2009 AL East Players To Watch

March 20, 2009

by John Botelho… Every year, players in the MLB take their individual performances to a new level.  Sometimes it’s a player who becomes a superstar, or a backup becomes an everyday regular.

Last season, players like Nate McClouth and Carlos Quentin went from relative unknowns to All-Stars with MVP upside. Chad Billingsley and Tim Lincecum established themselves as bona fide aces, while Andre Ethier and Jed Lowrie both played their way into everyday roles.

Check out this year’s breakout candidates in the AL East.

2009 A.L. East Breakout Candidates

Baltimore Orioles: Matt Wieters has collected much of the Orioles publicity over the last year and he could be perhaps their biggest breakout candidate for becoming a household name over the next six months.

Beyond the catcher who is supposed to be an organization’s savior, several other O’s could break through this season.

One very bright spot in an otherwise dull scene in Baltimore over the last few years has been Nick Markakis. The face of the franchise could become one of the faces of the MLB this year.

He hit .306 with 20 homers as a 24-year old last summer, and will likely improve on ever front this year. With the ability to have upwards of 70 extra-base hits he and Wieters will form a very talented and very young duo in the middle of the Orioles lineup for years to come.

Adam Jones will also take steps towards being a go-to guy for Baltimore.  He has more power coming and could push 20 homers this season. The Orioles are also primed to have one of the game’s better relief pitchers.

Chris Ray had taken steps towards being a lights out closer before needing Tommy John surgery. He’s healthy again and should start to pitch his way towards All-Star consideration.

Boston Red Sox: The Sox had some of the most impactful breakout players in baseball last year. Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis became MVP-caliber players, while Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka were among the best pitchers in the American League.

This year’s class of potential breakout players doesn’t offer the same depth as the one a season ago, but quite a few names could be added to the list of impact Red Sox players before 2009 comes to an end.

The player with the most potential to join Pedroia and Youkilis (as well as a healthy David Ortiz) in MVP discussions is Jason Bay. Bay will finally get to spend an entire season on a team that hasn’t been mired in losing season since Aladdin was on the big screen and gas was $1.05 a gallon.

He will bring his career line of .282 .375 .516 to Fenway Park and hit in the middle of one of the most potent lineups in the MLB. Bay, who has never had a top-10 MVP finish, could easily put together a full season of the numbers he showed Sox fans over the final two months of 2008.

If he can produce at that level, Bay would wind up with more than 30 homer and 40 doubles. Add in over 100 runs scored and 100 batted in, and he could be the second consecutive Bostonian to capture the A.L. award.

Several others could take steps to establish themselves as household names. J.D. Drew who has shown flashes of being an elite player whose been hampered by injuries.  Drew’s ability to get on-base could result in an absurd run total if he can stay healthy and would also enter the MVP discussion as a result.

Jacoby Ellsbury put together a solid year at the top of the Red Sox order last season, and should be even better this time around.  Once Ellsbury puts all of his talent together, he’s going to hit .300 annually, while being near the top of the leader boards in runs and steals throughout his career.

Justin Masterson did whatever Boston needed him to last year, and will have the opportunity to spend this entire season in the big league bullpen. He flashed a fastball that was at times electric, and if the team didn’t have Jonathan Papelbon embedded as their closer, he’d be a candidate to finish games.

New York Yankees: The Yankees clearly demonstrated frustration with the lack of recent success throwing more money than Ft. Knox could’ve at CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira. The team still has a few question marks that they will look to internal options to fill.

Brett Gardner looks like the team’s center fielder because Melky Cabrera refused to grab hold of the job last year. Gardner could become a prolific run-scorer and base-stealer at the major league level and as long as he doesn’t flop will begin to showcase that this year.

One other big hole the Yankees have is filling the void Joba Chamberlain left when he moved to the rotation. At some point this season, Jonathan Albaladejo could assume the pre-Rivera role. He has pitched well in brief stints in the Bronx the last two years, and could rack up K’s and holds with a regular spot in their pen.

Tampa Bay Rays: The Rays broke out as an organization last year as they reversed their fortunes from perpetual loser to AL Champions in just one season. It took their pitching staff and offense enjoying a number of coming out parties and several players putting together career years to do so, but the team appears to be primed for continued success.

Matt Garza will be an “x-factor” in that success. His ERA will fall a bit, the win total will go up, and he will join James Shields and Scott Kazmir as some of the best arms in the AL.

On the offensive side BJ Upton looks ready to arrive in full-force.  He has flashed quality ability in the past but his playoff performance last year indicates he is on the verge of putting everything together.

