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2014 American League East preview

The Yankees (surprise!) spent big money in an effort to catch the Red Sox


2014 American League East preview

The Yankees probably overpaid for Jacoby Ellsbury, but the Red Sox will miss the center fielder who stole 52 bases last season.

(Updated March 29, 2014)

Baseball's best division produced four teams that won at least 85 games in 2013, including the World Series champion Boston Red Sox.

The Red Sox, who hadn't made the postseason since 2009, won the title in their first year post-Bobby Valentine, and the Yankees missed the playoffs for only the second time since 1995.

Their offseason reactions couldn't have been more different.

The Red Sox, understandably, didn't go wild in free agency, and the Yankees spent a combined $438 million on four players.

Then there are the Rays, whose payroll will never match the two AL East heavyweights, but who can go toe-to-toe where it matters. Tampa has won at least 90 games in five of the last six seasons, and made four postseason trips in that span.

The Orioles have won an average of 89 games the last two seasons, but likely will struggle to keep up with the top three teams in the division. Then there are the Blue Jays, from whom many of us expected big things in 2013. Toronto finished 14 games under .500 last season and doesn't appear to have improved much this year.

Our look at the AL East, with predicted order of finish:

1. New York Yankees

Last season: 85-77

Projected lineup: CF Jacoby Ellsbury, SS Derek Jeter, RF Carlos Beltran, C Brian McCann, 1B Mark Teixeira, DH Alfonso Soriano, 3B Kelly Johnson, 2B Brian Roberts, LF Brett Gardner

Projected starting rotation: LHP CC Sabathia, RHP Hiroki Kuroda, RHP Masahiro Tanaka, RHP Ivan Nova, RHP Michael Pineda

Closer: RHP David Robertson

Key addition: Tanaka. Ellsbury (who received seven years and $153 million), McCann (five years, $85 million) and Beltran (three years, $45 million) should give the offense a big jolt, but it's Tanaka (seven years, $155 million) whose acquisition is the most critical. With CC Sabathia seeming to hit a wall in 2013, the Yankees' rotation needed some firepower near the top. Enter Tanaka, who signed one of the five largest contracts ever given to a pitcher. The 25-year-old was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for Rakuten of the Japanese Pacific League in 2013.

Key loss: Robinson Cano. The Yankees certainly will miss the best closer in history (Mariano Rivera, who retired after the 2013 season), and they might even miss the suspended Alex Rodriguez, since their infield is such a question mark (see below). But the free-agent exit of Cano, who signed one of the biggest contracts in baseball history, hurts the most. Cano is a .309 career hitter who averaged 29 homers and 107 RBI the last four seasons. He likely will be replaced at second base by Brian Roberts, a former Oriole who has batted .229, .182 and .249 the last three years and hasn't played more than 77 games in a season since 2009.

Key question: Can New York advance to the postseason with such a weak infield? The Yankees are expected to start Roberts at second base and Kelly Johnson at third. Johnson has some pop (averages of 20 homers and 59 RBI the last four seasons), but he's not much of a hitter (he's batted .225 and .235 the last two years). The two stars in the infield -- first baseman Mark Teixeira and shortstop Derek Jeter -- are coming off seasons in which they played 15 and 17 games, respectively. The Yankees can't afford a repeat injury at either position.

2. Boston Red Sox

Last season: 97-65, World Series champs; defeated Tampa Bay 3-1 in ALDS, defeated Detroit 4-2 in ALCS, defeated St. Louis 4-2 in World Series

Projected lineup: RF Shane Victorino, LF Daniel Nava, 2B Dustin Pedroia, DH David Ortiz, 1B Mike Napoli, SS Xander Bogaerts, C A.J. Pierzynski, 3B Will Middlebrooks, CF Grady Sizemore

Projected starting rotation: LHP Jon Lester, RHP John Lackey, RHP Clay Buchholz, RHP Jake Peavy, LHP Felix Doubront

Closer: RHP Koji Uehara

Key addition: Pierzynski. The 37-year-old was signed to replace Jarrod Saltalamacchia behind the plate. Pierzynski won't win any major-league popularity contests, but he should be a solid addition for the defending champs. He batted .272 last season and has averaged 23 homers and 74 RBI the last two years.

Key loss: Jacoby Ellsbury. Yes, the Yankees -- surprise, surprise -- overpaid for an outfielder who played in only 18 and 74 games in 2010 and 2012, respectively. But when healthy, which Ellsbury was last season, he's great. Ellsbury batted .298 with 52 steals and 92 runs in 2013. In 2011, he was sensational, hitting .321 with 32 homers, 105 RBI, 39 steals and 119 runs.

Key question: Are Bogaerts and Middlebrooks the answers on the left side of the infield? The 21-year-old Bogaerts, a .296 career hitter in the minor leagues, takes over for Stephen Drew. Middlebrooks, meanwhile, needs to produce as if it's 2012. That season, the once highly touted prospect batted .288 with 15 homers and 54 RBI in 267 at-bats. Last year, Middlebrooks hit .227 with a .696 OPS. He has excellent pop -- 32 homers and 103 RBI in 615 career at-bats -- but needs to be much more consistent.

