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An Early Look at the Yankees 2021 AL East Competition

An Early Look at the Yankees 2021 AL East Competition

By Chris O’Connor, 11/23/20

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Behind a much-improved Toronto team and an excellent Rays team, the AL East was a grind for the Yankees in 2020. Let’s take a look at their competition for 2021, pre-hot stove season. At this point I believe the Yankees are the favorites in the AL East, but that could change if they rest on their laurels and with a busy offseason for other clubs.

Orioles:

The Orioles are continuously stuck in an Astros-esque, multi-year rebuild where they still seem a few years away from reaping its rewards. Their best player, outfielder Trey Mancini, missed all of 2020 after tragically being diagnosed with colon cancer. His future is obviously uncertain and I wish him the best of luck in fighting it. As a team, the O’s finished 25-35 in 2020, but they did see some young guys develop. In 35 games, 23-year-old left fielder Ryan Mountcastle hit .333 with an OPS+ of 140; in 37 games, 25-year-old right fielder slugged eleven homers with an OPS+ of 138. The Orioles pitching struggled to a 4.51 ERA that ranked ninth in the AL; 2019 All Star John Means notably took a step back, and the rest of the staff was primarily filled with retread veterans who will not be around for the Orioles next playoff team. Despite a payroll of $50 million that ranks ahead of only the Miami Marlins, suggesting they have the means to improve the team, the Orioles seem to have too many holes to fill to compete in 2021. They are still at least 2-3 years away from competing with their improving farm system. Prediction: 69-93.

Red Sox:

The Red Sox had a very disappointing 2020, finishing in last place in the AL East with a 24-36 record. The trade of Mookie Betts was clearly looking at the long term future, though it must be noted that having the 27 year old Betts under contract for the foreseeable future (even at a large price) is a great foundation for a winning team. The Red Sox pitching melted down, which was to be expected to some degree after Chris Sale went down with Tommy John surgery and the inclusion of David Price in the Betts trade. Eduardo Rodriguez also did not play due to a heart condition, and Nathan Eovaldi struggled with injuries and inconsistency. Their pitching ranked 14th in the AL with a 5.58 ERA, but I would expect a rebound despite Sale being out until June-July at the earliest due to the returns of Rodriguez and Eovaldi. Similarly, I would expect many of the Sox top bats to rebound. Andrew Benintendi, JD Martinez, and Rafael Devers all saw their OPS drop over 100 points from 2019; the reemergence of those three combined with the impact bats of Alex Verdugo, Xander Bogaerts, and Christian Vasquez make for a solid lineup. I really liked the hire of Chaim Bloom as their Chief Baseball Officer; the Rays seem to churn out terrific executives every year. The Alex Cora hire was much more controversial, though regardless of his past ethical failings he has proven to be a great manager in Boston. With the only real impact player set to hit free agency being Jackie Bradley Jr. and a payroll of $145 million already ranked fifth in baseball for 2021, the Red Sox might need to rely on internal improvements and bounce back seasons from many of their guys. I don’t think they compete for the division crown, but I see a bit of a bounce back. Still, they have a long way to go to get back to contention. Prediction: 77-85

Blue Jays:

The Blue Jays broke through a bit, going 32-28 and earning the eighth seed in the playoffs. With their young core, the future looks bright in Toronto. Shortstop Bo Bichete is a stud; he just needs to prove he can stay healthy moving forward. Vlad Guerrero Jr. has not lived up to the extraordinary expectations placed on him as a prospect, but he has been an above average hitter; if he can lift the ball more he can really break out. Cavan Biggio is an on base machine and the emergence of Teoscar Hernandez and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. in 2020 should give Toronto a dynamic young lineup. Hyun-Jin Ryu squashed any concerns in his transition to the AL with a 2.69 ERA atop the rotation, but the rest of the staff is a concern. Starters Chase Anderson, Matt Shoemaker, and Robbie Ray all struggled in 2020, but they are now free agents. The Blue Jays are betting on the strikeout potential of Ray, rather than his history of actual run-prevention results, in re-signing him to a one year, $8 million deal. The team will hope for a breakout campaign from top prospect Nate Pearson, who should break camp with the team, and also a bounce back campaign from Ross Stripling, but relying on young, unproven starters is risky and the bullpen looks shaky as well. With a 2021 payroll of $66 million that ranks just 21st in baseball, the team should have ample resources to improve the rotation in free agency. Look for them to be in the market for top starters like Trevor Bauer and James Paxton. At the moment, the team does not have enough pitching to seriously contend, though that could change during hot stove season. Development in baseball is not linear; the Jays can’t just expect all of their young guys to take steps forward, and the health of Bichete is a concern. I expect the Jays to be in the hunt for the AL East crown, but I do not expect them to seriously contend. Prediction: 85-77.

Rays:

The Rays do not look like they are going away in 2021. They easily took the division with a 40-20 record that ranked second in the majors (behind the Dodgers) and advanced all the way to the World Series before losing in six to the Dodgers. Their only notable losses to free agency are Charlie Morton and Mike Zunino; the team declined both of their options but hope to re-sign them at lesser prices. Morton would be a significant loss, but the Rays have proven that they can develop excellent pitching to replace him. Zunino had an OPS of .598 in 29 games, so he would seem to be easily replaceable. Their starting lineup was more good than great; they ranked sixth in the AL in runs scored, though they did not need to be great with how good the pitching was. They did not have a single regular over the age of thirty, with Kevin Kiermaier and Joey Wendle being the elder statesman at age thirty. The rotation was headed by the three-headed monster of Tyler Glasnow, Blake Snell, and Morton. While Glasnow and Snell have injury concerns, the Rays can count on their depth to get them out of it; no team had a deeper bullpen than they did and they are bringing nearly all of those key guys back, with the exception of Aaron Loup. With an excellent, young major league team, a farm system widely regarded as the best in baseball (spearheaded by consensus top prospect Wander Franco), and a front office that routinely ranks among the best in baseball, the Rays look like they can continue to be contenders for the foreseeable future. They should be the Yankees main competition again in not only the AL East, but potentially all of the AL. Prediction: 96-66.

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