There is no doubting that the Toronto Blue Jays were a very busy team this winter. There is also no doubt that the motivation behind that flurry of moves was the supposed vulnerability of the American League East. After consecutive seasons of finishing fourth of the division, and noticeable weakness in the division would look like a free food sign at an All-You-Can-Eat Buffet.
So the Blue Jays saw their sign and they ran with it, snatching up Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey, Maicer Izturis, Emilio Bonifacio, and Melky Cabrera and starting the biggest make-over in club history.
But does that necessarily make the Blue Jays the favorites to win the division? The pundits seem to think so. However, the funny thing about expectations is that they alone do not win you games, and the other teams in the AL East are likely to want to have a say in it.
With that in mind, we thought this week’s poll would be best served to ask our readers which of our American League East opponents represents the greatest challenge to Toronto’s division title aspirations.
Could it be the Boston Red Sox, the only team to finish below Toronto in the division in 2012? The Red Sox did a similar make-over, but got a head start on theirs in August when they sent Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Carl Crawford to Los Angeles in a trade that netted them two solid pitching prospects (Allan Webster and Rubby De La Rosa) in return. Boston then used the financial flexibility gained from the trade to sign Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, David Ross, Jonny Gomes, Ryan Dempster, and Stephen Drew, while also acquiring Joel Hanrahan in a trade with Pittsburgh. Furthermore, the team is looking forward to getting a healthy Will Middlebrooks back and expect a turnaround from their top two starters, Jon Lester and Clay Buccholz.
Question marks still revolve around the Red Sox, namely around the health of David Ortiz and the strength of the back-end of their rotation, which will see a return of John Lackey from Tommy John surgery. They also chose to sign players that would take short-term, high dollar deals rather than chase bigger name free agents, in order to keep themselves from handcuffing the team in the future. This may help preserve the team’s long-term health, but it may hurt them in the short-term.
What about the Baltimore Orioles, a team that snuck up and finished second in the division and qualified for the playoffs in 2012? One could argue that Baltimore overplayed their hand last season, managing to finish just two games out of first place despite having only a +7 run differential. Then again, maybe Buck Showalter figures out the magic formula; rely on your bullpen. Only the Colorado Rockies won more games in the bullpen than the Orioles in 2012.
Still, the Orioles did little to nothing this offseason, choosing to stand pat and hope that the continued developments of Adam Jones, Matt Weiters, and Manny Machado would help spur them along, while players like Chris Davis, Jim Johnson, and Jason Hammel, who had career years, wouldn’t regress terribly.
Then there are the always dangerous New York Yankees. But will they continue to be dangerous? Typically the offseason’s most prolific spenders, a edict by ownership to get under the luxury cap meant that the team’s most meaningful moves were signing Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner, and re-upping with Ichiro Suzuki and Hiroki Kuroda.
The Yankees will get Mariano Rivera back to start the season, but injuries will force them to look elsewhere for an awful lot of production. Derek Jeter is going to start the season with a brief stay on the disabled list. However, middle of the order hitters Curtis Granderson (thank you J.A. Happ), Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez are going to miss multiple months at the beginning of the season. Can the Yankees hold on until they return?
Finally, there is Joe Maddon and his Tampa Bay Rays. Always discounted, but never forgotten, the Rays have found a way to live at the bottom of the barrel but at the top of the division for the past several seasons. The Rays made a few of their signature moves this winter, buying low on players like Yunel Escobar (trade), Kelly Johnson, and James Loney, while also trading away from its strength, pitching (James Shields, Wade Davis), to acquire a solid prospect (Wil Myers) to compliment Evan Longoria for years to come.
Still, the Rays will have a tough time replacing the innings that Shields gave them, and the loss of B.J. Upton in the middle of the order hurts a team that already struggled to score runs. Myers will start the year in the minors, but he’ll have to play a prominent role for the Rays if they hope to win the division.
So, Blue Jays fans, when it comes to the American League East, which team do you feel poses the most challenge to Toronto’s run to the pennant?