Posted: Thursday March 29, 2012 12:57PM ; Updated: Tuesday April 3, 2012 3:46PM
Albert Chen
Albert Chen>INSIDE BASEBALL

AL East preview (cont.)

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Michael Pineda
Michael Pineda should help shore up a Yankees rotation that was re-made over the winter.
US Presswire

X-FACTOR:

Phil Hughes

Remember: He's still just 25. He was bad in 2011, but Hughes has locked up a rotation spot with a strong spring. Clearly, his hard work this offseason --- he worked out at Athletes' Performance in California --- has paid off, and the righty who won 18 games in 2010 is poised for a bounceback year.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"Everyone's so worried about Pineda, but I think he'll be OK. His velocity has been up in his past few starts [this spring]. Cashman was smart in lowering people's expectations about Pineda --- I think he's going to surprise a lot of people and make a big impact right away."

SI VideoVERDUCCI: Offense is great but three starters will swing season

TAMPA BAY RAYS

WINTER GRADE: B+

Once again, as their AL rivals struck splashier deals and scored the biggest headlines, the Rays spent the winter making shrewd, under-the-radar moves. GM Andrew Friedman added a first baseman (Carlos Peņa) and a designated hitter (Luke Scott) and improved the bullpen (Fernando Rodney) without unloading any starting pitching. The Rays' best offseason move? Locking up future Cy Young winner Matt Moore to a five-year, $14 million deal that could extend to eight years and $40 million.

KEY QUESTION:

Is Matt Moore ready to rule the world?

He struck out 11 in Yankee Stadium in his first major league start. He shut down the Rangers in Texas in his first postseason appearance. Now the best pitching prospect in baseball is ready to dominate over a full season. The Rays aren't putting an innings limit on the 22-year-old lefty, who has logged a total of 9 1/3 major league innings. Bad news for the rest of the American League: Moore's changeup, which clocks in at 88 mph, has looked much improved this spring. The addition of the phenom to the rotation for a full season gives the Rays the best starting five in the division --- and, perhaps, in all of baseball.

X-FACTOR:

Chris Archer

The great young arms keep coming. Archer will start the year at Triple-A Durham, but the 23-year-old with the mid-90s fastball and plus-slider will be a difference maker down the stretch, either as a replacement starter or shut-down reliever.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"The starting pitching depth is ridiculous. Their second five starting pitchers are as good as some of the other starting fives out there."

SI VideoVERDUCCI: Terrific young staff can carry them back to October

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

WINTER GRADE: B

There was buzz that Toronto would pursue one of the big dogs in the free-agent market, but the Blue Jays, to the dismay of many of their fans, saved their money for another day (for the Joey Votto sweepstakes in 2013, perhaps?). Instead, GM Alex Anthopoulos remade the bullpen by adding relievers Sergio Santos, Francisco Cordero, Jason Frasor and Darren Oliver, and turned a weakness (last year's unit tied for the AL lead in blown saves) into a potential strength.

KEY QUESTION:

Is this the year that Brandon Morrow becomes an ace?

The Jays offense, fifth in the majors in runs in 2011, will be dangerous again, with Jose Bautista anchoring a lineup that includes potential breakout stars Brett Lawrie and Colby Rasmus. With their bullpen improved, Toronto could turn into a serious threat in the best division in baseball if its starters take a step forward. Last year it was Ricky Romero emerging as one of the league's top hurlers; Toronto is hoping that this is Morrow's year. Last year's AL strikeout king has been the victim of some bad luck the last two seasons (his BABIP in 2010 was .344). If the 27-year-old fireballer puts it all together, the Jays have a great shot at their first postseason since '93.

X-FACTOR:

Kyle Drabek

A year ago he seemed destined for greatness, when he broke camp with a spot in the Blue Jays rotation, but the fiery right-hander looked badly overmatched in his 14 starts in 2011. The 24-year-old has had a good spring --- he's cleaned up his mechanics and "really figured out how to control his emotions," says a scout --- and with Dustin McGowan headed to the disabled list, Drabek has the inside track on the fifth starter slot.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"There's a lot of talent here, the team's on the right track. I think realistically, they're still a year or two away. But if they played in any other division, they'd be a playoff team."

SI VideoVERDUCCI: Same story for Jays but don't expect a happy ending

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