Gammons: Young guns to decide AL East
Back end of Yankees, Red Sox, Rays rotations could be key
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Recently, sabermetrics guru Bill James calculated that the Dodgers, Padres and Diamondbacks were among the five teams that faced the toughest pitching over the course of the 2009 season. This speaks volumes for the emphasis on pitching in the National League West, as well as the ballparks in the three California cities.
But as one of the division's general managers pointed out, "Those pitchers didn't have to endure the grind of the American League East. Because of the way so many of those lineups are constructed, it's practically impossible to put up the kind of numbers we can in the West. Those teams play one another so much, pitching depth becomes a big part of surviving."
As the AL East welcomes pitchers and catchers to Spring Training up and down the west coast of Florida, where all five teams train, they unveil new veteran faces in Javier Vazquez, John Lackey and Kevin Millwood. The building teams -- Toronto and Baltimore -- will carefully watch the health and development of Ricky Romero, Shaun Marcum, Brett Cecil, Brandon Morrow, Dustin McGowan, Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, et al.
There is no underplaying the acquisitions of Vazquez and Lackey for 2010, and Millwood will provide a ballast for the Orioles' reconstruction. But what appear to be the important Spring Training stories in this division all revolve around the decisions to be made at back end of the rotations, all of which are built from the scouting and development staffs of the organizations.
As Red Sox manager Terry Francona reminded the media, "This is the time to let guys get ready, not the time to even think about making decisions."
Yanks manager Joe Girardi essentially said the same up the road in Tampa, where one of the Yankees' most significant storylines will be Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain: Who starts and who relieves? All winter, general manager Brian Cashman has asked for patience, hoping that between them, they have a power starter and a power setup man for Mariano Rivera.
In Port Charlotte, an hour and a half to the south of The Trop, the Rays hope that David Price and Wade Davis are ready to make the leap that Jeff Niemann made last year and that Matt Garza made in 2008, when they won the AL pennant.
And here in The Fort, at the Spring Training home of the Red Sox, Clay Buchholz reported to camp with a chiseled addition of a dozen pounds and, after pounding out nine quality starts in his last 10 appearances, is preparing to take his extraordinary stuff out for 30 starts. What that means on a staff that already has Daisuke Matsuzaka and All-Star Tim Wakefield as fourth and fifth starters, no one knows.
But what Hughes, Chamberlain, Price, Davis and Buchholz become in 2010 will have a significant impact on what appears to be an above-the-rim race in the AL East.
"Any or most of those five guys could end up in the All-Star Game this July," says one AL scout. "Those are all pitchers with star stuff."
Girardi has been careful to remain open on the Chamberlain-Hughes issue, especially now that Vazquez is in the rotation in place of the departed Chien-Ming Wang. The numbers clearly show that either can be a sound lead-in to Rivera. Hughes is 8-9 with a 5.22 ERA as a starter in his career, and in his seven starts in 2009 -- after being called into the rotation to replace the injured Wang -- he gave up six homers, which actually may be understandable in the Bronx launching pad. But in 44 games as a reliever, he had a 1.40 ERA, allowed just 31 hits in 51 1/3 innings and carried a 13:65 walk-to-strikeout ratio.
The much-publicized "Joba Rules" -- applied to prepare him for a long-term career -- might have restricted Chamberlain's development last season. Joba is 12-7 with a 4.18 ERA as a starter and has shown flashes of command of all his pitches, but that fire-breathing charge out of the bullpen resulted in far more velocity and a career ERA as a reliever of 1.50, with 39 hits and a 20:79 walk-to-strikeout ratio in 60 innings.
So besides trying to decide if one of the two is Rivera's successor, several questions remain: Who will be the most viable starter in the long term? And for this season, who will be the best setup man? With concerns about his long-term ability to repeat his delivery and maintain his velocity, it seems as if Chamberlain could end up in the bullpen. But there are 6 1/2 weeks left for that decision.
When the Rays marched to the World Series in 2008, their rotation was essentially healthy, starting 153 of their 162 games. Last season, that rotation was in transition after the Scott Kazmir trade. While Niemann, who could have been had in Spring Training last year, became a 13-game winner, James Shields, Garza and Andy Sonnanstine went from a collective record of 38-26 to 25-33.
Now, they hope Price will consistently throw his slider for strikes and put his 4.42 ERA and control issues of last season in the rearview mirror, and his stronger second half -- 4.27 ERA, 23:55 walk-to-strikeout ratio -- indicated it might happen.
Davis showed the Rays tremendous maturity and makeup in his month in the big leagues. He throws 95 mph with a hard curveball, and carried strong Minor League numbers as well, with 7.9 strikeouts per nine innings and a 2.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio with Triple-A Durham before he was called up. He also has the advantage of coming up under the radar, as opposed to Price, who arrived with the overwhelming pressure of the nation's No. 1 overall draft pick and having been cast into the role of savior in the middle of a pennant race.
With Buchholz, the arm has always been there from his second big league start, when he no-hit the Orioles. Hall of Famer Jim Palmer has offered the opinion that Buchholz has the best stuff of any starter in the league. After the Jays turned down Boston's five-for-one offer for Roy Halladay on July 29, Buchholz actually won as many games (six) as Halladay. He started utilizing his two-seamer to give him a pitch for strikes to go with his curveball, change and four-seamer. And after a winter of training, he arrived at Spring Training seemingly more mature and certainly stronger.
With Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Lackey, the Red Sox know their front three. If, as believed, Matsuzaka's back strain isn't serious, he's going to start. Which, if everyone's healthy, leaves Wakefield and Buchholz to compete for the five-hole. Asked about the possibility of Wakefield working out of the bullpen, Francona refused to jump to that bridge before anyone had even worked out, although Victor Martinez's handling of Wakefield makes that more plausible than in the past.
"I have to prove myself as a starter," Buchholz said. "I tried to get stronger so I can hold up, but I don't have any starter's stress right now. Wake has earned all the respect that the rest of us should show him. I'll do whatever they want. If I pitch well, I'll get lots of opportunities."
In this division, with the two highest payrolls and three of what the PECOTA and other analytical experts feel are the best teams in the sport, the self-developed young pitchers may end up being a major factor in who wins 90, who wins 95 and who wins 100 games in 2010, all with touted two-way Red Sox prospect Casey Kelly standing in the shadows.
Granted, Tampa Bay has had some high draft positions, but it has spent its development dollars wisely. Toronto and Baltimore have as well. But one of the reasons so many small- and mid-market teams feel the need for a draft slotting system or a cap on the total of draft and international signings is the fact that the Yankees, Red Sox and Tigers will invest heavily in the draft and force small revenue teams into passing on top-dollar prospects.
Now, this isn't a simple issue, because a strict slotting system may result in baseball losing outstanding athletes to other sports; if the Yankees and Red Sox hadn't been willing to go above slot, Austin Jackson would probably be playing basketball at Georgia Tech, Kelly would be under his third quarterback coach at Tennessee and Red Sox prospect Brandon Jacobs would be an Auburn running back. In contrast, the Dodgers didn't offer arbitration to Jon Garland (when they were assured he wouldn't take it), because they didn't want to pay the cost of the 45th pick in the draft, and the Mets dumped Billy Wagner for non-prospects so they wouldn't have to pay for the two draft picks they would have received for his signing.
It is good for the Marlins and the Rockies that the Mets and Dodgers are more frugal with amateur signings, but in the AL East, that doesn't apply. The Rays, Jays and Orioles have no choice but to out-scout, out-hustle and out-maneuver others, knowing the Yankees and Red Sox are racing alongside them, only they're running in the best track shoes on the market.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.