2005 MLB Baseball AL EAST Preview
American League East
Perhaps the most intriguing competition in spring training will be for the four or five slots on the Orioles’ bench. The club signed several quality veterans who could fill roster spots. In addition to Chris Gomez, who is signed to a major league contract, Enrique Wilson and Chris Stynes also are in camp and have extensive big league experience.
Executive vice president Jim Beattie said the backup catcher job is Geronimo Gil’s to lose. Gil has been in the organization since 2001 but had fallen out of favor after a rough 2003 season. He spent most of last season in Class AAA Ottawa but had a good showing in September. The backup catcher position is crucial because Javy Lopez will catch about five days per week.
The club agreed to terms on a contract with reliever Jorge Julio, but the righthander still does not have a defined role. He will compete for his old closer role in spring training The Orioles badly need quality starting pitching. And although they have no shortage of candidates, very few are proven. The club returns Sidney Ponson, who lost 15 games last season, and Rodrigo Lopez, who won 14 games but bounced around from the bullpen to the rotation. Club officials will take a long look at pitchers such as Matt Riley, Erik Bedard, Daniel Cabrera and Kurt Ainsworth to fill important roles. Riley, who is out of minor league options, could be the key because of his immense talent. Cabrera, who won 12 games as a rookie, worked on a changeup this offseason and should be primed to claim a rotation spot.
Boston Red Sox
Although 3B Bill Mueller underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in early February, the Red Sox are still hopeful he will be ready for opening day. Mueller underwent surgery on the same knee last May and was back to his normal self after a month of rehab. The switch hitter, who has had multiple procedures on both knees, will likely deal with maintaining his legs for the rest of his career, but he is confident he can manage it.
One of the intriguing battles in camp figures to be for the backup first base job. Kevin Youkilis, who will fill in at third until Mueller returns, will spend camp learning first base as well. The Sox know what David McCarty can do, and the slick-fielding veteran is in camp with a minor league deal. The dark horse is Roberto Petagine, who put up big numbers in Japan the last six years.
The one thing the Red Sox lack, at least on paper, is a true No. 2 starter. David Wells is more of a middle-of-the-rotation guy at this point of his career. Matt Clement is probably the favorite to emerge as Curt Schilling’s top wingman. At this point, it doesn’t look as if RHP Wade Miller, who is coming off rotator cuff woes, will start the season on time. If he can get healthy, he’s one of the top starters in the league. If nobody emerges in the No. 2 spot, look for G.M. Theo Epstein to make a significant trade by July, or sooner. The Sox feel good about the lower portion of the rotation, which will be filled by the steadily improving Bronson Arroyo and trusty veteran Tim Wakefield.
New York Yankees
Kevin Brown’s chronic bad back is in good shape after he worked out some of the structural problems this winter with a physical therapist. Brown plans to ease into his workouts this spring and work on a different schedule than the rest of the Yankees’ pitchers in order to be at full strength for opening day.
For the first time in his 10 seasons as Yankees’ manager, Joe Torre plans to take 12 pitchers on his opening day roster. There are 12 pitchers signed to big league contracts, including seven relievers. …
Young pitchers Alex Graman and Bret Prinz are out of options, so they will likely be moved before the end of spring training.
The Yankees are strong in almost every area, but the backup depth in the outfield is certainly a question mark. Gary Sheffield, Bernie Williams and Hideki Matsui are all in their 30s (the first two in their late-30s), and the Yankees would be in rough shape should any of the three suffer a major injury. Ruben Sierra can play the corner positions, but he is much better suited as a pinch hitter or DH. That leaves Bubba Crosby and non-roster invite Doug Glanville to fight it out for the other spot, as the Yankees look for a back up center fielder who can also serve as a pinch runner.
Tampa Bay Rays
Once again, the Rays avoided arbitration with all seven of their eligible players. The only time in their history the Rays have gone to a hearing with a player was in 2002, when they beat reliever Esteban Yan. The Rays generally settle at the midpoint between what the players asked for and what the team offered. Or they settle just below the midpoint while including incentives in the contract to allow the player to make more. The Rays were most concerned about going to a hearing with reliever Jorge Sosa, whom they offered $550,000 but who asked for $925,000. The sides settled on $650,000, with up to $50,000 in incentives.
Manager Lou Piniella said he would wait until seeing new outfielder Danny Bautista in a few spring training games to decide if he would start in left field or right field, with Aubrey Huff moving to the other spot. Bautista is considered a good outfielder with a strong, accurate arm. Huff played a very credible right field in 2003 but did not look quite as comfortable in his seven games in left in 2004.
With Jose Cruz Jr. gone, Piniella also will have to decide who will bat behind and try to provide protection for Huff in the lineup. Based on Piniella’s fondness for lefty-righty-matchups, it should be DH Josh Phelps, but he might strike out too much. It could end up being shortstop Julio Lugo or first baseman Travis Lee.
Because of injuries and ineffectiveness, the Rays used 14 different starters in 2004. They did not add any healthy, well-established veterans to the mix for 2005. They are hoping they get lucky with non-roster invitees Hideo Nomo and Denny Neagle. But Nomo’s fastball was measured in the mid-80s (at best) at the end of last season and Neagle hasn’t pitched in the majors since July 2003, because of two arm surgeries. Casey Fossum, obtained in the Cruz trade, might help, but he might be best suited for the role John Halama had in 2004 as a swingman. The Rays’ best scenario would be that veteran starters Mark Hendrickson and Rob Bell continue to improve while young starters Dewon Brazelton, Scott Kazmir, Doug Waechter and Seth McClung stay healthy and continue to learn opposing hitters. And if 2004 No. 1-pick Jeff Niemann can speed up his timetable for reaching the majors, that would be even better.
Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays are taking it slow with RHP Dustin McGowan, who had his 2004 season shortened by Tommy John surgery. The righthander is one of Toronto’s best prospects, and the front office believes he should be back to his top velocity by August. That may or may not mean he’ll be ready to make his big league debut by then. The Jays will monitor him closely and err on the side of caution.
RHP Josh Towers has a preliminary hold on the fifth starting slot, but Toronto will weigh some alternatives during the exhibition season. LHP Gustavo Chacin and RHP Francisco Rosario will likely be his main competition, but RHP Ryan Glynn is another dark horse.
Late relief is this team’s chief trouble spot — and it’s not close. Toronto’s bullpen had a league-high loss total in 2004, and its 5.08 ERA was the third-worst in all of baseball. The Blue Jays brought in RHP Billy Koch and LHP Scott Schoeneweis, but the vast majority of last year’s relief staff returns intact. Improvement could come in the form of defined roles for each reliever and added maturity for Toronto’s young arms. Jason Frasor successfully worked his way into a relief job last year. This time, Brandon League will try the same feat. Justin Speier will likely get most of the save opportunities, but he has just 17 career saves. Nothing will come easy for this collection of relievers.