AL East powers continue battle for supremacy
Yanks and other rivals hope to counter Boston's early moves
It has been called the heavyweight division of Major League Baseball for many years, and for good reason. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox both play in the American League East -- and both are consistently loaded with All-Star talent at several positions.
One big reason for that is the clubs' consistent activity during the Hot Stove months, and that has been no different in recent weeks. While nearly two months still remain until pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training, Boston has made an early statement in its quest to win the division for the first time since 2007.
General manager Theo Epstein has had a monumental offseason thus far, making a trade with the Padres for All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and signing perhaps the best all-around position player from the free-agent market in Carl Crawford. At this point, Boston has won the battle of the offseason.
How will the Yankees counter? The Phillies snared their top priority of the offseason, Cliff Lee, so the perennial rival will have to get creative in order to improve their starting rotation.
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Of course, the Red Sox and Yankees aren't the only teams in the AL East -- just the most prominent. Don't overlook the Blue Jays, who won 85 games last season, even after trading Roy Halladay to Philadelphia. And the Orioles also have a nice nucleus of young players, which they supplemented by acquiring the power bat of Mark Reynolds from the D-backs. And what about the Rays, who have won the division twice in the past three years? They could be in for some slippage after watching Crawford and several other key players leave as free agents.
Here is a team-by-team look at the AL East in light of the developments so far this winter:
What they've done: The Orioles fortified their infield during an eventful Winter Meetings. President of baseball operations Andy MacPhail got the power-hitting third baseman he wanted in Reynolds. Not long afterward, he acquired shortstop J.J. Hardy and utility man Brendan Harris from the Twins. A couple of days after the Meetings concluded, the O's brought back last year's starting shortstop, Cesar Izturis, on a one-year deal with the idea that he can be a reliable backup.
Left to do: They're looking for another power bat to complement Reynolds, ideally at first base. Like just about every team, the O's would like to upgrade their bullpen. MacPhail would also like to acquire a veteran starter.
Where they stand: The Orioles are headed in an upward direction under new manager Buck Showalter. MacPhail's recent maneuverings should provide an additional lift. But playing in the loaded AL East could prolong Baltimore's progress toward rejoining the contenders. MacPhail himself joked that the O's are going to start a mid-Atlantic Division, after the Red Sox added Gonzalez and Crawford in a 72-hour span.
Boston Red Sox
What they've done: Epstein made a bold statement to the rest of the Major Leagues, acquiring two of the game's premier players. The cost for Gonzalez was three highly rated prospects, but Epstein deemed that price well worth it for a player who is just 28 years old. Crawford, after years of tormenting the Sox as a member of the Rays, was signed to a seven-year, $142 million pact. Catcher Jason Varitek is also back for another year -- his 15th in Boston.
Left to do: Bullpen is front and center on Epstein's priority list now that he has gotten his big bats.
Where they stand: The additions -- Gonzalez and Crawford -- outweigh the subtractions of two players (Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre) who were All-Stars in 2010. Not only that, but Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis will all be healthy again after missing large chunks of last season. Manager Terry Francona's offense has the potential to be overpowering. The Red Sox have more than enough talent to get back to the postseason after last season's near-miss. The pitching rotation, fronted by Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, is banking on bounce-back seasons by Josh Beckett and John Lackey. Epstein is eagerly awaiting word from some of the free-agent relievers to whom he has made offers. Matt Guerrier and Kevin Gregg are two believed to be on that list.
New York Yankees
What they've done: The Yankees have retained two icons, agreeing on new contracts with shortstop Derek Jeter and closer Mariano Rivera. But what's more notable is what they did not do ... and that's sign Cliff Lee to a long-term deal.
Left to do: Cashman is awaiting word on whether lefty Andy Pettitte will retire or come back for a return engagement in the Bronx. The Bombers are also looking for catching help, talking to veteran Russell Martin, who was non-tendered by the Dodgers. Setup man Kerry Wood is another player Cashman would like to bring back. The Yankees may also turn to the trade market to bolster their starting rotation.
Where they stand: The pressure is on the Yankees, mainly because of the major acquisitions by the Red Sox. The rivals are forever measured against each other. But it should be noted that New York came within two wins of getting to the World Series last year, and most of that cast is returning. Robinson Cano, smack in the middle of his prime, has become one of the best hitters in baseball. Age, however, is a legitimate concern for a good chunk of the roster. So, too, is rotation depth. Sabathia is an anchor, but New York desperately needs someone to supplement him. The Yankees still have the look of a postseason contender.
Tampa Bay Rays
What they've done: Unfortunately for the Rays, who are under market constraints, all they've seen thus far are subtractions from a team that won the AL East in two of the past three years.
Left to do: The Rays have holes to fill, particularly at first base, left field and in the bullpen.
Where they stand: It's been a somewhat depressing winter for the Rays, who have watched cornerstone players leave. Crawford is now with the Red Sox, meaning the Rays will have 18 reminders a year of what he meant to Tampa Bay. First baseman Carlos Pena was nice enough to go to the National League, signing with the Cubs. Joaquin Benoit, an invaluable setup man, moved on to Detroit. The next to go will be closer Rafael Soriano. As an organization, the Rays will try to make up for their losses with their noted strength in player development. And manager Joe Maddon has the perfect temperament to oversee what could be a bit of a rebuilding process. The strength of the team remains its starting pitching.
Toronto Blue Jays
What they've done: The Blue Jays traded starter Shawn Marcum to the Brewers for highly regarded shortstop prospect Brett Lawrie.
Left to do: The Blue Jays need relief, even more now that lefty Scott Downs has left as a free agent to the Angels. General manager Alex Anthopoulos is also looking for a first baseman/designated hitter to share time with Adam Lind. And if a third baseman could be had, slugger Jose Bautista could move back to right field, where he is more comfortable. Catching is another area of need, and Martin could be a nice fit.
Where they stand: The Blue Jays are a team nobody will take lightly -- not even the Red Sox and Yankees. They have a powerful lineup and are coming off an 85-win season. Rookie manager John Farrell, previously Boston's pitching coach, should add some energy, and also a large amount of pitching expertise. If Toronto could somehow pry Zack Greinke from the Royals, it would instantly become contenders.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brownie Points, and follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne. Reporters Brittany Ghiroli, Bill Chastain, Bryan Hoch and Gregor Chisholm contributed. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.