Yankees and Boston, not to mention Toronto and Baltimore, who are hardly crying poor). Really, though, it seems to me that the problem is more than just money. Casting my mind back a few seasons to my one visit to Tropicana Field, and setting that image against the history and drama that are Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium, and the juxtaposition feels almost surreal.

Nevertheless, at least one well-known authority (Jim Callis at Baseball America) has predicted that the Devil Rays will win the World Series ... in 2010. The future is now for the Devil Rays in the outfield with their five-tool trio of Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli and Delmon Young (assuming they can keep this group intact long enough for the rest of the team to come together, although there already was talk this past winter that they were looking to trade Baldelli for prospects and replace him with Elijah Dukes). The 2007 infield of Ty Wigginton, Akinori Iwamura and Ben Zobrist has been replaced by Callis in 2010 with B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria and Reid Brignac. And Scott Kazmir has teamed with prospects Jeff Niemann and Jacob McGee and projected 2007 first overall draft pick David Price to give the team four front-line starters.

Here is where all those phrases about the end of the beginning, and light at the end of the tunnel, come to mind.