Season Preview: AL East
By Patrick Gunn
Yankees Baseball is racing towards us as the winter snow melts into April rosebuds. With that said, the Yankees have some competition to get back to the World Series. I will dig into the Bombers’ competition around the league over the next few weeks, going through every division ending with the AL East. I’m basing my predictions for the season on the team’s PECOTA projected records, statistics from last season, and overall talent.
The American League East is usually defined by its battles near the top. Recent years have proven that this division is not just defined by Yankees-Red Sox, as the Rays, Blue Jays, and Orioles have all made it to at least the AL Championship Series over the past decade. I think there is a clear favorite to the AL East this year but I felt the same way last season and look what happened. Here’s what PECOTA has to say about the AL East:
1. New York Yankees – 100.1-61.9
2. Tampa Bay Rays – 86.5-75.5
3. Toronto Blue Jays – 84.8-77.2
4. Boston Red Sox – 80.0-82.0
5. Baltimore Orioles – 67.5-94.5
FIRST PLACE – NEW YORK YANKEES
LAST SEASON’S RECORD: 33-27
Most Exciting Part of This Team: Fresh Starts
Last season’s Bombers underachieved. This year’s squad has the chance to spit out the bad taste 2020 left in everyone’s mouths. Gary Sanchez got off to a great start this spring and has all of the talent to return to form. Gleyber Torres has been mashing all spring long while making great plays at shortstop after a poor season. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton appear to be healthy going into the season (albeit Judge is sitting out the last three games of the spring). Jameson Taillon and Corey Kluber are also healthy and will make their long-awaited returns to the mound soon. Domingo Germán does not deserve a second chance in Pinstripes, but he’s getting one anyway and is coming off a strong spring. Those players getting to play out a new season plus everyone else leaves a roster flushed with talent.
Biggest Question: Can this team stay healthy?
This has been the main question about the Yankees under the Aaron Boone administration. And the Bombers are off to a poor start in this regard, as Luke Voit and Zack Britton are both missing significant time. Justin Wilson appears to be joining them on the Injured List at the start of the season. The “next man up” attitude is a nice sentiment, but that mentality has not brought New York back to the World Series. As usual, the Yankees’ health is paramount to any form of success this season.
Pat’s Prediction: 97-65
The Yankees’ toughest opponent in the AL this year is themselves. The Bombers are once again flushed with talent up and down the lineup, in the rotation, and in the bullpen. The ‘pen is weaker than it has been in years past, and the depth behind Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green, and Darren O’Day will be tested early. With that said, the Yankees should be heavy favorites to win the American League as long as they can stay healthy.
SECOND PLACE – TORONTO BLUE JAYS
LAST SEASON’S RECORD: 32-28
Most Exciting Part of This Team: That Lineup
The Blue Jays had a fantastic lineup coming into the season led by Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Teoscar Hernández, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Cavan Biggio, Rowdy Tellez, and Alejandro Kirk. Then the Jays added George Springer and Marcus Semien. Springer’s status for Opening Day is up in the air, but Semien should bounce back from a down 2020 (FanGraphs projects him to have a .451 slugging percentage, .336 OBP, and a 3.1 WAR). Toronto has enough lineup depth to whether a Springer injury.
Biggest Question: How will the Pitching Hold Up?
To be fair, Toronto did try to improve its pitching depth. They traded for Steven Matz and singed Ross Stripling, Kirby Yates, and former Yankee David Phelps while resigning Robbie Ray. Now, are those movies enough to move the needle for a team that threw to a 4.73 FIP last season?
Pat’s Prediction: 86-76
Toronto should have one of the strongest lineups in the league. The pitching staff has some questions, but Hyun Jin Ryu is a fantastic base for this team. He needs to stay healthy, but the Blue Jays have some interesting pieces around him. And that lineup can more than make up for bad pitching performances. The Jays surprised people with their playoff appearance last season. I would expect this team to make a similar push.
