AL East: Key Players for Each Team's Pennant Hopes
The best division in baseball has seen an influx of talent over the last two years. Each team has their sights set on winning the division and making a run towards the World Series, which is almost impossible to see in any division in sports these days.
The Yankees and Red Sox have dominated the division for years. Tampa Bay has been a mainstay at the top of the division despite losing big-name players every year. Baltimore made an improbable run to the postseason last year and the Blue Jays made more noise than any other team this past offseason. Each has reloaded and is ready to go in 2013.
Every AL East team has crucial members of their roster that will play a pivotal role in their respective successes this season. Boston, New York and Toronto saw these fears become realities last season and hope that 2013 will be different.
The question at hand is: With all things considered, which players are most capable of turning their teams' 2013 seasons from good to great?
Baltimore Orioles: Brian Roberts
The former All-Star is a forgotten man.
Concussion symptoms and hernia surgery were the most recent road blocks for Brian Roberts in his constant struggle to stay healthy. The second baseman has played only 115 games over the past three seasons.
Robert Andino and his .211 batting average in 2012 is not the answer. Nolan Reimold and journeyman Nate McLouth found themselves batting leadoff down the stretch—that cannot be the case going into 2013.
Baltimore cannot count on winning so many one-run games in 2013. Having Roberts' veteran presence and bat back in the lineup would have a profound effect on the entire team in their attempt to prove that last season was not a fluke.
Roberts is apparently ready to go for spring training. While he may not be the biggest component for this team's success, he could potentially put them over the top if he can return to form.
Returning to All-Star form may be a lot to ask—he is 35 and coming off a number of injuries. However, all recent reports are positive and we just might see the old Brian Roberts this spring.
Boston Red Sox: Jon Lester
The Red Sox had a tumultuous 2012 to say the least. Placing the blame on one part of the team would be difficult, as they were a disaster from top to bottom.
On the field, the starting rotation left the most to be desired. The team was 27th in ERA last season at a paltry 4.70. Clay Buchholz led the team with only 11 wins.
In order for the Sox to get back to their dominant ways, Jon Lester has to rebound and get back to being the ace that he was just a short time ago. A 9-14 season from the team's best pitcher is highly uncharacteristic, as he had won at least 15 games in each of his four full seasons in the starting rotation. Having the very familiar John Farrell back managing the team should prove invaluable to Lester and Buchholz.
With John Lackey 100 percent healthy for the first time in his Red Sox tenure and newcomer Ryan Dempster bringing stability to the rotation, the Sox need Lester to lead this group back to the top. While Boston has an extremely talented rotation, they need Lester to rediscover his power fastball and devastating cutter to reach their goals.
New York Yankees: Mark Teixeira
For the first time in a long time, the Yankees are facing some serious adversity.
Alex Rodriguez is out for the foreseeable future—his entire season may be in jeopardy. Derek Jeter is coming off a broken ankle and is a question mark for the first time in his long career. Nick Swisher has signed with Cleveland. To top it all off, Curtis Granderson's thunderous bat will be out of the lineup until at least May with a broken forearm. Wow.
The Bombers know what they will be getting from the always consistent Robinson Cano, but Mark Teixeira is the man who will be relied upon to produce a huge season in the wake of all these injuries. His numbers have not been what they once were with his on-base percentage on a steady decline each season since 2008.
Teixeira dealt with injuries of his own this past season, playing in a career low 123 games. His past three seasons have seen a significant dip in his batting average—he has become too adept at pulling the ball from the left side and taking aim at the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium.
If the Yanks are going to contend in 2013, Teixeira is going to have to live up to his hefty contract. Many uncertainties surround this offense for the first time in a very long time and he needs to pair with Cano to shoulder much of the heavy lifting to keep this team atop the AL East.
Tampa Bay Rays: Desmond Jennings
Another offseason, another depletion of the Rays roster.
This year, B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena and James Shields are all gone. The exit of those three players, who were around through the dismal seasons of the Devil Rays, will make an already shaky fan base even more wary of supporting this team.
Someone must step up for this bunch—that man is Desmond Jennings. In his first full season filling Carl Crawford's shoes in left field, Jennings put up solid numbers with 13 homers, 47 RBI and 31 steals. With B.J. Upton now in Atlanta, even more will be asked of the former highly-touted prospect.
Jennings will be called upon to up his game across the board. He will need to get on base at a more consistent rate to set the table for sluggers Evan Longoria and newly acquired uber-prospect Wil Myers.
Now 26 years old, Jennings is ready to step up and play at an All-Star caliber level. He has much to live up to as Upton and Crawford spoiled this fan base for years.
Toronto Blue Jays: Jose Bautista
Toronto made headlines this offseason by loading up on trades and free agents like they never have before.
Their big slugger will have the luxury of hitting behind the newly acquired Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera and Emilio Bonifacio. He will also have the protection of Edwin Encarnacion, who exploded this past season, much like Bautista did in 2010, with a shocking 42 homers and 110 RBI.
Bautista's batting averages have fluctuated over recent years, but this coming season should be a bit of a rebound campaign as he will have more of an opportunity to pick his spots.
In 2013, there is no doubt that he will have the most talent around him that he has seen in his career. For the first time since he blossomed into a feared power hitter, he will have the luxury of having substantial power behind him as well as top-notch speed and contact hitting in front of him.
The stage is set for another monstrous season for Joey Bats, who is coming off wrist surgery. He will need to be at his best to propel this team to a title, which is something thought to be unattainable just a few months ago.
A few big trades can change the dynamic of an entire organization. Toronto was tired of being mediocre and playing second fiddle to Boston, New York and Tampa Bay. They made some serious noise and brought in some stalwarts for the starting rotation as well as power and speed to help set the stage for Bautista. Now it is up to him to lead them to the promised land.