March 28, 2013; Clearwater, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Edwin Encarnacion (10) is congratulated by teammates in the dugout after he scored a run during the third inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Bright House Networks Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Opening Day 2013: American League East Preview

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When running down the division for the upcoming 2013 Major League Baseball season, it is hard to pull myself away from making what will sound like a homer pick in the American League East. After all, I’ve spent the last several months, along with my Jays Journal cohorts and the countless Blue Jays fans across Canada and the United States, building up to this point.

How could we not?

No team in baseball did more to improve their overall team than did the Toronto Blue Jays. Adding three quality starters (R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, and Josh Johnson) to their starting five and then securing two solid top of the order hitters (Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera) and a pair of universal infielders (Maicer Izturis and Emilio Bonifacio), the Blue Jays underwent the kind of drastic make-over that gets a fan-base reinvigorated and excited.

And seeing how these players are gelling in camp, and how they are carrying themselves like eventual champions, gives me the clarity to pick them to win the American League East, homer pick or not. No team in the division is as deep top to bottom as the Toronto Blue Jays and no team in the division has as few questions marks as the boys from the North. When health is your only obstacle, and not a present one, the rest takes care of itself.

Tampa becomes my pick for second place in the division. This is the team that just will not go away, no matter how overrated they may appear on paper. The Rays pitching staff will be as deep as ever, despite the loss of James Shields in the rotation, and the bullpen is always solid.

What makes me doubt Tampa is their offense. Outside of Evan Longoria, this is a team of question marks. Can James Loney be an adequate offensive first baseman in the American League? Can Matt Joyce and Desmond Jennings make a step forward or will they continue to regress? Can Luke Scott provide more as the designated hitter than a pair of mutton chops? How long can this team hold off Wil Myers?

My picking of the Red Sox to vault up to third place this season may shock some people, but Boston did a lot to improve themselves this winter. In adding Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, and Ryan Dempster, the team will be arguably more fun to watch in 2013, and the team chemistry should be vastly improved. Furthermore, the pair of Clay Buchholz and Lon Lester have looked great this spring and they’ll have a healthy Will Middlebrooks back.

The contributions of John Lackey and the health of David Ortiz will go a long way toward determining what this team can accomplish in 2013. Ortiz is a big cog of this offense and it is not very encouraging to their aspirations that he is not ready to go at the beginning of the season. And if Lackey and Doubront struggle at the back of the rotation, Boston may continue to scuffle at the bottom of the division.

The final two squads could easily flip-flop in the standings, depending on how things shake out.

The Orioles were a great story in 2012, and everyone loves an underdog, but Baltimore is in for a market correction after arguably overachieving last season. Dan Duquette did little to improve on a squad that managed only a +7 run differential and won more games with their bullpen than any other team in the American League.

Offensively, Adam Jones and Matt Weiters are both talented players, but what about this other band of misfits? Nick Markakis should be more than a Trot Nixon style players, but he’s never become that piece. How much can Baltimore truly ask from Nate McClouth, Chris Davis, and J.J. Hardy as an encore? And are we really seeing Brian Roberts back or should the Orioles have cut that cord years ago?

The starting rotation is even more scary. I like Wei-Lin Chen, but Jason Hammel as the staff ace worries me, as does the need for Baltimore to rely on Miguel Gonzalez to continue his magic and for a 27-year-old Jake Arrieta to finally figure it out. And who is going to be the team’s fifth starter?

Meanwhile, the Yankees are going to struggle to overcome the injuries to Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez, and the offense lost by letting Eric Chavez, Andruw Jones, Raul Ibanez, and Russell Martin float away during free agency. They tried to replace that with the likes of Kevin Youkilis, Travis Hafner, Vernon Wells, and Lyle Overbay, but will that aging group be able to help Robinson Cano carry the burden for the first 2-3 months?

The Yankees may have a solid starting five, headlined by C.C. Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda and the bullpen looks deep, so pitching should not be a problem. Still, how much can you ask them to carry the offense?

American League East Projected Standings:

1.) Toronto Blue Jays – 94-68
2.) Tampa Bay Rays (WC) – 90-72
3.) Boston Red Sox – 84-78
4.) Baltimore Orioles – 78-84
5.) New York Yankees – 76-86

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