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AL preview: New hierarchy could supplant Yankees

| Sunday, March 31, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

With Baltimore ascending and the Red Sox tanking, the American League East flipped in 2012. This season, another form of role reversal appears to be in play.

The Yankees have ceased their unlimited check-writing in favor of fiscal responsibility — at least their form of it — to get beneath the $189 million luxury tax threshold before the start of next season. They'll still carry a bloated payroll, but the free-spending spirit has migrated to Toronto, where the Blue Jays boosted team salary by more than 50 percent.

The Jays plundered the sinking Miami Marlins in a trade for Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Emilio Bonifacio and John Buck. Then they signed free agents Melky Cabrera — the Giants' All-Star and PED user — and Cy Young Award-winning knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who at 37 went 20-6 with a 2.37 ERA for a Mets team that finished 14 games below .500.

Noting the addition of such talent to the likes of Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Brett Lawrie, Las Vegas oddsmakers made the Jays World Series favorites. Toronto will hit, and Dickey, Buehrle and Johnson should help mend the pitching. But it's no sure bet.

The Yankees won 95 games and beat Baltimore in the AL Division Series before losing four straight to Detroit. But now, decimated by injuries and overtaken by age, the club is reeling. Even general manager Brian Cashman got hurt, breaking his leg while skydiving. It might be so bad that historians already are referencing 1965, when the Yankees finished under .500 after winning 15 pennants and 10 World Series in the prior 18 seasons. That's not a good sign.

Many teams will hit better than the Rays, and most will spend more on salaries. But with a shrewd organization, a smart, innovative manager in Joe Maddon, excellent pitching and a healthy Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay will challenge.

After 14 straight losing seasons, second to the Pirates' record streak, the Orioles won 93 games and made the playoffs. Was it a fluke? All connected with the organization say no. Others are skeptical. Boston dumped tempestuous manager Bobby Valentine for even-keeled John Farrell, but the problems went deeper than that.

Detroit is the class of the AL Central and should be better than last year when the Tigers and manager Jim Leyland took the pennant before the Giants swept them from the World Series. Triple-crown winner and MVP Miguel Cabrera heads a strong lineup enhanced by Torii Hunter's addition and Victor Martinez's return from a knee injury. Justin Verlander remains the best starter in the game, and the rest of the rotation is decent. The bullpen figures to improve, if only because shaky closer Jose Valverde will not be in it.

Chris Sale emerged as a top starter for the White Sox, and Jake Peavy is a solid No. 2. The rest of the staff is iffy. The best hitter, Paul Konerko, is 37. Like the Pirates, Kansas City has made gradual improvement. Unlike the Pirates, they're trying to speed things up with a bold move — getting ace James Shields from the Rays for prospects. After winning 68 games, the Indians have a new manager, Terry Francona, and several new faces. It likely will take more to turn things around.

The Athletics outhustled and outperformed their richer rivals, Los Angeles and Texas, winning 20 more games than in 2011 and taking the AL West. General manager Billy Beane made some moves during the offseason that grabbed few headlines but should strengthen the club.

The Angels and Rangers are the big-spending alpha dogs of the division. Despite considerable effort in acquiring talent, the Angels have missed the postseason the past three years. A year ago, Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson were supposed to put the Angels over the top, but they finished third. Now Josh Hamilton joins the sensational Mike Trout in the outfield. After Jered Weaver, pitching doesn't appear to be a strength.

The Rangers won 93 games after successive pennants but lost the wild-card game to Baltimore. Now without Hamilton plus the departures Mike Napoli (free agent) and Michael Young (trade), they don't seem better. Yu Darvish and Matt Harrison are sound at the top of the rotation.

Seattle might be a surprise after re-signing Cy Young Award-winner Felix Hernandez and getting Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales to enliven a weak offense. The Twins' nosedive will probably continue. The Astros have a new home after moving from the National League, but they again will spend most of their time in the basement.

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com or via Twitter@BCohn_Trib.

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