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Heavyweights to slug it out in AL East

Heavyweights to slug it out in AL East

Clearly the heavyweight division in the Major Leagues this season, the American League East features three elite teams. The Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees all have realistic expectations of not just qualifying for the postseason, but winning the World Series.

Problem is, by the sheer numbers of the matter, at least one of those big three will be home when the postseason starts, and possibly two, depending on what direction the Wild Card standings take.

2009 DIVISION
PREVIEWS
NL East
NL Central
NL West
AL East
AL Central
AL West

Could they be the three best teams in the game, all stacked in one division?

"I think every year we talk about how tough this division is and it just seems to keep getting stronger and stronger," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "Someone came out the other day with some projections, and the three best teams in baseball are all in the American League East. That remains to be seen. You have to prove that."

Last year, the Red Sox and Rays didn't settle things until Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, with Tampa Bay scoring a 3-1 win to move on to the World Series. The Yankees missed the postseason for the first time since 1993, but invested more than $400 million on three free agents (CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira) to try to punch their ticket back to October.

"It doesn't really matter how it looks on paper, but it's a challenging, challenging division," said Epstein. "I think we relish that, too, knowing that it's not good enough to be a pretty good team. We're not going to make the playoffs by [just] being a pretty good team."

What makes the AL East even more impressive is that, beyond the three top dogs in the division, there aren't any weak links. The Orioles have an impressive corps of young players, including emerging star outfielder Nick Markakis, and the Blue Jays are led by Roy Halladay, one of the premiere aces in the game.

Tough division? Rays manager Joe Maddon says to bring it on.

"We take a lot of pride in playing in the American League East," Maddon said. "I really like the idea of participating in a division that is perceived to be the best. I think that's great. There's no easy way in. It brings out the best in our guys. I have no problems. I like that."

KEY ADDITIONS
• A.J. Burnett, SP, Yankees
• Pat Burrell, OF, Rays
• Ryan Freel, INF/OF, Orioles
• Rich Hill, SP, Orioles
• Cesar Izturis, SS, Orioles
• Gabe Kapler, OF, Rays
• Kevin Millar, 1B-DH, Blue Jays
• Brad Penny, SP, Red Sox
• Felix Pie, OF, Orioles
• CC Sabathia, SP, Yankees
• Takashi Saito, RP, Red Sox
• John Smoltz, SP, Red Sox
• Nick Swisher, OF-1B, Yankees
• Mark Teixeira, 1B, Yankees
• Koji Uehara, SP, Orioles
• Greg Zaun, C, Orioles

KEY DEPARTURES
• Bobby Abreu, OF, Yankees
• Burnett, SP, Blue Jays
• Daniel Cabrera, SP, Orioles
• Coco Crisp, OF, Red Sox
• Cliff Floyd, OF-DH, Rays
• Jason Giambi, 1B Yankees
• Ramon Hernandez, C, Orioles
• Eric Hinske, 1B-OF, Rays
• Edwin Jackson, SP, Rays
• Millar, 1B-DH, Orioles
• Mike Mussina, SP, Yankees
• Jay Payton, OF, Orioles
• Zaun, C, Blue Jays

BEST LINEUP
The Rays are deep and dynamic. Evan Longoria is on the verge of becoming a superstar. Burrell adds punch to a lineup that already had plenty. Carlos Pena has emerged into a run-production machine. B.J. Upton had a quiet regular season but put on a power display during the postseason which could have a carryover effect. Carl Crawford does a little bit of everything with his bat and his legs.

When Alex Rodriguez gets healthy, he should combine with Teixeira to form the most devastating 3-4 combo in the league. The question with the Yankees is whether the aging process will affect players such as Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Johnny Damon.

Though the Red Sox no longer have the great Manny Ramirez, they have two of the top three AL Most Valuable Player Award finishers from a year ago in Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis. David Ortiz is on a mission to prove he is still an elite slugger after a left wrist injury took away seven weeks of his 2008 season. Jason Bay is a consistent slugger. Mike Lowell and J.D. Drew are both established hitters, but are coming off injury-marred seasons. Our selection:Rays

BEST ROTATION
The Red Sox have a formidable front three of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka, with former All-Star Penny and veteran knuckleballer Tim Wakefield set to hold down the final two spots. Then, there is future Hall of Famer John Smoltz waiting in the wings. The righty is expected to debut around June 1.

The Rays are led by three power pitchers -- James Shields, Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza -- who are just now entering their prime years. All of them gained invaluable experience last October. Left-hander David Price, the hero of Game 7 of the ALCS, will be heard from at some point, though he will start the season in the Minors.

No team has improved their rotation more than the Yankees. Sabathia and Burnett, the high-priced free agent acquisitions, will make an instant and lasting impact. Chien-Ming Wang no longer has to be the ace, even though he did a pretty good job in that role until getting injured in June. Old reliable Andy Pettitte is still around, and young gun Joba Chamberlain is expected to spend the entire season in the rotation. Our selection: Yankees

BEST BULLPEN
Not only do the Red Sox have a dominant closer in Jonathan Papelbon, but they have a large collection of quality setup men. It starts with Saito, who could close for most other teams, and did just that for the Dodgers. Lefty Hideki Okajima can get out righties and lefties and has come up big in pressure situations. Manny Delcarmen has mid-to-high 90s MPH heat and the best curveball on the staff. Justin Masterson offers durability and dominance at the age of 24. If Ramon Ramirez -- acquired in the deal for Crisp -- can come close to the numbers he had in Kansas City last year, he will make a big impact.

The Yankees still have the incomparable Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning, but his setup crew doesn't match the one in Boston. Tampa Bay has a lot of viable setup options, including Dan Wheeler, J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour, Jason Isringhausen and Chad Bradford. But it's fair to wonder how healthy and effective closer Troy Percival can be at this late stage of his career. Our selection: Red Sox

BEST DEFENSE
The Red Sox can throw the leather around like few teams in the game. Pedroia was the Gold Glove winner at second base last year, and Youkilis captured that honor two years ago at first base. Jason Varitek, even at 37, remains a rock behind the plate. Lowell, assuming he regains his mobility, is a stopper at the hot corner. The outfield has three plus defenders in Bay, Jacoby Ellsbury and Drew.

Though Teixeira gets most of his accolades for his bat, he is also a top defender. Ditto Rodriguez, once he returns from hip surgery. Posada is still a leader behind the plate, but it will be interesting to see how well he recovers from his right shoulder woes of last year. The Rays have a couple of terrific defenders who make up their double-play combination in second baseman Akinori Iwamura and shortstop Jason Bartlett. Pena won the Gold Glove at first base last year and Upton flags down everything in center.Our selection: Red Sox

WILD CARDS
1. Price: Just 23 years old, Price has the type of arm that teams like to build their staff around. The Rays aren't ready to ask that much of him yet, but you can be sure they will summon him from the Minors once the pennant race begins to heat up.

2. Phil Hughes: Though Hughes won't open the season in New York's rotation, he is likely to play a role at some point. The righty has electric stuff and could give the Yankees a jolt when the need arises.

3. Clay Buchholz: The right-hander is Boston's version of Hughes. He's had perhaps the best Spring Training of any pitcher on the staff, but the Red Sox simply don't have an open slot. However, attrition could change that at some point, and Buchholz appears primed to rebound from his frustrating 2008 season. The 24-year-old has a unique combination of power and finesse.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1. Red Sox; 2 Rays; 3 Yankees; 4 Orioles; 5 Blue Jays.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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