LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Last year at this time, the Blue Jays were the consensus pick to win a World Series after their blockbuster 12-player trade with the Marlins.
The champion coming from the AL East turned out to be the only correct aspect of that prediction once the Red Sox won it all. This year, the division again shapes up to be as good as any in baseball.
Over the last 22 seasons, the American League pennant winner has come out of the East 13 times and, while it would be foolhardy to say that’s going to happen again in 2014, it looks to be a powerhouse.
“(The AL East) kind of looks like it’s similar to what we thought it was last winter, maybe not in the exact same order — competitive, flat, a bunch of teams with a chance to win,’’ Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington said Tuesday. “Who knows how it plays out, but that’s how we thought it was last winter and it kind of looks that’s the way it will be again.”
Unless there is a blockbuster trade lurking behind a corner at these winter meetings, the Red Sox are done with their heavy lifting for 2014. The other teams, to varying degrees, have a lot left to do. Here’s how they stack up against the Red Sox:
• Yankees — Tied for third place last year with the Orioles at 85 wins, the Yankees have been throwing their wallet around like George Steinbrenner never left. They lost one great player in second baseman Robinson Cano, who signed with the Mariners, but they gained another in center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury. Their offense, a weakness last year with the lengthy absences of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira, has received a boost a plastic surgeon would be proud of: Besides Ellsbury, they’ve added slugging catcher Brian McCann and outfielder Carlos Beltran. Also signing were infielders Kelly Johnson and Brendan Ryan, with Hideki Kuroda returning to the rotation.
They still have a trade to conduct, moving either outfielder Ichiro Suzuki or Brett Gardner.
“I mean, God bless them,’’ Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “It’s a given, especially the Red Sox and Yankees, they’re going to make a lot of splashy things. But I’d do the same thing if I was them. And they do it real well.’’
• Orioles — It’s hard to look at their moves without thinking they’ve taken a step back. They traded closer Jim Johnson for inconsistent second baseman Jemile Weeks and made little effort to retain free agent starter Scott Feldman, who was acquired in a midseason trade for a playoff push. With talk that they are open to trading talented catcher Matt Wieters, the Orioles seem to be spinning their wheels in terms of improving on an 85-win effort last season. General manager Dan Duquette likely has other moves to make but he is already fighting the perception that owner Peter Angelos has not decided to spend increased TV revenue on payroll.• Blue Jays — For all the splash they made a year ago, the last-place Blue Jays have been super quiet this year. All their effort has been dedicated to acquiring more starting pitching but they have not been successful in a meaningful way. They did allow catcher J.C. Arencibia to leave and they locked up veteran catcher Dioner Navarro. Given how last year went, the Blue Jays will give their revamped roster, which still has so much talent on it, another go, hoping that better health and better starting pitching, once they find some, will allow them to live up to everyone’s expectations.• Rays — A wild card last postseason, the Rays continue to make some of the most intriguing moves and they are far from done. They are shopping one of the five best starters in baseball, David Price, who is two years away from free agency. Last year, they shipped away James Shields and in return received the AL Rookie of the Year, Wil Myers. They are shrewd evaluators of talent, and will strike a good deal for Price. In picking up Ryan Hanigan from the Reds, the Rays finally got a good all-around catcher. Along with the re-signed Jose Molina, the Rays took a big leap behind the plate.
Reliever Heath Bell, whose stock has fallen dramatically, joins his fourth team in as many years in the Rays, who have a knack for assembling reliable and effective bullpens.
The way it looks now, the Red Sox face the stiffest competition from the Yankees and Rays in a division known for stiff competition. The Orioles and Blue Jays will hope to steal a page from the Red Sox’ 2013 playbook and upend December expectations with a wholly unexpected October reality show.