Red Sox, Rays still top dogs in AL East
Both clubs have depth in starting rotations for next season
There's a case to be made for the Rays being the best team in the American League East. There's also a case to be made for the Red Sox. At the moment, there's really not one to be made for any other team.
The Orioles and Blue Jays are works in progress, both with an assortment of questions. That's also true of the Yankees. After spending more than $450 million to upgrade the roster this offseason, they still have large questions about first base, shortstop, third base and the rotation.
If Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia have healthy, productive seasons, the Yanks may be good enough to win the World Series. Thanks to the big-ticket acquisitions of Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Masahiro Tanaka, they'll be better and more interesting than last season. But they still might finish third.
Other teams have issues, too. Center field and shortstop are huge question marks for the Red Sox, after the departure of Ellsbury and the decision (so far) to not re-sign Stephen Drew. Third base could be problem, as well, after Will Middlebrooks batted .227 in 2013. If a pair of kids -- center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and shortstop Xander Bogaerts -- are as good as the Red Sox think they may be, Boston could easily win the AL East again.
The Red Sox have tremendous pitching depth up and down their Minor League system. If they have to use eight or nine starters, they have more gifted arms than any team in the division.
Here's hoping they're strong enough in other areas to offset the stretches when Bradley and Bogaerts are trying to figure things out. Here's also hoping that Red Sox Nation takes a deep breath and remembers that young players don't come with guarantees or timetables.
Now about the Rays. They certainly have the fewest unknowns. Their rotation of David Price, Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, Chris Archer and Jeremy Hellickson matches up nicely with Boston's five of Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront and Ryan Dempster or Jake Peavy.
Hellickson is being counted on to bounce back from a bad season. Third baseman Evan Longoria needs to stay healthy.
Also, there are questions about how Rays manager Joe Maddon will divide the playing time in left field, right field, catcher and designated hitter. Actually, the real question is how good Tampa Bay will be at those four spots, but the consensus in the industry is that Maddon will figure something out.
Maddon is held in such high esteem that we sometimes overlook how short-handed his roster occasionally is. He simply figures out how to do more with less than any manager.
Maybe we should look at this thing another way. Where are the Rays better than other teams? Their defense is excellent, maybe the AL's best. Their rotation is outstanding.
The Rays have gone to the postseason four times in six seasons despite being outspent by virtually every other club. But their core beliefs of building around pitching, defense, and mixing and matching lineups has worked spectacularly well.
Tampa Bay would seem to be better than Boston at third base, shortstop and center field. The Red Sox might be better at second base, right field, catcher and designated hitter.
In other words, it's close. If nothing else, this Red Sox vs. Rays argument reminds us how smart and efficient Tampa Bay executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and Maddon are. Friedman has had a sneaky quiet offseason, re-signing first baseman James Loney and acquiring catcher Ryan Hanigan and closer Heath Bell.
With Price two years away from free agency, Friedman listened to offers for the 28-year-old left-hander. But no offer has been convincing enough to make a deal. With Price, the Rays may be good enough to win a championship, and that's probably how Friedman sees it. He may just be right.
Regardless, the AL East has the makings of a race that could hold our attention until the final days of the regular season, and in the end, that's all that matters.
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.