Chrony Major League Baseball Divisional previews: It’s redemption time for the Red Sox

AL East Preview

This is, without question, the best division in baseball. The Yankees and the Red Sox are, without question, two of the five best teams in baseball, possibly the top two, and when you add the new and improved versions of Toronto, Baltimore and Tampa Bay, you have the only division with top to bottom revision. The depth is unquestionable.

The AL East can also boast arguably the best rivalry in sports, and, without question, the best rivalry in baseball, which gained considerable momentum in the ALCS last season. That means 19 regular-season games this season will have playoff implications for the two teams and their millions of fans, who are unquestionably some of the most zealous and knowledgeable in all of sports.

The only questions are: Who will win the series and the division, and who will lose out in the stacked AL East?

1. Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox were a great team last year, but a heart-crushing loss to the Yankees in game seven of the ALCS left the team, the front office and the fans grossly unsatisfied. So Red Sox GM and boy genius Theo Epstein went out and acquired key players to fill in the small gaps that were left over from last year’s team.

An above-average rotation was made elite with the addition of the fireballing workhorse Curt Schilling. An average bullpen that was great in the playoffs improved drastically with the addition of an elite closer in Keith Foulke. A solid bench was bolstered considerably when the Sox signed outfield slugger Ellis Burks and utility man Mark Bellhorn, and a big defensive hole at second base was filled, and then some, with the addition of slick fielding Pokey Reese.

All the pieces are in place for this season, and barring injury, it seems highly unlikely that the Red Sox will be playing any golf this fall.

However, they play in the best division in baseball, top to bottom, so that means 76 of 162 games will be dogfights against tough pitchers and big-hitting lineups.

With that said, I think it’s time for the Sox to win their first AL East crown since 1990, and end the Yankees’ run of six straight.

Predicted Finish: 101-61, First Place.

2. New York Yankees

This off-season the Yankees lost Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite, Alfonso Soriano, Nick Johnson and ALCS hero Aaron Boone. That’s roughly two 15-game winners, two .300 hitters, 100 homers, 270 RBIs and 350 runs. There’s no way a team can recover from such devastating losses, right?

Wrong. The Yankees actually gained ground on last year’s team when you consider who their replacements are: In the batting order they got A-Rod for Soriano, Gary Sheffield for Johnson and Kenny Lofton for Boone. In the rotation they got Kevin Brown for Clemens and Javier Vasquez for Pettite.

The pitching tradeoffs are pretty even, so the rotation should remain elite, but the Yankee lineup went from great to one of the best ever.

But baseball is as much about chemistry as home runs and RBIs, and the Yankees lack a clubhouse cutup to counteract some of the biggest head cases in all of sports.

The Yankees will be good this year, but I foresee much turmoil in Gotham City.

Predicted Finish: 95-67, Second place, AL Wild Card.

3. Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays are in the wrong division. This is a team that could win 95 games and win any other AL division, but they just don’t stack up against the Sox or Yanks.

They will make things very hard on both of the division favorites with their strong pitching staff and potent offense.

The Jays added three very good pitchers in the offseason to support Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay in the rotation. Miguel Batista is coming off a career year, Ted Lilly was unhittable late last season and into the playoffs, and Pat Hentgen showed signs of a return to form after the All-Star break. If all four of these pitchers live up to their 2003 billing, they will be an outstanding rotation.

The Jays’ Achilles’ heel will be their bullpen, which consists of an unproven closer, some untested youth and a few streaky journeymen.

Their defense will also be suspect, with two-thirds of their outfield and half of their infield playing because of their bats, not their gloves.

It will be another frustrating season for Toronto fans and a seventh straight third-place finish.

Predicted Finish: 86-76

4. Baltimore Orioles

After several rebuilding years that followed a terrible financial fiasco, the Orioles are finally fielding a good team in 2004.

The rebuilding period provided the Orioles with several up-and coming players including Jay Gibbons, Melvin Mora, Luis Matos and Larry Bigbie, and the pocketbook of team owner Peter Angelos provided the rest.

Baltimore signed 2002 AL MVP Miguel Tejada, power-hitting catcher Javy Lopez and ever-solid first baseman and onetime Oriole Rafael Palmeiro. These additions made a good offense great, but unfortunately, the offense wasn’t the major problem last season.

Besides re-acquiring Sidney Ponson after a brief stint with the Giants, the Orioles did nothing to improve a woeful pitching staff. Both the starters and the bullpen will hurt the Birds badly and send them toward the basement.

Predicted Finish: 80-82

5. Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Like every other team in the division, the D-Rays have a solid offense.

Unlike a year ago when Tampa struggled to score, this year’s team should put up runs with much greater frequency.

Additions like Tino Martinez and Jose Cruz Jr. should help anchor both the batting order and the defense, and Carl Crawford and Aubrey Huff should continue to shine.

The problem for this club is the starting pitching, but even that will be an improvement over last season. Victor Zambrano is due for a breakout year as the ace and youngster Jeremi Gonzalez could also win about 15 games.

This team will likely finish last, but never count out a team that is managed by Lou Piniella. They could finish as high as third in this division.

Predicted Finish: 75-87

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