Cockcroft: Toronto Blue Jays preview

For nearly a decade now, all the attention in the American League East has been focused squarely on the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Perhaps that's fitting, too, since from 1998-2005, the Yankees finished first and the Red Sox second every year. But in 2006, when the Yankees won the division for the ninth straight year, do you know who finished second? It was the Blue Jays, who won one more game than the Red Sox.

That's right, the Blue Jays finally snapped the string of Yankees-Red Sox dominance, and while most people might forecast another Yankees-Red Sox stronghold on the top two spots in 2007, these Blue Jays need to be taken more seriously. In 2006, Toronto as a team finished second in the majors in OPS (.811), 12th in runs per game (4.99) and 10th in ERA (4.37), helped by free-agent additions like A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan, and trade acquisitions like Troy Glaus and Lyle Overbay. And after the season, the team continued to add veteran help, including slugger Frank Thomas, glove man Royce Clayton and rotation candidates/reinforcements Tomo Ohka and John Thomson.

Thomas' addition continues to bolster an already strong offense, as he's one of three right-handed sluggers on the roster to have at least 30 homers and 100 RBI in 2006 (Glaus and Vernon Wells are the others). Plus, the team has up-and-coming right fielder Alex Rios perhaps on the verge of a breakout year, a .312-22-92 first baseman in Lyle Overbay to provide left-handed balance to the order, and while Clayton might seem like a laughable acquisition for fantasy, don't underestimate the value of his defense to a team that was a bit lacking in that department a year ago. Really, the Blue Jays' offense should be a lock for top-10 status, and a case can be made that it's one of the most underrated in baseball.