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The American League East is easily the best and most competitive division in the majors. Every team has improved for 2011 (yes, even the Yankees and their pitching staff), and I believe 4 of the teams will finish over .500. It is no longer a 3 team race as it once was. Even the Orioles will give teams some trouble! Onto the breakdown, starting with the team I believe (on paper) will finish first in the division.

1. The Boston Red Sox

As hard as it was to type that out, it is hard to ignore the team that the front office has put together for 2011 (on paper). On paper, and based on past performance, it is pretty hard to poke too many holes in this team. The offense, already one of the league’s best (on paper), added one of the best available first basemen on the trade market, and arguably the best left fielder available as well. I’m speaking, of course, about Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. The offense now includes Youkilis, Pedroia, Gonzalez, Crawford, Ellsbury, and even Fat Papi (David Ortiz), who surprised my fantasy team last year by juicing (see what i did there?) 32 Homers in 2011. This has the potential to be a very potent offense indeed… On paper.

Their pitching staff is (on paper), one of the better ones in the league as well. When at top form, Beckett, Lackey, Lester, Matsuzaka and Buchholz can win on any night. Injuries and some ineffectiveness kept this staff from realizing it’s full potential last year, but Lester and Buchholz were aces last year. Beckett will have to stay healthy, which has become a bigger concern after last year’s debacle of a season, but he’s still Josh Beckett. Their bullpen has improved too, adding quality arms in Dan Wheeler and Bobby Jenks to go along with soon to be closer Daniel Bard and soon to be unemployed and ineffective Jonathan Papelbon.

My prediction for them? 98 wins and a first place finish in the AL East… On paper, of course.

Fantasy Notables: Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz (Late), John Lester, Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, Jonathan Papelbon

Fantasy Sleeper: SS Jed Lawrie. If he gets the chance to play, and does anything like he did the last two months of 2010 (.293/.385/.544 with 9 home runs), he could surprise a lot of people… especially at such a weak position.

Fantasy Poison: C Jarrod Saltalamacchia. He’s 26, but a career .248 hitter who has not shown the power he had advertised. He might get the bulk of the playing time, but he won’t be of very much use.

2. The New York Yankees

Despite the fact that I believe the Yankees have a team that is good enough to win any other division in the majors (except the NL East), I have picked them to finish 2nd in the AL East. The Red Sox are simply too good… On paper. (OK, I’ll stop!)

The Yankees boast the best offense in baseball. From top to bottom, everyone is worthy of being feared in some way or another. There aren’t going to be too many easy outs this season. Cano, Teixeira, A-Rod, and Swisher will continue to feed off of each other to power the offense. Jeter and Granderson’s revamped swings will put some life back in their bats too. Russell Martin might even get a couple hits here and there. Keep in mind he was once a rising star at the catcher position.

As much as people point out that the Yankees rotation is the shakiest it has been since 2008 (when they didn’t make the playoffs), I don’t think that will hold them back from finishing second in the division. The offense is too good. CC Sabathia will continue to dominate as the ace, Hughes will continue developing into one of the better young pitchers in baseball, and AJ Burnett will bounce back. The 4th and 5th starters, whoever they end up being, will help the team stay in the race until an inevitable trade-deadline deal will put them over the top and help seal the wild card berth. The bullpen is simply stacked. Any time you have 2 of the best closers in baseball on one team, you’re going to be OK.

My Prediction? 94 wins and the wild card

Fantasy Notables: Curtis Granderson, Brett Gardner (.400 OBP and 50+ steals) Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano (MVP), Nick Swisher, CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett, Phil Hughes, Mariano Rivera

Fantasy Sleepers: Jesus Montero and Ivan Nova. Montero might make the team as the backup catcher (Incumbent Francisco Cervelli is injured), and Nova should be the 5th starter. They have been very impressive this spring. Watch out for these two.

Fantasy Poison: It’s hard to say anyone will be true poison here. I guess at this point I’ll say Russell Martin, since he is coming off two pretty terrible seasons.

3. Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays are a good, young team. However, they had a bit of a tough off season and, while i believe in the long run the team will be better for the moves it made (and didn’t make), I feel some player departures could hurt them for 2011.

The offense lost 1B Carlos Pe√±a and LF Carl Crawford. Crawford is one of the most electrifying players in all of baseball, so it hurts that he is now on a division rival. Pe√±a wasn’t much for batting average, but his 144 home runs over the last 4 seasons will be hard to replace. That being said, the Rays still have Evan Longoria, and have added Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez to the mix. They might be old, but they could still hit, and they might just help this team.

Pitching wise, the Rays still boast one of the best cores of youngsters in all of baseball. Despite trading away Matt Garza to the Cubs, they still have David Price, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, and Jeremy Hellickson. All of those players are still young enough that they have some room for improvement on some already impressive career numbers. Their bullpen will hurt them the most of any of the losses they’ve had this off season. They lost 5 relievers, including their closer Rafael Soriano. Those 5 guys made up over 70% of their bullpen innings in 2010, so expect an adjustment period until they get everyone settled into new roles. Whoever closes for them should be decent though, as he’ll have plenty of save opportunities.

