All Quiet in the AL East

Historically speaking, many sports analysts will cite the American League East as Major League Baseball’s most competitive division. Such a notion is largely rooted in the presence of two perennial contenders: the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. It wasn’t too long ago when these clubs would routinely run away with the division, battling it out amongst themselves for the AL East crown and a chance to play October baseball. But the times have changed since then. Gone are the days when fans were all but assured of a victory in games against the Baltimore Orioles. The upstart, sabermetrically-informed Tampa Bay Rays continue to be postseason contenders, despite a miniscule payroll. And the Toronto Blue Jays have shown it a mistake to discount the team as a mere afterthought. The AL East remains as competitive as ever, though for different reasons than in the past.

Despite the hyper-competitive nature of the division, the 2013-2014 off-season was characterized by relatively little roster-building activity amongst these rivals. For four of the five teams, there were no big free-agent splashes, nor any blockbuster trades—only small acquisitions here and there. One may be inclined to believe this will lead to an overall weaker division, but the reality is that these teams each sport a solid core of players, all of which are capable of leading their respective club to the playoffs with a few complimentary pieces and a little luck. What follows is a breakdown of each team’s starting rotation, lineup, and bullpen, along with a prediction of where each club will finish at the conclusion of the 2014 season.

1st Place: Tampa Bay Rays

Projected Lineup: 1. David DeJesus, LF 2. Ben Zobrist, 2B 3. Evan Longoria, 3B 4. Wil Myers, RF 5. Matt Joyce, DH  6. James Loney, 1B 7. Desmond Jennings, CF 8. Yunel Escobar, SS 9. Ryan Hanigan, C

While the Rays will not lead the league in runs scored, their lineup is solid and a far cry from the anemic offenses trotted out by the team only a few years back. Left fielder Ben Zobrist, All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria, and former top-prospect Wil Myers figure to do the heavy lifting. What the rest of the lineup lacks in power, they should make up for in their on-base ability. It will be interesting to see if first baseman James Loney can repeat his excellent 2013 campaign.

The Rays are known for trading star players for MLB-ready prospects, but decided to keep lefty David Price in the hopes of a postseason run. Photo courtesy of Batting Leadoff.

Starting Rotation: 1. David Price 2. Matt Moore 3. Alex Cobb 4. Chris Archer 5. Jake Odorizzi

The Rays’ starting rotation is without a doubt the team’s greatest strength. This staff, anchored by ace David Price, will strike batters out and prevent a whole lot of runs from scoring. There is a reason the Rays are often cited as one of the best-managed teams—Price, Moore, Cobb, and Archer were all drafted and developed by the organization. While Price may leave at the end of the season for more expensive pastures, the Rays figure to have a solid young core of pitching for years to come.

Bullpen: 1. Grant Balfour (closer) 2. Joel Peralta 3. Jake McGee 4. Heath Bell 5. Juan Carlos Oviedo 6. Brad Boxberger 7. Cesar Ramos

After failing a physical before completing a deal with the Baltimore Orioles, closer Grant Balfour latched on with his former team to replace the departing Fernando Rodney. Balfour, Peralta, and McGee in particular should do a great job limiting baserunners.

2nd Place: New York Yankees

Probable Lineup: 1. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF 2. Derek Jeter, SS 3. Carlos Beltran, RF 4. Brian McCann, C 5. Mark Teixeira, 1B 6. Alfonso Soriano, DH 7. Kelly Johnson, 3B 8. Brian Roberts, 2B 9. Brett Gardner, LF

The injury-plagued 2013 New York Yankees managed to put up some ugly offensive numbers last season, scoring an underwhelming 4.01 runs per game and missing the postseason for the first time since 2008. Just as they went on a spending spree after that season, so too did ownership look to the free-agent class this off-season to bolster the team for 2014. The Yankees had the loudest off-season by far—signing catcher Brian McCann and outfielders Carlos Beltran and Jacoby Ellsbury. While they lost superstar second baseman Robinson Cano, the Yankees are still a much improved team. McCann, Beltran, and a full season of Soriano will increase the team’s power output, while Gardner and Ellsbury should wreak havoc on the base-paths. There are, however, legitimate concerns about how much production will come out of the infield. Derek Jeter is coming off a lost season that saw him struggle with his surgically repaired ankle, Teixeira’s wrist may sap him of his already declining power, and Brian Roberts is almost a lock to visit the DL at some point during the season.

Brian McCann represents a huge upgrade behind the plate for the Yankees. Photo courtesy of Star Gazette.

