Welcome to the sixth and final installment of the division-bellwethers series, in which we look at the players whose successes and failures might give you a good idea of how the team is doing.
The last stop is the A.L. East, the only division in baseball with five teams that expect to contend. Laugh at the Red Sox all you want -- this is my home page, for example -- but they shouldn't be that bad. It's possible that the Jays and Red Sox will lose 90 games again, or that the Orioles get homesick, but right now all five teams are looking forward to the season with some measure of optimism.
Yankees - Derek Jeter
Jeter's going to be awful one of these years. It might be when he's 44, and he might be still be playing because he's peterosing himself into the lineup as a player-manager is wont to do. But he'll be awful. And the Yankee-haters will be there, waiting, pointing fingers and laughing, celebrating the idea of physical decline and decay as if the same principles weren't going to make us all incontinent one day.
It sure seems like this would be a likely year for that to happen. Jeter is coming off ankle surgery, and he's just starting to play in game situations. The interruption of an offseason routine for a player in his late 30s is something of a big deal, and although the reports of him getting fluffy were overblown, the layoff has to affect a player who is wholly unused to injury. Everything points to a decline, even if just gradual.
But just as I'll wait until the first bad Yankees season to predict the next, I'll wait until the first bad Jeter season to start mumbling about his decline. He led the league in plate appearances and hits, and his average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage all increased for the third straight year. Why not? Makes sense for a player getting close to 40. If we just extrapolate, he'll be hitting .421/.540./720 by 2026 and there won't be a damn thing you can do about it.
With the Yankees getting older and having injury problems -- no, no, it's true -- they don't have the luxury of punting any more lineup slots. A 39-year-old shortstop hitting like a 39-year-old shortstop would be a hardship that the lineup doesn't need. Derek Jeter hitting like a fully armed and operational Derek Jeter would be a blessing, and it's something you've come to expect by now.
Red Sox - Jon Lester
An ominous trend:
Strikeouts per nine innings:
2009 - 10.0
2010 - 9.7
2011 - 8.5
2012 - 7.3
All pitchers eventually turn into Kirk Rueter. It's one of life's great truths. But you can hope that it doesn't happen when the pitcher is still in his 20s. Lester's strikeout rate led the AL just 800 days and 397 innings ago, but now it's only slightly above average.
That's the bad news. The good news is that Lester has been a fantastic pitcher even with a low K-rate -- Lester's lowest ERA of his career came with his lowest K/9 (6.5) in 2008. He should also have a pretty good defense behind him, with the short porch in left minimizing the effects of Jonny Gomes, the one projected defensive liability.
Another replacement-level season from Lester would effectively eliminate the Red Sox from contention. But there's a reason why Baseball Reference (0.4 wins) and FanGraphs (3.3) disagree wildly when it comes to his WAR for 2012. The former is based on the runs that actually scored off Lester. The latter is based on the runs FanGraphs believed should have scored. If FanGraphs is right, there isn't any reason to worry about Lester; he never stopped being valuable.
Blue Jays - Edwin Encarnacion
Two years ago, the hot preseason topic was Jose Bautista. There was no way he was going to continue being as good, so the only question had to do with just how far he would fall. Then he was just as good. He was doing it again before getting injured in 2012. Now we're all used to the idea of Jose Bautista, destroyer of baseballs.
It's happening again, this time with Edwin Encarnacion. There's no way he can be as good as he was last season. Just two years ago, he was waived, claimed, and released, and he was nothing more than an average designated hitter the following season. Last season, though, the eight-year veteran hit a quarter of his career home runs and demolished his previous bests in OBP and slugging percentage. The Jays are expecting big things this season, and part of that has to do with Encarnacion being as good as he was, or close to it.
There's a double-edged sword when it comes to a repeat season, though. There's regression lurking in the bushes, always waiting to ruin everyone's fun after a player has an uncharacteristically good year. But there's also a health factor -- Encarnacion is usually good for a trip to the DL or two in a season. Heck, let's check the Baseball Prospectus injury tool:
And don't forget about the time he was abducted by extraterrestrials and experimented on. The combination of breakout year and injury history makes him like twice the risk. The Jays already have a few risks in the lineup -- Bautista's wrist, a presumably chemistry-free Melky Cabrera, and the mercurial Colby Rasmus, to name a few -- so Encarnacion turning back into a mediocre, impatient DH option would be a devastating development for an organization with super-high expectations
Orioles - Jason Hammel
After doing 28 players in this series already, it's kind of refreshing to get to Hammel. Most of the pitcher capsules read like this:
(Pitcher)'s velocity is decreasing, down from (impressive number) to (Livan Hernandez on valium). This doesn't bode well for his future. Although it's possible he can learn to pitch with reduced velocity, eventually it will all catch up to him and he'll (wind up like a rain-soaked Teddy Ruxpin playing a Slayer tape, broken and angry).
But Hammel's velocity is going up -- he had the 10th-highest velocity of any pitcher over 100 innings last year, less than a mile behind Justin Verlander. He was on the way to a breakout season away from Coors Field before he hurt his knee, but he doesn't have a history of arm troubles. Everything should be fine with him.
And he's just what the Orioles need, a relatively inexpensive pitcher with top-of-the-rotation potential. It's kind of amazing how the Rockies turned him into Jonathan Sanchez in just a few short months. Everyone is doubting the Orioles, but it's worth noting that their fishy run differential didn't include a half-season of Hammel's superior run prevention.
Rays - Matt Joyce
The Rays have all kinds of pitching depth -- the kind that can make a team feel comfortable enough to trade James Shields. But the bottom of the lineup is sketchy, at best, with James Loney, Luke Scott, and Kelly Johnson all coming off down years (in Loney's case, several of them.) After Jose Molina, the lineup wraps back around, where the Rays are counting on a breakout year from Desmond Jennings and a rebound year from Yunel Escobar.
With all of those uncertainties, the last thing the Rays need is an unproductive Matt Joyce. The lefty-swinging outfielder has serious platoon issues, but at his best he combines patience and power, and he should be a decent defender in left. There was always something missing last season, though. When he took walks and hit for power, he had trouble making contact. When he hit for average, his patience disappeared. Nothing worked for him in the second half of the 2012 season, when he hit .202/.291/.343.
The good news is that we're 1,500 plate appearances into Joyce's career, and most of those suggest that he's much better than he showed in the second half. But if something's wrong, or if the league has a new idea on how to get Matt Joyce out, it could be a frustrating, all-pitch/no-hit summer for a team in a tough division.