The American League East has been baseballís dominant division for the better part of two decades, going back to its inception in the mid-1990s.
While the rise of the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels into powerhouses might allow for some dispute in this area on behalf of the AL West, the East, with four teams destined for winning records, still reigns supreme.
Both the Blue Jays and the Tampa Bay Rays have risen to the challenge posed by the financial behemoths from New York and Boston. Unlike the Jays, the Rays have proven their might by making it to the post-season in three of the past five seasons.
The curse for the Jays being part of the AL East is that they must play 54 games ó one-third of their season ó against Boston, New York and Tampa as a result of the unbalanced schedule MLB has imposed.
But now that MLB has added a second wild-card team for the playoffs in each league, it is time to balance the schedules, as well.
With the switch of the Houston Astros to the American League West in 2013, MLB will be composed of two 15-team leagues, split into equal five-team divisions.
From there, it is one easy step to abandon the division-weighted schedules.
The math is simple: Each team could play each of the other 14 teams 10 times. Thatís a 140-game slate, with 20 games reserved for interleague play. Instead of 162 games, teams would play 160.
To mute the competitive vagaries of interleague competition, teams in a given division would play teams from only one other given division each year. For example, in 2013, the AL East might be paired with the NL East.
As an example of how inequitable the system is now, consider that the Yankees will play 86 games this season against teams with 2011 records of .500 or better and 76 games against teams that finished under .500. The Rangers will play 68 games against teams with 2011 records of .500 or better and 94 games against teams that finished under .500.
To take it to a ridiculous extreme, the Detroit Tigers have 106 games against teams below .500 and just 56 against teams at, or above, .500. The Baltimore Orioles have 62 games against under-.500 teams and 100 against teams at or above .500.
We know this is not at all scientific but it doesnít take a scientist to realize this is not a level playing field.
TAMPA BAY RAYS
2011: Second, 91-71
The Rays had the best rotation in the division a year ago and that was even before Matt Moore burst on to the scene. The young lefty gives the Rays four premier starters (James Shields, David Price and Jeremy Hellickson) with Wade Davis a notch below.
The Rays didnít have a lot of spare cash to spend over the off-season, but they added some valuable pieces. They welcomed back 1B Carlos Pena and signed DH Luke Scott and were able to hold on to CF B.J. Upton. They also brought in ex-Jay Jose Molina, but itís a stretch to expect him to catch 120 games at the age of 37, especially since heís caught only 100 games once in his career. GM Andrew Friedman may have to scramble to find a replacement when Molina starts to wear down.
After scoring 800-plus runs in each of the 2009 and 2010 seasons, the Rays barely cracked the 700 mark in 2011. Donít be surprised if they bounce back closer to that 800-run level this year.
2012 prediction: First, 95-67
NEW YORK YANKEES
2011: First, 95-67
Last season, the Yankees pitching staff behind CC Sabathia was based on a hope and a prayer. They got more than they imagined out of Ivan Nova, Bartolo Colon and Freddie Garcia and less than they hoped out of A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes.
On paper, the 2012 version looks more substantial with Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, a healthy Hughes, Nova and Garcia, but they got an unpleasant jolt this past week when Michael Pineda, who cost the Bronx Bombers their premier hitting prospect in Jesus Montero, was placed on the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis. Two weeks ago, Andy Pettitte seemed like a bit of insurance. Now heíll probably go right into the rotation around May 1.
Itís safe to say nobody will be holding a pity-party for the Yankees. They still have the most expensive lineup of talent in baseball and will once again deliver runs by the ton. Catcher Jorge Posada has retired and iconic closer Mariano Rivera will probably follow him into the sunset at the end of this season, leaving Derek Jeter as the last of the cornerstones of this 15-year juggernaut.
2012 prediction: Second, 93-69
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
2011: Fourth, 81-81
IMaybe itís all a mirage, but anyone who has spent any time around this edition of the Blue Jays has picked up the vibe. There is confidence, with gusts up to a swagger, emanating from the Toronto clubhouse this spring.
For a guy who was there, it is reminiscent of the Blue Jays in the spring of 1985, coming off their first winning record in í84. Those Bobby Cox-led Jays were young, talented and hungry and attacked their springtime opponents relentlessly. They won 19, lost nine in Florida, then went on to 99 wins (still a team record), an East Division title and a heartbreaking loss to Kansas City in the ALCS.
This team has already won more spring games than that 1985 Toronto team but, come Thursday, that will be forgotten. What will matter is if this team can deliver on this springtime promise over a gruelling 162-game season in the AL East.
If the Jays can demonstrate an ability to contend, this could be the year that help comes at the trade deadline with the long-awaited ďdeal that puts the Jays over the top.Ē
2012 prediction: Third, 90-72
BOSTON RED SOX
2011: Third, 90-72
Itís interesting that the Red Sox have so many question marks for a team that is flirting with the salary-tax threshold. With a payroll of about $170 million, they will begin the season with journeymen Cody Ross and Ryan Sweeney in the corner outfield spots and Mike Aviles as the starting shortstop.
The pitching staff that led the team down the road to ruin in September last year has a lot to prove. Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz are a top three that a lot of teams would like to have, but after that it gets a little murky. Josh Bard could turn out to be a dynamite No. 4 but at what cost to the bullpen stability that has already been rocked by the departure of Jonathan Papelbon?
Closer Andrew Bailey was good in Oakland in front of family and friends, but how will he respond when Bobby V asks him not only to work the ninth. Or, hey, can you get us out of this ugly jam in the eighth?
There is a lot to like about the Sox core ó Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz. They will bludgeon a lot of pitchers, score a lot of runs, but not quite enough.
2012 prediction: Fourth, 89-73
2011: Fifth, 69-93
For the Orioles, who have not had a winning season in 15 years, it is a sad commentary that their best moment of the past decade came in the final game of the 2011 season, when they won their 69th game.
On that lustrous night, the Orioles scored twice in the ninth inning to beat the Red Sox 4-3, ending Bostonís playoff hopes.
In this division, the Oís may need to hang on to that moment for a few more years before they are in a position to create some memories of their own.
The good news is that they have a handful of players óoutfielders Nick Markakis and Adam Jones, along with catcher Matt Wietersó who are good enough to form the nucleus of a winner. The bad news is that there really isnít much else on this roster to get excited about.
They traded away innings-eater Jeremy Guthrie and now have a suspect rotation composed of Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, Tommy Hunter, Tsuyoshi Wada and Wei-Yin Chin.
They added LF Endy Chavez from the Rangers and Wilson Betemit to DH, and J.J. Hardy and Mark Reynolds combined for 67 homers, but beyond that there isnít anything here to make you excited for this teamís prospects.
2012 prediction: Fifth, 71-91