Division Preview: American League East
You don’t have to like any of the teams in the American League East to be intrigued. This division is going to be action packed all season long, and with this offensive-heavy division, the team that pitches best will be left standing at season’s end. Whichever team finishes on top at the end of the season will not have won, they simply will have survived. The Contenders:
New York Yankees
2013 was one of the more bizarre Yankee seasons in recent memory. Alex Rodriguez missed most of the season with a hip injury and became the first player in the history of the game to be suspended the day of his season debut. Curtis Granderson was hurt in spring training and broke his finger when hit by a pitch on May 28, ten days after returning from his first injury. In total, the Yankees used 56 players over the course of the season. Set against the backdrop of the Rodriguez circus and Mariano Riveria’s farewell tour, the Yankees easily could have crumbled. Joe Girardi deserves all the credit in the world for managing that team to 85 wins.
Initially promising not to exceed the MLB’s luxury tax ceiling of $189 million, the Yankees blew past it, spending roughly $500 million on Masahiro Tanaka, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and an extension for Brett Gardner. The Yankees let Robinson Cano leave for Seattle without much of a fight, but turned the money efforted towards resigning him into multiple players. The addition of Tanaka to a rotation that includes a slimmed-down CC Sabathia, an improved Ivan Nova, and a healthy Michael Pineda will help a pitching staff that ranked 18th in ERA last year.
The Yankees still have major concerns. In addition to losing Cano, Rivera and reliever Boone Logan; Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson are going to be counted on to anchor second and third base despite injury concern and inexperience at the position, respectively. Mark Teixeira played only 15 games last year, suffering from a wrist injury that eventually required surgery. The injury, a torn tendon sheath, is similar to injuries sustained by Mark DeRosa and Jordan Schafer, sapping them of their power, so it remains to see how Teixeira will rebound. Derek Jeter is healthy after missing all but 17 games last year with the ankle injury he suffered in the 2012 postseason, but he is attempting to become the first 40-year-old, every day shortstop on a winning team in the history of the game.
Boston Red Sox
If for no other reason, Boston earns points for being the defending champions. The Red Sox have a solid, if unspectacular team, and retained most of the key starters from last season.
Boston allowed Ellsbury and shortstop Stephen Drew to leave via free agency, but should be able to replace their production internally without a major setback. Rookie Xander Bogaerts hit .250/.320/.364 in 18 games last year and should be at least an above average shortstop or third baseman. While Jackie Bradley does not profile to be the base-stealer that Ellsbury was for the Red Sox, he is considered one of their top prospects and can be an impact player at the major league level this year.
If the Red Sox have a weakness, it’s a pitching staff that ranked 14th in ERA in 2013. However, that was with fewer than 30 starts from John Lackey, Felix Doubront, and Clay Buccholz. Pitching after Jon Lester in the rotation, the Red Sox are going to need full seasons from all three to remain competitive in the division.
Tampa Bay Rays
There is a saying about Tampa Bay’s Joe Maddon. He is the manager of the year every year, but sometimes others win it. The Rays won 92 games in 2013 with an incredibly solid team that returns most of its key players, and a few acquisitions that could pay off in a big way.
They Rays had a mostly quiet offseason, but they acquired three new faces in Logan Forsythe, Brad Boxberger, and Heath Bell. A utility player with the ability to play the entire infield, Forsythe’s name is an important one to watch. Despite hitting only .214/.281/.332 in 75 games last year, he posted the fourth-highest line drive rate among all qualified batters for the second straight year. If the Rays coaches work their magic, he could upgrade an offense that ranked 11th in runs scored last year.
The Rays chose not to trade David Price with only one year of team control left after 2014. He leads a starting rotation that may be one of the safest bets in baseball. Jeremy Hellickson was terrible last year after two excellent seasons, but will be out most of the first half of the season after offseason elbow surgery. That may work for the Ray’s favor; he will be hitting his stride in time for the final stretch of the season. In the meantime, 2013 Rookie of the Year finalist Chris Archer takes the fourth spot in the rotation with Jake Odorizzi the fifth starter.
