Rays face big task vs. big money teams in AL East

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

Yahoo! Sports is taking an early look at each division in the days leading up to when pitchers and catchers report to spring training. Today, the American League East (in alphabetical order).


Baltimore Orioles

First impression: Years of failure due to treading water – actually, in the AL East, it's more like flailing in quicksand – are long forgotten with Andy MacPhail now in charge. If the Orioles fail, they'll have failed trying to shake things up. Nearly one-third of the team has never worn an Orioles uniform. There are veterans (Cesar Izturis, Mark Hendrickson), imports (Koji Uehara) and busts (Rich Hill, Felix Pie). And Matt Wieters, who defies categorization and instead goes by this: 6-foot-5, switch-hitting, home run-mashing, rocket-armed catcher who's a mix between Joe Mauer and Johnny Bench. Ahem.

Competition: Aside from Jeremy Guthrie and Uehara, the rotation is a mess while the Orioles wait for Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta to arrive. Among the contenders: Hendrickson and Hill with inside tracks, and Chris Waters, Matt Albers, Radhames Liz and Troy Patton fighting for the fifth spot. Oh, and there's some sentiment to start Gregg Zaun over Wieters.

Hot seat: Adam Jones and Pie sit on that prospect precipice that so many others have straddled. Both are phenomenally talented. Both play excellent in the outfield. And if both succeed, the Orioles, with Nick Markakis in right, would have the best young outfield in the game.

Next: Book Wieters for the 2011 All-Star Game, if not 2010. While Tillman, Matusz and Arrieta may not join him there, they should be in Baltimore's rotation – and all project better than anyone on the Orioles' staff right now.

Boston Red Sox

First impression: Easy to forget that the Red Sox were one game away from the World Series. And with the whole gang back – at least those who matter – and Rocco Baldelli, Brad Penny and John Smoltz joining the party, the Red Sox may well be favorites in a division with the defending AL champions and the $200 million machine.

Competition: How Boston sorts out the Julio Lugo/Jed Lowrie mess at shortstop – play Lugo because you pay Lugo, or allow yourself a $9 million bench luxury – will be the most compelling story line in Fort Myers, Fla. How the back end of the rotation sorts out – Tim Wakefield and Penny are favorites, with Clay Buchholz there and Smoltz poised for a midseason return – will rank second.

Hot seat: Until his AL Championship Series Game 5 heroics, David Ortiz spent the series looking like an old robot, worn out by overuse. Ortiz says his clicking wrist feels fine. If not, the Red Sox, cool and machine-like as ever, will have no qualms about getting rid of him, sentiment be damned.

Next: Between Buchholz, Michael Bowden and Daniel Bard, the Red Sox have their own set of coming Killer B's. And the letter before that is well-represented, too, with first baseman Lars Anderson, who could force Kevin Youkilis back to third base by 2011 – at the latest.

New York Yankees

First impression: So, the Yankees spent $180 million on Mark Teixeira, $161 million on CC Sabathia, $82.5 million on A.J. Burnett, and all anyone wants to talk about is Alex Rodriguez testing positive for steroids? Come on! What about Derek Jeter slowing down, Mariano Rivera drinking from the fountain of youth, Joba Chamberlain getting a full season to strut his starter stuff, and – oh, hell, who are we kidding? Alex Rodriguez tested positive for steroids.

Competition: Certainly $200 million buys a lot. Not a bullpen. The Yankees could run into the same problem as last season with this bunch of characters: Damaso Marte, Brian Bruney, Jonathan Albaladejo and Edwar Ramirez. Not exactly the Nasty Boys. Manager Joe Girardi also must figure out his outfield rotation – and whether there's room for Brett Gardner or Melky Cabrera when Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, Xavier Nady and Nick Swisher are around.

Hot seat: Teixeira. Sabathia, Burnett. Jeter. Oh, pretty much everyone. And Rodriguez. Definitely, definitely A-Rod.

Next: For a team that wanted to commit much of its efforts to the farm system, the Yankees are going through a serious drought. When the franchise's best prospect looks like a classic Yankee bust waiting to happen – Austin Jackson, one scout said, "is good, but not that good" – it doesn't inspire confidence.

Tampa Bay Rays

First impression: And now comes the hard part. The encore is always tricky because with success comes expectations, something the Rays have never experienced. And with the Red Sox remaining the Red Sox and the Yankees spending half a billion dollars, holding onto the AL East – let alone a playoff spot – is a tough task, even for a team that returns all of its important pieces and added another in Pat Burrell, who fills that right-handed bopper profile they missed last year. Are the Rays real? That's obvious. In the AL East, the question is more like: Are the Rays real enough?

Competition: Perhaps the bullpen-by-committee approach works best for the Rays. It certainly succeeded in Game 7 of the ALCS last year. That said, manager Joe Maddon will have to find a replacement – in name, at least – for Troy Percival, who likely won't begin the season after back surgery. The possibilities: Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler and J.P. Howell. Right field, too, is an area of strength. The Rays traded for Matt Joyce to play there every day, but Gabe Kapler and Fernando Perez could steal time.

Hot seat: One of these years, Scott Kazmir must learn to pitch past the sixth inning. After June 11 last year, he made 19 starts. He started the seventh inning once. And yet somehow he exceeded 100 pitches a dozen times. Kazmir can be a great starter, one of the best, if he simply embraces the necessity of efficiency.

Next: The nation met David Price and his 97-mph fastball in October. He'll join the Rays' rotation. And if there are any injuries or struggles there, Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann are ready and more than capable of stepping in.

Toronto Blue Jays

First impression: Poor, poor Toronto. Stick the Blue Jays and their pitching staff in any other division and they compete. Instead, they are left to the wolves of the AL East, and as apparent as that is during the season, it's magnified over the winter. Yankees: Teixeira, Sabathia, Burnett. Blue Jays: Come on down, Rod Barajas! Toronto understands its place in the grand scheme and could be amping up for next year, when Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum will have healed from arm injuries and Travis Snider will have a full year under his ample belt.

Competition: With McGowan not returning from a torn labrum until May at earliest and Marcum out for the season following Tommy John surgery, the rotation is in flux. Robert Janssen, Brian Burres and rookies Scott Richmond, Ricky Romero and Brett Cecil will go for the final three spots.

Hot seat: When Vernon Wells and Alex Rios signed seven-year contracts for nearly $200 million combined, the Blue Jays expected more than a .300 average, 15 to 20 home runs and 80 RBIs. Yet that's exactly what they got last year. Wells has six years and $117 million left on his deal, Rios six years and $65 million. Both must play like stars if the Blue Jays want to avoid Todd Helton and Chan Ho Park redux.

Next: Snider can mash – though last year's .301 average in 73 at-bats was an illusion, as he batted an unsustainable .417 on balls in play. The left-handed Cecil should arrive soon, and not far behind is catcher J.P. Arencibia, who balances his miserable patience (18 walks) with superb power (27 home runs between Class-A and Double-A).

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