We are 19 days away from the beginning of the 2016 MLB season, which means it's time to start getting serious. Every Tuesday until the beginning of the season, I'll be previewing a division and making predictions. We began our series with the American League West, the National League East, the NL West and the AL Central. Now, the AL East.
From 1999 to 2006 -- perhaps the most formative years of this division, the stretch that everyone remembers -- the AL East standings finished with the Yankees on top and, usually, the Red Sox right behind them. They would trade places, face each other in the playoffs, knock back and forth. They ruled the whole establishment. The Blue Jays finished third every year but two during that stretch, the Orioles finished fourth every year but one, and the (Devil) Rays finished last every year but one. When we think of the AL East, we think of those Red Sox-Yankees battles, and everyone else stuck in place. We think that was the division's heyday.
But today is so much better. All five teams have won the division over the past six seasons, and only one team (the 2010 Orioles) lost more than 93 games. This division, once the most static in baseball, has become its most competitive. And it has become baseball's most difficult to predict. Let's give it a try anyway.
AL East predicted order of finish
5. Baltimore Orioles, 69-93
You love that the Orioles are going for it. They went out there willing to spend this offseason, paying Chris Davis so much more than he would have gotten from anyone else, and they signed Yovani Gallardo and Pedro Alvarez and Dexter Fow -- oh wait, never mind on that. The point is, the O's are a team that is trying to win before their window closes, and you have to respect them for that.
That doesn't mean it won't be a long season in Baltimore. It starts and ends with that rotation, which legitimately might be the worst in baseball, 1-5. Now, bright minds have argued that the Orioles, because of their theoretically powerful offense, can still win the division with "slightly below average" pitching. But:
A. I'm not sure their pitching is going to be slightly below average. It'll be worse.
B. I'm not sure their offense is the best, or even the second best, or even maybe the third best, in the AL East.
If you are an opposing fan, particularly of another team in the AL East, you should always try to buy tickets to Baltimore games, because there will be a ton of runs on both sides. The O's have a homer-happy offense, and man, will they give up a lot of them. But to make up for the pitching staff -- and I'm even skeptical of Gallardo, their nominal ace -- that offense needs to be downright historic. And for all the fun of Manny Machado and Adam Jones, I just don't see it. You never know when Davis is going to fall off the table again, Mark Trumbo has serious on-base percentage issues and everyone's getting older, from Jones to Matt Wieters to J.J. Hardy. I'm not sure even the offense can be counted on, at least not enough to offset that pitching.
It's really a shame. Buck Showalter -- who, along with Joe Maddon, is the manager in baseball I would most want in charge of my team -- has extended Baltimore's window further than anyone could have reasonably thought, and it has been a nice little run here. But this might be the year the wheels come off. Then it might get really ugly, really fast.
4. New York Yankees, 77-85
Speaking of the wheels coming off, the Yankees have serious collapse potential this year. The 2015 season required a sort of inexplicable return to health and daily production from Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann and (to a lesser extent) Carlos Beltran. And, still, the Yanks barely sneaked in the playoffs. There is no way that's happening again. It's amazing it happened even once.
And the Yankees are counting on all of those dominoes falling perfectly into place again, because they made no major moves this offseason, at least in the lineup or rotation. Particularly in the wake of Greg Bird's shoulder injury, they are relying on Teixeira -- and A-Rod and Beltran -- to carry this offense as they all soar into their late 30s and early 40s. This is not a way to win a division, particularly not in 2016, when player aging curves are sharper than they were a decade ago.
The Yankees' rotation is in flux as well, and they are putting way too much on Masahiro Tanaka, who is basically required to throw 200 innings of ace-level pitching for this staff to even have a chance. (Remember, he had a bone spur removed from his elbow this offseason.) The rotation has question marks with a higher upside than, say, the Orioles, but still a lot of trouble.
Yes, the Yankees have that bullpen. But it won't even be That Bullpen until Aroldis Chapman comes back after his 30-game suspension. And if we've learned anything about bullpens, it's that they never quite turn out the way we expect them to. Sure, there will be stretches where Chapman, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller are all effective and healthy at the same time, and the Yanks will look fantastic. But if history tells us anything, it won't be nearly as often as anyone wants or expects it to. You can build a team around your bullpen in the playoffs. That's a lot of heavy lifting for a full season, however.
If everyone stays healthy and everything goes exactly the plan, the Yankees can win this division, or at least get a Wild Card spot again. But expecting that to happen two seasons in a row is unreasonable. The Yanks are doing well to hold the payroll line and wait for some of these contracts to expire so they can go chase Bryce Harper (and whoever else) in a couple of years. That's going to leave them shorthanded for a while, though. The Yankees have not finished under .500 since 1992, an astounding streak. It will end this year.
