AL East is Premium Television

At one point in the last decade HBO had the three best shows on television: The Wire, The Sopranos, and Entourage. If it was Sunday night you were watching HBO. And if you didn’t get the premium channel, then you were at a friend’s house who did. Heck, even Peter Klaven needed special permission from his fiance to get out of HBO night to go see Rush. The three shows were incredibly different in content, but were all impressive in entertainment.

The Wire explored the drug trade in inner city Baltimore. The beauty of the show was the ambiguity it portrayed between good and evil. Some cops and politicians were corrupt, willing to juke stats in order to benefit their own cause while others fought hard to better the city and their constituents but were often angered by bureaucracy and politics. Conversely, many gangsters lived by a code and had an honor in their approach, while some maintained no integrity as they preyed on the weak to gain money and respect. The show did not gain critical acclaim until its last season when many people went back to watch the first four seasons on DVD or on-demand before realizing what they had missed. The best show in television history had one year in the limelight before going off-air.

The Sopranos followed a jersey mobster family of the same name. The show depicts Tony Soprano ascension through the DiMeo crime family as he tries to juggle the responsibilities of family with the dangers that come with being a mob boss. The viewer receives insight into his upbringing, gets to see him do his dirty-work as suspense and his own paranoia builds before eventually the last episode ends with the screen going black and viewers wondering what happened. The most financially successful cable series ended leaving its fans wanting answers.

Entourage depicts the fast life in Hollywood as Vincent Chase experiences the ebbs and flows that come with being an A-list actor. The show lack substance while the seasons vary in entertainment as the first few were great leading to a lull period where people had no idea why they were still watching. Yet, the last season reminded viewers (i.e. me) why they loved the show and had them (i.e. me again) looking forward to next season.

HBO was to the first decade of the new millennium as the AL East is to current baseball. The Devil Rays (If I receive a one dollar fine from Rays’ president Matt Silverman then we’ll know he reads Voices), Red Sox, and Yankees are the three best teams in baseball.

Rays’ GM Andrew Friedman went unnoticed as he drafted and developed top talent. Only when the Rays made a run to the World Series did the world realize what projection systems like PECOTA where touting: the Rays were a force to be reckoned with. Now finally Friedman, like The Wire’s creator David Simon before him, is just getting his due. But thanks to fiscal disadvantages, he may be forced to rebuild after this year and only enjoy one more year as a contender.

The baseball community witnessed as boy wonder Theo Epstein became the Red Sox GM at age 28. We’ve seen him turn the Red Sox into an empire while winning two World Series, but of late many of his comments and actions have been questioned, specifically his new approach of focusing on run prevention that includes shifting speedy Jacoby Ellsbury to left field. Red Sox nation must be wondering if “Don’t Stop Believin'” is playing in the background while Meadow Soprano is walking to the front door.

The Yankees, like entourage, have ranged between great and good the past fifteen years. Similar to the show, the team was brilliant early winning four World Series in five years. The middle years were still fun to watch but felt a bit gimmicky as the team no longer developed home grown talent, instead bringing in high priced all-stars. Think of this time as the seasons of Entourage where they decided to disregard any semblance of a plot to show hot girls, fast cars, and awesome nightlife; still fun, but not championship level. Last season the show, like the Yankees, finally returned to its early glory and has me ready for its 2010 season.

Since the rest of the league, let alone the remainder of the division, has no chance to win the pennant (a la Showtime before Dexter), let’s breakdown the three rivals position by position. Today I will focus on the starting pitchers, while Thursday I will return with a breakdown of the position players. So without further ado, let’s begin with the aces.

James Shields v. Josh Beckett v. CC Sabathia
If the Rays are The Wire then James Shields is Wee-bey Brice, the grizzled thug whose career statline would look something like this: 72 murders, 28 drive-bys, 14 stabbings, 482 beat-the-crap-out-of-some-corner-kid-to-get-your-moneys, and one life-time jail sentence. In other words, Shields derives his value by providing the Rays with a lot of quality, but not incredible, innings.

Josh Beckett is a stud who only gets studlier in the playoffs. Little girls talk about him at sleepovers. The projection systems like him (He is the one always getting picked in MASH), with BIll James’s system having the biggest crush on him foretelling 221 innings of 3.62 ERA ball. Barring injury, Beckett is still a grade-A power pitcher who would be at the top of nearly any rotation.

Sabathia is the rare player who became underrated once he joined the Yankees. Everyone remembers how he dominated with the Brewers, nearly winning a Cy Young for a half a season of work. But last year he threw 230 innings with a 3.37 ERA (in line with his 3.39 FIP) which led to an all-star level 6.0 WAR. The pressures of a big contract did not get to the equally (or maybe even more) large lefty.
Lines for best season: Sabathia (2-3), Beckett (2-1), Shields (10-1)

Matt Garza v. Jon Lester v. AJ Burnett
Garza is a 10-4 girl: the one that looks like a 10 from far away, but then you get close up and realize she is just a 4. Every time I watch him he pitches lights out, but then I delve into his stats and I realize that although he is still a very good pitcher, he isn’t a top-10 starter (so maybe he is a 10-8 girl). While most anyone would take nearly 200 innings of slightly under 4.00 ERA in the war zone known as the AL East, I always get fooled into thinking he is a smokeshow instead of that really cute girl. Would I date either? Yes. Would I brag to my friends about how hot my “8-girl” was? No. You get my point.

