AL East is Weak and Wide Open

Remember when this was MLB’s power division? Not any more–90-91 wins should win the AL East. It should be wide open for any team not named Yankees or Rays, either of whom will need luck to have a winning record.

Worst to first to worst to first in four years? It could happen–the Red Sox are odds-on favorites to win the AL East. The Sox added Hanley Ramirez, Sandoval, and Cuban phenom Castillo, who join proven talents such as Pedroia, Ortiz, Napoli, and a rehabbed Victorino. The Sox have rebuilt the pitching staff that, if not dazzling, is deep. The ace might be Porcello, though he’s just a one-year rental. If healthy, Uehara is a fine closer.
            Why the Sox still might stink: Few teams over-hype talent like the Red Sox. It can go horribly wrong if these guys simply aren’t as good as management says there are. If that happens, the Sox are the new Yankees: a team saddled with bloated contracts that they can't unload. Sandoval was merely an okay player in San Francisco. What if he can’t transition from the NL to the AL?  Miley was good in Arizona, but the record for NL pitchers coming over the AL isn't very good either. If the Red Sox really think Boegarts is their future shortstop, why did they throw stupid money at an unproven 19-year-old Cuban? There’s also a lot of redundancy. Hundred million dollar man Castillo replicates Betts, who is better. Ramirez can’t play short anymore and was shifted to left, where legitimate outfielders like Craig, Bradley, and Nava should be playing.  Chemistry could be a major issue and the defense will have more holes than a bum’s trousers. Which Buccholz shows up: Jekyll or Hyde? By the way, reports hold that the Phillies backed off of trading Hamels to Boston because they're unimpressed by Barnes and Owens–two guys they originally demanded in a trade.

The Orioles won 97 games last year, but that will be hard to duplicate having lost Markakis and Cruz. Wieters is scheduled to catch, but his fragile knees spell DH. Chris Davis, slugger or ‘roid rage? Probably the latter. Machado can be awesome—but he too has been of fragile health. Gotta love Adam Jones, though—maybe the best centerfielder in baseball. Travis Snider is a nice player, but he won’t make anyone forget Cruz. Chen, Tillman, Norris, and Gausman are a nice pitching staff, though one that won’t inspire fear. (Jimenez is officially hopeless.) They’re the champs until someone dethrones them, but are they 7 or 8 games worse than last year? That might make the difference between Party Time and the Port-o-Potty.

The Blue Jays are the sexy choice to win the AL East but, frankly, it’s the same story every year: the Jays make a big splash in the off-season but the headlines are bigger than the payoff. Stealing Josh Donaldson from the A’s for slacker Brett Lawrie was a coup, though. He joins an already fearsome group of lumberjacks: Encarnación, Bautista, Reyes…. The outfield, which lost Rasmus and Melky Cabrera, won’t be as good. It’s a  perpetual problem for the Jays: not enough pitching. Stroman has a bad knee and the only guys you can depend upon for 200 innings are a 40-year-old knuckleballer (Dickey) and a declining southpaw (Buerle).  Catcher Russ Martin will be called upon to shape up this staff, but let's face it­–if he was half as good as his press clippings he’d still be catching in New York. He’s only 40% as good, which is why he’s in Toronto via Pittsburgh.

On paper, the Yankees look awful. Tanaka is Tommy John surgery waiting to happen; Sabathia is back–fatter in body and in the pitches he lobs. Nova won’t be back until summer, and Warren is probably the # 5 guy after the green Evoaldi. Pineda may be the ace! The Yankees traded last year’s pitching sensation to get a guy with a great glove and weak bat to take Jeter’s place (Gregorious). They already had someone like that in Buddy Ryan, and everyone is wondering why he's still on the squad instead of kids like Pirela and Refsnyder, who actually know how to hit. Even worse, the Yanks resigned Drew, who of late couldn't hit a barn with a mini van. Tex is an RBI machine when healthy, which was three years ago. A-Rod’s back, Beltran is way over the hill, and Ellsbury is injured again (no shock there!)? Did I mention A-Rod?
            Why the Yankees might surprise: They had a worse team last year and still won 83 games. Few managers use personnel as well as Girardi, so what happens if Joe coaxes another six or so wins out of this team? If they can get to it, the bullpen should be awesome. The ultimate would be if A-Rod played with a chip on his shoulder, Headley is the steal of the off-season, Sabathia morphs into a crafty lefty, and the Yankees break out into health. Damned if I’d bet the farm on it!


1. Red Sox: If not first, fourth–and it could go either way.
2. Orioles: Solid lineup, decent pitching, good defense. Maybe it's enough to repeat. Maybe.
3. Jays: By might alone because the pitching is shakier than an AA confessional.
4. Yankees: Old, shopworn, and married to a hire-vets-first mentality that hasn’t made sense in a decade. If the chips fall the right way, the Yankees could win 90 games. It's more likely they'll lose that many.
5. Rays: Move this team—please. Nice young pitchers, though Cobb is hurt. The problem is basic—"Rays offense" is an oxymoron. If Longoria gets hurt, only Loney can hit harder than a grade school sissy.


