3/25/2014 10:00 A.M. ET
AL East will again be MLB's powerhouse division
Rays, Red Sox appear to be the favorites, but all five clubs could be in it in September
By Richard Justice / MLB.com
Welcome to the American League East, where four teams believe they're good enough to win the World Series and one is finishing up an extremely encouraging Spring Training.
Go ahead and pick a favorite. Nothing could be easier. You can't be wrong.
Here we go:
Rays? Absolutely. Solid club. Virtually no holes.
Red Sox? Good enough to go back-to-back titles. No doubt about it.
Orioles? Tremendous lineup. Great leadership. Deep rotation. What's not to like?
Yankees? Do NOT underestimate them. Derek Jeter's farewell season could have a magical quality to it.
Yes, welcome to the AL East. The Rays, Yankees, Orioles and Red Sox have all been to the postseason in just the past two seasons. And Boston just won the World Series for the third time in 10 seasons.
Now about those Blue Jays. Unlike last year, when they'd just made all those splashy acquisitions, they've flown under the radar, understanding they'd be picked by no one.
The Jays are absolutely fine with that, because they've quietly gone about their business and constructed a club they believe could surprise the entire sport.
Yes, welcome to the AL East.
Other divisions have parity. Other divisions have produced multiple postseason teams in recent years. But the AL East is the division every other is measured against. If things work out the way it looks like they could, we might have a September to remember, with every team fighting for playoff spots into the final days.
So sit back and enjoy.
Tampa Bay Rays
Strengths: David Price, Alex Cobb, Chris Archer and Matt Moore form the front four of arguably the best rotation in the game. The Rays have quality depth in the Minors behind them. Third baseman Evan Longoria, shortstop Yunel Escobar, second baseman Ben Zobrist and first baseman James Loney anchor a tremendous defensive team. Manager Joe Maddon is the best in the business. Grant Balfour returns to Tampa Bay to anchor a bullpen that is deep and talented.
Weaknesses: The Rays don't have a regular designated hitter, so Maddon will use matchups and rotate his regulars into the spot to give them some rest. Otherwise, health is the only question. Price, Moore and Cobb spent time on the disabled list in 2013, and they probably need to stay healthy for Tampa Bay to make the postseason for the fifth time in seven seasons. Maddon typically has had to play the matchup game with his daily lineups, but he may do that less this year, as center fielder Desmond Jennings and right fielder Wil Myers establish themselves.
Spot to watch: Myers had a very solid rookie season and appears to be on his way to being a middle-of-the-order hitter for a long time. If he's good again, he and Longoria could do serious damage from the middle of the lineup and also enhance opportunities for those around them.
Sign of trouble: Escobar wore out his welcome in Atlanta and Toronto, but he was on his best behavior in his first season with the Rays. If he struggles, Maddon might be forced to rearrange the entire lineup, and a defense that is critical to the pitching staff could suffer.
They'll be be rolling if …: The rotation rolls out the quality starts. That front four of Price, Cobb, Moore and Archer could carry the Rays right to the postseason, and if Jeremy Hellickson returns and pitches at a high level, Tampa Bay could sprint right into October.
Boston Red Sox
Strengths: A winning attitude. Second baseman Dustin Pedroia simply will not let the Red Sox get complacent. Designated hitter David Ortiz remains productive at 38. John Lackey and Jon Lester form a great 1-2 punch at the front of the rotation. Koji Uehara was baseball's best closer in the second half of last season. Manager John Farrell is the prototype of what a big league skipper should be in terms of persona, consistency and honesty.
Weaknesses: Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury's departure via free agency opens a huge hole in the lineup. Veteran Grady Sizemore, who hasn't played a game in the big leagues since 2011, outplayed rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. in Spring Training. Third baseman Will Middlebrooks played his way back to the Minors least season, and Boston is hoping he'll have a breakthrough season.
Spot to watch: Right-hander Clay Buchholz, who made just 16 starts because of a tired shoulder, could elevate a solid rotation to something approaching greatness. He pitched just four innings in the World Series, but he has been as good as ever this spring.
Sign of trouble: If Sizemore can't withstand the grind of a long season and Bradley struggles offensively, then the Red Sox could have some offensive challenges. But seeing how they led the big league in runs in 2013, they've got some margin to play with.
They'll be be rolling if …: Buchholz makes 30 starts, Middlebrooks has a breakthrough season and rookie shortstop Xander Bogaerts is as good as he's projected to be. In short, this is a very solid club with a winning vibe. The Red Sox will be tough to beat.
Strengths: Great lineup, enhanced by the addition of free agent Nelson Cruz. First baseman Chris Davis led the Majors in home runs (53) and RBIs (138). There is tremendous clubhouse leadership in catcher Matt Wieters and center fielder Adam Jones. The Orioles have perhaps the most underrated player in the game in shortstop J.J. Hardy. Third baseman Manny Machado is a coming-of-age superstar, and like Hardy, a great defensive player. No one gets more out of his clubs than manager Buck Showalter, and no one has done a better job of finding players than executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette.
