Thursday, January 8, 2009

While the SF Giants Improve, the AL East Mutates into Something Else Altogether

Whether we like it or not, there's a double-edge to everything in professional sports. This is a lesson I've learned well—for every magic moment Joe Montana gave the Bay Area, there's also the bitterness of the quarterback controversy involving Steve Young that followed. For every dazzling pass Jerry Rice caught, there's also the mediocrity of the post-San Francisco years.

And then there's Major League Baseball in San Francisco, my gentle Giants.

I love them unconditionally.

But oh, how that second edge has scarred me over the years: the 1989 World Series sweep, the 1993 screeching halt, the 1997 early exit, the 1998 one-game playoff loss to Chicago, the early exit in 2000 after finishing with MLB's best record, the 2002 World Series, and Barry Lamar Bonds.

Shoot, Will Clark wasn't exactly warm and cuddly. But that swing...

Well, this offseason is no different. There is no doubt the Orange and Black has improved. Equally beyond debate is that there's potential for vast improvement. One more decently powerful bat and we're talking playoffs as a legitimate possibility.

But take a step back. Look at the bigger picture. Even with another hugely powerful bat, legitimacy of postseason talk stops at the National League Championship Series.

Sorry, San Francisco faithful. I count myself as a proud member of your group, but that is a fact.

Look at the American League East...holy cow.

The New York Yankees offseason orgy has been well-documented. CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, AJ Burnett, Nick Swisher (in exchange for what amounts to spare change in the Evil Empire), and they still haven't really added payroll despite moving into a new stadium for 2009.

A new stadium that I hear transforms into a mint when the last spectator leaves.

In other words, there's a reasonable chance those demons still have a couple consumer tricks up their pinstriped sleeves.

Even if they don't, take a look:

Primary Staff:
Ace—Sabathia (lefty)
Starting Pitcher—Chien-Ming Wang (righty)
SP—Burnett (R)
SP—Joba Chamberlain (R)
SP—Phil Hughes (R), Ian Kennedy (R), or some other young kid.
Closer—Mariano Rivera

Lineup (by position):
Catcher—Jorge Posada
First Base—Teixeira
Second Base—Robinson Cano
Third Base—Alex Rodriguez
Shortstop—Derek Jeter
Outfield—Johnny Damon, Melky Cabrera, Swisher, and Xavier Nady
Designated Hitter—Hideki Matsui

If the high probability of another move comes to fruition, the Yanks will probably add a fifth hurler to further ease the development of those two young arms.

Remember, though, this was the THIRD PLACE team in the AL East. By six games. So the Bronx Bombers had some ground to reconquer and they seem to have done so.

Not so fast.

The second place club just grabbed John Smoltz and Rocco Baldelli (whose health seems to have thankfully turned a corner). Brad Penny's a six-inning stiff; he's a bum so I don't count that as a great move. Still, not too shabby for a team that finished 2008 with 95 wins.

Let's see what the Boston Red Sox have in store for 2009:

Primary Staff:
Ace—Josh Beckett (R)
SP—Daisuke Matsuzaka (R)
SP—Jon Lester (L)
SP—John Smoltz (R)
SP—Brad Penny (R; he's a bum, but he's a pretty freakin' good fifth starter)
CL—Jonathan Papelbon (R)

Catcher—Josh Bard
1B—Kevin Youkilis
2B—Dustin Pedroia
3B—Mike Lowell
SS—Jed Lowrie
OF—Jason Bay, Jacoby Ellsbury, Baldelli, and JD Drew
DH—David Ortiz

Should either Smoltz or Penny falter, the Sawks have Clay Buchholz (he of the no-hitter) and Tim Wakefield (that old stalwart) marinating in the wings.

And the rally cry for this offseason coming out of Boston might very well be, "we have not yet begun to fight." Those are some pretty conservative moves by Beantown's standard, especially considering the cacophony coming out of NYC.

Of course, both the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox finished 2008 staring up Tampa Bay's skirt. The Rays finished atop the AL East and rode that vote of confidence all the way to the World Series. Where they lost.

Nobody's perfect.

The mini-market Rays have played it cool this offseason, but have managed arguably the winter's biggest steal—Pat Burrell for two years, $16 million. Let's see what that does:

Primary Staff:

Ace—Scott Kazmir (L; his ace-hood is arguable)
SP—Matt Garza (R)
SP—James Shields (R)
SP—Andy Sonnanstine (L)
SP—Up in the air as far as I can tell, maybe David Price (L) or Jeff Niemann (R)
CL—Ditto; maybe Troy Percival (R), JP Howell (L), or Dan Wheeler (R)

Catcher—Dioner Navarro
1B—Carlos Pena
2B—Akinori Iwamura
3B—Evan Longoria
SS—Jason Bartlett
OF—BJ Upton, Carl Crawford, Gabe Gross, and Matt Joyce

You see where I'm headed.

The American East has arguably been baseball's best division for years. Last year, there was no argument. And, with several big ticket items still available on the free agent market, its three strongest teams from 2008 have already gotten significantly stronger.

Furthermore, the most significant improvement has come from the bottom and worked its way up—the Yanks were the worst of the three, but have shown the most improvement (on paper) while the Rays were the best (but have shown the least improvement on paper).

Brian Sabean and the San Francisco management has done a fantastic job so far this winter.

Unfortunately, they're just not playing in the same stratosphere as those three behemoths in the Junior Circuit.

It's true that any team can win the World Series once it gets there.

But you can bet your horses on one thing, any Senior Circuit representative's gonna be facing long odds against one of those three monsters.

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