MLB 2009 season review – AL East

MlbHlSqNow 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. 

BGB Predictions

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.

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5 Responses to MLB 2009 season review – AL East

  1. Joe Cooter November 9, 2009 at 1:41 pm #

    First let me say this, you guys weren’t the only ones who picked the Rays to go to the the playoffs. Practically everyone at ESPN, including the now disgraced Steve Philips, picked the Red Sox to Win and the Rays to win the Wild Card.

    Here is what the good folks from Bristol had to say at the start of the year: http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/preview09/news/story?page=09expertpicks

    It seems as if everyone fell in love with what the Rays did last year and based their predictions primarily on what happened last year inspite of historical evidence that suggested otherwise. The History of Baseball is riddled with teams that teams that had a meteoric rises from the second division to have one shining miracle season, only to fall back to teh depths of the second division with in a year or two. The 69 mets won a hundred games and the World Series after winning only 70 the year before. The following year, the mets finished 83-79, a decline of 17 games. The 2003 KAnsas City Royals won 88 games after losing well over 100 the year before, the following year they once again lost 100 games. The 1991 Minnesota twins won the World Series after finishing in last place the year before. With in two years, they would once again finish in last place. Many of those teams were a lot like the Devil Rays in terms of the level of talent the other teams had. Looking back at it there was every reason to think that the Rays would Struggle this year. Why everyone failed to notice this important historical trend is beyond me.

    Most of the year, it seemed as if 0-8 was mentioned around the Yankees even after the Yankees had pulled ahead of the Red Sox. Many experts used the 0-8 to say that the Red Sox were a better team than the Yankees. Even this was decieving. There were actually four games in Fenway that Yankees should have won. If you changed the outcom of those four games, the Final Standings would show the Yankees with a record of 107-55, the Red Sox with a record of 91 -71. The would have made the American League something of a route. If you look at the outcome of those four games, you will see that inevery case the Yankees beat themselves. It was because of this that I felt that the Yankees were a better team inspite of the 0-8.

    Never the less, when that four game series started in August I was nervous and in desperate need of inspiration from somewhere. I found it in the form of Thurman Munson, the late Yankees Captian who died in a plane crash in August of 1979. Thurman was a tough hard nosed catcher who wasn’t afraid to let people know if he thought they weren’t trying hard enough. Thurman wsa perhaps the most underrated catcher of his time, and having seen him play I honestly thought he was better than both Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk, whom Munson openly dispised. Thurm was the time of player who would not have tolerated the 0-8 start against the Red Sox. As luck would have it, the first game was scheduled for the anniversary of Thurman’s funeral. I kept thinking of him, and muttered to myself “Win one for the Captain, he would never have put up with 0-8.” However, many “experts” thought the Red Sox would win. But a funny thing happened, the Yankees routed the Sox that night, then won that epic 15 inning game the following night, before winning the two games over the weekend. By then it was clear, the Yankees were going to win the division. Everyone knew it, especially the Red Sox, who focused on the Wild Card and never made a serious challege against the Yankees.

    Still, that didn’t mean there wouldn’t be any drama before the end of the Season. Coming into the final series with the Sox, both teams had the opertunity to Clinch at the same time. The Yankees had held off celebrating a playoff spot until they clinched the division. However, the Sox made it know that if they were able to clinch the Wild Card Spot they were going to celebrate even if they still had a mathematical chance at the division. Well Texas one a game and the Yankees won all three clinching the division. The Sox had to wait for Texas to lose on monday night to clinch and their celebration was definately muted because of the lose they suffered that night. That tells you everything you need to know about the culture of the two teams.

    • Matt Smith November 9, 2009 at 9:39 pm #

      Hi Joe. Re. Thurman Munson, have you read Marty Appel’s biography ‘Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain’? I know it came out earlier this year and I’ve seen some good reviews of it.

  2. Joe Cooter November 9, 2009 at 10:54 pm #

    I haven’t read it completely, but I read his earlier Biography of Thurm. He was my favorite player growing up, even though he had fueded with Reggie Jackson and I liked Reggie as well. I’ve seen the memorial game played against the Orioles I don’t know how many times. Such a sad thing, in my opinion.

  3. Steve November 11, 2009 at 12:16 pm #

    Great write-up – I’m looking forward to the others.

    It’s amazing just how competitive this division is, and shows how strong the Yankees were, in that they won it so handily. This year it also showed how important inter-division games can be in shaping a season.

    I certainly wouldn’t like to say who’ll end up on top next season. A very tough call.

    • Matt Smith November 12, 2009 at 7:04 am #

      Thanks Steve. The AL East is tough now and it figures to get even tougher if both the Rays and Orioles develop over the next few years.

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