Division Outlook: AL East

AL East 2014 Final Standings
Baltimore Orioles        96     66
New York Yankees     84     78
Toronto Blue Jays       83     79
Tampa Bay Ray            77     85
Boston Red Sox            71     91

By now you may have heard something about how the American League East, that former pitcher-devouring behemoth that effectively turned Mike Mussina’s obvious Hall of Fame chances into a long wait on the ballot, has officially become weakened. Yet, while most presume that last year’s division winner and loser will each do completely 180s, it’s curious to see that projections keep this entire division not only competitive but potentially above .500 from the top to bottom. Much of the indecision comes from a lack of certainty about even one franchise. The nature of projections is to air on the side of conservatism, but how does one give a clear-eyed outlook to such a diverse and potentially combustible group of teams?

As has been the case for the past five or six seasons, the New York Yankees are composed of a boom/bust roster looking to swing away from two years of being the latter category as players continue to age and returns from any high-upside young guys remain diminished. The time was bound to come that the Yankees would lose all of their core All Stars and Derek Jeter’s dismal final season left fans cautiously looking forward to any kind of new start. For the moment, that new start comes in the form of Didi Gregorius, who realistically probably stands as more of stop-gap before one of a few reasonable prospects makes The Show or a free agent shortstop finds his way over to the Bronx. Beyond replacing El Capitan, the Yankees stayed relatively quiet this offseason, choosing instead to sit out most major signings (save lefty reliever Andrew Miller). All the big contracts are off the books in a few shorts year, the farm system has some hope, and the team on the field should still compete. The scenario isn’t optimal for the bombers, but it’s not as bleak as some around the baseball world probably wish.

Polar opposite of the Yankees, the Red Sox have maintained a base of stars and put people through the turnstiles while also nurturing talented highly-touted young players through the system. The technique has turned the Red Sox into an anomaly (or at least an exaggerated version of the San Francisco Giants) as they’ve book-ended a 2013 World Series win with two last place finishes. The 2015 iteration of the Sox enters with sky-high expectations, as they’ve concocted a promising recipe of proven free agent signings, core veterans, and multiple high-hype prospects in their early years of playing time looking about ready to become what they will be. Even with the additions of Wade Miley and Rick Porcello, there’s cause for concern regarding Boston’s pitching staff. Numerous rumors about deals to upgrade via free agency never came to fruition, leaving the current staff looking quite similar to the one that finished in the bottom third of baseball a year ago.

The Toronto Blue Jays team looks most like the Red Sox on paper. Though they lost two of their regular contributors in Melky Cabrera and Colby Rasmus, they used the 2015 offseason to shore up holes at third base and catcher by bringing in prime-year veterans Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson. These moves signal a team that wants to win now, an adage the Jays have tried and failed to employ in recent years. A glut of young pitchers, including Aaron Sanchez, Daniel Norris and surprising 2014 rookie Marcus Stroman, will be counted on heavily behind aging staff members, Mark Buerhle and R.A. Dickey. Replacing Cabrera as a switch-hitting compliment to lead off man, Jose Reyes, is my Rookie of the Year favorite, the speedster Dalton Pompey. Pompey looks not only to build upon highlight-reel moments he churned out in his limited plate appearances last year, but also be the key to the team’s chances at a balanced, competitive lineup overall. Of all teams in the division, the Jays most epitomize the American League East’s high risk, high reward outlook.

Perpetually rebuilding and always on the cusp of competing, the Tampa Bay Rays looked only a few months ago like they had gutted their roster beyond possible repair. A nose dive to last place seemed in the cards. They followed a deal that sent David Price to the Tigers with another that sent their star of being the underrated star, Ben Zobrist, to the Athletics. Yet, somehow the Rays have managed to accumulate dynamic youngsters who can act as companions to franchise player, Evan Longoria. There’s a chance that the acquisitions of Steven Souza from the Nationals and John Jaso from the Athletics, along with the MLB-readiness of pitchers Matt Moore, Chris Archer, Alex Cobb will elevate a promising staff and the loss of manager Joe Madden will have only minor effects on team chemistry. After all, these are the Rays, perhaps the most identity-less good team to ever grace a baseball diamond. You’d be remiss to ever predict a bad season from these guys. On the other hand, prospects with high upsides are always just that, until they aren’t. If things don’t spin the Rays’ way, or even if the young starters are about average, we could be looking at the worst team in the league.

Somehow the Orioles won the American League in 2014. Technically that “somehow” included iron-clad fundamental defense as error-proof as any team not named the Royals, pitchers who performed over their heads, and timely hitting from pieces who were bargain bin finds only a year earlier. But these are just technicalities, the Orioles won 96 games and that’s pretty damn mind-boggling. The 2015 offseason saw an already thin everyday roster get thinner when long time right fielder Nick Markakis bolted to Atlanta and the resurgent Nelson Cruz took the money and ran to Seattle. The returns of Matt Wieters and Manny Machado from injuries should give a glimmer of hope next to consistent contributors J.J. Hardy, Adam Jones, and Steven Pearce. While the decline of Chris Davis opened the door for Steven Pearce, a bounce back year from the slugger would also provide depth to a lineup now down two power threats. However, it’s impossible to optimistically expect a pitching staff led by Chris Tillman to compete for a second straight season. Losses to the already rocky bullpen shouldn’t help things either. Buck Showalter’s a good enough manager and the team does enough little things right to keep them above water, but Baltimore would need a greater miracle to approach 2014’s magic.

There may not be a more unpredictable division in all of baseball. Every team in the American League East could win 90 games and every team could lose 90 games. This could be the most exciting division or, as was the case most of last year, it could be the most unwatchable. Perennial powerhouses, New York and Boston, are poised to be at least competitive again and the Blue Jays have perhaps the highest upside all along their roster. As such, our most conservative predictions heading into Spring Training put those familiar suspects in the top three spots with an expectation that Baltimore will come back to earth, dropping 17 game from last year’s win total, and Tampa will continue its unending bout of growing pains.

AL East 2015 Projected Standings
New York Yankees        87     75
Toronto Blue Jays          87     75
Boston Red Sox              84     78
Baltimore Orioles          79     83
Tampa Bay Rays            73     89

Featured Image: Via Baltimore Sun

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