2014 Season Preview: The AL East

Heyman: Yankees have talked to Drew recently, payroll is "tapped out"
Yankees finalize rotation, name Michael Pineda fifth starter

Over the last 15-20 years or so, no division has been as consistently tough as the AL East. The Yankees and Red Sox have dominated the top two spots, and in recent years both the Rays and Orioles have become more serious threats. The AL East has produced 15 of the 21 AL wildcard teams since the system was introduced in 1995, giving you an idea of how many great teams it’s housed. How is the division competition looking heading into 2014? Here’s a breakdown.

Ubaldo. (Presswire)
Ubaldo. (Presswire)

Notable Additions: RHP Ubaldo Jimenez, OF Nelson Cruz, RHP Ryan Webb, RHP Suk-Min Yoon, OF/DH Delmon Young
Notable Losses: RHP Scott Feldman, RHP Jason Hammel, RHP Jim Johnson, OF Nate McLouth

This isn’t a loss in the sense that he was on the team and now he’s not, but it’s certainly worth mentioning that third baseman Manny Machado will start the season on the DL following offseason knee surgery. He should return sometime in April.

The Orioles played the market well and landed both Jimenez and Cruz on favorable contracts. They sorely lacked an ace and while Ubaldo might be the most unpredictable pitcher in the game, he can be absolutely dominant for long stretches of time. Baltimore got a weak .245/.293/.405 (87 wRC+) batting line out of their DHs last season, so Cruz and even Young should help correct that problem. Between Cruz, Chris Davis, and Adam Jones, the O’s have three guys who could legitimately hit 30+ homers. They hit 24 more homeruns than any other team last season and added yet another power hitter this winter.

Even though Johnson always seems to blow games against the Yankees — he blew four of his last nine save chances against them and also took a loss after entering a tie game — the Orioles are worse off in the late innings without him. Webb is underrated and I’m sure Tommy Hunter will be fine in the ninth inning, but Johnson was a very good workhorse reliever and that will be missed. Baltimore is better than they were last season because of Jimenez and Cruz, though I’m not sure if they’re good enough to make a serious run at a wildcard spot. I guess it depends on how long Machado is out, which Jimenez shows up, and how the bullpen shakes out without Johnson.

Notable Additions: RHP Burke Badenhop, LHP Chris Capuano, RHP Edward Mujica, C A.J. Pierzynski
Notable Losses: RHP Ryan Dempster, SS Stephen Drew, OF Jacoby Ellsbury, C Jarrod Saltalamacchia

I assume the Red Sox will not re-sign Drew at this point, which means they lost three key up-the-middle position players this winter. Grady Sizemore has had a great spring, but replacing Ellsbury with him is the poor man’s version of replacing Robinson Cano with Brian Roberts. Jackie Bradley Jr., last spring’s MVP, is the backup plan there. Pierzynski takes over for Salty, and rookie Xander Bogaerts will replace Drew. He’s a stud and appears poised to be a force for years to come.

Boston has earned some leeway after winning the World Series, but they lost a lot of good players this winter and are counting mostly on internal solutions to replace the lost production. That’s dicey, especially when talking about prospects. If Bogaerts or either of the center fielders don’t produce, the Sox will be left scrambling. Luckily for them, the pitching staff is deep and stalwarts like Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz are still around to anchor the lineup. The Red Sox have a great farm system and a ton of money, so they have the wherewithal to address any needs at midseason. That said, they won the division by 5.5 games last year and the gap appears to have closed a bit.

Notable Additions: RHP Grant Balfour, RHP Heath Bell, C Ryan Hanigan
Notable Losses: RHP Roberto Hernandez, RHP Fernando Rodney, DH Luke Scott, RHP Jamey Wright

Old face, old place. (Presswire)
Old face, old place. (Presswire)

The Rays will be without Jeremy Hellickson for a few weeks following offseason elbow surgery. They still have David Price and Alex Cobb to front the rotation, but Matt Moore is having a real problem throwing strikes this spring. Like 15 walks in 14.1 innings problem. Chris Archer had a strong rookie season and rookie Jake Odorizzi will replace Hellickson for the time being. Tampa always seems to crank out quality young starters, but with Moore struggling and Odorizzi projecting as more of a back-end arm than anything else, their staff seems more vulnerable than it has been at any point in the last five of six years.

After getting great production from one-year gems like Casey Kotchman and Jeff Keppinger, the Rays doubled down on James Loney and re-signed him to a three-year, $21M contract this offseason. That is the largest free agent contract the team had handed out since the current ownership group took over in 2005. Full seasons of Wil Myers and David DeJesus should boost an offense — DeJesus isn’t great, but remember, he’s replacing Sam Fuld — that ranked third in baseball with a 108 wRC+ last summer. Going from Rodney and Wright to Balfour and Bell is probably an upgrade, especially in terms in 2014 performance. Rodney and Wright are 37 and 39, after all. Tampa improved this winter after winning 92 games a wildcard spot a year ago, so of course they’ll be right back in the thick of the race this year.

