Saturday, April 12, 2014

2014 MLB Preview: AL East

Every team in the AL East thinks that they can win the division. Only one of them, of course, will actually do so, and three of these teams have significant enough holes that they're realistically not going to be fighting for anything apart from the second wild card spot. Toronto hopes that their one-percentile outcome of last year leads to some positive regression to the mean or better, like it did for Boston between 2012 and 2013. The Yankees want to fend off the undefeated Father Time in Derek Jeter's last summer in the sun. Baltimore is looking for continued development from its young players and might get a shot in the arm from a pair of top pitching prospects this season. The Red Sox are seeking a repeat trip to the World Series with a couple of new faces playing key roles. And Tampa Bay has put together perhaps their best roster yet.

Previous previews: AL West, NL West, AL Central, NL Central

Glossary of stats: .275/.350/.475 = batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage, HR = home runs, SB = stolen bases, wOBA = weighted on-base average, WAR = wins above replacement, IP = innings pitched, K/BB = strikeouts/walks, ERA = earned run average, FIP = fielding independent pitching.*

*All 2014 statistical projections are courtesy of Fangraphs, along with my bet whether the player in question will exceed or fall short of that projection. When WAR is mentioned in a written paragraph, it typically refers to the Baseball-Reference version.

5) Toronto Blue Jays

Lineup
SS   Jose Reyes (age 31, .297/.347/.439, 12 HR, 28 SB, .341 wOBA, 3.9 WAR) - over
LF   Melky Cabrera (age 29, .291/.337/.427, 11 HR, .333 wOBA, 1.2 WAR) - over
RF   Jose Bautista (age 33, .263/.367/.519, 33 HR, .380 wOBA, 4.5 WAR) - over
1B   Edwin Encarnacion (age 31, .278/.376/.537, 35 HR, .391 wOBA, 4.3 WAR) - over
DH  Adam Lind (age 30, .271/.335/.443, 20 HR, .338 wOBA, 1.0 WAR) - under
CF   Colby Rasmus (age 27, .260/.326/.467, 24 HR, .344 wOBA, 4.3 WAR) - over
3B   Brett Lawrie (age 24, .281/.345/.451, 17 HR, .349 wOBA, 4.4 WAR) - under
C     Dioner Navarro (age 30, .273/.328/.396, 10 HR, .317 wOBA, 2.0 WAR) - under
2B   Ryan Goins (age 26, .250/.289/.334, 4 HR, .277 wOBA, 0.8 WAR) - over

Rotation
RHP R.A. Dickey (age 39, 220 IP, 191/62 K/BB, 3.61 ERA, 3.78 FIP, 4.0 WAR) - under
LHP Mark Buehrle (age 35, 210 IP, 126/47 K/BB, 4.19 ERA, 4.20 FIP, 2.4 WAR) - over
RHP Brandon Morrow (age 29, 165 IP, 147/54 K/BB, 3.53 ERA, 3.91 FIP, 2.5 WAR) - under
RHP Dustin McGowan (age 32, 58 IP, 60/26 K/BB, 3.32 ERA, 3.82 FIP, 0.4 WAR) - over
RHP Drew Hutchison (age 23, 146 IP, 128/46 K/BB, 3.75 ERA, 3.64 FIP, 2.6 WAR) - over

Bench/Bullpen
IF Maicer Izturis, IF Jonathan Diaz, C Josh Thole, OF Moises Sierra, C Eric Kratz, LHP Brett Cecil, RHP Steve Delabar, RHP Jeremy Jeffress, LHP Aaron Loup, RHP Todd Redmond, RHP Sergio Santos, RHP Esmil Rogers

Best Offseason Move - After pushing their chips to the middle of the table for last season, the Blue Jays did not panic and blow everything up after just about everything went wrong last season. Between a pandemic of injuries and some down years from key players, the Jays could have had very little go worse for them last year. They're counting on an uptick in 2014, with pretty much every important face back except for Josh Johnson, who signed with San Diego as a free agent. Toronto's six best regulars (Bautista, Reyes, Encarnacion, Cabrera, Lawrie, and Rasmus) combined to miss a whopping 310 games last year, and only two pitchers (Dickey and the indestructible Buehrle) made more than twenty starts. The odds of that happening in back-to-back seasons are infinitesimally low, and kudos to the Blue Jays brass for recognizing that.

Worst Offseason Move - As those 310 missed games a year ago prove, this is a pretty brittle team, and the bench options are pretty ugly. Izturis hit .236/.288/.310 as a utility infielder last year, Thole "contributed" a 38 OPS+ as the backup catcher, and really no one besides Sierra provided any kind of offensive help. So their big moves to bolster the bench were...trading for Kratz? Signing Chris Getz? Signing Dan Johnson for when they play the Red Sox in September? Ugh.

