Yanks suddenly AL East favorites again

If it were possible to win a division in January, then the Yankees would be American League East champions today.

That's how good a pickup Rafael Soriano looks like from the vantage point of a mid-winter's day, before a single pitch has been thrown or a single game has been played.

Obviously, there is a long way to go between now and Opening Day 2011, and even longer between then and the crowning of baseball's next world champion.

But if you're keeping score at home, score this offseason solidly in favor of the Yankees.

Already, the dynamic of the AL East -- baseball's most competitive division -- has been greatly altered from last year. The 2010 champion Tampa Bay Rays have been significantly weakened by the loss of Carl Crawford and now Soriano.

The Boston Red Sox, also-rans last year, are back in the mix with the addition of Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, plus the presumed return to health of the squadron of players that went down last year.

But no team addressed a key weakness as effectively as the Yankees did with the signing of Soriano, who not only solves an immediate problem -- who will pitch the eighth inning in 2011? -- but might also solve an even bigger one in the future: namely, who will pitch the ninth after Mariano Rivera says farewell?

Not a bad recovery for a team that appeared to have lost way too much ground bickering with Derek Jeter and then pursuing but ultimately failing to catch up with Cliff Lee.

Roster problems remain, for sure -- the Yankees still need Andy Pettitte or a comparable starting pitcher, as well as a backup outfielder. But the addition of Soriano not only changes the dynamics of their division, but of their games, as well.

Now, even a starting rotation relying on A.J. Burnett, Ivan Nova and possibly even Sergio Mitre, may no longer be the unmitigated disaster it appeared to be just two days ago.

The mere knowledge that the Yankees have Soriano and Mariano lurking to lock down the eighth and ninth innings will be a tremendous source of comfort to Joe Girardi, and a relentless source of discomfort to his counterpart in the other dugout.

Not to mention it takes a ton of pressure off the starters, who need go only six innings, and -- sorry, Joe West -- probably lengthens the game, because now Girardi has the luxury of using four relievers if necessary to get three outs in the seventh.

But what the Soriano deal really does is take a team that seemed stuck in the mud all winter and set it off and running again.

Just like that, the Yankees go from a wild-card team at best to favorites to win their division.

That is because the Red Sox, who were splashy early, really just added to areas that were already strengths. Gonzalez and Crawford are big bats, but Boston had no problem hitting the baseball or scoring runs last year. In 2010, they were near the top of the game in just about every major offensive category: second in batting average, second in runs scored, second in home runs, second in slugging percentage.

The argument can be made that they needed Soriano just as much as the Yankees did. But the Yankees got him, despite the early reservations of GM Brian Cashman, who unequivocally stated he wasn't giving up a No. 1 draft pick for anybody.

Obviously Rafael Soriano isn't just anybody. Either that or Cashman was overruled, or "persuaded," that this was the right way to go.

In any event, on paper and with snow covering every baseball diamond in the tri-state area, this looks like a great move for the Yankees -- and the most significant move made by any AL team in the offseason.

Yes, there are little things that tug at you about the deal. That Soriano can opt out after either of the first two years of the contract, and that the Yankees refused to extend him a no-trade clause, seems to indicate that neither side is 100 percent committed to the other for the long haul.

And recent history alone should tell all of us that even if we can't predict how good a season Soriano will have with the Yankees or how well he will fit in their clubhouse, we can be reasonably sure that next November he will exercise that opt-out clause, if only to negotiate himself an even better deal to remain with the Yankees.

Essentially, the association between Soriano and the Yankees is very much on a trial basis, a one-year deal that might stretch out to two, or three, or 10.

The way this all plays out is yet to be determined. The bottom line today is that for the 2011 season, the two best closers in baseball will pitch for the Yankees.

That in itself makes them the champions of this offseason.

And odds-on favorites to win it all once they actually start playing the games.