With Pitchers and Catchers arriving in camps, the unofficial start of Spring has begun.

As always with the unbalanced schedule, the Baltimore Orioles will spend 44% of their season (72 games) playing against their American League East foes. Baltimore Sports and Life has reached out to blogs covering the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Tampa Rays, and Toronto Blue Jays to gather some of their thoughts on the division.

Those interviewed were:

Fire Brand of the American League: Charlie Saponara

Dock of the Rays: Jason Collette

The Tao of Steib:

River Avenue Blues: Mike Axisa

Baltimore Sports and Life: “Obviously Boston has improved long-term with the additions of Crawford, and Gonzalez; but to me, if you are going to talk about the Red Sox improving for ’11, the discussion should be less about their external additions and more about a likely return to health for players that were already there. Or in other-words, for 2011 alone how much better do you think Boston is with Crawford and Gonzalez vs. Beltre and Martinez?”

Saponara: “I think they’re a better team simply because Crawford and A-Gone are better players. Yes, the Sox will miss Beltre’s defense at third, especially range wise, but Youkilis should be able to hold his own over there. While V-Mart is a great hitting catcher, he wasn’t really the answer defensively. With the offense as stacked as it is, Jarrod Saltalamacchia won’t have as much pressure to have a huge season with the bat, which will allow him to focus on working with the pitching staff. Those moves should compliment the healthy return of Youk, Pedroia and Ellsbury in a big way.”

Collette: “Boston’s lineup is more dangerous with Crawford and Gonzalez in that it is more well-rounded. Crawford at the top of the lineup allows Ellsbury to be moved down in the lineup and if both of those players are on base at the same time, it is going to make a lot of pitchers nervous. Additionally, the outfield defense is arguably one of the best in baseball and the infield defense doesn’t really skip a beat moving Youk to the corner and Gonzalez at first base.”

Tao: “I think you touched on the more important aspect, which is the health of a number of the Sox central cast. If Pedroia and Youkilis have mostly injury-free seasons, I think you’re looking at a significant upgrade with them plus the two newcomers.”

Axisa: “Just based on Crawford and Gonzalez replacing Beltre and Martinez, probably a win or two better, three at the absolute most. I agree that the real improvement comes from having full years of Youkilis and Pedroia and less Mike Lowell and Eric Patterson.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “Thoughts on the Toronto offense in 2011? Do you see Hill and Lind returning to their 2009 numbers? Does Arencibia replace Buck’s 2010 offense (.803 OPS, 20 homers)? Snider has just turned 23, and has had 612 Major League at-bats. Is this the year he fully emerges? Should the expectation for Bautista be his new career averages of a .795 OPS, and 25 homers?”

Saponara: “Toronto is going to be a good offensive club in 2011. Hill and Lind should bounce back, but I think expecting 2009 type numbers would be asking a lot. Both hitters simply got too homer happy last season, having both seen significant increases in their fly ball rates. Arencibia may not replace Buck’s 2010 production in year-one (neither would have Buck if you ask me), but he looks like he’s going to hit for 20-plus home run power annually. Snider to me is a couple years away from really blossoming into a star-level hitter. He still has some plate discipline issues to iron out, but the future remains very bright. I think Bautista figured something out late in the 2009 season that pushed him over the top in 2010. Do I expect 50-plus homers? No, but he could certainly still manage 30-35 with a ton of walks.”

Collette: “Regression is the first thing that comes to mind as 257 home runs is going to be impossible to repeat. I see Arencibia struggling as most rookie catchers do as they have to both study pitchers, prep for games, and work on their hitting. He is not terribly disciplined and the vets in the ALE are going to pick on him. I like Snider and Encarnacion to be big players for the Jays this season and I think Bautista slides back down to 30 HRs +/-2 home runs with an OPS of at least .850.”

Tao: “Hill was extraordinarily unlucky last season, with a BABIP under .200. That should change, and I think that Lind will have a better run as well, especially if he can be a bit more aggressive against lefties. Arencibia’s offense will not likely match Buck’s, though I can see him hit 15-18 HRs with an OPS over .750.

