First, let me make this very clear.
The Boston Red Sox will win the American League East, barring a major injury bug or lack of team chemistry.
That lineup, full of left-handed hitting power (Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz), speed (Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury) and pure hitters (Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis) is a force to be reckoned with.
The Sox also have the pitching needed to run deep into October. Jon Lester is expected to have a Cy Young-winning season, along with a maturing Clay Buchholz, veterans John Lackey, Tim Wakefield and the off-and-on Daisuke Matsuzaka.
This makes me scratch my head and think, will anyone beat this team in the AL East?
Well, someone has to finish second.
Many people jump to automatically write in New York as second-place finishers and an automatic Wild Card winner.
Not so fast, my Yankee foes.
CC Sabathia is a tremendous talent on the mound, but the tabloids have summed up the Yankees' rotation perfectly by describing it as, "CC and Hughes, and then we lose."
After Sabathia and Hughes, the Yanks don't have much going for them. A.J. Burnett has not been himself since coming over from Toronto, and with Andy Pettitte retiring, the No. 4 and 5 spots are up in the air. Not a very Boss-like Yankee roster.
Even though their pitching sucks, the Yankees' batting lineup is quite powerful. Robinson Cano has the potential to be AL MVP year in and year out, and of course there is the 3-headed monster of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira.
Thankfully, the Rangers proved last year that this team is beatable. Also, they are not getting any younger, with Cano being the youngest of the four Yankee superstars at age 28.
Newcomers Rafael Soriano and Russell Martin are solid players, but the Yanks' run of dominance is over, and it's now time for someone else to challenge the Red Sox for the AL East crown.
Which team will step up?
In 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays finally jumped into the mix with the big boys, winning the AL East and going on to represent the AL in the World Series. But the clock struck midnight on their Cinderella season, as they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in five games.
All seems to be lost now in Tampa as the departure of fan favorites Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett and a host of others have the Rays scrambling to build a competitive team in the most competitive division in sports.
Maybe if this was 2004, their additions of Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez would be effective, but right now, in 2011, the ex-Red Sox duo does not look like much of a threat.
They do have superstar Evan Longoria and fire-baller David Price still on the roster, mixed with a pack of up-and-coming youth including Desmond Jennings, Ben Zobrist and Reid Brignac, but it looks like it could be a rough year at the Trop.
Up North, the Blue Jays, like the Rays, are full of young talent. Ace Ricky Romero is finally finding his groove, 50-HR man Jose Bautista is ready to prove the steroid haters wrong and general manager Alex Anthopoulos has revamped the bullpen by adding Jon Rauch, Frank Francisco and Octavio Dotel.
The 2011 Jays will be full of heart and young talent, but they need some experience to climb the rankings. Although, don't be surprised to see this team in the hunt late in the season.
This leaves the Baltimore Orioles. A team that always finds a way to lose 90+ games a season. Ever since the day Cal Ripken Jr. hung 'em up, the O's have been the cellar dwellers of the division.
What makes this year so special?
Well, they have a great manager in Buck Showalter, who is committed to growing the young talent and making Baltimore a contender. After he took over last season on July 29, the O's play improved dramatically under his command. They hope to build on that in 2011.
General manager Andy MacPhail added a lot of depth and talent during the offseason. He traded for slugger Mark Reynolds, who provides protection in the lineup for star Nick Markakis.
The O's right fielder is due for a big year offensively, and with Reynolds in the lineup, now is as good a time as any.
Also new to Birdland is first baseman Derrek Lee and shortstop J.J. Hardy. This now gives the Orioles a Gold Glove-caliber defense with Lee and standout second baseman Brian Roberts on one side with Hardy and Reynolds on the other.
The batting lineup is projected to look something like this:
Brian Roberts (2B)
Nick Markakis (RF)
Mark Reynolds (3B)
Matt Wieters (C)
Adam Jones (CF)
Luke Scott (DH)
Derrek Lee (1B)
JJ Hardy (SS)
Felix Pie (LF)
Not too shabby. If each player can play to his potential, the O's will not have a problem scoring runs this season.
But as the World Series champion San Francisco Giants proved last October, pitching wins championships.
The Orioles pitching is young, so I won't go out on a limb and say they will win it all in 2011. But as the Giants pitching staff did years before their coming-out party in 2010, the young studs on the mound will continue to progress to an elite caliber of pitching that will have the O's contending for many years to come.
Brian Matusz, Jeremy Guthrie, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta and Brad Bergesen are not household names—yet. Matusz is the ace of the staff, and he is looking to improve on a mediocre 10-12 season in 2010.
Guthrie went 11-14 with a 3.83 ERA last season. He is a solid arm who should help the O's chances vs. the left-handed heavy lineups of the Sox and Yankees.
Recent signee Justin Duchscherer will lead by example to help groom this young staff into a perennial powerhouse.
"I think it's important to those guys' [starting pitchers Matusz, Guthrie, etc.] development that we have people who can protect their leads." Showalter said.
Well they should not have a problem doing that.
They managed to re-sign closer Koji Uehara, and with a bullpen that includes Mike Gonzalez and Kevin Gregg, the O's will look to be a better close-out team in 2011.
So who will challenge the O's for the Wild Card?
The Tigers have a great team, but they can never close out a season well.
The Twins have Joe Mauer, but I continuously question their inconsistent pitching staff.
The Halos are a mess, even with Vernon Wells. This leaves the Wild Card, as it does most years, to the second-place finisher in the AL East.
Goodbye, New York.