Long gone are the days when the AL East was a two-horse race between the Yankees and Red Sox. Just take a look at the previous half-decade for evidence. Between 2001 and 2009, New York and Boston both comprised the top two teams in the division standings all but twice. In the five seasons since, four different teams have claimed the top spot. Over the last several years the Rays and Orioles have transformed themselves from oft-maligned opponents that aided the Yanks and Sox in beefing up their win totals to legitimate perennial contenders in the American League. You could call the Blue Jays the basement dwellers of the division, despite the fact that they've only finished in last place once since 2010 and have only finished below .500 twice during that same period. In fact, teams from the AL East have only had seven sub-.500 seasons in the past five years, compared to 13 for the AL Central and 10 for the AL West (who were only playing with four teams prior to last year). The AL East is not considered a powerhouse, but making out of this division alive is no easy task.
2015 projects to be no different, with no one team running away as a clear favorite and no one expected to be an out-and-out dud, though that is likely more due to the teams' weaknesses than their strengths. Wins will be hard to come by because competition will be stiff, and if the Yankees hope to find success this season they'll need to improve upon the 37-39 record they've posted against fellow AL East teams in each of the past two seasons. Let's take a look at what they'll have on their hands for the upcoming campaign.
From Jeff Long, in the 2015 Baseball Prospectus annual:
The Orioles' current run of success has been guided by a different philosophy: none at all. Duquette and Showalter have built a winner through emphasis on the periphery of the roster. Though there are a handful of homegrown contributors, this isn't a team that looks like the Cubs soon will, with a lineup full of players promoted from the minors. Instead, it was built through outside acquisition and centered around a manager who can quickly and effectively integrate new Orioles into their roles.
Even as a supporter of a division rival, the O's have been a fun addition to the playoff race and an easy team to root for when they aren't facing the Yankees and it's mainly for the reasons Long mentioned. It's one thing to stack prospects and wait for the magic to happen the way the Royals did and the Cubs are doing, and it's another to have a need on your roster and satiate it by cutting a blank check to the marquee-free-agent du jour. But Baltimore's approach has been to take a middle-of-the-pack payroll and apply it to quality major leaguers that play pretty damn well together. The O's have had about a dozen guys over the past couple of years that make you say, "He certainly isn't the flashiest, but boy would I love a player like that on my team."
Which is why this past offseason was a bit of a bummer for them. They saw a few key pieces depart, without very many crafty Nelson Cruz or Bud Norris-type acquisitions. There won't be as many players for Buck Showalter to, as Jeff Long puts it, "quickly and effectively integrate into their new roles." Instead, they'll hope to compensate for the loss of Cruz, Nick Markakis, and Andrew Miller with full seasons from Matt Wieters, Manny Machado, Chris Davis, and Steve Pearce. The offense will stay potent, even if they don't hit quite as many homers, and the rotation and bullpen should benefit from the relative stability of having most of its members carry over from strong 2014 seasons (Ubaldo Jimenez presumably moving to the 'pen won't hurt either).
Boston Red Sox
Since 2008, the Philadelphia Phillies have put together a steady annual regression.
|2008||Won World Series|
|2009||Lost World Series|
|2012||Third in NL East|
|2013||Fourth in NL East|
|2014||Fifth in NL East|
Pretty impressive, right? The Red Sox took a similar nosedive from first-to-worst, only they cut out those pesky five years in the middle. Which is something Sox fans should be glad to hear, seeing as the previous time they finished in last place (2012) they promptly bounced back the following year to win it all.
Red Sox GM Ben Cherington & Co. spent the offseason retooling in a way that made it resoundingly clear that they intend on making an immediate run toward their fourth title in 11 years. The big splashes were the signing of third-baseman Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, who will shift to the outfield to allow 22-year-old Xander Boegarts, who's been underwhelming as a major leaguer but still holds a ton of promise, to continue manning the shortstop position. Speaking of 22-year-olds with a high-ceiling, Mookie Betts will serve as Ramirez's corner outfield counterpart. Betts rocketed through the Sox' system, and if his time with the big team last year serves as an indication of what's to come, then the Fenway faithful may have themselves a new and exciting fan favorite. If Dustin Pedroia can bounce back and stay healthy and David Ortiz can continue mashing his way through his late 30's like he has been, then the 2015 Red Sox will boast a very formidable offense.
On the mound, though, things appear less promising. Despite what many believed would happen when Jon Lester was dealt for Yoenis Cespedes last summer, Lester did not return in free agency, and the Sox were left without a discernible ace. The rotation will be helmed by former Detroit Tiger Rick Porcello, who was flipped for Cespedes, and Wade Miley, who is a capable number two starter but is coming off his worst season. Clay Buchholz and his feast-or-famine production will likely start third, and Justin Masterson and Joe Kelly will round out the rotation. In the bullpen, there's not much to work with beyond Koji Uehara, who the Red Sox recently bet $18 million on to have resilient age-40 and -41 campaigns.
Tampa Bay Rays
Over the course of a five-month span, the Tampa Bay Rays organization was turned on its head. At the end of July 2014, their ace and one-time Cy Young winner David Price was shipped off to the Tigers. Last October, their wunderkind general manager Andrew Friedman, the head behind the burgeoning post-Devil Rays era of the franchise, was lured away from Tampa to become the highest-paid executive in baseball for the Dodgers. Friedman's departure led to the activation of a clause in manager Joe Maddon's that allowed him to opt out, which he did in order to become the new manager of the Cubs. Then, in December, Will Myers, the guy they dealt James Shields and Wade Davis for and the guy they viewed as a key component of their future, was traded to San Diego for a package of players and prospects.
Like the Orioles, Tampa had a relatively inactive winter in terms of incoming talent. Unlike the Orioles, they're coming off one of their weakest seasons in years. Their farm system isn't nearly what it once was, but the Rays are hoping that the crop of major-league ready youngsters that they do have will be enough to carry them until they can bulk up on top prospects. Players like second baseman Nick Franklin, outfielders Kevin Kiermaier and Steven Souza, and starting pitchers Drew Smyly, Jake Odorizzi, and Matt Moore are what the Rays are banking the next few years on.
Toronto Blue Jays
Going into 2015, the Jays have a blend of veterans and newcomers. How well the former stays healthy and the latter steps up to the big league level will tell you all you need to know about their success this season. Two of their most significant incoming players are third baseman Josh Donaldson, who will join Edwin Encarnacion to make up one of the better hitting corner infields in baseball, and Russell Martin, who posted a career-high 5.3 WAR last season thanks to a particularly good year at the plate to go with his typically good work behind the plate.
Toronto has a bevy of good young arms for their rotation. Righty Marcus Stroman looks to become their ace in his first full season in the bigs. Fellow youngsters Daniel Norris and Drew Hutchison could serve in the rotation as well, with Aaron Sanchez waiting for his turn at a rotation spot from the bullpen. On a winning team, the Blue Jays could have two of the better older workhorses in the game in Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey who, in their combined four-year tenure with Toronto, have thrown 846 innings. That's just absurd.
So what do you guys think? Who worries you the most in the AL East?