Previewing the American League East

Greetings, new faces. Goodbye, old mistakes.

There are a few things you can count on about the American League East each year: It will likely be competitive near the top, the New York Yankees will command most of the attention and the Boston Red Sox won’t be far behind in the chatter category.  

That means Bobby Valentine’s departure is significant news in the division. Controversy shredded the Red Sox last season, leaving them irrelevant (and silent) for most of the summer. The Toronto Blue Jays suffered the same fate, though that promises not to be the case this year after receiving Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and Emilio Bonifacio in the Miami Marlins’ salary dump.

Each year offers something different, something new, even in a division known for its consistencies. Here’s how the AL East breaks down (in alphabetical order, with last year’s finish in parentheses).
 
Baltimore Orioles (93-69, 2nd)
 
Additions: 3B Yamaico Navarro, OF Trayvon Robinson

Strengths: Few moves in the off-season make the Orioles similar to the group that clinched the franchise’s first playoff berth since 1997 last year. CF Adam Jones, RF Nick Markakis, 1B Chris Davis and C Matt Wieters will continue to be threats against opposing pitching.

Weaknesses: Baltimore could use more consistent pitching to show improvement. The Orioles finished with a 3.90 ERA, good for 14th in the major leagues.

Best-case scenario: Baltimore’s bats come alive and its staff improves from a year ago. If both happen, an AL East title isn’t out of the question.

Worst-case scenario: Last year’s breakthrough proves to be a mirage. Hitting and pitching both regress, and the Orioles are staring at another fourth- or fifth-place finish in the division.
 
Boston Red Sox (69-93, 5th)
 
Additions: RHP Ryan Dempster, SS Stephen Drew, DH Jonny Gomes, RHP Joel Hanrahan, 2B Brock Holt, C/1B Mike Napoli, 1B Lyle Overbay, C David Ross, RHP Koji Uehara, OF Shane Victorino

Strengths: Bobby Valentine is no longer in the dugout. There’s new leadership with manager John Farrell, formerly of the Toronto Blue Jays, and that’s the best development Boston could hope for.

Weaknesses: Additions like Drew, Napoli and Victorino are pluses for their offense. Still, how much more effective will Boston’s pitching be? The Red Sox had a 4.70 ERA last season, which ranked 27th in the major leagues.

Best-case scenario: All the nonsense from last season is forgotten. If Dempster helps stabilize pitching and Farrell is effective in his role, noticeable improvement is possible.

Worst-case scenario: Pitching continues to flounder, as do the Red Sox as a whole. It’s hard to imagine anything rivaling last season’s fiasco, though.  
 
New York Yankees (95-67, 1st)
 
Additions: DH Travis Hafner, RHP Jim Miller, OF Juan Rivera, LHP Josh Spence, 3B Kevin Youkilis, OF Vernon Wells

Strengths: Power hitting is the lineup’s greatest strength. The Yankees totaled a major-league-best 245 home runs last season, 31 more than the Baltimore Orioles.

Weaknesses: Injuries have created many questions. Outfielder Curtis Granderson will miss 10 weeks with a fractured right forearm. That adds to uncertainty about Alex Rodriguez’s future and the recovery efforts of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Mark Teixeira.

Best-case scenario: Off-season questions don’t become major issues, and the departures of Nick Swisher and Russell Martin aren’t as damaging as anticipated. Vernon Wells comes through as a quality addition as well.

Worst-case scenario: Those questions become everything the Yankees feared and more. Jeter and Rivera struggle with health. A long, long year ensues in what will be Rivera’s last.
 
Tampa Bay Rays (90-72, 3rd)
 
Additions: SS Yunel Escobar, RHP Roberto Hernandez, 2B Kelly Johnson, 1B James Loney, OF Wil Myers, RHP Jake Odorizzi

Strengths: The Rays lost James Shields to the Kansas City Royals, but they still have David Price as the rotation’s ace. Is his time with Tampa Bay nearing an end, too? We’ll learn soon.  

Weaknesses: The back of the rotation is still a question. Either Jeff Niemann or Roberto Hernandez will get the nod, and manager Joe Maddon has said a choice might not be named until later this week. Whoever earns the spot must help pick up innings lost with Shields’ absence.

Best-case scenario: An AL East title isn’t out of the question. If 3B Evan Longoria stays healthy, another playoff berth is likely.