Key Player - When Reyes is healthy, he's a two-way force at shortstop who provides speed and a little pop at the top of the order, and good range at short. He's slowing up a tad thanks to his age and the numerous injuries (only five times in twelve years has he played 150 games, and he's starting this campaign on the shelf), but the difference between him and Izturis or Diaz is a yawning chasm. He's worth four or five wins more than those guys, so if he can stay on the field, Toronto has a shot to compete.

Most Exciting Player - Bautista was a replacement-level player for several years until the 2010 season, when he erupted thanks to a swing change, slamming 97 home runs over the next two seasons and becoming a perennial All-Star. He too has difficulty staying out of the trainer's room, with 116 missed games over the past two years, but when in the lineup he is one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball. Joey Bats is happy to take a walk but will pounce on anything in the zone, and hits some serious moonshots. Dickey is also entertaining because he's one of the last of a dying breed, the knuckleballers. Unlike many other knuckleballers, however, Dickey can throw his pitch at well over seventy miles per hour, and can even sneak the odd batting practice fastball in there as well. His success at this level is made all the more remarkable when you consider that he doesn't have an ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow. Hopefully he will bounce back from a rough 2013.

Possible Breakout Star - After a 43-game cameo in 2011 that saw him hit .293/.373/.580 as a 21-year-old, it seems that everyone in baseball has been waiting for Lawrie to inevitably break out and post numbers like those on a consistent basis. Much like Mike Moustakas in Kansas City, however, it hasn't happened yet for a variety of reasons. One of those is that Lawrie can't stay upright; in a refrain that must be getting repetitive by now, he's lost 92 games across the past two seasons, and only hit .265/.320/.401 (a tick below league average) when he has been in the lineup. The heavily tattooed British Columbian offers a fine glove and great versatility (he can play second or third), but that doesn't matter if he's on the DL. He's still just 24 years old, so there's plenty of time for him to grow into the player that everyone thought he would be by now.

Potential Achilles Heel - If you haven't realized by now that the answer here is obviously a general inability to stay healthy and on the field, then you haven't been paying attention for the last several paragraphs. Reyes, Bautista, Encarnacion, Lawrie, Morrow, Rasmus, and Lind all have extensive histories of injury, which wouldn't be a problem if they weren't seven of the ten best players on the team. For once, Toronto needs a majority of these guys to stay on the field for something close to an entire season.

Hidden Strength - A lot of people don't think about Toronto when they talk about the major markets in baseball, but it is the second-largest single-team metro population in MLB (after Dallas-Fort Worth), and only Houston is even close. In addition, Rogers Communications owns the team, and they have a captive audience of, well, all of the second-largest nation on Earth (even if it is just 35 million people). Translation; the Blue Jays have a TON of money, and if they feel like they're competitive in July and need another piece or two, don't be shocked if they pull a page out of the Dodgers' playbook and make a godfather offer for a major trade.

4) New York Yankees

Lineup
CF   Jacoby Ellsbury (age 30, .293/.347/.438, 14 HR, 41 SB, .345 wOBA, 5.1 WAR) - over
SS   Derek Jeter (age 40, .281/.343/.372, 7 HR, .319 wOBA, 1.1 WAR) - under
RF   Carlos Beltran (age 37, .284/.342/.484, 24 HR, .356 wOBA, 2.1 WAR) - over
1B   Mark Teixeira (age 34, .252/.339/.462, 24 HR, .347 wOBA, 2.6 WAR) - under
C     Brian McCann (age 30, .263/.338/.462, 26 HR, .345 wOBA, 4.3 WAR) - under
DH  Alfonso Soriano (age 38, .252/.304/.469, 27 HR, .333 wOBA, 1.6 WAR) - under
LF   Brett Gardner (age 30, .279/.361/.410, 7 HR, 32 SB, .342 wOBA, 3.8 WAR) - under
3B   Kelly Johnson (age 32, .236/.313/.407, 17 HR, .317 wOBA, 1.5 WAR) - under
2B   Brian Roberts (age 36, .239/.289/.351, 6 HR, .281 wOBA, 0.1 WAR) - over

