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AL East Preseason Outlook

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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Tampa Bay Rays

2010 record: 96-66
Finish: First place, lost to Texas Rangers in ALDS
Manager: Joe Maddon, sixth season

Spring training site: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Pitchers & catchers' first workout: Feb. 16
First full workout: Feb. 21

Reid Brignac is on the spot, taking over the full-time shortstop gig with Jason Bartlett now  in San Diego. (Getty Images)  
Reid Brignac is on the spot, taking over the full-time shortstop gig with Jason Bartlett now in San Diego. (Getty Images)  
Key additions: Johnny Damon, Kyle Farnsworth, Manny Ramirez
Key losses: Joaquin Benoit, Jason Bartlett, Grant Balfour, Carl Crawford, Matt Garza, Carlos Pena, Rafael Soriano, Dan Wheeler

Offseason grade: B-

The Rays had one of the more interesting offseasons of any team. They lost major contributors to not just the 2011 club but to their recent run of success. Tampa had to cut payroll and find a way to stay competitive and remarkably (or not so remarkably when you consider the brains of the front office) it seems to have pulled off just that.

2011 outlook

Offense: Make no mistake about it: losing the playmaking ability of Crawford plus the home runs of Pena (sub-Mendoza Line be damned) is going to hurt, and Damon and Ramirez are unable to make up for that. Moving Reid Brignac to a full-time position and opening up more playing time for Matt Joyce could offset these losses.

Defense: The losses of Crawford and Pena may cause one of the best defensive teams to collapse. Damon is a liability in left these days while whoever mans first can only hope to match Pena's glove. Losing Bartlett at short for Brignac doesn't help either. This has the potential to grow into the Achilles' heel of the club.

Pitching: Losing Garza has to hurt, but Jeremy Hellickson is ready to step in and should produce close to what Garza was doing. What to look out for is a completely revamped bullpen. How will everyone jell together? Who will emerge and flame out? This could be a year-long headache for Tampa.

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Intangibles: Losing the face of your franchise can evolve into a crisis of leadership. Fortunately, the Rays look set up here. There are still plenty of young players who may be ready to emerge now that Crawford is gone, plus Damon is a major impact in the clubhouse. But how will some of the young players do without the guidance of Crawford and Pena and knowing how much the Rays slashed payroll?

Key player: Brignac is a player ready to step in full time, and how he fares at one of the most difficult positions to lock down will have far-reaching implications. If Brignac can provide quality defense and step his production up from 2010, Tampa can build around Brignac and Evan Longoria. If not, the Rays might wallow in irrelevancy until Hak-Ju Lee hits the bigs.

Top prospect: Believe it or not, the Rays didn't take a step back in the majors after trading Garza. That's thanks to the presence of Hellickson, who should step in seamlessly. Hellickson should pitch in the back of the rotation to start, but it's entirely conceivable he ends the season as the No. 2 starter behind David Price.

For the season to be successful: Despite all the overturn, the Rays have a legitimate shot at the playoffs. Even if they fall short, just staying in the hunt and being over .500 will do wonders for both the team and fanbase. At a time where the future of the franchise is in doubt, making the playoffs the year after losing Crawford could open a lot of people's eyes.

New York Yankees

2010 record: 95-67
Finish: Second place, wild card, lost to Texas Rangers in ALCS
Manager: Joe Girardi, fourth season

Spring training site: Tampa, Fla.
Pitchers & catchers' first workout: Feb. 15
First full workout: Feb. 20

Key additions: Pedro Feliciano, Andruw Jones, Russell Martin, Rafael Soriano
Key losses: Lance Berkman, Andy Pettitte, Marcus Thames, Javier Vazquez, Kerry Wood

Offseason grade: C

The Yankees were supposed to be the big offseason winners. Get Derek Jeter back cheaper, import the great Cliff Lee and start printing World Series tickets. Except Jeter negotiations got contentious, Lee famously chose Philly and Pettitte retired. A lot can change between now and October, but when's the last time New York entered a season on a low like this? Post-2004 doesn't count -- it was still a very good team. Maybe 1992?

2011 outlook

Offense: The offense is not the issue. It was the best offensive club in the game last season and Jorge Posada could bounce back now that he's not taking a beating behind the dish. Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira are fully healthy -- for now, anyway -- and Curtis Granderson reworked his swing late in the year and could be primed for the Yankee breakout many expected last year. The offense could be what completely carries the club given its pitching woes.

