I recently did a series of comparisons between the New York Yankees and the rest of the American League East, which is arguably the toughest division in all of baseball. The Boston Red Sox won it last year with 97 wins and went on to win their third World Series in 10 years. The Tampa Bay Rays won a crucial Game 163 in Arlington, TX to sneak in the playoffs and disposed of Cleveland in the Wild Card game before falling to Boston in four in the ALDS.The Yankees and Baltimore Orioles won just 85 games a year after taking it to the limit in the division race and in the Division Series in 2012. The Toronto Blue Jays, last year’s paper champions, were major disappointments and finished dead last.
This season, just about any of these five teams can make the playoffs or even win the division. The Yankees have made improvements but also have their problems. The Red Sox are the defending champions and have young talent on the way, but they did lose some important pieces. The Blue Jays and Orioles whiffed on some major free agents, but Baltimore managed to salvage the offseason with some late pick-ups.
Who will win the division? Will there be more than one playoff team out of the East? Well, as John Sterling says, “you just can’t predict baseball”, but I’ll try.
Division Champion: Tampa Bay Rays (96-66)
The Rays have been contenders just about every year since 2008, but they have not been out of the ALDS since that 2008 season when they won the pennant after 10 years of struggle. After months of speculation, they did not trade ace David Price, so they remain serious contenders, perhaps good enough to win it all. Along with Price, they have one of the deepest rotations in the league with Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, and Chris Archer. Their offense looks to improve with a healthy Evan Longoria and a full season of Wil Myers. They also brought back Grant Balfour, who is an improvement over Fernando Rodney, so their bullpen is rock solid. They have enough to make the playoffs for the fifth time in seven seasons, and will take their third AL East crown.
Wild Card Qualifier: New York Yankees (94-68)
You may have heard: The Yankees are too old. The Yankees are overpaid. The Yankees are very injury-prone. The Yankees have to get younger. Big deal. The point of them losing Mariano Rivera, Robinson Cano, and Andy Pettitte has been made to death without regarding what they did do: They improved big time at catcher with Brian McCann and twice over in the outfield with Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran. Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira are better than what they had at short and first last year.
Pitching wise, they got the best arm available in Masahiro Tanaka, who should be at least half as good as advertised. CC Sabathia has reinvented himself and the rest of the rotation looks great. Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda have looked fantastic this spring and could play a huge role moving forward. Even without Mariano, the Yankees’ bullpen has a backup plan with several pieces in the minors. The Yankees are a much better team than the one that somehow won 85 games last year. That is a fact. They will make the playoffs for the 18th time in 20 seasons.
Just A Bit Short: Boston Red Sox (89-73)
Let’s just get this straight: Everything went right for the Boston Red Sox last season. Everything. They set themselves up to be a solid but not serious team and it all came up pay-dirt. The acquisitions of Mike Napoli, Mike Carp, Stephen Drew, and Shane Victorino all paid off big time. David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia stayed healthy. Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and John freaking Lackey all pitched great again, and a 38 year-old Koji Uehara became the savior for their bullpen.
This isn’t to say the Red Sox were a fluke. If anything, the 2012 season was a fluke for them. They still have a solid team that should be considered a serious threat, but they will not be as good. They downgraded significantly at catcher with a 37 year-old A.J. Pierzynski replacing Jarrod Saltlamacchia (118 OPS+ last year). They replaced Jacoby Ellsbury with Grady Sizemore. If Boston fans think Ellsbury is injury-prone, look at Sizemore, who has not played in three years and barely has any knees left. With no other significant moves this offseason, the Red Sox are counting on everything to go right again. That will not happen. They will miss the playoffs for the fourth time this decade.
Not Quite: Baltimore Orioles (80-82)
The O’s had a mostly disastrous offseason. They traded Jim Johnson to Oakland to sign Grant Balfour, but Balfour failed his physical and signed with the Rays. Thus, they’re forced to go with Tommy Hunter as their closer. It wasn’t until February where they made some serious moves. They improved their pitching with Ubaldo Jimenez and Korean Suk-Min Yoon and also brought in Nelson Cruz on the cheap after he was embroiled in BioGenesis. Their lineup looks loaded, but do they have enough pitching? Not likely.
In the Cellar, Again: Toronto Blue Jays (78-84)
The Blue Jays were supposed to be great last year after acquiring Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, and R.A. Dickey, but they were anything but, finishing dead last. They whiffed during free agency, specifically on Ervin Santana. They have a very deep lineup featuring Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, but can their pitching go from an Achilles to a strength? Their bullpen is solid, but their rotation is old and thin. They will finish dead last again in 2014.