Worst-case scenario: Longoria has more health problems, and the rotation struggles to achieve consistency without Shields. The Rays miss the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since Maddon’s first two years with the franchise (2006-07).
 
Toronto Blue Jays (73-89, 4th)
 
Additions: C Henry Blanco, 3B Emilio Bonifacio, LHP Mark Buehrle, OF Melky Cabrera, 3B Mark DeRosa, RHP R.A. Dickey, 3B Maicer Izturis, RHP Jeremy Jeffress, RHP Josh Johnson, SS Jose Reyes, RHP Esmil Rogers, C Josh Thole

Strengths: There’s plenty to like with these Miami Marlins, er, Toronto Blue Jays. Miami’s salary dump was Toronto’s gain in a number of areas, especially pitching.

Weaknesses: The unknown. How will the new additions play after the trade? There’s no shortage of hard feelings among some north of the border.  

Best-case scenario: The new-look Blue Jays play to their potential and become the talk of the American League. The potential for firepower is there. Will a fuse be lit?

Worst-case scenario: The opposite effect happens. The former Marlins are unhappy. Discontent runs rampant, and the Blue Jays finish fourth or fifth in the division.
 
Most Dangerous Player
 
Jose Bautista
 
One damaged tendon in his left wrist changed the course of the Blue Jays’ season.  On July 16, 2012, he fouled off a pitch against the Yankees and clutched his wrist. An MRI the next day revealed wrist inflammation, which resulted in Toronto’s placing the slugger on the disabled list. He only played in two games the rest of the season, and on Sept. 4, he underwent surgery to have the tendon repaired.
 
The impact of Bautista’s absence was considerable. Toronto was 45-44 the day he sustained the injury, but the Blue Jays went 28-45 the rest of the way. His health will be one of the division’s largest question marks. Along with Longoria, he stands as one of the most valuable players in what could be a tight divisional race. If he stays on the field, look for him to threaten to hit at least 40 home runs for the third time in four years. (He had 27 in 92 games last season.)
 
Best Manager
 
Joe Maddon
 
This choice is little surprise to anyone who has followed the AL East of late. He enters his eighth season with the Rays as one of the most respected skippers in the major leagues. He has led Tampa Bay to three consecutive seasons with at least 90 victories, including a 90-72 mark last year that left the Rays three games behind the Orioles and Texas Rangers for a wild-card spot.
 
This season will pose new challenges for him – What to do without Shields? How soon will Wil Myers be called up? – but Maddon has spoken throughout the spring of trusting a “process” developed by him and executive vice president Andrew Friedman. The acquisitions of Escobar and Hernandez are intriguing, as is the potential of Price, the returning AL Cy Young Award winner.
 
Sleeper
 
Toronto Blue Jays
 
Miami’s purge could mean Toronto riches. By being the recipient of the Marlins’ controversial salary dump, the Blue Jays have set themselves up nicely for what could be a run at their first postseason berth since winning the World Series in 1993. Manager John Gibbons, who replaces Farrell, is no stranger to Toronto, having managed the Blue Jays from 2004 to 2008 (a 305-305 record).
 
Reyes, Buehrle, Johnson and Bonifacio will make Toronto contenders, if they don’t play distracted. Meanwhile, the seven players sent to Miami in the deal weren’t of the big-money variety, and their absences shouldn’t harm the Blue Jays’ new-look approach. This group bears little resemblance to the team that finished in the cellar with Boston. Look for significant improvement.
 
Team with issues
 
Boston Red Sox
 
They must prove that last season’s nightmare is part of the past. It won’t be easy. Obviously, firing Valentine was the right move for a number of reasons. The largest: preserving players’ sanity.
 
Beyond Valentine, though, the off-season offered other movement in the right direction. Dempster, Napoli and Victorino are all proven pros who can help heal the culture at Fenway Park. This isn’t a team capable of flirting with 90 victories, but it shouldn’t be a train wreck either.
 
Final thought
 
Look for this to be another competitive season in baseball’s strongest division. The Yankees, Orioles and Rays figure to threaten at the top again. If they establish chemistry early, the Blue Jays could be a factor as well.

Along the way, the impending retirement of Rivera, a future Hall of Famer closer, will be an intriguing development to follow. He has visions of throwing the last pitch in the World Series to cap his career. Will the Yankees send him out in style? Watch to learn.
 
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.