Kirsten Allstaff: Flute form Scotland and Ireland

Online Irish Academy of Music 001

Flautist Kirsten Allstaff was raised in Scotland and now lives in Ireland, where she co-founded the Online Irish Academy of Music. She honors her pan-Celtic perspective with a new project appropriately titled Gallowglass–the name of Scottish mercenaries on the losing side of various independence movements who relocated to Ireland and fought for Irish chieftains from the 13th century on. Gallowglass warriors were renowned for their toughness. One hears a bit of tenacity in Allstaff's playing, though she wields her wooden flute as more of a velvet sword. The reel set "Sleep Sound in Da Mornin" opens with Tony Trundel's martial bodhran, but once Allstaff eases in, he damps the percussion to allow the flute notes to flutter like birds' wings.

Allstaff's repertoire is gleaned from both sides of the Irish Sea, as she draws inspiration from legends past and present such as Matt Molloy, Mary McNamara, Peter Horan, Johnny Cunningham, Tom Anderson, and Kevin Kennedy. Her take on "March of the King of Laoise/The Train Journey North" is a masterful mash of haunting, heavily accented Scots-style piobaireachd and the jumpy, rapid-fire tempos favored by Irish flautists. She also shows her Scots roots in that the album features more reels than jigs and through her love of ornamentation, but she takes a backseat to none when she gets her Irish up for jig sets such as "The Humours of Ayle House."  As a matter of personal taste, I was quite taken by waltz offerings such as "Maitú's Waltz" and her lovely cover of Johnny Cunningham's "Leaving Brittany," a piece that the late Mr. Cunningham often used to ham it up a bit. Allstaff, by contrast, plays the waltz with delicacy and subtlety, the latter evidenced in her interchanges with fiddler Adam Shapiro. If that's too tame for your blood, listen to Allstaff tear it up in "The Mullinavat" reel set. Allstaff's breath control is amazing–we seldom hear puffs of air, though we do hear plenty of tik-tik sounds as her fingers fly up and down the shaft. Give this album a listen; Kirsten Allstaff is the most exciting flautist to emerge from Ireland since Nuala Kennedy. Or is she Scottish? It hardly matters; she's no mercenary, rather an emissary of great music.–Rob Weir

Hear the launch party for this CD here.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FbkExSo6tRQ


NL East Should Be Easy for the Nationals

This division should be a walk in the park for the Nationals, who have the most talent by a country mile. In baseball, though, surprises often occur.

The Nationals supplement a pretty good everyday lineup (Ryan Zimmerman, Rendón, Ramos, Werth, Desmond, Harper….) with a pitching staff thought to be among the very best in all of MLB. You know it’s good when Gio González is slated number 5 behind Scherzer, Jordan Zimmerman, Stasburg, and Fister. Storen is an elite closer, though his stats may be diminished by not needing to save games. Lots of people are picking the Nats to go to the World Series.
            How it could go wrong: Experts have loved the Nationals for the past five years and they’ve won doodley-squat. The flipside of the hype is that the Nats might be less the juggernaut and more the Detroit of the NL: paper tigers. Fantasy gamers love him, but a poll of MLB players rated Bryce Harper as baseball’s most-overrated player. Likewise, Strasburg is just 43-30 lifetime, having spent most of his career thus far on the DL.  Spann doesn’t impress me and Werth is an oxymoron–a decent player pulling down superstar money. But no matter how you parse it, the NL East is the Nats’ to win or lose.

It’s easy to hate the Marlins.  They should be in Montreal, not Miami, and they have MLB’s most loathsome owner, Jeff Loria. Still–as they do every five or six years–the Fish are quietly assembling a very nice team. They tied up youthful stars Stanton and Yelich to long-term contracts and the staff has several live arms (Latos, Fernández, Alvárez, Cosart…) There’s also a nice sprinkling of vets such as Prado, Morse, Ichiro, and Saltalamacchia. I don’t think there’s enough experienced pitching to take the Marlins to the Promised Land, but a Wild Card might be in the deck. 

Poor Mets–just when hope was on the horizon they lost two rising stud pitchers to Tommy John surgery: Harvey (2014), now Wheeler. Another hope, a kid named de Grom, will toss the home opener. Might as well reserve a surgeon now. The most proven arms might be 41-year-old Bartolo Colon and Jon Niese (he of a 52-51 career won/loss record). Too bad, because there’s nothing shabby of a lineup that includes Wright, Murphy, Duda, and Cuddyer (injured). Granderson is a fraud though, and it’s put-up-or-pack-up time for d’Arnaud. Misfortune is such, though, that the Mets may have to settle for a 2015 slogan of “Better than the Yankees,” which isn’t saying much.

Kudos to the Braves for recognizing that the team they fielded the past few years just wasn’t good enough. They did a near complete makeover and added a few pieces (like spark plug Nick Markakis), but when your projected starting outfield is Almonte (a Yankees cast-off), Gomes (Red Sox detritus), and Eury Peréz, all one can say is, “Oh dear!” Was 2014 a down year for Chris Johnson, or were those his true colors? Freeman remains solid and Simmons is poised to become an elite shortstop, but make-overs are not always upgrades and this could be a very tough year in Atlanta. 

The only thing I can say about the Phillies is that Hamels is the kind of guy around which you rebuild, not a pitcher you can trade unless you get a lot of assets in return. Everyone else is expendable. I-told-you-so time: if you were dumb enough to pick Domonic Brown for your fantasy team last year, you were forewarned.


1. Nationals: They can lose the division, but they’ll have to work at it.
2. Marlins: Good enough to make it to the post-season, but not deep enough to go far.
3. Mets: Could have been contenders. Life isn’t fair.
4. Braves: A work in progress–slow progress.
5. Phillies: Howard, Utley, Sizemore, Ruiz, Cliff Lee…. What is this, a Social Security All-Star squad?