2011 MLB Preview: AL East

Waiting a few weeks into the season has given me the advantage of seeing a few things. Like the Red Sox TERRIBLE start. Like Manny’s sudden retirement and Evan Longoria’s strained oblique muscle. Like Phil Hughes’ utter lack of velocity. I don’t think it really changes my predictions in this division, but it does take some of the luster off baseball’s glamor pack. I still think the Red Sox have enough talent to pull it together here, but they need to start playing better. Soon.

1st place: Boston Red Sox

I really have no idea what’s going on here. Before the season started, I would’ve picked Boston as the one team with a shot at 100+ wins this season. But that’s pretty much out the door at this point. Still, there’s a lot to like about this club. The rotation is deep. The lineup is deep. The ‘pen is deep. And the Yanks and Rays look to be fairly flawed. Adding Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez ensures that the lineup will turnover quickly. Look for Josh Beckett to re-assert himself as a force in the rotation along with Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. And even if closer Jonathan Papelbon should falter, Bobby Jenks or Daniel Bard will be ready to take over fireman duties. All in all, it’s WAY to early to worry about these boys, Beantown.

2nd place: Tampa Bay Rays

There’s no replacing Carl Crawford, Tampa’s all-time leader in games played, hits, runs, RBI, and stolen bases. And with Evan Longoria on the shelf for most of the month of April and Manny Ramirez’s gutless and sudden retirement, this team is really going to struggle to score runs. But the pitching staff is still a strength, fronted by emerging ace David Price and youngsters Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson. All the sabermatricians point out that James Shields was the unluckiest pitcher in baseball last year; look for him to bounce back. And although there’s been a tremendous amount of turnover in the bullpen, Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, and Jake McGee comprise a formidable trio of options for manager Joe Maddon in high-leverage, late inning situations. When you can pitch well and catch the ball, you’ll win your fair share of games. I see Tampa playing well enough to contend for the wild card in 2011.

3rd place: New York Yankees

I know I’m in the minority here; most pundits have the Yanks as the #2 team in the division, fighting their way toward wild card contention. But I just don’t see it. Other than CC, where’s the pitching? Phil Hughes looks utterly hittable; A.J. Burnett can’t be counted on; I guess there’s always Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon. Don’t look now, Yankee fans, but Mo is starting to look his age now, too. But hey, they’ll at least score a lot of runs. Robinson Cano is an absolute stud; he’ll win an MVP award in the next year or three. If ARod and Jeter still have a little something left in the tank, the Yanks could outscore their way to 85 wins. But anything more than that looks unattainable to me.

4th place: Toronto Blue Jays

Some of the lineups in this division are unreal. Toronto bludgeoned AL pitching last year, thanks to the surprising emergence of Jose Bautista. But the bats here are plentiful: Aaron Hill HAS to play better than he did last season; Adam Lind and Travis Snider are on the cusp of major breakthroughs; Yunel Escobar looks to be more interested than he was in Atlanta. What excites me the most about this team is the core of young pitching. Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, and Kyle Drabek are only going to get better. It may be another year before they’re ready to contend for the division crown, but the Blue Jays are headed in the right direction.

5th place: Baltimore Orioles

I think Buck Showalter is the right guy for this team. He seemed to get the most out of his players down the stretch last year and I’m glad to see him back in the dugout. And I do like what they did in the offseason. They’ve been trying for years to lure a major free agent bat to town, but after being rebuffed time and again, the O’s have been left to shop from the bargain bin. That’s where Derrek Lee and Vlad Guerrero come in. Sure, they’re health risks, but their presence — along with the acquisition of 3B Mark Reynolds — gives this lineup the kind of punch it’s lacked for the better part of the past decade. The pitching is awfully young; Zack Britton, Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz are bound to have their brains beat in by some of these other AL East lineups. But give them a few years and Baltimore might have 3 legit aces on their hands.

All-Division Team

C Matt Weiters

1B Adrian Gonzalez

2B Robinson Cano

SS Derek Jeter

3B Evan Longoria

OF Carl Crawford

OF Nick Markakis

OF Jose Bautista

DH David Ortiz

SP Jon Lester

SP CC Sabathia

SP David Price

SP Clay Buchholz

SP Josh Becket

Closer Mariano Rivera

Manager Joe Girardi

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