If the Tampa Bay Rays won the division, would you be surprised? With reigning AL Cy Young winner David Price towing the line, TB does what they’ve done every year since 2008: reload, relock and fire all over again. Starting pitchers Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson and Roberto “Don’t Call Me Fausto….Wait, I Made Up a Fake Name and I Chose Fausto?” Hernandez do what Matt Garza, James Shields, Wade Davis, and a half dozen others have done before them–step up, fill the new free agent void and dominate. The offense cobbles together enough runs with 3B Evan Longoria providing the middle order pop and OF Desmond Jennings and OF Wil Myers enjoying breakout seasons. The bullpen is put together with spit and dental floss (again), but somehow, pitching coach Jim Hoey and King Emperor manager Joe Maddon make it work. The Rays win their fourth playoff berth in six seasons, and their third division title.
If the Boston Red Sox won the division, would you be surprised? After a winter expunging the locker room sewage that took down a 90-win 2011 season, the Sox ride a resurgent Jon Lester, Clay Bucholz, Ryan Dempster and John Lackey to the AL East crown, in spite of a offense that’s slightly above average, at best. The reason for it being even above par? OF Jacoby Ellsbury and 2B Dustin Pedroia look like a MVP candidates again, rookie outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. is the ROY and 3B Wil Middlebrooks enjoys a fully healthy season. Yes, the Red Sox miss DH David Ortiz, OF Shane Victorino and 1B Mike Napoli for large chunks of time to the DL (at their age, is it unexpected?), but the younger performers are able to keep them afloat. Despite the baggage of 2011 and 2012, Boston remembers they’re not too far removed from a 90+ win season, September collapse aside. They’re not heads and shoulders better than the other teams, but good enough to survive the gauntlet of the AL East.
If the Toronto Blue Jays won the division, would you be surprised? On paper, they’ve got the most talent…and it’s not even close. Just in their offseason hauls alone—pitchers (and NL Cy Young winner) R.A. Dickey, Mark Buerhle and Josh Johnson and hitters SS Jose Reyes, OF Melky Cabrera and Emilio Bonifacio—the Jays might rival the on-field talent that the crippled Yankees have. They take the AL East on healthy campaigns from Brandon Morrow and Johnson, and the same from offensive players like 3B Jose Bautista, 1B Edwin Encarnacion, Reyes and OF Colby Rasmus. The bullpen—a gigantic area of concern—comes together midseason when blue chippers Sergio Santos, Jeremy Jeffress and Steve Delabar step up big time. Toronto doesn’t just win this division. They win comfortably, and head to the playoffs for the first time since Joe Carter touched ‘em all.
If the New York Yankees won the division, would you be surprised? Of course you wouldn’t. They’re the New York Effing Yankees. Like their eternal rivals in New England, the Yanks have to win the AL East on pitching, and that’s exactly what they do. CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte and Ivan Nova give them between 28 and 32 starts a piece, with the front three throwing up zeros on a weekly basis. Mariano Rivera makes us all ask why he’s hanging up his spikes after another flawless campaign, with David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain (pitching for a new contract) and Cody Eppley doing their best Mo impressions. The offense….well, let’s just stick to the Yankees winning this division on pitching. OF Curtis Granderson comes back from a broken forearm determined to show he’s still an All-Star-caliber player, while 2B Robinson Cano hits like a guy who knows he’s got $200 million coming to him in a few months. These two, along with a breakout year from OF Brett Gardner get the Yankees their 18th playoff appearance in 19 tries.
If the Baltimore Orioles won the division, would you be surprised? How could you be; they’re the reigning champs. They can hit, and there’s very little doubt about it. OF Adam Jones shows he’s one of the very best young hitters in the game, while 3B Manny Machado enjoys a Evan Longoria-esque full rookie season. Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, Jake Arrieta and Tommy Hunter aren’t going to scare anyone, but that’s just how they like it. Each of the five keeps the high-powered O’s in the game, while the flawless bullpen throws up zeros like BockerKnocker at a singles party. Baltimore certainly isn’t going 29-9 in one run games, which was the best mark in MLB history…but they’re not far out. The world discovers that it wasn’t a fluke, that’s just how these Orioles win. With a gigantic chip on their collective black and orange shoulder, Baltimore wins their second straight AL East title, doing how they do.
Every one of these five teams have an equal shot of winning the division. Every one of these five teams have gigantic flaws, each of which is sure to exploited by 4 other division rivals playing them 18 times a season. Every one of these five teams are good enough to assure that no AL East squad will win more than 85-90 games.
