The American League East, once the class of baseball, has faded a bit over the last two years, primarily due to the remarkable self-inflicted wounds suffered by first the Boston Red Sox, then the New York Yankees. Couple that with a somewhat shocking face-lift in Toronto this offseason and the consistent excellence of the Tampa Bay Rays organization, along with the bizarre happenings in Baltimore last year, and the East is more wide open than it's ever been.
That makes it a notoriously hard division to predict, even moreso now that the perennial favorite Yankees have suffered enough injuries to their lineup that the light-hitting Rays will probably outslug them in April. The difference between first and last place in the East might be as few as 10 games when everything is said and done (most of the time, a last-place team winds up 20 games out or so) and will probably be determined almost wholly by who stays healthy and who doesn't -- injury might not be an excuse as far as the players are concerned, but it's certainly a good explanation. Once again, I've ranked teams from 1st to 5th, best to worst in the division, on their lineups, fielding, rotation, and bullpen. Additionally, when I discuss a pitcher's position in a rotation, I'm not using whatever guesstimate is currently out there for how the team's rotation will break camp; the pitcher I think is best is the ace, the pitcher I think is second-best is the number two starter, and so on.
First Place: Toronto Blue Jays
It might finally be time for the Blue Jays to once again take home a divisional crown. They haven't won their division or made the playoffs since their World Series victory in 1993, and while that's nothing compared to the droughts in Kansas City or Pittsburgh, it's pretty frustrating for the Toronto faithful nonetheless.
Following the two blockbuster trades this offseason with the Marlins and the Mets, however, the Jays have the most potent offense in the division, adding Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera to a lineup that already featured Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. Encarnacion, if you'll recall, is trying to be Bautista Part Two: a right-handed pull hitter with great power finally figuring out his swing late in his career. It remains to be seen if he can sustain the power he's shown the last year and a half, but even if he regresses somewhat he's still a useful piece to have. Cabrera is in town on a relatively cheap two-year deal to rebuild his value following last season's PED scandal, and assuming that MLB doesn't discipline him over the Biogenesis revelations (a dicey proposition, but without a second failed test they're essentially punishing him twice for the same violation) he should be effective for the Jays in the two spot. Jose Reyes as a leadoff hitter is an amazing get for Toronto, and if Bautista is healthy and some of the younger guys take steps forward -- and the team finds some way to shoot Adam Lind into the sun, or the PCL -- the Jays' lineup could do some serious damage.
The team isn't as good in the field as the Tampa Bay Rays are, but it's close -- and Boston isn't far behind either of them. Cabrera, Rasmus, and Bautista are all well able to field their positions (Rasmus's range and glove in center being the only thing really keeping him afloat as a regular these days), and even removing the way defensive metrics overemphasized Brett Lawrie's trips into right field on the shift, the poor-tempered 3B is still very capable at the hot corner. Reyes, of course, has been one of the best defensive shortstops in the game for years, and one of Emilio Bonifacio and Macier Izturis will play second base with the other acting as a super-utility middle infielder -- something both men can handle, but which more suits Izturis. Either way, defense up the middle isn't an issue.
The rotation is completely revamped as well, thanks to the acquisition of R.A. Dickey from the New York Mets and Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle from the Miami Marlins. A rotation that was plagued by inconsistency, injury, and downright terrible pitching from Ricky Romero is now neck and neck with the staff in Detroit for strongest rotation in the American League … provided, of course, that it can stay healthy. Dickey should be fine assuming he has his high-80's knuckler from last year when camp breaks, instead of the mid-70's variant that got lit up in the World Baseball Classic, but Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow, both guys with ace quality stuff and the past results to back it up, need to stay healthy, and that's something they've had trouble doing recently. Buehrle is a fantastic number four man, perhaps the best in baseball, and if Ricky Romero can bounce back from last season the Jays might not have the best rotation in just the American League, but all of baseball.
The bullpen is still a work in progress. Sergio Santos should be healthy again following his injury issues from last season, and the guys at the back end of the pen-Casey Janssen, Steve Delabar-had great years last year, but we've yet to see whether the Jays got the Esmil Rogers who pitched for Colorado or the one who pitched for Cleveland, and the best thing to be said about Jeremy Jeffress at the moment is thank god players on the 40-man roster no longer get tested for weed. That said, if the starters to their jobs as well as they're capable of doing them, this pen should be able to get the most out of its late inning guys without having to rely on Rogers, Jeffress, or probable longman Brett Cecil all that much.
Second Place: The Tampa Bay Rays (Wild Card)
The 2013 Rays aren't going to be too much different than last season's iteration: a squad that gets it done primarily on pitching with good defense behind it, and a lineup that is cheap and not completely embarrassing, with one or two real high points in Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist. B.J. Upton is with the club no more, having signed a long-term deal with the Atlanta Braves, so Desmond Jennings will take over in his stead, and if he improves on his 2012 at the plate, they might not miss Upton's bat so much. Luke Scott was either injured or terrible for most of last year; if he's healthy again, he might get back to his Baltimore days, but his Houston days are completely out of reach at this point. Matt Joyce's great numbers obscure the fact that he should never get much more than 400 PA in a season -- he only hits righties, and that platoon split hasn't changed much since he came up. Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson should at least be league average for their positions, but when it comes to middle infielder hitting, "average for the position" still isn't very good. Catcher Jose Molina isn't there to hit, and it's still unclear what, precisely, James Loney's purpose on the roster is.
