AL East….The best in baseball?

1) Boston Red Sox – With the additions of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, the Red Sox have arguably the best lineup in the bigs. They have two legit base stealing threats, and three guys that can put it in the seats on any pitch in Gonzo, Youkilis, and David Ortiz. David Ortiz?!?! Yes, he has started slow the past two seasons but been big through the middle and the end of the season. Pedroia, Youk, and Ellsbury will all be healthy coming into this season again, and so long as they can stay healthy, the Red Sox will be in great shape. J.D. Drew is an injury risk in right, and Mike Cameron is just a big a risk. But Daniel Nava, Ryan Kalish, and Darnell McDonald all got good experience last season, and don t be surprised to see Josh Reddick break camp with the club and act as a Dave Roberts type late game base runner. Scutaro is competently holding down short, but Jed Lowrie can play all 4 infield positions and bring some pop to each. Behind the dish, Saltalamacchia will get the chance to hold down the starting job and potentially come into his own with the Green Monster acting as a slump buster/confidence builder for any young hitter, while Jason Varitek gets a game or two a week behind the dish. If there is a way for the Red Sox to improve, it would come by a trade of Lars Anderson for an upgrade at catcher or a young potential replacement in right field. The Red Sox have two of the best young arms in John Lester and Clay Buckholtz. Josh Beckett and John Lackey will both have to bounce back, Beckett likely will, Lackey is a big question mark as he has never pitched well in Fenway. Daisuke still has the 5th spot in the rotation, and despite his immense disappointment compared to his hype coming out of Japan, he is still one of the better 5th starters in the league. Jonathon Papelbon should not be the closer anymore, but he will open the season there, Bard has closer stuff, and only time will tell before we see how Jenks pitches in the seventh rather than the ninth. The Red sox also signed a few middle relief guys that can get lefties out despite most being RHP, and Wakefield can fill in if a starter gets chased early in a game or as a spot starter.

2) Toronto Blue Jays – This is the team I have wavered on the most. They started at third in the division, then slid all the way to last, first hint I am higher on a certain team in this division than most, then they jumped back up to second in my rankings. The trade for Juan Rivera to play left allows Jose Bautista to move back to third base, and while he will not hit 50+ home runs again, in the mid to upper 30 s is still huge from your third baseman. That would ensure Edwin Encarnacion will be the DH, and despite is struggles last season, he still has pop in his bat and can hit for a decent average, will strike out too much, but can be a very talented bat from the 7th in the order range. Adam Lind will hold down first base and if he plays like he did in 2009, will be a very good threat at first. Yunel Escobar really settled in after being traded to Toronto with his average jumping from .238 when he left Atlanta to .275 in Toronto. Aaron Hill is an often overlooked second baseman who does a ton of things well, but none great, so let s skip past him here too. Juan Rivera will have a career year in a very hitter friendly league like the AL East. Travis Snider is proving to be a guy that can be a high quality right fielder for years to come. If Rajai Davis can lift his OBP from the mid .350 s to the lower to mid .400 s he can easily steal 50 bags becoming RBI potential for Batista, Rivera, Lind, and Snider. Jose Molina will act as a day game starter at catcher and be able to be a veteran catcher to help mold J.P. Arencibia who is struggled when first getting called up last season, but settled in nicely and can bring 20-25 HR power and a .270-.270 average from the catching position. The real question, how will he handle this pitching staff that is the 4th or 5th best in the division? The fact the Blue Jays immediately shipped Mike Napoli to the Rangers after acquiring him from the Angels says they have great confidence in Arencibia. Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, and Brett Cecil are excellent 3-4-5 pitchers, only problem, they will have to be 1-2-3 pitchers. The Blue Jays will have to hope Kyle Drabek will prove to be a potential front of the line starter for them to finish second in the division. And Jesse Litsch can be a very serviceable fifth starter. Frank Francisco is an excellent addition to the back end of the bullpen. Octavio Dotel, Jon Rauch, Jason Frasor, and Casey Janssen make for a very good middle of the bullpen.

