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Spring Training Preview: AL East

Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor

Chris Ruddick Logo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - After shoveling snow for nearly three hours on Wednesday, there is not a better thing to hear than pitchers and catchers are reporting. However, the 20-degree temperatures and sub-zero wind chills here in the Northeast hardly make it feel as if spring is in the air.

But despite what your thermometer might read, spring really is right around the corner, as major league teams have begun to trickle into their training complexes.

Over the next couple of weeks we will break down each division. We will look at the additions, subtractions, and take a look at some of the questions that surround each team as they get ready for the 2007 campaign.

This week we start with the American League East.

For the better part of the last decade this division has been a two-team race between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, and things don't figure to change much this season.

The Yanks are blessed with one of the best lineups the sport has ever seen and if their pitching holds up, should cruise to an amazing 10th straight division title. Boston, as always, is nipping right at the Yanks' heels, though and bolstered its rotation with the addition of Japanese sensation Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Both New York and Boston have some question marks and if either falters, Toronto will be there to pick up the pieces. The Blue Jays' biggest signing this offseason was locking up outfielder Vernon Wells. They also signed veteran Frank Thomas to compliment the burgeoning superstar Wells.

Tampa is loaded with young talent, but is still a few years away. The Devil Rays will likely battle the Baltimore Orioles for the bottom spot in the division.

NEW YORK YANKEES: Legends Field -- Tampa, FL

As is always the case with the Yankees, off the field issues seem to be the main story as the Bronx Bombers kick off camp. Bernie Williams is still a free agent and does not appear willing to accept the team's non-roster invite. Hopefully he will save everyone a lot of trouble and just retire. Mariano Rivera is in the final year of his contract and wants to be paid. Brian Cashman, though, is doing the right thing by waiting until after the year. As Derek Jeter said the other day, "Mo ain't going anywhere." Fact is, if Rivera is Rivera this season, he will get his deal. And of course, there is ongoing saga of Alex Rodriguez. Will he be accepted by Yankee fans this year? Will he opt-out after the season?

There is nothing wrong with this team offensively, but they will go only as far as their starting pitching will take them. Andy Pettitte's return should help take the load off of Mike Mussina and Chien-Ming Wang. With Pettitte in tow, the Roger Clemens watch has already begun. Most people assume it is a lock that he will join his buddy in the Bronx around the All-Star break. Carl Pavano could be the wild card here. After missing all of last season and much of the year before with injuries, he is apparently ready to go. However, it appears he has some amends to make with teammates, as Mussina has commented on his desire to be a Yankee a few times already.

In a related note, the Yankees plan to honor Cory Lidle this season by wearing a black armband. Umm...that is a nice gesture and all, but Lidle was a Yankee for about a minute and he ripped manager Joe Torre at the end of the season. Hank Bauer, who just recently died as well, played 11 years with the Yankees and was an integral part of seven World Series titles with the organization. Shouldn't they be honoring him instead?

BOSTON RED SOX: City of Palms Park -- Fort Meyers, FL

Dice-K mania has hit Florida. The Red Sox shocked the baseball world by bidding an incredible $50-plus million just to negotiate with Japanese sensation Matsuzaka. Those in the know say he is worth every penny and is every bit as good as has been advertised. He joins a rotation that already includes Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Tim Wakefield and Jonathan Papelbon, who was the team's closer a year ago. Boston also added to their lineup with the signing of oft-injured outfielder J.D. Drew. The Drew signing was a curious one, as most feel he wilt under the pressure of constantly being under the microscope in baseball-crazy Boston. Red Sox fans are among the smartest in baseball, and will come to despise Drew's lack of passion and baseball smarts. Luckily for him, though, the Red Sox still have David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez to shoulder the offensive burden. The team also added shortstop Julio Lugo, who becomes the fourth different shortstop for the team since Nomar Garciaparra was traded at the 2004 deadline.

The biggest question the Red Sox have this spring is who will close games. Papelbon was sensational as a rookie last year, but for some reason he is being moved to an already stacked rotation. Joel Pineiro will probably get the first crack, but if he falters, Julian Tavarez, Craig Hansen and Brendan Donnelly will all get a shot. My guess is that either Papelbon is moved back to the pen or Theo Epstein makes a move right before the start of the season.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS: Dunedin Stadium -- Dunedin, FL

The Blue Jays made great strides last season, but may have taken a step back this offseason. They tried their best to keep starter Ted Lilly, but he bolted for a mega-deal in Chicago and they have not really replaced him. The Blue Jays enter the year with a huge hole after Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett at the top of the rotation. Gustavo Chacin will likely be penciled in as the third starter with some combination of John Thomson, Tomo Ohka and Victor Zambrano filling out the back end of the staff. Youngsters like Shaun Marcum, Casey Janssen and Dustin McGowan could all play a part as well.

Toronto's biggest move this offseason was locking up centerfielder Wells to a long-term $126 million deal. Wells had a monster 2006 and could have commanded a huge salary if he ever hit the free agent market. The Blue Jays brought in some protection for Wells by signing Thomas to a two-year deal. Thomas, despite having a terrific season with the Oakland Athletics last season, is an injury waiting to happen and will probably watch more games than he plays this season.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES: Ft. Lauderdale Stadium -- Ft. Lauderdale, FL

The Orioles received some horrific news as they began camp, when it was learned that starter Kris Benson would be lost for the season with a torn rotator cuff. What makes the news even worse is the fact that Baltimore dealt Rodrigo Lopez earlier in the offseason, leaving the O's mighty thin in the starting pitching department. The team quickly signed Steve Trachsel, who joins a rotation that will be headed by Erik Bedard, Daniel Cabrera, Jaret Wright and young Adam Loewen. Cabrera and Loewen could be the key to the O's season. Both have big-time major league stuff, but both have also struggled to do it consistently. Top prospect Hayden Penn could also figure into the mix, but he will likely start the year in Triple-A. The good news is that team stacked its bullpen this winter, adding lefty Jamie Walker, righty Chad Bradford and former closer Danys Baez.

Offensively the team added Aubrey Huff and Jay Payton and the O's still have Miguel Tejada, so they should be able to score some runs. If Brian Roberts and Jay Gibbons stay healthy, that would also obviously help. The big question for Baltimore, though, is will it stay in the race long enough to keep Tejada happy? It seems to me that it is just a matter of time before they deal him off.

TAMPA BAY DEVIL RAYS: Al Lang Field -- St. Petersburg, FL

Tampa enters the 2007 campaign with the odds-on-favorite for American League Rookie of the Year in Delmon Young. Young was sensational for the Rays in September and should be even better this year. The big question for the Devil Rays this spring will be the condition of staff ace Scott Kazmir, who was forced to cut his 2006 campaign short because of a left shoulder injury. Tampa has big hopes for Japanese import Akinori Iwamura, who was a five-time All- Star and six-time Gold Glove recipient at third base with the Yakult Swallows of the Japanese Central League.

Bottom line is Tampa is loaded with young talent (Young, Rocco Baldelli, Kazmir, Carl Crawford), but their pitching outside of Kazmir is atrocious, leaving the Devil Rays still a few years away. Funny thing is, I seem to say that every year about the Devil Rays.


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