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AL East still the toughest division

Bowden By Jim Bowden
ESPN Insider

With as many as 18 teams legitimately having some type of chance at a World Series appearance, major league baseball has more parity as a sport than we've seen in two decades. Of course, in terms of division power, nothing has changed: The American League East remains the strongest division in baseball.

The New York Yankees are much improved after upgrading their rotation with the acquisitions of Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda, the unretirement of Andy Pettitte and the return to health and strength of Phil Hughes. The Tampa Bay Rays added some punch by signing free agents Carlos Pena and Luke Scott, and the Rays will get a full season from ace in waiting Matt Moore. The Boston Red Sox still have one of the game's most potent lineups, and the Toronto Blue Jays -- a team that could probably win any other division in baseball -- might end up in fourth place here. That said, the Jays have the best chance of any AL team to be the surprise team of 2012.

There are only two other divisions that can even be in this discussion, the AL West and NL East, and even their cases are weak.

The AL West has the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers, arguably the two best teams in baseball, but they are balanced out by the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics, two of the worst. The Angels and Rangers may end up with more wins than their AL East counterparts, but that would be by virtue of getting to beat up on the bottom-feeders of their divison.

The NL East has some depth, with the Philadelphia Phillies, Miami Marlins, Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves all in serious contention, but all four clubs have issues either with health, position weaknesses or lack of depth. But while all four of these teams are good, none of them would be favorites in the AL East; in fact, they could all easily finish fourth in that division.

All we have to do is look at ESPN's Power Rankings, where the AL East has three of the top six teams, to see that it remains the best division in baseball.

Don't sleep on the NL East

Schoenfield By David Schoenfield

OK, OK ... the AL East has been baseball's best division at least since 2008 when Tampa Bay rose from the cellar of ineptitude to become the division's third power. An AL East team has captured the wild card each season since 2007 and could capture both wild cards this season. But for the first time in years there's at least an argument to be made for another division.

With the Miami Marlins moving into a new park and spending big on free agents (Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell) and the Washington Nationals adding Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson to an 80-win team and waiting for the likely in-season arrival of Bryce Harper, the NL East now has four teams capable of winning 90 games.

Much like the success of the Yankees pushed the Red Sox and then the Rays to a higher level, the Phillies' dominant run of five straight division titles has forced their division rivals to strive to build 90-win clubs rather than be content to aim for 85 wins and hope for some breaks.

Most impressive about the increasing strength of the NL East is the age of the teams. The Marlins have Reyes, Hanley Ramirez, Giancarlo Stanton, Logan Morrison, Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez and Gaby Sanchez, who are all younger than 30. The Nationals could be building a juggernaut behind young arms Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gonzalez and Drew Storen and an offense with Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and 2011 rookies Wilson Ramos and Danny Espinosa. As for the Braves, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy, Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado are all 27 or younger. Those three teams should only get better in upcoming seasons.

We should also give the NL East bonus points for not having the Baltimore Orioles in the division. For all the issues with the New York Mets -- on the field and off -- they still project to be more competitive than Baltimore, a team without a winning season since 1997. For the first time in years there is at least another division that can rival the AL East.