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O's fans starving for title, but no feast this season

The first thing that strikes you about the American League East is this: every day will be like the arena fights in "The Hunger Games."

This is just what Orioles fans need to hear, of course, but it's true. The AL East is even more of an AL Beast than ever.

Baseball's toughest division? Absolutely. The toughest division in all of professional sports? I'm not sure I'd argue against that, either.

Four teams have a legitimate shot to win the division this season. Which leads us, of course, to this shocking bulletin: the Orioles aren't one of them.

(If you even fleetingly entertain the notion of the Orioles contending, you need to go lie down in a dark room for a while. Just getting to sniffing distance of .500, the stated goal of new VP of baseball operations Dan Duquette, would be reason to throw a parade in this town.)

I like the Tampa Bay Rays to win the division. They're led by the Plato of major league managers, Joe Maddon, who can discourse on everything from fine wines to politics to the history of rock-and-roll.

One of his favorite quotes is from Albert Camus' essay "The Myth of Sisyphus" ("Integrity has no need of rules"). And he still looks like a cum-laude graduate from Central Nerd University with those black horn-rimmed glasses.

But you can be as geeky as you want with a rotation of James Shields, David Price, 2011 Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson and super-prospect Matt Moore, the best in the division. And a lineup that includes B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena, Ben Zobrist and ex-Oriole (and noted Obama birth-certificate doubter) Luke Scott should provide plenty of offense.

And all this with a payroll of around $62 million.

Do I need to point out that the Orioles' payroll is considerably higher? Like, um, $20 mil higher? Probably not.

If the Rays don't win the division, the Yankees probably will. Getting hulking right-hander Michael Pineda and his high-90s fastball was a major coup for general manager Brian Cashman, who had an interesting offseason in his own right. (Google it for all the sordid details.)

Pineda solidifies a rotation with 19-game winner CC Sabathia and 16-game winner Ivan Nova. And the Yankees' batting order is still Murderer's Row: the Sequel with Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, Robbie Cano, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher in the 1-6 holes.

If nothing else, the Boston Red Sox should be the most intriguing team in the division. That's because Bobby Valentine takes over as manager of the club that went down in flames at the end of last season and gave us the hugely entertaining Beer-and-Wings Scandal.

The idea that Red Sox pitchers were pounding brews and scarfing Popeye's chicken in the clubhouse while their teammates were out giving their all for the Olde Towne Team had all of New England apoplectic.

But the Red Sox realized there was a new sheriff in town right from the get-go, when Valentine declared during spring training that Prohibition was back, at least in their little corner of Fenway Park.

Now you have a better chance of spotting a copy of the Harvard Law Review than a Sam Adams in the Boston clubhouse. And no more getting loaded on the team flight home and stumbling out to your car after a road trip — Valentine nixed beer on the planes, too.

The problem with Valentine can be his out-sized personality. He needs attention the way the rest of us need fresh air.

This can be a good thing or a bad thing. It's good when it deflects the media glare from a struggling team. It's not so good when it becomes a distraction for a team playing good baseball.

So we'll see how Valentine's act plays with veterans like Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis and Big Papi Ortiz, who got used to their laid-back ex-manager, Terry Francona, telling them they were the center of the universe for all those years.

I keep hearing how good the Toronto Blue Jays will be with hitting machine Jose Bautista (.302 batting average, 43 homers, 103 RBI) and Adam Lind (.295, 26 homers, 87 ribbies) anchoring a lineup that includes Canadian third baseman Brett Lawrie. Lawrie is the Jays phenom that Toronto broadcaster (and former O's broadcaster) Buck Martinez said has more ability than George Brett. (Easy, Buck. Let's not get carried away.)

And maybe the Jays will shock everyone and win it. But I'd have to see it to believe it.

Ricky Romero throws hard, with nasty stuff, and is a proven winner (15-11, 2.92 ERA last year.) But after that, the Jays' rotation (Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil, promising 21-year-old Henderson Alvarez and maybe oft-injured Dustin McGowan, now sidelined with plantar fasciitis) doesn't scare me.

But it should probably scare the Orioles.

Playing in the AL East is always brutal. But this year, it takes brutal to a whole new level.


Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays at 7:20 a.m. on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

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