THIRD PLACE – TAMPA BAY RAYS
LAST SEASON’S RECORD: 40-20
Most Exciting Part of This Team: The Unexpected
It would be easy to talk about the strength of the Rays’ pitching staff and Tyler Glasnow becoming an ace. With that said, Tampa Bay always finds a diamond in the rough that will carry the team to greatness every year. May that will be a comeback from Chris Archer or Rich Hill or Collin McHugh or Michael Wacha. Maybe Francisco Mejía comes out of the gate looking like he did in his days as a top prospect. Maybe Wander Franco joins the team and rakes. The Rays are always a team in which you have to expect the unexpected.
Biggest Question – Is the Magic Back?
The Rays did have some luck in its run last season, relying on a miracle performance by Randy Arozarena to advance to the World Series. He is back, but not projected to hit like Babe Ruth again. Also, the Rays relied last season on undervalued players who never performed at that level to elevate the team. Several of those players – including ace Blake Snell – are gone now, so Tampa Bay is going to need an unexpected player to step up again.
Pat’s Prediction: 85-77
I have a bad feeling that I’m underrating this team. The Rays have some significant pieces and the Rays cannot rely on Arozarena to carry the lineup all season. Now, Austin Meadows should bounce back from a rough 2020, and Brandon Lowe will hit better than he did in the playoffs. Also, Tampa Bay always develops pitching well, so they should be able to manage without Snell. The Rays are a frustrating team in terms of its player development strategy, but they know how to win.
FOURTH PLACE – BOSTON RED SOX
LAST SEASON’S RECORD: 24-36
Most Exciting Part of This Team: Eduardo Rodriguez’s Return
Rodriguez lived through a nightmare in 2020 after dealing with COVID and then myocarditis. Thankfully, he appears to be on track to return to the Red Sox rotation sooner rather than later. Boston originally penciled him in to start opening day, but that changed after Rodriguez experienced dead arm in his last Spring Training start. Still, he will make his return to the mound sooner rather than later and that is fantastic news for this team.
Biggest Question: What Boston Team will Emerge from Florida?
The Red Sox disappointed in 2020 even with low expectations. The pitching staff got shelled and the lineup had little depth behind Xander Bogarts, Rafael Devers, and Alex Verdugo. Alex Cora has returned to manage the team after being suspended for a year for his involvement in the Astros’ 2017 cheating scandal. He did lead Boston to the 2018 World Series, but this team has a fraction of that unit’s core. Overall, the Red Sox seem to be in a limbo stuck between competing and selling, a place no team wants to be in.
Pat’s Prediction: 79-83
Thus, I feel like the Red Sox will finish around .500. Rodriguez’s return should help the rotation and Adam Ottavino should help the bullpen, but they are not enough. Also, the lineup depth is pretty mediocre, and I don’t think that Hunter Renfroe, Enrique Hernández, and Marwin Gonzalez will provide that much of a boost to the team’s offense. This team just has too many questions all over the field to be seen as a great unit.
FIFTH PLACE – BALTIMORE ORIOLES
LAST SEASON’S RECORD: 25-35
Most Exciting Part of This Team: Young Power
The Orioles made waves last season after their young lineup of inexperienced players hit bomb after bomb. Anthony Santander, Ryan Mountcastle, Renato Nunez, DJ Stewart, and Pedro Severino all have serious power. Camden Yards is a beautiful park for mashers, and Baltimore is starting to find some sluggers.
Biggest Question: Was Last Season’s Push a Mirage or a Step Forward?
Baltimore managed a 20-21 record on September 8th last season, only half a game behind the Yankees in the playoff picture. The Orioles flamed out after that point, but they put themselves in a position to fight for a playoff spot in September. Granted, they played a shortened season, so who knows what would have happened over 162 games. We’ll have a better idea of that after this year, so keep an eye on the Orioles’ progress.
Pat’s Prediction: 71-91
I savagely attacked Baltimore at the start of last season and, low and behold, I was wrong. The Orioles fought until the bitter end last season and deserve much more credit than they are getting this season. They are nowhere near a playoff spot, but the Orioles can push teams and I will be watching them closely to see if they can build upon last season’s taste of success. (Also, shoutout to Trey Mancini for making his return to the field after beating cancer).