A year after the Rays inspired hope that the Yankees and Red Sox' stranglehold on the AL East was over, order was seemingly restored to the baseball universe as the Bombers won it all, the BoSox won the wild card again, the Rays had an up and down year, and the O's and Jays bottom-fed.
With the exception of Tampa, all the teams in this division enter 2010 looking noticeably different, with several note-worthy players joining and leaving the division.
The ever-intense Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, exciting young players in Baltimore and Toronto, and the Rays' quest for redemption should make for an intriguing year in the AL East.
2009 Finish: 64-98, 5th Place
Off-season Grade (B+): I thought the Orioles would take advantage of the down market and make a bargain signing or two, but by no means did I envision them making so many. Millwood was a great pickup who should give them dependability at the front of the rotation, Gonzalez is electric, and Tejada and Atkins could be great additions to what was already a potent offense.
Strengths: They have a dynamic offense. Roberts, Jones, and Markakis are three of the best at their positions. Wieters will only get better. Roberts and Izturis is a solid double-play combination.
Weaknesses: Behind Millwood, the rotation is largely unproven. Their bullpen was horrible in 2009. There's no telling how Tejada will adjust to third base. In general, they lack experience.
Breakout Candidate—Matt Wieters: There are several on this team but I went with this promising young catcher. After starting 2009 in the minors, he impressed greatly after a May call-up. Playing a full season, I think 20 HR and 80 RBI is not out of the question.
2010 All Stars: Nick Markakis, Brian Roberts
2010 Outlook: Orioles fans are gonna have more to cheer about in 2010 than they've had in quite some time. Record-wise, I think the birds are going to be the most improved team in the American League. Unfortunately, that will not be enough to get them to the playoffs.
2009 Finish: 95-67, 2nd Place (AL WC, Lost ALDS)
Off-season Grade (A-): Instead of trying to pay to outslug the Yankees, the Red Sox went for the two things a winning team can never have enough of; pitching and defense. Cameron and Beltre are not players of Jason Bay's caliber, but both should put up decent power numbers while playing sensational defense. The addition of Lackey makes their rotation the envy of the American League.
Strengths: Their rotation boasts three Cy Young candidates, maybe four if Matsuzaka rebounds. Okajima, Bard, and Papelbon are a lethal trio at the back-end of the bullpen. They have above average defenders at just about every position. Their lineup, while not as frightening as it has been in years past, is solid top to bottom with a good balance of speed and power.
Weaknesses: They're counting on overall offensive excellency, because they don't have that one great hitter that can carry you from time to time. Another down year from Matsuzaka could lead to them leaning heavily on Buchholz and Wakefield.
Breakout Candidate - Clay Buchholz: After rebounding from an off year in 2008 and saving his best for the postseason, you'd think the 25 year old righty would be the favorite to earn the 5th spot in the rotation. With a no hitter under his belt already, it may not be long until he starts showing up the big names ahead of him in the Red Sox rotation.
2010 All Stars: Jon Lester, Victor Martinez, Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia
2010 Outlook: If you'd told me a few months ago that this team was going to let Bay walk and not replace him with a similar slugger for the middle of the lineup, there's no way I'd like their postseason chances. However, their pitching and defense are simply way too good that it might not matter what their offense does.
2009 Finish: 103-59, 1st Place (Won World Series)
Off-season Grade (B+): A 27th Championship didn't stop Brian Cashman and the Yankees from retooling a bit, bringing in three very solid players in Granderson, Johnson, and Vazquez. A very good off-season, not quite as worthy though as they also lost some key players of note (Damon, Matsui).
Strengths: Their offense remains probably the best in the majors, and Gardner brings a dimension of speed to the bottom of their order they didn't have last year. Their outfield defense should be much improved. Vazquez provides much needed stability at the back-end of their rotation. Rivera is still the best in the business.
Weaknesses: With Damon and Matsui gone, they're leaning on Posada, Johnson, Cano, and Swisher, all of whom have recently experienced injuries or down years. Joba Chamberlain still doesn't have a defined role.
Breakout Candidate—Phil Hughes: Whether he's the fifth starter or primary setup man, Hughes has a real chance to shine this season. It really looked like he was figuring things out last season. We've been hearing about for him so long, it's easy to forget he's still just 23.
2010 All Stars: Curtis Granderson, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira
2010 Outlook: They look a little different, but the results shouldn't change much. The Yankees are still the class of the American League. Jeter is a proven winner, and for the first time in a while, A-Rod should be able to just relax and play baseball. Barring major injuries, they are basically locks to make it to the postseason.
