Ahhh I can smell the clay already.
Pitchers and catchers have reported to camp, there is less than a week before the first Spring Training game and speculation about who will finish the 2011 season where in the AL East is already brewing.
The AL East has always been one of the toughest, if not THE toughest, divisions in baseball.
This year will be no different.
In fact, I expect it to be more competitive this season than it has been in a while.
The Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles have made key signings this offseason—ones that will inevitably propel the Sox to the top and finally lead the Orioles over .500.
And just because they did not make any major blockbuster deals, that does not mean that the New York Yankees will not be in the running for one of the top spots.
Despite their quiet and rather disappointing off season, the Yankees will continue to put up a fight at the top of the division as always.
Now, where will all five AL East teams actually finish this year?
Nobody knows for sure, but here is what I am thinking.
Theo Epstein and Carl Crawford
The Red Sox managed to reel in one of the biggest free-agents of the year in Carl Crawford.
Although he may not be huge on power, he managed to knock in about 90 RBIs last year with the Rays—a number that I can see him either mirroring or improving on, even though his numbers at Fenway were less than stunning last season.
Crawford’s speed will also add more of a spark to Boston’s lineup and pose a rather large threat on the bases.
Boston also added Adrian Gonzalez to their lineup that was ranked second in the American League in both home runs and RBIs last season—so I think it is pretty safe to say that Red Sox will have a pretty dangerous offense in 2011.
And their pitching will most likely be on the same page.
Lackey and Beckett had a down year, but will most likely bounce back in 2011.
The only concern is Beckett’s back problems, since they tend to cause enduring issues for athletes.
Dan Wheeler and Bobby Jenks will also prove to be clutch additions to their bullpen.
Jenks may have posted a career-worst 4.44 ERA last season, but his role as reliever rather than closer may work to his benefit and can possibly help him return to his old form.
Same goes for Jonathan Papelbon.
Papelbon’s numbers took a dip in 2010 and he now most likely may have to fight to keep his role at closer after Daniel Bard showed some impressive stuff.
Despite the drop in numbers from Papelbon and Jenks, Boston will still be sporting a much improved bullpen.
Overall, the Red Sox have the best team in the AL East, which is why they will return to the top this year for the first time since 2007.
There's one major issue that prevents the Yanks from locking down the No. 1 spot in 2011: starting pitching.
I am not even going to feed into the Cliff Lee drama because as nice as it would have been to see him in pinstripes—being a lifelong Yankee fan and all—I was one of the few fans that knew that was never going to happen.
There is absolutely no doubt that CC Sabathia will be CC in 2011, but how will AJ Burnett and Phil Hughes fare?
More importantly, who is going to fill the fourth and fifth spots?
Burnett is one of the wildest pitchers in the game, and this past year made that blatantly obvious.
But do I see a repeat of last year?
The chances are slim that Burnett would perform as poorly as he did last season, but just how much he will improve is up in the air.
I am not doubting that he is aware of just how much he has to work on, but the whole “I don’t need to be fixed” thing is a bit baffling.
On the other hand, Hughes has been working on fixing his problems with his changeup.
Once he figures all of that out, he will be back to the Phil Hughes we saw in the first half of last season.
Now comes the biggest issues—the fourth and fifth starters.
It will be a battle between Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre to fill those two spots.
Nova only pitched about a month or so in pinstripes and did not do all that bad for his first time in the big leagues.
As much as Yankee fans rip Mitre for his 2009 performance, he had a pretty nice bounceback in 2010 and really would not be a bad choice for either spot.
The Yanks will also be deciding if Colon and Garcia will be thrown into the mix.
Colon did not even pitch in the big leagues last year and Garcia was pretty reliable for the White Sox, but his numbers were not all that amazing.
The good news is that the Yanks did improve their bullpen.
As the whole world knows, they signed Rafael Soriano to finally provide them with a quality setup man in front of Mariano Rivera.
They also added another much needed lefty to their pen when they signed Pedro Feliciano.
So I expect to see a decent improvement in the pen from last year.
