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Bob Ryan

AL East could be better than ever this year

Mother Nature seems to be registering her rather strenuous objection, but like it or not, Opening Day is Monday. Thus, baseball is on my brain.

Let’s start with this: No reasonable person can expect things to fall into place for the Boston Red Sox as idyllically as they did last year. The margin or error was thin enough — what if Torii Hunter doesn’t overrun Papi’s famous grand slam? — as it was, and now two major components of the team are elsewhere. Jacoby Ellsbury is not directly replaceable. The Sox must go about the leadoff thing very differently. Stephen Drew provided great comfort to the pitching staff. Outs that were made last year will be hits this year. There will be no getting around it. The pitchers will have to get more outs than they got in 2013.

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The next year Clay Buchholz pitches 200 innings will be the first. Is Jon Lester settled in as a bona fide ace at age 30? Will both John Lackey and Jake Peavy stay healthy? Is Felix Doubront the 15-game winner-to-be we saw early in March or the batting practice pitcher we saw later in the month? Can Koji do it again? These are all valid questions. It all starts with the pitching. No revelation there.

They’ll score runs. Half-decent Red Sox teams always score runs. It’s in the charter somewhere.

There was lots of kumbaya last year, with the beards and the Boston Strong and all that, and we’ll see how sustainable these things will be in Year 2. This is not necessarily the most talented team in the division, let alone the American League or in all of baseball. It all happened. It was real, all right, but it was borderline fictional. But every little thing did turn out all right last year. It’s not rational to think it can all go their way again. Whatever happens, John Farrell appears to be the perfect man to keep whatever happens in perspective.

The American League East has been beating its chest about how great it is for the entire 21st century, and I’m here to say this year may see it at its zenith.

The Red Sox are the defending champs, and they’re not exactly impotent. The Yankees have upgraded behind the plate and in center and right field, for sure. They will definitely have a better starting rotation. They get Mark Teixeira back, and even if he continues his downward plunge since his prime years, he is still better than what they had last year. David Robertson can close; I’m sure of that.

New York’s flip side is the potential for an infield disaster. How much can they really expect from Derek Jeter? Kelly Johnson is the third baseman? If they say so. Brian Roberts, age 36, replaces Robinson Cano at second, and he hasn’t played 100 games since 2009. Teixeira is no guarantee. It is conceivable the Yankees could wind up with the biggest infield mess in all of major league baseball. That, of course is a classic worst-case scenario. More likely is a circumstance in which the vastly improved starting pitching will overcome whatever deficiencies may surface. The Yankees will be in the race.

It’s quite fashionable to say that the Orioles have the best everyday offensive lineup in the division. I think I buy into that. This assumes, among other things, that Chris Davis is indeed the Real Deal. On that subject, I will quote from “Baseball Prospectus”: “ . . . he’s hit the ball hard enough for long enough that it’s time to believe it’s really a skill.” He may not hit 53 bombs, but 40-45 seems certain. Obviously, much depends on how soon the very gifted Manny Machado makes his way back to being Manny Machado after sustaining a major knee injury. General manager Dan Duquette sprung for some big bucks to obtain the somewhat unpredictable Ubaldo Jimenez as a top-of-the-rotation guy. Meanwhile, I have come to admire Buck Showalter. He’s still something of an over-manager, but there really aren’t many better skippers. The Orioles have a very good hand on the tiller.

Nothing much changes down there in northwest Florida. Despite limited resources, despite being the classic pearls-before-swine franchise they are in terms of fan acceptance, since 2008 the Tampa Bay Rays have won 97, 84, 96, 91, 90, and 92 games. They are generally acknowledged to be as well-run as any team in professional sports. They have the single most innovative manager, who has the most refreshing personality, in all of major league baseball. There is no reason to think they will not win their requisite 90-plus games or to doubt that they will be in the race down to the final week.

Start off with the best pitcher in the division in David Price. He had a triceps injury last year, but if he’s sufficiently healed-up he is a Cy Young candidate. The rest of the rotation features superior arms. Joe Maddon always stitches together a serviceable bullpen. Evan Longoria is a major star. And Sox fans can gear up to hoot and holler and serenade Wil Myers all they want, but the reality is he is one of baseball’s brightest young stars and will put up some very impressive numbers this year. The Rays are the consensus favorites to win the division, and many pundits have them winning the World Series. Just so you know.

There is an outlier. A year ago, we were all saying that there was one team in the division with a bull’s-eye on its back and four teams playing with house money. The division was Toronto’s to lose. Oh, boy, did it ever. The Blue Jays were a mess from start to finish. I’m surprised they even won 74 games.

This year, there is zero team pressure. Well, yes, certain individuals need to justify their lofty salaries, beginning with Jose Reyes, who will be 31 in June and who needs to give the Blue Jays more than the 419 at-bats he was able to provide them last year. Health is an ongoing issue for third baseman Brett Lawrie, as well. But let’s just say for the sake of argument these two play 150 games each, and the likes of Jose Bautista and the very underrated Edwin Encarnacion hit the 30-plus homers of which they are capable. And let’s say for the sake of argument that R.A. Dickey wins 15 to 17 and Brandon Morrow, who is now 29, can actually take the ball 30 times. Now we’ve got something. That’s at least a .500 club, wouldn’t you think?

We all know from experience that things will happen. Key players will go down, dramatically affecting the fortunes of those teams. We’d all have that getaway in the Caribbean or that penthouse in NYC for our weekend visits if we knew in advance just who those players might be. But what if those little catastrophes are kept to a minimum? Or what if catastrophe takes a sabbatical for a year? We would be looking at what would be the most well-balanced, most competitive, most fascinating race since baseball split into four divisions back in 1969. I could see Boston, New York, Baltimore, and Tampa Bay separated by as few as eight or 10 games, and if Toronto gets a little luck it could be a factor, as well. There could be fratricidal warfare such as we’ve never known.

Back to our lads for a moment. While I certainly do believe that the team may have exceeded the normal limit of good fortune last year, it’s also fair to point out that it won it all with a dinged-up Dustin Pedroia. Then there is the potential bonus of a rejuvenated Grady Sizemore, whose situation was best summed up by e-mailer Pat Rondeau, who postulates that, “It’s early, but there are potentially some interesting parallels between Grady Sizemore’s 2014 and Bill Walton’s 1985-86.” To which I say, “Why didn’t I think of that?

Baseball is back. Would it be too much to ask Mother Nature for a little baseball weather sometime before Memorial Day?

Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.
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