The American League East likes to bill itself as the toughest division in baseball, which is difficult to argue given the hardware on display around its front offices -- though, in fairness, the Yankees and four brand-new expansion teams would have more World Championships between them than any other division in the league. The same will be true again this season, as the East features four teams with legitimate playoff aspirations of some sort and a fifth team that only needs a couple more pieces -- or a few well-timed career years -- to be just as much in the thick of things as anyone else. In the end, though, the outcome will likely be familiar: New York or Boston on top, with the other one fighting the Rays for a wild card.
First Place: Boston Red Sox
Boston had the best team in baseball last year, scoring the most runs, tying St. Louis for the most wins in the league and then beating the Cardinals in the World Series to settle that score. Aside from Jacoby Ellsbury, they've had no significant losses on their roster, and in fact are giving the best position prospect in baseball last year, Xander Bogaerts, the shortstop job right out of the gate. The rotation retains its three best pitchers from last year -- Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and John Lackey -- while adding a full season of Jake Peavy as the No. 4 starter and handing the fifth job to Felix Doubront. Even that may be only for the moment, while the Sox' highly touted pitching prospects like Anthony Ranuado start the year in the high minors, ready to come up over the course of the season.
If the Red Sox don't win 95 games in 2014, the culprit will be some combination of injuries, bad luck and regression -- like David Ortiz finally hitting a wall at age 38, Lackey turning back into the pitcher he was two years ago, Bogaerts having a rough first season in the majors and guys like Daniel Nava and Mike Carp not stepping up in limited playing time the way they did last season -- along with the rest of the division, notably the Yankees, getting better. That's still not a good reason to pick against them, however, and they don't really have that many more candidates for regression than any other successful team -- the Pittsburgh Pirates, for instance, put them to shame. The Red Sox should win the East again this year and, unless their young core entirely collapses, be in the discussion annually for a few years to come.
Second Place: New York Yankees
One of baseball's constants -- one of its more depressing constants, if you're a fan of one of the other teams in this division -- is that the Yankees are never bad for long. This is to be expected from a franchise that has more World Series rings than seasons below .500, but it always seems like a surprise anyway given the quality of the teams around them and -- let's face it -- how desperately most of us want them to fail. Want and will are two different things, however, and the Yankees will either be back on top this season or very close to it. And they'd better be, considering that this winter they handed out almost half a billion dollars in guaranteed money over the next six or seven seasons.
There has been a laser-like focus on the Yankees' middle infield situation this spring that is both justified and deceptive. It's true that the Yankees do have an issue up the middle and at third base, one that could turn sour at any minute if Derek Jeter were to go down for an extended period of time and which might be already doomed by relying on a full season of Brian Roberts at second base. But the addition of Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran more than offsets the loss of Robinson Cano to the Mariners; generally it's better to have a single super-elite bat than three very good ones, but not if the guys around that super-elite bat are all replacement-level fodder. Ellsbury, McCann and Beltran are just as important for the plate appearances they're taking away from guys like Chris Stewart, Vernon Wells and 40-year-old Ichiro Suzuki as they are for what they'll do while they're standing up there.
The Yankees' rotation is also much improved -- the addition of Masahiro Tanaka is the most notable change, but CC Sabathia bouncing back to his career numbers instead of repeating last year's disaster would almost be like adding another ace in free agency. That said, New York's rotation is a far bigger gamble than Boston's or Tampa Bay's -- it relies on their best pitcher not repeating last year's performance, their oldest pitcher repeating his at age 39, and a 25-year-old with no MLB experience to be a No. 3 starter out of the gate, along with Ivan Nova finally putting together a solid, full season of work and Michael Pineda, who hasn't pitched in the big leagues since the Yankees traded for him, coming back strong from his labrum tear. The worst case scenario for New York's rotation is disastrous, and it's more likely with them than any of the other teams in the division with the exception of Toronto.
Third Place: Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays once again look like they're going to be stuck in wild-card limbo. The team is very much the same as it was last year, but at least better in the sense that Tampa Bay will enjoy a full season from Wil Myers in the outfield. Still, the team is more or less fielding the same position players as it was at the end of last season and hoping the pitching and defense will offset the fact that they're at best a league-average offense. Considering they've been doing this for eight years now and made the playoffs in half of them, the theory is probably sound.
