Get ready for another drama filled, three team race in the AL East. The Yanks, the Sox, and the Rays all figure to win upwards of 90 games, and with the addition of another Wild Card spot, we could see all three of them in the postseason. All three teams have their strengths, but expect the bullpens to play a huge part in how this division pans out. The Blue Jays will steal some games from the big three, and the Orioles, well, they are in for another bottom dweller season.
1. New York Yankees – Trading for RHP Michael Pineda wasn’t only a smart move for New York, it was necessary. Pineda is going to miss the first couple weeks of the year, so the current rotation of CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia is essentially what the Yanks would have had before the Pineda deal. That’s the worst rotation of the three division contenders. Even with a healthy Pineda, I’d still take the Red Sox and Rays rotation over the Yankees. Thankfully for the Evil Empire, they have the best lineup in baseball. There really is no room to breath for opposing pitchers when playing the Yankees. Every out will have to be earned. New York should have no trouble averaging six runs a game, leaving the pitching staff with plenty of run support. As I stated earlier, the bullpens are going to play a huge part in this division, and that’s where the Yankees get the nod. With Mariano Rivera, Dave Robertson, and Rafael Soriano at the back of the bullpen, New York will blow the least amount of late inning leads, and that’s why I’m taking them to win their 18th AL East title.
2. Tampa Bay Rays – The strength of this team is their starting rotation. It’s arguably the best staff in the AL. James Shields and David Price are the co-aces of the staff, but LHP Matt Moore may turn out to be the best of the three. We got a glimpse of his dominance in last year’s divisional series against the Rangers, when he tossed seven scoreless innings. It will be interesting to see how he holds up as he approaches 200 innings come September. The Rays lineup is good, but not great. Unlike the Yankees and Red Sox, the Rays lineup falls off in the bottom half. Jose Molina, Sean Rodriguez, and Jeff Keppinger will have to provide some kind of production out of the 7-8-9 spots. The real mystery of this team is how the bullpen will hold up. Closer Kyle Farnsworth went down at the end of spring training with a sore elbow, leaving the Rays scrambling for a closer. The return of LHP J.P. Howell is a nice boost to the pen, but expect them to blow a few late game leads throughout the year, especially against the high powered offenses. This isn’t a team that’s going to sneak up on anybody anymore. They are the real deal and a serious World Series contender.
3. Boston Red Sox – A new era beginning in Boston doesn’t change the expectations of the team. The organization and their fans won’t be satisfied with anything less than an AL pennant. The Sox would benefit from a fast start to the season, as they are surely trying to reclaim their identity after last year’s historic collapse. Carl Crawford will start the year out on the DL, but once he’s healthy, Boston needs him to rebound from an awful first season with his new team. Jacoby Ellsbury is coming off a career year where he hit more home runs than his first four years combined. Don’t expect another 30+ HR season from him this year, or any other year for that matter. The front of the rotation is very good with Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz, but the back of it is a complete mystery. Daniel Bard moves from the pen to the rotation, and rookie Felix Doubront will be asked to be the #4 guy. Neither of them have made an MLB start. With the injury of closer Andrew Bailey, the Red Sox relievers are clearly the glaring weakness of the team. New skipper Bobby Valentine will be using a closer by committee strategy, and history shows that those are rarely successful. The smartest move may be to have Bard go back to the bullpen to close out games, but the chances of that actually happening are slim to none. With the division spot and the two wild card spots, you have to think that Boston will grab one of those three spots, but how the players respond to Valentine will play a crucial part in their success, or lack thereof.
4. Toronto Blue Jays – The Jays are not a bad team. Their lineup is above average and they have some nice arms in the rotation. But there’s just no room for them at the top of the AL East. This is a team that will most likely have a winning record against opponents outside of their division, but they don’t have enough arms to compete with Tampa, New York, and Boston week in and week out. With Jose Bautista, Colby Rasmus, Ricky Romero, and Brandon Morrow, Toronto has a nice foundation to build from. They need to keep these guys around and continue to develop their bevy of prospects, and maybe the Blue Jays can put together a playoff team in the future.
5. Baltimore Orioles – Like the Blue Jays, the Orioles have a pretty good lineup. Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Matt Wieters, and Mark Reynolds are a solid quartet that should provide most of the offense for this team. However, good arms are scarce in Baltimore. Both the starting rotation and the bullpen figure to be at the bottom of the American League, although there are some prospects in the rotation, like Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz, that could develop into reliable guys in the future. The O’s went 69-93 in 2011, and it’s hard to see them improving too much on that number.