In January, Blue Jays president and CEO Paul Beeston, while sitting on a leather chair in the infield at the Rogers Centre, took the mike at the team's annual State of the Franchise event and, in front of 1,000 season-ticket holders, made the boldest declaration of the off-season. "In the next five years," he said, "I expect we'll be in it two to three times."
Yes, Beeston meant the postseason. No, the crowd did not break out in laughter. Beeston was dead serious, even though Toronto hasn't played in October in 19 years (only the Nationals/Expos, Royals and Pirates have endured longer droughts) and even though, for four straight seasons, the Jays have finished no higher than fourth in the Toughest Division in Baseball. It was a bold—some would say outlandish—proclamation.
And yet, there isn't a general manager in the AL East who would be surprised if Beeston's prediction came true. "They're absolutely legit," the Rays' Andrew Friedman says of the Blue Jays. "They have the talent to be really good. It wouldn't surprise me if they were playing meaningful games this September."
"Toronto is the next Tampa," says Yankees G.M. Brian Cashman. "They have a system that's ready to pop. When you have that kind of talent, it can come very quickly. And it will."
Just when you thought the AL East—the division Friedman calls "the toughest in professional sports"—couldn't get any better, here comes a new rising power built on the pillar of player development. In 2011 four teams in the division finished .500 or better. (The NL West, with three, was the only other division with more than two.) Those four teams—New York, Tampa Bay, Boston and, yes, Toronto—are poised for a run in what will be the fiercest race in baseball.
The Yankees and the Rays are armed with two of the most lethal rotations in baseball. In Boston, despite the arrival of new manager Bobby Valentine, the Red Sox are fundamentally the same team they were last season: a talented and deep club that over the season's first four months—before their stunning September collapse—was "the best team in baseball in 10 years," according to Friedman. The Yankees, Rays and Red Sox are all bracing for the arrival of the Blue Jays, who have one of the most feared hitters in the game (Jose Bautista) and potential breakout stars both in the lineup (third baseman Brett Lawrie and outfielder Colby Rasmus) and in the rotation (righthanders Brandon Morrow and Henderson Alvarez).
"This division is very close," says Cashman, whose Yankees cruised to the division crown a year ago. "People are vastly underrating Boston, and they're probably overstating us compared to the other teams. I don't think there's a team in the top four that can argue that it's the team to beat."
The magic number in the AL East race: 1,000. Last year six teams in baseball got 1,000 innings from their starting pitchers, but only one came from the AL East—the Rays, whose starters logged a league-high 1,058 innings, the most by an AL rotation since the world champion White Sox in 2005. Over the last four years Tampa Bay has made the postseason three times, and in each of those three years it ranked in the AL's top five in starters' innings. "That's a combination of our training staff and also the makeup of our starters," says Friedman. "Their work ethic is off the charts. They put themselves in the position to put 200-plus innings on their body."
No player embodies the Rays Way more than ace James Shields, who ranked seventh in the majors in innings and tossed a jaw-dropping 11 complete games last season, the most by anyone since 1999, while setting career bests in wins (16), ERA (2.82), batting average against (.273) and strikeouts (225). "When we meet with a young pitcher in a planning meeting their first year in big league camp, we always tell them to watch Jamie Shields and the way he prepares," says Friedman. "We told that to Jeremy Hellickson, and we said the same thing to Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann back when they were in the minor leagues. Now that mentality is just ingrained in the fabric of who we are."
Shields heads a rotation that includes a 26-year-old two-time All-Star (lefthander David Price); last year's AL Rookie of the Year (righthander Hellickson); and the best pitching prospect in the game (lefty Matt Moore). But the Rays' secret weapon is their depth behind that quartet: Niemann, Davis and righthander Alex Cobb are all expected to throw important innings this year. "We have gone out of our way to maintain the depth that we have in our rotation—when you look back over the last four years, we've used a minimum of eight starting pitchers," says Friedman. "Having that depth is incredibly important to us, especially in this division."
Pitching depth is the reason the Rays enter the season with such high expectations. It's also why the Yankees should be considered favorites to repeat in the division. As recently as New Year's Day, New York's rotation looked like a weakness. But everything changed on Jan. 13, the day Cashman traded for 23-year-old righthander Michael Pineda from the Mariners and signed free agent righty Hiroki Kuroda.