3. Tampa Bay Rays, 84-78
If nothing else, the Rays are the one team in this division happy to build around pitching. The rotation is thin everywhere else in the AL East other than in St. Petersburg, and if the division were just decided by rotations, it'd be the Rays' to lose. They have arguably the best pitcher in the division in Chris Archer -- it's either him or his good pal David Price -- and Jake Odorizzi is a formidable No. 2. But Drew Smyly and Erasmo Ramirez are no slouches either, and hey, even Matt Moore has looked good this spring, following up on his pleasant September. It's possible three of the best five starting pitchers in the division play for Tampa Bay.
And those starters are going to have to be flawless, because the Rays' offense is, once again, the division's worst. It really is a shame that Evan Longoria never did become the superstar he was supposed to be. Longoria is a perfectly fine ballplayer -- he has put up an OPS-plus above 100 (average) every season of his career -- but he just never ascended to the top tier the way Tampa Bay needed him to. Longoria needed to be the centerpiece of the Rays' lineup, but he's just a complementary one, and that's a problem, because there's not much else there. Steven Souza could still break out, I suppose, and Corey Dickerson was an opportunistic offseason addition, but this lineup looks limp compared to the rest of the division.
Now, manager Kevin Cash has shown an affinity for platoons -- he's one of the more flexible, fascinating new managers in the game -- and the Rays have the depth to try to mix and match on a daily basis. But there's not a lot of top-tier offensive talent here, in a division that has a ton. They might not require it, though, with that pitching, as well as an increasingly elite defense. Every few years, Tampa Bay jumps up and shocks everybody. It has been a while. It might be this year. I'm splitting the difference by having the Rays third … and it's far more likely they will move up than they move down.
2. Boston Red Sox, 88-74
The Red Sox still feel a year away from the team they're going to be -- one that has a deeper rotation, has its young potential superstars a year closer to fulfilling their potential, and has done some more spending and trading, the new modus operandi -- but it's Boston, and there is always urgency, which means there is an obvious expectation to win right now. Particularly when it is David Ortiz's last season.
There's a lot here. Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts are those aforementioned potential superstars who are going to truly break out at some point, and it could be this season. Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval won't be as bad as they were last year -- they were really good players for quite a number of years, you know -- and I'm fully expecting Ortiz to just go nuts this year to say goodbye. There's some injury potential in the Red Sox's lineup, but there are also more options here if things go wrong than there are in, say, the Bronx. The Red Sox are going to score some runs.
It comes down to pitching again. Obviously, Price is going to be Price, at least for this year; that contract might get ugly at the end, but it'll be worth it right now. So your optimism for the Sox depends on how much faith you have in Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez and, I guess, Joe Kelly. (People: He is a reliever! Give up the ghost!) Buchholz showed some positive signs late last season, and Porcello should at least be reliable. More to the point: If the Red Sox are still in the race in July -- and why wouldn't they be? -- Dave Dombrowski and company are going to make a move. Whatever pitcher might be available in July (Andrew Cashner? Stephen Strasburg? Someone we don't even realize yet?) is going to be the Red Sox's main target. If they want someone, they'll get him. This rotation is a work in progress.
There are enough question marks to make me hesitate picking the Sox to win this division. But if they're close, they're going to floor it, particularly with the opportunity to give Ortiz one last postseason. They won't be finishing last again for a long time.
1. Toronto Blue Jays, 92-70
Fine, fine, fine: The rotation is super iffy. Marcus Stroman looks to have some breakout potential, and Marco Estrada might end up being ready for Opening Day after all. But R.A. Dickey is 220 innings of average-at-best knuckleballing, Drew Hutchison is a lottery ticket and J.A. Happ appears genetically manufactured in a lab to illustrate what a free-agent bust looks like. The Blue Jays' starters are better than the Orioles', but they're going to get knocked around a bit.
I still can't stop looking at this lineup, though. They get a full year of Troy Tulowitzki. They have a healthy (maybe) Edwin Encarnacion. They are about to unleash a righteous, furious, wrath-wrath-wrath Jose Bautista in a contract year. And oh yeah, Josh Donaldson is a better hitter than all of them. Plus Russell Martin, plus an intriguing Kevin Pillar atop the order, plus a healthy Michael Saunders -- and man, look out. You're not supposed to be able to bash your way to a division title, particularly in a division like this one that has so many bashers already. But the Jays' lineup is terrifying.
Toronto has all sorts of contract issues coming up in the next year or so, and this might be the last time we see this version of the team. So let's enjoy it while we can. This is the best offense in the game, in an era when offense is at a premium. Don't miss the Blue Jays when they come to your town. And definitely don't miss them in October.