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Checking in on the Red Sox AL East competition

The Red Sox will be AL East favorites this spring, but how close is the rest of the pack?

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The Red Sox won the American League East last year by four games. Obviously, their performance in the postseason left plenty to be desired, but they have a good leg up on the rest of the division looking ahead to 2017. Losing David Ortiz is a massive hit that will be felt all season, but the addition of Chris Sale and relative youth of the core of the lineup gives them a good chance to build on their performance since last year. I think it’s fair to say that, when prediction season rolls around, the Red Sox will be atop the AL East on far more projections than not. Things don’t always go according to plan, though. While the offseason is still rolling, most teams close to set on their rosters, and it’s worth looking at which division rivals have the best chance of challenging the Red Sox for the AL East crown.

The Rays

Most didn’t have very high expectations for Tampa last season, but their 68 win season can still be counted as a disappointment. Looking at their roster for this season, things don’t figure to get much better.

The Rays’ lineup is still buyoed by Evan Longoria, who smacked a career-best 36 home runs in 2016 and his best OPS+ since 2013. There isn’t a ton of talent around him, though. The potential for bounce-backs from the newly added Colby Rasmus as well as Corey Dickerson could go a long way towards respectability. The good news for Tampa, though, is that their defense is still anchored by Kevin Keirmaier and should be outstanding as a whole.

On the pitching side of things, they are still led by Chris Archer. The young ace looks just as due for a bounce back to stardom as David Price. The issue is that Tampa Bay may still look to trade him, whether it be before the season or at the trade deadline. Behind Archer, it’s all about upside with guys like Jake Odorizzi, Blake Snell and Alex Cobb. There’s a chance they could be good, but just as much of a chance they could crash and burn. In the bullpen, they are led by the outstanding Alex Colomé, and not much else.

Overall, the Rays look like the team least ready to challenge the Red Sox in the AL East. They look to be entering another stage of a rebuild in which they trade some of their best assets, so they might be good a few years down the line. For now, though, expect them to stay near the bottom of the division.

The Yankees

Last year was a very interesting one down in the Bronx. The early part of the season didn’t go according to plan, and they used that to their advantage by shipping out a number of veterans and completely revamping their farm system in the process. Then, they somehow looked better after they shipped out that talent and stayed in the playoff race far longer than anyone expected.

New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Joseph Garnett Jr. /Getty Images

The offense is suddenly led by Gary Sanchez, who only has a few months of major-league experience but was beyond outstanding in that time. After him, they have some stability in Matt Holliday and upside in Greg Bird, but overall the lineup is much weaker than one typically expects from the Yankees.

The pitching staff, on the other hand, is very interesting to me. In my opinion, Masahiro Tanaka is one of the most underrated arms in baseball and is a good start to any rotation. CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda certainly have their downsides, but they also have some considerable upside. Luis Severino hasn’t quite reached his potential, but it’s still there and 2017 is likely his last chance to show it in the rotation. They could use another starter to round out the rotation, but it could be a solid group. Plus, it’s backed up by a superb bullpen with Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances and Tyler Clippard.

I still believe the Yankees are a year away from being real contenders, but if they want to get there this year they certainly have the prospects to cash in to improve the roster.

The Blue Jays

Now, we get to the half of the division that still appears to be in their window of their contention. Starting with Toronto, the Blue Jays are coming off a season in which they were the division favorites but settled for a wildcard berth.

For the last few years, Toronto has had one of the most feared lineups in all of baseball. That reputation took a tiny hit last year, and it figures to take an even larger one in 2017 with Edwin Encarnacion moving on to Cleveland. The good news is they still have Josh Donaldson -- one of the best position players in all of baseball -- and Troy Tulowitzki. Russell Martin is still behind the plate as well, and although he’s not the guy he once was he’s still a solid hitting backstop. With Devon Travis and Kendrys Morales also involved, it should at least be a solid group. Whether or not it can take the next step up depends on whether or not Jose Bautista ends up re-signing with the club.

In a bit of role reversal from typical modern Blue Jays teams, this year’s squad could be carried by the pitching staff. Aaron Sanchez was a legitimate Cy Young candidate for most of the year and should only get better. Marcus Stroman is already very solid and certainly possess the upside to take the next step. These two youngsters are flanked by stable(ish) presences in JA Happ and Marco Estrada as well as the enigma known as Francisco Liriano. The bullpen is nothing special, although it is led by one of the best young relievers in the game in Roberto Osuna.

Toronto is still a very scary team, and might be the biggest challengers to the Red Sox next year. They aren’t quite as terrifying as they used to be, but their pitching should be able to keep them in most games, and the offense can still make a big impact. This is particularly true if Bautista returns.

The Orioles

Every year, I am among many other baseball fans who expect Baltimore to fall to the bottom of the standings. Every year, they make us look like idiots. They earned another wildcard berth in 2016, and lost in the wildcard game after infamously leaving Zach Britton in the bullpen.

Their offense isn’t quite as star powered as the best Blue Jays lineups of the decade, but it’s still quite scary. Manny Machado is one of the best overall young players in baseball, and he’s flanked by huge power from Chris Davis and Adam Jones. They are also still connected to Mark Trumbo, who would certainly bring their boom-or-bust offense to yet another level. They even replaced the oft-disappointing Matt Wieters with the solid-hitting Wellington Castillo.

As always, the starting rotation is a much different story with the Orioles. This year’s version at least has some upside at the top with Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy. Neither of the former top prospects have lasted for a full season, but they showed flashes of brilliance in 2016. Chris Tillman is also a solid piece, but overall the group leaves plenty of be desired. On the other hand, they still have a dominant bullpen led by Britton, Brad Brach, Mychal Givens and Darren O’Day.

I am willing to be a bit higher on Baltimore than I usually am, given their offense and bullpen. However, I still think they’re closer to a .500 club than a playoff team.

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At the end of the day, there’s no reason the Red Sox won’t be divisional favorites. There are a couple of teams that can challenge them, most notably Toronto and Baltimore. New York could also be in the mix if they want to flex their prospect muscle as early as this summer, but I’d be surprised if that happened. Whether or not Boston is as good as Cleveland or Houston may be another story, but the AL East is the theirs to lose.