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AL East Preview

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New York Yankees

Despite not making the playoffs for only the second time since 1995, the Yankees still, as always, dominated the headlines throughout 2013, mostly thanks to the monumental departure of legendary closer Mariano Rivera. This year, not only will the Bronx Bombers be determined to get back into the postseason, but they’ll be enjoying a similar tearful ride along the way, as they prepare to say goodbye to the one and only Derek Jeter, who is set to retire at season’s end. New York added three tremendous hitters to join the future Hall-of-Famer in the lineup, that being Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, and Brian McCann.

Aside from them obviously being talented, all three are battle-tested and have excelled in the postseason with clutch at-bats, an area the Yankees have struggled in mightily since their last title in ’09. With Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson gone, they’re really going to need each of those guys to deliver, to go along with the other notables - Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Alfonso Soriano, Ichiro Suzuki, and Brett Gardner - that remain. Furthermore, New York picked up old foe Brian Roberts, who could be a nice bonus to the roster if he can somehow stay healthy. Oh, and you can’t forget Alex Rodriguez, who will miss 2014 due to suspension, but some would see that as “addition by subtraction,” as A-Rod’s production has seriously gone down in recent years anyway.

As expected, the Yankees also made changes in the pitching department, nabbing the most-talked about name available, Masahiro Tanaka. The Japanese export comes to the United States with enormous expectations, given the pressure that comes with being a high-profile player making his way to New York. Not only that, they also are dealing with uncertainty surrounding their ace, C.C. Sabathia, who is coming off a surprisingly career-worst campaign, as well as needing to replace Andy Pettitte, so Tanaka’s emergence will be crucial. On the other end of the spectrum, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova are coming off two very pleasant campaigns and should be looked at as constants in this rotation. The wild card, however, might be Michael Pineda, who is seeking to win the final spot on the pitching staff. His health seems to be at its best since coming to the Bronx a couple of years ago, and if he’s able to resemble how he was in his rookie season of 2011, the Yankees have a real gem on their hands.

With the bullpen, the Yankees will obviously be scrambling to fill the giant void left by Rivera, but David Robertson, after years as a very successful set-up man, appears to have the mentality and stuff to handle the high-pressure gig. With Shawn Kelley, Adam Warren, and free agent signee Matt Thornton working ahead of him, the Yankees have a fine group in place to get Robertson the ball in the ninth. The success, or lack thereof, of the new relief corps could ultimately be what determines the fate of The Captain’s final season. No matter what, it should be another wild ride for America’s most prestigious franchise.

Predicted Record: 95-67

Boston Red Sox

It just goes to show how quickly things can change, as one year removed from a shocking last-place season in 2012, the Red Sox rebounded as quickly as possible to record the organization’s eighth World Series championship a season ago. So how will they do for an encore in their second season under manager John Farrell? Whatever the results, it will be conducted without one of the team’s key players over the past several years, that being Jacoby Ellsbury, who left through free agency and landed with the enemy Yankees. Aside from also losing Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the silver lining is that just about all of last year’s title-winning roster is still in place, which should ensure another intriguing run for the controversial Boston franchise.

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Above everything, the two club leaders, David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, still remain, after both registered marvelous seasons in ’13. The other key proven contributors, Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino, are also still here, but it could be the new wave of fresh talent that determines how far these Red Sox go in the upcoming campaign. Xander Bogaerts looked impressive at shortstop in the postseason, while the team will be leaning on Jackie Bradley to replace Ellsbury in centerfield. Will Middlebrooks has had success before at the hot corner and the potential is still there for him to carve out his niche as a solid everyday player. Furthermore, despite losing Salty, the Red Sox replaced him with veteran A.J. Pierzynski, who could be an upgrade at catcher.

It’s always good news when you’re able to keep an established, solid pitching rotation from a championship-winning team, and that’s exactly what Boston managed to do. Following a pretty disappointing ’12, ace Jon Lester re-emerged in a big way last year to help lead the starting staff, as he posted great numbers all across the board. Clay Buchholz was outstanding, too, even though an injury wiped out half his season, but he was still able to return and make significant contributions in the playoffs. Perhaps the most valuable cog of this group in 2013 was John Lackey, who seemingly came out of nowhere to enjoy a true renaissance season, even winning the World Series clincher. Felix Doubront is another arm to pay attention to, as the left-hander is a pretty big part of their future, and he’s already had success.

