Last season, the Yankees suffered the misfortune of playing in a highly competitive division. Three playoff teams came out of the AL East, and the Yankees finished in fourth despite an above-.500 record. Even the fifth-place Rays posted decent underlying numbers that were belied by their poor record.
It all added up to the AL East being the best division in baseball, which meant that in spite of an 84-78 record that outstripped their Pythagorean record, the Yankees weren't very lucky at all. Unfortunately, the same looks like it might be true this year.
Yet again, the AL East looks like the game's best division. Every one of the Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles, Rays, and Blue Jays could feasibly make the playoffs, a level of depth no other division can claim.
Turning to projections, it's clear the AL East is the strongest group headed into the new season. Based on FanGraphs depth projections, here is how each division in baseball ranks in terms of average projected WAR:
MLB Divisions by WAR
|Division||Avg. Proj. WAR|
|Division||Avg. Proj. WAR|
The AL East paces the league, with only the AL West particularly close. It's worth noting that based on these figures, the American League continues to profile as the superior league.
The rest of baseball's divisions may include juggernauts like the Cubs or Dodgers or Indians that appear more talented than the current AL East favorite (Boston), but what the AL East may slightly lack at the top it more than makes up for in depth. Awful teams like the Braves, White Sox, and Padres drag down the overall quality of their respective divisions in a way that no AL East team does.
All together, based on projected WAR, the true talent of the average AL East team is that of about an 88-win team. It looks like a clear disadvantage that Yankees will have to play close to half their games against divisional opponents that are on average of playoff quality.
However, there is one silver lining: this era of AL East prominence shouldn't last much longer. Looking at the windows of contention of each of their division rivals, it appears likely that the Yankees won't be stuck in the middle of a five-team pileup for much longer.
Take the Blue Jays. Toronto just saw a number of key players leave via free agency following a pair of successful seasons, including Edwin Encarnacion, Brett Cecil, and Michael Saunders. Jose Bautista could leave after this season, as can veteran pitchers Marco Estrada and Francisco Liriano.
Toronto has a few exciting prospects like Anthony Alford and Vlad Guerrero Jr, but their farm system as a whole was assessed as below average by both ESPN'S Keith Law and Baseball Prospectus. The Blue Jays have made the ALCS in consecutive years, but it looks their window to accomplish even more is closing.
The Orioles are in a similar situation. They managed to retain slugger Mark Trumbo, but several veteran run-producers, including Trumbo, Chris Davis, JJ Hardy, and Adam Jones are advancing in age. The Baltimore pitching staff, bolstered by Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, and not much else, is a perennial weakness.
Perhaps most importantly, superstar Manny Machado's impending free agency looms over the Orioles' organization. Machado will be free to chose his employer after 2018, and for a team with no feasible internal replacements (their farm system was ranked 25th by Law and 23rd by BP), Machado's departure to a larger market would be devastating.
The team that profiles as the Yankees' primary future nemesis is the same as their historic nemesis: the Red Sox. Boston's farm system has been depleted due to Dave Dombrowski's aggressive trades for the likes of Craig Kimbrel and Chris Sale, but that hardly matters now given the amount of young talent the Red Sox have at the major-league level.
Mookie Betts is an MVP-caliber player making the league minimum. Andrew Benintendi hasn't lost his rookie eligibility, Jackie Bradley Jr is under team control through 2020, Xander Bogaerts through 2019. David Price (if healthy?) and Sale could form one of the league's most formidable 1-2 punches for the foreseeable future.
With the Yankees likely targeting 2018 and 2019 for the re-opening of their window of contention, the kindling is there for the re-igniting of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. The Yankees have an excellent farm system nearly ready to bear fruit, and the Red Sox have one of the best young cores in the game. The two are set to duke it out for AL East-supremacy into the near future.
Yet other than Boston, none of the AL East's current contenders look like good bets to sustain success past the very short-term. If the Blue Jays and Orioles succumb to veteran losses, with no able replacements found in their farm systems, and if the Rays continue to be hamstrung by their shoe-string budget, the days of the AL East being a major deterrent to the Yankees chances may be ending.
Still, the future is difficult to predict, and what's most immediate is this, the 2017 season. Right now, the AL East looks pretty great, and that is legitimately bad news for the Yankees. With any luck, though, this will be the last year for some time in which the AL East will prove to be such an obstacle.