AL East

Continuing the 2011 MLB Preview, now taking a look at the AL East, where the big money lies (2010 records in parenthesis):

Boston Red Sox (89-73) — Josh Beckett seems to be healthy, and can’t be as bad as last year.  John Lackey managed a 4-win season even in a down year, by his standards.  John Lester and Clay Buchholz are among the top-10 pitchers in the entire American League, with Lester challenging King Felix for the top spot.  With the free agent acquisition of outfielder Carl Crawford and subsequent trade for first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, they’ve added two premium defenders, as well as a combined 2010 line of .302/.384/.503. Gonzalez should finally break the 40-HR plateau now that he’s out of San Diego’s bat-depressive Petco Park, and if Crawford can learn to play the Green Monster’s caroms, then the Sox should be the most complete team in the league.  Even if bullpen anchor Jonathan Papelbon’s struggles continue, they have fireballer Daniel Bard and former White Sox closer Bobby Jenks to pick up the slack — in fact, they might be well-served to trade Papelbon at mid-season, adding yet another arm or re-stocking the farm system. Projected wins: 95

Tampa Bay Rays (96-66) — Since coming out of nowhere to win the pennant in 2008, the Rays have proven that a smart front office and great manager can ensure the kind of staying power to change a franchise’s fortunes, budget constraints be damned.  In the wake of Crawford, long the face of the franchise, pricing himself out of Tampa, no superstars remain on the roster, but it is filled, top to bottom, with terrific talent, and you can always count on Joe Maddon to get the most out of his roster.  Third baseman Evan Longoria should be a top MVP candidate for the next decade, center fielder B.J. Upton, despite his contact issues, is still only 26 years old, with an unbelievably rare combination of power and speed, with 25 HR/50 steal potential.  The rest of the lineup, including former World Series champions Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon, boast quality bats and terrific on-base skills.  Behind a dominant, young staff led by lefty David Price and prized rookie Jeremy Hellickson, manager Joe Maddon rolls out above-average fielders everywhere except left, where they can hide and cover for Damon as much as possible.  Projected wins: 92

New York Yankees (95-67) — For a team with an astronomical, seemingly unlimited payroll, the Bombers break camp with an alarmingly suspect rotation.  Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher and the like have the ability to put a ton of runs on the board, and they’ll need to win a number of slugfests to leapfrog Boston or Tampa Bay into the postseason.  If their bats can take a lead into the 7th inning, the bullpen trio of Joba Chamberlain, Rafael Soriano, and ageless closer Mariano Rivera will hold most leads.  Although his strikeout and walk rates are slowly trending in the wrong directions, CC Sabathia was able to adjust and get his ground ball rate over 50% for the first time last season, a necessity in the new Yankee Stadium.  Behind him, however, the starters are a mess — A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes each gave up 25 home runs last season, regressing considerably, Freddy Garcia was washed up 5 years ago, and rookie Ivan Nova was a bel0w-average minor league pitcher until 2010.  Projected wins: 90

Toronto Blue Jays (85-77) — Jose Bautista will not hit 54 home runs again, but lost in the wake of his magical season was the realization that these are not the pushover Blue Jays of the past couple of years.  The rotation has recovered from losing Roy Halladay years ahead of time, with Ricky Romero and Brett Cecil posting career years.  Though Brandon Morrow will start the season on the 15-day disabled list, he and top prospect Kyle Drabek are on the fast track to the top of the Jays staff.  The lineup, top to bottom, is filled with potential — third baseman Bautista, at 30, is the oldest everyday player in Toronto — and they are expecting bounceback seasons from second baseman Aaron Hill, shortstop Yunel Esocbar, and first baseman Adam Lind, all of whom were stellar in 2009 and hope that poor 2010s are the outliers. Combined with the expected development of 23-year-old left fielder Travis Snider and slugging rookie catcher J.P. Arencibia, and a hefty dose of speed in center from free agent acquisition Rajai Davis, these Jays look like a team on the upswing, poised to compete with the league’s best for the foreseeable future.  Projected wins: 83

Baltimore Orioles (66-96) — While there admittedly aren’t many impact bats in the organizational pipeline, is it really worth it for a non-competitive club to spend $21.1 million on veteran one-year rentals J.J. Hardy, Derrek Lee, and Vladimir Guerrero?  At least in trading for third baseman Mark Reynolds, they have two years at $12.5M, with an $11M third-year option for the .242 hitting strikeout king.  The rotation, while short on experience, has the potential to do serious damage two or three years down the road, and by the time they’re ready to lead Baltimore to respectability, all of this winter’s big offseason pickups will be gone, and the money will have been wasted.  Behind mediocre innings-eater Jeremy Guthrie sit 24-year-old Brian Matusz, 25-year-old Jake Arrieta, 25-year-old Brad Bergesen, and 22-year-old Chris Tillman.  Arrieta and Bergesen will always pitch more to contact, and need adequate defense behind them, but Matusz and Tillman look ready to start missing bats and making waves in an MLB rotation this year. Sometime this year, they’ll be joined by 23-year-old groundball specialist Zach Britton, and hopefully around that time, the Orioles front office will be able to trade the vets for useful hitting prospects to grow with the pitching staff.  Projected wins: 70

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