With two big money, major market teams and three smaller market teams, the American League East has always threatened to be a lop-sided affair. The Yankees and Red Sox have dominated the standings and payroll in recent years but Evan Longoria and the Tampa Bay Rays have quietly made a name for themselves and the Dominican-born right field José Bautista could help the Blue Jays regain some of their swagger from their glory years of the early 90s. The Orioles are a very long shot to win the division, but if the Baltimore squad can get some control of their pitching and some luck they could vie for a wild card spot in the AL.
New York Yankees
The Bronx Bombers are well positioned this year to make a run into October. However, the Yankees can’t just rely on the pitching of CC Sabathia throughout the season and will need the injury-plagued Philip Hughes and the up-and-down Ivan Nova to step up. The return of Andy Pettitte is a nice addition to the pitching staff as Joba Chamberlain is always a question mark when it comes to consistancy and it will be interesting to see how Chamberlain fairs when he returns from his elbow ligament replacement recovery in either May or June.
The Yankees aging left side of the in-field will also be under the microscope this year as both Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are coming up in years and their health will be a key factor in the squads success. While Mariano Rivera hinted that this could be his last year in the majors, don’t expect the veteran closer to slow down at all. The addition of Raúl Ibanez as a DH from Philadelphia is a solid addition to the Yanks offensive firepower that already features sluggers such as Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira. If they can keep healthy and give Sabathia some help, the Yankees are a clear favorite to win the division and go deep in the playoffs.
Boston Red Sox
After a busy off season that saw the departure of longtime manager Terry Francona, the arrival of new skipper Booby Valentine as well as new GM Ben Cherington, the Red Sox hope for a fresh start after last year’s sad season ending loss to the Orioles that kept them out of the playoffs. David Ortiz, aka Big Papi, will get some support in the batting order thanks to the addition of Cody Ross, Nick Punto and Kelly Shoppach.
It is already apparent that with Valentine behind helm the atmosphere in the Red Sox clubhouse is a lot different. Following the almost comical beer and fried chicken scandal of last season, the lively Valentine has already banned alcohol from the clubhouse and taken jabs at hated rivals, the Yankees. It’s a big change of pace from the more laid back Francona to say the least.
A good start and solid pitching is key for the Red Sox. After losing Jonathan Papelbon to Phialdelphai for a $50 million, four-year contract, the Red Sox will be relying heavily on right hander Andrew Bailey to make key saves. The Sox still have a solid rotation with Jon Lester and Josh Beckett going one and two, but will need Daniel Bard to make an effective transition from reliever to starter from the Red Sox to be a truly formidable pitching threat.
Tampa Bay Rays
Manger Joe Madden’s squad should come into the 2012 season feeling pretty good about themselves. While their AL East rivals made flashier off-season moves, the Rays remained pretty quiet, nabbing first baseman Carlos Peña, designated hitter Luke Scott and pitcher Fernando Rodney. The team’s biggest move was locking in 22-year old phenom and Cy Young hopeful Matt Moore to a five-year, $14 million deal that could extend to $40 million over eight years.
The biggest issue for the Rays is how well will the MLB’s youngest and maybe deepest pitching staff perform when the spotlight is on them. Moore may be a highly touted lefty who struck out 11 in Yankee Stadium and rocked the Rangers in his first postseason game, but can he handle the pressure of a full season on the mound? Add the Rays 23-year old minor leaguer Chris Archer into the fold later in the season and Tampa Bay has either one of the best rotations in baseball or a recipe for disaster with their young talent.
Toronto Blue Jays
While the Blue Jays made a change in their uniforms in the off season (going back to their early-nineties design) that’s about all they did to make headlines over the winter. With all the big names on the free agent market this off season, Blue Jay’s GM Alex Anthopoulos opted to work on the club’s bullpen instead of their line-up, by adding relievers Sergio Santos, Jason Frasor, Darren Oliver and Francisco Cordero – effectively shoring up that their blown save problem won’t be one this year.
Starting pitchers Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow will need to step up their game to keep the Jays closers in the game and their offensive fire power will need to be …well, a bit more explosive, especially if the Jays want to play for at least a wild card spot. While Dominican José Bautista, who for the second year in a row led the major leagues in home runs, seems on track to have another stellar season, the rest of Toronto’s line-up will need to step up to the proverbial plate. The club did sign a 45-year old utility infielder Omar Vizquel so the Jays will have a good mentor in the dugout.
The fans at Camden Yards haven’t had much to cheer for since the days of Cal Ripken Jr., but the Orioles new GM Dan Duquette hopes to change that. After seven years out of front office baseball, Duquette has already made some interesting moves as he went to Asia to pick up two of the Orioles newest prospects. Wei-Yin Chen from Taiwan and Tsuyoshi Wada of Japan will don Orioles uniforms as the club’s newest pitchers but the team is struggling find its groove on the mound.
With Brian Roberts still working back from a concussion that kept him off the diamond for most of the 2011 season, the O’s will have to rely on Robert Andino as a starter at second base even though he’s more of utility player. On the offensive side the Orioles have a decent line-up with shortstop J.J. Hardy, center fielder Adam Jones and catcher Matt Wieters being all solid hitters, but with the batting power of other AL East clubs like the Yankees and Rays paired with the Orioles dismal pitching Baltimore could be headed for 100+ loss season.