Lester is just the opposite. Like the brunette in Mean Girls, he’s the hottest girl in the group that for some reason isn’t the pack leader (you know you not only saw that movie, but liked it). Lester is the second best pitcher in the AL East who may be the most valuable due to his age. The projection systems expect around 200 innings at sub 3.60 ERA ball and so do I.

AJ Burnett is that slutty girl who is rumored to have something, but no one knows for sure if that is true. Burnett may have the best raw stuff in all of baseball, but his lack of control tends to hurt him. With the slutty girl if the “opportune moment arises” then proceed at your own risk; with Burnett, if he is going strong then wait for the one blowup inning.
Line for best season: Lester (2-3), Burnett (3-1), Garza (6-1)

Jeff Niemann v. John Lackey v. Andy Pettitte
Niemann is a big boy at 6’9″ who relies heavily on his fastball, throwing it on over 70% of his pitches. Add in a slider, curve, and the occasional changeup and splitter and you get a nice little repertoire. Unfortunately, only the curveball has been consistently above average throughout his two major league years, but last season the old number one did see a big improvement adding over a win’s worth of value (11.4 runs). The projections see Niemann providing a lot of average innings. In related news, I still think he is tall.

Lackey was the Red Sox big offseason addition, costing the team $82.5MM over five years. At 31 years old he probably was not worth such a commitment, but he will help the team now. He gives the Sox the best third pitcher in baseball and the potential for a dominant staff come October. Like late night Mexican food, Lackey is a great idea in the short-term, but could cause problems down the road.

Pettitte will be able to pitch so long as his cutter keeps cutting and umpires refuse to call a balk on his pickoff move. Expect 180+ innings, an away ERA sub 3.50 and a home ERA near 6.00.
Line for best season: Lackey (1-4), Niemann (8-1), Pettitte (10-1)

David Price v. Dice-K v. Javier Vazquez
Any of these three guys would be the best starter in the NL Central not named Chris Carpenter or Adam Wainwright. Price is the super prospect who seems poised to have a breakout year. After making his way through the minors in less than a year and helping the Rays as a reliever in the playoffs, Price seemed to regress last season as he could not control his pitch count. I am a bit more optimistic than the projection systems as I think something will click in Price’s head (he went to Vanderbilt aka one of the four Harvards of the South…he has to be smart) and he will begin to show dominant form.

Dice-K epitomizes the problem of looking at another culture through the lenses of your own. The man was used to pitching every sixth day, but throwing a ton between and during starts. If I were the Sox I would let Matsuzaka play by his own rules. His 2008 showed he is not your normal pitcher as he allowed a ton of runners yet maintained a 2.90 ERA. Some would say he was lucky, but I think he pitches with the cunning of a ninja warrior.

Vazquez exemplifies the AAAA league that some still refer to as the National League. After being an above average to almost all-star pitcher in the American League, Vazquez obliterated the NL East last year to the tune of 2.87 ERA, 9.77 K/9, 1.81 BB/9 and a whopping 6.6 WAR. A return to the American League, especially while pitching half his games in Lamada Stadium a.k.a. New Yankee Stadium, will not treat Vazquez nicely. While he will be a valuable asset for the Yankees this year, do not expect the sheer dominance he maintained in 2009.
Lines for best season: Price (3-2), Vazquez (7-3), Dice-K (8-3)

Wade Davis v. Clay Bucholz v. Phil Hughes
Three prospects who we’ve all read so much about and only now are just getting to see in action. If there is a blueprint to bring along a pitcher, then the way the Rays handled Davis would be exactly that. He has spent a year at every level before finally seeing some big league action in 2009. The kid has has been a dominating force in the minors and projects to be a top-line starter down the road. For the time being, he can easily handle the five-spot for the Rays.

Bucholz shined early throwing a no-hitter in his second major league start leading to the Red Sox faithful christen him a savior. Boy Genius then decided to let the newly sainted player know whose God, sending him to AAA for the beginning of his age 25 season. Bucholz returned to throw nearly 100 innings last year of above average ball showing flashes of dominance. He clearly has the stuff to be a top of the line starter, but will need to put it all together consistently to actually be one.

Hughes has been an anomaly to Yankees fans. After being hyped up by the Yankees brass to the point where they refused to part with him for Johan Santana, Hughes has fought through injuries and only shown consistent effectiveness while in the bullpen. After beating out Joba for the final rotation spot, the Yankees hope Hughes can return to the form in his second start, where he had a no hitter into the seventh inning before leaving with an injury.
Lines for best season: Davis (2-1), Bucholz (2-1), Hughes (2-1)

Some have predicted that whichever team gets the most starts from their opening day rotations will win the division. While I will hold back on giving you who I’ve got winning the AL East, I will say that I agree with this notion if one team gets a significant amount of more starts than the other two. Like HBO’s Sunday night lineup, all three rotations are special. But not all three can win the Emmy.

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