1. Toronto Blue Jays- Toronto’s busy offseason showed how serious the Blue Jays are about returning to the days of the early 1990s when they were a powerhouse in the division. Former Marlins pitcher A.J. Burnett, part of another Florida fire sale, should provide a powerful one-two throwing combo along with ace Roy Halladay. Infielders Lyle Overbay (first baseman, Milwaukee
Brewers) and Troy Glaus
(third baseman, Arizon Diamondbacks) were acquired in trades for a slew of prospects and role players. The most financially substantial of their free agent
acquisitions is former Oriole reliever B.J. Ryan, who will provide great late inning pitching to an already adequate bullpen.
In order for the Blue Jays to take this extremely competitive division, they will need to have all of their parts working together. Halladay, coming off an injured shoulder, needs to provide his usual outstanding performances in concert with anywhere from 12 to 15 wins from Burnett, Ted Lilly, and Josh Towers. The pitching staff should not be as big of a concern as whether the starting lineup will be able to gel. Orlando
Hudson’s absence eliminates a great defensive presence in the infield, but the off season additions and young up-and-comers like second baseman Aaron Hill should prove strong enough to finish down the stretch.
2. Boston Red Sox- The Red Sox offseason included quite a bit of tumult. The loss of fan favorite center fielder Johnny Damon causes a major hole in their outfield, but may spark a team that is starting to get younger while staying talented. It is difficult to contend that losing any more parts would make this team better, but if Manny Ramirez does get dealt, the Red Sox could get a number of talented players in return later in the season. The Red Sox faithful need to look at the fact that by getting talented players like Andy Marte and Kevin Youkilis while keeping a great staff together means playoff prospects for years to come. In order for the Red Sox to compete for the pennant, they need to have pitchers Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, and Matt Clement around for a whole season’s worth of innings. The strength of their hitting and the intangibles that the Red Sox have had since winning the World Series means a spot near the top of the league in 2006.
3. New York Yankees- The Yankees stole one from the Red Sox and they didn’t even need to take the field. Center fielder Johnny Damon will provide some attitude and a knack for great plays in the New York lineup while providing an intangible advantage in the rivalry with the Red Sox. However, one player does not make a World Series team nor does it make a playoff team. The Yankees farm system remains depleted and New York mainstays like Mike Mussina, Gary Sheffield, and Randy Johnson are not getting any younger. While additions Octavio Dotel and Kyle Farnsworth provide a potentially strong staff around closer Mariano Rivera, Dotel needs to get past arm problems and Farnsworth needs to keep his cool and avoid being the second coming of John Rocker. This may be the year that George Steinbrenner and others realize that money cannot always buy championships and Yankees fans may be in for some troubled years ahead.
4. Baltimore Orioles- The Orioles’ best off season addition was the hiring of manager Sam Perlozzo, because he was able to wrangle his friend, Atlanta Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone, to Baltimore. Mazzone may have been able to develop great staffs for fifteen years in Atlanta, but he will have his work cut out for him in his new position. Without closer B.J. Ryan, who went to divisional rival Toronto, young gun Chris Ray will step up into the spot light. Ray, whom many in the organization feel is ready to fill the closer role, is probably a year or two away from being ready and needs a season of struggle to get to this point. Starters Rodrigo Lopez, Erik Bedards, and Daniel Cabrera would make a great potential All Star team but need to get past injury and control problems to make their mark. The silver lining for the Orioles is that they should expect a high run total from their potent lineup, including good seasons from Miguel Tejada, right fielder Jay Gibbons, and center fielder Corey Patterson.
5. Tampa Bay Devil Rays- New manager Joe Maddon, a coaching veteran of three decades, should provide a calming force over perennial punching bag Tampa Bay and its crew of young, underachieving players. Maddon will need to contend with a pitching staff with back of rotation talent throughout the year, with only ace Scott Kazmir providing any consistency from start to start. He will also need to make the team’s athleticism and youth work in its favor. The outfield of Carl Crawford (left field), Aubrey Huff (right field) and Rocco Baldelli (center field) would be outstanding if they could combine their distinct talents into two players. The hope for Devil Rays fans is that another year means another year of honing in on a .500 season, but the question marks are far too many to dig them out of the AL East cellar.