You didn’t really think the AL East would be a two-horse race, did you?

Around the holidays, lots of Red Sox fans thought just that. With the addition of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, with a bullpen bolstered by a man who once closed out a World Series, Boston’s offseason shopping spree put joy in the hearts of Red Sox Nation.

The fact that Crawford came from an AL East rival made it even better. The left fielder was just part of a migration that saw Carlos Pena and most of the bullpen leave St. Pete.

Certainly, the Rays’ window of opportunity had been closed, right?

Not so fast. The Rays still have one of the best (and youngest) pitching rotations in the game.

And they’ve added two members of the 2004 gang of self-proclaimed Idiots that brought a championship to Boston.

Make no mistake, Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez are well past their prime. Damon hit .271 for Detroit last season, with a .756 OPS (on-base + slugging percentage.) Ramirez hit .298 (.870 OPS.)

Each had the worst power production in a decade — with the two combining for 17 homers and 93 RBI.

Sox fans booed Damon during his four-year stint with the Yankees, but that venom was safely put away last year when he played for the Tigers.

Now Damon is back in the AL East, and he should be ready for a less-than-warm welcome when he returns to Fenway.

There’s no question Damon can help the Rays next season.

He’s no Carl Crawford, but he will add leadership and stability to a young lineup for a year.

The real question in St. Pete is what can Manny do in the coming season. After joining the White Sox at the end of August, he had two extra-base hits in 24 games. The Rays only signed him for $2 million, but they didn’t sign him to hit eighth or ninth in the order. He’ll be expected to add some pop to that lineup.

And, as we well know, Manny isn’t exactly a clubhouse leader. Tampa Bay outfielder B.J. Upton has had plenty of run-ins with teammates and managements — do the Rays really expect him to improve with the hulking (and sulking) presence of Ramirez sitting a few lockers away?

The Rays still have plenty of questions to answer this season, primarily in the bullpen. Raphael Soriano is gone to New York. Joaqin Benoit is in Detroit. Dan Wheeler is now a Red Sox setup man. Grant Balfour is with the A’s. In 2010, those pitchers came together to form one of the best bullpens in the league.

This summer, the roster will feature relievers like the erratic Kyle Farnsworth and the well-travelled Joel Peralta in addition to unproven youngsters like Jake McGee, Mike Ekstrom, and Adam Russell.

Will those pitchers get it done? Only time will tell, but this is one of the deepest divisions in the game, a division consisting of four other teams that went out and built up their bullpens this winter.

The Sox added Wheeler and Bobby Jenks. The Yankees added Soriano. Toronto picked up Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch while the Orioles added Kevin Gregg.

Suddenly, most people think the Rays’ bullpen is the weakest in the division.

Their young starters are going to have to pitch deep every night to keep the team’s unproven middle relievers out of the game.

Damon and Ramirez won’t pitch, but they are expected to pitch in on offense.

It’s a one-two veteran punch that will make the rebuilding Rays better, and make the 18 games against the Sox a whole lot more interesting.

 

Tom Caron is the studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.