David Price doesn't deserve quite the same consideration Sabathia does in assuming a bounceback, even though he's four years younger and only two years removed from a Cy Young -- for one, he was nowhere near as bad as Sabathia was in 2013, meaning he has less to bounce back from, and he's got a much shorter track record than the Yankees ace does at the big league level. Price is still going to be the staff ace, though, and even if he turns in another 110-115 ERA+ performance instead of the 150 ERA+ season that won him the Cy Young, he should still provide over 200 innings of quality work. The rest of the staff -- Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Matt Moore and Jake Odorizzi -- are harder to pin down. Outside of Price, Moore has the most MLB experience on the staff with 337 innings pitched. While the Rays have just as much potential talent in their rotation as Boston or New York -- perhaps even more -- betting on any of them to maximize that potential before they've even thrown 400 MLB innings seems premature.
Fourth Place: Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles looked like they'd have another quiet offseason spent fiddling around on the margins of their roster until a few weeks ago, when they signed Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz in quick succession. They looked like they were about to bring in Ervin Santana as well, and if not for Kris Medlen's elbow injury, it's quite possible they'd have had all three. They are still on the outside looking in for the upcoming season, but they're in a much better position than they were when their biggest offseason acquisition was David Lough.
Even with the addition of Jimenez, the Orioles rotation has the same problem it has had for Dan Duquette's entire tenure: a lot of guys who are acceptable No. 3 or decent No. 4 starters, and not a lot of top-end talent. Jimenez is now four years removed from his one great season in Colorado, and it's unreasonable to expect him to come to Baltimore and immediately replicate that accomplishment, but then, the Orioles were never going to sign that one big ace in free agency anyhow. They're relying on either Kevin Gausman or Dylan Bundy to become that guy -- hopefully both -- and until then, all they can do is assemble a rotation good enough that when their ace finally shows up, he's got four solid to very good pitchers behind him.
Cruz improves the lineup regardless of where he plays -- the Orioles got very little production out of the DH spot last year and Nate McLouth was merely competent with the bat last year in left field -- and second base could be a position of big improvement for Baltimore if prospect Jonathan Schoop makes the team and plays up to his potential, but Baltimore's offense still flows through center fielder Adam Jones and first baseman Chris Davis. A big part of how the Orioles do this season will rely whether or not Davis's MVP-caliber season last year was sustainable, and it's far too early to tell that now.
If they played in the AL Central, the Orioles might be outright contenders for the division title, but as it is, they've got three of the most successful teams in the last decade they have to get past first.
Fifth Place: Toronto Blue Jays
The Jays could easily turn things around from last year's disaster. Imagine if Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion were all healthy and hitting like they have over the past three seasons at the same time, if Colby Rasmus continues to be an .840 OPS center fielder, if Melky Cabrera goes back to hitting like he did in Kansas City or San Francisco, if R.A. Dickey gets his fast knuckleball back and returns to the form he showed with the Mets -- that's a very dangerous team. It's also one not likely to be seen in 2014.
The lineup has a lot of promise, at least -- Reyes, Bautista and Encarnacion very well could turn in those seasons, Rasmus could keep hitting like that, and Cabrera could bounce back into a premier bat, though each of these things is progressively more unlikely. Dioner Navarro is an upgrade over J.P. Arencibia at catcher in just about every facet of the game, and while Boston and Baltimore probably have the best two offenses in the division on paper, Toronto could in theory hang right there with them. The second base situation is a little disappointing with Ryan Goins, and Brett Lawrie will never have the bat Jays fans hoped he would develop, but few teams in the big leagues don't have lineup spots that are worrisome.
The rotation is the problem. Dickey brought his back problems with him when he came over from New York, and that's been destroying his effectiveness far more than any issues with pitching in a dome. Mark Buehrle's best years are behind him, and Drew Hutchison, Dustin McGowan and Brandon Morrow are an uninspiring back of the rotation, to say the least. Landing Santana would have alleviated the problems somewhat, but not entirely; the best hope of improvement this bunch has outside of Hutchison absolutely breaking out and Kyle Drabek starting to pitch like his dad lies in the arm of Marcus Stroman, who will start the season in Triple-A. Still, relying on pitching prospects to save a team midseason is a bad place to be in, and after this season it wouldn't be surprising if the front office in Toronto started feeling heat from ownership as well as their fans.