Rotation
LHP CC Sabathia (age 33, 216 IP, 193/57 K/BB, 3.75 ERA, 3.58 FIP, 4.1 WAR) - under
RHP Hiroki Kuroda (age 39, 196 IP, 143/44 K/BB, 3.55 ERA, 3.78 FIP, 3.2 WAR) - under
RHP Masahiro Tanaka (age 25, 197 IP, 172/52 K/BB, 3.53 ERA, 3.62 FIP, 3.7 WAR) - over
RHP Ivan Nova (age 27, 186 IP, 161/58 K/BB, 3.72 ERA, 3.54 FIP, 3.4 WAR) - under
LHP Michael Pineda (age 25, 82 IP, 75/29 K/BB, 3.97 ERA, 4.33 FIP, 0.9 WAR) - over

Bench/Bullpen
OF Ichiro Suzuki, C Francisco Cervelli, IF Dean Anna, IF Yangervis Solarte, RHP David Robertson, LHP Matt Thornton, RHP Shawn Kelley, LHP Vidal Nuno, RHP David Phelps, RHP Adam Warren, RHP Dellin Betances

Best Offseason Move - The Yankees' primary catcher last year, Chris Stewart, hit just .211/.293/.272 last year, which looks positively robust compared to backup Austin Romine's .207/.255/.296. Desperate to get some offense from their infield, the team went out and signed McCann, a seven-time All-Star with a career .277/.350/.473 slash line who also happens to be one of the best pitch framers in the game. Just like that, New York's biggest weakness became its biggest strength. Better yet, McCann is a left-handed fly ball hitter who should benefit from the same inviting short porch at Yankee Stadium that turned Curtis Granderson from a run-of-the-mill twenty-bombs-a-year guy into a forty-homer monster. During a winter in which Brian Cashman professed to be miserly with money, the five years and $85 million dropped on McCann was necessary.

Worst Offseason Move - Cashman and the Yankees have spent the better part of two years trying to get rid of Alex Rodriguez come hell or high water, and they garnered a major victory when MLB suspended him for the entire 2014 season, promptly removing his toxic presence from the clubhouse and his even more toxic contract ($27 million this year!) from the ledger. In need of a third baseman, Cashman went out and got...Johnson? Him? Really? Johnson played his first professional game at the hot corner just last year for the Rays, and he hasn't been an above-average hitter since 2010, when he was in Arizona. Although he still brings a little pop, Johnson's walk rate has declined precipitously of late, adding up to a .307 OBP over the past three seasons. Dishonorable mention; in need of a second baseman after Robinson Cano fled for Seattle, Cashman picked up Roberts, who hasn't played 80 games in a season since 2009, let alone 150.

Key Player - Last year was the ceremonial farewell tour for Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte, and this year it's time for Captain Jetes to take a bow. Injuries limited Jeter to just 17 games last season, but he may have something left in the tank; after all, he did lead the majors in hits back in 2012, and deservedly made his thirteenth All-Star game. His range at shortstop wouldn't cover your living room, and he is no longer a plus base runner, but he can still battle at the plate and get on base, which puts him a cut above the other three Yankee infielders. Perhaps he'll get some farewell gifts as cool as the rocking chair made of broken bats that the Twins gave Rivera last summer.

Most Exciting Player - There's always an inordinate amount of intrigue when a star Asian player comes to the majors, largely because the development and training programs are so different on the far edge of the Pacific. Tanaka arrives with as much buzz (at least) as Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka before him, and maybe as much as any Japanese import since Ichiro. Tanaka wasn't just the best pitcher in Japan over the past three years; he was utterly dominant, with ERAs of 1.27, 1.87, and 1.27 again over the past three seasons. Hell, the last time his ERA was north of 2.50, he was a teenager. I know that pitching wins don't really mean anything, but it's still pretty ridiculous that Tanaka went 24-0 last year for Rakuten, with three no-decisions. By the way, he's only 25 years old. His career in Japan was very similar to that of Darvish, although Tanaka both walks and strikes out somewhat fewer batters than his countryman. The Yankee stadium bandbox shouldn't be an issue for him either (Japanese parks are smaller than in the majors). You can bet that Tanaka's every start this year will be a major event.

Possible Breakout Star - Remember when the Yankees and Mariners exchanged top young players just two years ago? Catcher Jesus Montero headed west, and in return the Yanks received Pineda, a southpaw coming off of a very successful rookie season for Seattle. Pineda promptly injured his shoulder and missed 2012 and 2013, but in his first start this season reminded everyone of the promise he showed as a 22-year-old, striking out five in six innings and not walking a man. If the big Dominican (6'7", 265) can handle something close to a full season's workload (you can never tell with shoulder injuries), the Yankees will have a solid rotation.

