Jays Most Improved in the East
After a long winter, particularly if you're a Leafs fan, baseballs are once again sailing through the air in Florida and Arizona, and questions about whether or not Roger Clemens ever bled through his dress pants can give way to more pleasant speculation about the 2008 baseball season.
A quick look at the AL East reveals that it was a pretty good offseason for the Blue Jays, based both on their own moves and those of their divisional counterparts.
Perhaps the best news for the Jays is that neither the Yankees or Sox landed Johan Santana, as the 2-time Cy Young winner was dealt right out of the league to New York Mets.
The defending World Champions in Boston will look to within for improvement, which isn't a bad plan when you have returning Rookie of the Year Dustin Pedroia, 2008 Rookie of the Year favourite Jacoby Ellsbury and young pitchers Jon Lester and Clay Buccholz. It's tough to imagine Pedroia and Ellsbury being any better than they were in 2007, and the spectre of the sophomore
always lurks, but the Red Sox still figure to be a force in 2008.
The most serious roadblock the Red Sox currently face is the shoulder of Curt Schilling which, depending on who you listen to, may be moments aways from falling off. Schilling's health isn't the lynchpin to Red Sox success that it once was, but it's never easy to replace 150-200 innings of starting pitching.
The Yankees spent a great deal of money to bring back essentially the same team they fielded in 2007. Everyone's a year older, Johnny Damon has officially turned into a pumpkin and the bullpen after Mariano Rivera is still a mess. What's more, there's new manager Joe Girardi, who could prove to be an easy whipping boy if the Yankees stumble out of the gate.
Girardi did have some success managing young players in Florida, and the Yankees will need their youth to come through if they want to continute their string of postseason appearances, relying heavily on pitchers Phillip Hughes, Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain. The Yankees don't usually give young players a chance until they have no other choice. Maddeningly, when they do finally relent, they find Derek Jeter or Robinson Cano or Jorge Posada. Still, with the health of young pitchers, banking on three of them is seldom a safe bet.
The Baltimore Orioles shipped both their best player and best pitcher out of the division when they dealt Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard. This may actually be good news for Orioles fans, because it signals the team's realization that they must rebuild from scratch. That said, they'll be hard-pressed to stay ahead of Tampa in 2008.
Those same Tampa (don't call us Devil) Rays have a collection of talented young players and will look to that group to try and climb out of the cellar and finally make some noise in the AL East. This comment has been cut and pasted from any of the past eight seasons in Tampa, where there are always a glut of talented young outfielders - this happens when you draft 1st year after year. The Rays have dealt two of their larger head cases in Elijah Dukes and Delmon Young, and they could claim 4th place from the Orioles.
The Blue Jays have added a more complete 3rd baseman in Scott Rolen, and they have filled what was a huge offensive black hole at shortstop. Despite his shortcomings - less than ideal range and the isolated power of a 9-year-old girl - David Eckstein represents a huge upgrade over the bat of John McDonald. The Jays have also filled a void at backup catcher, where Jason Phillips and Sal Fasano soaked up way too many at bats in 2007. Finally, they will add a premium reliever to an already solid bullpen once BJ Ryan returns, though the organization must take every pain not to rush him back.
With solid bats at all nine positions and a talented pitching staff, the Jays are well-stocked to contend provided they are healthy. If the injuries to Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells and Rolen are healed, then this team will score runs. If not, all the hustle and leadership of David Eckstein can muster won't be enough to lift the Jays out of 3rd place.