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LBS 2011 MLB Preview: AL East

New York Yankees Derek Jeter reacts when Texas Rangers Elvis Andrus is picked off of second base in the seventh inning in game 5 of the ALCS at Yankee Stadium in New York City on October 20, 2010.  UPI/John Angelillo Photo via Newscom

The AL East remains baseball’s best division.  Will we have a different winner in it than the Rays?  That’s the prediction being made here, though Rays fans aren’t going to be too disappointed in these projections.

1) Boston Red Sox (projected finish: 103-59)

The Boston Red Sox are the best team in baseball, at least, as of March 8.  Sure, they grabbed headlines with their offseason acquisitions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez (as well as being priced out of the Adrian Beltre sweepstakes).  But the Red Sox also had a pretty good season last year (by their own lofty standards), where missing the playoffs because of great seasons by the Rays and Yankees obscures that the Red Sox are one of the three or four best teams in baseball.

The team is strongest at the level of its position players.  Crawford and Gonzalez are both excellent defensive players and top of the order threats, and same for Kevin Youkilis who will be stretched a bit as a third baseman this year.  The second basemen, Dustin Pedroia, long has been strong on the defensive end, and is another middle of the order threat with the bad.  Departed catcher Victor Martinez didn’t fit in with the building plan of the Red Sox, so the weaknesses are all up the middle: C, SS, CF.  Crawford’s defensive value will be a little limited by the dimensions of Fenway park, and he possibly would have brought more value elsewhere, but for the Red Sox, it is a big deal that they, and not the Yankees, got Carl Crawford.

The pitching staff is likely to be improved as well with Jon Lester and Josh Beckett up front and Clay Buchholz/John Lackey behind them, and then Daniel Bard and Jonathon Papelbon at the back of the bullpen.  If Papelbon continues to struggle, the Red Sox could be interested in Royals closer Joakim Soria at the deadline.

2) Tampa Bay Rays (projected finish: 91-71)

The Rays replaced premium, prime-career talent that they could not afford with aging former stars Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez.  They also traded away starting pitcher Matt Garza to the Cubs for prospects.  But to expect them to decline by more than 50 runs in run differential from 2010 vastly understates how deep of an organization the Tampa Bay Rays are.  Put simply, they might not be able to compete with Boston’s strength this year, but if they can get some development out of their young pitching staff, the Rays compare favorably with the Yankees.

The pitching rotation has to remain strong because the Rays are going to struggle to score runs on par with the Yankees or Red Sox.  They did okay last year, breaking 800 runs in a light offensive year, but they could find their lineup in the middle of the pack this year, even with Evan Longoria hitting in the middle of that lineup.

Rookie Jeremy Hellickson will join veterans David Price and James Shields to give the Rays a rotation that will be dangerous in a short playoff series, and the Rays have plenty of depth in the organization to find a quality fourth and fifth player to round out the rotation.  Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis hold those spots right now.

The Rays will have to figure out their bullpen if they want to hold off the Yankees, because the Yankees STILL have Mariano Rivera, and with him comes the peace of mind that the pen can only be so bad.  The Rays, though, have to worry about their bullpen keeping the team out of the playoffs, which should give manager Joe Maddon a funny feeling in his stomach late in games in the month of April.

3) New York Yankees (projected finish: 90-72)

The Yankees know that they have problems in their rotation, and they also know that they will eventually have to trade for a front line pitcher, and seem willing to use top prospect Jesus Montero in a deal to get that pitching help.  Montero will bring what will keep the Yankees competitive.  But for The Empire, its the the first time in a decade and a half that they will be reliant on someone coming available to keep them competitive.

In all honesty, CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, and AJ Burnett is just a fine top of the rotation, but theres a reason why Mark Prior, Bartolo Colon, and Freddy Garcia are all in camp as non-roster invitees.  The Yankees are desperate.

However, thanks to a highly productive, even more lavishly paid lineup, New York should be able to outscore most teams they play.  There’s not much to say or that needs to be said about the age of Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada, because the bats that will carry the team are Robinson Cano, Mark Teixiera, and Alex Rodriguez.  They are as good as any teams’ top three.  But in the meat grinder that is the AL East, that likely won’t be enough in this division, and come playoff time, the Yankees could be on the outside looking in for the second time in four years.  90 wins seems like a good projection for the Yankees this year (a 5 win decline from last year with the Red Sox improving).  But because I don’t have the Rays falling off the map, it’s not good enough for the Yankees to get back to the postseason.

4) Baltimore Orioles (projected finish: 75-87)

I’m not really a buyer in either the Orioles or the Blue Jays this year, but I think that where the Blue Jays are tearing down to build towards something better than they had last year, the Orioles seem like they are going to try to ride the improvement from last year into this year.  Which isn’t to suggest the Orioles are doomed compared to the Blue Jays, but that the Orioles have more right now (and less on the farm) than the Jays.

What they do have coming up from the minor leagues is a lot of ML ready pitching talent that could facilitate a push towards the top of the AL East.  But that’s a best case scenario.  Realistically, their hitting should rebound over a full season from last year, though the real keys to the season is that the Orioles see CF Adam Jones and C Matt Wieters into the players they thought they had in them.  If Jones and Wieters don’t hit this year, the Orioles won’t meet this projection and they won’t have much to look forward to in 2011 either.  It’s a pivotal year for them, moreso than it is for the Blue Jays.

5) Toronto Blue Jays (projected finish: 73-89)

The Blue Jays actually won 85 games last year, which you probably didn’t realize unless you were a fan.  A lot of that production was unsustainable.  The Marlins signed all-star catcher John Buck away from them.  They extended home run leader Jose Bautista because they couldn’t trade him.  They will now hope for a fraction of last year’s production.  They dealt pitcher Shaun Marcum to the Brewers for Brett Lawrie, a prospect without a position.

The pitching staff still has a lot of interesting names in it.  Brandon Morrow is a strikeout leader on the club, but walks too many batters to be an ace.  Kyle Drabek, acquired from the Phillies in the Roy Halladay trade, will try to win a rotation spot in camp.  Dustin McGowan will try to hold onto his spot.  Ricky Romero might be the “best”, most established pitcher, and could start on opening day.  Marc Rzepczynski throws left handed, which is something he has going for him.

There’s still a lot of power in the Blue Jays lineup, but it would surprise no one if they lead the majors in strikeouts, wresting that title from the Diamondbacks.  Jays games, in general, will tend to feature a lot of whiffs.  That might actually be a good thing for the organization, because it means the pitching is developing, and the hitting can hold its power value even with high K totals.  It’s really the only chance they have this year.

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