The Yankees hope 24-year-old right-hander Ivan Nova gives the rotation a boost. (US Presswire)  
The Yankees hope 24-year-old right-hander Ivan Nova gives the rotation a boost. (US Presswire)  
Defense: They were an above-average defensive team last year, but questions abound. Rodriguez and Jeter are getting creakier and Robinson Cano doesn't have a reputation for consistent defensive excellence. The middle infield is what really ties the defensive team together, so this bears watching. The outfield, with Brett Gardner in left and Granderson in center, will not be an issue. At worst, this team is solidly average in defense.

Pitching: The ace, CC Sabathia, is pretty good. And this Phil Hughes guy is supposed to be pretty good as well, but the jury is still out on him as a starter. A.J. Burnett is like a box of chocolates (you never know what you're gonna get), but New York has a ways to go to firm up the No. 4 and 5 spots in the rotation. Ivan Nova seems sure to win one, but the other starter will come down to Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon and Sergio Mitre. The bullpen is stronger, but that's irrelevant if your starters can't get past the fifth inning. New York possesses enough trade chips that it should be able to land a solid starter -- at the very least -- so this isn't something that should plague the Yankees all season.

Intangibles: This team smells all too much like the club that functions as a soap opera all year long. This is still a playoff-caliber team, but it could also all fall apart. There are enough bruised egos, injury risks and holes that this year could be one to forget -- and especially without Pettitte, can Jeter and Mariano Rivera hang onto a clubhouse with virtually no ties to the glory days?

Key player: Nova isn't exactly a top prospect, but a lot is suddenly riding on his shoulders as the projected No. 4 starter. He won't be a star, but is the type of pitcher that could pitch a long, long time in the middle of a team's rotation. How quickly Nova adapts to a full season in the majors and how fast of a start he can get off to will be something eagerly tracked by the New York media.

Top prospect: Jesus Montero can flat out mash. It's just too bad he has no position to play. Montero will attempt to win a job as catcher in spring training, but there's no way the Yankees will have him warm the bench behind Martin. Montero will either be trade bait during the season for a pitcher -- at which point he could end up at first base -- or step in as starting DH in 2012.

For the season to be successful: The Yankees will need to find a starting pitcher by the trade deadline capable of being a No. 3 starter. Really, all they need is that pitcher and they're right back to being a World Series-caliber club. Until then, the best you can hope from this team is it contends for the postseason -- and it will.

Boston Red Sox

2010 record: 89-73
Finish: Third place
Manager: Terry Francona, eighth season

Spring training site: Fort Myers, Fla.
Pitchers & catchers' first workout: Feb. 15
First full workout: Feb. 19

Key additions: Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Bobby Jenks, Dan Wheeler
Key losses: Adrian Beltre, Bill Hall, Mike Lowell, Victor Martinez

Offseason grade: A

You're kidding, right? The Red Sox added what you could easily argue as a top three left fielder and first baseman. And if that wasn't enough, the bullpen received a shot in the arm with the addition of Jenks and Wheeler -- and held payroll steady. That payroll will rocket up next season with a Gonzalez extension, but not by as much as many might think with J.D. Drew's contract expiring.

2011 outlook

Offense: Despite the additions of Crawford and Gonzalez, one can't reasonably expect the Red Sox to top the 2010 offense, which was just behind the Yankees for AL superiority. Surprising once you consider the injuries, but Boston was sneaky-great at the plate last season. The good news? That wasn't likely to repeat itself, but with the two new bats added to the lineup, one has to expect another top showing.

Carl Crawford (pictured) and Adrian Gonzalez are the big Red Sox offseason additions. (Getty Images)  
Carl Crawford (pictured) and Adrian Gonzalez are the big Red Sox offseason additions. (Getty Images)  
Defense: It should be much improved from last season. While Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis can't beat the pairing of Beltre and Youkilis, having full seasons (well -- the Red Sox hope) from Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia, plus inserting Crawford into left should represent a significant increase.

Pitching: The pitching is solid, but not quite up to par with the top rotations in the game. Josh Beckett, now an ace in name only, has to struggle to stay on the field while John Lackey has lost his stuff. Clay Buchholz turned in a sensational year but was lucky to an extent and will regress to the mean (and despite how it sounds, "regress to the mean" doesn't mean he will suddenly be awful). Daisuke Matsuzaka remains an enigma, and Jon Lester is the only sure thing in the rotation the team can count on. The rotation could be among the best in the game, but it could easily be the biggest deficiency on the club. Fortunately, Boston built its bullpen with additional weapons that can help shoulder the load, but the lack of an elite left-handed reliever does hurt.

