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2013 American League East Preview

Joe GiglioContributor IMarch 25, 2013

2013 American League East Preview

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    Ten years ago, the American League East was a two-horse race between New York and Boston.

    When the powerhouse rivals met in the American League Championship series that fall and again in '04, it was hard to envision Tampa Bay, Toronto or Baltimore ever climbing back to their level.

    Outside of Tampa Bay's remarkable rise from worst-to-first in 2008 and sustained run, no one other than New York or Boston has won the division in the years since.

    Times are changing, though.

    Heading into 2013, the division is as competitive as anytime in history.

    A case can be made for any team finishing in first or last.

    The following is a preview, with rankings and predictions, of the American League East contenders for 2013.

Infielders

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    1. Toronto Blue Jays
    2. New York Yankees
    3. Tampa Bay Rays
    4. Baltimore Orioles
    5. Boston Red Sox

    The blockbuster trade that sent nearly half of the Miami Marlins franchise to Toronto has given the Blue Jays a potentially great infield.

    Along with Jose Reyes, Toronto can field the best combination of offense and defense along the infield with Edwin Encarnacion, Emilio Bonifacio and Brett Lawrie. At catcher, the franchise will miss the potential of Travis d'Arnaud, included in the deal for R.A. Dickey, but can survive with J.P. Arencibia's power.

    New York has a potential AL MVP in Robinson Cano, but injury concerns at first base, shortstop and third. The key to the offense could be Kevin Youkilis, though he comes with his own set of durability concerns.

    Joe Girardi has spoken at length about saving runs from the catcher position as opposed to creating them. That's a sound philosophy when Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart are your catchers.

    Tampa Bay will be anchored by Evan Longoria's defense and power at the hot corner, but question marks surround him. James Loney and Yunel Escobar are interesting bounce-back candidates at first base and shortstop, respectively.

    Kelly Johnson and Ryan Roberts can form a powerful bench platoon. Jose Molina won't hit, but his handling of the staff is key behind the plate.

    Baltimore's infield will hinge on the continued improvement of catcher Matt Wieters. If he takes the leap to MVP contender, this group could surge ahead. Chris Davis is a masher at first but is also a strikeout king. J.J. Hardy can scoop it and hit it over the wall at short.

    A full season of Manny Machado will be positive, but a work in progress. Anything Brian Roberts can provide will be a surprise at this point.

    Despite having a former MVP in Dustin Pedroia, it's hard to love the 2013 Red Sox infield. Mike Napoli's hip is a concern, Will Middlebrooks strikeout rate can be exposed over a full season and Stephen Drew might not be healthy enough to produce.

Outfielders

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    1. Toronto Blue Jays
    2. Tampa Bay Rays
    3. Baltimore Orioles
    4. Boston Red Sox
    5. New York Yankees

    Between Jose Bautista, Colby Rasmus and Melky Cabrera, Toronto has the potential to field an outfield of power hitters and rifle arms that can't be matched in the AL East.

    Prior to injuring a wrist tendon last year, Bautista was becoming one of the biggest stars in the sport. Rasmus has always found plate discipline challenging, but can hit 25 home runs from the left side of the plate.

    Considering how good of a hitter Cabrera has become, performance enhancing drugs aside, his two-year contract might have been the steal of the offseason.

    Tampa Bay is projected to play Matt Joyce, Desmond Jennings and Ben Zobrist, from left to right, to open the season. Of course, all of that is subject to change.

    First, the impending arrival of prospect Wil Myers can turn this into the best and most versatile outfield in the division. Second, Joe Maddon's fascination with platooning and positional flexibility gives Tampa a shot to get the most production from any outfield alignment.

    Baltimore's duo of Adam Jones and Nick Markakis deserves more praise than they receive. It's the left field situation that will make or break this group. If one or both of the Nolan Reimold/Nate McLouth platoon can hit consistently, this outfield trio is as good as it gets.

    As late as last week, Boston was projected to start Jonny Gomes in left field everyday. The potential of Jackie Bradley Jr. emerging as an Opening Day option for John Farrell changes the perception of this group.

    Bradley Jr., Ellsbury and Victorino would give Boston three stalwart defensive outfielders and the potential for big offense in Fenway Park.

    The impending arrival of Vernon Wells in New York completes the circus of a spring for the Yankees outfield.

    Between the injury to Curtis Granderson and trials for Juan Rivera, Melky Mesa, Matt Diaz, Ben Francisco and Brennan Boesch, the Opening Day trio of Wells, Gardner and Suzuki leaves much to be desired.

Starting Rotations

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    1. Tampa Bay Rays
    2. Toronto Blue Jays
    3. New York Yankees
    4. Baltimore Orioles
    5. Boston Red Sox

    Despite trading away over 200 innings of production in James Shields, Tampa Bay can still run out a young, talented arm capable of winning on any given night.

    Led by David Price, the Rays' rotation will be strong again in 2013. If Alex Cobb is truly the breakout star he's been labeled as in spring training, they might not miss Shields too much.

    Toronto has a chance to be great, but will need to have Ricky Romero bounce back from a horrendous 2012, Josh Johnson to be the future Cy Young performer he was once touted as and R.A. Dickey to not lose a beat going from Citi Field to Rogers Centre.

    The strength of the Yankees lies in their pitching staff. That can be a good or bad thing depending on how you look at it.

    If Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda stave off age again, they are as good as any second and third starters in the league. If C.C. Sabathia's two injury stints last year were an aberration rather than an alarming sign of things to come, he's the typical ace. If Phil Hughes is ready for a contract drive, he can surprise the league.

    There's potential, but plenty of "ifs" in New York.

    Baltimore has 15 starters capable of giving Buck Showalter big league innings in 2013. Unfortunately, it's hard to project any as 30 start, 200 inning performers.

