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In beefed-up American League, expect Yankees to reign

Joe Girardi’s Yankees could be poised for a deep run again this year.

Kathy Willens/AP

Joe Girardi’s Yankees could be poised for a deep run again this year.

The Yankees have issues, but they could emerge as the team that’s impossible to beat. The Rays have superb pitching talent, but may not have enough offense. The Red Sox have major pitching holes and Toronto may be nipping at their heels.

We take a look at each team and the predicted order of finish for the 2012 season:

AL EAST

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1. Tampa Bay — You have to buy into the hype because of their prime-time pitching staff and improved power with the additions of Luke Scott and the return of Carlos Pena. Lefthander Matt Moore is an exciting talent who could be in the Tim Lincecum/Clayton Kershaw mode. Add that to James Shields, David Price, and Jeremy Hellickson and exciting young lefthander Matt Moore, it’s mind-boggling how good this staff could be. Joe Maddon is one of the best, if not might be the best manager in the game. His theme will be to embrace the favorite status and show confidence as a team.

2. New York — A deep starting rotation with aging stars, yes, but a lineup that will have to show it’s not aging, especially Derek Jeter (37), with his declining range at shortstop; Alex Rodriguez (36), who hasn’t been able to stay fully healthy since 2007; and Mariano Rivera (42), who at some point has to show his age. It will be interesting to watch whether Curtis Granderson’s 2012 performance drops off after a career year (41 HRs, 119 RBIs) and how Nick Swisher might have extra motivation because he’s in his walk year. Oh, and second baseman Robinson Cano has been top-six in AL MVP voting the past two seasons. Still, loads of talent, firepower and pitching. (Projection: wild card, World Series champions)

3. Boston — A team with a chip on its shoulder and renewed energy with Bobby Valentine at the helm. That’s not a bad combination. The Red Sox have questions at the end of the rotation. They need to play shortstop Jose Iglesias and catcher Ryan Lavarnway, the most talented players at their position in the organization. The Sox don’t know what they’ll get from rehabbing Carl Crawford, or whether Andrew Bailey can be healthy enough to suitably replace Jonathan Papelbon.

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4. Toronto — ‘’That’s a very good team with a lot of talent,’’ Rays manager Joe Maddon said. And so, the Jays have a chance to be the sleeper team with a young, emerging pitching staff and a major player in Jose Bautista (54 HRs in 2010, 43 in 2011). ‘’There’s a chance he can hit a home run in every at-bat,’’ Maddon said. The Jays are excited about veteran Dustin McGowan, who was injured and missed the 2009-10 seasons and most of last season. Henderson Alvarez is a King Felix Hernandez wannabe and Ricky Romero is the ace. The Jays also have an airtight bullpen.

5. Baltimore — Encouraging sign for pitchers like Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta, who may finally be maturing. Wei-Ying Yin Chen and has been impressive as has been former Rockies righthander Jason Hammel. Good core players in catcher Matt Wieters, center fielder Adam Jones (a 30 HRs-30 steals candidate) and right fielder Nick Markakis, but the Orioles need second baseman Brian Roberts to make it back from his postconcussion syndrome for the lineup to come together.

AL CENTRAL

1. Detroit — ‘’They could score 1,000 runs,’’ a National League scout said. On paper, the Prince Fielder-Miguel Cabrera dynamic is explosive. If Cabrera can handle third base (after being hit by a ground ball under the right eye in the spring), what a plus. The issue will be how good the Tigers’ starting rotation will be and whether Justin Verlander can come close to repeating his dream MVP and Cy Young 2011 season. Time for Rick Porcello to be a No. 1-caliber guy. Ditto for Max Scherzer. If the bullpen stays healthy, this team could win 95-98 games.

2. Cleveland — Some things don’t change with the ever-changing Indians — Grady Sizemore likely starts the season on the DL (same for as does closer Chris Perez). Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera is a star, Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis are nice young players, and the starting rotation is emerging with Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, and veteran Derek Lowe. They still have a decent lineup, but Travis Hafner has to stay healthy and productive in the middle of the lineup (he hasn’t played more than 118 games since 2007). it. The Indians made good strides last season, finishing two games under .500 (80-82). The hope is they get into the high 80s in wins, which may be a stretch.

3. Chicago — GM Kenny Williams has always maintained maintains he’s capable of rebuilding and winning at the same time. He traded away Carlos Quentin and let Mark Buehrle go into free agency, but he still has a formidable rotation of John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Jake Peavy, Phil Humber, and lefty Chris Sale. Williams is banking on a significant comeback by DH Adam Dunn (11 HRs in 122 games last season), a progression for second baseman Gordon Beckham, and the development of infielder/outfielder Dayan Viciedo and outfielder Alejandro De Aza.

4. Kansas City — Closer Joakim Soria’s elbow problems and catcher Salvy Perez’s left knee surgery hurts this team right out of the starting gate, but the Royals have an experienced reliever in Jonathan Broxton. They also have a dynamic, young offense with budding stars (like Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain), the starting staff is serviceable but not yet the caliber needed to get this team them over the hump.

5. Minnesota — It could be a rough ride with so much hanging on the health of Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer. The Twins lost a couple of big pieces with Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel departing in free agency and only time will tell if Josh Willingham and Ryan Doumit are suitable replacements. The pitching staff has a lot to prove - Scott Baker’s elbow issues don’t help, and they still don’t have that bona fide a No. 1 starter, though Francisco Liriano has been impressive in the spring.

AL WEST

1. Los Angeles — It’s not only Albert Pujols that makes the Angels exciting, but it’s the advent of three blue-chip prospects (outfielder Mike Trout, righthander Garrett Richards and infielder Jean Segura), who could be plugged in when needed. Pujols and catcher Chris Iannetta have given the team an OBP component they’ve been missing. Kendrys Morales is back from a broken leg. They have five solid starting pitchers, and two — Dan Haren and Jered Weaver — are bona fide aces. The team’s fortunes could rest with sophomore closer Jordan Walden, who blew 10 games last season (the bullpen blew 25 games overall) and whether veterans like Torii Hunter, 36, and Vernon Wells, 33, have anything left.

2. Texas — Back-to-back World Series appearances and the Rangers basically have their full team intact (they lost lefthander C.J. Wilson but replaced him with Japan righthander Yu Darvish). They should get there again if the pieces fall correctly. It’s been a bumpy ride so far with Josh Hamilton’s setback in his recovery program and injuries, but the Rangers have always dealt with that and they average 5.69 runs per game when he’s in the lineup. They have their own issues with Neftali Feliz transitioning to the rotation and while All-Star starter Alexi Ogando returns to the bullpen. The big question is whether former Twins closer Joe Nathan can recapture his form as a closer after Tommy John surgery in 2010. (Projection: wild card)

3. Seattle — Another sleeper with excellent young talent in with Dustin Ackley, Mike Carp, Jesus Montero, and Justin Smoak. The Mariners have a decent rotation led by King Felix Hernandez. If they can find consistency in the bullpen, they could be a team nobody wants to face.

4. Oakland — The A’s made numerous changes and traded away their two best pitchers (Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez) and their closer (Andrew Bailey), but they have more where that came from. They’ve made interesting additions with Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes, an outfielder, and Manny Ramirez, who begins the season serving a 50-game suspension for his second offense for using a banned substance. The A’s constantly seem in transition. and this is no different. At least they’ve added some entertaining players.

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