Notable Additions: C Dioner Navarro
Notable Losses: C J.P. Arencibia, OF Rajai Davis, RHP Josh Johnson

It’s unbelievable the Blue Jays did nothing this winter, isn’t it? They made all those moves last offseason and were such a colossal disappointment in 2013, yet nothing. They signed Navarro, who was nearly out of baseball three years ago. GM Alex Anthopoulos appeared to be playing the board a bit with the pitching market, presumably hoping to grab Jimenez or Ervin Santana on a cheap contract, but instead came up empty. The rotation includes the reliable Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey, the unpredictable Brandon Morrow, J.A. Happ, and righty Drew Hutchison fresh off Tommy John surgery.

I guess the good news for Toronto is that their offense is dynamite, at least when healthy. Edwin Encarnacion might be the most unheralded great hitter in the game (82 BB, 66 XBH, 62 K in 2013) and Jose Bautista is still a force, so the middle of the order is set. Colby Rasmus has a ton of power and others like Melky Cabrera, Adam Lind, and Brett Lawrie will contribute from time to time. Jose Reyes is dynamic but also prone to injury, and sure enough an MRI revealed a minor hamstring strain just yesterday. He might not be ready for the start of the season. Ryan Goins, who is slated to be the regular second baseman, will move over to replace Reyes to short if need be. He might be the worst everyday player in baseball. In the conversation, at least. The Blue Jays are banking on health and steps forward from guys like Hutchison and Rasmus to improve the team, and even if they get that, they still might only be the fourth or fifth best team in the division.

* * *

On paper, I think you can argue the Yankees are anywhere from the best to fourth best team in the division. They’ve obviously upgraded but so have the Rays and Orioles, all while the Red Sox lost some key pieces. The top four teams in the division are more scrunched together this season, which means the race will be more tougher and more exciting deep into the season. Injuries and unexpected performances, both good and bad, will play an even bigger role in determining the AL East this summer. The division is again very good and there are four teams to be reckoned with. (Sorry, Blue Jays.)

Heyman: Yankees have talked to Drew recently, payroll is "tapped out"
Yankees finalize rotation, name Michael Pineda fifth starter
  • http://www.twitter.com/_swarlesbarkley Mark Teixeira – Ghostbuster (formerly Drew) RIP Egon

    Mike, will we be getting a podcast before the season like last year?

  • Jorge Steinbrenner

    I’m always most afraid of the Rays, and I think they held pat to improved this off-season. Everyone else would surprise me, including your gritty, gutty, smarterthaneveryoneelse defending champs. Just not a fan in the least of Boston’s not making moves and relying on repeat performances and perhaps even one too many unproved young guys.

    • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead

      I’m always most afraid of no one.

      • Farewell Mo

        I’d feel so much better about the Yankees chances this season if they’d just find the money to sign Drew.

        Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

  • TWTR

    With each passing season, I am increasingly glad that Anthopoulos foolishly traded Syndergaard and d’arnaud for Dickey.

    • Jorge Steinbrenner

      Mets were always going to rob someone blind on Dickey,

  • Derbs

    At some point age has to catch up with Ortiz. He hasn’t hit at all this spring so maybe this is the year age finally catches up…HGH can only do so much for him.

    • TWTR

      It did, and then it didn’t.

      • Derbs

        Age caught up with him when he was on the PED list with his buddy Manny. Then he all of a sudden hits again when coincidentally there’s no testing for HGH. Just seems too coincidental.

        • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

          There was HGH testing this season.

          • The Great Gonzo

            But…. was there Rice and Beans testing?

            • MB923

              No, just chicken and beer testing.

    • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead

      He was on the failed drug tests list in 2003. No more details than that, except that he was “flummoxed”. Sure he was.

      • JAG

        If there’s any guy I would like to see fail a PED test, it would be him. Just bitter, I know, but it would still be a shitshow and it would be fun watching everyone sputter about it.

  • Monterowasdinero

    Be interesting to compare the managers in the East as well.

    • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead

      Based on what? Gut? Team record? WAR?

      • Jorge Steinbrenner

        Stylish glasses.

      • Monterowasdinero

        That is the point. Hard to sabermetricize the managers. Measuring in-game management which, admittedly, is very subjective. Do they matter at all? Of course. Are they all the same and have the same level of talent to work with? Of course not. How to measure is the challenge. How many would have their ace intentionally walk a below average hitter in the first inning of the first game of the year?

        • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead

          So where does an article like that start? What would actually make it interesting? It seems like a pretty daunting task given Mike’s already demanding schedule.