    The Orioles were able to get through 2012 with a disjointed formula. They could again, but will likely need second half help from prospects like Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman to crack the 2013 postseason party.

    Boston is counting on John Lackey, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester to be their old selves. Consider that a big gamble for general manager Ben Cherington.

Bullpens

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    1. New York Yankees
    2. Tampa Bay Rays
    3. Baltimore Orioles
    4. Boston Red Sox
    5. Toronto Blue Jays

    The return of Mariano Rivera places the Yankees at the top of the bullpen rankings once again. If the best closer of all-time can be his usual self, a deep stable of power arms will set him up with efficiency.

    Bullpens are fickle, so stats won't truly do the trick in this ranking.

    Instead, focus on the managers, how they handle workloads and expect the unexpected.

    Tampa Bay deserves a nod because their front office and manager team up to produce a solid bullpen on a yearly basis. Unearthing a find like Fernando Rodney changed the landscape of the team last season. This year, watch for Jake McGee to emerge as a star.

    Based on last year's production, Jim Johnson and the Orioles' pen should be atop this list. Unfortunately, bullpens are fickle. If Johnson and Pedro Strop can't reproduce the magic of 2012, Buck Showalter could turn to his stable of starters to find one or two inning stopgaps.

    In the newly acquired Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey, Alfredo Aceves and Daniel Bard, Boston has a slew of former closers to turn to in late innings. How John Farrell uses them will determine their effectiveness this summer. 

    If there's a weakness in Toronto, it's in the pen. A group of oft-injured veterans, young power arms and Darren Oliver, gives John Gibbons plenty of options in late-game situations. On the other hand, there are few proven commodities or defined roles.

Management

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    1. Tampa Bay Rays
    2. New York Yankees
    3. Baltimore Orioles
    4. Toronto Blue Jays
    5. Boston Red Sox

    Forget the AL East; it's hard to find a better combination of front office and on-field management than the duo of Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon in Tampa.

    Despite yearly defections, roster turnover and incorporating young players into the system, Tampa wins.

    In New York, Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi are fully on the same page when it comes to balancing winning in 2013 and the future payroll of the franchise. If Girardi's lame duck status is a story amidst a down year in New York, expect the general manager to back his only career managerial hire in New York.

    If 2012 was an indication of a duo on the rise, Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter may rise to the top of this list before long. Between Duquette's constant tinkering of the roster and Showalter's ability to coax wins out of a mediocre roster, the Orioles took the league by storm.

    As the talent increases in 2014 and beyond, so will the Orioles chances at consistent winning.

    Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos has proven to proactive and prescient. If his blockbuster moves for R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes and Josh Johnson prove to be booms this season, Toronto can compete for their first division title since 1993. 

    Of course, the re-hiring of John Gibbons will be criticized if the pieces don't come together in Toronto.

    The jury is still out on Ben Cherington in Boston. If the farm system, short-term veteran deals and returns to form of past stars like Jon Lester can mesh, the Red Sox could surprise.

Major League Ready Prospects

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    1. Baltimore Orioles
    2. Tampa Bay Rays
    3. Boston Red Sox
    4. New York Yankees
    5. Toronto Blue Jays

    Get to know these names, AL East fans: Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman and Jonathan Schoop.

    By September, they could represent 40 percent of the Orioles' starting rotation and starting second baseman, respectively.

    Bundy might be the best pitching prospect baseball has seen since Stephen Strasburg skyrocketed through the Washington system.

    Gausman, a top-five pick from LSU last June, has looked major league ready in spring training.

    Schoop is the long-term solution at second base for Baltimore. He thrived in the WBC and is waiting for Brian Roberts' health or production to fail again in 2013 to take over the job permanently.

    In Tampa, the system will continue to churn out players. For 2013, the one to watch is Wil Myers.

    Acquired in the James Shields trade with Kansas City, he can be a middle-of-the-order threat to pair with Evan Longoria for years to come.

    Boston and New York both have promising systems, but likely won't see the dividends of it until 2014.

    Toronto moved a great deal of their top prospects for established stars, but Alex Anthopolous is good enough to reload during the upcoming draft. Their system lacks big stars but won't for long.

Bold Predictions

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    1. Toronto Blue Jays: 90-72
    2. Tampa Bay Rays: 89-73*
    3. New York Yankees: 84-78
    4. Baltimore Orioles: 83-79
    5. Boston Red Sox: 79-83

    *Denotes AL Wild Card representative.

    A quick look at the 2013 schedule presents baseball fans with this nugget: Tampa Bay vs. Toronto, Sept. 27-29.

    With that series in the Rogers Centre, the American League East will be decided.

    New York vs. Boston was once the dynamic duo that dictated the American League East, but those days have come and gone.

    Expect the spending spree, new manager and loaded pitching rotation to provide the Blue Jays with their best season since Joe Carter touched them all in October of '93.

    When Wil Myers arrives in Tampa, offense will cease to be a problem for Joe Maddon's team.

    In New York, the sharks will circle early. The team is old, banged up and on borrowed time. Yet, they can remain in the hunt until September if Robinson Cano and C.C. Sabathia carry an inordinately large load.

    Baltimore is the most unappreciated team in recent memory. 93 wins, a playoff victory and taking the Yankees to Game 5 of the ALDS didn't do enough to impress odds makers that have them labeled for no better than 77 wins.

    If their youth can improve and mix with soon-to-come stars from the minor leagues, Baltimore can stay in a race and position themselves to be the AL East favorites in 2014.

    Boston can improve by 10 or more games, yet still finish in last place in 2013. They are better, healthier and hungrier than a year ago. In a different division, that might be enough.

    Agree? Disagree? Comment below, follow me on Twitter @JoeGiglioSports or "Like" my Facebook page to talk all things baseball.

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