The new scope of the AL East
Think back to this time last season, and the American League East (which I think is the toughest division in all of sports) looked much different than it does now. Moving forward back to the present day, the question is whether or not the 2012 version of the Birds is better equipped to make waves in the division. We’ve expected improvement from the Orioles over the past two seasons. If you really want to be techical, we’ve gotten it; the O’s have improved their record by two or three games each season. That’s hardly the kind of progress that’s going to have management singing the praises of players. (Furthermore, in both cases that marginal improvement came to pass due to a flurry of wins at the end of the season.) So why might 2012 be different?
Ultimately most of the Orioles’ moves this off season haven’t occurred yet. Thursday’s trade for Taylor Teagarden was a good start, but there’s still a lot of things that will be done before we get anywhere near spring training. However the O’s now have Dan Duquette who’s replaced Andy MacPhail. Regardless of what you thought of Mr. MacPhail’s job performance, the fact is that questions about MacPhail’s future and that of the club lingered for most of 2011. Now that there’s a bona fide person in place, we probably have a better idea of the direction of the franchise for the next few years. That, combined with Buck Showalter’s steady hand should give Oriole fans more hope going into the new season.
If the past two seasons have proven anything to Oriole fans, it would probably be that the Yankees and Red Sox don’t always have to be playing Family Feud at the top of the division. In fact, Boston is really the big question mark in the division this season. Since the end of 2011, the Red Sox have both a new GM and a new manager. They also lost Jonathan Papelbon to the Phillies in free agency. A huge piece of their team the past ten years or so, David Ortiz, remains unsigned, and may or may not return to Boston. Furthermore the Red Sox still do have the services of Josh Beckett and John Lackey, both of whom have had their work ethic, skill, and performance called into question of late.
Boston of course has signed former Rangers’ and Mets’ manager (and ESPN analyst) Bobby Valentine to be their skipper in the wake of Terry Francona’s departure. From the Orioles’ perspective, this could be a bit of a problem; speaking for myself I’ve always liked Valentine. I suspect that Showalter isn’t really looking forward to playing a Bobby V-coached team 18 times in 2o12, nor presumably is Valentine looking forward to bucking heads with Showalter’s O’s. Nevertheless the question of whether the game has passed Bobby V by has to be asked. He last managed in the big leagues in the 2002 season (NY Mets), after which he went to Japan for a few years before joining ESPN. So it’s been 10 years since he’s managed at this level. While I personally believe that baseball is pretty much the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, it’s certainly a fair question.
The other variable might be the Tampa Rays, however Joe Maddon seems to have a magic touch which allows them to be in the hunt each year no matter what
Valentine inherits a team that’s been under a bit of duress given the stories of entitlement and the disent in the clubhouse that we hear about coming out of the 2011 season. I suppose my point is that the Orioles in effect nailed Boston’s coffin shut in 2011, and given the number of variables with the Red Sox there might be reason to believe that they could take a step backwards. Presumably Boston fans will try to say that losing the likes of Papelbon might be addition by subtraction, however make no mistake about the fact that Boston’s used to luring prized players away from other teams as opposed to the inverse.
Ultimately whether the Red Sox are a much weaker team due to the above-mentioned variables remains to be seen. Furthermore, whether or not that would prove beneficial to the Orioles is another story. In 2011 I felt that the O’s would take steps ahead of the Blue Jays and Rays given the decreased power of those teams year-over-year. I was wrong. However the events that unfold in terms of trades/free agency with regard to the O’s in the next two months will ultimately be a big deciding factor in the 2012 Orioles’ season.
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