The AL East will be more competitive than once anticipated due to another man who won't be there: Cliff Lee. The Yankees' plan had been to sign Lee, the 2008 A.L. Cy Young--winner-turned-mercenary-playoff-killer. But the lefthander's decision to spurn the Steinbrenners' riches to rejoin the Phillies, coupled with Andy Pettitte's retirement, left New York with only three proven starters—if you consider A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes to be proven.
Opponents found Lee's saga titillating for a reason besides the shattering of the Yankees' fantasy of a rotation topped by him and CC Sabathia. Lee's dallying—he didn't pick Philadelphia until mid-December—meant that by the time he made his decision, the Yankees' probable second choice on the free agent market, Crawford, was gone—and to their archrival Red Sox, no less. "No," says Cashman, asked if his winter went according to plan. "Not at all.
"By the time [Lee] declared himself, all the quality Plan B's, C's, D's, E's were off the board," Cashman says. "Patience has to be Plan B now." That's patience on his part, with a rotation that might remain in flux for much of the season—and on that of the Yankees' hitters, who will have to score nearly at will to keep the team in the race. It could happen. Though aging in spots (particularly those occupied by Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Alex Rodriguez), the lineup ranked first in the AL in runs (859) and OBP (.350) and second in walks (662) last season.
The Yankees' Lee-lessness shouldn't drop them into the depths of the AL East, but the division's laggards in recent years—the Blue Jays and Orioles have finished fourth and fifth each of the last three seasons—can find reasons to dream of one day moving up. In the near term, those reveries might be more vivid in Baltimore. "Tampa has shown us it can be done," says president of baseball ops Andy MacPhail of the ability of an AL East team to rise from moribund to preeminent. The Orioles' attempt has three main components. The first is manager Buck Showalter, who took over the majors' worst team last Aug. 3 and in his 57 games—"too long a time to be a flash in the pan," says MacPhail—led it to a 34--23 record, second-best in the AL in that span. The second is the Orioles' sleeper cell of talented 25-and-under players, including catcher Matt Wieters, centerfielder Adam Jones and starters Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman. The third is the injection of veterans on short-term deals that MacPhail administered over the winter, including a quartet (DH Vladimir Guerrero, shortstop J.J. Hardy, first baseman Derrek Lee and third baseman Mark Reynolds) who will add pop to an offense that scored the second-fewest runs (613) in the league last year.
The Blue Jays won 85 games last season on the strength of their 257 homers, tied for third-most all-time. However, Alex Anthopoulos, the club's 33-year-old G.M., devoted this winter to shaping his club for the future. His most important move was getting rid of the onerous contract of centerfielder Vernon Wells, who will earn his remaining $86 million from the Angels after being traded in January. Toronto features a promising rotation—the oldest starter is Brandon Morrow, who is 26—and retains sluggers like Jose Bautista, to whom Anthopoulos, to some criticism, gave a five-year, $65 million extension in February. Even though Bautista, 30, has had only one above-average year, it was significantly so: He hit 54 home runs in 2010, 15 more than any other AL player. "I understand the criticism," Anthopoulos says. "But we feel strongly that this is a guy who's found it. If we waited a year, there's a good chance he'd get more years and more dollars on the free-agent market. It's an educated gamble. Those are some of the things we need to do in the AL East."
Still, the coming season, Anthopoulos says, "will give us a good sense of where we're going beyond 2011." The AL East team that has best positioned itself to win immediately is the Red Sox. They finished third last year, but won 89 games despite suffering an improbable number of injuries to key regulars: outfielders Mike Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury, catcher Victor Martinez, second baseman Dustin Pedroia and first baseman Kevin Youkilis sat out an average of 88 games apiece. One metric suggests that Boston would have had seven more wins—enough for a share of the AL East title—had they sustained a statistically normal level of health.
The Red Sox are now healthy, and Epstein more than replaced departed free agents Martinez and Adrian Beltre by signing Crawford and trading for Padres slugger Adrian Gonzalez. Gonzalez, 28, has hit more home runs than all but seven players over the past four seasons despite playing in San Diego's notoriously homer-averse ballpark. His is the type of power that produces 380-foot mishits to leftfield; those should bear fruit in Fenway Park, with its famously shallow leftfield wall. "The parks in the American League East are a lot smaller than the parks in the National League West," the first baseman says. "That's good to think about."
Crawford also finds himself thinking more about his future than his past. In late February he was asked if he knew the identity of the person who had taken up residence in his old locker at the Rays' spring grounds.
"Who?" he inquired. "B.J.?"