AL East: Jays ready to rule roost

Jays ready to rule roost

A one-year "shakeup" was enough for baseball's most static division, which in 2005 retreated to its 1998-2003 order of finish, New York-to-Tampa Bay (although this time only a tiebreaker over the Red Sox defended the Yanks' title). But the Bombers and Boston will have a tougher go maintaining order at the top; they may even feel like Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock's "The Birds," in this case "they" being the Blue Jays.

And isn't "static" a relative term? The Big Two have spent another winter oiling the revolving door, between them 18 newcomers spinning in and 24 old hands spinning out. Big difference this time: Toronto joined the frenzy, and none of its moves fell in the change-for-change's-sake category.

The Yankees' "Maulers Row" lineup gets even more lethal with Johnny Damon and a full season of Robinson Cano. But if pitching still decides fates, the Jays can pull a palace coup. New York hasn't upgraded an aging rotation that lost 15 times while that lineup was scoring five-plus.

Meanwhile, the Jays team two guys with the lowest starters ERA in the division last year (Josh Towers and Gustavo Chacin) with Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett. So how far can a tough rotation and a low-profile but creative lineup go? Let's ask the Chicago White Sox.

The Orioles remain Birds of a different feather. The Devil Rays have enough talent to again be very popular with other teams still hoping to leave Spring Training reinforced.

The favorite

Blue Jays
And speaking of static, this appraisal should generate plenty. This is how we see things stacking up before the first pickoff drill or blister, all subject to Spring Training developments. But, really, general manager J.P. Ricciardi's offseason could have served as a pilot for "The Swan II." He nailed down the corners of the infield (Troy Glaus, Lyle Overbay), got another rotation stud to watch Halladay's back (Burnett) and added a top-notch closer (B.J. Ryan). If we're talking paper, this is a team to beat. Image, it's all the other two guys. Field? Ah, we shall see.

Projected regular-season finish: AL East champions

Biggest Spring Training challenge: Settle in that new infield, overhauled around sophomore shortstop Russ Adams. Come out of camp feeling it. Otherwise, could again get buried in April.

Best position battles: Shea Hillenbrand is set up as the everyday DH, but Eric Hinske will give him a run. Reed Johnson and Frank Catalanotto could again share left field, but both have a shot at making it their own.

Wild card: If Burnett and Ryan -- the first pitchers given five-year contracts in four years (Kevin Millwood later joined them) -- justify their skeptics, it'll all come crashing down.

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The challengers

GM Brian Cashman had an uncharacteristically subdued offseason, with only one big move (Johnny Damon) and a bunch of peripheral ones. It's almost as if he feels he's got a do-over coming for the bland seasons of pitchers Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, the previous winter's big signings. So, right now, it shapes up as either a mulligan or a mugging.

Projected regular-season finish: Second place

Biggest Spring Training challenge: A new pitching coach (Ron Guidry) and seven bona fide rotation candidates to keep busy and happy.

Best position battles: Those aforementioned seven starters -- including Shawn Chacon and Aaron Small, who did it big-time last year -- and Pavano and Wright, who've done it in the past. This surplus will trickle down into the dense bullpen.

Wild card: If Randy Johnson goes back to treating hitters the way New York treated his first season in pinstripes, the Yanks could be untouchable every fifth day; they could make up the other four days as they go along, and again have it all lead into October.

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Red Sox
A winter of hyperventilating over Theo Epstein had many people rolling their eyes, as the Boy Wonder became the Boy Wander. All things considered, it might've been better if Damon had instead changed his mind. The roster purge saved the heart of the offense (David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez), but not the heart of that wonderful clubhouse atmosphere (Damon, Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller).

Projected regular-season finish: Third place

Biggest Spring Training challenge: A shortstop would be nice, and slick gloveman Alex Gonzalez will reportedly soon be in the fold. Seeing flashes of Keith Foulke's old self might be even nicer.

Best position battles: There'll be a scrum for spots in the middle of the bullpen, with David Riske, Julian Tavarez, Rudy Seanez all brought in for the battle. Incumbent Tony Graffanino and import Mark Loretta will have at it at second. Kevin Youkilis was to get his shot at third, but then Mike Lowell arrived, pushing Youkilis to first, where he will split time with J.T. Snow.

Wild card: If Curt Schilling comes back from his 2005 bye, if Manny stops being Manny (except in the batter's box), if the Idiots turn out to have been replaceable, if ... that's not a wild card, that's a whole deck. But unlikely isn't impossible.

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The long shot

Miguel Tejada is still around, and Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro aren't. So what's that about a fruitless winter? Made a series of moves for vets -- Jeff Conine, Kevin Millar, Ramon Hernandez -- typical of almost-there teams looking for that extra nudge over the top, the problem being the Orioles aren't close to it.

Projected regular-season finish: Fourth place

Biggest Spring Training challenge: Getting good vibes from their first Camp Leo (Mazzone, the new Midas Touch pitching coach). Seeing reassuring progress from second baseman Brian Roberts, whose breakthrough season ended with a gory dislocated left elbow.

Best position battles: Displaced catcher Javy Lopez, Millar and Conine all have to make a case for the majority of playing time at first base. LaTroy Hawkins is hardly a lock, so there'll be a free-for-all for the closer's spot vacated by Ryan.

Wild card: With Kris Benson as its new lead, the rotation really does have the potential of being reminiscent of the 1970s Orioles' meal ticket; if it clicks, the Birds could kick ... well, you know.

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Maybe next year

Devil Rays
The Devil Rays will never make a postseason. Guaranteed. But that's because the new ownership plans to revise the team's nickname for 2007, when this winter's forward-thinking moves -- such as blue-chip pitchers Edwin Jackson and Chuck Tiffany, acquired from the Dodgers for Danys Baez -- will begin showing up in the standings. But who can be the new closer? That's a (Shinji) Mori, the Japanese All-Star reliever from the Seibu Lions.

Projected regular-season finish: Last place

Biggest Spring Training challenge: Teams will be coming after the veteran cream (Julio Lugo, Aubrey Huff), which will be disruptive but also offer more opportunities to build the future base. Give new manager Joe Maddon's infectious optimism a chance.

Best position battles: Sean Burroughs doesn't have much rope at third, so Ty Wigginton could trip him up. The final two spots in the rotation are up for grabs, behind Scott Kazmir, Mark Hendrickson and Casey Fossum. Chad Orvella could usurp Mori.

Wild card: Carl Crawford is already here, and if Rocco Baldelli returns from his injuries and prized jewels B.J. Upton and Delmon Young join the party, they could generate a lot of momentum toward that near-future.

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You read it here first ...

1) Manny Ramirez, his trade requests having fallen on deaf ears, will lock himself in a Rogers Centre toilet on April 23 following the finale of a Boston series against the Blue Jays, and seek political asylum in Canada.

2) With his average in the low .200s at the end of May, Samson Damon will get the go-ahead to let it grow, and other Yankees will be allowed to follow hirsute. The Bombers will adopt a new slogan: Going, growing, long.

3) Last season -- before they had Glaus or Overbay or Ryan -- the Blue Jays lost 44 games by one or two runs and blew 21 saves.

Tom Singer is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.