Now that the 2009 MLB season is over, it’s time to look back at how each division turned out. Pretty much every baseball website or blog offers up predictions prior to the season, but few actually go back and look at how accurate they were. BaseballGB is the virtual land of the brave, noting that there’s a fine line between being brave or stupid, so we will not flinch from this important duty.
I’ll be reviewing each division in turn every Monday over the next six weeks, starting with the division that produced this year’s World Series champions.
Joe: Red Sox (Wild Card –Yankees), Mark: Red Sox (WC – Rays), Matt: Red Sox (WC – Rays), Russ: Yankees (WC – Red Sox).
So, both Mark and I didn’t even think the Yankees would make the postseason. We got that one completely wrong, although all four of us were correct in predicting that the Wild Card would go to the second-placed time in the East, perhaps not the toughest of predictions. Russ got it on the money, while Joe had the correct two teams.
1. New York Yankees (105-59) – World Series champions
The end of the 2008 season was something of a watershed for the Yankees. They had missed the postseason for the first time since 1993, some sizeable contracts were coming off the payroll and the team was about to open their new $1.5 billion ballpark. That combination ensured that the Yankees would reinvest heavily to turn around their fortunes and they did so in eye-popping style by signing the top two free agent pitchers, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, and the top free agent hitter, Mark Teixeira.
The new era was nearly derailed before it had begun when Alex Rodriguez was forced to admit to taking steroids during his time with the Texas Rangers and then missed the first month of the season due to a torn labrum in his right hip. However, the Yankees were not to be knocked off track. A-Rod still hit 30 home runs with 100 RBIs and Teixeira (38 HR, 122 RBI) was as productive as expected whilst regularly displaying his gold glove defence at first base. Johnny Damon, Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui all had strong years and both Robinson Cano (.320 AVG, 25 HR) and Derek Jeter rebounded brilliantly from down years in 2008, with the ‘Captain’ making himself a contender for the AL MVP award (it should go to Joe Mauer, but …).
The best offense in baseball was matched by a good pitching staff, led by their newly-acquired ace: CC Sabathia (19-8, 3.37 ERA). Mariano Rivera had a typically dominant season, while Phil Hughes’ contribution as his set-up man should not be overlooked. One of the oddest sights of the season came on 13 April when Nick Swisher pitched a scoreless inning in a blow-out loss to the Rays. His appearance was largely due to the eight runs conceded in Chien-Ming Wang’s solitary inning and the plummeting fortunes of the two-time nineteen-game winner was the one major blot on the Yankees’ season. Still, that was the furthest thing on their minds as they enjoyed a ticker-tape parade on Friday to celebrate the organization’s twenty-seventh World Series.
2. Boston Red Sox (95-67) – Wild Card winner, defeated in ALDS by Angels
The Red Sox made it to the postseason yet again and won ninety-five games during the regular season, the third most in the Majors. Yet the season was seen as a disappointment in Beantown even before their rivals earned some more bragging rights by winning the Fall Classic.
There were two factors that really made 2009 seem like a letdown. The first was the way their season petered out in the second half. The Red Sox got off to a great start, including an eleven-game winning streak in April, but their 54-34 first half was followed by a 41-33 second half. That downturn was encapsulated by their record against New York. The Red Sox won the first eight meetings with the Yankees, but then suffered a four-game sweep at Yankee Stadium in early August, lost two out of three at Fenway later in the month and were then swept again in three games back in New York. The second factor was the rapid 3-0 defeat by the Angels in the ALDS that brought their season to a shuddering close. A sweep to end the year is never fun, but the way it happened, with star closer Jonathan Papelbon blowing a 6-4 lead in the top of the ninth at Fenway in Game Three, left their fans in a state of disbelief.
Kevin Youkilis, Jason Bay (now a free agent), Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury all had good years and the batting lineup received a boost when General Manager Theo Epstein traded for Victor Martinez midway through the season; however the offense was still prone to slumps down the stretch. On the pitching side, Jon Lester arguably took over Josh Beckett’s position as team ace (even though the latter was awarded two extra wins than his teammate, 17-6 to 15-8), but gambles on veterans John Smoltz and Brad Penny didn’t pay off and Daisuke Matsuzaka was either injured or ineffective.
All of this makes it sound like Boston had a bad year, which is far from the truth. They still have a strong core of players and the Front Office will be working hard over the offseason to add some additional pieces to get the team back deep into the playoffs yet again.
3. Tampa Bay Rays (84-78)
The Rays had a lot to live up to in 2009 after reaching the World Series last year. Finishing third in the division and missing out on the playoffs therefore was a disappointment, but it was still a positive year for the organization. They finished above .500 for the second straight time, while playing in arguably the toughest division in baseball, and had a host of individual success stories along the way.
