Last season, as The Great September Collapse was taking place up I-95, the Yankees waltzed away with their second AL East crown in three years. New York is in for a tougher fight in the Best Division in Baseball this year.
"Personally, I think the AL East is the toughest division in professional sports," Rays GM Andrew Friedman says of the only division in baseball that had four teams finish .500 or better in 2011. New York and Tampa, both of which reached the postseason last year, are armed with deep and talented pitching staffs. The young and hungry Blue Jays are rising superpowers. And don't sleep on the Red Sox, despite their dreadful finish.
"You can't accomplish what they did over the first four months of the season and be really, really good," Friedman says of Boston. "We expect that they will win 90-plus games. And they won't be the only ones. It's going to be a great race."
WINTER GRADE: C+
After nearly a decade away from the game, Dan Duquette is back in baseball and tasked with the impossible: turning around a woebegone franchise that hasn't had a winning season since the Clinton administration. The new GM turned to the international market this winter and added two intriguing pitchers in Wei-Yin Chen (from Taiwan) and Tsuyoshi Wada (Japan). He also dealt away durable innings eater Jeremy Guthrie for starter Jason Hammel and reliever Matt Lindstrom in what a scout calls "the worst trade of the offseason."
Can the once promising pitching staff stay healthy and productive?
Not so long ago, the future was bright in Baltimore. The organization was loaded with dazzling young pitching --- but talented hurlers Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta have all struggled, and now Zach Britton is DL-bound to start the season. A scout said this spring that many of the young Orioles pitchers need a complete overhaul of their deliveries. Super prospect Dylan Bundy has the talent to be an ace, but he's still years away from the Show -- if the Orioles are going to be relevant again before the next presidential election, they'll need their young pitchers to get their act together.
Wei-Yin Chen, SP
Yes, there have been some positives in O's camp. Chen, who spent the last six seasons with the Chunichi Dragons of the Central League (he was the league leader in ERA in 2009), has turned heads with an impressive spring and is posed to be an impact pitcher in a thin rotation.
"This is a potential 100-loss team, and the system doesn't have a lot of talent besides Manny Machado. I wouldn't be surprised if they trade away Nick Markakis and Adam Jones at the trade deadline to acquire young talent. Really, it would be a mistake if they don't."
WINTER GRADE: C+
There's a new skipper (Bobby Valentine) as well as a new general manager (Ben Cherington). The Red Sox re-upped with Big Papi for another year, dumped Marco Scutaro, and picked up Cody Ross, Nick Punto, and Kelly Shoppach. The back end of the bullpen has a new look (oft-injured Andrew Bailey is closing, with ex-Astro Mark Melancon taking over setup duties), but the core of the club that was the best team in baseball over the season's first 4½ months remains largely intact and ready to move on from the beer and fried chicken debacle of last September.
How long before Bobby V's act gets old?
He's already picking fights with the Yankees. He's already calling players out. He's already shooting down rumors of a rift between him and the GM There's not going to be a dull moment in Boston, not with Valentine shuffling around in the dugout. No one knows if this will be a good marriage or a disaster -- what we do know is that Valentine is going to say and do outlandish things to keep the attention on him and not his players. After the Great September Collapse, a smooth, controversy-free start to the season is critical for the Red Sox and their fiery new field general.
The juggernaut lineup will have no problem scoring runs. Boston's big questions are in the rotation, beyond Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. Who's going to step up behind the big three? Valentine hasn't yet committed to Bard as a starter, but the ex-setup man has the most upside of all the candidates to fill out the rotation. He's been inconsistent this spring, but the fireballer could be a big-time difference maker --- if Valentine gives him the chance.
"This is the thinnest Red Sox team I've seen in a while, particularly in the starting pitching. I think the bullpen is going to be fine, but the bottom half of the rotation could be a problem. A big one."
WINTER GRADE: B+
They were dead quiet for over two months, bystanders to the Yu Darvish and CJ Wilson sweepstakes, and seemingly headed to spring training with a suspect starting five. Then everything changed on Jan. 13, when GM Brian Cashman added Michael Pineda and Huroki Kuroda, and, in one night, turned the rotation into one of the deepest in the league. Cashman is also hoping to strike gold with the pickups of old-timers Raul Ibanez and Andy Pettitte.
