For the first time, this column is changing its west-to-east format so as not to bury the lead, which is that the Toronto Blue Jays will finish third again.
Actually, I'm picking them to finish fourth, but that's not really the lead. The lead is that the Blue Jays and, especially, their fans should shut up about the glass ceiling of the American League East, the idea that it's just about impossible for the Jays to finish higher than third because the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are 800-pound gorillas.
2007 finish: Boston, New York (wild card), Toronto, Baltimore, Tampa Bay
The fans complain about it more than the team does. If I had a dollar for every Blue Jays fan who's written me to complain about the Jays being consigned to third, well, maybe they should be Canadian dollars, but there'd be a lot of them.
But here's general manager J.P. Ricciardi in Canada's National Post a year ago, talking in a fairly typical way about payroll disparities:
"It's the reality of the division. I think the one thing when I came here [five seasons ago], I knew how good they were, but I didn't know how hard it would be playing them all the time, and going against them from a financial standpoint."
The Blue Jays and their fans have said this kind of thing so much that it's become accepted as fact. Poor Blue Jays, they can't win the East because the Yankees and Red Sox are so rich and always so good.
What I'd like to know is when, exactly, have the Blue Jays been good enough to win the East if only the Axis of Evil weren't in it?
The American League went to the current unbalanced schedule, with division rivals playing each other more often than they play teams in the other division, in 2001. So every year since then the Blue Jays have had to play the Yankees and Red Sox 18 or 19 times each.
And they've struggled against them. The Blue Jays have lost all seven of those season series against New York, piling up a 55-75 record against the Yankees over that time. The Jays have done better lately against Boston, splitting in 2007 and winning the season series the two years before that. But from 2001-04, the Red Sox won the series every year. Over the seven years, Toronto is 59-72 against the Sox.
And you know what all that losing to the Yankees and Red Sox has prevented the Blue Jays from doing? Nothing. They never would have made the playoffs anyway.
That is, if the Blue Jays had had the same winning percentage against the Yankees and Red Sox as they'd had against the rest of their schedule in each of those years, and everything else had gone exactly the same, including that bogus illegal-left-turn ticket I got on the way to a Blue Jays-White Sox game in Chicago in '02, the Blue Jays never would have won the East, never even would have won a wild card.
They'd have finished second, ahead of the Red Sox, in 2002, instead of third. Then again, they did finish second, ahead of the Red Sox, in 2006, thanks to a 12-7 record against Boston. If the Blue Jays had played the same .536 ball against the Sox that they played against the non-Axis of Evil American League and their interleague foes that year, they'd have gone 10-9 against Boston, and the Red Sox would have finished second, ahead of the Jays.
Taking the Red Sox and Yankees out of their schedule, the best winning percentage Toronto has posted since 2001 was .548 in 2003. A .548 winning percentage over a whole season is 89 wins. At no time since 2001 has 89 wins been good enough to make the American League playoffs.
There are two good teams almost every year in almost every division. The only thing that's been different about the A.L. East is that it's the same two teams every year. Another unique feature of the A.L. East has been the presence of the same two lousy teams most years, the Orioles and Devil Rays, now de-deviled to just Rays. Funny that you never hear the Blue Jays thank their lucky stars that those two have provided them a glass floor and mostly kept them from falling lower than third.
The Blue Jays' complaining about the Yankees and Red Sox is like the Kansas City Royals' complaining that they haven't been able to compete in the A.L. Central because there are always two good teams at the top.
That the two teams change all the time -- right now it's Cleveland and Detroit, but for a while it was Minnesota and Chicago and before that Cleveland and Minnesota -- makes it obvious that the problem hasn't been the teams at the top, it's been that the Royals have been lousy. It's not the Yankees and Red Sox that have kept the Blue Jays in third place. It's the Blue Jays. They keep fielding a third-place team.
And that's not because they're in the same division as the Red Sox and Yankees. Ricciardi talked about competing with them financially, but the Blue Jays don't compete with the Red Sox and Yankees for players any more than other teams in the league have to, and every year some of them play better than .548 ball. The Blue Jays haven't, even without counting games against the Yankees and Red Sox.
There's nothing keeping the Blue Jays from being better than a .548 team that isn't keeping the other 11 non-Axis teams in the league from doing so, and every year two or three of them do it.
