Pitchers and catchers are trickling into their respective spring training sites, and the American League East is once again shaping up to be a beast.
Take a look at the five clubs’ offseason moves and what key story lines will dominate spring training.
The Yankees retained GM Brian Cashman and ace CC Sabathia while trading for one of the best young power arms in the game in Michael Pineda. They also solidified what Yankees fans considered a weak 2011 rotation with the signing of Hiroki Kuroda
What to watch for at Yankees camp: Is Alex Rodriguez healthy? The Yankees slugger was a .276/16/64 hitter in 2011. More importantly, A-Rod was only on the field for 99 games due to injuries. Considering the 36-year-old is due to make $31 million this year, it’s safe to say all eyes will be on third base this spring.
Regardless of the Red Sox’s monumental collapse at the end of last season, and relatively few major additions as compared to their 2010 off-season, Boston brings one of baseball’s best-hitting lineups into 2012. A spark from veteran manager Bobby Valentine could help wash that nasty taste from 2011 out of their mouths.
What to watch for at Red Sox camp: With longtime closer Jonathan Papelbon now in Philadelphia, can Andrew Bailey keep his elbow healthy enough to be the All-Star closer he is? Bailey has had two elbow surgeries in his career, including one last year that caused Bailey to miss some time. Can Daniel Bard make the switch from reliever to starter? The Sox’s 2011 starting rotation went 4-13 in September and with a 7.08 ERA. Not only are they going to need Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Bucholtz to be more consistent down the stretch (in all fairness, Bucholtz was coming off an injury in 2011), they’ll need their fifth starter to give them a chance to win every fifth day if they’re going to win the division.
In Tampa Bay, a three-year contract extension ensures Joe Maddon will be managing the Rays through at least 2015. Locking up the man who established a laid-back yet winning culture around the Rays was a huge offseason move. The Rays will ride the talented young pitchers who helped them back into the playoffs in 2011 again in 2012. Look for a more powerful lineup with the return of Carlos Pena and the addition of former Oriole Luke Scott. Maddon’s team might turn out to be one of the most balanced in baseball this year.
What to watch for at Rays camp The Rays’ rotation is all but set with James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore and either Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann. With such a talented, young staff, the Rays could be in a lot of save situations in 2012. Maddon’s bullpen is going to be a crucial part of the equation, especially the back end. Maddon has a lot of depth and options in that area. This spring the closer’s job could be won by Fernando Rodney, Kyle Farnsworth or even Joel Peralta, who earned six saves for the Rays in 2011.
The Blue Jays are not expected to make a run for the AL pennant, but they might break .500. Toronto popped up in the rumor mill for players like Prince Fielder and Yu Darvish this winter, but in the end, GM Alex Anthopoulos filled holes with serviceable players like Francisco Cordero, Ben Francisco, Jason Frasor, Darren Oliver and Sergio Santos.
What to watch for at Blue Jays camp: Much like the Orioles, the Jays have a couple of jobs to be won. First base and left field are up for grabs while the back end of the rotation isn’t etched in stone either. The Blue Jays have a farm system deep with pitching talent. Could Andrew Hutchinson or Anthony Gose break camp with the big club? They’d have to have huge springs to convince manager John Farrell. The Jays also have one of the top catching prospects in baseball in Travis D’Arnaud He could be knocking down the door in Dunedin, Fla.
Last but not least, the Orioles bolstered the back end of the bullpen by acquiring relievers Matt Lindstrom and Luis Ayala. They took care of routine housekeeping by trading for backup catcher Taylor Teagarden and signing a few utility candidates. Still, the major issue of starting pitching is up in the air. New executive vice president Dan Duquette scoured the Asian market this offseason and signed Korean lefty Wei-Yin Chen and Taiwanese southpaw Tsuyoshi Wada. Both will battle it out with the thirteen other potential starters the O’s are brining to Sarasota, Fla.
What to watch for at Orioles camp: Can the young starters rebound? Is Jake Arrieta’s elbow healed? Is Brian Matusz focused and back on track after completely regressing in 2011? Will Zach Britton’s shoulder be healthy? Even though Duquette acquired seven new arms, he didn’t go out and get frontline starters. The O’s are banking on their young pitchers to have breakout seasons. If none do, it’s going to be a long year in Baltimore.