Starting Rotation: 1. CC Sabathia 2. Hiroki Kuroda 3. Masahiro Tanaka 4. Ivan Nova 5. Michael Pineda

The Yankees were not content in only adding position players this winter, as they signed Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka to a lucrative seven-year, $155 million deal, marking their first foray into the international free-agent market since the Kei Igawa disaster. History does not seem doomed to repeat itself however: the consensus is that Tanaka will translate to a solid No. 2 pitching in the big leagues. If Hiroki Kuroda can avoid another late-season fade and Ivan Nova can build upon his stellar second half of 2013, this rotation could be one of the best in the AL. Of course, after a truly disastrous 2013, CC Sabathia will need to either rediscover his fastball velocity or learn to pitch without it. And finally, spring training reports of Michael Pineda make it seem likely that the Pineda-Montero trade will finally pay dividends for the Yankees after two full years. On paper, the Yankees projected rotation is more a strength than a weakness.

Bullpen: 1. David Robertson (closer) 2. Shawn Kelley 3. Matt Thornton 4. David Phelps 5. Dellin Betances 6. Cesar Cabral 7. Adam Warren

Anointed closer David Robertson has the unenviable task of replacing the greatest closer of all time in Mariano Rivera. Thankfully, Robertson has been one of the best relief pitchers in baseball throughout the past three years, improving his control to significantly reduce his walk rate since the second half of 2012. With Pineda all but a lock for the fifth starter position, Warren and Phelps will likely be relegated to bullpen duties. Cesar Cabral and Matt Thornton should excel as lefty specialists, but Thornton should not go anywhere near right-handed batters. This group may not sport the flashiest of names, but should get the job done. Manager Joe Girardi has an excellent track record in cobbling together productive bullpens.

3rd Place: Boston Red Sox

Probable Lineup: 1. Shane Victorino, RF 2. Daniel Nava, LF 3. Dustin Pedroia, 2B 4. David Ortiz, DH 5. Mike Napoli, 1B 6. Xander Bogaerts, SS 7. A.J. Pierzynski, C 8. Will Middlebrooks, 3B 9. Jackie Bradley, CF

The reigning World Champions scored 853 runs last season, but they’ll be hard pressed to repeat such a performance this summer. For one, the Sox lost their star center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury to the rival Yankees. Although highly-touted throughout their time in the minors, Jackie Bradley and Xander Bogaerts have yet to prove themselves in the show. Despite a terrific performance in 2013, David Ortiz is getting up there in age and will certainly begin slowing down. So will catcher A.J. Pierzynski, whom the Sox signed to replace Jarrod Saltalamacchia. The Sox enjoyed a career year from Shane Victorino who batted .294/.351/.451, and surprising production from first baseman Mike Napoli, output both are not likely to replicate (especially given Napoli’s injury history). The Sox should remain a Top 5 offense in the AL, but its hard to see them matching their 2013 numbers.

Starting Rotation: 1. Jon Lester 2. John Lackey 3. Clay Buchholz 4. Jake Peavy 5. Felix Doubront

The Sox boast a solid rotation despite lacking a true No. 1 type pitcher. Lester and Lackey should put up numbers close to their career norms, while Jake Peavy is a slight improvement over Ryan Dempster. When healthy, Buchholz pitched masterfully in 2013; unfortunately, he dealt with injuries for a good portion of the season. If the Sox can get a full season out of the righty, it will go a long way in getting the Sox back to the playoffs. Expect this staff to put up very similar numbers in 2014.

Bullpen: 1. Koji Uehara (closer) 2. Junichi Tazawa 3. Edward Mujica 4. Craig Breslow 5. Andrew Miller 6. Burke Badenhop 7. Chris Capuano

While the Red Sox were relatively inactive on the position player market, they did add a bevy of arms to the bullpen in Chris Capuano, Burke Badenhop, and Edward Mujica. Bullpens are notoriously hard to predict, but the depth is definitely there. Setup man turned closer Koji Uehara won’t repeat his insane 2013, but will still rack up a gaudy saves total by season’s end. The Sox bullpen should be one of the best in the game.

4th Place: Baltimore Orioles

Probable lineup: 1. Nick Markakis, RF 2. Ryan Flaherty, 3B* 3. Chris Davis, 1B 4. Adam Jones, CF 5. Nelson Cruz, DH 6. Matt Wieters, C 7. J.J. Hardy, SS 8. David Lough, LF 9. Jemile Weeks, 2B

Prior to their surprising playoff run in 2012, the Orioles were largely irrelevant in a division featuring the Boston and New York powerhouses. Nowadays, this team is able to hold its own against its division rivals, doing so because of the raw power in the lineup. 2014 figures to be no different. Chris Davis, Adam Jones, Manny Machado (currently injured but should be ready early in the season*), and recent addition Nelson Cruz will have no trouble reaching double-digit home run totals. This team won’t have trouble scoring runs, but with great power comes great strikeout totals. The team’s on-base percentage may leave something to be desired.

