In less than a week, the 2015 Major League Baseball season will officially be in full swing. That means the remainder of this week is prime prediction-making time. The internet will be flooded with articles. Your local grocery store newsstand will be stocked with a variety of magazine previews. These forecasts will have a wide range of rankings and lists and awards, most of which are surefire bets to be incorrect.
A decade ago, there was one prediction that could be made in March that sports writers and radio hosts and analysts could take to the bank: the Yankees and Red Sox, in some order, would finish atop the American League East Standings. The dynamic rosters of those teams in that era automatically ensured that the AL East was one of the best divisions in the entire league. Now, we've entered an age where every team but the Blue Jays has finished in first since 2010, making it the only division with four different winners in that time span. With the division as up-for-grabs as ever in 2015, how does the AL East compare to the rest of the league?
Much has been made in the past few years about the increased parity in baseball (22 of the 30 teams have made the playoff since '10). No division has exemplified that better than the AL East. However, does that necessarily make it the league's best division entering the season? None of the five teams had an offseason that was universally praised, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a talking head or a pundit willing to pick an AL East team as a serious World Series contender. Despite that, upon closer examination, the East appears to be one of the best divisions in baseball, top to bottom.
A year ago, the teams in the division averaged 82.2 wins, the highest average from the six divisions. PECOTA, the main projection model for Baseball Prospectus, has predicted the average AL East team this year to finish with 82.6 wins (the Red Sox leading the way with 88, and the Yankees--make sure you're sitting down--picked last with 79), so just under a half-win increase per team. PECOTA projects only to AL West (83.6) to have a higher average win total for all its teams. Based on these standards, the AL East is potentially a group to be reckoned with.
Doesn't that sound weird off the tongue, though? The Red Sox have too many outfielders and not enough front of the rotation-type starters (and are coming off a last place finish). The Blue Jays are already thin on pitching. The Orioles lost the league's leading home run leader, Nelson Cruz, in the offseason and didn't really make any splashes to make up for that. The Rays lost their manager, their GM, and are throwing out a potentially league-worst lineup. The Yankees--well, I believe you all are familiar with their issues.
The AL East's relative strength compared to the other divisions stems from no team being really, really bad as opposed to any team being really, really good. The projected nine-win differential between first place and last place makes it easily the closest division according to PECOTA. If it's any solace for concerned Yankees' fans, the 79 projected wins makes them the best team forecasted to come in last place.
The East distinguishes itself as lacking a true bottom-feeder(s). The Twins will get ganged up on in the AL Central. Texas had a very questionable pitching staff before Yu Darvish went down for the year. Atlanta and Philadelphia have already been eliminated from playoff contention, as have the Rockies and Diamondbacks. The NL Central, like the AL East, doesn't have an obvious last-place finisher, and is probably slightly better than the AL East for the main reason that the teams at the division's front--St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and yes, the Cubs--have higher ceilings in '15 than *insert three random AL East teams here* do.
Compared to many other divisions, the AL East, as shocking as this is to say, lacks star power. Of the 81 players (yes, we all know that's entirely too many) that were named All-Stars in 2014, only 10 are on Opening Day rosters for AL East teams this year. That figure is tied with the NL East for the fewest, while the NL Central leads the way with 18, just a tick ahead of the AL Central, which has 17. Earlier this offseason, I chronicled the best starting pitchers in the division, and overall, it's not an overly-impressive list. As for position players, who can lay claim to the division's best? It's a small group of contenders--Adam Jones, Josh Donaldson, Hanley Ramirez, Jacoby Ellsbury--but a group that isn't quite at the level of your Trouts, McCutchens, Stantons and Poseys.
Additionally, the AL East looks weaker if one looks at just the best team in each division. No matter which team you might think is the best out of the group, they are probably no better than the fifth out of the six possible teams. The Angels or Mariners, Nationals, Cardinals or Pirates, and Dodgers appear to out-talent all of the AL East teams. The AL Central's best, which is almost as unclear as the East's top dog, is the only true rival.
Managerially, the AL East is in good shape. Joe Girardi and John Farrell have titles on their resume (not that championships come down to a team's skipper, but it counts for something) and Buck Showalter is arguably the best leader in the entire sport. John Gibbons could be on the hot seat in Toronto with a poor start, but out of the "proven" managers, he ranks obviously as the lowest, which speaks volumes about the quality of managers in the division. It remains to be seen how Kevin Cash will fare for the Rays.
It seems unlikely that any team in the AL East will approach 95 wins, but its equally as unlikely that any of them will near that figure in losses. In baseball's great age of parity, the greatest asset a team can have is to simply not be bad (hey, Giants!). Fortunately for the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Rays, and Orioles, that is a skill they all posses. For that reason, and that reason alone, the American League East is one of baseball's best overall divisions.
Officially, I'd rank the division as follows, from best to worst: NL Central, AL East, AL West, AL Central, NL West, NL East. How do you think the AL East compares to the rest of baseball divisions? What does your ranking look like?