It's time to take on baseball's most competitive division. Same format; I'll cover each team alphabetically, and then give my predictions.
The O's are finally relevant again, but don't look to crack the top three in the division this year. They have a great core of young players with Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Nolan Reimold, and Matt Weiters, lead by a quality veteran in Brian Roberts. Their big move in the off-season was to add some veterans rather than continuing to rebuild. They added Garrett Atkins and Miguel Tejada in the line-up (to play first and third, respectively), Kevin Millwood to the rotation, and Mike Gonzalez as the closer. Adding the closer was a no-brainer; a young pitcher needs confidence that if he can get the game to the bullpen, the bullpen won't blow it.
I think they hope Millwood will help mentor the young guys. I guess we'll see. I always thought that was why you had a pitching coach. I don't see Millwood having a big year, but he may throw 200 innings which is certainly valuable. But counting on three young guys, Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, and Brad Bergesen in the rotation is not a winning recipe in the A.L. East. It doesn't matter how good they might be, they won't be good enough this year for the team to seriously compete.
Look for the offense to score and the team to be exciting, but don't start thinking seriously about the O's until next year.
Boston Red Sox:
As usual, the Red Sox (no relation) look good. The big story this off-season was the team's new emphasis on run prevention. They signed Mike Cameron, Marco Scutaro, and Adrian Beltre to improve the defense and John Lackey to fill-out the rotation. With Lester, Beckett, and Lackey, they have the best top-three rotation in the league. (The Yanks are a close second, but we'll get to them.) If Dice-K bounces back and Clay Buchholz flashes some more of that no-hitter stuff he's shown in the past, the rotation will be scary good. Wakefield is also a candidate if either of those two guys stumbles.
The new defense can only help the solid rotation. Cameron, Scutaro, and Beltre will all play good defense. And, as usual, the Red Sox line-up shouldn't have any trouble scoring runs. I look for Beltre to have a great year, getting away from power-sapping Seattle, and playing for a new contract (he signed a one-year deal).
The big question is whether the Red Sox will have the guts to platoon Big Papi at DH. They still have Mike Lowell, who's lost a step in the field but can still hit, because a trade to the Rangers fell through. If he's healthy, he should platoon with Big Papi. (A Lowell/Ortiz platoon might be the most expensive DH in history.)
The bullpen should be very solid with Johnathan Papelbon closing and Hideki Okajima and flame thrower Daniel Bard setting him up.
The word here is solid. The Sox are solid at every position with very few question marks. You know what you're going to get from home-grown guys like Pedroia, Youkilis, and Ellsbury, and a full year out of V-Mart (also playing for a contract) can't hurt. Getting an injury-free season from Drew would help, too, but they have Jeremy Hermida just in case they don't.
New York Yankees:
The Yankees have to be considered the favorite because of the year they had and coming off of their 27th championship. But they still had an eventful off-season, mostly revolving around the Johnny Damon soap opera. They first traded for Curtis Granderson, giving up prospects Ian Kennedy and Austin Jackson and bullpen arm (turned starter?) Phil Coke. They also traded the Melk Man (much to the chagrin of the Blue Sox) for Javier Vazquez. They won't miss Melky, however, because they signed every other outfielder on the market (accept for Damon). Finally, they signed Nick Johnson to DH (after not re-signing world series MVP Hideki Matsui), who is already injured.
Of course, the rotation is solid with CC leading the way and adding Vazquez to accompany A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte. The big question for them, and maybe for all of spring training (maybe a close second to whether or not Jason Heyward makes the Braves), is who will be the Yankees number 5 starter. Joba was lousy yesterday. He'll compete with Phil Hughes for the spot with the loser in the bullpen. If I were the Yankees, I'd put them both in the bullpen this year and give the rotation spot to Chad Gaudin. If you're the Yankees, you have to do everything you can to win again this year. That's their best use of personnel for this year. I'd put Hughes and Joba back in the rotation next year when Pettitte probably won't be back and Gaudin will be expendable.
