The American League East is typically the most talked-about in baseball. Part of that is the ESPN influence, for sure, but the reason everyone is talking is the fact that the top two teams in terms of salary and star power reside in this division. The League Champion has come from the East seven times in the past ten seasons.
So as we continue our series of divisional previews, here’s a short capsule on each team, listed in predicted order of finish.
1-New York Yankees
With a payroll this high, they’d better win. And on paper, there’s little reason to think they won’t. There are all-stars at almost every position and Hall-of-Famers at a few of them. The infield of Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez might be the best ever, but certainly the best right now. Newcomer Curtis Granderson’s struggles versus left handers won’t be as glaring in a lineup this strong, and his glove work will make the Yankees outfield much better defensively than their 2009 counterparts.
The pitching staff features CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and veteran lefty Andy Pettitte, all back from last year. Where the Yankees improved the most was with the acquisition of Javier Vasquez to be the number four, and by adding Phil Hughes to the rotation, replacing Joba Chamberlain. Chamberlain should fare much better this season back in the bullpen, and Hughes looks like a star in the making. The soft underbelly of the bullpen is the middle relief, but with a rotation like theirs, opponents might not get into the ‘pen early enough to make a difference.
As is always the case with a veteran team, health could become an issue, but with so many great players, even if they lose one of them for an extended period, this team has the guys to pick up the slack.
2- Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays finished a distant third last year, but they were one of the better teams in the league, such is life in the AL East. A full season from Wade Davis and the continued growth of David Price should keep the Rays close this year. Matt Garza has the stuff of an ace, if he can harness his emotions he could take a giant step forward. Jeff Niemann and James Shields are pretty good, too.
The bullpen was the Achilles heel of this club going back two years now, but new closer Rafael Soriano should be able to right that ship. The health of LH J.P. Howell will be important in getting the ball to the closer.
The offense is still young and still exciting. Speedster Carl Crawford is in a contract year and could be moved at the deadline if a new deal isn’t reached, regardless of where the Rays are in the standings. They’ll need a bounce-back year from B.J. Upton to compliment sluggers Ben Zobrist, Carlos Pena, and Evan Longoria. The player to watch is second baseman Sean Rodriguez; the kid can rake.
3- Boston Red Sox
The Sox spent the winter re-tooling a defense they felt needed an upgrade. Gone is slugging left fielder Jason Bay, replaced by Mike Cameron. Adrian Belte is the new third baseman, relegating Mike Lowell to reserve duties. Lowell could yet be traded, but it would behoove the Sox to hang onto him as Belte has been a tad injury-prone over the past few years. Like the Yankees however, the Sox have the resources to make a move to add parts if needed. Offense is not usually a big problem in Fenway Park, but the Sox lack quality depth at a lot of positions. They’ll need a big year from David Ortiz to contend.
The pitching staff is one of the best in baseball, or should be anyway. Josh Beckett and Jon Lester are Cy Young caliber, as is newcomer John Lackey. Jonathan Papelbon will close games and his set-up crew is top-notch once again. But if you can get into the middle relief, there should be some runs to be had.
4- Baltimore Orioles
Manager Dave Trembley is on the hot seat this year, but his club should be much better than the last place finish of last year. Miguel Tejada is back in Baltimore, but now playing at third. Garret Atkins will have to show he can rebound from a bad year in Colorado last season as the new first baseman. The young outfield of Nolan Reimold, Adam Jones, and Nick Markakis is as talented as any group in baseball and young catcher Matt Wieters has the stuff of a star.
There are some exciting young arms on this staff as well. Brian Matusz should lead the staff along with veteran Kevin Millwood. David Hernandez has excellent stuff and big strikeout potential, but lacks a lot of command. Look out for Chris Tillman upon his arrival, which should come in early June if not before. The bullpen is lead by veteran closer Mike Gonzalez and just enough quality arms to keep the Orioles in most games. There’s no hope of contending this season, but the future looks bright, and this team will be much better than last year’s club.
5- Toronto Blue Jays
Cito Gaston is in the final year of his managerial career and it’s going to be a long one. The Jays have some good young talent, most of it acquired in the Roy Halladay trade, and the offense should be okay with Adam Lind and Aaron Hill both coming off 30 homer seasons. The dead weight of the Vernon Wells contract will haunt this club for several more years unless Wells can show any kind of his old form. He hasn’t done that for a while though, so don’t hold your breath. If this team is going nowhere early, look for Brett Wallace to make his debut.
The pitching staff features a bunch of guys no one knows about, but you should pay attention to a few of them. Ricky Romero was the best left handed rookie starter in baseball last year and should only get better. Marc Rzepczynski has good stuff and Shawn Marcum is coming back from injury. Keep an eye out for Kyle Drabek, who could be on his way soon. The bullpen features Jason Frasor and Scott Downs, but don’t get too attached to them, they will both likely be traded by mid-season.
Coming later today: the AL West