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This season, parity redefines itself in the American League East. Unlike years past, where the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees have clashed over the division title and sole AL Wild Card, the division presents five potentially great baseball teams competing for a maximum of three playoff spots. After an abysmal 2012 season, the Red Sox are considered nationally to be one of the weaker teams in the division despite an eventful offseason, but looking deeper into the strengths and weaknesses of the entire American League presents a different story of what could unfold in this year.
There’s no doubt that winning the AL East is a long shot for the Sox. This offseason the Toronto Blue Jays added Melky Cabrera in free agency, while trading for R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, and Jose Reyes to add speed to a powerful lineup and back it with a talented, veteran pitching staff. Toronto has waited long enough to become relevant in the East, and they’re putting all their chips in on 2013 being the year they turn their franchise around.
With the Blue Jays as favorites, mystery teams in the East include the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles. Both had relatively uneventful off seasons in terms of adding pieces, though the Rays did trade away stud starter James Shields to acquire young outfielder Wil Myers. The speculation that these two will seriously contend in 2013 is almost entirely based off of their 2012 seasons.
The Rays do have Evan Longoria, and ace David Price, the best under-30 position player and pitcher in the division, but the rest of the roster isn’t quite filled out. It’s hard to imagine this Rays team staying as pesky as they have been over the last few years without Shields taking the ball every fifth day. And if they aren’t in contention midway through the season, we could see the team shop Price around.
The 2012 Orioles might have been the biggest fluke team in baseball history, as they astonishingly finished the year with a 29-9 record in one-run games, a number that is extremely likely to not go as well for them next season. Along with the subtraction of Mark Reynolds, the Orioles failed to make any big additions this offseason (though Kyle Lohse remains a free agent), and are banking on Manny Machado to break out big time in his first full big league season.
And that last team? Oh right, the Yankees. The Evil Empire appears to be crumbling at long last, but that’s not enough to count them out quite yet. Robinson Cano could cash in big time with another great season as he faces the pressure of a contract year in 2013. Meanwhile, the team has the most proven rotation in the East, led by CC Sabathia and veteran Hiroki Kuroda. The Yankees’ pitching is their biggest strength, so much so that they can lean on it while Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, and Alex Rodriguez recover from injuries, and if Mariano Rivera returns to form, they’ll be a formidable opponent.
So where do the Red Sox fit into this equation? With a roster that underwent a major makeover this winter, it’s hard to picture exactly what the team can do on the field. Starting pitching remains a concern, and lots of that weighs on the older arms of John Lackey and Ryan Dempster. The offense should be one of the best in baseball, especially with Will Middlebrooks primed for his first full MLB season. And the team might have the strongest bullpen in the East, as long as Joel Hanrahan adjusts to pitching in Boston and Andrew Bailey stays healthy and accepts the set up role.
As of today, it’s hard to like the Red Sox over the Blue Jays for the division. But each team will face questions of chemistry, especially after most of the disastrous Miami roster was shipped to Toronto. The Red Sox are younger and have a more complete lineup than the Yankees, and should be able to outhit most of what the Orioles and Rays have to offer. That said, it’s fairly realistic Boston can finish in second place this season, which will be good enough for one of the two Wild Cards. Their competition across the league for those spots will include the runner-up in the West and teams within the East.
It’s hard to buy what Oakland did last year and expect things to work out as perfectly, given their end of season push to win the division. The Angels and Rangers will more realistically battle it out, with the Athletics staying relevant all the way through. In Central division should be dominated by the Tigers, but even the rising Royals and underrated White Sox shouldn’t be able to win enough games to be serious in the Wild Card hunt.
So it really comes down to the American League East for the Red Sox. And as good as this division is hyped up to be, that just means these five teams could go back and forth beating each other up all year long. And that gives Boston just as good a shot as anybody.