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AL East 2014 preview: Tampa Bay Rays stars take center stage

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(USA TODAY)

With opening day coming in just a few days, the Big League Stew crew is here to get you up to speed on the season ahead. We'll examine some of the big questions in each division, point out a few key players and predict the final standings, division award-winners and breakout stars. First up: The American League East.

FIVE BIG QUESTIONS

1. What will stop the Red Sox from repeating?
Bad luck in the playoffs. Jon Lester performing in the playoffs like he does in the regular season.  Everyone else growing beards. Two thumb injuries for Dustin Pedroia. The Rays having the MVP and the Cy Young. The league figuring out Koji Uehara (again). John Lackey going all 2011. Xander Bogaerts feeling homesick and swimming back to Aruba. Jake Peavy gone fishing for eight weeks. Will Middlebrooks being replaced at third base by NESN’s Jenny Dell.

2. Can the New York Yankees get through the season with that infield and that bullpen and win?
Even if you trust general manager Brian Cashman with your life and believe in his voodoo, there’s almost no way to expect the Yankees to win 90 games with this roster. Glaring holes at third base and second base, plus a slip into mediocrity by Mark Teixeira at first base and an aged Derek Jeter at short just scream “rebuild!” The team is strong in the outfield with Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, at catcher with Brian McCann and at DH with Alfonso Soriano. But it’s asking lot to expect Carlos Beltran to stay healthy as a right fielder for the entire season, even though he’s still a productive hitter. David Robertson should be great, if not Mariano Rivera-great, as a closer. But then what?

Shawn Kelley’s strikeout rate is impressive, but he’s vulnerable to the long ball and he needs to tighten up the walks. Matt Thornton is left-handed, so he’s got that going for him, but he’s nowhere close to the kind of pitcher he used to be. David Phelps is OK, probably-maybe, as a middle guy and Dellin Betances is a rookie with a lot of talent and almost zero experience. The key for the bullpen might be not being overused, which means the starters must rebound. The Yankees rotation was disastrous in 2013, but has a chance to be a strength this season. If it’s not, the dominoes will fall and the Yankees actually could finish last.

3. Do the Baltimore Orioles have enough starting pitching?
They added Ubaldo Jimenez in the offseason to fill out a rotation of Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, We-Yin Chen and Bud Norris, with Kevin Gausman standing by in the bullpen. It doesn’t wow you on paper but, as the Orioles have shown the past two seasons, the games are played elsewhere. Tillman did make the AL All-Star team, and Gonzalez and Chen have been steady-as-she goes since coming to the majors. It would seem, though, that Gausman — one of the top prospects in the league — might be in a position to upgrade this group. Unless he’s needed in the bullpen, where the Orioles have depth but no proven closer.

4. Does it matter who closes for the Rays?

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(AP)

They have one of the deeper bullpens in the majors, with experienced ninth-inning guys such as Grant Balfour and Heath Bell, along with proven setup men such as Joel Peralta and Jake McGee. Any one of those four could get it done in the ninth, eighth, seventh or sixth. Tampa Bay’s starting pitching has some questions to answer, but it’s probably going to be very good 1-5, which won’t put the bullpen in a position of being overused.

5. Will R.A. Dickey bounce back and return to his Cy Young ways?
The Rogers Centre might be a tough place to get Cy Young-quality stats, but Dickey’s in a good position to get results much closer to 2012 than his disappointing 2013 season. Getting an extra 2-3 mph on his knuckleball might be the key to that — and, so far, so good. Having Dickey pitching like an ace is crucial to the Blue Jays, who lack certainty behind him in the rotation, other than Mark Buehrle.

FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH

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1. Michael Pineda: Hasn’t pitched since the 2011 season because of a torn labrum in his shoulder after coming over in a huge (at the time) trade that’s on the verge of becoming a dumpster fire for both teams. He’s been electric in spring training, gaining fastball velocity and slider movement, all with terrific control. He can help save the season and the direction of the franchise.

2. Jose Reyes: As with Dickey, another part the Jays need functioning to be a contending team, or to even have a chance. He has played one full season since 2009, and Toronto needs him to start having some good luck soon in the health department. Of course, his hamstring is bothering him right now.

3. Masahiro Tanaka: A good buy for the Yankees, even at $175 million from his team in Japan. He’s got an ungodly split-finger fastball, plus several secondary pitches. He's a different type of pitcher than countryman Yu Darvish, and perhaps he won’t be as dominant here, but he’s a Cy Young contender out of the chute.

4. Kevin Gausman: The Orioles could use him in the rotation, or he might close if Tommy Hunter doesn’t work out, but he seems to be a middle reliever right now. He won’t be hiding there for long.

5. Grady Sizemore: He’s been away for two years, recuperating from a career-full of injuries. Even if Jackie Bradley plays center field most of the time, Sizemore still will be in position to help the Red Sox at three outfield spots. He’d be a great comeback story if he can do it, and he’s getting every chance to pull it off.

PREDICTIONS

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(USA TODAY)



AL East MVP: Evan Longoria

AL East Cy Young: David Price

AL East Rookie of the Year: Masahiro Tanaka

AL East breakthrough star: Xander Bogaerts

Order of finish
1. Rays — They have the division's two best players and its deepest pitching staff.
2. Red Sox — Fragile pitching staff prevents a division repeat.
3. Yankees — Not even the deepest pockets could fill all of the roster's holes.
4. Orioles — Deep lineup, but top of the rotation not good enough.
5. Blue Jays — Capable of winning 80-85 games, but starting pitching depth is concerning.

COMING ON TUESDAY: NL East

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David Brown edits Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rdbrown@yahoo-inc.com and follow him on Twitter!

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