Upton could be a .300 average guy, who hits 30 homers and steals 30 bases. In that lineup, he’ll also push 100 runs and RBI and his center-field defense will be above average.

Grant Balfour used a power fastball to establish himself as a very good big league reliever. It won’t be long before Rays management asks the Australian to assume the closer role at which points his stock will look like Yahoo’s.

Toronto Blue Jays: The Jays have a ton of talent close to making an impact at the big league level (Travis Snider, JP Arencibia, Brett Cecil, among others) but need some of the guys already their to become the players they were projected to be if the club wants to be successful in the near future.

Aaron Hill can be one of the best 2B in baseball if he can stay on the field this year.  Hill will be looked to put together a similar offensive card to the one he did in 2007. If he can slug over .450 again he could score 100 runs with the Jays offense filled with plenty of guys who could knock him in from scoring position.

Jesse Carlson needs to build off last year and prove he is going to be another very reliable arm in their bullpen in front B.J. Ryan. His ability to strike guys out could make him one of the better eighth guys in the American League.

Someone has to fill the void left by Burnett’s payday. Former first-round pick David Purcey reached the show last year, and while he won’t win 18 the way the departed-Burnett did, he has the ability to begin establishing himself as a reliable big league arm.

The Blue Jays would be ecstatic if he shows signs of being a guy they could on in the front half of their rotation.

MLB: 2009 American League Pre-Season All Rookie Team

March 17, 2009

by John Botelho… Rookies are a big part of Major League Baseball.

They are as much are part of the game as managers and coaches, bats and balls, and even veterans or All-Stars. Every year rookies go to spring training hoping when they leave they’ll do so wearing an MLB uniform.

Rookie years sometimes alert fans of a great career about to happen.

Perhaps, a rookie year can even be the best year of a career that will never again have the same kind of promise; other times a rookie year can show the public a player might not live up to hype and prospect status that surrounded him coming through the minor leagues.

In the last few years, the MLB has had several Rookies of the Year winners who have seemingly launched great careers. Dustin Pedroia’s 2007 Rookie of the Year campaign certainly seems to fit into one that alerted fans of great things to come. Not only did he capture the award, but he lead off the World Series by sending the first strike he saw into the seats on top of the green monster at Fenway Park. After the Sox won the World Series in his first year, it seemed like his career really couldn’t get much better from there. In fact, many people believed he was going to fall off a bit and experience a sophomore slump. Pedroia spent the 2008 season continuing to prove anyone who doubted him wrong and ultimately lead the Red Sox back to the playoffs and captured the 2008 AL MVP.

Ryan Braun was the NL’s winner of the rookie award in 2007 after putting together one of the best rookie seasons the MLB had ever seen.

Braun followed up that campaign by hitting 37 home runs and helping the Brewers to reach the playoffs for the first time during his lifetime.

Last year, showcased two rookies who both carried their teams into the playoffs.

Geovanny Soto was one of the best offensive catchers in the MLB and allowed the Cubs to make the postseason in consecutive years for the first time since 1908.

Evan Longoria was part of one of the biggest turn-around in sports history as he helped the Tampa Bay Rays went from the worst record in baseball to American League Champions—both players look like part of the next wave of MLB superstars.

Some rookie years aren’t as fruitful as those experienced by the award winners of the last two seasons.

Sometimes a player is anointed a team’s savior before he ever dons their uniform and not everyone can live up to that.

People forecasting the careers of Delmon Young and Alex Gordon were sure both were stars in the making with legitimate 40-homer power. Last season, those two can’t miss prospects, missed once again combining for just 26 round trippers. Homer Bailey, Clay Buchholz and Phil Hughes were both supposed to ascend to the top of the MLB’s pitching ranks, but all three spent the last season taking steps backwards instead of towards stardom.

Other players come up to the big leagues and showcase talent that initially triggers thoughts of future stardom, before that players stock comes falling down in the following seasons.

Eric Hinske hit 24 home runs, scored 99 times and drove in 84 runners in his first season for Toronto.

After looking like a budding star, Hinske’s career derailed a bit and those totals all still rank as career bests for him.

Other players like Ben Grieve and Marty Cordova also looked like potential regulars on the All-Star roster in their first season.

