Blue Jays set to fly high in balanced AL East
Multiple offseason acquisitions give Toronto edge, but Rays, O's, Yanks and Sox in mix
It's going to be a Blue Jays autumn. That is, unless the Rays keep the magic going. Speaking of magic, no one had more of it than the Orioles last summer, and they're beginning this season with plenty of confidence that the best is yet to come. The Red Sox also made significant changes in both personnel and environment this offseason, and they like their newfound underdog status.
Finally, there are the Yankees. Even after all the losses and injuries, the Yanks are still on everyone's radar. They've got a deep, talented pitching staff, and if Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez are healthy enough to contribute down the stretch, who knows how October will play out?
Welcome to the American League East, where there's a legitimate case to be made for all five teams. The Blue Jays begin the season as the favorite after an offseason talent infusion, but the Rays, Red Sox, Orioles and Yankees all believe they're good enough to make the postseason.
There are no perfect teams. Toronto's lineup and rotation could be tremendous. But the Blue Jays have lingering questions in their bullpen, especially whether Sergio Santos or Casey Janssen will close.
W: Hammel L: McGee SV: Johnson
General manager Alex Anthopoulos added 627 innings to the rotation with the acquisitions of Josh Johnson, R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle, and if they all stay healthy, Toronto's lack of depth in the bullpen may not be an issue.
Meanwhile, the Rays are attempting to move forward without James Shields, who was both a leader in the clubhouse and a 200-inning workhorse on the field. And Rays manager Joe Maddon will again platoon all over the field to attempt to piece enough offense together.
The O's rode a wave of close victories to their first postseason berth in 16 years last season, and believe they're positioned to move forward with manager Buck Showalter coming off perhaps his best season. Baltimore has a tremendous clubhouse with Adam Jones, Matt Wieters and Co., and an assortment of young arms from which Showalter believes he can construct a solid pitching staff.
The Red Sox changed more than faces, although they did change faces, adding Ryan Dempster, Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, David Ross, Mike Napoli and Joel Hanrahan. If Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and John Lackey have solid seasons, the Red Sox are confident they'll be poised for a September run.
Far from the problems between the players and former manager Bobby Valentine last season, the Red Sox have embraced their new man, John Farrell, a former Boston pitching coach who is close with several current players.
The Yankees don't know what to expect. Nick Swisher, Russell Martin and others are gone. Teixeira, Granderson and A-Rod are injured. The Yanks didn't make a single splashy move in the offseason, and because the club seems too diminished, they might just be the most interesting team in baseball.
With that, the AL East might be the most interesting division in baseball. Toronto may be the favorite, but no one is conceding them a thing. Every team believes it's good enough to make the postseason.
Jose Reyes is a dynamic addition to the top of the lineup and could end up having a monster year with all that firepower lined up behind him. Melky Cabrera adds another impact bat to a lineup that already had Jose Bautista, Colby Rasmus and Edwin Encarnacion.
Our selection: Blue Jays
James Shields is gone, but the assembly line rolls on. David Price steps into the No. 1 role after taking home the AL Cy Young Award last year, and Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb line up nicely behind him. The Blue Jays added 600 innings to their rotation, but the Rays take a backseat to no one.
Our selection: Rays
Mariano Rivera is back for a final ride, and he sets up the Yankees' bullpen nicely. David Robertson has established himself as a first-rate setup man and Boone Logan, Joba Chamberlain, David Aardsma and others give manager Joe Girardi plenty of options to get the bullpen into his hands.
Our selection: Yankees
Shortstop Yunel Escobar is being counted on to anchor the middle of a defense that the Rays believe will again be one of baseball's best, which it wasn't last season. Escobar's presence allows Ben Zobrist to get more playing time in right field, where he's one of the best.
Our selection: Rays
Blue Jays. Yes, they're back. First-rate rotation. Powerful lineup. Popular manager back in the saddle. About the only question is the bullpen, but the Blue Jays are so good in every other area that the pieces seem likely to fit together. Manager John Gibbons has done a good imitation of the happiest man on Earth this spring.
Rays. The Rays will again boast a rotation and a defense as good as almost any in baseball, and that's the formula Maddon calls "The Ray Way." He'll mix and match his lineup, but if Evan Longoria stays healthy and Wil Myers is in the Major Leagues for the second half of the season, Tampa Bay is plenty good enough to win a championship.
Orioles, Red Sox. The Red Sox are a completely different team, with a better clubhouse and a better manager. If Lackey and Lester have big seasons and David Ortiz stays healthy, Boston is good enough to make the postseason. The Orioles believe they'll need less of the magic that propelled them in 2012 because they've got terrific young pitching depth and a bunch of veterans who'll lead the way.
NEVER SAY NEVER
Yankees. OK, everything has to go right. Granderson and Teixeira must return from the disabled list and be productive. Ichiro Suzuki and Kevin Youkilis must contribute. And all those older players have to stay on the field. This core group has won so much, it's impossible to completely discount them.
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.