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The reigning champion Boston Red Sox did what no reigning champ wants to do: they settled for offseason stagnancy.

They re-signed postseason heroes Nathan Eovaldi and Steve Pearce, that’s all well and good, but their lone weakness of a year ago, late-inning relief, has actually gotten worse. Both Craig Kimbrel (unsigned) and Joe Kelly (Dodgers) have departed Beantown, and no one was brought in to fill those seats.

But, MVP Mookie Betts, triple crown challenger J.D. Martinez and perennial Cy Young hopeful Chris Sale will once again anchor a championship contender. But, as the old adage goes, “if you ain’t getting better, you’re getting worse.” Couple that with the difficulties of winning back-to-back titles and the Red Sox have an uphill climb ahead of them.

Getting back to the promised land will involve jostling with Boston’s favorite rival at the top of the AL East.

The Yankees, unlike the Red Sox, were active this winter — they saw needs, they filled them.

Scot Tucker/SFBay

Colorado Rockies relief pitcher Adam Ottavino (0) questions the ball four call in the eighth inning as the Colorado Rockies face the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, June 26, 2018.

Adam Ottavino solidifies the New York bullpen the way James Paxton does the rotation. And DJ LeMahieu, a former batting champ and three-time Gold Glover, brings distribution to the bottom of the batting order.

Long story short, the Yankees, who won 100 games last year, have passed the Red Sox.

The real question is: can the Rays catch up to the competition.

Just like the eventual claimers of the AL’s second wild card slot, the Athletics, Tampa Bay came out of the nowhere in 2018 to win 90 games and remain in the race far later than had been expected. Blake Snell, the eventual Cy Young winner, being the key reason for the rise.

The “opener” will no longer be a surprising novelty, but a rotation anchored by Snell and Ryan Yarbrough might just be able to win at the same rate while taking the ball in the first inning rather than the third.

Scot Tucker/SFBay

Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Blake Snell (4) throws a pitch in the first inning as the Tampa Bay Rays face the Oakland Athletics at Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, May 29, 2018.

Boston, New York and now Tampa Bay have separated themselves from the pack too far for there to be any race beyond the trio, but there will be enough fireworks within it to make up for a lackluster pursuit from the Orioles and Blue Jays.

As per usual, Betts’ Red Sox versus Aaron Judge‘s Yankees will be must-see TV, as will Snell, Sale and New York’s Luis Severino. It is entirely conceivable for the AL East to once again produce a pair of 100-game winners.

As far as Toronto, the excitement will have more to do with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the 19-year-old son of the Hall of Famer, and when he will be called. Unfortunately for “Charm City,” the Orioles don’t even have that to look forward to.

New York Yankees vs Oakland AthleticsScot Tucker/SFBay

New York Yankees starting pitcher CC Sabathia (52) throws a pitch in the first inning as the New York Yankees face the Oakland Athletics at O.co Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, May 28, 2015.

And speaking of individual achievement, Vallejo native CC Sabathia will be making his victory lap of Major League Baseball this season, looking to bolster a potential Hall of Fame bid.

Prediction:

1st — Yankees 104-58 (100-62 last season)

2nd — Red Sox 100-62 (108-54 last season)

3rd — Rays 90-72 (90-72 last season)

4th — Blue Jays 71-91 (73-89 last season)

5th — Orioles 50-112 (47-115 last season)


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