Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora watches batting practice before a spring training baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, March 29 in Bradenton, Florida. AP photo

The Boston Red Sox could come out this season and hit a ton, get the pitching they need, and finish in first place in the American League East.

The Sox could also come out, hit a ton, get good pitching…and finish fourth.

That’s the way it’s shaping up this year in the AL East. Good teams stack the division. The margin of error is thin. A good team — a very good team, even — could nevertheless find itself being not good enough when the dust finally settles in September.

The East is often tough. It’s rarely been this tough. The Tampa Bay Rays are back with most of their firepower after winning 100 games last season. The Red Sox bring back most of the heavy-hitting lineup that took them past the Rays in the playoffs and into the ALCS. The New York Yankees are strong after reaching the wild card round last season. And the one good East team that didn’t make the playoffs, Toronto, won 91 games and is actually the popular pick to win this thing.

Just like how people are talking about the mad race that will be the AFC West in football this year, the same holds true across sport lines when it comes to the AL East in baseball. All four teams mentioned could win it, and all four could end up in fourth.

For reference, the statistic site Fangraphs did its projections for how the division will turn out. The Red Sox, Yankees, Rays and Blue Jays all finished with identical 88-74 records. Debate the win and loss totals if you want, but it’s harder to argue how tense this race could get.


The East has been up for grabs like this before, but rarely with so many hands fighting for the division title. When the Red Sox and Yankees were the baseball powers in the mid 2000s, the East was a two-horse race. When Tampa Bay turned around its franchise in 2008, Toronto and Baltimore were still behind the curve. When Baltimore had its run as a contender from 2012-16, there were never more than three teams in a season winning 90 games. And when Toronto had playoff teams in 2015 and ’16, the Red Sox and then Rays ran into down years.

It felt like that was the way the balance in the division worked. If one team rose, another fell. There were never four teams operating at a division-winning, championship-contending level at one time.

Well, until last year. The Red Sox exceeded expectations and started fastest in a division that included returning Division Series teams in the Yankees and Rays, and the Blue Jays started to reap the benefits of having maybe the best young core in baseball. There was a four-team battle. All four teams were good.

This year, though, all four could be great.

Who’s the obvious candidate for decline? The Yankees? With Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton back in the middle of the lineup, plus Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo (.869 OPS in Texas before being traded) around for a full season? And Josh Donaldson, still one of the game’s best power-hitting third basemen, new to the mix? There’s a chance for a dip, sure, but it’s probably a safer bet that a team that’s made the playoffs five straight seasons figures out a way to remain a contender again.

The Red Sox still have one of baseball’s most lethal middle of the orders, with Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers and J.D. Martinez back and now Trevor Story adding 30-homer, 100-RBI potential to the mix, not to mention hitters in Alex Verdugo and Enrique Hernandez who are adept at turning the lineup over. Do you want to bet against the Rays, who lost Nelson Cruz and traded Austin Meadows, but have rising phenom Wander Franco ready to play a bigger role? Or the Blue Jays, who led the American League in home runs and OPS last year and will have Cy Young vote-getters Kevin Gausman and Jose Berrios leading the rotation?


Where is the weak link? This year, there might not be one.

And this year, that could be either less or more costly for the Red Sox than in previous seasons. In coming out of the lockout that delayed the start of the season, Major League Baseball took on an expanded playoff field, one that will now send six teams from each league to the postseason instead of five. On the plus side, this favors a Boston team that will be scratching and clawing for AL East position all season. With six teams getting in, there is the potential for the first time for four division teams to make the postseason. Even if Boston takes fourth, the game’s not over.

On the other hand, with byes going to the league’s top two seeds, winning the division is the only way to get a pass through the first round. So there’s a clear advantage to being the team that emerges from that fracas.

And to be that team, the Red Sox will need a lot to click.

The offense needs to do what it did last season. Chris Sale needs to be healthy and stay healthy. Pitchers like Tanner Houck and Nick Pivetta need to deliver so that the rotation becomes a strength for the team. The pieces need to all fall into place, just like they did last season.

The Red Sox should be competitive. How competitive is the question. It hasn’t been often that they’ve found themselves looking at a race like this.

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