The American League East is the best division in baseball, featuring two major-market teams with strong management (Yankees and Red Sox), a dangerously athletic team with limited funding (Rays), and two clubs with enough talent to be contenders in the NL but pretenders in the AL (Orioles and Blue Jays).
So how will it shake out this season?
(Please note: All of the rankings are based on my personal assessment and mathematical system.)
5. Toronto Blue Jays
Projected record: 66-96, 22nd in infield, 17th in outfield, 27th in starting pitching, 21st in bullpen
It's well after the fact, but I still feel like former GM J.P. Ricciardi (who was fired) got a bit of a raw deal. Let's be honest—do the Blue Jays' decision-makers and fans honestly believe that they should be a serious contender in the AL East? Is that a fair belief given the resources at the disposal of the Yankees and Red Sox?
I don't think so. Maybe the Rays' run in 2008 was an indicator of the possibilities, but I think it was more aberration than norm. Ricciardi knew how to work with his talent evaluators, developing key players like OF Adam Lind, 2B Aaron Hill, and SPs Ricky Romero, Shaun Marcum, and Marc Rzepczynski. Ricciardi also had terrible luck with stud RHP Dustin McGowan and his devastating injury.
In spite of that nice little talent pool, this club is a long way off given the elevated level of their competition. Not this year, Jays fans—sorry.
4. Baltimore Orioles
Projected record: 75-87, 21st in infield, fifth in outfield, 28th in starting pitching, 22nd in bullpen
It must be difficult being a fan of the "other" teams in the AL East. Put the Orioles in the AL Central, and I think they have a shot to win the division. Put them anywhere in the NL, and they could probably contend for the Wild Card.
But the fact remains: They're just the fourth-best team in their actual division.
I love their young outfield, boasting RF Nick Markakis, CF Adam Jones, and LF Nolan Reimold, but their starting pitching is too inexperienced to compete at the level of the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays.
I like the arms they've collected—Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, and Brad Bergesen—but now isn't the time. Maybe they could make a Tampa-like run in a few years.
3. Tampa Bay Rays
Projected record: 90-72, fourth in infield, 11th in outfield, 10th in starting pitching, 12th in bullpen
Jeez, Baseball Prospectus loves these guys. BP successfully predicted Tampa's breakout season in '08, and this year they have Joe Maddon's boys winning the division.
Not so fast.
There's no questioning this team's outstanding talent level (I have them fifth overall); it's just a matter of being a step behind the Red Sox and Yankees.
While the Rays have good pitching, the Red Sox and Yankees have exceptional pitching. The Rays have a dangerous lineup, but the Yankees have an all-world lineup. The Rays have nice balance, but the Sox have great balance.
If Tampa is going to pull off the seemingly impossible, they'll need major offensive recoveries from CF B.J. Upton and DH Pat Burrell and a follow-up campaign from 2B Ben Zobrist. The Rays will also need multiple hurlers to step up in relief given LHP J.P. Howell's "dead arm" situation.
I don't think they'll get everything they need.
2. Boston Red Sox
Projected Record: 100-62, second in infield, 10th in outfield, first in starting pitching, first in bullpen
All right, I can't run from the truth...
Mathematically, the Red Sox topped my system. According to the collective results of my individual rankings, Boston has the best team in baseball.
Here's the problem: The exact same thing happened last year, but logic told me the Yankees were going to win the World Series. Stubbornly, I stuck to the system, and I posted that the Red Sox would win it all.
I will not make the same mistake again.
I love Boston's pitching, and in the grand scheme their offense is well above average; nonetheless, their lineup is not in the Yankees' rarefied air. The Bronx Bombers' raw explosiveness is what forces me to give them the nod.
No particular portion of Boston's lineup has the production potential of the Alex Rodriguez/Mark Teixeira combination. There are power possibilities—Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz, Victor Martinez, Adrian Beltre, and Mike Cameron—but the intimidation level just isn't the same to me.
Rodriguez and Teixeira are two of the top five power hitters in the game; no single member of the Red Sox's quintet makes that list.
1. New York Yankees
Projected Record: 104-58, first in infield, 20th in outfield, second in starting pitching, second in bullpen
If the Yankees handle their bullpen correctly, they will leapfrog the Sox and gain the No. 1 relief spot. If I were Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi, I'd have Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen. If they made that decision, I would say the following:
The Yankees have the best bullpen in the history of Major League Baseball.
Both Hughes and Chamberlain have shown dominance in relief, RHP David Robertson is one of the most underrated pitchers in the game (63 Ks in 43.2 innings in '09), and Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer of all time.
LHP Damaso Marte was surprisingly effective in the postseason, and RHP Alfredo Aceves is a perfect fit as a long man.
No weaknesses in that bullpen. Four guys with closer ability: Rivera (obviously), Hughes, Chamberlain, and Robertson.
But the fact remains, Cashman and Girardi haven't made that decision, leaving New York in the No. 2 bullpen spot.
Regardless, the Yankees are the best bet to win the World Series. All of the pressure of past playoff failure is off the shoulders of Rodriguez, Teixeira, and CC Sabathia, so they can play free and easy throughout the 2010 campaign.
I guess this club can be summed up in a single word:
(John Frascella is the author of Theo-logy: How a Boy Wonder Led the Red Sox to the Promised Land, the first and only book centered on Boston's GM Theo Epstein. Check it out on Amazon or follow John's Twitter @RedSoxAuthor).