2011 MLB Preview: A.L. East

FORT MYERS, FL - MARCH 14: Infielder Dustin Pedroia #15 of the Boston Red Sox bats against the New York Yankees during a Grapefruit League Spring Training Game at City of Palms Park on March 14, 2011 in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

Wherein we run through Major League Baseball's best division since the second Eisenhower Administration ... What? It's been just a few years? Okay, but it seems like forever that the poor Tampa Bay Devil Rays haven't had Crushed Ice's chance in Hell of competing ... What? The division's so strong because of the Devil Rays? Let's try to figure this thing out ...

Everyone seems to love the Toronto Blue Jays, perhaps because they won 85 games last season and they're under relatively new (and young) management. This is the sort of scrappy franchise we want to like. What's too often been forgotten is that they've lost two of their better players (John Buck and Vernon Wells), their best player last season (Jose Bautista) was playing way out of his mind, and their best pitcher (Shaun Marcum) is today wearing the livery of the Milwaukee Brewers. There are reinforcements on hand and the Jays won't collapse. But their next winning season will have to wait until 2012, at least.

Everyone in Baltimore seems to love the Baltimore Orioles, who played brilliantly after Buck Showalter took the managerial reins last August and now enjoy the services of one-time stars Vladimir Guerrero and Derrek Lee, who between them will earn a cool $15.25 million this season. Hey, I wouldn't have done it. But Guerrero and Lee just might be enough to push the Orioles to the .500 mark ... something everyone in Baltimore hasn't seen in quite some time. And if a couple of overpriced veterans bring the fans back to the Orioles' once-popular ballpark, who are we to argue?

Yes, the demise of the Tampa Bay Rays has been greatly exaggerated. Their five starting pitchers, including Rookie of the Year candidate Jeremy Hellickson, can match up with anybody else in the American League. But no, we can't figure them for a third postseason appearance in four years. Not after losing their first baseman and one of their two superstars. There's definitely reason for optimism, though, beginning with those five starters and perhaps ending with the slightly preposterous notion that Manny Ramirez will be healthy enough and happy enough to play in 140-odd games. Say what you want about him, but the man can still hit.

It does seem odd that the New York Yankees enter this season not really expecting to win. Oh, maybe the Wild Card. Probably the Wild Card. But with their big off-season acquisition a relief pitcher and a back end of the pitching rotation that only Ivan Nova's and Freddy Garcia's mothers could love, it doesn't feel like the Yankees are real serious about winning more games than the Red Sox. Which, again, seems odd. None of which means we shouldn't take the Yankees seriously as contenders for the Wild Card and whatever else. Yes, they're old. But they're good old, with both Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez good bets to actually play better this year than they did last year. And we shouldn't discount management's willingness to get serious at some point, should Ivan Nova's mother's son discover that maybe he's not well-suited, after all, for the overheated atmosphere in the American League East.

Which leaves only the Boston Red Sox, your favorites in not only the East but also the rest of the American League. The franchise needed to do one thing this winter, and needs to do one thing this season. This winter the Red Sox needed to replace Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez, and they did exactly that by signing Carl Crawford and trading for Adrian Gonzalez. And this season the Red Sox need to avoid the abominable injuries they suffered last season. We don't yet know they'll do this, but it seems a good bet since what happened to the Sox last season on the injury front probably won't happen to them again in the next 50 seasons. And yet somehow they managed to win 89 games, and it's a terrible injustice that Terry Francona wasn't named Manager of the Year (unanimously!). This year ... well, see for yourself.

Projected American League East Standings

1. Boston Red Sox     95-67
2. New York Yankees   91-71
3. Tampa Bay Rays     86-76
4. Baltimore Orioles  82-80
5. Toronto Blue Jays  74-88

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