Pineda came at a steep price—catcher Jesus Montero, the topflight hitting prospect sent to Seattle in the deal, "may be the best player I've ever dealt away," says Cashman. A righthander with a defensive lineman's build and a killer fastball-slider combination, the 6'7", 260-pound Pineda (he had a 3.74 ERA and 173 strikeouts in 171 innings as a rookie last season) is so talented that it's assumed by many that he will be the Yankees' No. 2 starter, behind CC Sabathia. Not so fast, says Cashman. "We have high hopes we can develop him into a front of the rotation pitcher, but that is not the expectation we have in 2012," says the G.M. "He's a two-pitch starter that's developing a third pitch [a changeup]—there's no number 2 starter in the league that I know of who only has two pitches. He pitched in a pitcher's park in the American League West, where he had a chance to go against much different offenses. Now he's transitioning into a division with more high-powered offenses and into a smaller ballpark."
The Yankees, though, don't necessarily need Pineda to be an elite starter in just his second year in the majors—over the past few years the organization has quietly developed the kind of starting pitching depth that has fortified the Rays. Later this season New York could call on one of many talented arms in its system, including prized prospects Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos. And last Friday the team lured 39-year-old lefthander Andy Pettitte out of retirement with a minor league contract. "We overperformed as a rotation last year," says Cashman of a staff that was fueled by surprise performances from veterans Bartolo Colon (signed with Oakland as a free agent in January) and Freddy Garcia (competing for a rotation spot this year). "We wouldn't be living in reality if we felt we could duplicate that. But now I think we're equipped with talent at the top of the rotation and with lots of depth."
A lack of rotation depth was precisely the reason the Red Sox collapsed last September. "When you get past the cosmic reasons of why everything happened the way it happened," G.M. Ben Cherington says of Boston's stunning 7--19 finish to the season, "one big one was our starting pitching in September—we just weren't giving our offense a chance. Losing [Clay] Buchholz to injury was a part of that, but it's more of a front-office issue: you have to assume there's going to be injuries during the year."
This winter Boston aggressively pursued starting pitching through free agency and trades to find that depth, but ultimately decided "that there were more value deals for relievers than in the starting-pitching market," says Cherington, who was promoted from assistant G.M. when Theo Epstein left in November to take over the Cubs. Boston acquired All-Star closer Andrew Bailey from Oakland and Mark Melancon from the Astros to strengthen the back end of a bullpen that lost closer Jonathan Papelbon to free agency.
Boston, then, was forced to look internally for options to fill out the rotation behind Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Buchholz, who didn't pitch after June 16 last year because of a stress fracture in his back. A key will be former setup man Daniel Bard, who is making the transition into a starter, a move the Red Sox front office began discussing last spring—even though Bard hasn't started a game since he was in Class A in 2007, and his 95-mph heat, devastating slider and effective but rarely used changeup make him ideal for back-of-the-bullpen duty. "We were looking ahead, figuring out where our next starting pitcher was coming from," says Cherington. "He has the body, the delivery, the repertoire and the makeup to thrive in the role. We believe he can do it, and be a difference maker for us."
Baltimore was once hailed as a rising power in the AL East because of its own supposed depth in quality young pitching. Injuries, however, have derailed the development of a talented young pitching core. Lefthanders Zach Britton (shoulder inflammation) and Brian Matusz (strained rib cage muscle) were fighting for jobs this spring, along with inconsistent righthander Chris Tillman. Other key pieces (catcher Matt Wieters, outfielder Adam Jones and Nick Markakis), while adequate regulars, have also fallen short of expectations. Meanwhile, Baltimore's longtime companion in the division cellar, Toronto, is on the cusp of the kind of breakout season the Rays had in 2008. That's thanks to some shrewd moves by G.M. Alex Anthopoulos—most notably, his decision to sign Bautista to a five-year, $64 million extension before last season. After slugging 54 home runs in '10, the late-blooming 31-year-old outfielder finished third in the AL MVP voting last year with another monster offensive year: 43 homers and a 1.056 OPS, both league bests. "A lot of people thought that was an unnecessarily risky deal," says an AL G.M. "Now it looks like one of the best in baseball."
The Blue Jays ranked sixth in the majors in runs scored last year and should be better with full seasons from Lawrie, who hit nine home runs with a .953 OPS in 43 games after he debuted last August, and Rasmus, acquired from St. Louis at last year's trade deadline. The big question in Toronto is the rotation, which ranked 10th in the AL in innings logged by starters. "It's no secret we need more quality innings from the back end of the rotation," says manager John Farrell, who will be counting on oft-injured righthander Dustin McGowan, who returned last September after not having pitched since undergoing shoulder surgery in 2008, and a talented 21-year-old righty with 10 career starts under his belt (Alvarez). "Clearly that's an area for us to make the biggest impact and improvement over a year ago."