The toughest division in baseball just got a bit less top heavy this winter. But strangely, all that did was make it tougher to win. Who’s going to finish on top?
Top Dog: Toronto Blue Jays
An extremely hard call, but even with very legitimate injury concerns, the Blue Jays can still win this division on an overwhelming amount of talent. They’re five deep in their rotation, with guys like Brett Cecil and Esmil Rogers capable of starting, and other hurlers like Ricky Romero (in Triple-A) and Kyle Drabek (coming back from Tommy John surgery) ready to batten the hatches late in summer. Winning the AL East hinges on Morrow and Johnson making at least 25 starts a piece, which the latter has done 3 times in the last 6 seasons.
Offensively, Canada hasn’t seen this type of power since Nickelback took all the pyro and fireworks on the road with them. Bautista, Reyes, Encarnacion, Melky, Rasmus, DH Adam Lind and a soon returning 3B Brett Lawrie is very plainly the best line-up in the division, and maybe in the American League.
The bullpen is, as I mentioned, the biggest area of concern. But like the Detroit Tigers, the prospects shipped out and the money Toronto’s spent keep them all-in for 2013. If Casey Janssen cannot come back healthy and close (and if Santos or Delabar can’t step in), then there’s not doubt that the Jays will do whatever they must to patch up a leaky relief corp.
This isn’t as rock solid a prediction as say, Cincinnati to win the NL Central, Detroit to win the AL Central or the District to win the NL East. But the Jays have the most talent and depth in a division without much of either in certain spots.
First Loser: New York Yankees
Let’s be straight: with this division, this year, it’s all just one dart thrown against an IMAX-sized dart board.
If the Yankees are even going to come in second, it will be because Sabathia, Kuroda and Pettitte gave them premium production, and Nova, Phil Hughes, David Phelps and Michael Pineda (remember him?) gave them…something. Be assured: the offense is royally screwed. 3B Alex Rodriguez and 1B Mark TeIxeIra aren’t coming back for a long time, and even when they do, they’re not going to be AL MVP candidates. SS Derek Jeter will probably play in April, but at age 39 and with no offseason to prepare, it figures to be a rough season for the captain. However, Granderson and Cano are good enough to keep this a league-average offense, with Ichiro Suzki, Gardner and 3B/1B Kevin Youkilis helping with the heavy lifting. They’re not going to set a Yankee record for home runs again, but this team has enough patient hitters that will hopefully be forced to manufacture runs rather than just depend on a long ball bail-out every 2 innings. In a strange, roundabout way, this could be a more effective offense for the Yankees without being a more powerful one. I don’t feel good about this prediction, but it’s partially based on how smart these Yankees are, and how they always seem to be able to adapt to the changing personnel of the team.
Despite all the report out of Spring Training of how great Baltimore’s looked, I don’t believe that their depth of talent will make up for the fact that that their rotation, bullpen and offense isn’t markedly better. Moreover, I’m sure they’ll still be very, very good in one-run games (as their bullpen is still deadly), but they won’t be setting the MLB record again. To me, that looks like a fourth place team in the division.
The Tampa Bay Rays were also a very enticing option not just to finish second, but to win the AL East outright. However, to do so, the Rays’ young talent would have to blossom simultaneously. That’s not impossible, but I’m not sure if all the pieces are ready at the same time. Price, Cobb and Moore would have to mirror the production of a Sabathia, Kuroda and Pettitte core, which I am not so sure is a bet to happen. Offensively, expect Tampa to be challenged another season, with guys like 1B James Loney, 2B Kelly Johnson, C Jose Molina and DH Luke Scott inhabiting half of the line-up. There is a lot of like about the Rays, but 2014 looks like their year—not 2013.
Cellar Dweller: Boston Red Sox
There’s a lot of like about the Red Sox this year, and not all of it has to do with the fact that Bobby V isn’t at the keys anymore. But the biggest problem is that despite how many components of the squad look solid, there are just too many injury concerns in every part of it to think they’ll be able to overtake the AL East.
David Ortiz is reportedly going to get back on the field in a couple weeks after a still painful heel injury, but at age 36 and not having played near a full slate of games in a few seasons, it doesn’t feel likely. The other injury concerns? They’re everywhere: Napoli, Middlebrooks, SS Stephen Drew, SP John lackey, Bucholz, DH Jonny Gomes and RP Andrew Bailey. Not a good look, especially in regards to the starting rotation and bullpen. Even without health worries, the Sox are still hoping for bounce back seasons for Lackey, Lester, Bailey, Bucholz and Dempster.
Add that all up, and you’ve got the best last place team in baseball.
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