Potential Achilles Heel - Baseball has a long season, and it really helps to have some young guys who can handle the wear and tear of 162 games over six months without breaking down. It may not look like a physical sport, but players routinely lose 15-20 pounds or more over the course of the season, and they get tired or hurt sometimes. This happens to older players more than younger ones, and the Yankees have the oldest team in baseball; when Sabathia or Kuroda starts, not a single regular in under the age of 30, and five of them (Jeter, Roberts, Beltran, Soriano, and Kuroda) are north of 35, as is the team's top weapon off of the bench (Ichiro). At some point this season (and hey, Teixeira is already hurt again), this is going to become a major issue. Father Time is undefeated.

Hidden Strength - Come on, nothing about the Yankees is ever hidden. They're one of the two or three richest teams in baseball, with the second-largest payroll, and by an order of magnitude the largest media following. There are no secrets here.

3) Baltimore Orioles

Lineup
LF   David Lough (age 28, .274/.314/.410, 9 HR, .321 wOBA, 1.6 WAR) - over
RF   Nick Markakis (age 30, .280/.345/.412, 11 HR, .338 wOBA, 1.5 WAR) - under
CF   Adam Jones (age 28, .278/.318/.470, 24 HR, .347 wOBA, 2.9 WAR) - over
1B   Chris Davis (age 28, .269/.341/.525, 35 HR, .377 wOBA, 3.7 WAR) - over
C     Matt Wieters (age 28, .252/.319/.424, 16 HR, .329 wOBA, 3.4 WAR) - over
DH  Nelson Cruz (age 33, .254/.316/.471, 29 HR, .348 wOBA, 2.4 WAR) - under
3B   Manny Machado (age 21, .268/.312/.421, 11 HR, .326 wOBA, 3.4 WAR) - over
SS   J.J. Hardy (age 31, .266/.307/.424, 20 HR, .324 wOBA, 3.6 WAR) - under
2B   Steve Lombardozzi (age 25, .265/.303/.351, 4 HR, .294 wOBA, 0.9 WAR) - over

Rotation
RHP Ubaldo Jimenez (age 30, 177 IP, 186/83 K/BB, 4.12 ERA, 3.99 FIP, 2.3 WAR) - over
RHP Chris Tillman (age 26, 195 IP, 170/65 K/BB, 4.02 ERA, 4.32 FIP, 1.2 WAR) - over
LHP Wei-Yin Chen (age 28, 158 IP, 128/42 K/BB, 4.25 ERA, 3.98 FIP, 1.4 WAR) - over
RHP Miguel Gonzalez (age 30, 145 IP, 110/47 K/BB, 4.70 ERA, 4.70 FIP, 1.0 WAR) - under
RHP Bud Norris (age 29, 169 IP, 150/60 K/BB, 4.55 ERA, 4.20 FIP, 1.1 WAR) - over

Bench/Bullpen
IF Jemile Weeks, C Steve Clevenger, OF Delmon Young, IF Ryan Flaherty, OF Steve Pearce, RHP Tommy Hunter, RHP Darren O'Day, LHP Zach Britton, LHP Brian Matusz, RHP Evan Meek, RHP Ryan Webb, RHP Josh Stinson

Best Offseason Move - Given that the pitching staff was full of league-average types and that the two big prospects needed more seasoning (Kevin Gausman) or rehab (Dylan Bundy), signing Jimenez was a strong move. The righty has dealt with good hitting environments before, having spent the majority of his career in Coors Field, and although his consistency is not what one might wish, he has the upside of a good number two starter. So long as Jimenez can keep the ball on the ground and in the yard, the Orioles will get a big boost to their otherwise blah rotation, which should get a lot better whenever Gausman and Bundy return to Baltimore.

Worst Offseason Move - Granted, designated hitter was a black hole last year as the job shuffled between the equally ineffective Chris Dickerson, Nolan Reimold, and Mike Morse. So what did the Orioles do? Bring in Cruz and Young, both of whom are in serious decline and both of whom should also be stapled to the bench any time that they dare pick up a glove. Cruz should continue to bring adequate pop to Camden Yards, which is only a marginally worse hitters' park than Arlington, but his OBP has been below average since 2010, he's 33, and he's coming off of a 50-game suspension thanks to the Biogenesis investigation. Young, meanwhile, is only 28 but has only once drawn more than 28 walks in a season, and is a noted head case to boot. He will crush the occasional fastball but is otherwise useless.