Ben Zobrist (.297, 27 HR) was a revelation for the Rays and shortstop Jason Bartlett had a career year, while starter Jeff Nieman had a very promising rookie campaign. Evan Longoria continued to establish himself as one of the most talented young players in the game, Matt Garza (8-12) and James Shields (11-12) pitched better than their win-loss records suggested and David Price began his career as a Major Leaguer starter, taking a few knocks along the way but also showing glimpses of his immense potential. However, the man who stole the show was outfielder Carl Crawford. His six stolen bases in one game against the Red Sox on 3 May was one of the standout performances of the 2009 season and he also won the All-Star game MVP for an incredible home-run saving catch.
Not everything went the Rays’ way, not least their 08/09 offseason roster moves. Edwin Jackson outperformed his old teammates after being traded to the Tigers, even though he did wear down in the second half, and Pat Burrell had a very disappointing first year at Tropicana Field. The Rays then traded away Scott Kazmir at the deadline in a ‘waving the white flag’ move that didn’t go down well with all in Florida.
The Rays only took a small step back in 2009, but a small step can send you a long way behind when you’re in the same division as the Red Sox and Yankees. They’ve got some excellent young players in the organization alongside some quality veterans and how they manage the roster, in terms of payroll and roster spots, will be crucial if they are to compete against the best teams in the Majors going forward.
Toronto Blue Jays (75-87)
The J.P. Ricciardi era in Toronto came to an ugly end in 2009. The General Manager was fired at the close of a miserable season for the franchise during which pretty much everything fell apart.
Roy Halladay (17-10, 2.79 ERA) was fantastic as usual on the mound, but Ricciardi’s bungled attempts to trade the former Cy Young winner prior to the deadline cast a long shadow over the season, one that never went away. Halladay has one year left on his current contract. It seems almost certain that he won’t be back with the Blue Jays in 2011 and there must be some doubt over whether he will be with them for the 2010 season. New GM Alex Anthopoulos needs to undertake a rebuilding project and getting some prospects for Halladay, rather than waiting for compensatory draft picks when he leaves as a free agent, may be a necessary part of the exercise.
Ricciardi had little choice but to begin dismantling his expensive and underachieving team during the season, cutting B.J. Ryan and accepting the White Sox’s waiver claim on Alex Rios. No doubt he tried to find a new home for Vernon Wells as well, but the $107m owed on the five remaining years of his ridiculous contract makes him unmovable without the Blue Jays agreeing to swallow a large chunk of the cash.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom at the Rogers Centre. Adam Lind and Aaron Hill had excellent years for the Blue Jays and Marco Scutaro produced a career year just before he hit the free agent market (great timing Scoot!). However, they will head into the offseason with some uncertainty over their roster and with manager Cito Gaston looking like a lame duck just waiting to be fired.
Baltimore Orioles (64-98)
At first glance, the Orioles’ only achievement of 2009 was avoiding the indignity of a 100-loss season. However, while it’s impossible to spin a 98-loss season into a success story, their year has to be considered in the context of where they were as an organization prior to a pitch being thrown.
There is no quick fix for Baltimore. Maybe a team in another division could bring in four or five players and make an outside shot for a postseason spot from the O’s position, but you can’t do that in the AL East. Their only option is to use the early draft picks their current low finishes afford them, and trade away any useful parts for prospects, to re-stock the farm with premium young talent.
That’s what GM Andy MacPhail has been doing for the past few seasons and the work is starting to bear fruit. The expectations of what rookie catcher Matt Wieters could do in the Majors from day one were a tad silly, but they were a reflection on his perennial All-Star potential and that hasn’t been diminished by the fact that he didn’t hit .340 right from the off in the Big Leagues. He got better as the season went on, finishing with a highly credible .288/.340/.412 batting line while drawing excellent reviews on his work behind the plate, and that’s exactly what the O’s were hoping for.
Wieters and young pitchers like Chris Tillman and Brian Matusz picked up invaluable Major League experience in 2009 and they did so alongside the continuing development of Nick Markakis and Adam Jones in the outfield, an impressive rookie campaign by starter Brad Bergesen, and another good season by Brian Roberts. The latter signed a four-year extension with the club prior to the season beginning, taking him up to the end of the 2013 season, and he will be one of the core quality veterans around which the younger players can grow over the next few years.
One final point about the Orioles’ 2009 season: the difference in wins and losses was thirty-four. That’s a lot of games, but don’t forget that Baltimore has the misfortune of playing the Yankees and Red Sox thirty-six times over the course of the season. Their 7-29 record against the two AL East behemoths accounted for a fair proportion of the deficit and a thirteen-game losing streak at the end of September hurt their final record as well. Both cases amounted to understandable struggles of a developing team and there’s plenty of reason for optimism that 2010 should bring more cheer in Maryland, even if a postseason spot is still a long way away.