American League East will be meat-grinder
TAMPA, Fla. -- The Gulf Coast is the AL East Spring Training coast, all five teams stretched out from Fort Myers to Dunedin. Granted, this is the season of light, but in many coffee houses, one hears the complaints of the middle and lower class of the division, that the Yankee and Red Sox payrolls make it virtually impossible for the others to contend annually.
Then on the road up I-75, at the stop in Port Charlotte one listens to Evan Longoria say: "We all believe we're going to be really good. Can't beat the Yankees and Red Sox because of payroll? We did it twice in three years. We're really proud of that."
To which David Price adds: "Between our front office and [manager] Joe [Maddon], the players here trust that they'll give us enough to contend. Sure, we lost a lot of players this offseason, but the fact is that there is reciprocal trust that makes us believe we will be right in it."
Farther on up the road, in Sarasota, Nick Markakis has a fascinating view of life in the AL East. It hasn't been easy in Markakis' first three years. He is fully aware of the fact that in 1997 the Orioles went wire-to-wire in first place, then Pat Gillick left and they've averaged 91 losses a year since. Markakis admits he is sick and tired of playing the Yankees and Red Sox in Camden Yards and having the vast majority of fans cheering for the visitors, "especially," says Markakis, "when everyone knows that Baltimore is a great baseball town."
"But if our young pitching is as good as we think it is," says Markakis, "one of the reasons we can turn this thing around quickly is because we play in the East. I think it's really helped me as a player, because we play so many games against great teams. It's sped up my maturity. I believe it. I think it's helped all of us because we learn playing the best and we see how the game should be played."
Markakis' view is refreshing. So is Buck Showalter suggesting "the Rays may be just as good as they were last year, maybe better." So are both Terry Francona and Joe Girardi offering their fear of the young Toronto pitching.
"I think," says Girardi, "this season may be the best the division has ever been."
Yes, the Rays lost Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, Carlos Pena, Joaquin Benoit, Dan Wheeler and had traded Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza, but they are a team still built on starting pitching.
"We set a goal for every one of our five starters to throw 200 innings," says Price. "We almost did it last year."
Tampa's starters threw 999 2/3 innings, were 73-50, had the best ERA (3.99) and the most quality starts in the division. Sub Jeremy Hellickson for Garza, and the rotation remains the same, with the chance that Chris Archer -- who came in the Garza deal from the Cubs -- can be Hellickson-ready come August.
"The big thing is going to be to figure out our bullpen," says Maddon. "We have a lot of interesting guys, but we have to line them up and find someone to pitch the ninth. J.P. Howell [off arm surgery] isn't as far away as people think, but because he's been hurt, we can't overload him."
GM Andrew Friedman signed Kyle Farnsworth, traded for Adam Russell, signed Juan Cruz, Cory Wade and Dirk Hayhurst, plus lefties Jake McGee and Alex Torres are coming out of the minors. Friedman is still working on a deal or two.
"The fact is that it's easier to manufacture a bullpen than any other position," says Showalter. "But it can also turn on you in a hurry."
Manny Ramirez killed it at Athletes Performance Institute this winter and looks as he did in 2006.
"He has been putting on a show," says Longoria. "What's amazing is how much he knows about hitting. I've really enjoyed our conversations, how much I've learned from him."
Maddon told Ramirez that he would have to play defense at times, and the manager adds "he's done every drill George Hendrick has thrown at him."
"I had calf and leg problems last year, and got heavy, I know," says Ramirez. "I'm down to 226 now, from about 236 or 238. But my legs are much better, I feel more flexible. It's time to have another big year."
Manny is reunited with Johnny Damon, who understands his place in baseball history being 429 hits shy of 3,000.
"I still love to play, and want to win again," he says. "I thought we could win in Detroit. I loved that team. I thought they were going to pick up my option. If I had known they weren't going to, I would have accepted the [waiver] deal to Boston because they had a chance to win. But I'm here, and I'm excited."
Damon, Desmond Jennings, B.J. Upton, Matt Joyce, Ramirez, Sam Fuld and the invaluable Ben Zobrist will see time in the outfield. Longoria is the anchor at third and Reid Brignac is the shortstop, and Sean Rodriguez and Zobrist each provide flexibility with their experience at multiple positions. Maddon loves Elliot Johnson's versatility, as well as the fact he switch hits. He can play Dan Johnson and Zobrist at first. Robinson Chirinos, a big piece of the Garza deal, will catch and DH. Maddon loves John Jaso's on-base capabilities, and has Kelly Shoppach.
If they pitch and close games, they will be very tough to play, especially any series in which they can pitch Price, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann and/or Hellickson.
"They have developed pitching in a very short period of time," says an American League scout. But, then, it appears everyone in the division is doing just that.
Go to the Yankee camp, and Girardi will tell you "the reason this is so much fun is the young players, especially pitchers." The talk has focused on lefty Manny Banuelos ("He pitches like he's been here for a decade ..." says Alex Rodriguez.) and Dellin Betances, who will begin the season in Trenton with a bullet next to their names. Andrew Brackman has opened eyes, and all Adam Warren has done all his life is win.
Go to Boston, and they are studying 25-year-old Andrew Miller's search for his self, which in his debut was 95-99 with a strikeout breaking ball and a turnover change. Felix Doubront, 23, and 21-year-old Stolmy Pimentel, who always had command but now is 6-foot-4, 220 pounds and up five ticks on the radar gun.
Go to Toronto and there's Ricky Romero, Kyle Drabek, Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil and bigtime sleeper Zach Stewart.
And then go watch the Orioles. They are a batting practice show and a half.
"We've lost more than 500 baseballs this spring," says coach Willie Randolph.
Getting Mark Reynolds, J.J. Hardy, Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero brought experience and stability that was badly needed. Showalter believes that this is Matt Wieters' year -- always noting that what comes first for Wieters is his unselfish work with the pitching staff -- and that Adam Jones will jump further forward and that Markakis will be an All-Star. Several players suggest the most important factor for the offense will be Brian Roberts' health.
"He's close to the best leadoff man in the league," says a teammate. "He can put things in motion."
"If our young pitchers progress, we can be pretty good," says Showalter. "I think one thing that helps these kids is the fact that Jeremy Guthrie has gotten over the hump after a few years in between, and shown them they can do the same. Guthrie's thrown over 200 innings each of the last two years, and shown our other kids the way to go after it."
Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta showed flashes of considerable promise last season. Chris Tillman and Brad Bergesen have power arms. Do not be surprised if hard-throwing lefty Zach Britton doesn't eventually get a chance, and Justin Duchscherer provides experience.
Everyone knows that Maddon completely changed the devilish culture of the Tampa Bay franchise. John Farrell could have had a number of managerial jobs before being hired by the Jays, with anyone who knows him expecting that he will be a major success.
Then look at The Showalter Record. In 1992, he took over a Yankees team that had won 71 games, and by 1994 the Yanks had the best record in the East at the time the season was cut short by the strike. And in 1995, Buck had the Yankees in the playoffs.
He built the D-backs from scratch, and had them winning 100 games in their second season. In 2002, he took over a Rangers team that had been 72-90, and in his second season had them 89-73.
"This division is different from any other," says Longoria. "That's what makes it so much fun to compete in."
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.