By Brad Schussel
The AL East has always been one of the most competitive divisions in baseball. The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, Cal Ripken’s reign in Baltimore, Joe Maddon’s success with the Rays; all of these have embodied the excitement that the division brings year in and year out. After a crazy offseason, the East has five teams that could all potentially have winning records. Here are my predictions for where these teams will rank in the division.
5th Place: Tampa Bay Rays
In their short history, the Rays have established themselves as the epitome of an organization that builds from within. Ever since 2008, when they reached the World Series, they have found a way to produce a winning team season after season. Recently, however, they have shown signs of declining. In 2014 the team ranked 27th in the league in runs scored and posted a record of 77-85, good for fourth in the East. They have also suffered some significant personnel losses over the past year by trading away David Price, Wil Myers and Ben Zobrist. Letting beloved manager Joe Maddon sign with the Chicago Cubs didn’t help either. All in all, the Rays are currently in a rebuilding mode, and even with quality players like Evan Longoria and Alex Cobb heading their roster, they would be lucky to end up anywhere but last in the crowded AL East.
4th Place: Boston Red Sox
Always the over-spenders, the Red Sox inked three huge contracts this offseason. Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez signed deals that will earn them a combined total of $205 million over the next five years. The Red Sox also signed Yoan Moncada to a deal that included a whopping $31.5 million signing bonus. Assuming these players, mainly Ramirez, can stay healthy, the Red Sox should see an impact right away. Joining those bats with Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz could produce a solid lineup. However, the Sox did finish at the bottom of the East for a reason last year. Even with the new additions, it’s difficult to predict a large jump for a team that still has glaring issues in its outfield, bullpen, and starting rotation. Sans the second coming of Ted Williams, John Farrell’s Sox should finish fourth in the division.
3rd Place: New York Yankees
Oh, how the mighty have fallen; the Yankees have failed to make the playoffs in two consecutive years and, of course, are without perennial fan favorite Derek Jeter. What’s left is an unproven team with a lot of talent (emphasis on “unproven”). Their rotation, comprised of young guns like Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, and the newly-acquired Nathan Eovaldi, figures to be a strong point in their roster. The Bombers also have an improved bullpen, headlined by Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller. Their offense struggled last year, placing 20th in runs scored and recording a team batting average of only .245, with no player batting higher than .271. The return of Alex Rodriguez will probably be more of a distraction than an offensive boost, and Didi Gregorius is a defensive specialist that will probably hover around a .230 average. At the end of this season, the Yankees should be third in the AL East, with yet another playoff miss and a manager possibly on the hot seat.
2nd Place: Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles dominated the division last year, finishing 12 games ahead of the second-place Yankees. That is why it was so hard to put them in second. The team has retained most of its talent: star outfielder Adam Jones, ace Chris Tillman, and breakout first baseman Steve Pearce, among others. However, they did lose a great deal of offensive weapons, namely Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz. Both of those players helped shape the heart of the Orioles’ lineup, and Cruz alone accounted for 40 home runs and 108 RBI (both team highs). Because of these losses, the Orioles will probably not be able to repeat last year’s success. However, reigning AL manager of the year Buck Showalter is not known to produce a losing team. In all likelihood, the O’s will finish second in the AL East with a wild card spot and a chance to make a run in the postseason.
1st Place: Toronto Blue Jays
They’re definitely not the most popular pick to win the division, but it’s hard to deny the work the Blue Jays have done this offseason to improve their roster. They signed catcher Russell Martin who, although he was slightly overpaid, figures to make a huge impact both at the plate and behind it. They signed Michael Saunders who, although not the strongest hitter, has a great arm that will solidify the Blue Jays’ left field. The biggest and best move was trading for Josh Donaldson who is arguably the best third baseman in the league. Last year, Donaldson slugged 29 home runs and drove in 98 runs. Most impressively, he posted a 7.4 WAR in 2014, which was third behind only Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw, the two MVP’s. That’s not bad company to be in. The Jays’ pitching rotation is not incredibly strong; R.A. Dickey is no longer in Cy Young form after all. However, with Donaldson joining Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto may have the best power-hitting team in the league next year. After finishing in third or worse in the division every year since 2007, I predict that the Blue Jays will finally end up at the top of the AL East in 2015.