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01/27/11 4:11 PM EST

Aggressive GMs keep East the beast of AL

Five clubs in baseball's toughest division have active offseasons

For openers, the reeling Red Sox have added Carl Crawford, Bobby Jenks and Adrian Gonzalez.

I say "reeling" because even though the Sox won 89 games last season -- good by most teams' standards -- they were sucking fumes as the Rays and the Yankees went to the postseason.

Don't forget this is the American League East, Major League Baseball's premier division. For the elite teams in this division, not playing in October is sacrilegious. Anything short of the postseason is outright failure.

So it comes as no surprise that the five AL East general managers worked overtime this offseason, wheeling, dealing and signing free agents at a torrid pace. For this division alone, it's been a whirlwind winter.

"This is a very aggressive division," Yankees GM Brian Cashman said Thursday morning over the phone as he drove through New York's snow. "It has to be that way because of the nature of the competition."

Without a doubt, the AL East -- the five teams collectively -- has the best players.

No team upgraded, or improved, more than the Red Sox.

"They certainly loaded up and addressed their needs in a big way," said Cashman. "I think we improved ourselves, and if we can get a starting pitcher, [we] will be a legitimate World Series contender."

The other four teams were far from idle, although the Yankees are still smarting from not being able to land free-agent pitcher Cliff Lee. Cashman still needs a pitcher and the name of "retired" Andy Pettitte keeps coming up.

Cashman repeated if Pettitte is interested in returning to the Yankees for another year, he needs to pick up the phone. The GM reiterated that in his opinion, Pettitte is retired.

"Of course," said Cashman, "we'd like him to play."

Cashman was not in favor of signing free-agent reliever Rafael Soriano and paying him $35 million over three years to be a setup man for Mariano Rivera. Regardless, Soriano strengthens the bullpen and can fill in for Rivera on occasion.

"The Blue Jays, with all the moves they've been making, are preparing to join the party," said Cashman. "The last few years, they've done a fine job with their farm system and adding young players."

Because revenue-strapped Tampa Bay, the 2010 AL East champion, was forced to part with the likes of Crawford, Carlos Pena, Soriano, Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, et al, there's a dark cloud hanging over Tropicana Field for 2011.

But when executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman reached agreements with designated hitter Manny Ramirez and outfielder Johnny Damon last week, there was renewed hope for the Rays.

"People who've been counting them out shouldn't," said Cashman. "They've still got a great rotation [David Price, James Shields, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, Jeremy Hellickson]. You just can't count them out."

I don't believe the Orioles will contend for the postseason in 2011, but they're obviously better.

Baltimore has not had a winning season since 1997, when the Orioles won the division title. In fact, they haven't had more than 70 victories in the past four seasons.

"This is the toughest division in baseball," said O's president Andy MacPhail, who rebuilt the infield with trades for J.J. Hardy and Mark Reynolds, plus the signing of free-agent first baseman Derrek Lee. He also added Kevin Gregg to the bullpen.

Cashman referred to Toronto's building for the future. That's exactly what GM Alex Anthopoulos is doing. That began in earnest over a year ago, when he traded Roy Halladay to the Phillies, receiving promising young players in return. Included was Kyle Drabek, one of the best pitching prospects in the game.

What could be his most important move this offseason was trading Vernon Wells and all but $5 million of the $86 million remaining on his contract to the Angels. The Blue Jays received outfielder Juan Rivera and catcher Matt Napoli, who was then dealt to Texas for relief pitcher Frank Francisco.

Even though Wells is an All-Star, his contract was considered one of the worst in baseball. That Anthlopoulos could free that much money as he builds with a young team is a plus.

"If there's one thing that I've learned, it's that baseball is a team game, and one player cannot carry you," Anthopoulos said. "Alex Rodriguez [was] with the Rangers winning MVPs, but that wasn't enough, or even Roy Halladay with us winning Cy Youngs, and that wasn't enough to win a championship."

Boston, with its offseason moves, is the favorite to win the division.

Obviously, the additions of Crawford, Jenks and Gonzalez have given the Red Sox the best offseason of the 30 teams. Just as important, however, is the return of Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis, who were injured much of 2010.

"I hope we've made the lineup a lot deeper, a lot more dynamic," said GM Theo Epstein. "It's a pretty rare opportunity for an organization to add two of the best players [Crawford and Gonzalez], in my opinion, under 30, to a core that I feel is already young and in its prime. We should have one of the deepest, most dynamic -- and hopefully best -- lineups in the league."

You'll get an argument from the Phillies, but Boston's projected 2011 batting order is arguably the best in the Majors.

And in baseball's toughest division, the Red Sox are the team to beat.

But as Cashman says, "You don't win championships in the winter. You win them in the summer."

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.