3) New York Yankees – What do Yankee fans use as birth control?…Their personalities .sorry, still a Red Sox fan. While I laughed every time a Yankee free agent target signed with someone else, the move that made me laugh the most was the signing of Russell Martin. Martin was a really good catcher for a couple years for LA, but as soon as he honored his mother by adding the J. to the back of his jersey, he fell apart, lucky for him, the Yankees don t allow names on the back of jerseys. Add that to the fact he was catching 150+ games a year, it was only a matter of time before his stats fell off. Allow Jorge Posada to get a random game behind the plate when he is not DHing and Francisco Cervelli spelling him at least once a week, and I would not be shocked if Martin is the best catcher in the AL East this season. Mark Texeira will be Mark Texeira, a gold glove caliber first baseman with a .285 average and 30-35 home runs. Robinson Cano will take a step back this year in his numbers compared to last year, but will still be one of the best second baseman in the league. Derek Jeter is more of a presence in the clubhouse than a presence on the diamond these days, but I will admit, he is the only Yankee in history I would love to shake his hand and tell him it has been a pleasure watching the way he plays the game. A guy whose hand I certainly wouldn t want to shake is Alex Rodriguez. Probably cause I am not sure they work anymore since Cameron Diaz had to feed him popcorn at the Super Bowl, impressive he stopped kissing himself in the mirror long enough to find a washed up former sex symbol. He will not have an A-Rod type season this year, he will only hit about 27-28 home runs, but as has been the case the past three seasons, his average will drop down to about .260-.265. Brett Gardner would be just another average left fielder on any other team, but because he plays in New York his speed makes him a borderline all-star? I would take 20 other left fielders over him. Curtis Granderson is one of the genuine people in baseball, only thing I have negative to say about him is he is a Yankee, so to avoid me vomiting while writing this, let me just move on. Crap, next is Nick Swisher plays the game right, enjoys it and brings joy to a locker room, but don t expect him to have anywhere close to the season he had last year, it was a career year. So basically, at the plate, the Yankees all had career years outside of Martin, Jeter and Texeira, none of the Yankees with have seasons as impressive as last season, and they still didn t win the division. Now to their pitching staff where Andy Pettitte has retired and they missed on Cliff Lee. CC Sabathia will be an excellent pitcher as he always is, but when will his innings catch up with him? Then you have Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett who are your typical top 10 or so number 2 & 3 starter. Then they will run with an average Ivan Nova and journeyman Sergio Mitre. Mariano Rivera is, well, the greatest closer of all time but he has also finally caught up to his number, and at 42, how much does his arm have left? Rafael Soriano is a stud set up man, but despite his great year last year, just an ok closer. David Robertson, Boone Logan, and Pedro Feliciano make for a middle relief that won t scare anyone, but will still get the job done more often than not. Then there is the question of what to do with Joba Chamberlain I say release more DUI videos cause his was funny but on a pure baseball level, time to trade him. May sound extreme, but the Yankees indecision on whether to make him a reliever or a starter has ruined him. Send him to an average team in a small market with a young hitter looking for a contract, say Milwaukee and Prince Fielder, and let Joba re-establish himself without the lights of NYC, and let Prince Fielder be the DH for $20 million a year. Seems like the Yankee way to me.

4) Baltimore Orioles – Here is a team I am really high on, not just because of the effect Buck Showalter had on them at the end of the season last year, but because of the exiting young talent on this team. Everyone has heard the hype on Matt Weiters, will he live up to it finally? Well, I am pretty sure he will bat better than .249. I see him advancing to 15 home runs, 80 RBI s, and an average above .280. Derek Lee is looking to prove he still has it, and what better place than with a young, potentially underrated team to do it. There is no real pressure if he struggles, but if he hits the ball at all like he did in Chicago, he could become a feel good story for a surprise contending team. On the other corner you have the strikeout king Mark Reynolds. While he has the 3 biggest strikeout seasons, I see him cutting back his K rate this season under Showalter down to 180. Not exactly a great stat, but a huge reduction from him. Take into account his 30 long balls and an expected rise in average up to the .240 range, again not an impressive number, but with a ballsy manager like Showalter who I can see batting him 6th or 7th, can be one of the more threatening last third hitters in the league. J.J. Hardy is a guy that seems to fit the AL East way of this season, another guy that had massive potential that has another shot in a lineup that won t focus on his talents. But if Hardy struggles, Cesar Izturis and Robert Andino can step in at short when they are not playing for the often injured Brian Roberts. Vladimir Guerrero looks to keep his form from a big season last year, and should have another big season in the hitter friendly AL East. Felix Pie played well year last season when healthy. He could be a very dangerous #9 hitter. Adam Jones is belongs in the starting line-up of players the average baseball fan has never heard of. And Nick Markakis has been a top 10 right fielder for years. All that said, don t sleep on Nolan Reimold taking an outfield spot if they struggle or Luke Scott taking over if Derek Lee doesn t play like Derek Lee, nothing like a little competition in the most competitive second place race in the league. Jeremy Guthrie will head a rotation that can be extremely hit and miss, no pun intended. Guthrie and Mike Matusz make for a very strong front of the rotation, while Justin Duchscherer is a former all star looking to get back into form. Chris Tillman is a high upside young pitcher but has had back to back 2-5 seasons with an ERA over 5. Then the final spot will be a battle between Jake Arrieta and Brad Bergesen. Neither have anything special to speak of, which may open for a surprise fifth starter in Zachary Britton. Kevin Gregg is an above average closer with an underrated mesh of relievers in Mike Gonzalez, Alfredo Simon, Jim Johnson, and Rick VandenHurk behind him.

