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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

In AL East, the party is just getting started

Yankees looking pretty good right now, but Orioles, Red Sox, Rays certain to join them

In AL East, the party is just getting started

I'm pretty much sold on the Yankees winning the American League East. The Orioles? I've got them a razor-close second. Just to show you how strongly I feel about these predictions, I'm willing to stand by them for at least 12 hours.

By then, it may all look completely different. Based on this first month of the regular season, it probably will. If you don't like the way the AL East s shaping up, just wait a couple of hours, because it'll probably change.

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Heck, by tonight, the Red Sox could have some of their 2013 magic back. Or maybe the Rays will start hitting. Seriously, have you ever seen a division race as confounding as this one?

At the moment, there's a legitimate case to be made for four of the division's five teams: the Rays, Red Sox, Orioles and Yankees. I'm leaving the Blue Jays out of this equation, for now, and I probably shouldn't. Who knows anymore? If R. A. Dickey gets it going, if some of the holes in the lineup are patched, the Blue Jays could end up in the mix. For now, though, let's stick with the four we picked to finish in some order at the top of the division.

On Opening Day, Tampa Bay appeared to be the consensus pick because it was a team without a weakness, beginning with a tremendous rotation, a very good defense and baseball's best manager in Joe Maddon.

The Rays could still wind up in first place, but with Matt Moore undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery and offensive slumps up and down the lineup, the first month has been a struggle.

Things can change, and quickly. Alex Cobb and Jeremy Hellickson should be back from the disabled list fairly soon, and if Wil Myers, James Loney, Yunel Escobar and others begin to hit, Tampa Bay is capable of going on a month-long sprint toward first place.

The Yanks, Sox and O's might be capable of doing the exact same thing, and if we're still having this discussion in September, we could have a chaotic finish, and who doesn't love pennant-race chaos?

OK, back to the Yankees. Their long-term questions will only be answered over a period of months as we see how much they get from Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda?

But so far, so good.

Sabathia pitched seven terrific innings against the Rays on Thursday night and seems to be adjusting to life with diminished velocity. He might be the key to the entire season, and the Yanks have to be encouraged by what they got from him at Tropicana Field.

Their lineup is beginning to take shape. Jeter is closing in on .300, Teixeira is about to return from the disabled list, and journeyman Minor League third baseman Yangervis Solarte is hitting .373 and getting some of the loudest cheers at Yankee Stadium.

All in all, it's working. The Yankees have won 10 of 14 since starting the season 0-2 against the Astros, and they are alone atop the the division.

And there's Baltimore.

The Orioles get overlooked sometimes, which is silly considering all they've accomplished the past two seasons. No team has a better clubhouse or better leadership. Their lineup and defense are plenty good enough, especially when third baseman Manny Machado returns. Their manager, Buck Showalter, is outstanding.

It's about their starting pitching. Chris Tillman has been very good. Bud Norris has been solid. Presumably, Ubaldo Jimenez will get it going, and then it comes down to another guy or two -- Johan Santana? Kevin Gausman? Wei-Yin Chen? -- emerging.

The thing about the Orioles is that they love being discounted. Players like Adam Jones thrive on being overlooked, and regardless of what others think, the O's see themselves as a team good enough to win the World Series.

Until the rotation stabilizes and performs better, that will be a tough sell to some of us, but only an idiot would count out the Orioles.

Finally, there are the Red Sox.

Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz aren't hitting but their track records say they will. So there's that.

Rookie Xander Bogaerts has been very solid, and Boston is committed to giving center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. every chance to show he belongs.

Like the O's, the Red Sox have tremendous leadership, and in John Farrell they have a manager who is as good as any and the absolute perfect cool, unflappable guy for a club covered as intensely as the Red Sox.

From the first day of Spring Training, the Red Sox told us that this season would be different, that there would be new challenges and that it probably wouldn't be as smooth a ride as 2013. They were right about that.

But Boston still has winning players and a winning atmosphere. The Red Sox's lineup should be plenty good enough, and they have so much Minor League pitching depth that they might not have to go outside the organization to fill needs.

If the Yankees look like the best team in the AL East today, that may not last long. Tomorrow, it could be the Red Sox or Orioles or Rays. And if we're really lucky, we'll still be looking at the division in late-September and trying to figure how it's going to play out. It could be tense for the managers and players, but great fun for the rest of us.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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