It's time for the Blue Jays to shut up and get better. And this might be that year. They need Roy Halladay, A.J. Burnett, B.J. Ryan, Scott Rolen and Frank Thomas to get or stay relatively healthy, and a bounce-back year from Vernon Wells would be nice. It's asking a lot, and I think Thomas' slight decline last year was really a pretty big decline masked by the move from a pitcher's to a hitter's home park. But it could happen.
It had better, because this looks like the year the A.L. East won't have two doormats. The Rays are coming, starting to look like a decent team, and they may look better at midseason when phenom third baseman Evan Longoria gets called up. Scott Kazmir, if he can ever stay healthy for consecutive months, plus James Shields and Matt Garza actually looks like three-fifths of a solid rotation, which is a lot. Tampa's a year or two away. Then again, so were the '06 Detroit Tigers.
The Baltimore Orioles, though, will be bad enough for two.
So which gorilla? I'll take the Yankees -- something I refused to do when they were winning this division every year, just on general principles -- because the kids have finally arrived to help solve the biggest problem of the last few years, starting pitching. Joba Chamberlain will begin the year in the bullpen, but figures to be starting by midseason.
With Chien-Ming Wang holding down the No. 1 spot, if Phillip Hughes and Ian Kennedy can hold their own, which I think they can, the Yankees will have a solid rotation if they get decent protection from either Andy Pettitte or Mike Mussina. That's pretty good. The lineup should score plenty of runs even if Jorge Posada doesn't outdo himself again -- even if Alex Rodriguez doesn't.
Of course, the Red Sox will be right there with them -- just ask the Blue Jays -- and if I tried to explain why I think they'll finish second, I'd just be blowing smoke. That lineup, centered around David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, is tremendous, and even with Curt Schilling injured, the pitching should be fine, especially if Daisuke Matsuzaka improves in his second year.
It'll probably come down to injuries or some unforeseen trade, though the Red Sox's outfield surplus could make it easier for them to make a splash there. Jacoby Ellsbury has all but beaten out Coco Crisp in center field, and Crisp, a disappointment since coming over from Cleveland, could still fetch plenty.
Predicted finish: New York, Boston, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Baltimore
2007 finish: Los Angeles, Seattle, Oakland, Texas
In 1994 the Rangers "won" this division -- they were in first place when the strike wiped out the rest of the season -- with a 52-62 record, the only losing team ever to finish in first place. I don't think this is the year when a true A.L. West winner will have a losing record, but I like the chances of that happening better than I like the chances of the champ winning 100 games.
Everybody's got problems -- I know, I don't have to tell you. The defending champ Angels, who look like the class of this mini-bunch, have lost starter Kelvim Escobar for what looks like the whole year and ace John Lackey for at least a month. The Mariners traded for Baltimore ace Erik Bedard in hopes of getting over the hump after they won 88 games last year, but they didn't look anything like an 88-win team then and they don't now.
The A's went into rebuilding mode, casting off stars Dan Haren and Nick Swisher to rebuild their farm system, and the Rangers, who for years now have looked like they were just about ready to improve if only they could get some pitching, look like they're just about ready to improve if only they can get some pitching.
The Angels, who have taken three of the last four division titles, winning between 89 and 95 games each of those years, look like a great candidate to be overtaken at last because of those injuries at the front of their rotation, plus a markdown at shortstop from Orlando Cabrera to light-hitting youngster Erick Aybar and what could be a shaky bullpen in front of closer Francisco Rodriguez.
But there's nobody to overtake them. And the Angels should get Lackey back, and they're hoping for a bounce-back from enigmatic pitcher Ervin Santana, an upgrade in the outfield with Torii Hunter and the by-now long-awaited blossoming of second baseman Howie Kendrick. And the bullpen might be just fine. And they got the highly competent Jon Garland back for Cabrera. Pick the Angels to win something other than roughly 92 games at your peril.
The Mariners have some shiny stuff. They have Bedard, Ichiro, the fantastically talented Felix Hernandez and closer J.J. Putz. But Bedard has struggled to stay consistent and healthy, Hernandez -- who, remember, is still only 22 -- hasn't quite put it together yet and, more important, this club falls off a cliff after that bunch.
The rest of the rotation and bullpen are barely adequate. The lineup features a whole bunch of retreads and downslopers in the middle -- Richie Sexson, Brad Wilkerson, Jose Vidro, Raul Ibanez. Any of those guys would be fine as complementary parts. As the heart of an order, well, it's Seattle. Pray for rain.
