AL East filled with beasts - NBC Sports

AL East filled with beasts
Upstarts in Toronto, Baltimore join traditional titans in New York, Boston, Tampa
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February 11, 2013, 2:02 am

Just put the New York Yankees on top, and you were right 13 of the past 17 seasons, with two three seconds and a third.

Next came the Boston Red Sox, with 10 second-place finishes since 1998, including eight consecutive from 1998-2005 -- and three third-place finishes.

The Toronto Blue Jays? Third or fourth place in 13 of the last 15 seasons.

And it was either fourth or fifth place for the Baltimore Orioles in 13 of the last 15 seasons.

The Tampa Bay Rays threw a wrench in things five seasons ago, when they won a pennant after nine last-place finishes in the first 10 years of their existence, and they haven't finished lower than third since.

The Orioles did their Rays impression last season by reversing a 69-93 record from 2011, and, now, the Blue Jays are all loaded up and possibly poised for a similar feat.

In fact, you can almost make a case for all five AL East teams finishing tightly bunched at .500 or above this season. That's great for competitive balance, and for quality baseball, but not so great for accurate preseason prognosticating.

A division preview as camps are about to open:

New York Yankees: So is this finally the season that the Yankees fall apart? Possibly so.

The front office is trying to adhere to a self-imposed edict to get under the luxury tax, leaving Kevin Youkilis as the most significant offseason addition. Age and injury are twin evils that could wreak much havoc on the roster.

The pitching staff also remains very deep -- especially if Pineda can contribute at some point -- and that can make up for other shortcomings. And just maybe, the Yankees looking from within first -- rather than spend, spend, spend on free agents and past-their-prime bench guys -- will give Eduardo Nunez and David Phelps opportunities to break out.

If there is a fall, it won't be any lower than the upper-80s in wins.

Toronto Blue Jays: Say this for general manager Alex Anthopoulos: There is no more intriguing team to watch in spring training than the Jays. Look no further for a team capable of making a 20-plus-game improvement from 2012.

But before we put the Jays atop the division, remember where they're coming from: 73-89, fourth place, -68 run-differential, 22 games off the division lead, 20 games behind second-place Baltimore and 17 games behind third-place Tampa Bay. That's a lot of ground to make up and a lot of quality teams to leapfrog.

The Jays' victory total likely will hinge on how many of these things go right, and to what degree:

  • Jose Bautista's comeback from a wrist injury that limited him to 92 games and 399 plate appearances.
  • Health/performance-related questions concerning Josh Johnson, Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero.
  • Casey Janssen and the rest of a bullpen that appears to be a bit short of elite.
  • Edwin Encarnacion posting a legitimate followup season after his 2012 breakout.
  • Expected and needed developments from young regulars Brett Lawrie, J.P. Arencibia and Colby Rasmus.
  • The new double-play combination of Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio/Maicer Izturis clicking defensively.
  • And retread manager John Gibbons puts all the pieces together on a daily basis.

left]]>Tampa Bay Rays: How good was the Rays' pitching last season? The staff allowed 94 fewer runs than the 2008 group that went to the World Series.

So while the losses of James Shields and Wade Davis will hurt some, expect the Rays to be near the top of the AL pitching numbers -- especially if Matt Moore takes another step toward elite status, Jake McGee is dominant in a setup role, and Roberto Hernandez (nee Fausto Carmona) contributes out of the pen.

Offensive shortcomings aside, the 2012 Rays' +120 run-differential produced an expected record of 95-67, or five games better than their actual record. And remember that Evan Longoria played in only 74 games.

Yes, there's no B.J. Upton anymore, but the net lineup change early in the season figures to be this: James Loney/Sean Rodriguez, Kelly Johnson/Ryan Roberts and Yunel Escobar in place of Carlos Pena, Jeff Keppinger and Upton. And Wil Myers should have Rookie of the Year-type impact once he is called up from Triple-A.

Baltimore Orioles: A powerful double-whammy of historical trends is working against the Dan Duquette/Buck Showalter combo:

  • In the last 50 years, teams that improved by at least 25 games one season have followed that up by finishing an average of 11 games worse in the following season. The most recent example: The Arizona Diamondbacks -- 2010: 65-97; 2011: 94-68; 2012: 81-81.
  • Anything close to the 2012 Orioles' historic 29-9 mark in one-run games is highly unlikely -- Showalter's in-game genius notwithstanding. The corollary to this is the 2012 Orioles' 93-69 record, despite a +7 run-differential, suggested an 82-80 mark.

So, welcome to 2013, Orioles. The counteraction to these trends should have been making significant roster improvements. But that's not the case:

Additions: Danny Valencia, Alexi Casilla, Jair Jurrjens.

Subtractions: Mark Reynolds, Robert Andino, Joe Saunders, Jim Thome, Endy Chavez, Randy Wolf, Nick Johnson, Bill Hall.

Boston Red Sox: Coming off their drama-filled, worst season since 1965 (69-93, ending with eight straight losses) there's nowhere to go but up.

Do you realize the Sox were 34-47 in Fenway Park, 26-46 against the AL East, 8-24 against the AL West and 2-10 in extra innings last season? That's not going to happen again. And, in fact, their -72 run-differential produced an expected record of 74-88.

No matter who fills the last two spots in the rotation, they won't be worse than the combined 50 starts from Josh Beckett, Aaron Cook and Daisuke Matsuzaka: 10-29, 5.90 ERA, 1.45 WHIP.

No matter what kind of clubhouse dynamic develops under John Farrell and a roster including so many new faces, it will be an improvement over two seasons of dysfunction.

And full seasons from Jacoby Ellsbury and Will Middlebrooks could make a significant difference offensively.

Still, the talent on the field has a way to go. The issue here probably isn't contending; it more likely will be .500 or not?

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