AL East preview: It's a wide open race

AL East preview: It's a wide open race
March 31, 2013, 10:45 am
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2013 Preview

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In the last six years, three different teams have won the American League East and four of the five teams in the division have qualified for the post-season.
     
But with the Red Sox and Yankees seemingly weakened and the Orioles and Blue Jays on the rise, the A.L. East is as open and competitive as it's been in a long, long time.
     
Pre-season predictions have yielded little consensus. The Blue Jays and Rays are the most popular division picks, while many have the Sox and Yanks occupying the bottom two spots in the division.
     
The division may be balanced, but that doesn't necessarily mean it features great teams. Unlike past seasons, when 95 wins has been the benchmark for the division leader, this year, it's possible that 90 wins could win the East.
     
How will it play out? Who knows. But here are five questions to follow from April through October:
    
1) Are the Blue Jays as good as they are appear on paper?
The Blue Jays haven't been in the post-season since they won the 1993 World Series 20 years ago. To put that in perspective, only the Kansas City Royals have had a longer playoff drought among A.L. teams.
     
But general manager Alex Anthopoulos made a series of bold moves over the winter, signing free agent Melky Cabrera and obtaining Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey in two blockbuster deals.
     
Those additions have the Jays better positioned than they have been in more than a decade. After all, few teams add three bonafide starting pitchers in one off-season.
     
There is, however, a caveat here: Like the Red Sox in 2011 and the Miami Marlins in 2012, there's a recent trend of teams adding lots of talent in the winter -- and then stumbling when the games begin. It may be chemistry, it may be integrating too many new personalities, it may be failing to develop a personality of their own.
     
Maybe the Jays will be as good as they appear. But they'll be bucking history if they do.

2) Can the Rays keep winning without much offense?    
No one questions Tampa Bay's pitching. Even with the trade of James Shields (and Wade Davis), the Rays have a deep, young, talented rotation. Chris Archer, who couldn't crack their rotation in the spring, would be good enough to be the No. 2 starter on most other teams. And somehow, Joe Maddon and Jim Hickey find a way, year after year, to make the bullpen better than the sum of its parts.
     
But the Rays were 11th in runs scored in the league last year and that was before they lost outfielder B.J. Upton to free agency. Outfielder Wil Myers -- the big piece in the trade that cost them Shields and Davis -- will help, but not right away as the Rays will wait until later in April to promote him, preserving his service time.
     
It will help that third baseman Evan Longoria, who missed more than half the season with injuries last year, is healthy. But the Rays have offensive questions at first base and catcher and, with their payroll restrictions, can't count on augmenting the roster much at the trade deadline.

3) Have the Yankees hit the wall?    
The Yankee lineup Monday looks like something out of the Horace Clarke Era, with aging role players thrust into key starting positions, covering up for injuries which have wiped out half of the projected lineup. Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson will all be missing, with both Rodriguez (definitely) and Teixeira (likely) to be sidelined for the long-term.
     
That will put pressure on the starting rotation, which is good, but, like the rest of the roster, aging. Two of the five oldest starters in baseball -- Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda -- make up 40 percent of the rotation. It will help to have Mariano Rivera back in the closer's spot and David Robertson has emerged as an elite set-up man.
     
But there's little in the system to help now, and with an eye on the $189 million luxury tax in 2014, the Yanks won't be nearly as free-spending as they've been in the past. If the injured regulars return and stay healthy, the Yanks could still make a second-half run. But that will require them to stay afloat until the All-Star break, and that won't be easy.

4) Are the Orioles due for a market correction?    
In snapping a long playoff drought in 2012, the Orioles were extraordinary in one-run games (29-9) and extra-inning contests (!6-2). Logic and simple math dictate that they can't possibly be that successful in those two categories again.
     
It doesn't help that the Orioles did virtually nothing to improve themselves over the off-season. For now, the rotation is full of middle-of-the-rotation starters, though highly-touted prospects Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy could be ready to contribute by mid-season.
     
The everyday lineup is strong, led by Adam Jones, Matt Wieters and Nick Markakis, and Manny Machado appears to be a star in the making. But the bullpen is unlikely to duplicate its performance of a year ago, making the Orioles a good candidate to regress from their 93-win season in 2012.

5) How much improvement can the Red Sox make?    
The precedent is there for a team to make a giant leap forward. In 2011, the Orioles won just 69 games -- the same number the Red Sox won last year. The 2012 O's, meanwhile, won 93 and qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 1997.
     
Could the Red Sox make a similar leap? Possibly, but not likely. It doesn't help that they'll begin the season without their most important offensive player (David Ortiz) and a key offensive piece at a critical position (shortstop Stephen Drew). Injuries to Franklin Morales and Craig Breslow further
deplete the pitching depth.
     
But the rotation looks greatly improved and the lineup seems poised to be more consistent. Manager John Farrell has returned a sense of normalcy to the clubhouse. They may not snap their string of three consecutive DNQ's when it comes to playing in October, but with some prospects ready to  contribute, it would appear the Sox, are, at the very least, headed in the right direction.