3. Tampa Bay Rays

Last season: 92-71; defeated Cleveland in wild-card game, lost to Boston 3-1 in ALDS

Projected lineup: LF David DeJesus, 2B Ben Zobrist, 3B Evan Longoria, RF Wil Myers, DH Matt Joyce, 1B James Loney, CF Desmond Jennings, SS Yunel Escobar, C Ryan Hanigan

Projected starting rotation: LHP David Price, RHP Alex Cobb, LHP Matt Moore, RHP Chris Archer, RHP Jake Odorizzi

Closer: RHP Grant Balfour

Key addition: Balfour. The 36-year-old was signed for two years and $12 million to take Fernando Rodney's place at the back end of the 'pen. Balfour saved 62 games in 67 chances for the Athletics the last two seasons. In 2013, he was terrific, going 38-for-41 in save chances with a 2.59 ERA and 72 Ks in 62 2/3 innings.

Key loss: Fernando Rodney. Well, the 2012 version of Rodney (0.60 ERA, 48 saves in 50 opportunities) would be a loss. The 2013 version (eight blown saves, a 3.38 ERA and 1.34 WHIP)? Not so much. Regardless, Rodney saved a combined 85 games for Tampa the last two seasons. How much he's missed depends on Balfour.

Key question: Can the starting rotation carry the Rays to the playoffs yet again? Price wasn't himself in 2013 (10-8, 3.33 ERA), but the Rays' rotation is so stacked it didn't matter as much as you would expect. The remaining four members of the rotation are age 26 and younger, and each could be a stud. The best are Cobb (11-3, 2.76 ERA in 2013) and Moore (17-4, 3.29 ERA last season). If any of the five falter or are injured, Jeremy Hellickson -- who was a combined 23-21 with a 3.02 ERA in 2011 and '12 -- is waiting in the wings. Hellickson, who will turn 27 on April 8, struggled last season (12-10, 5.17 ERA).

4. Baltimore Orioles

Last season: 85-77

Projected lineup: RF Nick Markakis, 3B Manny Machado, 1B Chris Davis, CF Adam Jones, DH Nelson Cruz, C Matt Wieters, SS J.J. Hardy, LF David Lough, 2B Jemile Weeks

Projected starting rotation: RHP Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP Chris Tillman, LHP Wei-Yin Chen, RHP Bud Norris, RHP Miguel Gonzalez

Closer: RHP Tommy Hunter

Key addition: Jimenez. Cruz, who has norms of 27 homers and 84 RBI the last three seasons, is a nice addition to the lineup, but the Orioles' season will hinge some on Jimenez, who was given a four-year, $50 million contract after an outstanding second half for the Indians in 2013. Jimenez was 6-5 with a 1.82 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 84 innings after the 2013 All-Star break. Prior to that, however, he had experienced many more downs than ups since 2011.

Key loss: Jim Johnson. The closer led the AL in saves in 2012 (51) and 2013 (50). He had 97 Ks in that span. The O's traded Johnson to Oakland for Weeks, and they'll be counting on Hunter, who was 6-5 with a 2.81 ERA as a setup man last season. The former starter has four career saves (all in 2013).

Key question: Is Chris Davis the real deal? The imposing first baseman led the AL in homers and RBI last season, and he went deep 33 times in 2012. But he's a strikeout machine (368 Ks in 1,099 at-bats the last two seasons) who has batted .266 in his career. If Davis continues to be a huge force in the middle of the order, Baltimore's top six hitters -- Markakis, Machado, Davis, Jones, Cruz and Wieters -- could be enough to keep the O's in contention.

5. Toronto Blue Jays

Last season: 74-88

Projected lineup: SS Jose Reyes, RF Jose Bautista, 1B Edwin Encarnacion, DH Adam Lind, CF Colby Rasmus, LF Melky Cabrera, 3B Brett Lawrie, C Dioner Navarro, 2B Ryan Goins

Projected starting rotation: RHP R.A. Dickey, LHP Mark Buehrle, RHP Brandon Morrow, LHP J.A. Happ, RHP Kyle Drabek

Closer: RHP Casey Janssen

Key addition: Navarro. J.P. Arencibia, a .212 career hitter who averaged 21 homers and 63 RBI per season since 2011, was jettisoned in favor of Navarro. The latter was signed to a two-year, $8 million contract after batting .300 with 13 homers, 34 RBI and an .856 OPS in 240 at-bats for the Cubs last season. Navarro, however, hasn't had more than 240 at-bats in a season since 2009, and he's a .251 career hitter.

Key loss: J.P. Arencibia. His power might be missed, but his lowly average and huge strikeout numbers (400 in 1,299 career at-bats) won't leave a hole in the Jays' lineup.

Key question: Can the Jays even win 80 games with this starting rotation? My guess is no. Dickey (14-13, 4.21 ERA in 2013) and Buehrle (12-10, 4.15) are ages 39 and 35 (on March 23), respectively. The pitcher with the biggest arm, Morrow, has had only one effective year in the big leagues (2012). Happ was 5-7 with a 4.56 ERA and 1.47 WHIP last season, and Drabek has a 5.37 ERA and 1.68 WHIP in his four-year career. That's not good enough to win any division. In the AL East, it could be disastrous.

2014 division previews

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