The A's are an interesting contrast to their richer rivals across the Bay, who even now refuse to rebuild. The A's have just about cleared the decks -- Joe Blanton now passes for a marquee name, and he's got a "for sale" sign on him -- and they're starting over. Should be fun to watch over the next few years, but this season, .500 would be a big achievement.
The Rangers ... if they can only get some pitching. They traded young pitcher Edinson Volquez for Lazarus-like outfielder Josh Hamilton -- always a good move in hitter-friendly Arlington, trading a pitching maybe for a hitting probably. And they may have made a nice pickup in Milton Bradley if he can stay on the field. But who's going to get people out? Vicente Padilla?
OK, I'll take a flyer on them for a non-wild-card second. Go, Vicente, go.
Predicted finish: Los Angeles, Texas, Seattle, Oakland
2007 finish: Cleveland, Detroit, Minnesota, Chicago, Kansas City
The Tigers stumbled a bit after their pennant-winning 2006, but they've added Miguel Cabrera to what was already a formidable lineup without subtracting anything. All they have to do now is hope that lineup stays in one piece. Gary Sheffield, Magglio Ordonez, Gary Sheffield and Carlos Guillen, the heart of it, are all some combination of old, injured or at high risk for injury.
Throw in Placido Polanco, who had a career year at 31, which is 38 in second basemen years, and 36-year-old catcher Ivan Rodriguez, though he doesn't hit much anymore, and the Tigers are kind of a ticking time bomb.
Then again, that's what they were last year and they scored five and a half runs a game. Without Cabrera. Any kind of pitching and health, and the Tigers will be very good.
The Indians, who had looked like they were on the come for a few years, won the division last year, knocked the Yankees out of the playoffs and took the Red Sox to seven games in the ALCS. They're not notably different this year -- they'll have Asdrubal Cabrera at second for the whole season, but that's about it -- and they should be pretty damn good again.
The Indians and Tigers figure to engage in a knock-down, drag-out pennant race that will be every bit as exciting as anything the Yanks and Red Sox figure to do, and they'll get 0.00000368 percent of the attention. I'm going to take a chance and say the wild card will be the Tigers-Indians loser, not the Yankees-Red Sox loser. So: Detroit.
I think there's a gap between those two and the rest of the division. I don't quite know what to do with the White Sox. I think they won't have the pitching to do much of anything. But if Mark Buehrle is good -- early return: bad -- and some combination of Jose Contreras, John Danks, Gavin Floyd and various middling relievers come through, they could hang around.
The Twins are kind of funny. They'll hope that the return of Francisco Liriano can offset the loss of Johan Santana, and good luck there. They've also brought in high-ceiling kids Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez, as well as low-ceiling vets like Adam Everett and Opening Day starter Livan Hernandez. They're rebuilding on the fly.
As with Chicago, if a lot of things go right, they could hang in there. Those things would include Joe Mauer becoming the healthy superstar he's supposed to be, Michael Cuddyer rebounding, Justin Morneau having another MVP-lite year and guys like Scott Baker, Glen Perkins and Boof Bonser becoming quality starters. That's a lot.
The Royals have finished last four straight years, but they've also improved from 56 to 62 to 69 wins the last three. Detect a trend there? Me neither.
But with exciting kids Alex Gordon, Billy Butler and Mark Teahen in the middle of the lineup and a rotation that's actually starting to come together around retread Gil Meche, everyone's favorite seamhead pitcher Brian Bannister and the back-from-the-abyss Zack Greinke, the Royals are actually starting to look like something.
Stand by for them to enter that zone previously occupied by the Milwaukee Brewers of always looking like they're just about a year away, but in the meantime, I'll take a flyer on them for third. I think the Twins will finish last, but Twins fans always think I'm dissing their lads, so I'll put 'em fourth.
Predicted finish: Cleveland, Detroit (wild card), Kansas City, Minnesota, Chicago
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2008 season predictions [PERMALINK]
Here, for ease of ridicule, are my predictions for the 2008 season, both leagues, all in one place.
Wild card: Chicago
Playoffs: Arizona over Chicago, Atlanta over Milwaukee
N.L. Championship Series: Arizona over Atlanta
West: Los Angeles
East: New York
Wild card: Detroit
Playoffs: Cleveland over Los Angeles, Detroit over New York
A.L. Championship Series: Cleveland over Detroit
World Series: Cleveland over Arizona
Previous column: National League preview
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