Key Player - Wieters was hailed as a future superstar when he was taken with the fifth pick of the 2007 draft out of Georgia Tech, inspiring the Chuck Norris-esque Matt Wieters Facts. It hasn't quite worked out that way, but he's still been an excellent defensive catcher (one of the best in baseball) who provides power from both sides of the plate. Last year was a down year offensively for Wieters, as he hit just .235/.287/.417 (although he did hit 22 home runs). He doesn't turn 28 until next month, so there's still time to turn it around and be more like the .262/.328/.450 guy he was in 2011. If he does have a bounce-back year with the bat, he will make the Orioles' lineup much more dangerous in addition to his usual stellar job fortifying the pitching staff.

Most Exciting Player - Davis had a major breakout last year at 27, bashing 54 home runs and making most of them look pretty easy. Crush has massive power to all fields, and one of these days he may put a dent in the warehouse on the other side of Eutaw Street from the stadium. Even though he's sure to regress from last year's .286/.370/.634 line, he will still be a force out of the cleanup spot. When the Orioles are in the field, it's impossible to watch Machado and not be reminded of Brooks Robinson. The 21-year-old is a human vacuum cleaner who makes hard plays routine and impossible plays so fluidly as to make your jaw drop. The pitching staff will be eagerly awaiting his return from knee surgery sometime in the next month.

Possible Breakout Star - Since pretty much everybody on this team is right around their prime years (with the exception of Machado, who had his breakout last year), let's focus on the possibility that Gausman, Bundy, and/or Eduardo Rodriguez break into the rotation at some point this summer. The trio are all top-75 prospects in all of baseball, and each possesses different strengths. Gausman has an upper-90s fastball and a killer changeup, and although he struggled a little in 47 innings a year ago, he should be back in the majors by the All-Star break. Bundy is coming off of Tommy John surgery, but also brings the heat along with a curve and change. The Orioles forced him to ditch his excellent cutter in a misguided effort to avoid TJ surgery, so maybe he will break it out this year. He had surgery back in June, so don't expect him in Baltimore before August. Rodriguez, meanwhile, has grown into his frame and morphed from a finesse lefty into a much harder thrower, throwing low-90s fastballs offset by a slider and changeup. As for their ages? 23, 21, and 21, so there's lots of development left.

Potential Achilles Heel - Camden Yards is something of a bandbox, so one way that pitchers can help themselves is not to give away free passes to stuff the sacks. Unfortunately, the only starter who doesn't have a propensity to get himself in trouble that way is Chen, and this is true despite Wieters' excellent framing skills. An excellent defensive infield (especially once Machado returns) will help the staff clean up some messes, but the general lack of control is yet another reason that O's fans are hoping that the young pitching cavalry arrives sooner rather than later.

Hidden Strength - Jim Johnson collected 104 saves over the past two seasons, the highest total in baseball, yet Baltimore traded him away to Oakland one year before free agency for little more than a bag of beans (Weeks). Why did they do that? Because the rest of their bullpen is excellent, especially now that Matusz has shifted there full-time from the rotation. The Orioles should have one of the most balanced 'pens in the American League, and although they are incredibly unlikely to go 29-9 again in one-run games as they did in 2012, they should experience very little dropoff. And if one of the hot prospects bumps Gonzalez or Norris from the rotation, the bullpen will benefit even more.

2) Tampa Bay Rays

Lineup
CF   Desmond Jennings (age 27, .251/.329/.415, 15 HR, 26 SB, .330 wOBA, 3.5 WAR) - over
2B   Ben Zobrist (age 33, .263/.353/.412, 15 HR, .340 wOBA, 4.6 WAR) - over
3B   Evan Longoria (age 28, .272/.360/.474, 25 HR, .366 wOBA, 5.8 WAR) - over
RF   Wil Myers (age 23, .260/.324/.422, 21 HR, .328 wOBA, 2.3 WAR) - over
DH  Matt Joyce (age 29, .259/.356/.447, 16 HR, .354 wOBA, 2.7 WAR) - under
1B   James Loney (age 30, .262/.316/.370, 9 HR, .302 wOBA, 0.8 WAR) - over
LF   David DeJesus (age 34, .242/.319/.367, 8 HR, .308 wOBA, 1.0 WAR) - over
SS   Yunel Escobar (age 31, .243/.308/.336, 9 HR, .291 wOBA, 2.0 WAR) - over
C     Ryan Hanigan (age 33, .248/.340/.327, 3 HR, .298 wOBA, 1.6 WAR) - under

Rotation
LHP David Price (age 28, 200 IP, 190/43 K/BB, 3.20 ERA, 3.24 FIP, 3.6 WAR) - over
RHP Chris Archer (age 25, 157 IP, 135/60 K/BB, 3.52 ERA, 3.95 FIP, 1.4 WAR) - over
RHP Alex Cobb (age 26, 160 IP, 140/56 K/BB, 3.39 ERA, 3.71 FIP, 1.6 WAR) - over
LHP Matt Moore (age 25, 170 IP, 172/76 K/BB, 3.49 ERA, 3.88 FIP, 1.5 WAR) - under
RHP Jeremy Hellickson (age 27, 90 IP, 66/29 K/BB, 4.17 ERA, 4.63 FIP, 0.1 WAR) - over