As for Snider, I think that the mental aspect seems to be coming together, and if he can relax and stop fighting himself at the plate, he should emerge into a 30 homer, .850 OPS player. The six homers in September of last year were promising. There will be a lot of strikeouts along the way, but even a marginal improvement on his whiff rate from last year will result in a lot more offense. Regular playing time will help as well.”

Axisa: “I don’t think there’s any chance Bautista hits 54 homers again, but I could see 25-30, even 35. Teams have had a year to adjust to him now, so it’s up to him to adjust to their adjustments. Lind and Hill should improve, maybe not to 2009 levels, but better than 2010. I love Travis Snider, and I could absolutely see a Jay Bruce kind of breakout for him (25 HR, .850 OPS). I don’t think Arencibia will walk nearly enough to replace Buck’s production, maybe a .720-.750 OPS instead of .803, but he should run into enough fastballs to hit 20 homers if he gets enough playing time.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “Even without Garza, the rotation of Price, Shields, Davis, Niemann, and Hellickson is one of the most talented in the league. With those starters, is the worry about the Rays bullpen over-stated? I would think Sonnanstine and McGee will team with Farnsworth and Peralta to give Tampa at-least a league average group.”

Saponara: “I agree to an extent, but only two of those five has logged over 200 major league innings in a season. The bullpen may be better than most people think, but small sample sizes for relievers in general make it hard to truly predict what the numbers will look like in 2011.”

Collette: “To a point. Those starters can only go so much and last year, all 5 starters could have gone 200 IP unless they got hurt. I don’t want to see Maddon overuse the starters to protect what looks to be a suspect bullpen on paper but if the Rays starters are more efficient with their pitches, 100 IP gets through 7 innings rather than just five. Sonnanstine, McGee, Farnworth, Peralta, and Russell are likely locks and I’ll be surprised if Ekstrom isn’t the new mop-up guy. Keep your eye on Cory Wade as a sleeper now that McGee is all but assured a bullpen spot.”

Tao: “Fans often fret about their bullpen, and it is often overstated. I like Joe Maddon’s kooky, unorthodox approach to managing the bullpen, and I think that he’ll get the most out of those arms. I think they likely have the fourth best pen in the division, but I could envision them being surprisingly effective.”

Axisa: “I think so, but is league average good enough in that division? I doubt it. They had arguably the best LOOGY-7-8-9th inning setup in the game last year with Choate, Balfour, Benoit, and Soriano, yet they still only won the division by one game.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “With Ramirez at DH, is the best fit for Damon at 1st? This would allow Jennings and Joyce to share LF, and avoid relying on Johnson at 1st (Played in 11 games in 2008, missed 2009, and had a .757 OPS in 40 games in 2010).

Saponara: “I don’t like Damon at first. At 37 and clearly in decline, Damon probably won’t produce much outside of a decent OBP. Given the way Dan Johnson produced at triple-A in 2010 and given his career walk rate of over 13 percent in the big leagues, I’d think that he could produce a similar OBP to Damon, but with the potential for 25-plus home runs given enough at-bats. In my opinion, Desmond Jennings should be a full-time starter as soon as he shows he’s ready at triple-A, even if that means making Damon a part-time player.”

Collette: “I wouldn’t mind seeing Damon at first but he’s had just 8 games there. Dan Johnson is going to see the majority of the PT until he fails and Ben Zobrist is likely to see time there against tough lefties. Desmond Jennings is likely headed to Durham until June once the Super 2 deadline has passed as everyday at bats are more valuable to him than platooning right now.”

Tao: “I couldn’t imagine Damon at first. Has he ever played there? He’s always had happy feet in the outfield – which he could get away with out there – but at first, where footwork matters, I’m not sure that he’d be comfortable. Also, I could envision Johnson putting up decent numbers that wouldn’t drag the offense down.”

