2/1/2013 10:19 A.M. ET
AL East is a stacked five-card deck
Every one of its teams could finish first as little separates them from top to bottom
By Richard Justice / MLB.com
If you're picking someone other than the Toronto Blue Jays to win the American League East, you're out there on your own.
You might also be right. Rays? Sure, it's possible. Yankees? Yes, absolutely. Red Sox? Go ahead and laugh at that one. Boston general manager Ben Cherington has had himself a terrific offseason.
Orioles? Let's answer that one with a question. Did any GM do a better job than Dan Duquette did in 2012? There you go.
Between Duquette's brilliant, low-cost, low-risk moves and manager Buck Showalter's magic at making it all work, only a fool would count out the Birds.
So there you go.
Welcome to the American League East in 2013.
It isn't the prospect that any of its five teams can finish first that really emphasizes how good the division is. It's the fact that one of them is going to finish last.
That's the tough part, because these are all good teams, and all of them will begin Spring Training fairly confident about the season.
Since Major League Baseball split into six divisions in 1994, the closest race from top to bottom occurred in the National League East in 2005, when the division's five teams were separated by nine games. The Braves won 90 games, followed by the Phillies (88), Marlins (83), Mets (83) and Nationals (81).
OK, let's try this order of finish:
1. Blue Jays
4. Red Sox
Despite the closeness of the teams, the Blue Jays will be favored to win after an offseason in which they a acquired dynamic leadoff hitter in Jose Reyes and an impact middle-of-the-order bat in Melky Cabrera.
Where the Blue Jays have really been transformed is in the rotation. General managers celebrate when they add one quality starting pitcher. Toronto's Alex Anthopoulos went out and got 627 innings and 520 strikeouts, based on last season's numbers, in the acquisitions of R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle.
The Blue Jays completely transformed the way we see them. Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow should slide comfortably into the two other starting spots, and if Kyle Drabek makes a successful recovery from elbow surgery, the Blue Jays could have a rotation to rival any in the game.
Regardless of how you look at the roster, the Blue Jays still look good. New manager John Gibbons will be challenged to make the pieces fit, but Dickey, Buehrle and Johnson come with reputations of being solid clubhouse guys.
Now about everyone else. The Rays may be a bat short, but that was true last season when they rode baseball's best pitching staff to 90 victories. Even without James Shields and Wade Davis, Tampa Bay has quality arms up and down its roster.
If Evan Longoria stays healthy and if rookie Wil Myers -- obtained from the Royals for Shields and Davis -- is the hitter he's projected to be, the Rays appear headed for their fourth postseason appearance in six seasons.
The Yankees and Red Sox may be the most interesting teams in the division, but not for the usual reasons. The Yankees lost 112 home runs with the departures of Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Raul Ibanez and others.
Unlike previous years when GM Brian Cashman had the resources to get whomever he wanted, the Yankees are determined to be under the $189 million luxury-tax threshold by Opening Day 2014.
This offseason may end up being Cashman's finest. He shopped carefully and was turned down a few times. Still, in the signings of Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner, he has the makings of a solid everyday lineup.
He has a smaller margin for error than in previous years, but if starters CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte stay healthy, the Bombers will be, like the Blue Jays and Rays, good enough to win.
The Red Sox are also significantly different from a season ago. Cherington spent carefully as well, but remade his team, improving it both on the field and in the clubhouse, with the additions of David Ross, Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino.
If new manager John Farrell -- another huge addition -- can get pitchers Jon Lester and John Lackey back to being what they once were, the Red Sox will contend.
Finally, there are the Orioles. They are a solid team even without having made significant offseason moves, but their year could come down to the performances of young pitchers like Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman.
In the end, the luxury tax is working just the way baseball hoped it would. It has allowed the Blue Jays to take a leap forward while pushing the Yankees and Red Sox to spend more carefully.
The Rays long ago proved they can do more with less than just about anyone. And baseball was resurrected in a big way in Baltimore last season. The AL East has the potential to have the best race in baseball. Let the fun begin.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.