This AL East preview will compare the franchises in Capra's most competitive and most successful division. Since Season 30, each team has won the division at least once. The division winner has been the number one AL playoff seed each of those seasons. And, of course, only once since Season 22 has an AL South team had a good enough record such that they would have finished higher than 3rd in the AL East.
Each team is playing a distinctive role this season.
Charlotte has alternated seasons of 96 wins with seasons of 85 or 86 wins for the last five seasons. As they wait for top pitching prospects Stevie Havens and Albie Estrada to arrive, can 38-year old Everth Cantu work enough magic to keep them in the thick of the playoff race? It remains to be seen whether Dr. Jekyll is going to the playoffs or Mr. Hyde goes home again.
Cleveland responded to the end of a run of 19 consecutive playoff births by winning 100 games and the World Series in season 36. Was this the beginning of a new era? Or was is merely a dead cat bounce as reigning MVP Andrew Flores commences his walk season for the the Spiders. The Spiders have turned into an average pitching team that relies primarily on the long ball, leading the AL in homers in season 35.
Washington has a reputation as a young, up-and-coming AL East pwerhouse. However, they've already arrived, averaging 94 wins over the last five seasons. Much of their reputation for youth is based on the perception and influence of rapidly ascending superstar Vic Zumaya. This is a team that hits homers and drives in runs like the classic AL East teams, but they are furnished with a few extra weapons: they led the AL in steals, fielding percentage and plus plays in Season 35.
Boston has spent the last few seasons in rebuild mode, focusing on acquiring pitching talent like Harry Ramirez and Sidney Hicks. This isn't the year that they make any serious moves towards contention. In fact, there is a lot of solid, veteran talent on the team that won't be around when in Season 39 when Boston hits their stride.
Charlotte - Charlotte boasts the ingredients for the best, young infield in the Capra. Their mid-20s #3 and #4 hitters C Ivan Sosa and 1B Otis Matzek are contenders to be MVP finalists and Mariano Franco has already snagged one gold glove at SS.
Cleveland - Two-time MVP Andrew Flores leads a mismatched bunch for one last run. 2B Alex Prinz waits to become the face of the franchise, but his fellow infielders aren't the same quality. Two 35 year old catchers split time while Hunter Dydalewicz is a decaying glove-only SS. Recently acquired, top prospect Tomo Lo is expected to play 2B or 3B next season, but looks unlikely to contribute this season.
Washington - Despite a lower profile, Fernando Aguilar is perhaps the most feared hitter in baseball. Overall, the infield is the top unit in the division with 3B Karl West a prime candidate to emerge as the best AL 3B of the next five years. The shortstop position is the only concern, as slick-fielding 22 year old Wily Mesa looks to push veteran Victor Duran aside.
Boston - Rule 5 selection Enrique Espinoza is likely to be around for a long time, but solid veterans like B.C. Matos and Luke Markakis are likely to be shipped off this year or next. Either could bring back young players good enough to be contributors on the next great Expos team.
Charlotte - The Achilles' heel of the Bulldogs is the outfield where natural 3B Omar Romero is gamely holding down the fort in CF while Willie Niese and Tony Callaspo practice their swings while biding their time in the corners. A repeat of season 35 from Niese might keep this group afloat, otherwise Charlotte might have to dig into their thin farm system for chips to trade.
Cleveland - The surprising Renyel Siquieros exceeded expectations last year, but he is primarily in the lineup for his defensive abilities. Assuming that he even has the defensive ability to find it, Trenidad Chavez will manning RF for the Spiders. His bat had better boom in order to make up for his defensive shortcomings.
Washington - With Rich Falk and Brett Alexander in the corners of the outfield and at the top of the lineup, the outfield is devastatingly productive. 33-year-old CF Brendan Michaels should be watching over his shoulder, as CF is the one spot in the lineup that Washington could easily upgrade.
Boston - Roosevelt Sherman could be a bright spot in the outfield as he gets serious consideration for a Silver Slugger in CF. However, unlike a number of the infielders that are solid veterans with trade value, Mat Grimsley in LF and Todd Gilbert in RF are both four-A players.
Starting Pitching Assessment
Charlotte - Everth Cantu came over in a mid-season deal and went 10-4 to keep Charlotte in the playoff hunt until the final games of the season. Staff ace Jared Kendrick continues to be inconsistent. Former #3 overall pick Irv Haren is the wildcard as he returns from his second elbow surgery in three years to provide a much needed spark.
