Reloaded Red Sox are target in AL East
Yanks have the star power, Rays the starting pitching to take aim
Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon are reunited, the Major Leagues' reigning home run champion is on a quest to silence doubters, Buck Showalter is making his presence felt, and the historic Yankees-Red Sox rivalry continues to intrigue.
Can we ask for anything more than what the American League East is sure to provide this season?
How about a close race until the very end?
Boston looks to stand in the way of that.
After a season marred by injury, the Red Sox came back in a big way this offseason, adding Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to a lineup that was already lethal, adding to the bullpen and bringing back a rotation that can match up with that of any team.
They're the Phillies of the American League and the Yankees of recent history.
Like Philadelphia, Boston's additions make it a heavy favorite in its league. And like the Yankees in previous offseasons, the Red Sox were aggressive and cold.
Now it's time to see if the offseason success translates into regular-season success.
General manager Theo Epstein knows it's a completely different proposition.
"Let's be honest, we haven't done anything yet," he said at the start of training camp. "All we have is a bunch of guys in this clubhouse here to try to set out and do a job. We've got a lot to prove."
Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury have to prove their injury woes are past them, while Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Jonathan Papelbon must prove they can still be the dominant pitchers they were not too long ago.
If they do, the Red Sox look like a force.
Even the Yankees will acknowledge that.
"We're not conceding anything. But Theo and their ownership got a lot of areas that were question marks answered in the wintertime," Yanks GM Brian Cashman said earlier this spring. "I didn't. I might have the answers right here, but because I can't say we do just yet, I'm going to be honest and say they've got the inside pull. They are the hunted and we are the hunters, and it's as simple as that."
The Yankees still have impressive tools for that hunt -- but perhaps fewer than they used to.
Their rotation is rather questionable after CC Sabathia. Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada aren't getting any younger, and besides signing Rafael Soriano to the largest setup-man contract ever, their offseason pickups mainly came from the bargain bin -- guys like catcher Russell Martin and pitchers Mark Prior, Bartolo Colon, among others.
But they're still the Yankees, they still have plenty of star power and pedigree, and they can still make moves.
One of their former managers has been making moves of his own.
That would be Showalter, who guided the O's to the second-best record in the AL after taking over in late July. He made some comments about the Yankees and Red Sox in a recent issue of Men's Journal, suggesting that Jeter exaggerates to get calls on inside pitches and Boston's successful offseason had more to do with its revenue stream than Epstein's cunning.
There's no doubt that Showalter gives the Orioles some added moxie against the big boys of the division. So does a vastly improved lineup -- with Mark Reynolds, Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero now in the fold -- and a pitching staff beaming with young, promising arms.
While the O's added on, the Rays, as expected, said goodbye. Crawford, Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Jason Bartlett, Carlos Pena and Matt Garza are gone, giving Tampa Bay questions on offense and serious questions in its bullpen.
But the rotation is solid. And Damon and Ramirez, the two former "Idiots" from Boston, seem rejuvenated.
"Manny and Johnny being here has brought a different kind of energy," manager Joe Maddon said. "As young players, being able to see guys who've been at the top of their game for a long time and still have as much energy as everybody else is motivating. They have the desire to be successful and want to win. That rubs off on everyone."
The Blue Jays, meanwhile, have a new leader in third baseman Jose Bautista, who became the face of the organization with 54 homers and a $65 million contract. He'll lead a squad with a promising rotation and a homer-happy lineup. Said Bautista: "All I'm worried about is winning, winning, winning."
In search of who will do so the most, MLB.com's five AL East reporters ranked the clubs in four categories and submitted their predictions for how the division will finish. Here are the results:
The Red Sox scored more runs than any team but the Yankees last season. That was with Youkilis, Ellsbury and Pedroia missing significant time, and without Crawford and Gonzalez. Despite losing Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez, the 2011 Red Sox are flat-out scary offensively. With Ellsbury, Crawford and Pedroia, they can run all day. With Youkilis, Gonzalez and David Ortiz, they can light up scoreboards. Oh, sure, the Yankees' lineup -- featuring Teixeira, Robinson Cano and a healthy A-Rod -- is still loaded. But their bitter rivals have added too much punch. Our selection: Red Sox
Boston's starting pitchers have the track records. Now they have to live up to them. The staff features the standout Jon Lester, rising star Clay Buchholz, two battle-tested front-line arms in Beckett and Lackey and the inconsistent Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has shown positive signs this spring. No question, Beckett and Lackey must pitch better than they did last season. And Matsuzaka needs to give them something. If not, then the Rays -- who go five deep with David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann and James Shields -- can give Boston a run for its money. Our selection: Red Sox
Shortly after the Yankees realized they couldn't bolster their rotation with one of baseball's best pitchers, they went to work on shortening games with their bullpen. They re-signed automatic closer Mariano Rivera with a two-year contract, then made Soriano a very wealthy eighth-inning man with a three-year, $35 million deal. It's basically now a seven-inning game in New York, which also has veteran lefty Pedro Feliciano and mercurial right-hander Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen. The Red Sox are solid, too, with Papelbon, Daniel Bard and Bobby Jenks. But the Yanks' late-inning duo stacks up to potentially be one of the best. Our selection: Yankees
The Yankees have two solid defensive corner infielders in Teixeira and A-Rod, they deploy two center fielders in their outfield -- Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner -- and their middle infielders each won Gold Gloves last year. One of them, of course, is Jeter, whose range declined last season. Their new catcher, the injury-plagued Martin, is also a question mark defensively. But New York is solid everywhere else. The Red Sox are solid, too, with elite-level defense at every position (as long as catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia can return the ball to the pitcher). Our selection: Yankees
Predicted order of finish
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.