The AL East has changed quite a bit the last few years. As recently as 2016, preseason projections had the five AL East teams separated by only nine games in the standings. All five teams were talented and they were all a headache to play against. It was the toughest division in baseball, rather easily.
This year FanGraphs projects the gap between the best team (Yankees!) and worst team (Orioles) in the AL East at 35 games. PECOTA has the gap at 28 games. No other division has a gap that large. The AL East should again be a two-team race this summer, maybe a three-team race if some things break right. Point is, this is no longer the toughest division in MLB. Let’s preview the other four AL East clubs.
Notable Additions: Richie Martin, Rio Ruiz, Dwight Smith Jr.
Notable Losses: Tim Beckham, Adam Jones
Their Story: The Orioles lost 115 games last season, the fifth most in baseball history, and they did that while having Manny Machado, Zack Britton, Jonathan Schoop, Kevin Gausman, and Brad Brach half the season and Adam Jones all season. All those guys are gone now, and the Orioles did nothing this winter other than make a pair of Rule 5 Draft picks and a few waiver claims. It was a quiet winter in Baltimore.
The biggest changes the O’s made this offseason were organizational. Manager Buck Showalter and GM Dan Duquette were let go — how could you keep them after 115 losses? — and Mike Elias was hired away from the Astros to become the new GM. He’s since overhauled the front office, upgraded the scouting departments, and brought the team’s analytics group out of the Stone Age.
The Orioles are very early in a long-term rebuild and it’ll take a while for those core organizational changes to lead to results on the field. Elias has them moving in the right direction, which is a start. This is essentially a ground up rebuild though. I’m not sure there’s a single player on the MLB roster who will be part of the next contending Orioles team. Maybe Cedric Mullins? That’s about it. It’s going to be another loss-filled season for the O’s.
Random Player Who Will Annoy The Yankees: Dwight Smith Jr. is my pick. The Orioles got him from the Blue Jays in a minor trade earlier this month and the 26-year-old socked three homers in limited Spring Training action. He’s hit everywhere he’s played (career 120 wRC+ in the minors) and the left-handed hitter poking a few homers into the short porch feels inevitable.
Boston Red Sox
Notable Additions: Colten Brewer?
Notable Losses: Joe Kelly, Craig Kimbrel
Their Story: The defending World Series champions didn’t have a good offseason or a bad offseason. They just didn’t have an offseason. They re-signed Nathan Eovaldi and Steve Pearce, and that’s it. I suppose they could still re-sign Kimbrel at some point. It seems really, really unlikely though. Like, if it were going to happen, it probably would’ve happened already. The Red Sox have the exact same roster as last year, minus Kelly and Kimbrel.
Clearly, the Red Sox are going to score a lot of runs, and their rotation is strong as well, assuming no one shows ill-effects from the deep postseason run. The outfield defense is great too. (The infield defense? Not so much.) Boston’s weakness, if they have one, is the bullpen. Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier went from their No. 3 and 4 relievers last year to their No. 1 and 2 relievers this year. Tyler Thornburg and Brandon Workman will assume high-leverage roles.
Brewer has been getting talked up as the bullpen breakout star. He’s a high spin cutter guy who spent 2017 in the Yankees’ farm system as a minor league Rule 5 Draft pick. Brewer signed with the Padres last winter, allowed ten runs in 9.2 big league innings, then went to the Red Sox as a scrap heap addition this winter. Should the defending champs, with the highest payroll in the sport, be relying on a scrap heap guy to save the bullpen? Hey, it worked with Brasier last year. Why not?
Anyway, the Red Sox are going to be very good again this season. Maybe the bullpen will be their downfall. My guess is they’ll figure it out throughout the summer. The offense is great and the rotation is very good, and if you’re hoping for a collapse, you’ll probably be disappointed. No, they won’t win 108 games again. No one does that in back-to-back years. The Red Sox are going to be really good again though. Hate to break it to you.
Random Player Who Will Annoy The Yankees: Steve Pearce isn’t random enough. I’ll go with light-hitting catcher Christian Vazquez. His short porch solo home run against Zack Britton in the fourth inning of Game Four proved to be the ALDS winning run last year. Vazquez hit .207/.257/.283 (42 wRC+) overall last year. Prepare for him to hit .360/.420/.500 against the Yankees this year.
