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Catching up with the AL East (Part II): Tampa Bay and Toronto

The Rays and Blue Jays look to be the Yankees’ biggest competition in the AL East.

Minnesota Twins v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Earlier today, we began our run-through of the American League East by taking a look at how the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox shape up as spring training comes to a close. Now, we conclude our trip in Port Charlotte and Dunedin with the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays.

Tampa Bay Rays

Every year, the pitching staff is the major foundation of the Rays. Could this be the year that changes? Tyler Glasnow, Shane Baz, and Yonny Chirinos will all start the season on the shelf and miss significant time. Corey Kluber, meanwhile, has been absent due to injuries for a great deal of the past three seasons. Of pitchers expected to be in the rotation to start the season, Ryan Yarbrough and Shane McClanahan threw the most innings in 2021 with 155 and 123.1, respectively.

Who are we kidding? This is the Tampa Bay Rays we’re talking about here, they’ll be fine. Small sample size beware, of course, but the Rays’ team ERA of 4.34 this spring is third-best in the AL, behind only the Minnesota Twins and Houston Astros. Sure, spring training stats don’t really mean anything — the 2021 Rays, after all, had the fifth-worst spring training ERA last year — but it is nonetheless a reminder not to doubt the Rays even with three starters on the shelf.

The big difference between this year’s Rays squad and their typical year, however, is their lineup. The 2021 Rays lineup was quietly one of the best in the AL, scoring 5.3 runs per game (behind only the Astros) and posting a 112 OPS+ (third, behind Houston and Toronto). While most attention will be paid to the two kids atop the lineup, former top prospect Wander Franco and 2021 Rookie of the Year Randy Arozarena, the truth is that this squad is incredibly deep at the plate, even after shipping Joey Wendle to the Marlins and Austin Meadows to the Tigers this offseason. In fact, despite the team’s reputation for focusing its roster construction on pitching and defense, there probably won’t be a single landing spot in their lineup: the Rays have 10 players with 277 or more plate appearances and an OPS+ over 100 in 2021.

And if any of those hitters falter, Tampa Bay can draw on a number of top prospects waiting in the wings, like Taylor Walls, Vidal Bruján, and newly-acquired Isaac Paredes.

Toronto Blue Jays

After finishing fourth in the AL East despite winning 91 games, sporting the best offense in the AL (115 OPS+), and having the fifth-best Pythagorean record (99-63), the Blue Jays went all-in on their current roster and decided to pry open their window of contention this winter. Prior to the lockout, they extended trade deadline acquisition José Berríos on a seven-year deal worth upwards of $131 million and added Kevin Gausman with a five-year, $110 million deal; once the lockout ended, they added Yusei Kikuchi to the mix with a two-year, $36 million contract of his own. To replace second baseman Marcus Semien, who departed in free agency, they acquired third baseman Matt Chapman from the Oakland Athletics and switched Cavan Biggio — who spent most of his time at the hot corner last year — back to second base, where he spent most of 2019 and 2020.

With most of their starting rotation and lineup set, the biggest story for the Blue Jays this spring has been their bench. To offset their right-handed-heavy lineup, Toronto flipped noted Yankee killer Randal Grichuk to the Colorado Rockies for Raimel Tapia. Additionally, a pair of former Yankee prospects, Greg Bird and Gosuke Katoh, were also brought in to compete for bench roles. While many expected Bird to have won a job with his .261/.393/.565 slash line in 28 plate appearances, the Blue Jays opted to keep Katoh due to his positional versatility (although to be fair, he also hit extremely well, posting a nearly-identical .348/.400/.565 slash in 25 plate appearances).

Spring training sample sizes very rarely matter, especially on an individual basis, but sometimes, teamwide stats can give a little bit of insight into future seasons. For example, the 2017 Yankees’ breakout was foreshadowed by their 24-9 record and +58 run differential (both led the Grapefruit League), while their 14-12 record and -4 run differential in spring 2021 should have, in hindsight, clued us in to the fact that last year’s team wasn’t all that good relative to expectations. With this in mind, the Grapefruit League expects the Blue Jays to establish themselves as one of the league’s premier teams, as their +19 run differential this spring trails only the St. Louis Cardinals (for reference, the Yankees are third with +18).