By Lance Rinker
The American League East has long been one of the more dominant divisions in all of baseball, with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox largely dominating the sport for nearly two decades. That all changed with the arrival of the Tampa Bay Rays as a force to be reckoned with, then the Baltimore Orioles.
The Orioles won the division by 12 games last season while the Yankees finished in a distant second place, then the Toronto Blue Jays a game behind the Yankees. The Rays stumbled to a 77-win season after having had a solid run of winning and the Red Sox fell completely flat due to injuries, winning just 71 games.
However, the Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays have all made strides this offseason to close that gap with the Orioles. What that means for fans is a potential four-team race for the division crown and at least one of the two Wild Card spots.
The Orioles have entered each of the previous regular seasons as the biggest underdog to a division title or playoff spot by baseball analysts, so-called experts, and bloggers across the board. Each of those seasons the team has far exceeded expectations and will look to keep that trend alive for a fourth straight season.
Nelson Cruz, and his 40 home runs, may have bolted for the Seattle Mariners but that doesn’t mean that production is lost to the ether. The team will be welcoming back a healthy Manny Machado and Matt Wieters, along with a refocused Chris Davis. Considering the team was without those players for hefty chunks of the 2014 season and their offense still got the job done should tell you something.
The pitching staff doesn’t have a true ace in its rotation, but they are consistent if nothing else. Chris Tillman will enter the season as the team’s number one starter, followed by Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, Bud Norris, Kevin Gausman, and maybe even Ubaldo Jimenez in some form or fashion. The bullpen will continue to be anchored by Zach Britton, Darren O’Day, and TJ McFarland.
Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox may have finished in last place last season but that only further emboldened them to make big moves this offseason. New acquisition Hanley Ramirez will man left field while also newly acquired Pablo Sandoval will man third base. The offense should be much improved with a healthy roster and a bit of youth and new energy added into the mix, though the pitching staff doesn’t shine through as a major plus at the moment.
Wade Miley and Rick Porcello both have the talent to be top 20 pitchers in the big leagues, but neither has taken that next step to this point in their careers. Don’t be surprised if both far exceed expectations though. Clay Buchholz is the newfound ace of this rotation now that Jon Lester has moved onto the Chicago Cubs, but health concerns and inconsistency have dogged him over the last few years. The coaching staff will also look to get Justin Masterson back on track.
The Red Sox have a well-balanced roster of veteran players and up-and-coming talent that is already prepared to take over the reins at various positions when those vets move on out. Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Blake Swihart, Yoan Moncada, Rusney Castillo, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Henry Owens are either ready to contribute in a big way this season or will be ready to go by opening day 2016.
The future is bright in Boston.
New York Yankees
The 2015 season could be another challenging one for the Yankees and Yankees fans as star pitcher Masahiro Tanaka is trying to rehab an elbow injury, with some success thus far, that will ultimately require Tommy John Surgery if rehab stops being effective. Many other veterans on the roster are already dealing with mild- to moderate-injuries leading up to the season opener and will likely deal with these issues all season long.
Alex Rodriguez makes his return to meaningful baseball as his suspension is up, though media reports don’t exactly detail his return as being overly welcome within the organization and the only position he’s suited for at this point in his career is DH.
The team’s offense should be alright considering the players they have know how to get on base and offer up some combination of power and speed, but the starting rotation is the biggest concern. C.C. Sabathia had one of the worst seasons of his career last season and father time appears to be catching up with him, though he could still be good for 200 innings.
Michael Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi are the future of the rotation, both offering up well above average fastballs and breaking pitches, though this will be the year in which the Yankees discover if they are up to the task or not.
The Yankees will be a competitive team this season, likely competing for a playoff spot, but how far they go depends entirely on the health of their roster and whether key players such as Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and Jacoby Ellsbury can stay healthy and productive.
Tampa Bay Rays
The biggest change coming to the Rays involved the departure of long-time manager, and most successful manager, Joe Maddon who left the Trop for Wrigley Field. The Rays chose former big league catcher Kevin Cash to replace Maddon and guide the Rays back to the playoffs. The team has been to the playoffs multiple times over the past 10 seasons, even making a World Series appearance, but last season’s 77-win mark was their lowest in as many years.
The roster is largely the same, minus David Price of course, and the team will look to avoid the injury bug as many organizations are. The newest addition to the roster is Steven Souza Jr., who many in the baseball world expect to compete for Rookie of the Year and be a staple in the Rays lineup. His minor league track record is solid, as are multiple scouting reports, so it’s difficult to imagine him not contributing this year.
The starting rotation should remain solid, even without Price, as Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, and Drew Smyly present a solid one-through-three. Jake Odorizzi will look to build on his promising rookie season from one year ago and become a staple of the rotation for years to come. Then, of course, there is Matt Moore who is recovering from Tommy John Surgery. Moore has begun throwing again and a mid-season return is in the works. His return could help spark the Rays down the stretch for the playoff run.
Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays made some noise this offseason with the acquisitions of Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin. Both players fill holes on their roster by taking over for players that either weren’t performing up to expectations (see Lawrie, Brett) or underwhelming in certain aspects of his game at his position (see Navarro, Dioner).
Offensively this team will be hard pressed to find another team in baseball that can keep up with them, especially in their home ball park. Anytime a team seems a lock to score 800 or so runs in a season, especially in this stingy run environment, you know they’re able to do something special. Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and Josh Donaldson will present serious problems for opposing pitchers considering they can swat a home run with ease on any given pitch.
The Blue Jays will feature a pair of youngsters in their lineup this season, with Dalton Pompey taking over center field duties and Devon Travis taking over at second base. Both players can hit, judging by their minor league careers, but more than that is the fact they can steal bases with relative ease. That’s just another weapon manager John Gibbons can pull out of his back pocket with a moment’s notice to make something happen offensively.
The starting rotation will be leaning heavily on two rookies this season since Marcus Stroman went down with a torn ACL in his left knee and had season ending surgery to repair it. He’s not due back until sometime next season.
Daniel Norris, who lives in a van by the beach, and Aaron Sanchez will be expected to live up to their hype and status as top pitching prospects in the rough and tumble AL East. Both show serious promise but Sanchez may be destined for a closers role in the future.
All-in-all, the Blue Jays have the makings of a team capable of winning the division this season right along with their division rivals in the Orioles and Red Sox.
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