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March 26, 2012
What makes the game's fiercest division even fiercer? Try a fourth team capable of winning 90. The Yankees and the Rays are the teams to beat, but the Jays are back in the picture
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March 26, 2012

Al East

What makes the game's fiercest division even fiercer? Try a fourth team capable of winning 90. The Yankees and the Rays are the teams to beat, but the Jays are back in the picture

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Pitching depth is the reason the Rays enter the season with such high expectations. It's also why the Yankees should be considered favorites to repeat in the division. As recently as New Year's Day, New York's rotation looked like a weakness. But everything changed on Jan. 13, the day Cashman traded for 23-year-old righthander Michael Pineda from the Mariners and signed free agent righty Hiroki Kuroda.

Pineda came at a steep price—catcher Jesus Montero, the topflight hitting prospect sent to Seattle in the deal, "may be the best player I've ever dealt away," says Cashman. A righthander with a defensive lineman's build and a killer fastball-slider combination, the 6'7", 260-pound Pineda (he had a 3.74 ERA and 173 strikeouts in 171 innings as a rookie last season) is so talented that it's assumed by many that he will be the Yankees' No. 2 starter, behind CC Sabathia. Not so fast, says Cashman. "We have high hopes we can develop him into a front of the rotation pitcher, but that is not the expectation we have in 2012," says the G.M. "He's a two-pitch starter that's developing a third pitch [a changeup]—there's no number 2 starter in the league that I know of who only has two pitches. He pitched in a pitcher's park in the American League West, where he had a chance to go against much different offenses. Now he's transitioning into a division with more high-powered offenses and into a smaller ballpark."

The Yankees, though, don't necessarily need Pineda to be an elite starter in just his second year in the majors—over the past few years the organization has quietly developed the kind of starting pitching depth that has fortified the Rays. Later this season New York could call on one of many talented arms in its system, including prized prospects Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos. And last Friday the team lured 39-year-old lefthander Andy Pettitte out of retirement with a minor league contract. "We overperformed as a rotation last year," says Cashman of a staff that was fueled by surprise performances from veterans Bartolo Colon (signed with Oakland as a free agent in January) and Freddy Garcia (competing for a rotation spot this year). "We wouldn't be living in reality if we felt we could duplicate that. But now I think we're equipped with talent at the top of the rotation and with lots of depth."

A lack of rotation depth was precisely the reason the Red Sox collapsed last September. "When you get past the cosmic reasons of why everything happened the way it happened," G.M. Ben Cherington says of Boston's stunning 7--19 finish to the season, "one big one was our starting pitching in September—we just weren't giving our offense a chance. Losing [Clay] Buchholz to injury was a part of that, but it's more of a front-office issue: you have to assume there's going to be injuries during the year."

This winter Boston aggressively pursued starting pitching through free agency and trades to find that depth, but ultimately decided "that there were more value deals for relievers than in the starting-pitching market," says Cherington, who was promoted from assistant G.M. when Theo Epstein left in November to take over the Cubs. Boston acquired All-Star closer Andrew Bailey from Oakland and Mark Melancon from the Astros to strengthen the back end of a bullpen that lost closer Jonathan Papelbon to free agency.

Boston, then, was forced to look internally for options to fill out the rotation behind Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Buchholz, who didn't pitch after June 16 last year because of a stress fracture in his back. A key will be former setup man Daniel Bard, who is making the transition into a starter, a move the Red Sox front office began discussing last spring—even though Bard hasn't started a game since he was in Class A in 2007, and his 95-mph heat, devastating slider and effective but rarely used changeup make him ideal for back-of-the-bullpen duty. "We were looking ahead, figuring out where our next starting pitcher was coming from," says Cherington. "He has the body, the delivery, the repertoire and the makeup to thrive in the role. We believe he can do it, and be a difference maker for us."

Baltimore was once hailed as a rising power in the AL East because of its own supposed depth in quality young pitching. Injuries, however, have derailed the development of a talented young pitching core. Lefthanders Zach Britton (shoulder inflammation) and Brian Matusz (strained rib cage muscle) were fighting for jobs this spring, along with inconsistent righthander Chris Tillman. Other key pieces (catcher Matt Wieters, outfielder Adam Jones and Nick Markakis), while adequate regulars, have also fallen short of expectations. Meanwhile, Baltimore's longtime companion in the division cellar, Toronto, is on the cusp of the kind of breakout season the Rays had in 2008. That's thanks to some shrewd moves by G.M. Alex Anthopoulos—most notably, his decision to sign Bautista to a five-year, $64 million extension before last season. After slugging 54 home runs in '10, the late-blooming 31-year-old outfielder finished third in the AL MVP voting last year with another monster offensive year: 43 homers and a 1.056 OPS, both league bests. "A lot of people thought that was an unnecessarily risky deal," says an AL G.M. "Now it looks like one of the best in baseball."

The Blue Jays ranked sixth in the majors in runs scored last year and should be better with full seasons from Lawrie, who hit nine home runs with a .953 OPS in 43 games after he debuted last August, and Rasmus, acquired from St. Louis at last year's trade deadline. The big question in Toronto is the rotation, which ranked 10th in the AL in innings logged by starters. "It's no secret we need more quality innings from the back end of the rotation," says manager John Farrell, who will be counting on oft-injured righthander Dustin McGowan, who returned last September after not having pitched since undergoing shoulder surgery in 2008, and a talented 21-year-old righty with 10 career starts under his belt (Alvarez). "Clearly that's an area for us to make the biggest impact and improvement over a year ago."

Farrell points out that more innings from the starters behind Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero could shave 10 losses—which would give Toronto 91 wins, a total that could get them into the postseason with the added wild card. That extra playoff spot makes it even more likely that four teams from the AL East will be in the postseason hunt in September. The race to October—and to 1,000 innings—will be a nail-biter in the fiercest division in baseball. Says Cashman, "We aren't expecting anything less."


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