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Rays

AL East packing plenty of punch

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Published:   |   Updated: March 30, 2014 at 08:35 AM

ST. PETERSBURG — Jonny Gomes of the Boston Red Sox recently was asked if he could predict how the AL East will look come the end of the regular season.

“Wow,” He said. “You probably have a better chance of picking a perfect (NCAA tournament) bracket. And there’s only five teams. It’s just crazy to think, if you just line up the rosters and think one of these teams is going to finish last. Man, these teams are good, real good.”

Gomes and his Red Sox, picked by many to finish last in 2013, won the World Series.

The Toronto Blue Jays, picked by some to win the World Series in 2013, finished last.

The division appears as unpredictable this year.

“It really is a coin flip how this thing is going to shake out,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said.

Once again, money speaks loudly in the AL East, and this year the Rays joined the spending spree, increasing the payroll to the dizzying heights — for them, at least — of $80 million.

For the first time in 15 seasons, the New York Yankees do not have the highest payroll in baseball. That title belongs to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Still, the Yankees found money for free-agent catcher Brian McCann and free-agent center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and outbid everyone for Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka.

The Baltimore Orioles signed designated hitter Nelson Cruz and pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez. But they let closer Jim Johnson walk, and, after backing away from a deal for All-Star closer Grant Balfour, will attempt to replace Johnson with Tommy Hunter, who had four saves in 2013.

The Red Sox didn’t do much, but who wants to mess with a lineup that won a World Series title?

The Blue Jays did their spending before last season and are hoping to reap the benefits after injuries and poor pitching ruined 2013.

The Rays added Balfour, catcher Ryan Hanigan and setup man Heath Bell, re-signed James Loney and brought David Price back for another year.

All five teams have plenty of firepower and plenty of potential.

Maddon said each team has the potential to win the division, and each has the potential to finish last.

“Nobody is talking about Toronto this year, and that’s not good, because I really believe they’re going to be better just based on last year’s experience,” Maddon said. “You look at their lineup right now, people are talking about their pitching being iffy, but their lineup is really thick.”

It should be noted that Maddon said much the same last March about the Red Sox.

The AL East has been largely a two-playoff-team division since 1995, when baseball added a wild-card team to both leagues. There was only one wild-card team in the first 17 seasons, and 13 of those came from the AL East. A second wild-card team was added in 2012. Of those four during the past two seasons, two came from the AL East, and both of those teams — the Orioles in 2012 and the Rays last season — won the wild-card game and advanced to the AL division series.

“I think it’s stronger this year,” Toronto manager John Gibbons said. “You look at what the Yankees did and Baltimore adding Cruz and Jimenez, Tampa Bay chose to hang on to Price. You were kind of hoping they would deal him, but now that he’s there, they’re as strong as ever. Boston is the world champion. If anything, the division has gotten better. There’s no let up in it.”

Does winning the World Series make the Red Sox the favorites this year? Do the Rays get the nod because of their pitching? The Yankees because of their tradition?

“I don’t know how it’s shaping up,” Gomes said. “I like where we’re at. I liked where we were at last year. But it’s playoff baseball. It truly is. Opening Day, playoff baseball.”

rmooney@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7227

Twitter: @RMooneyTBO

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