The line-up should be great again with Jeter, A-Rod, and Big Tex leading the way. I think they'll miss Damon and Matsui, but their absence won't be fatal. Johnson should be fine at DH, and Gardner/Thames/Winn et al. should be able to fill-in for most of what Damon did. I guess the big question here is who plays left and who plays center and where (or if) Granderson bats against lefties. The Yanks are good everywhere, but they do have more questions to resolve than the Sox going into spring training.
Tampa Bay Rays:
The Rays surprised everyone in '08, and then came back to earth some last year. They had a lot of injuries and had down years from guys like B.J. Upton. If you're the Rays, you really can't afford anyone to have a down year. The year was not a waste, however, as they got career years from Jason Bartlett and Ben Zobrist, who broke out in a huge way. One of the big question marks is where Zobrist will play. Sean Rodriguez, obtained from the Angels in the Scott Kazmir deal, is a real sleeper and a middle infielder with power (he hit one yesterday). They also have Matt Joyce (from Detroit in the Edwin Jackson deal -- so you know they want to play him) in right. Whichever one of those guys sticks will decide where Zobrist plays. I like Rodriguez at second and Zobrist in right. But I could see Zobrist taking over at first base next year if the Rays can't re-sign Carlos Pena.
Which leads to the Rays' biggest question: what to do with Carl Crawford? If they're in it (and I think they will be) they can't trade him. But every indication is they can't sign him long-term, leaving them with only draft picks if he leaves next year. If they drop out of it, they will shop Crawford, but I don't think they will.
I look for a big year from Upton, continued greatness from Crawford and Longoria, a rock-solid year from Pena, a small to medium decline from Bartlett and Zobrist, and a rebound for DH Pat Burrell. Shoppach and Navarro will split the catching time. I also expect one more signing (like a Hank Blalock or Jermaine Dye) from the Rays.
The rotation is solid, led by James Shields and Matt Garza, but not as good as the Yankees and Red Sox. The Rays do have more depth if the injury bug hits, which is very valuable. David Price should finally break out this year.
Finally, the Rays signed Rafael Soriano to be the closer. Last year after Troy Percival went down it was closer by committee. Having Soriano, a very underrated guy, should help.
Toronto Blue Jays:
The big news here, of course, is the trade of Roy Halladay. They traded him because they weren't going to be competitive during his remaining time and, therefore, wouldn't be able to re-sign him in free agency. So they went for top prospects from the Phils now instead of this year with Halladay and two draft picks next year when he left for FA.
The Jays did bring in catchers John Buck and Jose Molina to compete for the starting job, and signed Alex Gonzalez to play short. With Encarnacion coming over last year, the Jays are the new Pinks (faded Reds) taking over from the Nats who dumped most of their former Reds.
They also got Brandon Morrow from the Mariners, hoping he's a change of scenery guy. Both he and the "staff ace" Ricky Romero are former top picks who have struggled. I expect both to be good this year and last year rookie phenom Mark Rzepczynski to continue his development. Shawn Marcum, coming off the D/L should also be good. But this is a young, rebuilding staff and cannot seriously compete in the A.L. Beast.
The pen is a three horse race for the closer role. Look for Jason Frasor to win out over free agent Kevin Gregg, who just isn't that good in spite of closer experience, with Scott Downs in the lefty set-up role that he's well-suited for. The Jays have a bunch of good arms in camp and picking the final 25 for them might be the most challenging of any team (or at least the 12 man staff). But I don't have to predict that, only that the Jays will struggle this year. (But I am watching them beat the Yanks 2-1 right now on the MLB Network, but it's early and the Yanks are rallying. I bet they have the lead by the time I hit "Publish Post.")
Look for Lind to continue to develop as one of the games best hitters. Whether or not Snider follows suit may be the most interesting aspect of the Jays season.
I really like the Rays in this division but I'm going to go with them for the wild card and the Red Sox to take the division. In a huge upset, the Yanks miss the playoffs. Baltimore will finish just shy of .500 and the Jays will bring up the rear.
Up next: the N.L. Central. (Jays lead 5-1 in the 5th. Lind just hit a three-run jack.)