2009 Finish: 84-78, 3rd Place
Off-season Grade (B): The Rays didn't do much this off-season, and they really didn't need to. They were wise not to give up on BJ Upton with his value at an all-time low. They filled their biggest need by acquiring closer Rafael Soriano, and all they had to give up for him was Jesse Chavez (acquired from Pittsburgh for Akinori Iwamura). In essence, they dealt an extremely expendable player for a direly needed one.
Strengths: Longoria and Crawford are two of the best in the game and Bartlett and Zobrist should build off breakout seasons. Their rotation collectively might have the highest ceiling of any in the majors. Most of the players from the 2008 are still around, and they've now experienced adversity together and are better for it.
Weaknesses: Upton is coming off an abysmal season. Even with Soriano in the fold, there are still legit concerns about the team's bullpen as a whole. Crawford and Pena will probably be traded by the deadline unless they're able to extend them.
Breakout Candidate—David Price: Pretty easy pick here. While he didn't run away with the rookie of the year award last year as many thought he would, I don't think too many in baseball circles doubt that this kid is going to be pretty good. After the all star break, it looked as though he was starting to figure things out.
2010 All Stars: Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford
2010 Outlook: The Rays find themselves at a crossroads in 2010. They have numerous exciting young players but two of the most important of them, Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena, are free agents to be at the end of the year. Whether or not the Rays can manage to extend these two will say a lot about what the immediate and long-term future has in store for this organization.
2009 Finish: 75-87, 4th Place
Off-season Grade (C): On one hand, they traded Roy Halladay; that dampens the outlook for 2010 just a little (to be kind). However, Alex Anthopoulos did an amazing job rekindling talks with the Phillies and acquiring an impressive package highlighted by Kyle Drabek and Brett Wallace. Morrow was a superb low-risk, high-reward pickup.
Strengths: Aside from the loss of Scutaro, they're bringing back basically the same solid offense they boasted in 2009. Anthopoulos compensated for the Halladay trade by finding as much pitching as he could to compliment McGowan, Marcum, and Romero.
Weaknesses: No more Halladay. For all their potential, McGowan and Marcum have had serious injury issues. They don't have a proven leadoff hitter. Encarnacion didn't look all that good after coming over in the Scott Rolen deal.
Breakout Candidate—Travis Snider: Jays' brass have insisted he'll have to earn the starting left field job, but you have to believe he's the favorite. The lefty slugger skyrocketed through the Jays' minor leagues and got off to a good start with the Jays in 2009 before struggling and being sent to AAA. At age 22, he might already have what it takes to stick in the majors this time around.
2010 All Stars: Adam Lind
2010 Outlook: They're rebuilding and everyone knows it. Given where the Yankees and Red Sox are at right now, you can't blame them. Anthopoulos seems committed to doing things the right way. They have a solid collection of young talent; some of it has already arrived, some hasn't. There is some reason for optimism but Jays fans are going to have to be patient.
1. David Price: He's yet to figure it out in the bigs but at age 24, he still has plenty of time. If he's ready to make the leap to number one starter, the Rays could pose a real threat to Boston and New York.
2. Daisuke Matsuzaka: With Lester, Beckett, and Lackey all ahead of him in the rotation, they're certainly not leaning on him. The Red Sox rotation is that much better if he can compliment those three by returning to his 2007 form.
3. David Ortiz: The greatest DH in Red Sox history is down to his last chance. They put up with an off year last year; they can't afford to in 2010 and they won't. His back is against the wall; if that equals results, it could drastically improve Boston's offense.
4. Dioner Navarro: Who is he? The all-star from 2008 or the guy who struggled so mightily last year? The best bet is somewhere in between, and he's still young enough it could be closer to the player we saw in 2008.
5. JD Drew: While he's never lived up to his potential, he's still a legit 30 HR threat when he's healthy. That kind of power production coming from the bottom of the Red Sox order would be a great asset.
1. New York Yankees (101-61)
2. Boston Red Sox (97-65)
3. Tampa Bay Rays (83-79)
4. Baltimore Orioles (76-86)
5. Toronto Blue Jays (71-91)
It's a new year, but I just can't see things changing too much.
The Yankees and Red Sox boast two of the most impressive rosters in the game; all-stars at virtually every position. I just can't imagine October without the Yankees at this point. The Red Sox offense isn't what it used to be but their pitching and defense will earn them a third straight wild card berth.
Teams rebound from disappointing campaigns every year and I know many people see the Rays as an obvious choice to do that this season. While I wouldn't be surprised if they did, I have some questions about their pitching, and I simply think they're far less of a sure thing than the Yankees and Red Sox.
The Orioles should show great improvement, but they're not quite there yet. The Blue Jays are the obvious pick to finish last, though they're a young and exciting bunch that should give their fans some reasons to feel optimistic.