Axisa: “I think that in a perfect world, Damon would play first, but that’s not an easy transition at his age. Gary Sheffield tried it in 2006 and he was a disaster over there. Johnny would really need to work hard at it and often in camp. Ultimately, I think you’re going to see Jennings in Triple-A, Manny at DH, Damon in LF, Joyce in RF, and some kind of Johnson + RHB (maybe Zobrist?) platoon at 1B.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “The 26 year-old BJ Upton has played 4 full-seasons in the Majors, and the most productive season he has had was in 2007. Over his last 1,627 at-bats during the past 3 years he has posted just a .739 OPS. He goes through stretches where he teases you with his talent. Any reason to think this is the year the light-bulb goes off for him?”

Saponara: “There is no questioning Upton’s pure talent, but sometimes the physicality and mental strain of the game win the day. Upton has often times been caught “dogging it” and has his share of injury issues, specifically to his shoulder, which seemed to sap his power. Back in October I took a look at Upton’s  swing mechanics and saw that he might have developed some bad habits. It gave me optimism when I read that he was working on his swing mechanics early in the new year. “Light-bulb” is a good way to put it, because the physical game seems to be ready to go, we’ll see about the mental.”

Collette: “2011 is a make or break year for him as he enters his expensive arbitration years. If he doesn’t hack it in 2011, he is as good as gone from Tampa Bay. He is now fully recovered from his shoulder problems so there are no more excuses for him not to get back to his pre-injury level of success. He has to cut down on his strikeouts and get less mechanical in his swing because he is having a lot of trouble against right-handed hitters – especially the flamethrowers.”

Tao: “Nope. I know people still think of him as a “raw talent”, but after this much time at the big league level, I think he pretty much is what he is. He’ll have some great streaks and will provide some value, but I don’t picture him ever becoming the transcendent star that some had figured him for.”

Axisa: “Could be, but I lean towards no. He’s still a good player though, 60 XBH last year (more than Ryan Howard, Ryan Zimmerman, and Prince Fielder) with 40+ steals and fantastic defense in the outfield is a damn fine player.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “Due to the dollars required and compensatory ramifications, the Yankees contract  to Soriano was panned by many. Personally, I like the deal for New York. The Yankees are never going to suffer from an inability to add external talent to their organization. Rivera will have less wear and tear on him during the year, and the Yankees can make nearly every game a 7 inning affair. Did you like the signing?”

Saponara: “With the Yankees, you sort of have to take the dollar amount out of the equation. They obviously have no problem  dishing out that kind of dough, so the question becomes: Did the move improve their ball club? The answer has to be yes, especially given their starting rotation question marks.”

Collette: “The dollars stink for a middle reliever – he’ll never earn it and it is an expensive insurance policy. Soriano is quite moody as well and whined in Atlanta when he had to share saves with Mike Gonzalez and now he goes to a place where he has next to no shot at saves for at least the next two seasons. Soriano is an odd character who walks to the beat of his own drum and I am not so sure that is going to work out well in Gotham.”

Tao:I’m a bit greedy about draft picks, so I wouldn’t have wanted to give them up in order to sign a reliever to be my eighth inning guy. On the other hand, if I’m a Yankees fan, I don’t mind the signing because it provides some insurance against Rivera’s age. Eventually, that dude is going to wake up in the morning and have trouble getting out of bed.”

Axisa: “Like the player, hate the contract. The Yankees didn’t need Soriano by any means, and they got themselves what amounts to a one win upgrade at the cost of a high draft pick and a contract that hoists all the risk on the team. They won 80 of 87 games when they had a lead after seven last year, basically a .920 win percentage. It just wasn’t a pressing need. There were far more sensible ways to pick up a win or two in the standings.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “Garcia allowed 171 hits, with just 89 k’s, and a .804 OPS against in his 157 ip with Chicago last year. Burnett lost 7 of his last 8 decisions to end the 2010 regular-season, and the Yankees did not pitch him in the American League Division Series. Those are the likely 3rd and 4th starters with Nova, Mitre, Brackman, Colon, and Prior options for the 5th spot in the rotation. Without a significant addition, how vulnerable do you consider New York?”