          Why don’t you do it?

        • CS Yankee

          Seems like you’re holding out on some specifics or looking for the place to grind an axe.

          FWIW, there seems to be four really solid managers in the AL East and one I know nothing about (Blue Jays guy);
          Saux guy…real solid with the pitchers, team over-performed.
          Rays guy…moves the IF extremely well, makes the pen work
          O’s guy…gets the team to believe in itself, has no SP
          NYY guy…big forearms, big binder, great with the players and had his team out perform to their talent (IMO) by about 20 games last year.

          Seems like the contenders all have good, solid managers that their players respond to fairly well.

        • Jorge Steinbrenner

          It’s not hard at all.

          Maddon >> Farrell >>>>>> Billy Beane (if he was manager) >>>>>>> Yangervis Solarte (if he was manager) > Whoever the hell manages the Blue Jays >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Buck >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Girardi.

          • The Great Gonzo

            You obviously missed Joe Torre, Tony Pena, Don Mattingly, Don Cheadle, Chester Cheetah, and Bald Vinny

            • CS Yankee

              Chester might be a viable option for the O’s, but Bald Vinny would distract the players too much.

    • ALZ

      Managers can be overrated, and are highly situational. Maddon has been very good for the Rays, but does that mean he is the best? He may not be quite as good if he was in Ny.

  • Evan Longoria

    “the Rays doubled down on James Loney and re-signed him to a three-year, $21M contract this offseason. That is the largest contract the team had handed out since the current ownership group took over in 2005.”

    Are you sure?

    • Dalek Jeter

      FA contract, you were an extension, sir.

      • Evan Longoria

        Exactly, but should be stated as such.

  • Eddardo Nuney

    Os – They have a really good ballclub and a top flight manager. Great young pitching and they’ve added Nelson Cruz and Yankee killer Delmon Young to a young, potent lineup. They will be a big threat.

    Sox – Best team in the division by far. They did lose some players but look how they replenish every year. Possess a much better farm system than the Yanks and don’t use the excuse that only bad teams get good draft picks. The Sox have been good for a decade and continue to draft well.

    Rays – Do the most with the least. Here’s another club that’s been good for 6-7 years and still continues to draft well. They will trade Price and get a King’s ransom in return. That’s their only way of competing.

    Jays – They have to be better than last year you would think but still will finish last. What an awful franchise.

    Mike said the Yanks are anywhere from the 1st best to the 4th best in the division and that’s saying something considering there’s only 5 teams. I think they’ll finish 1st, Os 2nd, Sox 3rd, Rays 4th, Jays 5th.

    • CS Yankee

      So you have the best team by far finishing 3rd, WTF?

      The Sox have maybe the best in the overall picture…fairly low payroll with a solid farm that seems to have assets placed well (AA/AAA moreso). However, the Rays farm seems to be slowing down on getting studs and the NYY seem to have a good mix slated for AA.

      I do also have them in 3rd (91) with the Rays 2nd (93) and the NYY first (95).

    • John Duci

      You said the sox are the best team in the division by far. Then you say they are going to finish 3rd??? Are you high

      • I’m One

        No. He’s one (or more) of the Eddard personalities. Perhaps they couldn’t agree with each other as they were writing that, so they went from best to 3rd place.

  • ALZ

    The Blue Jays really don’t make sense to me. Last winter they looked like they improved, but they never looked like a complete team. The problem was that they emptied out their farm system so that they looked like the 3rd best team in the division to me. What is the point? Go for it or hang onto your prospects. They already lost Josh Johnson who if healthy was a big part of what they needed. Now they have an ancient Ace, an injury prone shortstop, and a glorious #4 making the big bucks. I liked that trade by the Marlins too. They saw they weren’t ready and decided to actually rebuild, instead of spending the next 5 years in mediocrity. EE and Bautista are fantastic, but their lineup is pretty bad once you get past them.

    • The Great Gonzo

      Off Season Champions, man…

  • http://riveravenueblues Mississippi doc

    The Yankees easily have to be the most improved team in the AL East. While we have all been doom and gloom about the infield, it will be adequate and the rest of the team is outstanding. Starting pitching is the best we have seen since before 2002, the bullpen will be fine, the outfield is excellent, and what team has two good to excellent catchers and a stable of ready replacements. As always, the issues are avoiding injuries and avoiding under performances (see Sabathia, 2013). The Sox over achieved last year, lost key players, and have been too arrogant to recognize it. The Rays worry me. Somehow, always good pitching, just enough offense, and a manager who gets the most out of his team.

    • Monterowasdinero

      This. Maddon seems to get the most out of his talent on offense and defense. I’d rate him as the best in the East. His players play hard for him and seem to have fun. Not saying Girardi is not a great guy and not liked by his players. He is in a much tougher market and handles it skillfully.

