Most games in the American League East are going to last six innings this season. Seven, tops.

No, this isn’t a new effort to speed up the length of major league games. It’s an acknowledgement that nearly every team in baseball’s best division has an improved bullpen for 2011. Teams had better score early because at least four of the five AL East clubs feature strong options for late-inning relief.

Here’s a look at the division’s bullpen improvements for the coming summer.

RED SOX: Boston had the best offseason of any team in baseball, and the bullpen was a big part of that. The dust had barely settled from the acquisitions of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford when Theo Epstein added Bobby Jenks as a setup man. Jenks once closed out a World Series for the Chicago White Sox, and had a better 2010 than his numbers would indicate. Along with Daniel Bard he gives the Sox two hard-throwing strikeout guys to set up Jonathan Papelbon. Plus, Jenks gives the Sox a closing option should Papelbon continue to struggle.

The Sox have also improved their left-handed relief situation. Last week’s signing of Dennys Raez gives them several options from the left side. Hideki Okajima is back for another year, Andrew Miller has impressive upside and Felix Doubront is a starter-in-the-making.

YANKEES: GM Brian Cashman’s winter was as bad as Epstein’s was good. Just about everything that could go wrong, did (losing out on Cliff Lee, seeing Andy Pettitte retire.) Even the biggest success of the team’s offseason wasn’t a positive for Cashman. Rafael Soriano, who had 45 saves as Tampa Bay’s closer last season, might now be the best in the game. Yet Cashman made it clear that Soriano was signed because of ownership’s desire to improve the bullpen, not as part of the GM’s master plan. Cashman did help out the relief picture with the durable Pedro Feliciano, a lefty specialist who posted a 1.09 ERA against left-handed hitters with the Mets last year. With a lefty-heavy Boston lineup, Feliciano could be a major factor in the chess match between the Yanks and Sox next season.

BLUE JAYS: Toronto is rebuilding. Former Sox pitching coach John Farrell is now the manager and has a starting rotation good enough to keep 2011 from being a disaster. Do they have the bullpen? They’ve added relievers with plenty of experience to augment a group of young arms. Frank Francisco, Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch have each posted a season with 20 or more appearances in the last two years, and will all get a chance to close games for the Jays.

ORIOLES: Baltimore spent the offseason focusing on offense, and the additions of Vladimir Guerrero, Derrek Lee and Mark Reynolds will make the Birds’ lineup a difficult one to face. Yet Andy MacPhail didn’t overlook the bullpen. He added Kevin Gregg, who saved 37 games for the Blue Jays last year, in hopes that the Orioles could finally have a dependable closer. The addition of Gregg also allows lefty Mike Gonzalez (who blew nine of his 20 save opportunities over the past two years) to focus more on some of the tough lefty hitters he will face in the division.

RAYS: Tampa Bay lost Crawford and Carlos Pena and traded away Matt Garza. Yet the biggest hole in St. Pete will be the bullpen. Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler are gone, meaning Joe Maddon will have to trust JP Howell, Kyle Farnsworth and a host of unproven relievers in the late innings. A team that had the division’s best bullpen in 2010 might have its worst in 2011. Boston fans will enjoy watching the Red Sox face Tampa this year, thanks to the addition of Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. Watching a few late-inning rallies against a bad bullpen should make those games even more enjoyable.

 

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.