Saponara: “Very. Pitching is always important, but this division has some of the better rotations in baseball to go along with some highly potent offenses. There is a chance that Burnett bounces back and that Garcia can be a league average arm, but league average won’t cut it in this division.”

Collette: “Very. Sabathia is the only guy that does not make me wince. Burnett was horrible against teams above .500 last season, Nova flames out after 75 pitches, and the rest are huge risks. The Yankees offense can likely outscore most teams, but I see a lot of 8-6 games in the future because that pitching staff is not good and the bullpen is going to see more work than they have in awhile.”

Tao: “I think they’ll find someone to fill the back of the rotation through a trade (though their system seems a bit depleted at this point), but even if they don’t, they’ll score enough runs that some less-than-quality starts will turn into wins. Also, I think that A.J. Burnett will return to something resembling a quality mid-rotation pitcher (4.10 ERA, with lots of Ks). Even in a worst-case scenario for their rotation, I don’t think it will be enough to drop them below 85 wins.”

Axisa: “First of all, Prior’s in camp as a reliever, he’s not a candidate for the rotation. Secondly, although the rotation concerns are very real, I think they’re definitely overblown. Javy Vazquez was so bad last year that someone like Garcia or Mitre is actually an upgrade. Burnett can’t help but be better in 2011, even if he doesn’t get back to his 2008-2009 self. If Garcia goes 5 IP, 4 R every five days, the Yankees are going win 60+% of those games because of their offense and bullpen. Plus they have a horde of pitchers knocking on the door in Triple-A that they can use to either a) replace Garcia, Mitre, etc., and/or b) trade for an upgrade.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “If he is healthy enough to start, Duchsherer figures to be in the Orioles Opening Day rotation, with Tillman, and Britton in AAA. I think Matusz and Guthrie will be solid enough at the front of the rotation, and that Duchsherer and Bergesen can provide league average 4th/5th starter production at the back. To me, what the O’s get out of Arrieta is the key. Thoughts on the Orioles rotation in-general, and Arrieta in-particular?”

Saponara: “I think we’re probably looking at 2012 as the earliest this rotation is ready to take the O’s to the next level. Guthire is a good part of any rotation, but he’s not an ace. I do, however, like Matusz this season and think he has the potential to take a big step forward. Arrieta is one of the three pitchers I see having some growing pains in 2011. Him, Tillman and Britton all have bright futures, but 2011 is more likely to be a stepping stone season than a breakout, in my opinion.”

Collette: “If healthy — those words describe The Duke of Hurl to a T. Don’t count on him and you’ll be happy. I like Matusz and I really like Britton with his groundballing ways but Arrieta and Tillman need more time to get it straightened out. Bergesen eats innings while offering indigestion and I think he is more bullpen than anything. I think this is where the loss of David Hernandez hurts because his work out of the pen would have helped bridge the gap to Uehara/Gregg in later innings.”

Tao: “I’m not totally convinced that everything comes together for that rotation this season. I’d like the rotation more if they weren’t lined up to play in this division. Duchsherer seems like a good National League West pitcher to me. As for Arrieta, I think that there will be a lot of on-the-job learning at the MLB level, and that he’ll need to figure out the difference between striking out chumps in the Carolina League with his heater and getting the Red Sox to swing and miss at breaking stuff that is still a work in progress (from what I’ve read.)”

Axisa: “Guthrie’s fine and Matusz is a stud, but I can’t see Duchscherer holding up all year. If he makes it through May healthy, I’ll be surprised. Bergesen’s okay, not a cornerstone kind of guy, but Britton absolutely is. I don’t know what to make of Tillman, but he’s obviously very young with plenty of time to improve. No reason to think he’s a lost cause. If Arrieta makes it through the year healthy (180+ IP) and pitches to a 4.20-4.50 ERA in that division at that age, it’s a definite win for the O’s. I’m not a big fan, but let the kid show what he’s got.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “I think the Orioles have the 2nd best Outfield (Markakis, Jones, Scott), and the 3rd best Infield (Wieters, Lee, Roberts, Hardy, Reynolds). Where do you rate them?”