Bench/Bullpen
C Jose Molina, IF Logan Forsythe, OF Sean Rodriguez, OF Brandon Guyer, RHP Grant Balfour, LHP Cesar Ramos, LHP Jake McGee, RHP Joel Peralta, RHP Jake Odorizzi, RHP Josh Lueke, RHP Heath Bell

Best Offseason Move - Sometimes it seems like everything this team touches turns to gold. In December, the Rays sent a pair of middling minor league prospects to Arizona, and in return got Bell (from the Diamondbacks) and Hanigan (from the Reds). Two lottery tickets for a regular catcher and a flier on a reliever with an ugly recent track record but a history of good performance in pitchers' parks in the past? Yes, please. Hanigan provides quality defense and enough offense that he's not an automatic out, which is more than Molina can say. Expect him to catch around 110 games or so, as Molina's glove is the most valuable in the game (more even than his little brother's). As for Bell, he's 36 and hasn't been good since he left San Diego three years ago, but the possibility that he might rejuvenate his career in such a forgiving environment as the Trop was too good to pass on for the price.

Worst Offseason Move - Having struck oil last year on Loney, who had a career year after never really delivering adequate production for a first baseman with the Dodgers, the Rays doubled down and re-signed him for three more seasons. Granted, he'll only cost $7 million each year, a well-below-market rate for a first baseman, but a) he's about to turn 30 and has only one full season nearly as good as 2013 in his career, and b) $7 million means a lot more to Tampa Bay than it does to pretty much any other team. Perhaps they didn't feel like there were more cost-effective options out there (and the team does like his glove a lot), but don't expect Loney to be as good going forward as he was last year.

Key Player - If it weren't for Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout, awards voters could do worse than to give serious MVP consideration to Longoria, the best all-around third baseman in baseball. It's not a coincidence that the Rays missed the playoffs in 2012 when he only appeared in 74 games; Longoria is both the lineup fulcrum and the anchor of Tampa Bay's excellent defense. And no franchise is as committed to one player as the Rays are to Longoria; he accounts for 10% of their payroll now and is signed through 2022, with a team option for 2023, when he will be 37 years old.

Most Exciting Player - Running contrary to popular opinion, the Rays decided to keep Price around for 2014, even though HIS salary is eating almost 20% of payroll and he has one more year of arbitration to go. Sure, he may be expensive, but you don't find 28-year-old lefty aces with a Cy Young already on their mantel (2012) growing on trees at any price (no pun intended), let alone $14 million. Price works fastball-slider with the occasional change, and his command improves every year; last year he walked just 1.3 batters per nine innings despite an early-season stint on the disabled list. This being the Rays, I feel like manager Joe Maddon also deserves mention in this space. Maddon is probably the best manager in baseball, a superb motivator who is not afraid to buck conventional wisdom, platooning players aggressively and going against the grain when it comes to hitting matchups. He's earned the AL Manager of the Year award twice in his career with the Rays, and given the inherent disadvantages of the franchise, there's an argument to be made that he's deserved it damn near every season.

Possible Breakout Star - It doesn't seem right to tag two of last year's AL Rookie of the Year finalists with this label, but we haven't yet seen what Myers or Archer can do with a full season. Myers (who won the trophy) came over from Kansas City with much fanfare as that organization's best minor league bat, and he pretty much immediately stepped into the cleanup spot once the Rays called him up in June. He hit .293/.354/.478 in 88 games, and should be Tampa Bay's cleanup hitter for the foreseeable future. Archer (who finished third in ROY balloting) made 23 very strong starts last year, tossing 128 innings with a 3.22 ERA and a 1.127 WHIP. As they do with many of their brightest young guns, the Rays moved quickly to lock Archer up for the future, giving the 25-year-old a six year, $25.5 million deal. Whenever Price moves on, Archer looks to be the next staff ace.

Potential Achilles Heel - Due to their crappy stadium and its even crappier location, the Rays are continually operating on the margins, always possessing one of the smallest payrolls in baseball and forever needing to replenish the major league team with minor league talent. One problem; they haven't drafted well of late. The last first-round pick to make any impact in the majors was Price, the top overall choice seven years ago. Only one other player since (2008 top overall pick Tim Beckham) has even played one major league game, and he's been in just five. That means that the Rays have to keep mining the scrap heap, and at some point, perhaps this season, it's going to mean that they have to trade Price. Now that Moore has hurt his elbow and is off to see Dr. James Andrews, they are more likely to keep him through the season, but it would not be beyond Andrew Friedman and the front office to bite the bullet on this year and trade him for what they think is the best value. Stay tuned.

