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This division is either the starting point or the finishing point for most things baseball being that it’s the home of the bitter rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. However, the Tampa Bay Rays have gone to the World Series in the last couple of years and have some amazing young talent. And the Toronto Blue Jays would be a thorn in the side of anyone outside of this division.

But being the best David doesn’t mean you’re likely to slay Goliath more than once and it hasn’t happened since Boston and New York started their spending and acquisition war. Baltimore, well, every division needs a cellar dweller and the Orioles are most likely DOA again this year. Good grief. They lost to a community college team to close spring training. Not a good sign.

Let’s start at the bottom and leave the ESPN darlings for last. The Baltimore Orioles have a solid offense, returning most of their starters minus the declining but still productive Vladimir Guerrero. JJ Hardy had an all star season last year and regained his standing as one of the top shortstops both in all of baseball, both offensive and defensively. Mark Reynolds is a poor man’s Adam Dunn in that he gets on base, hits a lot of home runs, drives in his fair share of runs and strikes out at a clip that makes Rob Deer and Dave Kingman proud.

Other questions abound in the offense and defense for me. Will Matt Wieters (22 homers last season) ever regain some of his prospect hype? Can Brian Roberts get healthy and stay healthy? With easily the worst starting rotation in the division, Tommy Hunter is the only pitcher that has a legit chance to help them, but on a better team he’s a second or third starter at best.

There will be some curiosity with Japanese import Wei-Yin Chen, and they have a lot of kids and vets in camp. The bullpen could end up helping them far more than anywhere else since they have some decent arms in the pen that they could trade away for prospects. My prediction is 71- 91.

The Toronto Blue Jays have a perennial MVP candidate in Jose Batista, and a lot of power in their lineup, but they struggle getting on base with five players in their projected starting nine with on-base percentages of .313 or less. Shortstop Yunel Escobar is a solid leadoff hitter, but his defense is terrible as illustrated by his career fielding percentage of .975. Also he has never played more than 139 games in a season. This is what the Blue Jays have — supremely talented, but incomplete players.

The Jays have a very solid rotation with Ricky Romero, who is a borderline ace, partnering with the extremely talented Brandon Morrow at the top and with three talented young arms behind them. I think they could easily win 85-90 games. They have prospects in the wings that could add depth. And they have Kyle Drabek, who fell off the face of the earth in 2011, but who also comes from a good pedigree. Drabek was the featured arm in the Roy Halladay trade with the Phillies.

The bullpen includes Francisco Cordero, Sergio Santos and Darren Oliver, a stronger-but-still-suspect collection of arms that Toronto officials hope will lead them to the playoffs. Still unlikely. The sad thing is, if they do win 85 games, Toronto will finish fourth. And if they somehow manage to get to 90 wins, they’ll only finish as high as third if lucky breaks go their way.

From here on up the division is a tossup. I think the Boston Red Sox are my choice for third in the division, though it’s a tough call because they could finish anywhere from first to fourth in the division with their talent and their deep cash coffers. I have them at 88 wins which isn’t bad, but they will be motivated to overcome last year’s collapse and could win 95-plus if all things fall into place.

The reason I see them finishing third is that I believe their rotation won’t remain healthy for an entire season. Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz make up one of the best top-of-the-rotation trios in all of baseball, but the fourth and fifth starters are question marks, to say the least. Alfredo Aceves who was a lights out reliever for a long time with a few spot starts (114 games with nine starts in his career), was going to be relied on as the fifth starter until the team learned closer Andrew Bailey is out until mid-season. Now he’s going to close.

For the time being fourth starter Daniel Bard, who was the best setup man in the American League last year until September when he burned out from being overworked, will remain in the rotation. Without Papelbon closing games and with Bailey going down, I also worry about their pen. With Bailey out and Aceves closing, Mark Melancon and Franklin Morales will set up. Melancon was acquired from Houston during the offseason and he’s alright but does not have awe-inspiring stuff. Morales joined Boston last year after spending most of his career in Colorado.

Offensively, Boston will continue to excel. Carl Crawford should have a huge bounce back season and could compete for Comeback Player of the Year – possibly even Most Valuable Player. Jacoby Ellsbury’s power numbers increased dramatically last season, skyrocketing his value. He’s now among the best leadoff hitters in baseball after his Rickey Henderson-like season. He could easily have won the MVP had the Red Sox not choked.

Former rookie of the year second baseman Dustin Pedroia, designated hitter David Ortiz, and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez (who also could have won the AL MVP) are among the best in baseball at their positions year in and year out. Kevin Youkilis is one of the most underrated players in all of baseball, not just as a slugger who can hit .300 with a great eye and a .400 on-base percentage, but also as a fielder, who can play gold glove-caliber defense at third base or first base.

The Red Sox shortstop situation has always been interesting, at least since Nomar Garciaparra was traded away. Last year’s top two guys at the position are gone, replaced by Mike Aviles and Nick Punto, who will bat ninth in the order. It looks like Aviles will be the main starter, according to MLB, but he has proven thus far to be nothing more than a platoon player with a little pop in his bat. Punto is the most overrated defensive player I’ve ever seen. His acrobatic plays make ESPN SportsCenter, but his range is limited, his base running is pathetic and he’s been injured several times sliding into first base.

The Tampa Bay Rays have been amazing. Their scouting department, their drafting, their general manager and their owner all deserve a lot of credit. I cannot discount the amazing job their manager has done piecing together lineups, rotations and bullpens for three consecutive years despite massive changes.

