The American League East has long fancied itself the best division in baseball, a position buttressed by the fact the division has sent two teams to the postseason in each of the past six years, and in nine of the past 10. The exception was 2006, when the wild-card team, Detroit, came out of the AL Central.
But the AL East has not sent a team to the World Series since 2009, and going into 2013, the Detroit Tigers are the defending AL champs. The powerhouse rosters appear to reside in the AL West with Los Angeles and Texas, and the league's most surprising team, the Oakland Athletics, also emerged from the West.
The East's glamor teams, the Red Sox and Yankees, have lost considerable shine. The Sox lost 93 games last season and finished in last place for only the second time since 1932. They enter 2013 with their third manager in three seasons, the past two, Terry Francona and Bobby Valentine, flaming out in spectacular fashion. The Yankees have lost the ALCS in two of the past three seasons, including a four-game sweep by the Tigers last October, and were eliminated in the first round in 2011. Now Derek Jeter is 38 and coming off a fractured ankle, and Alex Rodriguez may be done for good, between a deteriorating hip and a PED-shattered reputation.
The Rays, the upstart power in the division, traded two top starting pitchers this winter and have done little to upgrade the division's weakest offense in 2012. There may be a power shift not only in the league, but in the division, where the Toronto Blue Jays may be unexpected favorites and the Baltimore Orioles will aim to prove that last season's wild-card finish was not a fluke.
What to make of the division in 2013? We put the question to an American League East talent evaluator, who isn't ready to write off the Yankees, thinks the Red Sox will be improved, wants proof from the Blue Jays, still respects the Rays and has doubts about the Orioles.
"The division," he said, "is pretty tightly packed."
More so, he believes, than in years. None of the teams in the division are locks to win 95-plus games, which would end a streak dating back to 2000, when the Yankees won the division with 87 wins.
A detailed breakdown of the Red Sox will come later. The evaluator said the biggest difference in the Sox from last season is that they now have quality players at every position, which was not the case in 2012, especially after injuries took their toll. "I think the Red Sox on paper are at least as good as Oakland and Baltimore were last year, probably better," he said. "They need their star players to perform like stars -- Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz. "
Here is the evaluator's breakdown of the other teams in the division.
The Blue Jays made the boldest moves of the offseason, pulling off a trade with the Marlins that netted star shortstop Jose Reyes, second baseman Emilio Bonifacio and starting pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, then acquiring NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets. They also signed free-agent outfielder Melky Cabrera and brought back John Gibbons to manage after John Farrell left to manage the Red Sox.
"On paper they're the favorites," the evaluator said. "But I want to see it. The 'dream' teams haven't worked out so well lately. Boston had a 'dream' team in 2011 and that didn't work out, and the Angels looked like they did last year when they added [Albert] Pujols. Even the Miami Heat took two years before they won.
"Reyes is a great player, and Bonifacio does a lot of good things. Melky, who knows after the latest drug news? They added three really good pitchers, but Johnson is an injury risk and how will Dickey do coming back to the American League?
"In the bullpen, [Casey] Janssen had what was called 'minor' shoulder surgery, but will he be a full go? Sergio Santos had shoulder surgery last July, and if he's healthy, he'll help as closer.
"Toronto looks good, but you still have to see how the pieces will fit."
Kevin Youkilis, hired to play third base in place of the injured A-Rod, was the team's most significant offseason addition. Lots of departures -- notably, Raul Ibanez, Nick Swisher, Eric Chavez, Russell Martin and Rafael Soriano. The Yankees re-signed outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and pitcher Hiroki Kuroda.
"Don't be mistaken, the Yankees are still a very talented team. They still have star players in [Robinson] Cano and [Curtis] Granderson and [Mark] Teixeira, who should bounce back from a down year. Brett Gardner being healthy for the full year will help, and so will Youk. Re-signing Kuroda was huge, and [Andy] Pettitte will be back, but pitching-wise, the big questions will be whether Phil Hughes keeps getting better and will be a bona fide No. 4, and will [Ivan] Nova throw again like he did in 2011? And they're hoping Michael Pineda can come back and give them something.
"Mariano Rivera will be back," the evaluator said. "I can't imagine Rivera being anything but exceptional, but he's 43, so you never know. But their bullpen should be solid.
"Catching is a question. They'd love to see [Austin] Romine to take that step forward and be that guy, but that's asking a lot. [Chris] Stewart is a good defender.
"But how will Jeter be? Are they sure he'll be ready by Opening Day? And A-Rod, they know he won't be back before June at the earliest, if at all. I don't think the Yanks are done making roster moves. I don't see them starting the year with Eduardo Nunez as DH. They signed Matt Diaz, and I could see them adding Travis Hafner. They'll do something to get offense."
The Orioles were pretty quiet in the offseason, their primary addition of note being Jair Jurrjens, the former Braves right-hander who was non-tendered by Atlanta after posting a 6.89 ERA in 11 games, 10 of them starts. Jurrjens spent some time on the DL with a groin injury, which may have contributed to his steep decline. Gone are corner infielder Mark Reynolds, who signed with the Indians as a free agent after being non-tendered, and middle infielder Robert [Curse of the] Andino, traded to Seattle.
Last season, their first under new GM Dan Duquette, the Orioles did not spend a single day under .500, and had an astonishing 29-9 record in one-run games, a big reason they were able to win 93 games last season, even though they scored just seven more runs than they allowed.
"I tip my hat to the Orioles, they had a great year," the evaluator said, "but you wonder if they can do it again. They didn't make very many changes. They'll have [Manny] Machado for a full season at third, but he'll have growing pains, and they kept Nate McLouth, who'll probably platoon with [Nolan] Reimold in left. Will Danny Valencia, who they got in a trade from the Red Sox, make the team? And they also claimed Alexi Casillas from the Twins; he'll help in the infield.
"To me, the questions are with the pitching. [Wei-Yin] Chen had a great year, and [Jason] Hammel was pitching well until he had knee surgery. [Miguel] Gonzalez was a good sign. But they need [Zach] Britton healthy, [Brian] Matusz to pitch better. They also have to decide whether [top prospect] Dylan Bundy will be in the rotation. If the rotation is healthy and pitches well, then the Orioles will be in the mix."
The Rays, who are forever dealing with budget constraints, traded two starting pitchers, James Shields and Wade Davis, to the Royals for a package of prospects headed by outfielder Wil Myers, the No. 3 ranked prospect in the game by Baseball America. They also lost outfielder B.J. Upton, first baseman Carlos Pena, infielder Jeff Keppinger and reliever J.P. Howell to free agency. The Rays have made a science of successfully reloading, but the task may be even more daunting in 2013. They acquired shortstop Yunel Escobar from the Marlins and signed free-agent first baseman James Loney, who last played for the Red Sox.
"I thought Davis was going to be the guy to step in and replace Shields," the evaluator said. "That surprised me a little bit.
"But [Alex] Cobb is a solid starter, Matt Moore is really good behind [David] Price, they have [Jeremy] Hellickson, and I would guess the other starter will either be [Jeff] Niemann or [Chris] Archer. [Alexander] Colome is coming, and they added the two young guys from Kansas City [Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery].
"The lineup wasn't very good last year and it doesn't look like it will be much better. Loney doesn't have Pena's power but should be steadier, and Escobar is talented, though he has had issues in other places. [Ben] Zobrist had a great year, they're hoping Desmond Jennings, who will play center field with B.J. gone, can step up, and they hope they can keep [Evan] Longoria healthy all year. And Myers will be in the big leagues at some point this season; there's no question he's a really good player."