Hidden Strength - Tampa Bay uses their entire roster exceptionally well, better than any other team in baseball with the possible exception of Oakland. It helps to have a guy or two who can play several positions, and the Rays happen to have one of the best utility men not just now, but in the history of Major League Baseball. Quick, guess who led the majors in wins above replacement over the five years from 2009 to 2013? Miguel Cabrera (32.5)? You win! Second? Longoria (30.6). Third? Zobrist (29.7), probably the most underrated player in baseball. The Zorilla gets on base (.366 career OBP as a full-time player), cranks a bunch of doubles (196 career) and enough home runs (105), runs the bases very well, is durable (150+ games each of the last six years) and can play anywhere except catcher in a pinch (and is a near-elite defender anywhere but short and center). For all that production, what has the total cost been for his CAREER through 2013? A shade over $16.3 million, or less money than TWENTY-NINE different players will make this year alone. And Zobrist is only making $7 million in 2014. He's also, despite being consistently one of the best and most versatile players in baseball, never even gotten ten percent in MVP voting. I'd say all that qualifies as a hidden strength.

1) Boston Red Sox

Lineup
RF   Shane Victorino (age 33, .274/.335/.427, 11 HR, .336 wOBA, 2.5 WAR) - over
SS   Xander Bogaerts (age 21, .272/.341/.423, 14 HR, .338 wOBA, 2.9 WAR) - over
2B   Dustin Pedroia (age 30, .282/.343/.410, 13 HR, .333 wOBA, 4.0 WAR) - over
DH  David Ortiz (age 38, .292/.376/.544, 26 HR, .387 wOBA, 3.0 WAR) - over
1B   Mike Napoli (age 32, .251/.351/.469, 23 HR, .359 wOBA, 2.5 WAR) - over
LF   Daniel Nava (age 31, .240/.326/.365, 9 HR, .312 wOBA, 0.5 WAR) - over
C     A.J. Pierzynski (age 37, .272/.301/.418, 14 HR, .314 wOBA, 2.1 WAR) - under
3B   Will Middlebrooks (age 25, .249/.293/.431, 20 HR, .315 wOBA, 1.9 WAR) - under
CF   Jackie Bradley, Jr. (age 24, .255/.335/.382, 8 HR, .321 wOBA, 1.9 WAR) - over

Rotation
LHP Jon Lester (age 30, 200 IP, 181/61 K/BB, 3.67 ERA, 3.71 FIP, 3.1 WAR) - over
RHP John Lackey (age 35, 169 IP, 143/42 K/BB, 3.90 ERA, 4.07 FIP, 2.0 WAR) - over
LHP Felix Doubront (age 26, 136 IP, 126/56 K/BB, 4.65 ERA, 4.29 FIP, 1.1 WAR) - over
RHP Jake Peavy (age 33, 154 IP, 133/39 K/BB, 3.74 ERA, 3.91 FIP, 2.6 WAR) - under
RHP Clay Buchholz (age 29, 133 IP, 109/41 K/BB, 4.03 ERA, 4.15 FIP, 1.5 WAR) - over

Bench/Bullpen
OF Jonny Gomes, OF Mike Carp, OF Grady Sizemore, C David Ross, IF Ryan Roberts, RHP Koji Uehara, RHP Junichi Tazawa, LHP Craig Breslow, LHP Chris Capuano, RHP Edward Mujica, RHP Burke Badenhop, LHP Andrew Miller

Best Offseason Move - The Yankees gave Jacoby Ellsbury seven years and $153 million to cross the DMZ (which winds through Connecticut) and play center field in the Bronx. The Sox, who so often get themselves into bidding wars with their rivals, opted not to pay that kind of premium on a guy who's only played 150 games twice in a seven-year career. Instead, they're turning the position over to Bradley, who should be as capable with the glove right away as Ellsbury, although it will take him a little more time to become as good a hitter. That's fine; the Boston development machine keeps churning out quality players, allowing management to let some pieces walk while locking a few key ones up for the long haul. Choosing Bradley over Ellsbury should prove to be a prudent move.

