A.L. East preview: Optimism, pessimism, realism

A.L. East preview: Optimism, pessimism, realism
March 24, 2014, 2:00 pm
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It's spring -- and you know what that means.
    
Most of the 30 MLB teams are feeling good about their chances in 2014.
    
And why not? Parity exists throughout the game, with only a handful of teams having failed to make the post-season this century.
    
Of course, some of that spring optimism is misplaced. Not every aspect of a team will perform as anticipated. Injuries and under-performance eventually throw off early-season plans.
    
That said, here's a look at the four other A.L. East teams as the start of the season nears -- with an optimistic view, a worst case scenario and a realistic take on 2014 for each.

NEW YORK YANKEES
Optimistic look: Derek Jeter returns after playing just 17 games in 2013 and goes out in a blaze of glory in, this, his final season. Mark Teixeira, who also missed most of last year with a wrist injury, re-discovers his power stroke. CC Sabathia rebounds from his worst season and leads the staff in innings pitched and wins. David Robertson doesn't make anyone forget Mariano Rivera, but successfully makes the transition to closer. Newcomers Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran all adapt to New York.
    
Pessimistic look: Jeter, 40, is hobbled and a shell of his former self. The age and lack of depth in the infield becomes crushing. Robertson is fine in the closer's role, but a thin set-up group means the Yankees lose a lot of games in the seventh and eighth innings. Masahiro Tanaka finds the transition from Japan to be more difficult than he anticipated.
    
Realistic look: With Ellsbury and Brett Gardner serving as table-setters and Beltran, McCann and Teixeira comprising a formidable middle-of-the-order trio, the Yankees will have no problems scoring runs. But the infield defense -- especially on the left side -- will be problematic and set-up relief is a significant concern. The season may well hinge on veteran starters CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda. If they can combine for 400 innings, the Yankees could be playoff contenders. If they falter, it's hard to see the Yanks being much better than .500.

TAMPA BAY RAYS
Optimistic look: The starting rotation is young and deep, as formidable as any in the league. James Loney picks up where he left off last year and provides another run-producing bat to augment the lineup. Wil Myers benefits from the experience of his rookie season and continues to improve. Grant Balfour, in his second stint with the Rays, provides late-inning stability in the bullpen. Joe Maddon continues to get more out of his personnel than almost any manager in the game.
    
Pessimistic look: The young rotation goes through growing pains. Longoria, who's had a history of injuries the last few seasons, misses significant time. Loney reverts to his 2012 form and has trouble driving the ball, while eating up a disproportionate amount of the club's payroll. The steady stream of prospects matriculating throught the system slows to a trickle now that the Rays are no longer picking in the top five each June.
    
Realistic look: Tampa Bay's young rotation is indeed among the handful of deepest and most talented in either league, and that alone should ensure that the Rays will remain in contention. The offense, on the other hand, is again something of a question mark. Even in an era when scoring is down, scoring just 700 runs in a season -- as the Rays did last season -- is asking for trouble by placing so much of a burden on your pitching staff. And at some point, if injuries strike, the team's financial constraints will come into play.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
Optimistic look: The two spring signings of Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz make the Orioles contenders. Solid up-the-middle defense (catcher Matt Wieters, shortstop J.J. Hardy, center fielder Adam Jones) help support the pitching staff. Cruz and Davis make up a solid left-right poower duo in the middle of the batting order. Jimenez and Chris Tillman combine for 30 wins at the top of the rotation.
    
Pessimistic look: Third baseman Manny Machado continues to be hampered by last September's ugly knee blowout. The lack of a true top-of-the-rotation starter means the O's lack someone to match up with aces on opposing teams. The trade of closer Jim Johnson makes the Orioles vulnerable in the late innings. Davis, whose power fell off significantly in the second half, struggles to match his 2013 performance.
    
Realistic look: The window may be starting to close on the franchise. Davis and Wieters have just two seasons remaining before being eligible for free agency. Both are represented by Scott Boras, making it unlikely that the two sign extensions. Adding Cruz lengthens the lineup and the O's will score a ton of runs, especially at home. But with deficiencies in the rotation, it's hard to see the Orioles staying with the Red Sox and Rays.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Optimistic look: If the Jays have a motto for 2014, it might well be: Things can't possibly be as bad as last year! Picked as a certain playoff team, the Jays finished last in the division, and it's doubtful they'll be that disappointing again. Jose Bautista, their most important player, has appeared much healthier this spring. If Bautista can be a force in the lineup, it would be a huge boost. Rotation mainstays Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey rebound from disappointing 2013 seasons. Jose Reyes, who missed a third of the season, regains his health, and with it, his ability to be a game-changer.
    
Pessimistic look: Reyes and Bautista deal with nagging injuries again while Melky Cabrera continues to prove that his best seasons were the result of PED use. Buehrle shows his age and Brandon Morrow continues to be frustratingly inconsistent, despite top-level stuff. The inability -- or refusal -- by GM Alex Anthopolous to make meaningful off-season moves comes back to haunt the team when the inevitable injuries hit.
    
Realistic look: The Jays have gone more than 20 years since their last postseason appearance and it doesn't appear that streak will end anytime soon. The Jays emptied their farm system to get Reyes, Buehrle and Dickey in two huge  deals after 2012, and unless the Jays get off to a strong start, it may be time to unload veterans like Bautists and Encarnacion and begin a proper rebuilding program.