My prediction? 89 wins, and we’ll see you in 2012.

Fantasy Notables: Evan Longoria, Manny Ramirez, Reid Brignac, David Price, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann and Jeremy Hellickson.

Fantasy Sleepers: Dan Johnson. He won’t hit much better than Carlos Pe√±a as far as average goes, but he could put up 20-30 home runs if he keeps himself in the lineup. If you liked Carlos, go for Dan.

Fantasy Poison: Although i think he’ll be good for the team, I can’t see drafting Johnny Damon. He’s 37 years old and coming off his worst season since 2005. He won’t have any extreme bounce back in 2011.

4. Toronto Blue Jays

We all remember Joe Carter’s walk off home run against Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams in game 6 of the 1993 World Series. When Carter crossed home plate, the Jays were World Champions. Unfortunately for them, there has been no happiness since. Unfortunately, despite improvements, there won’t be any this year either.

The Jays hitting will be serviceable, but it will have many question marks. Can Adam Lind and Aaron Hill bounce back to their 2009 form? Is 2011 finally the year of Travis Snider? Is J.P. Arencibia ready to take the reins as the starting Catcher? Is Jose Bautista really a 50 home run kind of guy? The answer to all of these questions could be yes! Or, it could be absolutely not. Realistically, some of these things will happen and some won’t.

Pitching wise, the Jays should be pretty solid. Despite trading away 2010 opening day starter Shawn Marcum, they still have a pretty solid group of young pitchers. There’s no reason to believe Bret Cecil and Ricky Romero will have any drop off, Brandon Morrow is on the brink of breaking out and striking out over 10 batters per 9 innings, and Kyle Drabek could make the team as a 5th starter. If his father’s talent got passed on to him, the Jays could have something special on their hands, especially if he grows the Drabek mustache! Frank Francisco should be a serviceable closer, at least better than Octavio Dotel would be, and the rest of the bullpen should be decent.

My Prediction? 81 wins. They’ll be better in a couple of years now that they have all that Vernon Wells money to spend.

Fantasy Notables: Aaron Hill, Adam Lind, Jose Bautista, Yunel Escobar (SS is a weak position), Brandon Morrow, Ricky Romero and Bret Cecil

Fantasy Sleepers: Travis Snider and Kyle Drabek. Will they cash in on all that talent? Snider could hit 20+ home runs and Drabek could win double digit games and rack up some Ks.

Fantasy Poison: Juan Rivera, if they don’t trade him. We always wonder when he’ll get his opportunity (and stay healthy enough) to have his breakout. Guess what? He’s 32, he had it in 2009, and it wasn’t that great.

5. Baltimore Orioles

Yeah, I don’t know why I’m bothering either. The Orioles will, once again, finish in last place and under .500. It is inevitable. Even if they’re better than they were in 2010, everyone else in the division is better than them.

Offensively, look for guys like Vladimir Guerrero, Luke Scott and Mark Reynolds to put up some good power numbers (if Reynolds can actually make contact with the ball). Roberts is back healthy at 2B, although it remains to be seen how long he’ll stay that way. I do think Markakis and Jones will bounce back a bit, otherwise Markakis is on his way out of baseball. Can Matt Wieters finally stop lying to us and hit the ball? It should be an interesting season for the Orioles.

The Orioles pitching is still a year or two away. Look for Brian Matusz to start fulfilling some of his vast potential in 2011 though. No one else is really that reliable, although a repeat of 2010 from Jeremy Guthrie (11 wins, 3.83 ERA) would be decent. The bullpen is not impressive, although Kevin Gregg has a good track record. It remains to be seen how many save opportunities he’ll actually get though.

My Prediction? 70 wins and another last place finish, but a brighter outlook for the future. Buck Schowalter has a good track record of turning teams around.

Fantasy Notables: Mark Reynolds, Vladimir Guerrero, Matt Wieters, Luke Scott, Adam Jones, Brian Matusz, Brian Roberts, Kevin Gregg.

Fantasy Sleeper: Chris Tillman. He might be another year away, but he’s got the tools to get a lot of hitters out.

Fantasy Poison: Until he proves otherwise, Nick Markakis does not belong on your fantasy team. Steer clear.

OK friends, that does it for this edition of Fantasy Preview. I’ll have the AL Central ready for you by the end of the week. Stay tuned!

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About Jerry Ballgame

The personification of "old school", Jerry Ballgame was born in the shadow of Dr. Naismith's peach basket, and baptized in that "Dirty Water." Designated by his "Uncle" Ted, to keep an eye on things, he's here to tell everyone what his view is like from the Hub of the Universe.