Farrell points out that more innings from the starters behind Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero could shave 10 losses—which would give Toronto 91 wins, a total that could get them into the postseason with the added wild card. That extra playoff spot makes it even more likely that four teams from the AL East will be in the postseason hunt in September. The race to October—and to 1,000 innings—will be a nail-biter in the fiercest division in baseball. Says Cashman, "We aren't expecting anything less."
HOW THEY'LL FINISH
ROBINSON CANO, YANKEES
He's an offensive force (at least a .300 average and 25 home runs for three straight years) and a Gold Glover at a premium position. His durability (at least 159 games five straight seasons) and youth (29) is huge on an aging team. Don't be surprised if he takes over for Alex Rodriguez in the cleanup spot by season's end.
DAVID PRICE, RAYS
Ignore his 12--13 record last year: The Rays scored two runs or less in 11 of his losses. The lefty increased his strikeout rate and reduced his walks in 2011; once he cuts down on home runs allowed (22 in '11), he'll be one of the game's top five pitchers. At 26, he's just entering his prime.
JOSE BAUTISTA, BLUE JAYS
He proved that his 2010 season was no fluke with one of the greatest offensive seasons ever by a Blue Jay. Though his home run total dropped (he still led the majors), he had a significantly higher batting average (from .260 in '10 to .302) and on-base percentage (.378 to .447).
ROOKIE TO WATCH
MATT MOORE, RAYS
All he did in his second career start was shut down the Rangers in Game 1 of the Division Series. Last year's Minor League Pitcher of the Year (12--3 with a 1.92 ERA in Double A and Triple A), Moore has the stuff to be an elite starter—perhaps as soon as this year.
STAR ON THE RISE
BRETT LAWRIE, BLUE JAYS
Toronto is eager to see what the athletic, 22-year-old Canadian can do over a full season. In just 150 at bats, he hit .293 with a .373 OBP and nine home runs as a rookie. Most impressive is how well he handled his move from second base to third.
STAR IN DECLINE
ALEX RODRIGUEZ, YANKEES
His streak of 13 consecutive seasons with at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs ended in 2011, the fourth straight he missed at least 20 games with injury. He's 36, and he's also not going anywhere: The Yankees owe him $143 million over the next six seasons.
THE PAYOFF PITCH ...
They cruise to a 100-win season with a juggernaut offense and a formidable rotation that gets quality innings from Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes. Mariano Rivera gets the last out to clinch title number 28.
Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Rivera show their age. Michael Pineda struggles in the AL East and no rotation complement to CC Sabathia emerges. The Yanks win 90—but fall short of the postseason.
Joe Maddon's magic keeps working. The team's outstanding run prevention—a durable, flexible rotation and the best defense in baseball—leads the Rays to their second World Series in five years.
The pitching staff's run of good health ends. New sluggers Carlos Pe√±a and Luke Scott don't hit, and the lineup around Evan Longoria has too many holes for Tampa to reach a third straight postseason.
What collapse? Josh Beckett and Jon Lester have Cy Young--caliber seasons, and Carl Crawford returns to All-Star form. In his first season Bobby Valentine leads the Red Sox to a World Series win.
Last year's clubhouse problems carry over. The offense scores plenty, but the rotation struggles again. Valentine quickly wears out his welcome, and the Sox are out of the postseason for a third straight year.
They're more than a one-man show, with lineup support for Jose Bautista. Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow are a dominant 1--2 tandems. The Jays play meaningful games in September for the first time in a decade.
The offense scores plenty of runs, but the inexperienced back end of the rotation and the remade bullpen implode. The Jays' up-and-comer momentum stalls with a sub-.500 finish.
The Orioles break their 14-year sub-.500 skid—or at least come close—as Zach Britton and Jake Arrieta emerge atop the rotation and Matt Wieters blooms into the star Baltimore has been waiting for.
The debacle continues. Imports Tsuyoshi Wada (from Japan) and Wei-Yin Chen (Taiwan) flop. As the young arms struggle, the front office unloads Adam Jones and Nick Markakis at the trade deadline.
Photograph by PORTER BINKS
SECOND TO ONE Defense and pitching should get Sean Rodriguez and the Rays into the playoffs, but Robinson Cano and the Yankees will again slide past them for the division title.