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For a decade the AL East was home to baseball's two superpowers, the Red Sox and Yankees, but in 2008 the Rays crashed that party using mostly young talent at bargain-basement prices, giving the division a third contender for years to come. The Yankees, after seeing a 13-year playoff streak come to a screeching halt, went on an unprecedented shopping spree, spending the GNP of a small country for a trio of free agents. The Red Sox spent the winter locking up the team's nucleus, but fell short on all of the big free-agent prizes. Toronto lost its second-best pitcher yet didn't make any impact additions.
Where: Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Grapefruit League)
2008 record: 68-93 (5th, AL East)
Winter grade: C-
Since the start of '08 camp, President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail has replaced over half of the roster as part of a major rebuilding plan. He couldn't lure hometown hero Mark Teixeira back to Baltimore and the players he did acquire represented a precipitous drop from the talent level the All-Star/Gold Glove first baseman would have brought. In came utility men (Ryan Freel, Ty Wigginton), veteran stopgaps (Cesar Izturis and Gregg Zaun) and former prospects (Rich Hill, Felix Pie), while Ramon Hernandez, Kevin Millar, Jay Payton, Alex Cintron and ex-pitching hopefuls Brian Burres, Garrett Olson and Adam Loewen were shown the door.
Key question: Could the AL's weakest starting rotation have actually gotten worse?
After ranking last in the majors in starter ERA (5.51), MacPhail brought in a trio of new starters, all with varying questions surrounding them. Mark Hendrickson was the Marlins' workhorse but posted a 5.45 ERA in the less offensive-minded NL; 10-year veteran righty Koji Uehara is a two-time Sawamura Award (Japanese Cy Young) winner but has experienced injuries and ineffectiveness the last few seasons; Hill was once the Cubs' top pitching prospect but has lost control of his curveball, and with it, his effectiveness.
Prospect to watch: Matt Wieters, C
The Orioles have a lot riding on Wieters, the fifth overall selection in the '07 draft who's expected to join Nick Markakis and Adam Jones as the franchise's cornerstones. Last season, his first as a pro, Wieters hit 27 home runs with a 1.053 OPS, and with only Zaun, Guillermo Quiroz and Chad Moeller ahead of him on the depth chart, he'll be with the big club before long.
Position battle to follow: Left field
Jones and Markakis are locked into their spots in center and right, respectively, and incumbent left fielder Luke Scott is penciled in as the full-time DH, leaving left field to a revolving platoon of newcomers: Pie (.284 career OBP), Freel (torn hamstring in '08) and Wigginton (.526 slugging pct.).
Scout's take: "I like [starter] Jeremy Guthrie. He's a great story, but he's not a No. 1. Not by a longshot. They made a nice gamble with Koji Uehara, but it is a gamble. There's just not enough starting pitching there to get them to .500. The thing is, if the starters can give them six solid innings -- a big if -- the bullpen is actually very solid. I like Sherrill and Ray a lot at the back of the bullpen.
"There is hope, though. Matt Wieters is a player you build around; he's going to be on many All-Star teams. I like their outfield -- in a few years you might be talking about Markakis, Jones, and Pie as one of the better outfields in the game."
Boston Red Sox
Where: Fort Myers, Fla. (Grapefruit League)
2008 record: 95-67 (2nd, AL East); Lost in ALCS
Winter grade: B
Although he failed to acquire a big bat or a long-term answer behind the plate, GM Theo Epstein did a solid job tweaking the rest of his roster. Cornerstones Kevin Youkilis (four years) and Dustin Pedroia (six years) inked contract extensions. Free agent signee Brad Penny gives Boston the deepest rotation in baseball, while former Dodger closer Takashi Saito and ex-Royal Ramon Ramirez bolster a bullpen that lost only ancient Mike Timlin. John Smoltz, signed to an incentive-laden deal worth between $5 and $10.5 million, which will be a steal if his surgically repaired right shoulder is fully recovered. Rocco Baldelli, who received an optimistic re-diagnosis of a chronic muscle illness that had derailed his career, replaces Coco Crisp as the fourth outfielder.
Key question: Was the decision to avoid surgery on David Ortiz's troublesome wrist the right one?
Big Papi's production wasn't so big last season, hampered by a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist. In his first five seasons in Boston, Ortiz averaged 41.6 home runs, 128.4 RBIs and never had an OPS below .961, but last year those figures dipped to just 23 home runs, 89 RBIs and an .877 OPS. One could blame the trade of Manny Ramirez to the Dodgers on some of the power loss, but his averages dipped only slightly from .266/.360/.498 pre-trade to .248/.370/.487 afterward, leading one to believe that it was more wrist and less Manny causing the slump. Time will tell.
Prospect to watch: Junichi Tazawa, P
Boston was one of four teams to make offers to the Japanese Corporate League star who bypassed the Japanese amateur draft, but were the only organization that could fulfill another dream for the 22-year old. "To me, [Daisuke Matsuzaka's] the best player" said Tazawa upon signing. "To be able to learn from him is an incredible opportunity for me." A right-hander with a 95 mph fastball, Tazawa will start the season in the minors but will have a good chance to get called up at some point during the season.
Position battle to follow: Shortstop
Veteran starter Julio Lugo, 33, strained a quadriceps on July 11 and as a result of numerous setbacks was forced to sit out the remainder of the regular season and playoffs. Rookie Jed Lowrie, 24, stepped in and batted .258 with a .339 OBP and two home runs. While Lugo is marginally a better offensive player (.355 OBP, 12 SB), Lowrie is the much more sure-handed of the two, committing no errors in 49 big league games at short (compared to Lugo's 16), giving him the inside track. Boston reportedly shopped Lugo, but with two years remaining on a four-year, $36-million contract, was unable to find a taker.
Scout's take: "You have to like the gambles they took with Smoltz, Baldelli, and Penny. And don't forget Saito -- those guys could come up big for them down the stretch. They've got great starting pitching depth, and the bullpen is solid. If there's one thing I worry about it's their offensive production. I'm not 100 percent sure Youkilis can duplicate those numbers from last year, and I'm sorry, but David Ortiz is just not the same player. They can't count on him for 40 homers. Still, they're one of the two or three favorites to win the whole thing, no doubt."