5) Tampa Bay Rays – I like the way they run the team, and I really like Joe Maddon. I really wanted to keep them out of the cellar because despite their losses this off season, they do have a quality team which leads me to my bold call for the division. Despite finishing last in the division, they will have a record of 81-81, making every team .500 or better. Manny Ramirez should settle in well as a DH, and Johnny Damon just might be a decent left fielder again. B.J. Upton can mash, he just had a poor season last year but will play well again this year, and Ben Zobrist will continue being an above average utility guy stuck in right field. Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac should be back up utility guys, but instead will be starting for a team in the midst of payroll cuts. Dan Johnson has never played more than 117 games, and while his projections call for 25-30 homers in a full season, you cannot count on it from a 32 year old who has never played a full season. John Jaso is just another in a long line of below average catchers in the majors. Apparently if you can hit or field, you are moved to a different position, catchers in Major League Baseball are despicable taken as a whole in comparison to any other position. Evan Longoria was signed to a semi-long term deal just days after breaking into the bigs, and could prove to be one of the greatest contracts ever. Not only is he the best third baseman in baseball, he is top 5 players in the game today. Where the Rays really impress me is the pitching staff. David Price has some of the best stuff from a left hander you will see. James Big Game Shields, better known by me as Jamie Shields back when I played against him in high school, is hardly a big game pitcher. He has stuff, but can t quite seem to put it all together when needed. Then you have Jeff Neiman and Wade Davis, both guys that can eat innings while having the potential of getting 15 wins if they get some run support that, in comparison to the other teams in the division, will be damn near impossible to get. Then you have Jeremy Hellickson, a guy that will be an ace for the team in the coming years, but won t live up to the expectations on him this season. Kyle Farnsworth, J.P. Howell, Andy Sonnanstine, and Joel Peralta are all above average middle relief to set up men, unfortunately, none are closer material. The Rays are back to where they were just 4 seasons ago, watch out for them next season as the Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon signings were just fillers to give Desmond Jennings a little more time, and allow for high potential free agents to move there next year with high priced free agents the year after with a World Series run that 2013 season. Call them the Devil Rays again, because they will be stuck in the underworld of the AL East this season.

AL East Offensive Player of the Year – Adrian Gonzalez – I truly hesitated on this one. Don t want to seem like too much of a homer, nor do I want to seem like I am buying into the hype of the huge year so many major publications are calling for. I call 35 home runs, 115 RBI s, a .290 average. The other threats in the line-up will boost his numbers to, but not greatly exceeding his career highs, except in doubles. He has not hit more than 46 doubles in a single season, but with his ability to use the whole field, he will slap 60 doubles by using the Green Monster in left and the deep triangle in right center. He will have a great season, but unfortunately struggle in the playoffs due to lack of experience and being used to playing in a small market, but the rest of the Red Sox will help lift them to .don t think I am going to give it up just yet, but there will be a full playoff preview before the spring training games even start.

AL East Pitcher of the Year – David Price – He will have another WHIP just over 1 and an ERA just under 3. Due to the lack of depth on offence, he will end up with only 15 wins after the lack of a reliable closer costs him 4-5 wins, but he will lower his walks to under 60 and threaten 200 strikeouts. He has the best stuff from a left hander in the league. His fastball is only around94-95, but his slider has hitters needing knee braces after buckling them so bad. Price will firmly establish himself as a perennial Cy Young candidate after another huge season.

AL East Offensive Rookie of the Year – J.P. Arencibia – Before the Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon signings, Desmond Jennings was the clear cut rookie of the year favorite. Now he will likely start in AAA and not take over a starting job until mid-season. But Arencibia hit over .300 in AAA last year with 32 home runs. He struggled getting acclimated to the show last year, but full spring training with the big club and being an opening day catcher, I see him being a .280, 25 HR, 85 RBI player this season. His expectations will rise next year and never live up to the hype, but this year, not only will he be the best rookie hitter in the AL East this season, he will compete for the Rookie of the Year award for the American League.

AL East Rookie Pitcher of the Year – Zach Britton – Nope, not Kyle Drabek, and not Jeremy Hellickson, the surprise Rookie pitcher of the year in the AL East is Zach Britton. I see him breaking camp as a long relief guy, becoming a starter before two months, and running with it. I see him 12-5, with an ERA around 3.50, and 100 K s. Drabek will have more wins, Hellickson will have more strikeouts, but the opponent s batting average and WHIP will be in Britton s favor. He has a great sinker and will be a great ground ball pitcher. Think Derek Lowe, nothing that knocks you off your feet stuff wise, but in the offensive juggernaut that is the American League, especially in the East with the hitters parks, a groundball pitcher can go far, and Britton will be that guy.

AL East Surprise Player of the Year – Russell Martin – Don t tell Torsten, as he despises Russell Martin, but with the ballparks Russell will be playing in, and the fact he will be spelled more often than he was in LA, he just might get back to, and potentially exceed his early years as a Dodger. He will have a good enough year to convince Brian Cashman to trade Jesus Montero. Martin will become a top 10-15 quality catcher again, Montero will be traded for a quality pitcher, and then Joba and Eduardo Nunez will be sent to Milwaukee for Prince Fielder. Meanwhile Martin will resurrect himself into a career .285/25/85 catcher, with his best season coming this year batting over .300, over 30 home runs, and driving in 90 runners while batting in the last third of the lineup.

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