To illustrate how powerful the American League East was in 2010, consider the fact that only twice since the six-division format began in 1994 has one division had as many 85-win teams (four) in one season.
It had the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees jockeying for first place much of the season, the Red Sox shrugging aside injury after injury to flirt with 90 wins and the Toronto Blue Jays leading the majors in nearly every slugging statistic and showcasing a 10-win improvement from 2009.
Even the perennial doormat, Baltimore, had something to point to in the end. The Orioles were 34-23 after Buck Showalter took over as manager at the beginning of August. That was the best mark in the AL East during that two-month stretch.
As Boston navigates itself through a tricky offseason that could see the club rise back toward the top or embed itself in the middle of the power-packed division it’s worth wondering, will the AL East be as strong as it was in 2010?
To answer that question relatively early in the offseason is difficult. What is clear at this point in time is that of the five teams, four, including the Red Sox, are legitimate spenders this winter (insert your Victor Martinez rant here). The fifth, defending champ Tampa Bay, is most assuredly going to lose several of its best players to free agency. It’s a good thing the Rays have a loaded farm system, a stable starting rotation and a top-notch manager. Any falloff on their end will be minimal.
Baltimore has been linked to a handful of big names, although it did lose out on Martinez. Toronto enters the John Farrell era with one of the best young rotations in the AL. While the Sox made no excuses it was not hard to imagine them winning six more games or so and finishing with another 95-win campaign if just one of their injured stars never went down. The Yankees are the Yankees and may be the Yankees plus Cliff Lee in a matter of time. The Rays have won two of the last three division crowns.
If Tampa Bay goes into the year a little leaner and New York gets a bit older and not much better, the top end of the division might not be quite as strong. But the bottom end figures to continue to improve, making for what should be a more balanced grouping and just as powerful overall.
One of the phrases Terry Francona uttered multiple times when asked about the injury situation with his team in 2010 involved a reference to the club’s extremely thin margin for error.
Mistakes by Dustin Pedroia could often be overcome because you had Dustin Pedroia in the lineup. A Daniel Nava miscue was sometimes tougher to get past.
This notion of having no margin for error can be applied for all five teams in the AL East, regardless of their degree of health. If you have a weakness at a certain position, a significant losing streak or a tough injury, you could be doomed. Consider the fact that New York didn’t lose more than four in a row until September and still finished second.
All 30 major league teams enter spring training with high hopes. In 2011, the only division that might boast five teams with legitimate reasons to back that up is the AL East.
Each day of November, NESN.com will explore a different issue facing the Red Sox this offseason.
Friday, Nov. 26: How will Clay Buchholz follow up his 2010 performance?
Sunday, Nov. 28: How much does Mike Cameron have left in the tank?