2012 MLB Preview: AL East

Time for my annual MLB previews and predictions, starting with MLB’s glamor division, the AL East.

1st place: Tampa Bay Rays

I really wanted to pick the Yankees here, but in the end, this game is about pitching and no one has pitching quite like the Rays. David Price, James Shields, wunderkind Matt Moore, 2011 ROY Jeremy Hellickson, Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, Jake McGee…the bevy of power arms is unending. Offensively, Desmond Jennings is a sparkplug. BJ Upton, Ben Zobrist, and Luke Scott are nice complementary pieces. But I expect an MVP-caliber season from Evan Longoria who is just coming into his prime. This team is poised for another championship run. Put it down.

2nd place: New York Yankees

I like what the Yankees did this offseason in acquiring Mikey Pineda. He’s going to be a horse for them if he can keep his weight down. But I also expect some regression moving out of Safeco to Yankee Stadium and facing the nightmare lineups in this division. And I think 5 years from now, the Yanks will regret giving up Jesus Montero, no matter how god Pineda becomes. The Kuroda signing is also a good one — the guy is a pro — but he’ll also likely regress away from cavernous Chavez Ravine. Andy Pettitte’s surprise return gives the Yanks more pitching than they’ve had in years, but the offensive stars are getting a little long in the tooth. Jeter and A-Rod are in their late 30s and Teixeira continues to struggle to hit for average. Expect big things from Robby Cano and if Pineda takes the next step, this team could be scary. But I’m looking at this team as a wild card contender, slightly less dangerous than Tampa for now.

3rd place: Boston Red Sox

I think this is a team struggling to find an identity. Personally, I think the Valentine selection is a train wreck waiting to happen. Sure, he handled himself well at times in the pressure cooker of New York, but I see his shtick getting old with some of the vets in Beantown. This team can mash if everyone stays healthy: Ellsbury, Pedroia, Gonzo, Ortiz, Youk, and Crawford make for the most imposing lineup in the division. But can Beckett and Lester overcome last year’s “fried chicken and Bud Light” debacle and regain the confidence of their teammates? Will Andrew Bailey be the lockdown closer they need him to be? How will Daniel Bard hold up as he transitions to the rotation? Is Clay Buchholz healthy? Who plays shortstop? Who plays right field? Too many questions to stand up to the two power teams at the top of the heap. BoSox bandwagon: the postseason drought continues.

4th place: Toronto Blue Jays

This is the best 4th place team in baseball. Another killer lineup, anchored by late bloomer Jose Bautista and super-prospect Brett Lawrie — who is already drawing comparisons to Ryan Braun at the dish. GM Alex Anthopoulous has assembled a strong core of young talent: Lawrie, Yunel Escobar, Adam Lind, Colby Rasmus, Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, Henderson Alvarez, Kyle Drabek, Travis d’Arnaud, Adeiny Hechavarria — all of them are on the right side of 30. But this team is probably another year away from a serious title run. But the rest of the league should be on notice: the Blue Jays are for real. If the kids play up to their potential this year, they could be even better than the Red Sox.

5th place: Baltimore Orioles

This we know: the O’s won’t be a factor anytime soon. C Matt Weiters is finally coming into his own at the plate, but the rest of the offense is anemic. Brian Roberts can’t be counted on to stay healthy; Nick Markakis is NOT the middle of the order hitter he was once projected to become; and Adam Jones, though versatile, isn’t the second coming of  Carlos Beltran. And the pitching just isn’t there. I’m a diehard baseball fan and even I haven’t heard of most of these guys. Strap in for a long summer, Buck.

All Division Team

C Matt Weiters

1B Adrian Gonzalez

2B Robinson Cano

SS Yunel Escobar

3B Evan Longoria

LF Carl Crawford

CF Jacoby Ellsbury

RF Jose Bautista

DH David Ortiz

SP CC Sabathia

SP David Price

SP James Shields

SP Jon Lester

SP Josh Beckett

RP Mariano Rivera

Manager Joe Maddon

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