The Yankees-Red Sox Division -- c'mon, it's been that way for eight years now -- could well have another contender in 2006. But for all the noise that those uppity Blue Jays made this winter, at this point, that's all the Jays are: could-be contenders in one of baseball's most difficult divisions.
That, in its own right, is a step in the right direction. Working with a jacked-up payroll, thanks to a rejuvenated ownership, the Jays spent wildly this winter, grabbing the top free-agent starter on the market (A.J. Burnett, formerly of the Marlins) and one of the best closers (lefty B.J. Ryan, formerly of the Orioles). They also traded for slugging third baseman Troy Glaus (from Arizona) and first baseman Lyle Overbay (from Milwaukee), then signed a new catcher, Bengie Molina (from Anaheim). Add all that to a young rotation topped by Roy Halladay, a solid bullpen and some good young position players and the Jays now seemingly have the stuff to make a run in the American League East.
Standing in the way, as usual, are the defending champion Yankees, who have won the division every year since '98. (The Red Sox had the same record last year as the Yankees, with 95 wins apiece, but the Yanks beat Boston head-to-head, 10-9.) The Yankees, for the most part, flew under the headlines this winter. But with one trumpeted move, they both increased their chances at a repeat and crippled the Sox. The signing of former Boston center fielder Johnny Damon to a four-year, $52 million contract was the coup of the offseason. With Damon leading off, the Yankees clearly have the best lineup in baseball.
The Yankees made some quieter moves, notably replacing setup man Tom Gordon with young, hard-throwing Kyle Farnsworth and otherwise building up a sagging bullpen. But, in all, what the Yanks didn't do was the much bigger story. They didn't sign a starter, leaving their pitching fortunes to the aging arms of Randy Johnson, 42, and Mike Mussina, 37. Other starters are capable, including Shawn Chacon, Chien-Ming Wang, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright. But there are questions about every one of them -- Johnson and Mussina included -- which means the Yankees often will be left to outslug their opponents, not outpitch them. With that lineup, though, that won't be much of a problem.
Unlike the Yanks, the Red Sox squirmed through a tumultuous offseason, both in the front office (GM Theo Epstein quit, then came back) and on the roster. Damon's defection was the big news, but the entire '05 Boston infield is gone -- first baseman Kevin Millar, second baseman Mark Bellhorn, shortstop Edgar Renteria and third baseman Bill Mueller. With David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez still around (the latter for the time being, anyway), the Sox will score runs with the best. But to outpound the Yankees and to get into the postseason, the Sox will have to get good years out of Damon's replacement, former Indians outfielder Coco Crisp, and newcomers like shortstop Alex Gonzalez and second baseman Mark Loretta.