AL East preview: Yanks eye another division, second wild card adds opportunity

David Brown
Big League Stew

Rejoice, rejoice, the baseball season is almost here! In an attempt to quickly get some of you slackers up to speed on the year ahead, Big League Stewards Kevin Kaduk and David Brown will again look at a division, hold a conversation about the issues therein and then issues some predictions on expected standings and award-winners. Up first is the AL East.

David Brown: 'Duk, my man, can you believe another offseason has passed and we're ready to start the 2012 regular season? And we are ready, right? Where did we leave off again? Of course, the damn New York Yankees. They took the AL East pretty convincingly a season ago, winning 97 games and finishing ahead by six games, even though they tanked it during the final week of the regular season. It was a relative cakewalk for the Bronx after the horror of finishing second — gasp! — in 2010. Hey, we all know it's a well-oiled machine, the most oiled machine in baseball, usually, but is there any way these guys slip up and don't win the division? Heck, does it even matter if they do slip? If the Yankees finish second, there's a great chance they'll make the playoffs anyway. Heck, with the added wild-card team, they could finish third and still make the playoffs now! What kind of a racket is that, anyhow?

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So I'm going into this thinking the Yankees are good as gold to make the postseason, especially after what GM Brian Cashman did the night of Jan. 13, when he traded for Michael Pineda and signed Hiroki Kuroda to fortify the starting rotation in one fell swoop. We're not too worried about Pineda's fluctuating MPHs, or his chunkiness at the start of camp, or the semi-comical notion that maybe he can't pitch in the "Big City." And Kuroda won't be protected by Dodger Stadium, or the mediocre lineups of the NL West, but he's still Hiroki Kuroda, darn it. The rest of the starting rotation would seem to be solid enough with Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia, with the kids Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos waiting in the wings. Mariano Rivera still closes the bullpen door like nobody else in the big leagues. And these guys finished second in the AL in runs scored. What could possibly go wrong?

Kevin Kaduk: Absolutely nothing, that's what. Death, taxes and the Yankees getting the annual chance to roll the pitching dice in playoffs!

While I've admittedly waffled all offseason about who would get my top spot in the AL East, I keep coming back to the Yankees after trying to assemble season-long cases for the Red Sox and Rays. CC Sabathia consistently provides the foundation while the rest of the staff sorts itself out.

I would have loved to see the damage Jesus Montero could have done in that lineup, but that's the price you pay when you want to get a talent like Pineda. It's the price you can afford to pay when players like Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson assume the role of main offensive cogs when A-Rod and Jeter have hit the back slope of their careers. They'll provide enough offensive fireworks as we engage in Mariano Rivera's retirement watch and speculate as to when Joe Girardi will start shining the Andy Pettitte bat signal over the skyline of New York City.

Hey, you touched on the possibility of three AL East teams making the postseason this year and all I can say to that is thank God for the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels. The rising rivalry in the AL West should mean that three AL East playoff teams is far from a certainty. So let's say that only two beasts from the East move on to the playoffs; would you give the honor to the Rays or the Red Sox?

DB: Oh, the Red Sox have no chance. Not "no chance" in the actual or even Coolstandings sense. But if I were betting my own money, I'd say the Rays would be a 60-40 probability, conservatively, to finish ahead of them in the standings. If I were betting your money, I'd express confidence at 80-20 the Red Sox won't finish higher than third. They're either too beat up or too fragile. They have too many mediocre players in prominent roles. Who is catching, who is playing shortstop? And it's not like any of the options are that promising (except for Ryan Lavarnway behind the plate in about two years). They're about 1 1/2 deep in the bullpen. Josh Beckett has topped 200 innings once since 2007. I like Bobby Valentine for entertainment value, but this is going to be a challenge for him to manage — fried chicken and beer bans notwithstanding. You go ahead with Ryan Sweeney and Cody Ross, GM Ben Cherington. Bet on Carl Crawford to regain his 2010 form, or Jacoby Ellsbury to maintain his form from 2011. There's always Kevin Youkilis (Oh, Youk, he's got what they need — as long as he stays on the field). And Dustin Pedroia, who manages to be scrappy and good. And Adrian Gonzalez — as long as they don't have to resort to him playing left field in front of the Green Monster — is one of the top sluggers in the game. But you need 25 guys, or 30 guys, to make it out of the AL East wilderness. The Red Sox have about 15, maybe 20.

