Over the last half decade or so, the American League East has been, without question, the strongest division in baseball. Home to the perpetually competitive Yankees and (until recently) Red Sox, it has also seen the Rays and Orioles share the spotlight. Last year, it was the only team to have three teams win 90+ games (though the ALW came close). However, the sure thing that is the ultra-powerful AL East is a bit less sure this year. Each team has one big question nagging it. Let's jump in. The Baltimore Orioles came out of no where last year to win 93 games and make the playoffs as a Wild Card team. Though they eventually bowed out to the Yankees in the ALDS, 2012 was undeniably the most successful year the Orioles have had since the late 90's. The team has a young core and a solid manager, so they should be set up to keep the success going, right? Well, maybe. Quick, name the biggest move the O's pulled in the offseason. Exactly...there wasn't one. The question I have for Baltimore is how do they expect to compete again after doing literally nothing to substantially improve the team? Further, does the club--which had a lot of fluky stuff go its way last year--expect the likes of Jason Hammel and Miguel Gonzalez to keep pitching like guys who're much better than Jason Hamel and Miguel Gonzalez? Can Manny Machado live up to his big time hype while playing a new position and getting his first extended action in the bigs? Can Nick Markakis stay healthy? Can Matt Weiters' bat take the next step forward? The answers to all these questions are not slam dunk positives for Baltimore, and that's why their sit-back-and-relax approach to this offseason has me scratching my head.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum sit the Toronto Blue Jays. Unlike their other-bird counterparts', the Jays' beaks were anything but silent in the offseason. They went out and did a lot of damage on the trade market, swapping with the Mets for R.A. Dickey and with the Marlins for Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and Emilio Bonafacio. On paper, this team looks to be the strongest in the division, but like all things baseball, it'll come down to health. Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow are two pitchers I've always rooted for; they're big, hard-throwing strikeout guys, and who doesn't like that? But, as we all know, these guys are almost never healthy. If they're not healthy, how good can this team really be? Jose Reyes' legs and turf...how will they mix? Skepticism is certainly warranted there. Jose Bautista missed the end of last season with a bad wrist injury and if there's one thing bad for power hitters, it's a bad wrist. Can he bounce back and be what we've expected him to be over the past few seasons? Health, though, isn't the only concern. There are also questions of integration of new players and hope for repetition. Mark Buehrle is a durable and reliable pitcher, but will his soft-tossing shtick work in the AL East? Can Dickey adjust to a new league? Is the Melky Cabrera of 2011-12 going to show up again? Can Edwin Encarnacion repeat 2012? This team looks terrific on paper--probably like the best in the AL--but is that enough?
Like the Jays, the Red Sox spent a bit this winter. They wound up with Ryan Dempster, Shane Victorino, David Ross, and Mike Napoli. They're definitely improved, yet no one seems to see it that way. Like Toronto, they've got health questions: Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz, Clay Buccholz, John Lackey, Mike Napoli...They've also got performance questions that need to be straightened out. What the hell was up with Jon Lester last year? Shane Victorino had a down year in 2012. Can Ryan Dempster be as solid as he was in the past now that he'll be in the AL for a whole year? Anything is an improvement over 2012, but it still may take a bunch of breaks for this team to finish any higher than fourth place in 2013.
We all know the Rays can pitch, and they'll definitely do that well this year. But can they hit? This is a question we ask every year and the answer, to me, keeps coming up "meh." This year, the answer may be less "meh" than in years past, but I'm still not sure this team has enough offense. Evan Longoria is great, but rarely healthy. Matt Joyce and Luke Scott are powerful, but limited against lefties. Desmond Jennings has been good, but underwhelming and Yunel Escobar, Jose Molina, James Loney, and Kelly Johnson aren't scaring anyone. The only offensive player who can be relied upon to be consistently healthy and productive is Ben Zobrist.
Last, but certainly not least, there are the Yankees. Our beloved Bombers seem a bit embattled to start the year. Health. That will be the determining factor for the Yankees in 2013. The pitching is there with CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, and Hiroki Kuroda leading the rotation, while Mariano Rivera and David Robertson hold down the bullpen. The offense, however, has already been decimated by injury and the Opening Day lineup is going to read like a Spring Training split squad one. Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez will all (hopefully) return from injuries at some point during the season. How they return will determine how far the Yankees go. If they come back and are even representative of themselves, the team'll be fine. If they can't come back or come back as diminished players, the Yankees are in for a long season. The pitching may be strong, but it is not strong enough to withstand another setback on the offensive side of things.