As we get set to start spring training, the AL East seems to be about as interesting as it's ever going to get. Between the Red Sox, Yankees, Rays, and now even the Blue Jays, there are four teams fighting for either two or three playoff spots.
Seriously, Mr. Selig, get a move on with that whole wild card thing.
We'll save the divisional balance complaints for another day, however. For now, there seems to be a prevailing sentiment that the Red Sox are going to find themselves as "also-rans" in this stacked competition. After last year's collapse and the failure to address the team's biggest issues during the offseason, many a Red Sox fan is prepared for a letdown in 2012. This despite the likes of Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, and Jacoby Ellsbury on the roster. Is this a realistic outlook, or just a bit of irrationality stemming from the recent trauma?
To get a better grasp on the situation, let's evaluate the competition (which, no, does not include Baltimore), and see how well we stack up. Piece-by-piece.
Blue Jays: Young backstop J.P. Arencibia ranked amongst the nation's top prospects in 2009, but concerns about his ability to produce at a major league level given his complete lack of discipline have proven all-too-valid. He can hit homers with the best of them, but his OBP was a dismal .289 last year, and he might struggle to maintain his power numbers if pitchers realize how easily they can avoid his bat. When put together with his difficulties behind the plate, if Arencibia doesn't improve in a hurry, he's going to be hearing the footsteps of talented prospect Travis d'Arnaud. Still, even if d'Arnaud makes the jump, expecting much out of him just one year after finishing the season in Double-A is probably a leap in itself.
Rays: Believe it or not, Jose Molina is in line to start behind the plate for the Rays. Still, even knowing that Molina's bat is nothing without the massive BABIP he had last year, he can still give the rays some value with his glove. One of the better defensive catchers in the game, don't be surprised if the Rays' pitching staff once again manages to outperform expectations. The Rays could also find themselves with a bit of added offensive power in their backup, should Jose Lobaton or Robinson Chirinos carry over any of their minor league numbers to Tampa Bay.
Red Sox: Essentially the opposite of the Rays, the Red Sox will put their best offensive foot first in Jarrod Saltalamacchia, with Kelly Shoppach's solid glove providing support and a lefty-mashing bat. While Saltalamacchia will enter the year with some hopes of replicating the mid-year success that had him looking like a long-term answer, if he should prove more his 2009 self, there's always the developing Ryan Lavarnway waiting in Triple-A. His defense is hardly the talk of the town (though it has been improving), but if his bat can make the jump successfully, that will hardly be an issue.
Yankees: New York fans haven't exactly fallen in love with their starting catcher, but it's not for lack of production. While Martin isn't necessarily the best behind the plate, the value of an average bat on a catcher with even some semblance of a glove isn't to be underestimated. Fans in the Bronx will continue to pin future hopes on Austin Romine now that Jesus Montero is gone, for now they've got a more than adequate stop-gap.
On the whole, it's a pretty poor showing for the MLB's premiere division, but that's how things go with catchers these days. On the whole, it's hard to give this one to any of the teams but the Yankees, but there's always that lingering question of how much a good defensive catcher is worth. If some of the higher estimates happen to be true, then it could be the Rays who come out on top in the end--in that curious, unexpected way they so often do.