Spring Training Countdown: Did Red Sox make up ground in AL East?

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Spring Training Countdown: Did Red Sox make up ground in AL East?

From 1998 through 2011, a period of 14 years, the Red Sox finished either first or second in the American League East on 11 occasions.

Then came last year, when the Sox bottomed out and finished with their worst record since 1965, landing them in last place in the division.

Not since 1932 had the Red Sox finished last in a division or league.

Their descent comes at a time when the A.L. East is more competitive than ever. In addition to the Yankees (who have qualifed for the post-season in every season but one since 1995) and the Tampa Bay Rays (who've won the division twice and reached the playoffs three times in the last five seasons), the Baltimore Orioles last season enjoyed their best year in
more than a decade, snapping a string of 14 consecutive losing seasons and pushing the Yankees to six games in the ALDS.

Finally, there are the Toronto Blue Jays, who haven't qualified for the post-season since 1993, but engineered the biggest trade of the off-season in an attempt to compete in the East.

Where does all of this leave the Red Sox? A look at the rest of a division that's grown more competitive than ever:

Even with all question marks -- Will Derek Jeter make a successful return from a broken ankle? Can Alex Rodriguez overcome hip surgery and another PED link? Does the veteran rotation stay healthy? -- the Yankees must be considered formidable.

The lineup isn't as fierce as it once was, with Jeter and Rodriguez hobbled and Mark Teixeira in decline. But the Yanks still boast Robinson Cano -- more motivated than ever as he approaches free agency -- and Curtis Granderson, who has hit 84 homers in the last two seasons.

The rotation has workhorses in CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, while Andy Pettitte proved that, when healthy, he can still win at 41.

Less certain is the bullpen, where ageless Mariano Rivera returns from a major knee injury. Worse, Rivera and the Yankees don't have Rafael Soriano as an insurance policy anymore. But David Robertson has emerged as one of the game's most reliable set-up options.

The Yankees may not be a powerhouse anymore, but they're still very much a threat.

Tampa Bay narrowly missed out on qualifying for the playoffs last fall, then dealt off its most seasoned starter, James Shields, in return for, among others, Wil Myers. Myers profiles as an All-Star and should give some additional thump to a lineup which has sputtered beyond Evan Longoria.

The Rays' strength, even with the departure of Shields, remains the starting rotation, now led by David Price, Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore. The bullpen, as always under Joe Madden, is formidable.

Even a modest improvement offensively should enable the Rays to ride their young arms into October.

Toronto is something of a mystery, having changed managers -- John Gibbons returns to replace John Farrell -- and pulled off a massive 12-player trade with the Miami Marlins.

That deal gave the Blue Jays two established starters -- Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle -- and an All-Star shortstop. Later in the winter, the Jays added outfielder Melkie Cabrera and knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.

That makeover will help the Jays compete. But what impact will the roster shuffling have? The last two seasons, the team that "won the winter'' -- the Red Sox after 2010 and the Marlins themselves after 2011 -- fizzled in the following seasons.

Perhaps too much change isn't good. Expect the Jays to improve, but probably not as much as they should on paper.

After more than a decade spent as an also-ran, the Orioles dramatically reintroduced themselves to the division last year, in the running for the division title on the final weekend before bowing out in the the Division Series.

The Orioles' resurgence rekindled interest in Baltimore. But the Orioles did almost nothing to improve last year and their success in both one-run games (29-9) and extra-inning contests (16 straight wins at one point) suggest that they're perhaps due for a market correction.

The rotation remains a giant question mark -- Wei-Yin Chen was the only starter with double-figure wins -- and the bullpen may have been overworked. Look for the O's to take a step backward.

As for the Sox themsleves, much will depend on the rotation. If Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz rebound and John Lackey can be closer to his 2010 performance (14 wins), the Red Sox will show significant improvement and could climb into the middle of the division.

The lineup, so inept in the second half last season, will be better, thanks to the addition of Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes and Shane Victorino. The bullpen, a strength most of last season, has been bolstered by the addition of Joel Hanrahan.

Fresh off a 69-win season, a return to contention would be too much to ask. But the Red Sox should be more respectable, with an eye toward the arriving class of prospects (Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Rubby De La Rosa, Matt Barnes) expected to contribute in 2014.