The Orioles hope Chris Davis can repeat his monster 2013 season. Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated.

Starting Rotation: 1. Ubaldo Jimenez 2. Chris Tillman 3. Wei-Yin Chen 4. Bud Norris 5. Miguel Gonzalez

Even with the possibility of recent signing Suk-min Yoon or top prospect Kevin Gausman earning a spot in the rotation, this staff is pretty underwhelming. After all, most of these pitchers combined to give the Orioles the fourth highest ERA and highest home run rate in the American League last season. Over the winter, the O’s managed to sign Ubaldo Jimenez, a move many see as risky. Jimenez has been both stellar and awful at different points of his career, and really is an inconsistent quantity. The fact that he no longer induces many ground balls may not play well in the snug confines of Camden Yards. Miguel Gonzalez is due for regression and Bud Norris does not inspire much confidence. Kevin Gasuman has shown some promise and could take over a rotation spot, but Suk-min Yoon is probably best left in the bullpen. The O’s will score a lot of runs, but their pitching staff may very well give a lot of them back.

Bullpen: 1. Tommy Hunter (closer) 2. Darren O’ Day 3. Brian Matusz 4. Ryan Webb 5. Brad Bach 6. Edgmer Escalona 7. Suk-min Moon

The O’s almost added closer Grant Balfour to this mix, but cancelled the deal after issues with his physical. Some have speculated there was nothing wrong with Balfour, but that the O’s were regretting the signing. Either way, it was wise of the Orioles not to sign any “proven closer.” Instead, they seem to believe Tommy Hunter is ready for the job, and the stats would agree with that assessment. Submariner Darren O’Day and lefty Brian Matusz are solid relievers, but after them, this bullpen is sketchy. The O’s bullpen may not have the problems that the rotation has, but this group of pitchers will not live up to the standards of the previous two years, especially without the depth that former closer Jim Johnson provided.

5th Place: Toronto Blue Jays

Probable lineup: 1. Jose Reyes, SS 2. Jose Bautista, RF 3. Edwin Encarnacion, 1B 4. Adam Lind, DH 5. Colby Rasmus, CF 6. Melky Cabrera, LF 7. Brett Lawrie, 3B 8. Dioner Navarro, C 9. Ryan Goins, 2B

The Blue Jays entered the 2013 season with clear designs on contention after completing a blockbuster trade with the Miami Marlins that sent star shortstop Jose Reyes north of the border, among others. Much to the chagrin of their fans, the Blue Jays managed to disappoint yet again due to key under-performances and injuries. When it came to scoring runs, the team was essentially middle of the pack in the American League. Even if the lineup manages to stay healthy this summer, its hard to see this group improving all that much. Bautista, Encarnacion, and Lind will continue to smack the ball around, and Jose Reyes will get on base, but there’s not much going on for the rest of the lineup. Improvements from Cabrera and Lawrie could help, but will not be enough to get this team into contention. At the very least, Blue Jays fans will not have to endure another season of J.P. Arencibia, now that Dioner Navarro is behind the plate.

Shortstop Jose Reyes came up north in the hopes of a World Series run, but things have gone south in a hurry. Photo courtesy of Project Shanks.

Starting Rotation: 1. R.A. Dickey 2. Mark Buehrle 3. Brandon Morrow 4. Drew Hutchinson 5. Dustin McGowan

There were rumors that the Blue Jays would make a run at free-agent pitchers Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez this winter, but they decided to stand pat. The result is a starting rotation that may be one of the worst in the league. Last season, the Jays traded away top catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud in a package for 2012 NL Cy Young Recipient R.A. Dickey. The Jays thought they were getting a top-of-the-line starter, but Dickey only managed a pedestrian 4.21 ERA. At age 39, Dickey’s 2012 season appears to be quite the outlier, and it’s doubtful that he will come anything close to that again. Mark Buehrle is a soft-tossing innings eater and will likely get hit around pretty hard by the strong lineups within the division. The other three starters are all relatively young but the trio has very little upside. The Blue Jays rotation figures to rank at the bottom of the American League once again.

Bullpen: 1. Casey Janssen (closer) 2. Sergio Santos 3. Aaron Loup 4. Steve Delabar 5. Jeremy Jeffress 6. Brett Cecil 7. Dustin McGowan

The Jays may have 99 pitching problems, but the bullpen certainly isn’t one. There may not be a lights-out, Craig Kimbrel type in this pen, but each of these pitchers are capable of throwing quality innings. Casey Janssen is a fine closer, but may wind up wearing a different uniform by the end of August. Santos and Loup give the Jays a solid bridge to the closer, and there’s hope that Delabar can build upon his all-star season. Given the current state of the rotation, expect these pitchers to be used quite a bit this summer.

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