MLB spring training: A look into the American League East

With Boston and much of America enjoying a mild winter, spring has been teasing its arrival, even more so now with MLB Spring Training underway. The American League East has been one of the most competitive divisions in baseball as of late, with 2012 looking to be yet another tight battle for the pennant.
For the first time in awhile, each team within this division has a reasonable chance at taking home first place, as the Baltimore Orioles are maturing their young talent, with Tampa Bay and Toronto looking dangerous as well. It’s not just a dog fight between the Red Sox and Yankees anymore to say the least.
Tampa Bay Rays
While the Rays didn’t make any huge moves via free agency this year, they have third baseman Evan Longoria back at full health to start 2012 and rookie Matt Moore is already being anointed as the shoe-in for AL Rookie of the Year. Both have been looking great to start the preseason and that has morale high for Tampa.
That’s also probably helped by the fact that with Moore now in the fold, the Rays easily have the best rotation in the division, and maybe all of the American League as ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian recently claimed on Baseball Tonight.
With Longo looking healthy, and the deadly rotation Tampa Bay boasts, they are poised to compete in 2012.
Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles have struggled ever since Cal Ripken Jr. hung up the cleats in 2001, but as they showed Boston when they closed the door on their rival’s postseason aspirations last year, they’re on the upswing nowadays.
When talking about that game where Baltimore upset the Red Sox, Orioles short stop Robert Andino said to the Bradenton Herald:
“[We showed] the baseball world, and even showing ourselves that we can compete, and we’re not going to be no doormat.”
As always, the Orioles aren’t sure if second baseman Brian Roberts will be healthy to play on Opening Day, but with Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Matt Wieters and Mark Reynolds, there are some good offensive pieces in place down in Baltimore.
The success that this team has in 2012 ultimately depends on their young pitching staff however, with youngsters Zach Britton and Jake Arrieta leading off the rotation. Their closer Kevin Gregg is a solid producing veteran, but he can’t close out games if this young staff doesn’t put him in position to do so.
Toronto Blue Jays
Since the emergence of Jose Bautista, the Blue Jays have quickly become a deadly offense for opposing pitchers to handle. Over the past two seasons alone, the Jays’ outfielder has blasted 97 balls out of the park.
“He’s become one of the best hitters in the league.” Toronto manager John Ferrell told The Boston Herald.
Bautista isn’t the only Blue Jay that will make pitchers nervous however, as second year third baseman Brett Lawrie will look to build off an impressive first season in the majors. The Canadian-native posted a .293 average with nine home runs and seven stolen bases over 150 plate appearances in 2011.
Like Baltimore though, Toronto will need its pitching staff to improve upon last season’s mediocrity. Projected No.1 and No. 2 starter, Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow know how to strike out batters, with almost 400 between them last year.
It’s the ERA that always kills these two, with both averaging over 3.6 earned runs last season. Only time will tell if the Blue Jays can overcome their pitching woes and make a run for the AL East title.
New York Yankees
To the surprise of no one, the Yankees made the biggest splash out of all AL East teams in free agency, grabbing starting pitcher Michael Pineda from the Seattle Mariners and former Los Angeles Dodgers’ starter Hiroki Kuroda.
With just a few signs on the dotted line, New York has put together the second best rotation in the division even if their fifth starter is still a question mark. I don’t need to tell you how great their offense is, but with the resurrection of Curtis Granderson last season, the Yankees have very few holes to exploit in their batting order.
Outfielder Nick Swisher is also entering the last year of his contract with the team, so there’s a chance Swish puts together one heck of an offensive season to stay in the Big Apple.
The Bronx Bombers aren’t exactly young however; they’ll need Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter to stay healthy and produce somewhere near their usual selves, as the Yanks don’t have depth at either position.
New York will need to hope Pineda can handle the bright lights and metro media and that their former dynamic duo at short and third base aren’t too far past their prime.
Boston Red Sox
With Bobby Valentine now running the show for Boston, and new faces at shortstop, right field and closer, 2012 feels a lot like 2011 did around this time. The Sox are again hoping that individual talent can triumph until their new pieces fit in with the team, but that didn’t exactly lead to a booming start last April.
Valentine has spent the past few years behind an ESPN desk, so it will be interesting to see how he handles managing a ball club again. New closer and former Oakland Athletic Andrew Bailey spent much of last year on the disabled list, and posted a 3.14 ERA through his 41 innings in 2011.
Carl Crawford is still nursing back to health, but told ESPN’s Joe McDonald he’s optimistic about taking the field Opening Day. Considering his career numbers, Crawford should be everything the Sox were hoping for last season. After a year, he should be comfortable in his new surroundings and produce the numbers he used to down in Tampa.
Rotation-wise, Boston will need to hope the good Josh Beckett shows up again this year, as he’s been a tad inconsistent since coming to Beantown. The team will also need former setup man Daniel Bard to transition well to the rotation, which the Sox will have a better indication if that’s feasible the closer we get to April.
“If I do the same things that I did the last three years out of the bullpen and can convert that to almost three times as many innings, it’s a no-brainer.” Bard told NECN.
The Sox have some new names in the rotation and in the batting order, but like last season, everything depends on if the new signings can blend in with the familiar faces for Boston.

Boston Red Sox skipper Bobby Valentine will look to turn around a team that struggled mightily down the stretch last season.

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