American League (B)East: Why This Division Is Again the Toughest In Sports

Julian ClarkeContributor IFebruary 23, 2011

American League (B)East: Why This Division Is Again the Toughest In Sports

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    Spring training 2011 is finally here.

    While many people's attention are being drawn to the dispute between Albert Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals or Bryce Harper's BP at-bats at the Nationals' complex, the spot that demands the most attention is the bestial division that is the American League East.

    Not only does this division contain the three best teams in the American League, but also all five teams in the division could be playoff contenders. Even if they don't contend, they'll surely compete.

    2011 will hold surprises for all of Major League Baseball, but the focus will be on who wins the AL East because that may likely decide who wins the World Series.

    Here are my predictions for this year's AL East. 

5. Toronto Blue Jays

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    The Blue Jays are going to need to see a lot of home run trots from Jose Bautista this season if they plan on finishing anywhere above fifth in the division. 

    Toronto did have a great offseason—one of the best in the league—but unfortunately for the club, it won't put them anywhere above last in the division. Getting rid of Vernon Wells made the Jay's offseason a triumph in itself. Along with that, the front office did a good job revamping its bullpen with Octavio Dotel, Frank Francisco and John Rauch, plus adding potential star infielder Brett Lawrie to the roster.

    The Jays still lack solid pitching and .300-type hitters. Maybe in a few years they can contend, but not this year. 

4. Baltimore Orioles

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    With big-time signings in Mark Reynolds and Derrek Lee, the Orioles are in hot pursuit of a .500 record for the season. However, they're in for much more than that.

    With Buck Showalter at the helm of the ball club, this is a different team. The team had a winning record under Showalter as manager, so don't be surprised if they can make a run for fourth place, maybe even third with the dismal offseason the Rays have had. 

    The Rays are still a better team, though.

    Adding two big bats to the lineup could be enough to make them contend. If Reynolds can repeat his 2009 season where he hit 44 home runs and batted .260, then the Orioles can at least be a force in the division.

    Reynolds will strike out 200-plus times, though, as he has led the league for the past three years in K's. Derrek Lee is not as good as he used to be, and the Orioles know that, but he's a solid middle-of-the-lineup guy that will hit 20 dingers and knock in 75 runs; his glove isn't bad either.

3. Tampa Bay Rays

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    The Rays had a quiet but very effective offseason.

    Losing Jason Bartlett, Rafael Soriano and Matt Garza could end up hurting them since Garza was a top-of-the-rotation kind of starter and Soriano was one of the best closers in the league. But their pitching and defense remain among the tops in AL.

    Key acquisitions this offseason include Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon, who don't only add veteran talent and leadership to this team, but also have won a World Series together with the Red Sox—they know what needs to be done.

    However, none of those are as important as the 10 draft picks the Rays will have in the first two rounds of this year's draft. This allows for them to take as many prospects as they wish and develop a lot of young talent, something the Rays are very good at.

    Third place is not the finish the Rays would want, since the club has won two of the last three division titles, but it won't finish more than five games behind the Yankees and Red Sox.

2. New York Yankees

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    The Yankees did practically nothing this offseason. However, the Yanks remain one of the most competitive teams in the American League. 

    First, the Yankees didn't get Cliff Lee. Then Andy Pettitte decided to hang up his spikes. So the Yankees did what they do best, buy a bunch of veteran talent and hope for the best.

    The Yankees don't need to worry too much about batting as long as Derek Jeter doesn't continue his slump from last season. Pitching will be the Yankees' Achilles' heel this year if the rotation doesn't pull it together.

    Former stars Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon and Mark Prior will be competing for a spot in the rotation along with youngster Ivan Nova and journeyman Sergio Mitre. So far it looks like spots one through three are locked up by C.C. Sabathia, Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett, respectively.

    But if the starters can't get the job done, they can always hand the ball to any one of the hurlers in the bullpen, featuring Rafael Soriano, Mariano Rivera and Joba Chamberlain (who may even get some starts if the others don't work out).

    The Yankees will win the Wild Card and only come a few games short of the division.

1. Boston Red Sox

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    I don't think I've ever seen a better offseason.

    Picking up Adrian Gonzalez would have been enough. Theo Epstein accomplished that—and picked up Carl Crawford—in the same week.

    Adrian Gonzalez is a huge bat as a lefty in a fairly small park, and Carl Crawford adds a load of speed to the Sox's lineup. Not only that, but their young part of the rotation only gained experience last year. Now with four front-of-the-line starters, the Red Sox will dominate its competition in the American League. Don't be surprised if Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz all have at least 18 wins.

    The Sox also beefed up its already solid bullpen with the additions of Dan Wheeler and Bobby Jenks, along with re-signing Hideki Okajima. Look for Jonathan Papelbon and young fireballer Daniel Bard to play integral roles this year as well. 

    The Red Sox should win the division, but with all the tenacity and tension among these teams, either the Yankees or Rays could also take home the title.