The Tampa Bay Rays beat the odds by winning the East in 2010.Â After losing several key players over the offseason, can they hold off the Yankees and Red Sox again?
2010 final standings
1. Tampa Bay Rays (96-66)
2. New York Yankees (95-67) * AL Wild Card
3. Boston Red Sox (89-73)
4. Toronto Blue Jays (85-77)
5. Baltimore Orioles (66-96)
The 2010/11 offseason
As always seems to be the case, the AL East was a hive of offseason activity.
The Boston Red Sox were relatively dormant in the 09/10 offseason, but they showed that this was merely the lull before the 10/11 offseason storm by snapping up two of the best offensive players in the game.Â The Red Sox completed the long-anticipated trade for first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and then sent shockwaves through the league with a stealth signing of former Rays hero Carl Crawford. These additions more than made up for the loss of catcher Victor Martinez (Detroit) and third baseman Adrian Beltre (Texas) via free agency.
While Boston were booming, the New York Yankees were left frustrated. Their offseason goal seemed simple enough: sign starting pitcher Cliff Lee. Once he decided to go back to Philadelphia instead, they were left high and dry.Â Losing Andy Pettitte to retirement further added to their rotation woes and they resorted to picking up some free agent veterans in Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon and Kevin Millwood to provide some depth in their organization.Â Their offseason efforts were concentrated on re-signing veterans Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter (the latter in a somewhatÂ strained process) and joining the Red Sox in the ‘Rays Removal’ market by signing Tampa Bay’s closer Rafael Soriano to be their set-up man.Â
That ‘Rays Removal’ market was particularly galling for Tampa Bay, who must feel as though they are paying the price for upstaging their illustrious rivals in 2010.Â Aside from Crawford and Soriano, Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett were traded away, Carlos Pena joined the Cubs as a free agent, while their bullpen was torn apart with Soriano’s departure joined by the loss of Grant Balfour, Randy Choate and Joaquin Benoit. The Rays responded by reuniting former Red Sox teammates Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez.
It wasn’t just the top three teams who made a splash.Â Not to be outdone, the Orioles revamped their offence with the additions of Mark Reynolds, Derrek Lee, J.J. Hardy and Vlad Guerrero.Â The Blue Jays were less active, continuing their rebuilding by trading Shaun Marcum to the Brewers and then pulling off what some consider to be the masterstroke of the offseason: somehow convincing the L.A. Angels to take Vernon Wells and his almighty contract off their hands.
The Raysâ€™ roster has seen plenty of changes, but the emphasis on home grown players remains. Third baseman Evan Longoria and starting ace David Price lead the offence and pitching staff respectively, with the slicking fielding B. J. Upton and yet another exciting young pitcher coming through the Raysâ€™ system in the form of Jeremy Hellickson.
While the Yankees didnâ€™t make the improvements they wanted to over the offseason, no one should be in any doubt about the quality of their roster.Â They will put up plenty of runs with Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano leading the way alongside other strong hitters such as Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Nick Swisher.Â The rotation isnâ€™t fear-inducing, but CC Sabathia is one the of the best pitchers around, Phil Hughes impressed in 2010 and things can surely only get better for A.J. Burnett after a dismal campaign last year.Â As for the bullpen, the fact that they could sign the Raysâ€™ closer Rafael Soriano and use him as a set-up man behind arguably the greatest closer of all time in Mariano Rivera says it all.
The Red Sox were hit hard by injuries last year and have several key players back to full fitness, particularly second baseman Dustin Pedroia, centre fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and Kevin Youkilis, who will move from first base to third to accommodate Adrian Gonzalez.Â Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz were terrific last year and itâ€™s expected that Josh Beckett and John Lackey will return to form after disappointing 2010 seasons.Â Jonathan Papelbon, Daniel Bard and former White Sock Bobby Jenks form a formidable group at the sharp end of the bullpen.
The strength of the Rays, Yankees and Red Sox is what makes life so tough for the Blue Jays and Orioles at the moment, as both have some good players at their disposal.Â The Blue Jays can field the home-run leader of 2010 in Jose Bautista and have some interesting pitchers in Ricky Romero, Brett Cecil, Jesse Litsch and the very promising rookie Kyle Drabek.Â As well as their new recruits, the Orioles have someÂ talented youngsters in right-fielder Nick Markakis, centre-fielder Adam Jones, catcher Matt Wieters and starting pitchers Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman.Â Jeremy Guthrie is the dependable veteran who will lead the rotation.
John Farrell begins his Major League managerial career with the Blue Jays this year, after spending five years as the Red Soxâ€™s pitching coach.Â Terry Francona (Red Sox), Joe Girardi (Yankees) and Joe Maddon (Rays) have all managed their respective teams in a World Series in previous seasons, while Buck Showalter continues the job he started partway through 2010 as manager of the Orioles.
Should be: Red Sox, Yankees
Could be: Rays
Wonâ€™t be: Blue Jays, Orioles
The Red Sox and Yankees will be battling all the way, with the team finishing second being a very good bet to win the Wild Card.Â There are some question marks against the Rays due to the high turnover of players, but they certainly could be in the running yet again.