If the kinks in the starting rotation are worked out, they get the job done and do not leave it all up to the offense and bullpen to dig them out of huge run deficits, the Yanks will most definitely lock down the second spot in the AL East.
Who knows—if all of the pieces fall into place, they could quite possibly be battling Boston for the top spot.
Even though the three and four spots in the division will be a battle between the Rays, the Orioles and maybe even the Blue Jays, I am going to give the benefit of the doubt to the O’s.
They made a lot of solid under-the-radar moves this past offseason that most baseball fans have paid little to no attention to.
The O’s bolstered their lineup by signing Mark Reynolds, Derek Lee and Vlad Guerrero.
All three put up some pretty nice numbers last season.
Lee’s production was down from 2009, but he did have ongoing problems with his thumb.
The only bad thing about Reynolds is the amount of times he strikes out every year—which explains his terrible average from last year.
In terms of pitching, Justin Duchscherer and Kevin Gregg were better signings than most think.
Gregg will provide help to an injury-laden bullpen that when healthy, has the potential to be pretty good.
Duchscherer—if he finally manages to stay healthy—can be one of the biggest steals of the year.
When he is not hurt—he can be dangerous.
Just look back at his 2005 All-Star season, when he finished the year with a 2.21 ERA and hitters only knocked 21 runs and seven home runs out of him.
If the team in general—not just the pitching—stays healthy, the O’s can really make a lot of noise in this division.
Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez
The only reason why I will drop the Rays this low is because of the amount and magnitude of the players they lost between October and now.
They lost a huge offensive presence—and team leader—when Carlos Pena left, one of their best young pitchers in Matt Garza and watched one of the faces of their franchise leave for an AL East rival.
And those are only a couple of players that will not be sporting a Rays jersey in 2011.
But I can tell you two that will be: Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon.
As we all know, Manny is not the same Manny he used to be and he is definitely no Carlos Pena, but he will bring some run support to the team.
Damon will most likely put up average numbers, but we all saw his offensive production drop drastically last season.
It is also beyond painful to watch him in the outfield, so that is a definite downgrade from Crawford.
I am not saying their lineup is going to be horrendous and sputter throughout the season because they still have Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist and B.J. Upton, but they will most definitely feel the loss of Pena and Crawford.
Their pitching situation is also iffy.
David Price had a great season in 2010 and is easily one of the best young pitchers in all of baseball, but with the exception of Jeremy Hellickson—who only started a handful of games in the majors—the rest of the potential starters had an ERA above four.
If that is not worked on this year, the AL East will be too competitive to keep up with and the Rays may be left in the dust.
When you look at the bullpen situation, you have J.P. Howell—who is coming off shoulder surgery and will most likely not be back until sometime around late April or May—inconsistent Kyle Farnsworth and Andy Sonnanstine who has not been anything to write home about lately.
However, even with all of these doubts, I never count the Rays out since their young talent always manages to shock the baseball world.
It would not be all that surprising if the Rays were to finish in the third spot, but I am leaning more towards fourth at this rate.
As much as the Jays may be headed in the right direction, it will be hard for them to contend this year in this division.
Getting rid of Vernon Wells’ contract was a blessing, but with that they also got rid of their best outfielder who racked up 31 home runs in 2010.
It is going to leave a huge gap, in terms of power, in the lineup.
Sure, Jose Bautista led the team—and all of baseball—last year with 54 home runs, but had never put up more than 16 in his previous years.
So will he still be the Bautista of last year, or will he regress to the average one of the past?
Other than Aaron Hill and Adam Lind—who both saw a drop in production last year—the rest of their lineup is average at best.
There are a handful of young faces in the order that may come out and surprise, but they will need time to develop.
The starting rotation will be something to keep an eye on in 2011—and not in a bad way either.
Ricky Romero, Brett Cecil and Brandon Morrow are three young, talented starters that will bring some excitement to a Blue Jays team that lost one of the greatest pitchers of all time last year.
The Jays also made some nice additions in the bullpen, signing Jon Rauch, Octavio Dotel and Frank Francisco.
I just see their lack of power in the lineup as being the one thing that keeps them at the bottom of the AL East.