Questions remain for top American League East contenders

Posted Feb. 15, 2010, at 11:09 p.m.

The spring training fields are being groomed, the pitchers and catchers are packing and spring training begins this week.

The American League East, more than ever, looks like a three-team race. There are early prognosticators who have placed the Yankees, Sox and Rays in first.

There will be some decisions to be made this spring. The Sox have to decide on a fifth starter and right fielder. The Yankees have the Joba Chamberlain reliever or starter issue again. Tampa Bay will look at its DH options of Pat Burrell, Dan Johnson and Gabe Kapler.

One way to compare teams is to match up probable starting players against one another and see who you would take for a starting nine.

The Sox outfield will be dealt with this spring. Mike Lowell remains a player the Sox need to move.

On the mound, the Sox bring Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Clay Buchholz and Tim Wakefield.

The Rays have James Shields, Matt Garza, David Price, Jeff Niemann and Andy Sonnanstine.

The Yankees will begin with C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte and Javier Vazquez. The fifth spot is open.

The closers remain Jonathan Papelbon, Mariano Rivera and Rafael Soriano for the Sox, Yankees and Rays, respectively.

The bench and middle relief certainly matter, but here’s a fun place to begin.

Pick from those lineups the starters and rotation you would go with and see which team seems to have the edge.

The issues of age and health seem to be ones the Yankees face most directly. Jeter has to rest more and Posada can’t catch every game. Can Rivera just roll on? Is A-Rod healthy enough to play virtually every game at third?

The Rays will try to pitch and run teams into the ground. Their starters have to get their ERAs down.

The Sox pitching will lead their efforts. The defense (how often will that term be heard this spring) must keep up and should. Can Ortiz effectively be the every-day DH? Whose is right?

Then there are the Orioles and Jays. They are given little chance in the division, but are going to be better than many give them credit for early.

Thwack! That is the sound of ball into mitt and here we go.

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