Grieve won the Rookie of the Year at 22-year-old and followed that with two solid seasons, but at 24, his career completely fell apart and he was out of baseball before reaching 30. Cordova was very similar to Hinske as he homered 24 times in his first go-around in the majors and only reached 20 once more, in what turned into a mediocre career, following an elegant start. Will this year’s top prospects turn into what is expected of them? Is Matt Wieters baseball’s next big thing? Will anyone surprise the baseball world as an unexpected rookie of the year candidate? Is there a rookie out there this year that can influence a pennant race the way we’ve seen recently? All questions regarding the who, what, where, when and why about 2009’s crop of rookies are answered in the following paragraphs which highlight the top rookie candidate for each position in the American and National Leagues. Also find out who the top three finishers for the 2009 Rookie of the Year in each league will be and why those players have been deemed rookie of the year worthy.

Rookie of the Year by Position

American League

C-Matt Wieters, BAL

It seems likely that Wieters is heading to AAA to open the 2009 campaign despite obliterating the minor leagues a year ago. Like Evan Longoria a year ago, he will reach the big leagues in short order and be productive as soon as he arrives. Wieters won’t be going to the World Series the way Longoria did as a rookie, but he will be among the best fresh faces in the game this season. He should arrive in Baltimore some time in May and should get a chance to play in upwards of 120 games, and projects to be among the elite-if not the best catcher-in baseball in the future, while beginning to establish himself as such upon arrival to the MLB. The switch hitter won’t reach the pinnacle of his promise for a couple of years, but should wind up hitting .280 while pushing 15-20 homers and competing for Rookie of the Year honors this season.

1B-Justin Smoak, TEX

A high school teammate of Wieters at Goose Greek High in S.C., drew Mark Teixiera comparisons as the MLB draft approached a year ago. Like Teixiera, he became a first round pick of the Rangers.

After signing, he tore apart LoA and established himself as one of the best 1B prospects in baseball. There has been speculation that he could skip HiA and go right to AA. Whether or not that happens, the Rangers plan to move him in a hurry as long as he hits.  All signs indicate that will happen.

Smoak has above average power from both sides of the plate and is known for being able to show good patience.

He has demonstrated the ability to hit off speed stuff on a regular basis and his glove might end up being his best tool and he’ll be mentioned in Gold Gloves discussions very soon.

Though he’s blocked, because the Rangers are seemingly set with Chris Davis at first, Mike Young at third and Hank Blalock at DH, he should be able to push his way onto the field midway through ’09.

If any of the three go down or under-perform, Smoak will be waiting to join the Rangers lineup.

Once he arrives he’s going to hit about .290 and could swat double digit homers in about half a season.

2B-Chris Getz, CHI

Getz is one of three players who will be competing for the 2B job for the White Sox this spring.

The Rockies tried to give Jayson Nix their starting job last season and he flopped.

Brent Lillibridge was also acquired this winter, and hit a dismal .200 in 80 big league at-bats while posting just a .220 mark in AAA last year. Getz offers the White Sox the most advanced bat of the trio and has the versatility to play all over the field. He should take the job out of spring training, and with a full season at the MLB level could hit .280 and reach double digits in both homers and steals.

3B-Dayan Viciendo, CHI

Viciendo is the latest Cuban to sign on with the White Sox. A year ago, Alexei Ramirez came to the USA big league ready and made an immediate impact on the field for the White Sox. Viciendo’s impact might not be as swift, but it should eventually be even bigger. At just 19-years-old, he is likely headed for AA to start the season. The White Sox gave him a four-year big league deal and will move him to the Major League roster as soon as he is ready to play for them. He should be entrenched next to Ramirez in the south side by June. His conditioning is the biggest question: He’s listed at 248 lbs. already, but his overall ability should be able to compensate. Down the road he could be one of baseball’s premier home run threats but it’s not fair to expect that of someone who would only be a year removed from high school if he grew up here just yet. He has a .260 with 15 homers this year and would be not only be reasonable, it would give the White Sox an early return on its most recent investment.

SS-Elvis Andrus, TEX

The Rangers moved the face of their franchise from shortstop to third base to make room for Andrus.

The good news for Rangers fans is Andrus’ talent and potential are good enough that it forced Michael Young to make the switch. Andrus will find his way to the top the Texas lineup before long and as a result will score a ton of runs. As long as he doesn’t get overmatched this year and he shouldn’t, Andrus could swipe 40 bags and eclipse 100 runs before the season ends. He’ll need to keep the K’s down, but an average of .270 wouldn’t be too much to expect from Andrus, who came to the Rangers as part of the Teixiera trade.

