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AL East Preview

AL East Preview

AL East Preview
By Josh Jacobs

The regular season is looming just above the horizon and the AL East is once again emergoking as the focal point in hardball.

Minus the usual powerhouses in New York and Boston, a rebuilding Tampa Bay club is receiving a lot of love from baseball brains. A strong farm team and ability to select super talent in the draft has been an integral part to the regeneration of the Rays.

We’ll dive into Tampa’s condition later in this preview, but loathing Ray fans are experiencing a feeling that’s foreign to them, expectation.

AL East

Baltimore (69-93, -1896)

It’s been a long 11 years since the Orioles emerged from the East with a winning record and a division title to boot. Fast forward to 2008 and Baltimore has demolished the very foundation that has been rotting like warped wood.

The biggest move was shipping All-Star shortstop Miguel Tejada out to Houston in exchange for five youngsters. It might have been a move to clean house or just as an investment for the future, but either way you look at it status quo has been thrown out the window.

The starting rotation is anchored by Jeremy Guthrie (7-5, 3.70 ERA). With talk about trading away the southpaw ace Eric Bedard lasting much of the off-season, Seattle decided it was time to add the power starter. Lefty Adam Loewen will follow up in the No. 2 spot, but the bullpen is where problems arise.

An overworked pen from last year returns relatively intact, but where the pieces to the puzzle go still seems to be a work in progress. Without a dedicated closer, manager Dave Trembley will be in search mode for much of the season.

Look for Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis to supply much of the pop at the plate. Melvin Mora, Kevin Millar and Aubrey Huff aren’t getting younger so expect their numbers to remain sub-human.

There’s no beating around the bush; Baltimore’s decision makers have finally pulled the trigger to move towards developing from within the organization. While it might have come a few years overdue, the change of philosophy is a breath of fresh air.

With most books setting the Orioles as 65/1 long shots to take the AL East, don’t expect the clubhouse to be popping champagne come October. An ‘over/under’ 66 games has been set by

Boston (96-66, +459)

Boston returns as a defending World Champion (again), and this year’s roster is almost identical to the core that defeated Colorado last season.

Making sure to secure Mike Lowell, Curt Schilling (on the 60-day DL rehabilitating his right shoulder) and Mike Timlin to deals in the off-season left the organization with plenty of time to sit back and relax.

Starters Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield are once again the go-to-guys in the starting rotation. The only question mark hovering over the clubhouse is whether or not Jon Lester or Clay Buchholz will make the grade. With Schilling resting up for a majority of the first-half of the season, look for the Lester and Buchholz party coming to a city near you.

The Sox will enter the new season with a strongest overall lineup in the league (yes, again). Although David Ortiz missed 13 games due to injuries in ’07, Manny Ramirez knocked in his lowest RBI total since 1997 (88 RBIs) and J.D. Drew limped out of last season with a .270 BA, expect Boston to remain one scary offensive unit.

The most intriguing battle will be in center field. Coco Crisp and Jacoby Ellsbury will have all of Massachusetts watching their development over the season, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ellsbury excel in the Majors in ’08.

There wasn’t any remarkable moves made during the off-season, and the phrase don’t fix it if its not broken applies to a ‘T’.

A team that was completely void of a World Series win in 86 years is no longer. While where not talking dynasty yet, Boston has surely made up for all the losing seasons in a very short amount of time. believes the Red Sox will be rolling into another successful year, installing the ‘over/under’ at a high 94 ½. Boston is a 4/1 favorite to take back-to-back championships in the MLB.

New York Yankees (94-68, -1062)

The Yankees have broken the mold of trading away young talent for veteran ball players. General manager Brian Cashman (with instructions from the Steinbrenner family; whoever you believe is at the reins) and company decided to stick to its guns with the youth that experienced Major League success last season.

Starting hurlers Phil Hughes (5-3, 4.46 ERA) and Ian Kennedy (1-0, 1.89 ERA) are expected to receive a fair share of the hurling duties, while fastball sensation Joba Chamberlain (2-0, 0.38 ERA with 34 strikeouts) will take relief work towards the tail end of games.

One problem that continues to slip under New York’s grasp is a problem finding dependable relievers (other then high expectation for Chamberlain).

Returning are slingers Kyle Farnsworth, Brian Bruney and Kei Igawa. LaRoy Hawkins, Jose Veras and Edwar Ramirez where all off-season acquisitions, and by mid-season expect the pen to make major changes. Add the manner in which new manager Joe Girardi uses up arms, and the Yankees are going to experience yet another year of uncertainty in the bullpen.