As good as their rotation sounds, it actually might be the bullpen that is stronger, especially after the incredible display we saw from closer Koji Uehara throughout all of last year, most notably in the playoffs. He’s getting up there in age, though, so Boston wisely acquired some insurance, picking up Edward Mujica, who will team up with Junichi Tazawa and Craig Breslow in the meantime to comprise a very strong back-end of the bullpen. The AL East should be highly competitive, as it always is, but the Red Sox appear to have enough fuel once again to push them into another postseason run.

Predicted Record: 87-75

Toronto Blue Jays

No team in 2013 epitomized the word “disaster” more than the Blue Jays. Could it have been any worse for this organization? Entering the year as a very trendy pick to win the division, Toronto instead finished in last place while seemingly never getting out of first gear. In their defense, the AL East is chock full of competitive squads, and the Blue Jays did have numerous significant injuries, which muddled them early on in a deep hole that they could ultimately never escape. Not only was the face of the franchise Jose Bautista banged up, but so were their two top offensive acquisitions from the offseason, Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera, both of whom each missed approximately half the year. Furthermore, arguably their brightest young player, Brett Lawrie, missed a large chunk of the campaign, and thus was severely limited.

The good news for Blue Jays faithful is that all of those key players will be healthy from the start, and if they can get another outstanding season out of Edwin Encarnacion, one of the true underrated power hitters in the game, that would be a huge facet to build around. Colby Rasmus and Adam Lind are two other fine sluggers in this lineup, which should rebound in a big way in 2014 - if they stay healthy.

Remarkably, it wasn’t just the batting order that was marred by injuries; their pitching was, too. Much like in 2012, the Blue Jays saw some of their significant starters go on the shelf in 2013, to the point where they only had two pitchers make over 20 starts the whole season. The two guys who accomplished that, R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle, remain with the club, each still having the potential of helping lead a pitching rotation into the postseason. Brandon Morrow, meanwhile, was one of those aforementioned injured arms, but will enter this campaign “fully healthy,” according to general manager Alex Anthopoulos. That’s important, considering Morrow was enjoying a Cy Young-caliber season the year prior before getting hurt. Another key name that could help considerably, J.A. Happ, has had success before and really has potential to settle in as one of the more dependable lefties in the AL, now that he’s finally found a permanent home after a few years of uncertainty.

As long as the Blue Jays get solid, consistent pitching, that could really go a long way, as their bullpen was an excellent strength last year. Casey Janssen performed wonders as the closer, and having the likes of Sergio Santos, Steve Delabar, and Brett Cecil setting him up, that should ensure continued success for this unit. The main issue overall, of course, will be if they can stay healthy. If that’s accomplished, you have to look out for the Blue Jays this season.

Predicted Record: 83-79

Tampa Bay Rays

When you have one of the best managers in baseball, and you’re winning 90 or more games every year, why even attempt to make any serious changes? That’s the sentiment abided by Tampa Bay, who made almost no alterations to their roster from a year ago, while seeking to go further this season after an anti-climactic ALDS exit at the hands of the eventual-champion Red Sox. Grittiness, scrappiness, and competitiveness are three distinct adjectives to describe any Joe Maddon-led team, and there shall be no exception in 2014, with the same group of mostly youngsters about to hit their stride for the Rays. That couldn’t be more appropriately said for the pitching staff, which is amongst the best in baseball. Everybody already knows ace David Price, and while he was hampered a bit by injuries in ’13, the 2012 AL Cy Young still enjoyed his usual dominant campaign. Behind him, though, is what Tampa might be most excited about. Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, and Chris Archer are all under 27 years of age, but even at this stage in their careers, all three have proven themselves as formidable arms that can make a huge impact in the immediate years to come.

The only question mark revolves around mainstay Jeremy Hellickson, who will miss the first two months of the season. The bullpen had the most changes, with Grant Balfour coming over from Oakland to take over as the new closer in place of Fernando Rodney, while the club also added Heath Bell to join the impressive set-up unit that already features Joel Peralta and Jake McGee.

On offense, the Rays remain the same as well, which makes sense considering the talent that’s already in place. It centers on their cornerstone superstar, Evan Longoria, who has been one of the best third basemen in the American League for several years now. Soon enough, it could revolve around another big-time player, Wil Myers, who was acquired prior to last season in the James Shields deal. Myers enjoyed a very nice freshman campaign as soon as he was called up in June, leading to his capture of the AL Rookie of the Year award, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg for the budding star.

