This offseason has been a time of great turnover in the American League East. With the perennial arms race between the Yankees and Red Sox, with the Rays looking to recapture their successes of 2008 and with the Orioles and Blue Jays doing their best to return to respectability, each team had plenty to gain in stoking baseball's winter hot stove.
But let's put to rest all questions about which team is the most improved heading into the 2010 season based on the players added and lost during the offseason: It's the Red Sox.
Yes, they lost Jason Bay and his power, Alex Gonzalez and his glove up the middle and two solid relievers in Takashi Saito and Billy Wagner. And yes, it's sad that Rhode Island's own Rocco Baldelli will no longer be playing in front of his hometown fans.
But the Red Sox' acquisitions put them far on the "plus" side of the net-transactions game. They brought in the top free-agent pitcher in right-hander John Lackey, giving them a veritable trio of aces (along with Josh Beckett and Jon Lester) atop their rotation. The signing of third baseman Adrian Beltre shores up what was a mediocre infield defense in 2009 and takes the pressure off aging Mike Lowell and his surgically repaired hip.
Veteran Mike Cameron will take over the starting job in center field, while Jacoby Ellsbury moves to left. And veteran shortstop Marco Scutaro was signed to play just about every day at shortstop. Though Boston is likely to lose some home runs in that equation with the loss of Bay, the team's speed and defense should improve considerably.
Plenty of questions remain about the viability of winning with pitching and defense — especially in a division that features the defending world champion Yankees. But there's no doubt that the Red Sox have done more than their AL East brethren to shore up their team heading into the season.
The more significant issue, though, is whether or not the Red Sox have done enough. And to answer that, we must also consider the improvements made by the other teams in the division.
Let's start with those hated Bronx Bombers, who added exciting center fielder Curtis Granderson from the Tigers and bolstered their pitching staff with right-handers Javier Vazquez and Chan Ho Park. Free-agent Nick Johnson was signed to be the starting designated hitter and fellow additions Randy Winn and Marcus Thames are likely to see time in the Yanks outfield.
But due to several expiring contracts and other offseason business decisions, the Yankees bade farewell to several longtime outfield contributors in Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui and Melky Cabrera. They also parted with starters Chien-Ming Wang and Ian Kennedy along with relievers Brian Bruney and Phil Coke.
All in all, New York made a huge splash by landing Granderson and should showcase a slightly younger lineup in 2010. But there appear to be more questions facing the team this preseason — particularly in the bullpen — than there were last year, and it remains to be seen whether or not the veteran Yankees stalwarts — like Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and A.J. Burnett – can stay healthy for 162 games.
The Tampa Bay Rays were the least active of any AL East team this winter, but that's not to say they didn't get any better. Bringing in closer Rafael Soriano from the Braves should help to shore up a bullpen that blew too many saves in 2009. Veteran Kelly Shoppach, who came to the Rays via trade, will compete with the disappointing Dioner Navarro for the starting job behind the plate.
Tampa should be stronger at the end of games if Soriano performs up to expectations, but with the loss of Red Sox killer Akinori Iwamura and several other departures from their middle relief corps, the Rays don't seem to have made up a considerable amount of ground on either the Red Sox or Yankees.
The Toronto Blue Jays were awfully busy this offseason, but it's hard to argue that dealing away your best starting pitcher, Roy Halladay, is going to make your team any better in the immediate future. It didn't, and the Jays aren't likely to improve on their 75-87 mark from last season. Aside from Halladay, Toronto also lost Scutaro, its starting shortstop from 2009, starting catcher Rod Barajas, valuable clubhouse influence Kevin Millar and hard-throwing reliever Brandon League.
Entering the fray for the Jays is former Boston shortstop Alex Gonzalez, right-hander Brandon Morrow and reliever Kevin Gregg, who could challenge for the closer's job. Heading to Toronto as a result of the Halladay trade are promising youngsters Brett Wallace – who could contend for the everyday job at either first or third base — pitcher Kyle Drabek and catcher Travis d'Arnaud, all of whom earned non-roster invites to spring training.
Though the deal should solidify the Blue Jays' core in future years, this is not a team built to win now. And they probably won't.
Finally, the Orioles present a compelling case to be the division's most improved team. Of course, coming off a 64-98 season — third worst in the majors behind only the Nationals and Pirates — in which they finished a paltry 39 games behind the Yankees, there's nowhere for this team to go but up.
Miguel Tejada returns to the Orioles after two seasons in Houston and will likely replace Melvin Mora at third, and Garrett Atkins adds some oomph to an already solid lineup. With the careers of youngsters Nick Markakis, Adam Jones and Matt Wieters all ready to take off, this could be a team ready to contend — or at least finish third — in the East.
The real questions, though, surround the O's pitching staff. On the positive side, Baltimore signed Mike Gonzalez to be the team's closer, a move that should more than make up for the losses of Danys Baez and Chris Ray. And veteran innings-eater Kevin Millwood solidifies an otherwise lackluster group of starters.
But the ability for this team to improve may depend most on the ability of the Orioles' plethora of young pitchers to get it done at the major league level. Whether it's Brad Bergesen, Brian Matusz, David Hernandez, Chris Tillman or Matt Albers, several of these prospects are going to have to pay off in a major way for 2010 to be a positive season at Camden Yards.
Which team has improved the most in the AL East? The Red Sox. Which team is poised for the biggest net leap in terms of wins in the standings? Possibly the Orioles.
But which team will walk away as the champion of the division long considered to be the best in baseball? We'll find out in about 162 games.
NESN.com answered one Red Sox question
every day from Jan. 25-Feb. 23.
Monday, Feb. 22: Could this be Jonathan Papelbon's last year with the Red Sox?