Will age catch up with the Bombers?
The Yankees are as deep and talented as any team in baseball. But they are also old, so health is more of an issue than ever in the Bronx. The Yankees are counting on Derek Jeter (who turns 38 in June) and Alex Rodriguez (37 in July) to rebound from subpar seasons, but Father Time is clearly catching up with both stars. A-Rod is coming off a year in which he played in just 99 games and had his streak of 13 seasons of 30 home runs and 100 RBIs snapped. And could this be the year that 42-year-old Mariano Rivera finally turns human?
Remember: He's still just 25. He was bad in 2011, but Hughes has locked up a rotation spot with a strong spring. Clearly, his hard work this offseason --- he worked out at Athletes' Performance in California --- has paid off, and the righty who won 18 games in 2010 is poised for a bounceback year.
"Everyone's so worried about Pineda, but I think he'll be OK. His velocity has been up in his past few starts [this spring]. Cashman was smart in lowering people's expectations about Pineda --- I think he's going to surprise a lot of people and make a big impact right away."
WINTER GRADE: B+
Once again, as their AL rivals struck splashier deals and scored the biggest headlines, the Rays spent the winter making shrewd, under-the-radar moves. GM Andrew Friedman added a first baseman (Carlos Peña) and a designated hitter (Luke Scott) and improved the bullpen (Fernando Rodney) without unloading any starting pitching. The Rays' best offseason move? Locking up future Cy Young winner Matt Moore to a five-year, $14 million deal that could extend to eight years and $40 million.
Is Matt Moore ready to rule the world?
He struck out 11 in Yankee Stadium in his first major league start. He shut down the Rangers in Texas in his first postseason appearance. Now the best pitching prospect in baseball is ready to dominate over a full season. The Rays aren't putting an innings limit on the 22-year-old lefty, who has logged a total of 9 1/3 major league innings. Bad news for the rest of the American League: Moore's changeup, which clocks in at 88 mph, has looked much improved this spring. The addition of the phenom to the rotation for a full season gives the Rays the best starting five in the division --- and, perhaps, in all of baseball.
The great young arms keep coming. Archer will start the year at Triple-A Durham, but the 23-year-old with the mid-90s fastball and plus-slider will be a difference maker down the stretch, either as a replacement starter or shut-down reliever.
"The starting pitching depth is ridiculous. Their second five starting pitchers are as good as some of the other starting fives out there."
WINTER GRADE: B
There was buzz that Toronto would pursue one of the big dogs in the free-agent market, but the Blue Jays, to the dismay of many of their fans, saved their money for another day (for the Joey Votto sweepstakes in 2013, perhaps?). Instead, GM Alex Anthopoulos remade the bullpen by adding relievers Sergio Santos, Francisco Cordero, Jason Frasor and Darren Oliver, and turned a weakness (last year's unit tied for the AL lead in blown saves) into a potential strength.
Is this the year that Brandon Morrow becomes an ace?
The Jays offense, fifth in the majors in runs in 2011, will be dangerous again, with Jose Bautista anchoring a lineup that includes potential breakout stars Brett Lawrie and Colby Rasmus. With their bullpen improved, Toronto could turn into a serious threat in the best division in baseball if its starters take a step forward. Last year it was Ricky Romero emerging as one of the league's top hurlers; Toronto is hoping that this is Morrow's year. Last year's AL strikeout king has been the victim of some bad luck the last two seasons (his BABIP in 2010 was .344). If the 27-year-old fireballer puts it all together, the Jays have a great shot at their first postseason since '93.
A year ago he seemed destined for greatness, when he broke camp with a spot in the Blue Jays rotation, but the fiery right-hander looked badly overmatched in his 14 starts in 2011. The 24-year-old has had a good spring --- he's cleaned up his mechanics and "really figured out how to control his emotions," says a scout --- and with Dustin McGowan headed to the disabled list, Drabek has the inside track on the fifth starter slot.
"There's a lot of talent here, the team's on the right track. I think realistically, they're still a year or two away. But if they played in any other division, they'd be a playoff team."