Posted: Thursday March 29, 2012 12:57PM ; Updated: Tuesday April 3, 2012 3:46PM
Albert Chen
Albert Chen>INSIDE BASEBALL

AL East preview: The Rays' stellar rotation makes them a real threat

Story Highlights

Health is more of an issue than ever for a talented but aging Yankees team

The Rays have the best starting five in the division, and perhaps in all of baseball

A smooth start is critical for the Red Sox and their fiery new manager

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Last season, as The Great September Collapse was taking place up I-95, the Yankees waltzed away with their second AL East crown in three years. New York is in for a tougher fight in the Best Division in Baseball this year.

"Personally, I think the AL East is the toughest division in professional sports," Rays GM Andrew Friedman says of the only division in baseball that had four teams finish .500 or better in 2011. New York and Tampa, both of which reached the postseason last year, are armed with deep and talented pitching staffs. The young and hungry Blue Jays are rising superpowers. And don't sleep on the Red Sox, despite their dreadful finish.

"You can't accomplish what they did over the first four months of the season and be really, really good," Friedman says of Boston. "We expect that they will win 90-plus games. And they won't be the only ones. It's going to be a great race."

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

WINTER GRADE: C+

After nearly a decade away from the game, Dan Duquette is back in baseball and tasked with the impossible: turning around a woebegone franchise that hasn't had a winning season since the Clinton administration. The new GM turned to the international market this winter and added two intriguing pitchers in Wei-Yin Chen (from Taiwan) and Tsuyoshi Wada (Japan). He also dealt away durable innings eater Jeremy Guthrie for starter Jason Hammel and reliever Matt Lindstrom in what a scout calls "the worst trade of the offseason."

KEY QUESTION:

Can the once promising pitching staff stay healthy and productive?

Not so long ago, the future was bright in Baltimore. The organization was loaded with dazzling young pitching --- but talented hurlers Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta have all struggled, and now Zach Britton is DL-bound to start the season. A scout said this spring that many of the young Orioles pitchers need a complete overhaul of their deliveries. Super prospect Dylan Bundy has the talent to be an ace, but he's still years away from the Show -- if the Orioles are going to be relevant again before the next presidential election, they'll need their young pitchers to get their act together.

X-FACTOR:

Wei-Yin Chen, SP

Yes, there have been some positives in O's camp. Chen, who spent the last six seasons with the Chunichi Dragons of the Central League (he was the league leader in ERA in 2009), has turned heads with an impressive spring and is posed to be an impact pitcher in a thin rotation.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"This is a potential 100-loss team, and the system doesn't have a lot of talent besides Manny Machado. I wouldn't be surprised if they trade away Nick Markakis and Adam Jones at the trade deadline to acquire young talent. Really, it would be a mistake if they don't."

SI VideoVERDUCCI: Is this the year young pitchers live up to expectations?

BOSTON RED SOX

WINTER GRADE: C+

There's a new skipper (Bobby Valentine) as well as a new general manager (Ben Cherington). The Red Sox re-upped with Big Papi for another year, dumped Marco Scutaro, and picked up Cody Ross, Nick Punto, and Kelly Shoppach. The back end of the bullpen has a new look (oft-injured Andrew Bailey is closing, with ex-Astro Mark Melancon taking over setup duties), but the core of the club that was the best team in baseball over the season's first 4 months remains largely intact and ready to move on from the beer and fried chicken debacle of last September.

KEY QUESTION:

How long before Bobby V's act gets old?

He's already picking fights with the Yankees. He's already calling players out. He's already shooting down rumors of a rift between him and the GM There's not going to be a dull moment in Boston, not with Valentine shuffling around in the dugout. No one knows if this will be a good marriage or a disaster -- what we do know is that Valentine is going to say and do outlandish things to keep the attention on him and not his players. After the Great September Collapse, a smooth, controversy-free start to the season is critical for the Red Sox and their fiery new field general.

X-FACTOR:

Daniel Bard

The juggernaut lineup will have no problem scoring runs. Boston's big questions are in the rotation, beyond Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. Who's going to step up behind the big three? Valentine hasn't yet committed to Bard as a starter, but the ex-setup man has the most upside of all the candidates to fill out the rotation. He's been inconsistent this spring, but the fireballer could be a big-time difference maker --- if Valentine gives him the chance.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"This is the thinnest Red Sox team I've seen in a while, particularly in the starting pitching. I think the bullpen is going to be fine, but the bottom half of the rotation could be a problem. A big one."

SI VideoVERDUCCI: Red Sox need starters to stay healthy

NEW YORK YANKEES

WINTER GRADE: B+

They were dead quiet for over two months, bystanders to the Yu Darvish and CJ Wilson sweepstakes, and seemingly headed to spring training with a suspect starting five. Then everything changed on Jan. 13, when GM Brian Cashman added Michael Pineda and Huroki Kuroda, and, in one night, turned the rotation into one of the deepest in the league. Cashman is also hoping to strike gold with the pickups of old-timers Raul Ibanez and Andy Pettitte.

KEY QUESTION:

Will age catch up with the Bombers?

The Yankees are as deep and talented as any team in baseball. But they are also old, so health is more of an issue than ever in the Bronx. The Yankees are counting on Derek Jeter (who turns 38 in June) and Alex Rodriguez (37 in July) to rebound from subpar seasons, but Father Time is clearly catching up with both stars. A-Rod is coming off a year in which he played in just 99 games and had his streak of 13 seasons of 30 home runs and 100 RBIs snapped. And could this be the year that 42-year-old Mariano Rivera finally turns human?

 
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