Spring Training has just begun. The first exhibition games are tomorrow. But that does not mean that we have to wait for my division and playoff previews. Every Saturday, from today, February 28, to the day before Opening Night, April 4, a different division will be previewed, with predictions as to who will come out on top. Today I begin with an intriguing division for many different reasons, the AL East.
1. Toronto Blue Jays -- 2014 Record: 83-79; Projected Record: 87-75
The American League East is a division full of mediocracy this upcoming season. No team is the best in the league, while at the same time no team is the worst. The Toronto Blue Jays are a team that very well might come out of nowhere down the stretch and win this division. The Jays finished with 83 wins last season, behind an offense that scored the fifth-most runs in baseball. Their pitching staff was less than great, working in the bottom third of the league in ERA, but they come back in 2015 with more experience and ready to win a division crown.
This offseason, the Blue Jays did some good work to make upgrades all around their roster. They upgraded Dioner Navarro by signing Canadian catcher Russell Martin, they upgraded Brett Lawrie and Juan Francisco at third base with the Josh Donaldson trade, and they acquired Michael Saunders (who might not be an upgrade over Melky Cabrera) in an underrated deal with J.A. Happ. Not to mention, they signed Justin Smoak to play first and shifted Edwin Encarnacion to designated hitter. These deals weren't the flashiest (expect for maybe the Donaldson deal), but they have to be some of the best this offseason. Behind GM Alex Anthopoulos, the Blue Jays' front office quietly scored big this offseason.
Toronto's pitching staff will likely be the make-or-break part of this team. I value them highly. Marcus Stroman (107 ERA+ in 130.2 innings) pitched great in his first big league action and is ready for a full season in 2015. Also, 24-year-old Drew Hutchison looks to improve upon his first full year last year. Daniel Norris, the Jays' 2nd round pick in 2011, looks to win the 5th starter's job. He's got a big potential. New addition Marco Estrada (87 ERA+), R.A. Dickey (105 ERA+), and Mark Buehrle (115 ERA+) are all big league veterans that, if they preform, will help stabilize the young guns. I have to believe that the Blue Jays are solid all around and are ready to take this division for the first time since 1993.
2. Boston Red Sox -- 2014 Record: 71-91; Projected Record: 86-74
Last season, the Boston Red Sox were coming off a World Series championship. They did everything but repeat. The Sox finished with the fourth-worst record in the American League and never looked comfortable as a team, even after having probably the best clubhouse chemistry the year before. Some attributed it to A.J. Pierzynski, who is known as a "clubhouse cancer," while others attributed it to the lack of strong and consistent play from the younger players on their roster, such as Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts, and Will Middlebrooks (who was shipped to the Padres).
In 2015, the Red Sox look to build off the additions of Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to play third base and left field, respectively. In addition, the Sox want strong play from their recently redesigned starting rotation of Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, Justin Masterson, and Joe Kelly. Those arms all provide upside to the 2015 Red Sox, but are all wild cards. I'm not sure if they will produce to what the Red Sox hope or expect them to, but at the same time I do not think they will all be busts. The Red Sox likely should have gone after James Shields a little more than they did, in an effort to solidify their rotation.
The reason the Red Sox are ranked second is simple: they added good veterans. Sandoval and Ramirez are both primer additions to a club that I already believed would rebound with more experience from their younger players. The Red Sox also have a lot of depth: Allen Craig, a starter for a long time with the St. Louis Cardinals, currently does not having a starting job on their club. The same goes for Shane Victorino, longtime starting outfielder. Boston poses enough depth around the field, but in their pitching staff they are a little weak. That's why I'm wary to pick them to win the division.
3. Baltimore Orioles -- 2014 Record: 96-66; Projected Record: 83-79
The Baltimore Orioles are coming off a season in which they tied for the most wins in all the Major Leagues. Their best move, perhaps, was signing recently-suspended Nelson Cruz to a one-year, $8 million deal and even though they forfeited a draft pick, Cruz went on to post career numbers, homering 40 times and driving in 108. Steve Pearce, a 31-year-old utility man, was picked up by the team during the year and went on to post a .930 OPS (160 OPS+). Delmon Young, a former first round bust, hit .302 with a .779 OPS. Call it strategy as much as you want, but even the most most diehard Orioles fan has to admit that there was a little luck involved.
Baltimore will be getting Matt Wieters back from injury and Chris Davis back from suspension, but they already lost the likes of Cruz and fellow outfielder Nick Markakis to free agency. Their pitching staff, which despite registering the seventh-lowest ERA, posted the seventh-highest FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) in baseball and is bound to regress in 2015. According to Fangraphs, the Orioles are projected to finish with 79 wins. While the regression from 2014 may not be that bad, the 2015 team does not look too promising.
However, when you think about the Orioles, you have to take in consideration they have one of the best manager and general manager combinations in baseball with Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette. They are the two people that makes this projection perhaps more than a little irrational. Showalter and Duquette are two baseball geniuses that keep the Orioles in the running every year. If they can pull it off this year, I would not be surprised. It will be very tough.
4. New York Yankees -- 2014 Record: 84-78; Projected Record: 77-85
The New York Yankees have a ton of questions surrounding themselves. Alex Rodriguez, Stephen Drew, CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, and Mark Teixeira all are question marks in 2015. Will they produce? Will they turn the team back into a contender? How will they come off their injury or suspension? The Yankees questions marks make me believe that they are ready to take a step back this year and fall further into the depths of the American League East.
This offseason, the Yankees were faced with the ginormous task of replacing icon Derek Jeter. They did so with the acquisition of Didi Gregorius, a shortstop from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Gregorius is a light-hitting, defensive minded shortstop that is still young and raw. He may not be able to handle the position full-time quite yet. In an attempt to create a backup plan for Gregorius, New York agreed to sign Stephen Drew, while also having him play second base along with shortstop.
One strength of the Yankees last season was their young bullpen, behind the likes of David Robertson, Dellin Betances and others. They lost Robertson, their closer, to the White Sox through free agency this offseason. Now, they do not have a closer in 2015, with new addition Andrew Miller perhaps handling the duties, even though he only has two career saves. The bullpen has gone quickly from a strength to perhaps another question mark for a team that is filled with them.
5. Tampa Bay Rays -- 2014 Record: 77-85; Projected Record: 73-89
Perhaps the biggest loss from the Rays offseason was not on the field. Two main components from their usually contending teams--manager Joe Maddon and general manager Andrew Friedman--are gone to the Cubs and Dodgers, respectively. On the field, the Rays are in shambles, dealing away Ben Zobrist, Wil Myers, and Jeremy Hellickson. The only question I have for them now is: will the team still be in Tampa Bay by the time they begin to contend again?
From 2008 to 2013, the Rays made the playoffs four times in six seasons. They kept their teams young, fresh, and talented, while still being able to be competitive with the other teams in the American League. Evan Longoria was their cornerstone, and Ben Zobrist, David Price, among others helped keep the team in contention every year. The Rays still have hope; their pitching staff is young with Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Matt Moore, and Drew Smyly, but the rest of the team is relatively weak. As of right now, their starting outfield consists of David DeJesus, Desmond Jennings, and Steven Souza Jr. That is the least bit impressive.
The Rays' rebuild looks like it will continue for a few more seasons. They may still be able to be competitive out of the cellar this year, but if they finish above .500, I would consider that a successful year considering their roster and competition around the AL East and American League in general.