The AL West usually gets the credit for the toughest division in baseball. It's got a team that just won the World Series in 2002, two other teams that make the playoffs almost every year and are no slouches during the regular season, and it's so-called "whipping boy" that won 71 games last year and has the best player in baseball in the middle of it's lineup. But nowadays, all eyes are on the East.
The East now has two teams that will make the playoffs with their eyes closed, another team that is ready to compete right now, one more team that needs to make two free agent signings or trades and will finish .500 at least, and another team so hungry to prove themselves that there is no way they'll be pushovers again.
In my eyes, Boston just became a favorite to go to the World Series. This team is constructed almost exactly the way the 2001 Diamondbacks were, with one glaring difference. The 2004 Red Sox will be able to mash the ball. Arizona had the two toughest pitchers in baseball in '01, but their only consistent offensive threat was Luis Gonzalez. Boston will have Manny Ramirez (or Alex Rodriguez for the matter), Nomar, Mueller, Millar, Ortiz, Nixon, Damon and Varitek. Anyone of those guys can hit 20 homeruns and bat close to .300. Nobody can match that, just like nobody could match it in 2003.
For years, Boston's weakness has been starting pitching. But new GM Theo Epstein is smart enough to realize that, so he made a move to acquire the best available starting pitcher, and one of the best starting pitchers of this era. Boston also has a deeper bullpen than they did last year, and with the expected signing of free agent Keith Foulke, will have one of the best closers in the business. Frankly, this team scares the hell out of me.
Toronto is a contending team right now. All this young club needs is a few breaks to go their way, and we could have a three-way pennant race this year. Vernon Wells is young and amazing, Carlos Delgado was a heavy favorite for MVP last year, and Roy Halladay can be as untouchable as Pedro over in Beantown. With former Yankee Ted Lilly adding a talented left-hander to the mix, all Toronto needs is a solid third or fourth man in the rotation and someone to step up in the bullpen and that team could be going places.
The Blue Jays' problem has always seemed to be a lack of focus on their direction. They seem to want to be a hitting team, but they have to realize that they can't win without pitching. Fortunately for them, and unfortunately for us, GM J.P. Ricciardi knows what he's doing. He turned the Shannon Stewart/Bobby Kielty thing from a decent trade to an excellent one when he acquired Lilly, and I don't expect that to be the last peep from Jays camp.
Baltimore is a troubled club that is now out from under the weight of some bad contracts. With money to burn and a gleam in their eye, the Birds could make some noise. They're hot after Vladimir Guerrero after failing to trade for Derrek Lee, and I personally think they should make a run at giving Rafael Palmeiro a chance to return for a year or two. With an already solid offense, all Baltimore needs is a veteran in the rotation to lead the kids to prosperity. Kurt Ainsworth and Damian Moss have talent, and Rodrigo Lopez has shown some ability as well. They're not a contender, but they could be a .500 team after the next few weeks and months unravel.
Then there's Tampa Bay with a core of young players and a fiery manager that won't let them quit. Tampa has been the designated pushover of the East since its inception in 1998, but next season, they might be able to eke out 70-75 wins.
The bottom line, as usual, is this. The Yankees are no longer alone at the top of the AL East pile, nor are they the clear favorite in a two-horse race. The East is going to be a tough neighborhood in 2004, and if the Yankees don't roll with the punches and adapt to make themselves better, they may not make it.