Fan favorite Carlos Pena will be back to play first base, and MVP candidate Evan Longoria is coming back from his worst year as a pro. The same can be said about centerfielder BJ Upton. Ben Zobrist had an outstanding season last year. He has shown great consistency defensively as well as excellent power potential out of a middle infielder. Matt Joyce in the bottom third of the lineup has consistently improved. Desmond Jennings had a solid rookie season replacing Carl Crawford in 2011 and he should only get better with experience.

David Price will have a Cy Young award under his belt shortly, though he may not even be the best pitcher in that rotation. James Shields doesn’t have the pure stuff that Price does, but 16 wins and a 2.82 ERA last year made him the de facto staff ace. By the end of 2012 he may be this team’s fourth-best starter. Rookie Jeremy Hellickson pitched merely okay based on his potential, but that was good enough for 13 wins and a 2.95 ERA. The scary thing for the rest of the American League is that Matt Moore may have more upside than any of them. He is the odds-on-favorite for AL Rookie of the Year in 2012. The pen is managed incredibly and the coaching staff is almost perfect. I project the Rays to win 97 games this year and finish second behind the New York Yankees.

Yes, not everybody is happy about it, but the New York Yankees are back as the best team in baseball. Alex Rodriguez went to Germany to have his knee worked on. If it works and the Yankees get a healthy A-Rod for 155 games he could win a fourth MVP. After last year they would settle for a typical regular season, but in New York it won’t matter unless he hits in the postseason. As for getting the team to the playoffs, almost a foregone conclusion over the last two decades, there are a lot of MVP candidates from the top of the lineup to the bottom.

If Curtis Granderson repeats his numbers from 2011 when he finished fourth in the AL MVP race, he’ll be a legitimate contender again. If Mark Teixeira can improve his batting average, the numbers he can put up in this lineup are ridiculous. As it stands his RBI production is still excellent.

My money for league MVP, however, is on Robinson Cano who has quietly put together a resume that I would argue proves he is the best second baseman in all of baseball. If he ever learns how to take a walk it will help all of his other statistics. He could be a future Hall of Famer.

Speaking of borderline Hall of Famers, Jorge Posada retired and the Yankees traded away the number one catching prospect in all of baseball, Jesus Montero, to the Mariners in the offseason. But when you’re the Yankees, you just reload. Russell Martin is an All Star-caliber catcher. And again, speaking of future Hall of Famers, Derek Jeter has lost three or four or five steps from the days when he was named captain of the Yankees. And his defensive range barely exists anymore. But 75 percent of Derek Jeter is 120 percent more “winner” than you’ll find in the entire AL Central and AL West combined.

So, as you look at it position by position, the Yankees have an All Star-level catcher, MVP candidates at first, second and third, a Hall of Famer finishing up his career at shortstop, and an All Star who had an MVP-type season last year in center in Granderson.

Nick Swisher isn’t going to the Hall of Fame. But the seminal figure in the movie Moneyball has power and is always going to get on base with his amazing eye. He plays right field. And the American League stolen base champ Brett Gardner plays left field. He may be their least talented player, but he’s still likely to steal 50 bases even out of the number nine spot in the order.

The Yankees rotation starts with the newly re-signed CC Sabathia. He’ll be followed by the newly-acquired  Michael Pineda joins the pinstripes from Seattle, where he toiled on a bad team last year. With run support typical of a Yankees team, he could have won 20 games for the Mariners last year. Now he has the chance to shine. He came at a heavy cost – the aforementioned Montero deal – but he has been compared to Sabathia for his size and King Felix Hernandez (2010 Cy Young Award Winner) for his makeup.

Hiroki Kuroda is another potential 20-game winner. He has the make-up to experience success in New York that eluded some previous Japanese imports that have pitched in the Bronx. Second-year starter Ivan Nova came out of nowhere to become a key cog in the team’s AL East division title last year. His makeup makes it appear as though he should be able to produce similar results consistently. I think that 16 wins out of the rotation’s fourth starter is something every team would appreciate. Former phenom prospect Phil Hughes appears to have held off Freddy Garcia for the fifth starter spot, though both will start the season in the rotation with Pineda doing a brief stint on the disabled list. If one of these guys doesn’t work out, the Yankees always have the financial wherewithal to be major players not only in free agency, but at the trade deadline.

They also have a tremendous bullpen, headed by a dark horse candidate for the Greatest Yankee of All-Time. Mariano Rivera seems to actually be getting better in his 40s. Will he be dominating forever? No, but are you going to bet that this is the year he takes a step back? I’m not willing to do that because Joe Girardi does an excellent job of utilizing him.

They also have a former top five closer in Rafael Soriano as his setup man so it’s not like they’d lose a lot if Mariano lost his mojo or was injured. David Robertson had an incredible year in 2011 and he returns as the seventh inning guy. Boone Logan isn’t spectacular, but does a nice job against lefties. Joba Chamberlain’s future is up in the air after a severe injury suffered on a trampoline. With him, the Yankees have the best bullpen in baseball. Without him, they still come close.

For the Yankees, anything less than 100 wins would be a disappointment. The team is a bit too old for me to predict they will push the 116 win record established by the 2001 Mariners, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they hit 110. Brian Cashman, the Steinbrenner legacy and the YES Network are three things you just don’t bet against. Brilliance, determination, and a printing press for millions have left the Yankees without peer in the American League. My prediction is 103-59.

Other division previews:
National League West
National League Central
National League East
American League West
American League Central

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