Saponara: “For the OF: Boston, New York, Baltimore, Toronto, Tampa Bay. I give NY the edge because I think Granderson will have a better year based on the mechanical work they did with his swing late in the season. Combine him with the OBP and power of Swish and the OBP and speed of Gardner and that’s a tough outfit to beat (though Boston does). I’d rank the infields the same, actually, so Baltimore at three sounds right.”

Collette: “I think the 3rd or 4th best. I like Boston and New York’s outfield better and the Rays and Orioles are about dead even overall if you have Damon, Upton, and Joyce as the primary outfield. On the infield, I think the defense will be improved which will help the starters and I agree that they trail the two big money markets. I really like JJ Hardy to rebound and have a strong year with the Orioles.”

Tao: “I’d place the Orioles as the fourth best infield (now that José Bautista is confirmed to be at third for the Jays) and the third or fourth best outfield, though not markedly better than the Rays or Jays. (I’ve got a shiny two-dollar Canadian coin that says that Juan Rivera posts a better WAR than Nick Markakis this year…Any takers?) The Red Sox would rank at the top of both.”

Axisa: “If it’s the division, I’d agree.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “Who is your choice as the best player in the division? Longoria? Cano? Other?”

Saponara: “I think Adrian Gonzalez is going to have a monster year if his shoulder proves healthy by the end of Spring Training. Evan Longoria should make a strong case as well.”

Collette: “Longoria has lead the American League East as well as the American League with 19.6 WAR over the past three seasons so not only is he the best player in the division, he is arguably the best player in the league. People who do not get to see him play every day do not realize how amazing he is in the field.”

Tao: “José Bautista. (Seriously, you thought I wasn’t going to be a homer?) JoBau had the highest fWAR of any player returning to the AL East this year, so I don’t think that it is an absurd notion to put him at the top. Amongst non-Jays, I’d put Crawford, Longoria, Cano, and Adrian Gonzalez all amongst the top tier. And I’d caution against writing off Alex Rodriguez too quickly. I can see him putting up a 5.0 fWAR (or higher) if he has a healthy season.”

Axisa: “Longoria, for sure.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “Most under-rated player in the division? Myself, I probably lean towards Romero who I think has yet to fully receive the acclaim he deserves.”

Saponara: “I think Joba Chamberlain is going to be very underrated going into 2011. He gave the Yankees 71.2 innings out of the pen last year, put up a 3.5 K/BB rate (including a very good 9.7 K/9), limited opposing hitters to a 17 percent line drive rate, yet fell victim to a high .327 BABIP and low 67 percent strand rate. If he puts up similar K/BB rate stats in 2011, I bet his ERA is closer to 3.00 than 4.00.”

Collette: “Edwin Encarnacion – at the plate. He’s brutal at third base but I think he can do more serious damage at the plate playing 1B/DH in 2011. After all, he had the second highest ISO in the American League at third base last season behind only Jose Bautista.”

Tao: “I dislike underrated/overrated discussions, because there is entirely too much of that talk in sports, and it is inevitably all blather. But if I’m being a good sport, I’d say that people don’t fully appreciate how much Brett Gardner provides at the plate and in the field to the Yankees.”

Axisa: “I’m not the biggest Brett Gardner fan, but he’s a ton better than he gets credit for. Luke Scott is in that discussion, Romero too.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “Rookie you are most interested in seeing? Jennings? Montero? Arencibia? Drabek? Hellickson? Britton?”

Saponara: “Definitely Desmond Jennings. I love the mix of good plate discipline and blazing speed. If the power develops, he could be one of the most exciting players in the game.”

Collette: “Selfishly, Hellickson. He was amazing in four starts last season and shows the polish of a pitcher with six years of experience rather than six weeks of experience.”