Intangibles: The Red Sox have stand-up guys that have been there and done that before. The presence of such players as David Ortiz, Youkilis, Beckett and Pedroia will help keep the team on the straight and narrow. Adding the workaholic Crawford and genial Gonzalez should only help.

Key player: OK, so the Red Sox have an awesome offense and defense. But the pitching is where it all starts and ends, and Boston needs Beckett to return to form to have a shot at the enviable rotations the Sox will go up against in the division -- and the postseason if they make it there. Beckett stumbled through a career-worst season and that can't repeat.

Top prospect: The Red Sox are hoping their shortstop carousel that started in 2004 will end with the advent of Jose Iglesias, who could get a cup of coffee in 2011 but is expected to step in as starter as early as 2012. He is the best fielding shortstop in the minors -- there's not much flash to him, but he makes every play look easy. He won't hit for power, but did display better aptitude with the bat than many expected after defecting from Cuba.

For the season to be successful: Boston has to make the playoffs, that much is for certain -- but even a first-round exit will leave a bitter taste in the mouths of many. After a surprisingly docile season from fans that left the Red Sox scrambling to keep their sellout streak intact (they did), fans seem primed to reinvigorate their interest in the club with the new additions. It's up to the Sox to deliver.

Toronto Blue Jays

2010 record: 85-77
Finish: Fourth place
Manager: John Farrell, first season

Spring training site: Dunedin, Fla.
Pitchers & catchers' first workout: Feb. 14
First full workout: Feb. 19

Key additions: Rajai Davis, Octavio Dotel, Frank Francisco, Brett Lawrie (minors), Jon Rauch, Juan Rivera, Carlos Villanueva
Key losses: John Buck, Scott Downs, Fred Lewis, Kevin Gregg, Lyle Overbay, Shaun Marcum, Vernon Wells

Offseason grade: A-

The Jays suddenly have a bright financial future after jettisoning Wells to the Angels. They were plenty busy past the Wells trade, but that deal alone lines up Toronto for an exciting future with funds available to import and retain players.

2011 outlook

Offense: The offense will take a hit with the loss of Wells, but more concerning is the overall home run explosion by the club last season. It's inevitable for there to be some regression to the mean, so the Jays may struggle on offense. Add in the uncertainty of contributions by the young offensive centerpieces, and it's not clear what can be expected from the O.

Kyle Drabek, acquired in a Roy Halladay trade, could make the rotation out of spring training. (US Presswire)  
Kyle Drabek, acquired in a Roy Halladay trade, could make the rotation out of spring training. (US Presswire)  
Defense: The outfield should be improved with the addition of Davis, but going with Rivera, Travis Snider and Adam Lind in the corners will be rough. The infield should be solid, but also has some uncertainty given Jose Bautista and Lind taking over third and first, respectively.

Pitching: The Jays are steeped in young pitchers, with the front three of Brandon Morrow, Ricky Romero and Brett Cecil capable of doing damage. They could stand a leap forward from Morrow and have to work Kyle Drabek into the rotation. How the four produce will determine the direction of this club, especially without Marcum. Good thing skipper Farrell is one of the most well-respected pitching coaches in the game. A revamped bullpen has the statistics and pedigree to be above average.

Intangibles: The Jays couldn't run to save their lives last season, finishing with just 62 stolen bases. Davis will help boost the numbers, but there isn't a whole lot past him to get excited about. Farrell has said he will try to diversify the team beyond relying on home runs, which is good news for Davis' Fantasy owners.

Key player: Take your pick. Although there's lots to be excited about across the border, this is still a young team scrapping to come together. Snider needs to break out into the middle-of-the-order hitter he's been predicted to be. Catcher J.P. Arencibia needs more games like his debut one. Lind and Aaron Hill have to quit their affinity for the Mendoza line. Which Yunel Escobar will show up: The one who got into Bobby Cox's doghouse, or the one that Atlanta viewed as its shortstop for the next decade?

