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Red Sox in the American League: On Outside Looking In?

David Ortiz (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Yesterday, we looked at the top three teams in the American League. Next, let’s take a deeper look at my power rankings and examine which of the top six teams will miss the playoffs in October:

4. Tampa Bay Rays

The Tampa Bay Rays were the laughing stalk of the American League for 10 years. As we begin the 2012 season, they are looking to make their 4th playoff appearance in 5 years. Last year after a huge dip in the middle of the season, it looked like the Rays’ lack of payroll and offensive talent would prevent them once again from competing with the Red Sox and Yankees in the AL East. But, a very consistent August and September combined with the Red Sox collapse allowed the Rays to win the AL Wild Card in sensational, walk-off fashion.

The rotation is young, talented, tough and as deep as any rotation in baseball. Take a look at some of the numbers of their front 4.

  • James Shields: 16-12, 2.82 ERA, 249 innings pitched, 25 Quality Starts
  • David Price: 12-13, 3.49 ERA, 224 innings pitched, 21 Quality Starts
  • Jeremy Hellickson: 13-10, 2.95 ERA, 189 innings pitched, 20 Quality Starts
  • Jeff Niemann: 11-7, 4.06 ERA, 135 innings pitched, 12 Quality Starts

And then there is Matt Moore, who started Game 1 of the Division Series. Moore, who was considered the best pitching prospect in baseball coming into last season showed his stuff with his late-season call-up. Moore struck out 15 in only 9 regular season innings. The 22 year-old phenom then gave up only one earned run in 10 playoff innings. The expectations for Moore are so high that Wade Davis, another top Tampa Bay starter, will be moved to the bullpen despite 11 wins and 184 innings pitched in 2011. As much play as Billy Beane got this offseason with the premiere of the motion picture “Moneyball,” Rays GM Andrew Friedman is the best GM in MLB right now. This rotation is all homegrown and the Rays still have talented arms like Chris Archer down at Triple A.

The bullpen as always, is a bullpen-by-committee approach and Rays manager Joe Madden and pitching coach Jim Hickey use it well. Kyle Farnsworth, who was a failure in New York, was able to finally move into the closer role in the quiet confines of Tropicana Field (though he is out for several weeks to start the season). JP Howell is one of the better lefty relievers in the game and Fernando Rodney gives the Rays another power arm and closer out of the pen.

The Tampa Bay Rays in 2011 were 2nd in ERA and tied for 1st in Quality Starts. They had the fewest innings pitched by any bullpen in the American League.

The only Achilles heel of the Rays as always is offense. Last year, the team fell well behind the Red Sox and Yankees because of an inability to score runs, especially with Evan Longoria injured early and unproductive for a portion of the season. This year, the Rays still lack the big boppers in the middle of the lineup but with Longoria, Ben Zobrist, Desmond Jennings and the return of Carlos Pena, the offense will be better. On most nights, four runs is all they will need to win. The Rays offense in 2011, despite a really slow start, still finished 8th in runs and 8th in OPS.

Prediction: Second place in the AL East, they will win the gimmick wild card game over the Rangers and lose in the ALCS.

5. Detroit Tigers

For much of last season, the Tigers flew under the radar. After a slow start to the season, the Tigers slowly crawled back into the race and then sped right past the Cleveland Indians to the AL Central title.

Staff ace Justin Verlander had a Pedro Martinez type season. Verlander was 24-5 with 250 strikeouts in 251 innings pitched. He had a WHIP under 1 and an amazing 28 quality starts in 34 appearances. He was a landslide Cy Young and MVP winner and helped propel the Tigers to the ALCS, where they lost to the Rangers.

At the trade deadline when the Tigers acquired Doug Fister from the Mariners it was not considered to be a mammoth acquisition. Fister was amazing down the stretch, though, going 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA. He also was the winning pitcher in the deciding Game 5 against the Yankees IN Yankee Stadium.

When Victor Martinez tore his ACL in the offseason, it prompted the Tigers to make a bold move and go out and sign free agent first baseman Prince Fielder. Fielder batted .299 with 38 home runs and 120 RBI last season with the Milwaukee Brewers of the National League. Teamed with Miguel Cabrera, Fielder will give the Tigers the best 3-4 hitters in baseball and the best the hitting combo the league has seen since perhaps Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz in 2004. With Cabrera playing 3rd base and Fielder 1st, it will also give the Tiger the worst fielding infield in baseball.

But, thanks to the brilliance of Bud Selig that doesn’t matter. Selig, added the extra wild card without taking the time to re-align the divisions, the league or schedule and therefore the Tigers will have a pretty easy road to playoffs. They play in the low budget AL Central, where no one can compete with them financially and they will not have to worry about playing in a wild card game in October.

Prediction: First Place in AL Central, loss in the Divisional Round.

6. Boston Red Sox

That brings us to 2012 Boston Red Sox. Gone is Manager Terry Francona. Also gone is General Manager Theo Epstein and his gigantic ego. Their replacements are Bobby Valentine and Ben Cherington. Valentine discussion has dominated the airwaves and media columns for six weeks, so I am not going to add anything to his arrival. In the end, a baseball manager can win or lose you at most five games. Valentine could very well be irrelevant to this team in the standings in 2012. He will give the media plenty of sound bites, which we all know they love (See Rex Ryan).

As for Ben Cherington, if he were succeeding Theo Epstein in 2007, I would say he has very big shoes to fill. But, Theo’s track record was AWFUL the last three years. I don’t want to hear about who John Henry wanted and who Theo wanted. Theo was the GM and in the last four years, he couldn’t develop a young starting pitcher, sign a top free agent pitcher or put together a bullpen. He also saddled the Red Sox with some bad contracts (Jon Lackey, Josh Beckett, Bobby Jenks). It doesn’t tarnish his accomplishments from 2003-2007, but let’s just say he left on low note. Gone is Jon Papelbon, who was replaced by what’s left of Andrew Bailey’s hand. This immediately weakens the depth of the Red Sox bullpen and rotation.

In retrospect, the collapse was not that surprising. The Red Sox were 9th in ERA, 13th in quality starts and because of that, only the Baltimore Orioles bullpen pitched more innings than the Red Sox staff. The Clay Buchholz injury eventually began to show as late August approached. Once Josh Beckett and Jon Lester went bad or got fat, the roof caved in. Felix Doubront, a lefty who has never shown anything but a propensity for injuries, slides in at #4, while former setup man Daniel Bard, with his electric arm, will move into the #5 spot in the rotation.

This is the whole season for the Sox; they will need Bard or Doubront to surprise and give them quality performances at the back end of the rotation. They will also need Lester, Beckett and Buchholz to be elite for the team to compete with the heavy hitters of the American League. In reality, this team might be closer to Toronto than they are to Tampa Bay. They have talent, but many question marks about depth and pitching still surround this team.

Offensively, the Red Sox will score runs. Last year, even with Carl Crawford in a season-long slump, they were first in runs and first in OPS in the American League. They will need a repeat performance from their sluggers. Who knows, maybe Carl Crawford will live up to 11 of the $21 million he is scheduled to make this year.

Last year, all the prognosticators had the Red Sox in the World Series and they ended up being the biggest disappointment in all of baseball. Maybe with little expectation we could see the reverse. However, with a turbulent camp, whiny players, and injuries to Beckett, Bailey and Crawford, the Sox are already not off to a good start.

Prediction: 86-76, third place in the American League East and out of the playoffs for the third year in a row.

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