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AL East again looks to be battle of Big Three

AL East again looks to be battle of Big Three

AL East again looks to be battle of Big Three
The perennial contenders in baseball's toughest division sat out much of the frenzy of this past offseason. The top clubs in the American League East watched the Angels, Marlins, Tigers and Rangers dominate the headlines and spend the big dollars.

That doesn't mean they were idle, though. Quietly, the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays all had effective winters, addressing their needs and reloading to take shots at one another while trying to stave off challenges from Toronto and Baltimore. Perhaps baseball's balance of power has shifted to the AL West somewhat, but the sun has assuredly not set on the AL East's empire.

Part of why the moves weren't big is that they didn't need to be. New York, Boston and Tampa Bay had three of the five best run differentials in the Major Leagues a year ago. These aren't clubs that needed radical makeovers. They needed upgrades, and they got them.

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Meanwhile, in Toronto and Baltimore, patience must remain the watchword. The Blue Jays continue to acquire talent, such as new closer Sergio Santos, without compromising the organization's long-term view. Each Toronto team is a bit better than the previous one, and the club's recent records do not fairly reflect how good the team has been. Some year soon -- and it could be this year thanks in part to the second Wild Card -- the Jays will be in position to seize a real October opportunity.

The Orioles are farther away than Toronto, of course, but there's at least a fresh start at Camden Yards. Baltimore turned over its front office, embarking on what fans hope will be a successful rebuild that returns a proud franchise to its rightful place.

At the top of the division, though, the contenders were in fact aggressive. They just weren't noisy. The Yankees identified their greatest weakness, their starting rotation, and made two strong moves to fortify it. Signing Hiroki Kuroda and trading for Michael Pineda turned a question mark into a strength, and the Yanks did it so swiftly, on a Friday night in January, it almost went unnoticed in the grand scheme of the winter.

Boston underwent a bullpen transformation, letting Jonathan Papelbon go and bringing in some nice talent to replace him. Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon are the new anchors of the back of the Red Sox bullpen, and the revamped unit may well be better from top to bottom than the old one. There's uncertainty in the Red Sox rotation, but the potential is there for them to have a very effective group. And of course the lineup matches that of the Yankees as a candidate for best in baseball.

Then there's Tampa Bay, which once again went searching for diamonds in the rough. The Rays hope they've found bargains in designated hitter Luke Scott, catcher Jose Molina and reliever Fernando Rodney. While none of those are names that steal headlines, the Rays' history suggests that the odds are in their favor for the moves to turn out.

We surveyed MLB.com's AL East beat writers -- Ian Browne (Boston) Bill Chastain (Tampa Bay), Gregor Chisholm (Toronto), Brittany Ghiroli (Baltimore) and Bryan Hoch (New York) -- and asked them to rank the teams in four key categories as well as expected order of finish.

Best lineup

This was the closest call of all, and in fact came down to not one but two tiebreakers. The Red Sox and Yankees have finished 1-2 in the Majors in runs in each of the past two years, and there's little reason to think they won't both be up at the top once again. The difference came down to age as much as anything. The Yankees are a little older and, in MLB.com's estimation, a little more likely to fall off a bit as a result. The Red Sox are built around Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury, and while simple regression could bring Ellsbury back to earth, there's less reason to worry in Boston than there is down the road in the Bronx. Still, it's a fine line, and you're still very likely talking about the two best starting nines in the Majors. Our selection: Red Sox, by a hair

Best rotation

It may surprise you that this one was unanimous. Even with the revamped Yankees starting five and the formidable front of the Boston rotation, every voter agreed that the Rays have the combination of depth and quality that make them the envy of the division. With plenty of clubs, Wade Davis might be the No. 3 man. With the Rays, he's bound for the bullpen. But it's not just depth, it's front-end strength as well. David Price is a popular pick to challenge for Cy Young honors and James Shields is coming off a year in which he finished third in the balloting. Tampa Bay has top talent from one through five and beyond. And that's without mentioning Matt Moore, considered by many the game's best prospect and a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year laurels. Our selection: Rays

Best bullpen

No bullpen is a one-man unit, but when you start with a surefire Hall of Famer, you have quite a head start. Mariano Rivera remains simply automatic at the back end of the Yankees' relief corps. But he's not the only reason that New York's bullpen is tops. David Robertson emerged as an elite setup man last season. Rafael Soriano should bounce back after a season interrupted by injury. Left-hander Boone Logan is coming off an effective year, and there's the potential for an infusion of young talent as well. You can be sure that Joe Maddon will get the most of what he has in St. Pete, and the Red Sox and Blue Jays should be tough in the late innings as well. But the back-end combo of Rivera and Robertson is an advantage that the other teams simply don't have. Our selection: Yankees

Best defense

And here, of course, is our other unanimous choice. The Rays aren't simply the best defensive team in the division. They're likely the best defensive team in baseball. They were as good as anybody last year, and they've likely gotten better. Jose Molina brings elite defense behind the plate, while a full year of Desmond Jennings in left field should be a beautiful thing. And they've still got stalwarts like third baseman Evan Longoria and center fielder B.J. Upton. The Rays make defense a top priority, and it shows when they take the field. Our selection: Rays

Predicted order of finish

  1. 1st
  2. 2nd
  3. 3rd
  4. 4th
  5. 5th

Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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