Which players will make the biggest difference in the AL East in 2011?
Athlon continues its in-depth preview of the 2011 MLB season. This week, we single out some important names that should be key difference makers for every team. Today, we look at the AL East.
Baltimore Orioles: Mark Reynolds, 3B
The Orioles were desperate to add a power bat to the middle of their lineup. They struck out on the bigger names on the market, but they swung a trade during the winter meetings for Reynolds. On the plus side, the former Arizona third baseman has hit 44 and 32 homers the last two seasons. But he’s also struck out more than 200 times the last three seasons and batted .198 in 2010. The Orioles seem fine with the strikeouts as long as he brings a presence to their lineup. They regard him as a “change of scenery” guy.
Boston Red Sox: Adrian Gonzalez, 1B
The Red Sox signed two difference makers this offseason, but expect the biggest impact to come from Gonzalez, who has an inside-out swing tailor-made for Fenway Park, the discipline to await his pitch, and the power to assault both the famed left field wall and the bullpens in right. If Gonzalez hits 50 homers and drives in 140, it won't be a surprise. Freed from the confines of Petco, he could put together an MVP-caliber season. Add his Gold Glove defense, and it’s easy to see why Theo Epstein has been interested in him since watching him as a senior at Eastlake High outside San Diego a decade ago.
New York Yankees: A.J. Burnett, SP
Burnett helped the Yankees win the World Series in his first season, so calling him a bust is unfair. But as he enters the third season of his five-year, $82.5 million deal, Burnett remains a mystery, and sure seems overpaid. Burnett had one of the worst seasons for a starter in Yankees history, and he seems incapable of righting himself during games when things go badly. New pitching coach Larry Rothschild will be the latest to try to coax consistent greatness from Burnett’s dazzling repertoire. If he can, the Yankees will have the pitcher they hoped they were signing.
Tampa Bay Rays: B.J. Upton, OF
The Upton conundrum can go numerous different ways, and the direction it takes will critically impact Tampa Bay’s fortunes in 2011 and beyond. Scenario 1: The light goes on for the uber-talented 26-year-old, he builds on the .300-24-82 season he had as a 22-year-old and becomes (as he should be) an All-Star. Scenario 2: He continues to modulate his effort and resist making adjustments at the plate so that he remains an average player. Scenario 3: The Rays cut bait and finally trade him after years of tortuous teases and breathless anticipation.
Toronto Blue Jays: Brandon Morrow, SP
Could it be that the Blue Jays acquired an ace in December 2009 when they swapped middle reliever Brandon League to Seattle for Morrow? The Mariners never quite knew what to do with Morrow, starting him just 15 times in 131 appearances — good for fewer than 200 innings in three years. The Blue Jays put Morrow in their rotation full-time, and he made 26 starts, including a 17-strikeout masterpiece in August in which he lost a no-hitter with two out in the ninth. Morrow has more strikeouts than innings for his career, and if he can harness that dominant stuff, the Jays will have a rotation anchor to build around for years.