Weaknesses: The rotation doesn't have a true No. 1 starter, and there is some uncertainty in other spots as well. Signing free agent Ubaldo Jimenez deepens the group, but the O's need Bud Norris, Miguel Gonzalez and Wei-Yin Chen to stay healthy and pitch at a high level. Machado will open the season on the disabled list, thus leaving a large hole in the lineup and at third base. Second baseman Ryan Flaherty could shift to third to replace Machado, opening a spot for top prospect Jonathan Schoop.
Spot to watch: With the trade of closer Jim Johnson to the A's, Tommy Hunter -- who has four career saves -- will be asked to step up and pitch the ninth inning. The Orioles say they're confident that he'll be fine, but until he does the job, there will be some doubt.
Sign of trouble: If Machado doesn't return from the disabled list in April, and if he doesn't play at a high level, his absence would impact the O's both offensively and defensively. The rotation has so much uncertainty that Showalter and Duquette could test the organization's depth.
They'll be be rolling if …: Jimenez pitches the way he did in the second half of last season for the Indians. With Chris Tillman, Gonzalez and Jimenez at the top of the rotation, the Orioles might have enough pitching to hang with the division leaders.
New York Yankees
Strengths: New York has a great outfield with Brett Gardner, Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran. Ellsbury has few peers defensively, and the three of them could make for the best offensive outfield in the game. The Yankees also have a potentially very solid rotation, led by CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda. There's an outstanding manager in Joe Girardi, a winning tradition and an expectation of winning. The Yanks will leave Spring Training much more confident about their Minor League system than they were a year ago. They also have the resources to swing a deal at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.
Weaknesses: The Yankees have no idea what to expect from Jeter and first baseman Mark Teixeira, both of whom missed virtually the entire 2013 season. They also don't know what they'll get from second baseman Brian Roberts, who hasn't played in more than 77 games since 2009, and third baseman Kelly Johnson, who has started just 12 games at the hot corner in his eight-year career. Sabathia and Michael Pineda are attempting to adjust to life with diminished velocity.
Spot to watch: David Robertson is stepping into the Yanks' closer role for Mariano Rivera, the greatest of all time. Robertson has a 2.79 ERA and an 11.7 strikeouts-per-nine average in six big league seasons, the past four of them as Rivera's setup man. Every indication is that Robertson will succeed. But because he hasn't done it, and because the spotlight in New York is so bright, it's simply impossible to know just how he'll perform.
Sign of trouble: If Jeter looks like a 39-year-old ballplayer riding off into the sunset, it will be a bad omen for the Yankees. One reason is it could create an extremely uncomfortable dynamic with Girardi. Another reason is that the Yanks don't have very much depth, and certainly no one who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Jeter.
They'll be be rolling if …: Jeter, Teixeira and Sabathia have roll-back-the-clock seasons. All three of them have passed every test in Spring Training and seem confident they'll have healthy, productive seasons. But the real answers to the questions surrounding them won't be known until the season plays out over the weeks and months ahead.
Toronto Blue Jays
Strengths: There is plenty of offense in the first six spots of the batting order. Shortstop Jose Reyes is one of the game's most dynamic players. Outfielder Jose Bautista is a proven offensive producer. First baseman Edwin Encarnacion has averaged 39 home runs and 107 RBIs the past two seasons. Center fielder Colby Rasmus and designated hitter Adam Lind hit 22 and 23 home runs, respectively, last year. The top of the rotation has three reliable starters in R.A. Dickey, Drew Hutchison and Mark Buehrle. Closer Casey Janssen made good on 34 of 36 save chances last year.
Weaknesses: There is uncertainty at the back of rotation. J.A. Happ and Brandon Morrow won seven of a combined 28 starts in 2013. Dickey's ERA spiraled from 2.73 with the Mets in 2012 to 4.21 in his first year with the Blue Jays. Toronto can't win until its starters get better. If some of the club's young guys -- Hutchison, Kyle Drabek, Marcus Stroman -- get a chance, they must step up. Left fielder Melky Cabrera hit three home runs in 344 at-bats last season.
Spot to watch: Catcher Dioner Navarro, a 10-year veteran, was the Blue Jays' only major offseason acquisition, despite the questions in the rotation. He has a good reputation for helping pitchers find their comfort zones, and if Dickey has a big bounceback season, Navarro could be a shrewd under-the-radar pickup.
Sign of trouble: If Dickey struggles again, the Blue Jays are in trouble. Because the knuckleball is so unpredictable, scouts couldn't get a read on him this spring. But he's where it starts for Toronto.
They'll be be rolling if …: A group of competent starters emerge. Hutchison has front-of-the-rotation stuff, and with all their offensive firepower, the Blue Jays might not need great starting pitching to hang in the race. But it has to be better than it was last season.
The Rays begin the season with fewer questions than the rest of the teams in the division. For the first time in franchise history, they seem to be the most logical choice to win the division. Still, if Buchholz is healthy, the Red Sox should be right there. The Yankees and Orioles have a few more questions, but they both seem good enough to play meaningful games in September. With so much balance in one division, that's what every team is reasonably shooting for.
Challengers: Red Sox, Orioles
Never say never: Blue Jays
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.