      I may change my handle to Pinedawasthegreata….


      • CS Yankee

        How about; monteroturnedpinedaintodinero

      • Jorge Steinbrenner


      • dkidd


  • http://www.timeanddate.com/countdown/generic?p0=179&iso=20140401T19&year=2014&month=4&day=1&hour=19&min=0&sec=0&msg=Opening%20Day! Get Phelps Up

    The Red Sox also will have near-certain regression from guys like Lackey, Victorino, Nava and Uehara.

    • Martin L

      And it was a bit premature to the so called experts to designate THE Jackie Bradley (Jr.) for the Hall of Fame. Not quite yet.

    • Tanaka Best MLB No 4 Starter

      I couldn’t agree more.

      Ortiz going into his age-38 season…how many more years of .315/30/100 can he possibly have? Lackey not likely to pitch 3.38, didn’t Bucholtz have a 1.91 ERA after 21 games started, what about Napoli who is an 8-year veteran having 92 RBIs last year when his career high before then was only 75? Mathematically that is 23% which is what people call “a career year”

      So many things went right last year…. predicting a regression to the mean

  • dars

    I would have felt better about our chances if we had signed Grant Balfour. What happens if Robertson goes down with an injury? No back-up plan. Balfour would have been great as a set-up and closer insurance. I also would have felt better if we had signed a good RH 3B complement to Kelly Johnson.
    Otherwise Yankees will be very interesting to watch. Tremendous speed with Ellsbury, Garner, Nunez and even Roberts, so much that they will be game changers with the pressure they place on opposing defenses and then clutch hitters in Beltran and McAnn and power guys like Tex and Soriano. This presents to be a very interesting and competitive year.

    • CS Yankee

      Balfour wanted to close though…also heard he isn’t looking good in spring (can’t break 90).

    • Jorge Steinbrenner

      I would have felt better had we cryogenically frozen Mariano….oh, wait, he’s still alive? Scratch that.

  • John Duci

    The strength of the NYY is definetly the rotation. Best pitching if the division by far (starters I mean because the redsox bullpen is godly). Lineup is deep too I can see Beltran and McCann having MONSTER years. DRob is also going to be great but this starting 5 we have are going to be the reason Jeter goes out on top.

  • JGYank

    I see the Yanks as 3rd close behind the RS and Rays and ahead of the Os. Sox have lost 3 good position players and aren’t sure how their replacements will be. Ortiz, Victorino, Gomes, and Napoli maybe all be in for some decline/regression. Won’t be as good/lucky as last year but still are starting at 97 wins with an even better expected winning % from their run differential. Also Middlebrooks should improve. Still a solid 90 win team. Rays: strong pitching, few weaknesses. Maybe C and LF. Could see Loney regress. 90 win team. Os: pitching doesn’t impress me, and the offense is good but not good enough to make up for the pitching. Good defensive team especially when Machado is back. Davis should come down to earth a bit. I expect them to be slightly above .500. Jays: Not enough pitching and have injury concerns. Lineup has some good hitters but they need to stay healthy. Maybe around 75 wins. I think the Yanks will be in the mid to upper 80s and are the 3rd best team on paper but also the most volatile.

    Also can’t wait for the 5th starter to be named. It will probably be Pineda, but I just want to hear it already.

  • Wheels

    Tough division, wouldn’t want it any other way.

  • Monterowasdinero

    So if DRob ends up being unable to handle the pressure of the 9th inning-any chance Mo comes out of retirement?
    The guy is in great shape and throws one pitch. What a story that would be.

    • Wheels

      Mariano Rivera is not walking through that door.

  • Martin L

    The gap between the Red Sox and the rest of the division has closed more than “just a bit”. They are not a better team than last year, and by your own analysis, have lost several key players. We’ll find out just how great a farm system they have this year.

  • Chris

    I keep reading that Grady Sizemore has had a great spring, and I’m curious because when I looked at his stat line it wasn’t even good, his OPS was in the 600s. Now, it’s spring training and those stats are meaningless, but on paper that doesn’t look like someone who is having a great spring. It doesn’t look like he’s hitting lots of line drives that are right at people either, it looks like an Ichiro with a few singles falling in. I could understand it if people were saying “He looks healthy and there’s potential” but the reports are he’s having a great spring. There seems to be a disconnect.

    • MB923

      I could be wrong, but I believe it was because he was playing good defense.

  • 461deep

    As stated above AL East looks to be a dog fight. Yankee age a big drawback with 4 starters past 36 & none under 30. Spring pitching very good but must hold-up all year. Hitting improved but loss of A-Rod, Grandy & Cano not quite made-up for. Good but not great team that will contend and yes I stick to my 88 win guess on team age catching up with them after Aug 1. Right now I see Orioles as best in division with improved hitting-pitching.