Top prospect: When trading the best pitcher in the game, you better get back a prospect good enough to top the organizations' farm system. The Jays did just that in the Roy Halladay trade, acquiring Drabek, who could open the season in the rotation. He figures to have some growing pains, but if and when he develops a plus third pitch, he'll be capable of frontlining any rotation. Well, except Philadelphia.

For the season to be successful: For fans to consider the season a success, the Jays will have to match or improve on last year's 85 wins. The problem is that's going to be awfully difficult to do, and the team would likely walk away happy with finishing at .500 or higher. Despite 2010's success, the team took a step back by losing Wells and Marcum all in the hopes of taking two steps forward in 2012.

Baltimore Orioles

2010 record: 66-96
Finish: Fifth place
Manager: Buck Showalter, first season (hired with 57 remaining games in 2010)

Spring training site: Sarasota, Fla.
Pitchers & catchers' first workout: Feb. 14
First full workout: Feb. 21

Key additions: Justin Duchscherer, Kevin Gregg, Vladimir Guerrero, J.J. Hardy, Derrek Lee, Mark Reynolds
Key losses: David Hernandez, Kevin Millwood, Miguel Tejada, Ty Wigginton

Offseason grade: B-

The Orioles are struggling to break through the glass ceiling in the ultra-competitive AL East, and you have to feel for them. They have to deal with two of the biggest budgets in the AL East along with four front offices generally regarded as the brightest in baseball. Through no fault of the Orioles, they're doomed to another fourth- or fifth-place finish barring a major surprise, but this is a team that can succeed in the not-too-distant future. All it needs is a little luck.

2011 outlook

Offense: They were a non-factor offensively in 2010 thanks to the below-average contributions of Wigginton, Cesar Izturis, Matt Wieters and Tejada. The good news: Reynolds, despite his strikeout proclivities, is a massive upgrade over Tejada -- and likewise Lee over Wigginton. Plus, Guerrero over the Felix Pie/Nolan Reimold crew is also an upgrade, although who really knows how big an upgrade it is. Hardy brings Izturis' defense with a better bat and Wieters has to bust out sometime, right?

Brian Matusz is part of a young staff that could cause problems for AL East rivals. (US Presswire)  
Brian Matusz is part of a young staff that could cause problems for AL East rivals. (US Presswire)  
Defense: The O's were essentially middle-of-the-pack here, and none of their moves portend to a big leap up the defense leaderboard -- not that there is a glaring need to improve in this front. The one change that might make a big difference is Lee's presence at first, but while that's important, it may only be important up to July.

Pitching: The only thing Baltimore cares about with its pitching is how the young pitchers continue to mature. If there's one thing that's proven to work in contending in the AL Beast, it's developing young pitchers. B-more has that with Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta and Zach Britton. The O's even have the requisite innings-eating veteran (Jeremy Guthrie) and the injury-prone flier that could really pay off (Duchscherer). All the O's want is Matusz to take the next step forward, Tillman and Arrieta to hold their own and Britton to hit the majors ready to assume the mantle of ace.

Intangibles: When Showalter took the Orioles over, they were a miserable 32-73. Was it a dead-end job for a manager on his fourth team? Negative. Instead, the Orioles ripped off a 34-23 record. Part of it was regression to the mean, but you have to give at least a shred of credit to Showalter. While it doesn't appear that his drill sergeant ways have disappeared, he may be in the right place at the right time with the right players to respond to his style. But how will the overturn toward more veteran, accomplished players translate?

Key player: While Britton is considered to be better than Matusz, the fact is that Matusz is in the majors now and has yet to turn 24 (he will Feb. 11). If Matusz can take the next step toward his ceiling of being an ace, the O's might have a two-headed left-handed monster in Matusz and Britton that would take down the entire AL East without a problem. Matusz got 2010 off to a rough start but rebounded down the stretch. If he can tap into his potential for an entire year, Matusz immediately becomes one of the best young left-handers in the game.

Top prospect: The Orioles have two players worthy of being a top prospect, but Britton gets the nod over shortstop Manny Machado due to being close to the bigs. Britton is a strong left-hander who could earn a rotation spot in Baltimore provided he dazzles in spring training. More likely, he joins the team halfway through the year and should emerge as an ace, paired with Matusz.

For the season to be successful: The Orioles would love to get to .500 and could do so in any other division but in the AL East -- they'd be happy to just avoid 90 losses. The only things on Baltimore's list is keeping the young players healthy, the veterans producing and showing the fans there's something happening in Baltimore.

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