OF-Travis Snider, TOR

The sweet-swinging lefty played at four levels last season. On his way to the big leagues Snider was named an Eastern League All-Star and showcased the power his bat holds when he won the league’s homerun derby. He put on an impressive show, launching balls that approached 500 feet, including one that hit a light on top of a town in right center field. His advanced approach and feel for hitting allowed him to reach the big leagues last September at just 20-years-old. He showed the Toronto front office they had made a good decision by hitting .301 during his cup of coffee and even homered deep to right field as a visitor at Fenway Park. Snider could be the best offensive rookie in baseball this year and should hit .270-.280 an easily eclipse 20 home runs.

OF-Michael Saunders, SEA

Saunders will be part of a group of young players who takes advantage of Seattle’s rebuilding the next few seasons. Saunders has established himself as one of the top outfield prospects and will have a chance to break into the big leagues in a hurry, because of Seattle’s lackluster outfield situation.

He’s demonstrated the ability to hit double-digit homers as well as base running skills that have allowed him to steal over 20 bases and has a solid strike zone knowledge, which has lead to above average on-base percentages throughout this minor league career. He could see half a season with the Mariners this year and should hit .270 with an on base of .350 or better while pushing 10 homers and steals.

OF-Matt LaPorta, CLE

LaPorta came to the Indians in exchange for CC Sabathia last summer and his bat should join Cleveland’s lineup in a hurry.

LaPorta is a premier power prospect that could be a 40-homer guy within a couple of years.  He has already swatted 35 in just 141 minor league games.

Additionally, LaPorta has displayed an astute ability to draw walks meaning power isn’t his only calling card. With Cleveland’s 1B and DH scene already full, he’ll continue to work out in the outfield and will put the pressure on Sin-Soo Choo and Ben Francisco to play well. If either falters, LaPorta will step in and take the job. Even if both hold their own, LaPorta’s bat could force one of them out by midseason. By the end of the year he’ll have an on-base percentage over .360 to go with 15 homers in the majors-offensive numbers the Indian’s lineup could severely use.

SP-Price, TB

Price has already pitched on baseball’s biggest stage and is very much in the Rays plans for this season. They traded Edwin Jackson to open up a spot in the rotation for the young lefty. His electric fastball and wipeout slider are a potent combination and he proved he could pitch against anyone in the AL East by shutting down the Red Sox in the ALCS last fall. With a full season at the big league level, Price should push win 15 games. Like Wieters, it’ll take a few years for the fireball to reach peak potential but he’ll post an ERA of about 4.15 to go with the quality wins total.

SP-Neftali Feliz, TEX

Feliz is part of a crop of very young, very talented arms that are almost ready to make an impact for their respective big league teams. His fastball, which will be one of the best in the majors when he arrives, is a pitch he can live off of and his other pitches aren’t nearly as effective, but both his changeup and curve are at least adequate. The power curve is a plus-pitch when it’s on, and will help pile on strikeouts as he matures. He has already shown a great ability to finish hitters off and lead the minors with 10.8 per game nine last year and should debut after 21st first birthday and arrive in time to make at least 15 starts. He could burst onto the scene via Felix Hernandez a few years back, but winning six or seven of those starts while putting close to a K an inning in the books is more likely.

Both Price and Feliz will be challenged for these spots by Orioles arms Chris Tillman and Brian Matsuz, Feliz’s teammate Derek Holland, Oakland A’s products Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson, and Blue Jays lefty Brett Cecil. If any of those guys can crack an MLB rotation out of the spring or shortly there after, they could end up with the best numbers this year.

RP-Kevin Jepsen, LAA

Jepsen took a long road to the big leagues.

After spending five years in class A, Jepsen used his mid-ninties power fastball and hammer 12-to-6 curves to pitch his way onto the US Bronze medal Olympic team and into the bigs last summer.

He even earned a spot on the club’s postseason roster and made sure is part of their future plans andwill help the Angels have one of the best bullpens in the AL. He should throw a normal relievers share of innings—an ERA in the mid-3 isn’t too much to expect and he could pile on 60 or more K’s out of the pen. Jose Mijares of the Twins and Mariners 2008 first round pick Josh Fields could both have big impacts in the pen this year too.

2009 American League Rookie of the Year:

  1. Travis Snider;
  2. Matt Wieters;
  3. David Price.

Snider gets the nod over baseball’s two most touted prospects for a few reasons: Like Price, he has already debuted in the majors and held his own as 20-year-old. He’s going to get more opportunity than Wieters and will end up with better power and RBI numbers, because he’s going to spend the whole season in Toronto. Pitching in the AL East is no easy task and Price will soon find out that it’s not just the Red Sox and Yankees lineups that pack some punch. Every team in the East can hit, as the division is easily baseballs best.