AL East becoming a pitching division 

March, 15, 2009
There are variables in every case, such as the health of Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, David Ortiz, J.D. Drew and Mike Lowell, as well as B.J. Upton's left shoulder. But as we reach the Ides of March, it remains evident that the American League East has three teams that can think about winning 95 games for one major reason: pitching. It would be four teams and 90 wins if Toronto had A.J. Burnett, Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum. And it is pitching that has the Orioles thinking that in 2010 or 2011, they will be back in the high life again for the first time since 1997.

What the Yankees spent for CC Sabathia and Burnett has been well-chronicled, along with what it means to have Chien-Ming Wang make 30-something starts. And a full season for Joba Chamberlain and another one for Andy Pettitte. And unlike the past couple of seasons -- such as 2008, when seven pitchers made at least nine starts -- the Yankees have what seems to be championship depth because Phil Hughes has had an exceptional spring. They also seem encouraged that they can keep Chamberlain in the rotation because of the arms in front of Mariano Rivera: Phil Coke, Brian Bruney, Damaso Marte, et al.

Oh, there may be circumstances under which Chamberlain might go back to the 'pen because of his unique ability to fill either role, but for now, the Yankees think this is the most stable pitching they've had in years.

Tampa's front four of Matt Garza, Andy Sonnanstine, James Shields and Scott Kazmir is a given strength, with Garza and Kazmir capable of jumping from a combined 23 wins to over 30. The Rays are so confident about their rotation that Joe Maddon is contemplating whether or not to allow David Price to build early-season momentum in the minors, so that when he comes up in the first month he will have been on a set schedule and built confidence; remember, Price has one year of professional service. A lot depends on whether Jeff Niemann, Carlos Hernandez, Jason Hammel or someone else can give them three to five starts. But while Price may open the season in Durham, he and Wade Davis are going to be important to the rotation by the time the pennant race is in gear.

Niemann can be a power arm in the seventh and eighth innings. Joe Nelson was a very good pickup. If Jason Isringhausen continues to throw as he has, then the counselor impact of Izzy and Troy Percival on an otherwise young staff will be important as the Rays deal with going from hunter to hunted.

Boston has two No. 1 starters in Josh Beckett and Jon Lester. The Sox have Daisuke Matsuzaka and his 18-3 record of 2008. They may try to cut back on 42-year-old Tim Wakefield's innings, but Terry Francona says they may not need a fifth starter until early May. And Brad Penny not only threw 91-94 mph during Friday's minor league outing, enough to impress Francona and pitching coach John Farrell, but he also said, "That's the best my shoulder has felt in a couple of years." Clay Buchholz has learned to drive his fastball down in the strike zone. They love Michael Bowden. John Smoltz is agreeing to stick to his June timetable. And Justin Masterson can always start.

The difference for the Red Sox is that they have the following in front of Jonathan Papelbon: Takashi Saito, Ramon Ramirez, Masterson, Manny Delcarmen, Hideki Okajima, Javier Lopez and, in time, Daniel Bard with his easy 97-102 mph fastball.

"That," says one scout, "has a chance to be the best 'pen in the league."

The Jays have been encouraged by the progress of left-hander Brett Cecil this spring, but they have holes to fill if they want to again lead the league in fewest runs allowed. Yet the pitching they have coming in 2010 appears to be extraordinary.

Then there are the Orioles. With Cesar Izturis at short and Felix Pie running down balls in the outfield along with Adam Jones and Nick Markakis, the defense should be much improved. With Chris Ray back and Jim Johnson, Koji Uehara and George Sherrill among the set-up crew, Dave Trembley says "our bullpen is going to be good. Real good."

What may finally reawaken interest in the Orioles is what's left to come: catcher Matt Wieters come June, and young pitchers Jake Arrieta (95 mph shotput), Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman and David Hernandez. "We're not going to rush and hurt any of them," insists Trembley.

"A year from now, they'll be the talk of spring training," says one GM. "Andy MacPhail is turning that situation around the right way."

Garza, Kazmir, Price, Davis, Lester, Buchholz, Bowden, Junichi Tazawa, Cecil, Hughes and Chamberlain are all under 26 years old.

The AL East may be the power division, but it is also becoming the pitching division.