Tao: “I’ll obviously be following the Jays’ rookies (and Zach Stewart as well), but Hellickson intrigues me. I watched a couple of his starts last year, and he looks ready for the big time. I could see him supplanting Price as the staff ace by the season’s end.”

Axisa: “Hellickson, Montero, Drabek, in that order.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “Who will be the breakout player in the division?”

Saponara: “Matt Wieters. I’ve been man-crushing on this guy since day one. Sometimes it takes a few years for a young player to put it all together, but if there is anyone who has the talent to do so, it’s Wieters. Also,  he’s entering his third major league season and has shown improvements in a few important peripheral stats over his first two seasons that should continue to improve in 2011.”

Collette: “Matt Joyce. I’ve been saying all off-season he’s the player that comes out of nowhere to hit 20+ homers in 2011 in this division and I’m sticking by that prediction.”

Tao: “Brandon Morrow. Brace yourself.”

Axisa: “Matt Joyce.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “My All East-Division Team is: C: Wieters, 1st: Gonzalez, 2nd:Cano, SS: Jeter, 3rd: Longoria, RF: Swisher, CF: Jones, LF: Crawford
Lester, Price, Sabathia, Romero, Matusz
Closer: Rivera

What changes would you make?”

Saponara: “I’ll agree on the infield, but take Ben Zobrist by a hair in RF and Jacoby Ellsbury in CF. Lester is my AL Cy Young favorite, so I’ll take him, CC, Price, Matusz, and…why not…Brandon Morrow.”

Collette: “I really want to put Hardy at SS on this, especially in the field but I can’t bring myself to do it. I have to put Bautista in right field and I want Upton in CF who was a full win better than Jones last season despite a “down” year in which he had 60+ extra base hits.”

Tao:C: Posada, 1st: Gonzalez, 2nd:Cano, SS: Jeter, 3rd: Longoria, RF: Swisher, CF: Gardner (kind of a cheat, I realize), LF: Crawford
Rotation: Lester, Price, Sabathia, Morrow, Romero
Closer: Rivera”

Axisa: “I’d take Granderson or Upton over Jones. Could also see the argument for Buchholz, Morrow, or Hughes over Romero, but he’s a solid pick.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “I have the O’s finishing 83-79 and in 4th place (Boston, Tampa, New York, Baltimore, Toronto). What record do you predict for the Orioles? What order do you have for the division?”

Saponara: “I actually have the O’s finishing last, but I would not be surprised to see them push a .500 record. This division is just too tough and I think the O’s rotation, as I mentioned earlier, is a year or two away from making a big splash. I see Toronto barely edging the O’s out for 4th place. Boston, New York, Tampa Bay, Toronto and Baltimore.”

Collette: “The same 81-81 I said they would finish last year. The Jays will finish last and the Rays and Yanks fight it down until the final weekend with the A’s for the wildcard. I think the Yanks and Rays are within 2 games of each other when it is all said and done. Their rotation is as questionable as the Rays bullpen.”

Tao:I would switch the Jays and O’s, Rays and Yanks (So: Sox, Yankees, Rays, Jays, O’s. I think Baltimore will be better, but I figure the Orioles to win around 78 games.”

Axisa:Last place, 73-76 wins. I can’t see that team even sniffing .500 with that pitching staff unless pretty much everything breaks their way. That means a huge, 30-start long breakout for Matusz, perfect health from Duke, and major steps forward from Arrieta and Tillman.”

Chris Stoner
Chris Stoner


Chris Stoner founded Baltimore Sports and Life in 2009. He has appeared as a radio guest with 1090 WBAL, 105.7 The Fan, CBS 1300, Q1370, WOYK 1350, WKAV 1400, and WNST 1570. He has also been interviewed by The Baltimore Sun, Baltimore Business Journal, and PressBox (TV). As Owner, his responsibilities include serving as the Managing Editor, Publicist, & Sales Director.