'Duk: Wait a minute. You're not OK with their plan to shore up their rotation which — last I checked — included rolling the dice on Daniel Bard's conversion from the bullpen and waiting around to see if Dice-K will be able to contribute anything (he won't)? While I think you're short-changing that lineup, I agree that the sources of consistent pitching are few and far between. It'll be their downfall again.

The Rays, however, will not have that problem, which is why I'd agree they're the second pick in this division. GM Andrew Friedman and Co. have packed their rotation with so many young and prime starters that the average age of the St. Petersburg resident will experience a significant drop between the months of April and October. But like their fellow citizens, a lot of these Rays are living on a fixed income. And that's the real beauty of what Friedman has done with this team over the past four of five years. The club-friendly contract that lefty Matt Moore signed last fall was arguably the toast of the offseason and it's not unlike the ones that Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist are carrying around.

But that's not to say that this team will continue being a bargain in the future or that they're a lock for 90-plus wins this season. The continued services of James Shields, David Price and B.J. Upton are about to get really expensive, so it's imperative they really grab the opportunity that's in front of them. I'm a little concerned about the bullpen,  though I'm sure Friedman has an equally unlikely solution for the closer spot if Kyle Farnsworth can't repeat the magic of his 2011 season.

How do you feel about the Jays? Any chance of them working their way up here?

DB: As you know, Kevin, at Yahoo! Sports we have a fine blog for the Olympics called Fourth Place Medal. Unless the Boston Red Sox slip even further, the Toronto Blue Jays are going to be awarded fourth place in the AL East for the fifth straight season. Despite the commissioner's recent generosity with the wild cards, the Jays will need to surge to get into the playoffs neighborhood. The good news is that the Jays have several great pieces. Jose Bautista was the best hitter in the AL in the first half, and has been one of the best in the majors since 2009. Brett Lawrie is on the verge of being, perhaps, even better. Ricky Romero is an All-Star left-hander and I wouldn't be surprised if Brandon Morrow isn't one this season. I'd really like to pick them higher than fourth. But all I know for sure is, they're better than the Orioles.

'Duk: C'mon DB. You know darn well that pledging patience to Alex Anthopoulos has been the first rule for being a Jays fan these past few years. And some of these inconsistent young pitchers (plus Travis Snider) have made sure to see if the fans are really serious about waiting around. I think the Jays will eventually nose their way into a playoff race or two, but they're probably still five or six wins away from doing it this year on the 20th anniversary of their first World Series title. That's not to say that I wouldn't love to see them edge their way into the playoffs this season. It'd make for great theater if baseball's first AL play-in game took place north of the border in front of 50,000-plus lubed-up Maple Leafs fans. (They gotta get their playoff fix somehow.)

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Look,  if the Jays' pitching comes together and they go out and do something crazy like go 18-o against the Orioles this season — one of the teams from the AL East has to do that this season, right? — maybe it's not that hard to imagine them nailing down one of the AL's five best records. At least that's what I'm telling myself.

I know you tried to tee up the Birds for my take, but I'm going to deflect that challenge and send it back to you. Take us home by giving us three reasons to watch the O's this year.

DB: This assignment was harder than I thought. But, here goes: 1. Catcher Matt Wieters. If he could figure out how to hit left-handed (.662 OPS) like he hits right-handed (1.124!) well, the Orioles would trade him to the Yankees. So hopefully he chills a little and they don't do that. 2. Adam Jones' Twitter account (@SimplyAJ10). A good ballplayer, but he also sets a great example using social media. He's funny, (mostly) innocent, tells good stories, he doesn't take himself seriously, and he'll engage just about anyone. 3. Camden Yards is still the best ballpark we got, pretty much. And it's 20 years old this year, and it offers lots of good memories— most of which are getting kind of faint.

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Predicted order of finish
'Duk:1. Yankees, 2. Rays, 3. Red Sox, 4. Blue Jays, 5. Orioles
DB: 1. Yankees 2. Rays 3. Blue Jays 4. Red Sox 5. Orioles

AL East MVP:
'Duk: Robinson Cano, Yankees
DB:  Jose Bautista, Blue Jays

AL East Cy Young
'Duk: David Price, Rays
DB: Matt Moore, Rays

AL East Rookie of the Year
'Duk: Matt Moore, Rays
DB: Matt Moore Rays

Coming Wednesday: The NL East

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