While New York hasn’t imported any major stars from outside sources, expensive contracts awarded to catcher Jorge Posada and closer Mariano Rivera seem very Steinbrenner like. Mix in the 10-year, $275 million deal to bring Alex Rodriguez back into the mix (.314 BA/ 156 RBIs/ 54 HRs) and the blueprint to spend money like water hasn’t changed much.

Look for Hideki Matsui to move to DH this year, while Johnny Damon will shift over to left field. Damon’s arm strength is much to be desired so opponents are going to focus on slapping balls into left for much needed production.

A first base battle between Jason Giambi, Wilson Betemit and Shelley Duncan could turn into platoon work at the end of the day. Duncan has had a solid year in Florida during Spring Training, hitting for .333 with a team high 11 RBIs.

While the Yanks are banking on the young guys to develop quickly, spending millions is far from being an event of the past. While it looks like Boston has finally turned the corner, we can still expect the division coming down to the wire. Offensively, the Bombers can and will look to out score teams over dueling with their pitching staff (especially given the 968 runs scored in ’07).

Most books have set New York at 13/2 odds to take the World Series.

Tampa Bay (66-96, -1344)

It might be time to start taking the Rays a little more serious these days. Breeding talented farm teams and trading away top notch ball players in exchange for more youth may be a tactic that has finally cashed in.

Tampa Bay received starting pitcher Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Barlett in exchange for Delmon Young (2003’s No. 1 overall pick). Adding closer Troy Percival with a pen grounded by veterans Al Reyes and Dan Wheeler can serve as mentor material at the very least for the youth toeing the slab.

As for starters, Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Garza are three hurlers that the Rays can bank on for key wins. However, Edwin Jackson and Jason Hammel make up a very unpredictable No. 4 and five spots in the rotation. Both pitchers have the stuff, but finding the strike zone has been a rough task. Tampa will need the call for all hands on deck when the club meets the Yanks and Sox for a total of 38 times.

The big question to answer is whether or not Rocco Baldelli can eventually recover from a diagnosed case of extreme fatigue in his attempt to fit into the DH spot. With Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and rookie phenom Evan Longoria (.307 BA/ 76 RBIs/ 21 HRs in Class AA Montgomery) looking to make noise at the plate, Baldelli would be a welcomed site in the lineup (who’s just played in 127 of 486 games in the past three years).

With an improved defense, a solid pitching staff from top to bottom and an offense poised to lay the lumber down, there’s reason to look forward towards the future in the St. Petersburg area.

Veteran additions like Percival and left fielder Cliff Floyd mixed in with the homegrown talent from its farm teams, manager Joe Maddon and the rest of the clubhouse should be geared up to surpass the .500 mark.

Most books have adjusted the team total to ‘over/under’ 76 games in anticipation of a successful season heading to Tampa Bay.

Toronto (83-79, +101)

As the saying goes, “if only the pitching can remain healthy…”

The Blue Jays join the rest of league with health running congruent with a positive seasonal performance. If Frank Thomas and newly acquired Scott Rolen (in a trade sending Troy Glaus to St. Louis) can trim off some of their injury time, Toronto could be looking at a close war with Boston and New York.

At a glance, the starting rotation is loaded with guns. The Jays will be led by 2003 Cy Young winner Roy Holliday, A.J. Burnett and top prospect Dustin McGrowan (12-10, 4.08 ERA in 27 games last season). Shawn Marcum looks to be a nice fit in the No. 4 spot, hurling in 159 innings last year for a 12-6 record with a 4.13 ERA.

The Jays’ bullpen benefited in a big way last season, and if southpaw slinger B.J. Ryan can remain close to 100 percent in the health department (I know it’s a redundant subject), the rest of the group should follow in line.

On offensive, picking up David Eckstein should add a top notch lead off hitter to the mix. Alex Rios could post comparable numbers from ’07 (.297 BA/ 85 RBIs/ 24 HRs) and a repeat year by Thomas would be welcomed. “The Big Hurt” finished 2007 with a .277 BA and 95 RBIs.

Toronto looks to be facing a problem with overcrowding at certain positions.

For starters, Matt Stairs adds to an already packed DH position and John McDonald might have a problem competing over Eckstein in the field. McDonald is a top notch defensive ballplayer but what would that make Eckstein?

But depth is good for this team especially if a Thomas or Rolen injury hits the club. One player that could make or break a fantastic season is Vernon Wells. Hitting for a career low .245 BA and registering only 80 RBIs last season, Wells will need to be a daily contributor.

A stacked bench, pitching that could explode given the proper timing and solid defense around the diamond could have the Blue Jays exceeding 85 games (the team total number set by most books) since the 2006 season. has listed Toronto at 6/1 odds to take the AL East.

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