Tampa Bay Rays
Notable Additions: Yandy Diaz, Avisail Garcia, Guillermo Heredia, Charlie Morton, Mike Zunino
Notable Losses: Jake Bauers, C.J. Cron, Sergio Romo, Mallex Smith
Their Story: After four straight losing seasons, the Rays emerged to win 90 games last season, sixth most in a league that had seven winning teams. They responded by cutting their Opening Day payroll from $76.4M last year to an MLB low $50.4M this year. Sincere attempts to land Paul Goldschmidt (trade) and Nelson Cruz (free agent) fell short, then, a few weeks ago, Buster Olney (subs. req’d) wrote this when ranking the divisions (emphasis mine):
It’s possible that this division has baseball’s two best teams in the Red Sox and Yankees, and folks with those teams view the Tampa Bay Rays warily after their nearly perfect series of transactions strengthened an already deep well of talent.
No team in baseball gets the benefit of the doubt more than the Rays. It’s incredible, really. Imagine any other team in baseball winning 90 games, cutting their payroll 35% (!), falling short on two big ticket players, and have it be called a “nearly perfect series of transactions.” May we all one day be graded on the Rays curve, where mediocrity passes for greatness, and you don’t have to actually contend to be considered a contender.
Tampa added Morton to Cy Young winner Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow to give them three actual starting pitchers. They’ll use openers for the other two rotation spots. A full season of Tommy Pham will help the offense more than Garcia or Diaz or Zunino, and it’s about time Meadows gets a chance to play. That kid should’ve been been in the big leagues full-time two years ago. Service time manipulation is a hell of a thing.
The Rays are quite clearly the third best team in the five-team AL East. They’ll be annoying to play against, as always, but it’ll take a lot going right for them and a lot going wrong for the Yankees (and Red Sox) for them to have a realistic shot at the division title. They’ll finish about 15 games out and then move on to their next “nearly perfect series of transactions” that reduce payroll and don’t make them materially better.
Random Player Who Will Annoy The Yankees: Gotta be Avisail Garcia. His high ground ball rate (52.2%) and average-ish hard contact rate (33.3%) make him a good candidate to BABIP the Yankees to death with their sketchy infield defense. I’m ready for all the seeing-eye grounders pulled juuust out of Troy Tulowitzki’s reach.
Toronto Blue Jays
Notable Additions: Freddy Galvis, Elvis Luciano, Daniel Norris, Bud Norris, Matt Shoemaker
Notable Losses: Marco Estrada, Russell Martin
Their Story: The Blue Jays went from a nightmare to play against (or at least pitch against) to a non-factor so quickly that I hardly even noticed. They still have Justin Smoak and Kendrys Morales and, uh, Kevin Pillar? That’s about it. Vlad Guerrero Jr. will be up at some point this season (I think), but he’s nursing an oblique injury right now, which
gives the team an excuse to manipulate his service time means he’s a few weeks away from getting called up.
I’m not quite sure what Toronto’s plan is right now. It is clearly not “win now.” They also haven’t completely torn it down, so it’s not a full rebuild either. Maybe they’ll commit to a rebuild and trade Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, and Ken Giles at the deadline. It doesn’t seem like this team will do anything well this year. Pitch well, hit well, defend well, nothing. What’s the opposite of a triple threat?
The only thing keeping the Blue Jays from being the least interesting team in the AL East — that isn’t easy to do when you share a division with a 115-loss team! — is Luciano. Toronto plucked him from the Royals in the Rule 5 Draft. He turned 19 (!) last month and has never pitched above rookie ball, but he will be on the Opening Day roster. Luciano has a chance to become the first player to play an entire big league season (Opening Day through Game 162) as a teenager since Ken Griffey Jr.
Random Player Who Will Annoy The Yankees: Brandon Drury. Take it to the bank. There will be a game this season where Drury hits a double and a homer against J.A. Happ, and Miguel Andujar makes a goofy throwing error, and the “shoulda kept Drury!!!” takes come out of the woodwork. They say you can’t predict baseball, but folks, Drury giving the Yanks headaches this year is as predictable as it gets.