Cleveland - Tuck Dydalewicz leads a solid but unspectacular group. Max-contract Wilkin Mujica is in season 3 of his deal and has already suffered two major elbow injuries. Recovery from the second surgery should be complete early in the year and Mujica should join the team before the All-Star break. Dydalewicz and Mujica could head a formidable playoff rotation, but there are serious questions about depth after off-season deals moved Cleveland's brightest pitching prospect.
Washington - Season 34 Cy Young award winner Christy Marte and Season 33 Rookie of the Year Vic Zumaya are the best 1-2 punch in the division. D'Angelo Ortiz slots into the rotation at #3, but the former Top 10 overall pick is an All-Star and a solid playoff starter. Washington's biggest weakness is the back of the rotation. Once again, expect Zumaya and maybe Ortiz to start 37 or more games as the Expos skip the #5 spot in their rotation whenever possible.
Boston - Lonnie Finley will be the anchor of the Tommyknocker rotation. Finley was the subject of a lot of interest on the Season 35 free agent market and then dogged by trade speculation all last year as a number of teams pursued him. The remainder of the rotation is filled with pitch-to-contact pitchers that know how to fill up the strike zone. Any of them could break out, but it looks as if the plan is for these guys to rely on an above-average defense to keep the Tommyknockers in the game.
Relief Pitching Assessment
Charlotte - The Bulldogs look to be going closer-by-committee, but there is no one on staff with a closer's pedigree and none of the returning pitchers saved double-digit major league games in recent history, this is also an area of weakness.
Cleveland - The Spiders haven't anointed a closer, but John Gong converted 21 of 22 regular season saves and all four playoff opportunities after returning from a second Tommy John surgery in mid-season.
Washington - Pedro Arencibia is installed as the closer, but Brian Martin and Billy Dykhoff might both be better arms in the bullpen. The biggest concern here is that the bullpen doesn't look as if it can eat a lot of innings. That won't be necessary if the Top 3 starters are lights out, but if you wanted to try to find a worst-case scenario for the Expos, it would probably involve an over-taxed bullpen blowing leads for Zumaya and Marte down the stretch.
Boston - The slightly wild Albert Merced will be the closer, reprising the role he had in St. Louis when he saved over 200 games in a six-season span. Tony Duran was signed late and could provide some depth. Merced is the top closer in the division and could make this the strongest unit in the AL East.
Intangibles and Other
Charlotte has some minor league pitching a few years away, but the window of opportunity for Sosa and Matzek is now and a lot of the support needed for a playoff run - like Irv Haren or 3B Roy Edmonds - is inconsistent. If things break right, Charlotte wins 85 to 90 games and is in the thick of the wildcard fight. Otherwise, management will have to decide whether to trade for veteran help or to build towards a Season 40 team that could feature some of the brighest talent in the game.
Cleveland doesn't pitch or play defensive like they did in the Rick Christensen era, but they continue to try to out-homer the opposition. This has been a recipe for regular season success, but only recently has Cleveland seen more success with this strategy in the postseason. Cleveland is unlikely to get anything of value in trade for Flores, so they'll have no option but to play the season out and see what happens. A playoff birth is likely, but it is more likely to be a wildcard than not.
Washington - There is a history of AL East teams making big midseason deals for starting pitching and it wouldn't be a surprise if Washington leveraged a mid-career bench player like Graeme Papelbon or Del Montero that would be an attractive target as a starter for many other teams. Acquiring a centerfielder could be another option, as Brendan Michaels could be sub-par and Jung-Lee Fukudome, the top minor league CF in the organization, profiles more as a backup. With an acquisition to help the back of the rotation this team could lead Capra in wins. Otherwise, solid acquisitions for each of the bullpen and CF could make them the most well-rounded and dangerous playoff team.
Boston - Their top minor league talent is in pitching. Besides top prospects Harry Ramirez and Sidney Hicks, the Tommyknockers have a number of high-control, pitch-to-contact guys like Morgan Wright and Carlos Reyes on the cusp of contributing. Only a Charlotte fire-sale keeps Boston out of last place, but depending on the performance of Lonnie Finley, B.C. Matos and Luke Markakis, last place could be a respectable 75 wins or a top 5 draft pick.
Overall with Group Ranks
There appears to be a bit of a blueprint to the AL East teams as they all bear some similarities: infields with lots of power combined with strength at the top of the rotation, but not a lot of starting pitching depth and middling bullpens.
Washington: IF(#1), OF(#1), SP(#1), RP(#2), Rank: #1, 100 wins
Cleveland: IF(#3), OF(#2), SP(#2), RP(#3), Rank: #2, 93 wins
Charlotte: IF(#2), OF(#3), SP(#3), RP(#4), Rank: #3, 86 wins
Boston: IF(#4), OF(#4), SP(#4), RP(#1), Rank: #4, 70 wins