A year after hitting a career-high 33 home runs, Chris Davis became a household name, hitting 53 and posting a 1.004 OPS. It did not do the Orioles much good, as they won eight fewer games and missed the postseason. The Orioles received some negative attention this offseason, flunking Tyler Colvin and Grant Balfour’s physicals before signing free agents Nelson Cruz and Ubaldo Jimenez.
The Orioles drop-off was peculiar. The team had virtually the same batting statistics both years, scored 33 more runs, and posted an offensive WAR 14 points higher than in 2012. The pitching was only marginally worse, allowing 36 more runs than in 2012, but maintained virtually identical strikeout and walk ratios. The Orioles step back is better explained by their performance in close games in 2012, when they went 29-9 in one-run games and 16-2 in extra-innings. Success like that is partially a result of good fortune, which reversed in 2013, when they went 16-26 in one-run games.
Regardless of their luck, the Orioles needed significant upgrades to contend this year. Their pitching staff finished 20th or lower in ERA, quality starts, and WHIP last year. To remedy the pitching, general manager Dan Duquette signed Jimenez to a four-year contract. Jimenez can be a devastating strikeout pitcher, but also one of the most erratic in the game. With top prospects Kevin Gausman possibly starting the season in the bullpen and Dylan Bundy rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, the club is counting on a dominant season from Jimenez.
The Orioles are going to need improved performances from several players in order to compete. Nick Markakis is coming off the worst season of his career and is going to open the season hitting leadoff; which the Orioles need to improve on the 18th ranked OPS that hitters combined to hit from the position last year. Most of the peripheral statistics matched his career norms, so if he sustains success leading off the Orioles should be a much more balanced offensive team.
Toronto Blue Jays
How many divisions in baseball are going to have as much distribution of talent other than the AL East? Unfortunately for Toronto, their ticket is punched for last place. One year after trading top-end prospects in two major trades for R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, and Mark Buehrle, among others, the Blue Jays have a much lower ceiling to reach.
2013 was nothing short of disaster for Toronto. Johnson made only 16 starts, Buehrle had a down year, and Dickey’s ERA ballooned by 148 points one year after winning the Cy Young as a member of the New York Mets. In total, they used 13 starting pitchers, and were of no help to an offense that ranked ninth in baseball. Of the starters who qualified statistically, only Johnson is not returning.
The front office made little attempt at upgrading the team. They were linked to Ian Kinsler in trade rumors, but a deal never materialized. When Ervin Santana signed with the Atlanta Braves last week, reaction in Toronto was devastation. In all, the Blue Jays only added two new players of consequence: catchers Erik Kratz and Dioner Navarro.
The Blue Jays may be thinking that they will gain additions by subtraction, hoping that if healthy, J.A. Happ, Esmil Rodgers, Brandon Morrow, and Ricky Romero could be solid contributors. While the Jays have a decent team on paper, they did nothing to upgrade a pitching staff that was one of the worst in baseball last year. Barring a miraculous turn around, the Blue Jays will waste another year of the prime years of Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista, and Colby Rasmus, who will become a free agent at the end of the season.
Red Sox win the division.
The AL East may be the toughest division of any to predict. The improved Yankees and Orioles means the Red Sox will likely not win 97 games again, but both will need to demonstrate improved play or upgrade their weaknesses before being considered possible contenders. The Red Sox led baseball in runs scored by a runaway margin last year and can expect to get better pitching from a healthy Buccholz and Lester, who is pitching for a new contract. They are entering the post-Ellsbury era, but have multiple candidates to replace him in-house, and can expect Dustin Pedroia to hit more home runs after having surgery to fix a thumb injury that bothered him for all of 2013. The Red Sox only needed minor changes to possibly replicate last year's performance, whereas the other teams in the east need to get significantly better to have even a chance at winning the division.