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Checking in on the Yankees’ division rivals

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Let’s see how the Yankees’ rivals have been faring this winter.

American League Championship Series Game 7: Tampa Bay Rays v. Houston Astros Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Although this winter may have seemed long, in part due to the snails’ pace of the free agent market, the light at the end of the tunnel is (hypothetically) near. Assuming that spring training starts on time, we’re slightly less than a month before pitchers and catchers report — the average date, for those that have announced them, is roughly February 18 — and slightly more than a month from the first full team workouts.

Since there is little time left in the offseason, it’s a good time to check in on the AL East to see how the Yankees’ biggest rivals are doing this winter.

Baltimore Orioles

The Baltimore Orioles surprised everybody last season when, after many fans questioned whether they would even get 20 wins — I personally had them pegged for only 13 — they surprised the world and finished all the way in fourth place and with a 25-35 record.

Rather than get ahead of themselves and try to go all-in, however, the Baltimore front office have stuck to their original plan and continued to tank. As of last night, the team’s only Major League acquisitions have been through the Rule 5 draft, adding two pitchers: Mac Sceroler from the Reds and Tyler Wells from the Twins. Meanwhile, the team continued to cut payroll by sending José Iglesias to San Francisco and non-tendering Hanser Alberto and Andrew Velazquez, the latter of whom received an invite to the Yankees’ spring training.

Perhaps the relative inactivity of Baltimore shouldn’t come as a surprise: barring something unforeseen, the team isn’t expected to be a contender in 2021, and it might be wiser for them to wait and see if any established players might be willing to accept a one-year deal that could potentially net them prospects at the trade deadline. Otherwise, as MLB has been saying, Baltimore would best be served to just “let the kids play.”

Boston Red Sox

Only two years after winning the World Series with a team that (unfortunately) goes down as one of the best in baseball history, the Boston Red Sox pretty much crumbled, finishing 2020 with a 24-36 record that put them in last place in the AL East. Although they ranked fifth in runs scored per game in the American League with 4.87, their pitching staff gave up a league-worst 5.85 runs per game and would have struggled to stop a lineup made up of replacement-level players — aka, the 2013 Yankees.

To remedy that problem, Boston has decided to add... Yankees prospect Garrett Whitlock in the Rule 5 Draft. Yes, you read that correctly: the only addition that the Red Sox have made to their rotation has not pitched at the Major League level — Martín Pérez does not count here, as he was not a new acquisition, but a re-signed player. At the moment, of the five starters that FanGraphs lists for Boston, Eduardo Rodríguez missed all of last season due to COVID-related myocarditis (inflammation of the heart), Pérez has a career 5.16 ERA, Nick Pivetta has a career 5.20 ERA, and Tanner Houck has exactly 17 innings to his name. That leaves Nathan Eovaldi as the only thing resembling a reliable starter, and he himself has battled both inconsistency and injuries throughout his career. The bullpen, moreover, isn’t much better, even after the addition of Matt Andriese.

Boston has been keeping tabs on numerous pitchers, including new Yankees starter Corey Kluber, so don’t expect them to start the season with this rotation.

So far, the lineup has pretty much held steady, with the lone change being Hunter Renfroe taking over for Jackie Bradley Jr. in center field. Things could change in a hurry, however, if Boston decides to trade Andrew Benintendi, as has been rumored. Expect them to also add a second baseman, as Dustin Pedroia is not expected to attempt another comeback and Jeter Downs is projected to begin the season in Triple-A.

Tampa Bay Rays

If you’ve been an avid reader of Pinstripe Alley, you’ve been kept up to date on the fact that the 2020 AL pennant winner has taken a definitive step back this winter — not only did they trade away ace and clubhouse leader Blake Snell, they lost Charlie Morton, and there were some rumors that they were going to trade center fielder Kevin Kiermaier.

That said, they will continue to be a formidable opponent. They have been active on the pitching market, and while they have only signed Michael Wacha so far — he of the 6.62 ERA in 2020, and a 4.88 mark in his career — they have been in contact with Kluber, Pérez, Anibal Sánchez, Julio Teheran and Chris Archer. They are also the King Midas of pitchers, so expect whomever they sign to pitch to their career-best statlines.

True to form, Tampa has not made any significant moves to bolster the starting lineup, and instead lost Renfroe (77 OPS+) and Nate Lowe (107 OPS+ in 76 plate appearances). Considering their 2020 squad had a 109 OPS+, good for third in the AL, that lineup should still be more than capable in 2021 — especially if top prospect Wander Franco lives up to expectations.

Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays ended the 2020 season a team on the rise. Finishing the season with a 32-28 record and only one game behind the Yankees in the division, the Blue Jays went into the offseason with a young lineup, an ace in Hyun Jin Ryu, a top pitching prospect in Nate Pearson, and an aggressive front office ready to send.

For most of the winter, Toronto has been the bridesmaid to a number of free agents and trade targets, making big pushes but ultimately falling short in the fight for DJ LeMahieu, Corey Kluber, Francisco Lindor, Tomoyuki Sugano — although, to be fair, he stayed in Japan — and Liam Hendriks. The only fruit of their labor had been Robbie Ray, who they re-signed to a one-year, $8 million contract.

Until this past Tuesday, when they added former Yankees pitcher Kirby Yates to the back of their bullpen. Oh, and when they inked former Astros outfielder George Springer to a six-year, $150 million contract.

Toronto still could use a bit more depth on the mound, but make no mistake — they will be a major thorn in the Yankees’ side in 2020 and beyond.