Worst Offseason Move - If there's anything worse than having a 37-year-old catcher, it's having two of them. Jarrod Saltalamacchia departed in free agency (to become Miami's highest-paid player), and GM Ben Cherington replaced him with Pierzynski, whose game is in the accelerated decline only to be expected from a guy who leads all active catchers in games caught by a whopping 481 games over Yadier Molina. At this point, Pierzynski's best skill is probably the incredible ability he has to make every other team hate his guts. Wouldn't it have just been easier to re-sign Salty (for basically the same amount of money) when he's nine years younger than Pierzynski and a better hitter to boot? This whole thought process confuses me.

Key Player - Two years ago, Big Papi hit .318/.415/.611 with 23 home runs and 2.9 WAR...in just ninety games. Do you realize how good you have to be to total three wins above replacement in basically half a season, especially when you never put on a glove? It's amazing that Ortiz keeps chugging along at his advanced age; what has kept him viable is that he has gotten better at avoiding bad pitches down and away. Almost as important as his production, however, is his leadership role on this team; he's the last remaining link to the 2004 Idiots, and he will almost certainly have his number placed in the rafters whenever he retires. He also is aware of how important the Red Sox are to Boston; I don't think any Sox fan will soon forget his "This is our fucking city!" speech after the Marathon attacks last year. The team believed in him enough to keep him signed through next season with two team options after that, and as long as he keeps producing, Boston will have the best designated hitter in the game.

Most Exciting Player - Welcome to the Laser Show! Pedroia is another one of those normal-sized human beings who manages to excel at a sport generally suited for larger people. He's listed at 5'9", but I can't accept that he's any taller than 5'7", if that. Petey (signed through 2021) is a four-time All-Star and former MVP winner (2008) who does everything well; he's an exceptional defender who gets on base, bangs a ton of doubles off the Green Monster (289 career), and runs the bases well. Despite his very good eye, Pedroia will go after pitches at eye level with a big, max-effort swing, and his OCD routine between pitches never fails to amuse me (especially how he always stretches his jaw). Just an entertaining player all around, unless you're a Yankees fan.

Possible Breakout Star - Is there anyone not on the Bogaerts bandwagon? Anyone? Bueller? Only two major leaguers (Bryce Harper and Jurickson Profar) are younger than Boston's new shortstop, although you would be forgiven for not being able to tell during last year's World Series run. Bogaerts can play his position well and has a preternatural approach to hitting. While we're on the subject, is there any place on Earth (that plays baseball, at least) that currently punches above its weight more than the Dutch Antilles? In addition to Bogaerts (from Aruba), fellow young middle infield hotshots Profar, Andrelton Simmons, and Jonathan Schoop all hail from Curacao, plus Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen. That's a lot of elite talent for an archipelago with a population of 300,000. Would you expect that many young stars to come from Lexington, Kentucky or Anchorage, Alaska? I didn't think so. Read that list again. It's entirely possible that in five years the three or four best shortstops in baseball will all come from the same tiny group of islands that has a few more people than Lubbock. Ridiculous.

Potential Achilles Heel - There's just no way that the Orient Express can be THAT good again, is there? After ascending to the closer's role as Option C after A (Andrew Bailey) and B (Joel Hanrahan) both got hurt, Uehara had perhaps the best season any relief pitcher has ever had. In 74 innings, Uehara gave up just 33 hits and nine walks while striking out 101. At one point he retired thirty-seven consecutive batters, and at the end of the season had a 1.09 ERA and a preposterous 0.565 WHIP. To put that in perspective, the greatest closer of all time (Mariano Rivera, for anyone who has been living under a rock recently) only once came within one hundred and fifty percent of that low a number. Given how volatile relievers are from year to year, it's only natural to expect some regression from Uehara, and therefore perhaps a couple of extra losses from Boston that could make all the difference in a tight divisional race.

Hidden Strength - Much like the Yankees, not a whole lot goes on around Yawkey Way that's not instantly dissected and re-dissected seven more times by most of New England. However, this front office has proven to be very flexible and able to balance the interests of the major league outfit with the need to keep a strong player development system going. When the Dodgers offered them a chance to shed three onerous contracts, they re-tooled around a group of homegrown stars (Pedroia, Ellsbury, Lester) and veterans signed to relatively cheap contracts (Napoli, Ryan Dempster, Victorino, Stephen Drew), plus Ortiz, then supplemented that with young talent as needed (Doubront, Bogaerts, Middlebrooks) en route to a World Series. Boston has financial resources unlike any team this side of the Yankees and Dodgers, plus a top-five farm system that keeps pumping out quality players year after year. Should the opportunity to make a Godfather trade present itself in order to give themselves a shot in the arm around midsummer, perhaps no team in baseball is as well-equipped to do so as Boston.

Coming up next: the NL East.