Peter Gammons: As Yankees await Tanaka decision, AL East looking strong

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The countdown to Masahiro Tanaka Friday is on the clock, and its ramifications. Dodgers? A ridiculous rotation, supplemented by a restocked bullpen.

The Cubs? A foundation. Diamondbacks? More pitchbuilding.

And, of course, if he signs with the Yankees, then dominoes from Grant Balfour to maybe a Bronson Arroyo or Stephen Drew tumble above and beyond that $189M ceiling that has attracted so much attention, the approach to the number should be on the CNBC scroll.

Reality in the American League East is that if the Yankees do cross the threshold, they will purchase what pitching they think can make them contenders. If they do not, then they will spend the next two years wooing Max Scherzer, maybe Jon Lester, certainly David Price.

And even without Tanaka and Balfour this season, they could well be better than the 85 win team of 2013. Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran change things. Derek Jeter, with an off-season of workouts he could do off the ankle injury last winter, will be a far different player, and every indication is that Mark Teixeira’s wrist is close to normal, his mind refreshed. By April, Alex Rodriguez will not be the daily topic.

Boston will once again be very good, as long as the seven month season does not have an effect on Lester, John Lackey and Koji Uehara, and as long as Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley, Jr. are what they believe. They have five or six very interesting young pitchers standing in line for whatever roles are open.

Tampa Bay is always good, because of their pitching, because of the way Joe Maddon utilizes his depth and versatility and as long as Evan Longoria is healthy. They may be too good in July to seriously consider trading Price.

But as we saw a 2013 season in which the Red Sox went from Mutiny on the Bounty to Love Boat, the American League East is not a three team division. It isn’t all going to go wrong again with the Blue Jays. Get Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion (and his 82-68 BB-K ratio, .904 OPS), Colby Rasmus, Jose Reyes and Brett Lawrie healthy for an entire season, and they will be far better than 9th in the league in runs, 11th in OPS. Bautista and Rasmus missed 88 games between them. With Casey Janssen, Steve Delabar, Brett Cecil, et al, they can have a very good bullpen.

Alex Anthopoulos has never pretended the starting pitching is an easy fix, he has never made excuses for being second to last in quality starts and starters’ ERA. But if they could go into the market for Ervin Santana or Matt Garza, it could be different, but Anthopoulos has steadfastly maintained that unless they or Ubaldo Jimenez falls to them—in which case Santana would probably go back to Kansas City, Garza to the Angels, Jimenez back to Cleveland—they will not be signing free agents, despite protected draft picks.

Now, say R.A. Dickey is more the Dickey of 2012 and Buehrle is his usual metronome self, that Brandon Morrow can make 25-30 starts, J.A. Happ is back, and Drew Hutchison and Kyle Drabek are healthy…

Is there enough starting pitching to win the division? Likely not. But they can be a whole lot better than last season.

The real what ifs in the East are the Orioles. If you are a Baltimorian, you can reasonably argue that they have the best core of frontline players in the division, with Adam Jones, Chris Davis, Manny Machado, Nick Markakis, J.J. Hardy and Matt Wieters. You can reasonably argue they are the best defensive team in the division. You can argue no team plays harder, day after day after day.

And you can reasonably ask: if the Orioles were able to sign Bronson Arroyo, Fernando Rodney and Kendrys Morales, how good could they be?

Davis is a premium power force, with his 53 homers and 1.004 OPS. Actually, he’s a force, period, even second in range factor among AL first basemen while third in offensive WAR, second in slugging, third in OPS+. He’s a star. Jones is one of the most compelling players in the game, playing pedal to the metal, hitting 33 homers in the middle of the field, averaging 158 games played the last four seasons, someone we pay to see. J.J. Hardy hit 25 homers as a gold glove shortstop. Buck Showalter believes Ryan Flaherty will hit 20 homers if he plays second base every day. Nick Markakis is finally healthy, put on close to 20 pounds and looking for a big season, and Matt Wieters is better than a .287 OBP guy.

Then, if Manny Machado’s knee is healthy, they have one of the league’s best defenders at any position and a kid whose 51 doubles are far more of an indication where he’s headed than his .314 OBP.

Hey, the Orioles won as many games (85) as the Yankees. Can they win ten more? It’s all about the pitching, and that entails what leads up to Tommy Hunter replacing Jim Johnson.

They need Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez to start 80-90 games between them. They need two or three of their young pitchers—Kevin Gausman, Zach Britton, for instance—to step forward as Tillman did last season. The bond with new pitching coaches Dave Wallace and Dom Chiti were extremely encouraging at this past week’s minicamp.

Now, can Todd Frohwirth help Darren O’Day with his changeup so that he can get out lefties and reduce the OPS split between lefties (.922) and righties (.433)? How good is Brian Matusz? T.J. McFarland?  Ryan Webb? Hunter? Alfredo Aceves, the human theme park, will be an adventure.

Dan Duquette has tried to deepen the roster with David Lough (a really good pickup), Delmon Young, Tyler Colvin, Francisco Peguero, Henry Urrutia, Jonathan Schoop, Jemile Weeks…

It hasn’t exactly been an off-season laden with promises, and it is unfortunate the way the Johnson/Grant Balfour story played out. It’s too bad, because this Oriole team has a two year window before Davis and Wieters are free agents, and it is a team that not only is good, but really cares.

Still, at this time last season, who predicted the Red Sox were in for their third Duckboat Parade in a decade. One columnist begged his readers to be prepared for a decade of last place finishes. One criticized them for not trading Jon Lester for Wil Myers, although it was never offered. A year later, they are being criticized for not moving faster on an extension on Lester, who can be a free agent at the end of this season.

It’s not impossible that Gausman becomes Joe Kelly or Eduardo Rodriguez moves into the rotation in July or that Dylan Bundy can come out of the bullpen in September. In the Oriole or Blue Jays world, they’re not going to sign Tanaka, they’re not going to have the Yankee, Red Sox or Tiger payroll, so they have to live from day to day, try to make it to October and see what happens. We all know what it was like in the 1990’s when the Jays and Orioles had really good teams, and baseball would love go back and do it all over, again.

  • Hudson Valley Slim

    Great rundown. It’s gonna be a dogfight again this year with all the talent in the East. Like the Jays were last year, the Yanks will be media picks (’cause they spent the most), but maybe the Jays will get some return on their investment this year. The Rays still have that formidable pitching, but if the Sox farm system can replace Ellsbury and Drew, they’ll be in the hunt.

    Thanks PG – been loving your commentary since the Sunday Globe columns many moons ago.