Yahoo! Sports is taking an early look at each division in the days leading up to Feb. 15, when pitchers and catchers report to spring training. Today, the American League East.
The AL East is not the deepest division (AL Central), or the most interesting division (NL Central), or even the coolest division (NL West). But it remains the glamour division, simply because the Yankees and Red Sox spend their money here and Derek Jeter attracts the divas, starlets and models here and Manny is Manny here.
First impression: Since their 1997 division title, or the season after Brady Anderson hit 50 (50!) home runs, the Orioles have put together nine consecutive losing seasons, led by four different managers. Come back, Davey Johnson.
Competition: Sucked into Leo Mazzone's personal nightmare, the Orioles are in full tired/poor/huddled-masses mode. They'll bring 32 pitchers to camp and sort 'em out in March. Also, Jay Gibbons comes in having to win at-bats in left field (Aubrey Huff, Jay Payton), right field (Nick Markakis), first base (Kevin Millar, Huff) and at DH (Huff, Millar).
Healing: Reliever Danys Baez appears to be recovered from his appendectomy, though the effects of 2006 may still linger. Anointed as the Los Angeles Dodgers' closer when Eric Gagne grabbed an elbow, Baez posted a career-high ERA (4.53), due in part to being imprecise in the strike zone, and was replaced by Takashi Saito. Now he's got a three-year, $19 million contract.
Next: A pair of 22-year-olds – right-hander Hayden Penn and left-hander Adam Loewen – give the Orioles hope in a rotation that could use the help after Erik Bedard. Kris Benson is a lock at No. 2 and Daniel Cabrera, assuming his walks rate doesn't rival his strikeouts rate, should go No. 3, followed probably by Jaret Wright. The Orioles believe this gives them enough depth to ponder trading Penn or Loewen (the Atlanta Braves have floated Tim Hudson), but they'd be better off holding on to their young pitchers.
First impression: Here's something to ponder: Devil Rays starters had a better ERA in 2006 than Red Sox starters. It's that statistic that led to the three most expensive words in baseball: "Hello, Mr. Boras?"
Competition: Jonathan Papelbon vs. The Bullpen. He'd like to be a starter. He was nearly unhittable as a closer. And, so far, Red Sox ninth-inning options are not particularly attractive. So, line up Mike Timlin, Joel Pineiro, Julian Tavarez and Craig Hansen, then watch Theo Epstein trade them all for Chad Cordero in May.
Healing: J.D. Drew. He is supposed to be recovered from shoulder surgery he had a year and a half ago, but the Red Sox were wary enough to include escape language in his contract. Also, left-hander Jon Lester appears to be through the worst of lymphoma treatments, and Manny Ramirez (knee) and Coco Crisp (finger) had late-season issues.
Next: Dustin Pedroia, described wryly by one scout as "David Eckstein without the talent," is a little, gritty guy with a big swing. He's first on the depth chart at second base after batting .191 over the final six weeks of 2006.
First impression: Six years and counting. The meltdown in Motown. Joe Torre and Brian Cashman in the crosshairs. A whole new financial philosophy (unless Roger Clemens comes available, at which point they'll out-Evil Empire the Red Sox again). In the Bronx, pressure comes by the megaton.
Competition: Carl Pavano vs. Phil Hughes. Pavano's list of wrecked body parts ranged from the mundane (back) to the curious (rear end) to the expensive (Porsche). Despite a contract that has paid Pavano $17 million and produced four wins, the Yankees have little choice but to hand him the ball. Or not.
Healing: After hitting 36 home runs in five months, Jason Giambi hit one (and had seven RBIs, three cortisone injections and batted .192) after August. He also had surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left wrist shortly after the Yankees were eliminated by the Detroit Tigers and is expected to be good to go for camp.
Next: Hughes, the 6-foot-5 right-hander whose fastball and curveball appear major-league ready, has yet to pitch at Triple-A. But in three minor-league seasons, he's struck out more than a batter an inning and walked about two per nine innings. As they await Clemens, the Yankees might take a long look at Hughes in late March.
First impression: After eight dreadful seasons, the Devil Rays made it about halfway to their first presentable one, then – tragically, remarkably, unfathomably – won only three road games the rest of the way. That pretty much killed No. 9. They signed Japanese third baseman Aki Iwamura, a little guy whom the Devil Rays hope has a bat as big as his personality, but made no other major moves, so now they're counting on everyone to simply get better.
Competition: Iwamura's probably going to be the third baseman, Ben Zobrist is probably going to be the shortstop, Jorge Cantu is probably going to be the second baseman and Ty Wigginton is probably going to be the first baseman. But if Cantu can't save his career, then Iwamura could go to second and Wigginton to third and Carlos Pena could play first. Or Wigginton could play second and Iwamura could stay at his native third. Anyway, all of this leaves B.J. Upton looking at a Chone Figgins-type role, assuming he can learn a few new positions and hit.
Healing: Scott Kazmir and Casey Fossum had shoulder pain down the stretch, and the last thing the Devil Rays can afford is starters – particularly Kazmir – missing starts. Kazmir is believed to be slightly ahead of Fossum in recovery.
Next: The Devil Rays would be shocked if Delmon Young did not develop into baseball's next great corner outfielder. He appears to have moved past some of the immaturity that marred an otherwise impressive run through the minor leagues, winning over Joe Maddon in a solid September. They'd be thrilled if Rocco Baldelli could stay healthy, either for their own benefit or what he'd bring in a trade. The Dodgers have been sniffing around on him.
First impression: The Blue Jays picked up 20 wins over the past two seasons and still finished 10 games out of the AL East race, then took a net loss in free agency when Ted Lilly and Justin Speier left for the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Angels, respectively. Only the Minnesota Twins and Seattle Mariners got less power and run production out of their designated hitters last season, but the Blue Jays upgraded with 38-year-old Frank Thomas.
Competition: Forever tinkering with their middle infield, the Blue Jays appear to have settled on Royce Clayton at shortstop and Aaron Hill at second base. The contest there will be in the utility position between Ray Olmedo, claimed off waivers from the Cincinnati Reds, and John McDonald. After Roy Halladay, A.J. Burnett, Gustavo Chacin and Tomo Ohka, the fifth starter is wide open. Shawn Marcum, John Thomson and Scott Downs are the leading candidates.
Healing: Because of doubts over the condition of his shoulder, Ohka did not find free agency particularly rewarding. Victor Zambrano, who agreed to a minor-league contract, is recovering from a torn flexor muscle in his elbow, but has thrown well in off-season workouts and could contend for a place in the rotation.
Next: Adam Lind is 23, has hit at every level, bats left-handed and dropped a .367 average on the Blue Jays in 60 September at-bats. The problem is, his best defensive position is designated hitter, and the Blue Jays have a new one of those. If he beats out Matt Stairs, he could back up Reed Johnson in left field and maybe Lyle Overbay at first base, or otherwise start the season in Triple-A.