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03/29/10 10:00 AM ET

AL East faces uphill climb to upend Yanks

Sox pin hopes on pitching, defense; Rays bank on athleticism

The Bostonians' siege of the House of Bronx is taking on a whole new look. The historic architects of the Red Sox must be scratching their heads, trying to figure out what good are fundamentals in a bandbox. But, then, the only thing those architects managed to build in 86 years was a curse.

So here are Theo Epstein's Red Sox, taking aim at the Yankees with pitching, defense and speed. Unless David Ortiz plays a full season in Big Papi style and Adrian Beltre retrieves his long-ball bat from mothballs, this just might end up as the first peacetime Boston team with more steals than homers (that last happened in 1945).

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Whether Beltre will ever again approach the 48 homers he hit for the Dodgers in 2004 is doubtful, but for sure his presence at third base tightens the American League's third-ranked defense last year. As for pitching ... oh, right, John Lackey got his Red Sox Nation visa.

But will the makeover and shift in philosophy be enough to topple the Yankees, or to even get the Red Sox into the playoffs in a tougher East Division and overall more competitive American League?

New York general manager Brian Cashman wasn't kidding when he said he began building the 2010 team during the 2009 victory parade. And it could be argued that the '09 Red Sox rolled into the postseason on their 16-2 domination of the Orioles, an edge not likely to repeat. In addition, the balanced AL West is a bona fide threat to wrest the Wild Card this year.

Distinguished by their Three-Quarter-Billion-Dollar Infield, the Yankees are geared up to get manager Joe Girardi yet another new uniform. The outfield defense, a soft spot for years, has been seriously upgraded with Curtis Granderson. The Yankees will not replace all of the 52 home runs and 172 RBIs of Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, but they'll work around that. The Yankees aren't into one-and-done. Little-known fact: Of their 48 postseason appearances, only two have been isolated, meaning no repeats.

Tampa Bay, which has won a division title more recently than have the Red Sox, returns intact but with the addition of the one element (a closer, Rafael Soriano) that dragged it down late last season. This could be a win-now season for the Rays, who hence will face some critical roster issues (potential free agents Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena).

A season of transitions in Baltimore? If Miguel Tejada takes to third base and Garrett Atkins takes to the American League, the Birds could have a more potent lineup than Boston's, and take the first steps back toward contention. But that's still a long road.

For now, the Orioles may not even be able to get out of the cellar, because the Blue Jays will also be improved. How can they possibly be better without Roy Halladay? That's easy: Departing along with Doc were the distractions. Also gone is former GM J.P. Ricciardi's brand of airing frustration. Possibly a dual case of addition by subtraction.

Best lineup
The Red Sox will try to bank on the theory that speed never slumps -- Marco Scutaro and Mike Cameron join Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia to give them a quartet with 20-plus steals potential -- and possibly prove that a team can go all the way without a 30-homer or 100-RBI guy (no team has won a World Series without either since the Twins in 1991). A healthy Brian Roberts setting up Nick Markakis, Luke Scott and friends would make the Orioles dangerous. And, of course, the Rays have a guy who'd be the defending homer king in Carlos Pena, if not for a fingers-breaking CC Sabathia pitch, behind Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria. Toronto only has the division's best 1-2 punch in Aaron Hill and Adam Lind (they combined for 71 homers and 222 RBIs). But nobody has the total package the Yankees will have if Robinson Cano gels in the heart of the lineup. Imagine a Mark Teixeira past his New York stage fright (he was hitting .191 in the middle of last May) and an Alex Rodriguez without his October burden. Shudder. Our selection: Yankees

Best rotation
Last year, the Yankees barely had a No. 4 starter. Now they have a Gibraltar quintet, with Javier Vazquez and Phil Hughes lined up behind Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte. In the front end, Boston's J-Squad (Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, John Lackey) can give them a run. But unless Daisuke Matsuzaka can spend more time on the mound than in the trainer's room and Tim Wakefield proves his spring effectiveness was not a mirage, the depth won't compare. Our selection: Yankees

Best bullpen
This could very well be where the division is won. Every team -- with the possible exception of the Blue Jays, who added erratic Kevin Gregg -- has a lights-out closer. Boston's Jonathan Papelbon is reloading after his Division Series flub, New York's Mariano Rivera is clearly immune to age issues, and Baltimore (Mike Gonzalez) and Tampa Bay (Soriano) have inherited Atlanta's surplus. But the road to the back of the bullpen gets a little rougher in the Bronx with Joba Chamberlain replacing Hughes, while the Red Sox's roles are well-defined with Manny Delcarmen, Ramon Ramirez and lefty Hideki Okajima. Our selection: Red Sox

Best defense
Cameron, who appears to be a young 37, and Beltre inject a couple of Gold Glove guys into Boston's defense. But Victor Martinez doesn't give the Red Sox the presence behind the plate that Jason Varitek did, and in left field, Ellsbury doesn't figure to be the same defensive weapon. The Yankees have a a lot of tread-wear at a couple of key positions (shortstop Derek Jeter and catcher Jorge Posada), but if Brett Gardner can stick in center this time and enable Granderson to play in the corner, their defense will improve. However, it still won't be on a par with that of the Rays, a highly athletic crew anchored by Gold Glover Longoria at third.
Our selection: Rays

Predicted order of finish






Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.