2008 Preview: AL East

BOSTON RED SOX

In general

What’s not to like about the Red Sox? Really only one thing: Curt Schilling’s shoulder. Clearly, Boston was counting on Schilling as its likely third starter with the $8-million deal it signed him to in the offseason. Had they had any doubts about his healthy, they surely would’ve offered him an incentive-laden contract (say, $2-4 million a year, with increases for innings pitched or starts made). And if Schilling didn’t like that offer, he would’ve tried the free-agent market. But it’s not all bad for Boston, because now they can put both promising young arms — the right one of Clay Buchholz and the left one of Jon Lester — into the rotation, if they so please. Nonetheless, their starting pitching is in decent shape (particularly if Bartolo Colon has anything left) even without Schilling, while their bullpen and lineup haven’t really lost anything.

September/October star Jacoby Ellsbury should get the center field job, leaving Coco Crisp as an attractive backup or trade piece to help the pitching staff. It probably wouldn’t hurt the Mets too much to consider Crisp as a left-field fill-in for Moises Alou. But everyone else is back, and maybe J.D. Drew won’t suck as much.

What I’m looking forward to seeing

Will they be able to put away the Yankees if they open up a big lead like they did last year? Can Buchholz and Lester handle the load they’re likely to be given this year? Will Tim Wakefield pitch until he’s 50? (That won’t happen this year, though.) Is Manny going to put up tremendous numbers in his walk year? (the Red Sox have an option for each of the next two seasons.) What can Ellsbury do in his first full season? And which J.D. Drew will the Nation get?

NEW YORK YANKEES

In general

They had one “significant” acquisition during the offseason — highly uncharacteristic for the Yankees in the past decade — and that was to bring in reliever LaTroy Hawkins. In a kick to the rear end for nostalgia, they gave him No. 22 — the digits worn last year by Roger Clemens. That’s pretty much an about-face from the self-indulging comeback announcement he made from George Steinbrenner’s box at Yankee Stadium last year. Hawkins’ signing, in theory, means that Joba Chamberlain moves to the rotation to start the season. But now the talk is that Joba will “begin” the season in the bullpen. There certainly is no need to force him into the rotation when Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes, Mike Mussina and Ian Kennedy form a solid five, but age is an issue with four-fifths of that quintet. Wang has won 19 games each of the past two seasons, but Pettitte and Mussina are basically year-to-year guys — who knows what you’ll get from them each year beyond their last. And Hughes and Kennedy will be attempting their first full seasons in a Major League rotation, and for all their talent, they’ll still have to face the Red Sox three or four times each and face other challenges at the big league level that can’t be simulated at lower levels or in spring training.

The Yankees lost nothing from their lineup, ensuring Alex Rodriguez is overpaid in a market that got out of hand in some cases (Carlos Silva) but showed admirable restraint in others (good job, everyone, for not giving Kyle Lohse $10 million a year). A-Rod didn’t seem to have teams rushing to sign him for $230 million, but the Yankees didn’t even try to bring him down from his — or agent Scott Boras’ — initial demand. They also retained their catcher coming off a career year — though their 36-year-old catcher, whom they signed for four more years. Jorge Posada shouldn’t be a question mark this year, but at some point all that squatting has to (pardon the pun) catch up with him. Of course, his aversion to blocking the plate should add a year or two to the productive period of his career.

Where the Yankees are tight, or struggling with lineup decisions, is the left field, first base, designated hitter triangle. If they put Jason Giambi at first, Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui can split left and DH. But if they don’t — or can’t — put Giambi in the field, then either Damon or Matsui sits. And who plays first? Morgan Ensberg? Ouch. Whether it’s Giambi, Damon or Matsui riding the padded cushion in the dugout, that’s an awful lot of money for your first pinch-hitter off the bench. And it’s not like you can put any of them in there for a defensive upgrade.

What I’m looking forward to seeing

I loved A-Rod when he was in the AL West, but now I hate him in pinstripes. However, it’s still thrilling to watch him hit and to see just how high he can get those numbers. How quickly will he close the gap to 755 home runs? Will Derek Jeter — the worst fielding shortstop in the game (up through something like 2005) — get to any balls more than three steps away? (Kidding.) Actually, what I really want to see from this team is what Hughes, Kennedy and Chamberlain do — and whether new manager Joe Girardi goes easy on them or pushes them as hard as he pushed his young Marlins pitchers during his lone season on the bench in Miami. Only Scott Olsen came out of that season unscathed. Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez have all had arm problems and missed significant time. And do they make the playoffs? This is not to discount the Yankees, but have they ever had the kind of competition for a playoff spot as they do this year with the Red Sox, Tigers and Indians? Probably not.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

In general

In some other divisions, the Jays might be contenders. In the AL East, behind Boston and New York, Toronto is likely a mid-80s win team with a chance to make spoiler. Their lineup features solid on-base guys mixed with the power of Alex Rios, Vernon Wells, Frank Thomas and maybe Scott Rolen. The rotation starts with two premier arms in Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett, followed by some potential breakout guys like Dustin McGowan and Shawn Marcum. The bullpen could be decent if B.J. Ryan is back from Tommy John surgery from the outset, but without him, it could be a slow start — something the Jays can’t afford.

What I’m looking forward to seeing

I drafted Rios in a fantasy league three or four years ago — which was two or three years too early. He blossomed last year and was nearly traded to the Giants for one of the top up-and-coming arms in the game, Tim Lincecum. How good will Rios be? What does Frank Thomas have left? Seems like a lot, and it’s always fun to watch the guy keep slugging because he’s one of the good guys — and one of the clean guys. Does Wells bounce back from a disappointing 2007? Does Rolen have a rebirth north of the border, or is his career set to take off on the downward slope?

TAMPA BAY RAYS

In general

This team is on the rise, and with the de-feathering of the Orioles, the Rays will move up a rung in the standings. A rotation beginning with Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Matt Garza looks like fun (so long as Kazmir’s elbow is healthy), and a lineup stocked with young, talented hitters like Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria will be much more enjoyable to watch than the previous attempts with Fred McGriff, Jose Canseco and Greg Vaughn.

What I’m looking forward to seeing

Is Longoria ready for the bigs? Will he live up to the hype? Can Upton continue to hit like he did in ’07? Is Shields really that good? Will Kazmir make it through a full season?

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

In general

Andy MacPhail is in to straighten this team out, and he’s brought in a load of prospects — mostly pitchers — by dealing Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard. Dumping Tejada days before his name appeared in the Mitchell Report was an added bonus. Now if he can keep making moves without owner Peter Angelos interfering — note how long it took for the long-rumored Bedard deal to finally happen, and how long we’ve been hearing about Brian Roberts to the Cubs — the O’s may turn this around sooner than we think.

What I’m looking forward to seeing

There’s not much. Maybe three: Is Nick Markakis a stud? Is Jeremy Guthrie really the best this pitching staff has? Can Adam Jones emerge as a leader?

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