Tampa Bay has other unique pieces in their lineup, like Ben Zobrist and Desmond Jennings, each providing a different dynamic in their respective roles. Jennings is a very good lead-off hitter who boasts a lot of tools, while Zobrist brings quality versatility in the field and a dangerous bat at the plate. Also having others names who shouldn’t be overlooked, such as David DeJesus, James Loney, and Yunel Escobar, this Tampa Bay fits the persona of a Maddon-managed group to a tee. In the past, it’s always led to success, but with how extremely competitive the AL East is, they’re really going to have to dig deeper than ever.

Predicted Record: 80-82

Baltimore Orioles

When manager Buck Showalter took over in Baltimore in 2010, the franchise was in disarray, having owned a miserable streak of 12 consecutive losing seasons. Luckily for Orioles fans, it would only take Showalter two seasons before he broke through, guiding his men to the franchise’s first postseason berth since 1997, albeit while coming up just short in the ALDS that season. Despite missing the postseason a year ago, the Orioles still managed to win 85 games in a very respectable performance, and with the influx of young talent that is in place right now, there might be enough ammunition to get them back into October. A potential postseason run centers around the organization’s young core four on offense, that being Manny Machado, Chris Davis, Adam Jones, and Matt Wieters, all of whom have already established themselves among the best at their respective positions.

Machado might be the most intriguing, as he’s the youngest and arguably the most talented on both sides of the ball, but will be returning from a serious injury that derailed the end of his 2013. If he picks up where he left off, that could be a determining factor alone. Nelson Cruz, underrated on the free agent market by seemingly every team in baseball, was added at the last minute and should be a huge boost for a team that could really use it in one of the toughest divisions in baseball. In addition, J.J. Hardy and Nick Markakis are two holdovers who contribute solid production.

Everything looks nice and clear regarding the offense, and the same can be said for the pitching as well. On the starting front, the Orioles made one significant addition when they signed Ubaldo Jimenez, and while the mercurial right-hander has been erratic over the past few seasons, he is coming off his best campaign since leaving Colorado. While Jimenez was dealing in Cleveland last year, the Orioles were getting modest, steady numbers from the main nucleus of their rotation, consisting of Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, and Miguel Gonzalez. However, the real wild card of this group just might be Bud Norris, one of the more underrated hurlers in baseball who is a very solid strikeout pitcher.

Perhaps the best facet of Baltimore’s starting pitching is that they have tremendous depth in their farm system, with the likes of Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman waiting in the wings in case one of the names already in place goes down. The bullpen will feature a different closer, with Jim Johnson moving on, and that gig most likely will go to Tommy Hunter, who has shown enormous potential to handle the role successfully. With Darren O’Day, Brian Matusz, and newcomer Ryan Webb setting him up, odds are relief pitching will be a strength for Baltimore. The trick will be getting in that position to win consistently, which will be a challenge for all of these teams in the intense AL East.

Predicted Record: 76-86

Final Say on the AL East: This is the best division in the American League, if not all of baseball. In fact, it’s probably the toughest to predict, as it’s the only division where every team that resides in it actually has a legitimate chance of finishing in first. Even the Blue Jays, who disappointed greatly last year en route to a last-place finish, are capable of a lengthy run that could propel them above their four other counterparts - if they can just stay healthy this time. The Orioles, with their talented youth emerging into their respective primes, are dangerous as well. Of course, you can never count out Tampa Bay either, especially considering how good their manager is at what he does in bringing out the best out from everyone on his roster, despite usually having less to work with. Overall, though, it’s hard not to see the Yankees and/or Red Sox tussling over first at the end of the day. Aside from a pretty big overhaul of their roster, New York will get a mental lift from the impending retirement of Derek Jeter, and while that necessarily didn’t work with Mariano Rivera last year, you have to remember how decimated they were by injuries - and still managed to win 85 games. The Red Sox are the defending World Series champions with much of the same roster intact so you have to believe they’ll be somewhere towards the top. As far as futures bets go, I wouldn’t even recommend anything in the AL East. Way too close to call, with all the potential that oozes from this group collectively.

  
HEADLINES
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