When it comes to fielding, however, the Rays have it covered. Jennings is a substantial upgrade over Upton in center, and Joyce and Zobrist both field their outfield corners well; Zobrist will probably spend some time at second and shortstop as well, allowing the Rays to boost their offensive output by trading a middle infielder bat for a corner outfield one. Zobrist isn't the shortstop he used to be, but he can still handle second base at a high enough level to be worth the time he'll spend there. Jose Molina has been one of the top five defensive catchers in baseball, or even top three, the past few years, and if age hasn't sapped his abilities he'll be right back up there again. Backup Jose Lobaton will likely see significant time behind the plate too, and he is … far less accomplished there. Longoria is a top performer at third, Escobar plays good defense at short, and again, James Loney baffles me, but he should be fine at first.
The rotation is the strong spot for the Rays, and they're not too far behind the Jays or Tigers in terms of the unit's overall strength. David Price is a guy who needs no introduction -- he's only a bit behind Verlander and Kershaw for best pitcher in baseball, in my estimation -- Jeremy Hellickson had a very good 2012 and Matt Moore's got a great, great future ahead of him, but what puts them behind the Jays is how unproven they are. The unit has all the talent in the world, but it won't reach its potential until the Rays decide Chris Archer is ready to make the jump to MLB and Alex Cobb shows he can repeat and build on last year's performance.
Closer Fernando Rodney is coming off both a historic season last year and a great WBC showing, so while it's not fair to expect him to live up to the 0.60 ERA of 2012, he should have another good year at the back of the Rays' pen in store provided, again, he stays healthy. Joel Peralta and Jake McGee, the setup guys, both had effective 2012 campaigns, and really any bullpen where Kyle Farnsworth is relegated to middle relief is stacked, even if the Professor is getting up there in age. Roberto Hernandez -- who you may remember by his stage name, Fausto Carmona -- is in the pen for Tampa Bay too, and it'll be interesting to see if he can bounce back from a terrible season with Cleveland last year, given his penchant for groundballs and the Rays' penchant for turning them into outs.
Third Place: The New York Yankees
Sadly, there are no "incompletes" in this ranking system, otherwise the Yankees' lineup and fielding grades would be proudly sporting them. Due to a combination of bizarre, forced austerity (see: the catcher situation) and injury (see: Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson…) the Yankees will start the season with the worst lineup in the division, after featuring a squad in 2012 that was arguably the best. Robinson Cano and Brett Gardner will still be bright spots at the plate, but there are few others to be found. The good news for Yankees fans is that by the end of May the ballclub's offense should be back where it needs to be, barring any major setbacks. The bad news is that the division was already going to be extremely close, and now Yankees ownership is freaking out and insisting on things like trading for Vernon Wells, which as far as I can tell is an exact photonegative of having one's cake and eating it too. And unless some extremely creative dealmaking goes on over the next week or so, no amount of time is going to solve the catcher issue on its own.
The Yankees aren't the worst fielding team in the division when they're healthy -- we'll touch on the Orioles in a moment -- but again, right now, they're not healthy. If Eduardo Nunez or, heaven forfend, the recently released Yuniesky Betancourt starts the season at shortstop, with Vernon Wells in left and new "third baseman" Kevin Youkilis at the hot corner, no amount of savvy positioning and good first-stepping from Cano, nor speed and range from Brett Gardner in center, will save this unit. Once the regulars are back, things start to look a little bit better, but even when everyone's healthy, Jeter's still old and bad at playing shortstop and Granderson will likely be moving Gardner off centerfield, perhaps making the outfield defense worse. First base defense is not too important in the grand scheme of things, but Teixeira is one of the best at it and whoever will replace him (Jayson Nix or Juan Rivera, most likely) is not.
The rotation remains a strength for the Yankees, built though it is on the arms of old men. Sabathia is still in his early 30's, but Kuroda and Pettitte are both well into their supposed decline phrase, though neither man is particularly pitching like it (remember all that smug tweeting after the Pettitte deal last year about how no pitcher over 39 had ever taken a year off, come back, and posted a WAR over 1? Pettitte's was 2.2 in 75 innings). Behind them, the Ivan Nova experiment continues, and David Phelps is currently standing in for Phil Hughes, but it's unlikely either of them are in the rotation by the end of July. Hughes should return relatively quickly to take his job back, and whenever Michael Pineda is ready to debut as a Yankee, Ivan Nova's ticket has been punched, unless by then he's found a way to stop allowing Brian Matuszian levels of hard contact. His saving grace is that he struck out more people last season -- but every time the ball was put in play, it was put in play hard. If he can find a way to get guys to swing through his stuff without putting so much of it over the plate, he'll be fine; a lot of pitchers never can.
The bullpen loses Rafael Soriano but regains Mariano Rivera, to the delight of Yankees fans everywhere. David Robertson is still one of the best relievers in baseball and is healthy to start the season, and Joba Chamberlain and Boone Logan are a pair of great middle relief guys assuming they're deployed properly -- and manager Joe Girardi has shown himself to be pretty good at that aspect of his job. David Aardsma should do good work for the Yankees as well, if he's back to pitching like the guy who used to close for Seattle.
Fourth Place: The Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox are in the hangover period after a hilarious, self-destructive bender, and it'll show this year. They'll finish better than they did in 2012, and they probably won't be last place -- but unless the Yankees completely collapse they won't be a realistic candidate for third, and their path to the postseason involves a lot of career years and maybe one of the Wild Card teams forfeiting the season.
The Opening Day lineup will be missing last year's only stand-out bat, David Ortiz, who is battling problems with his heels and has the same sorts of hangups and caveats associated with any other old, unathletic player. Mike Napoli, the new first baseman, has bad enough hips that the Sox pulled his initial contract off the table and Jacoby Ellsbury spent most of last year on the DL. Dustin Pedroia, the only other good, established hitter in the Sox lineup, had a bit of a down year at the plate in 2012, OPSing under .800 for the first time since he became a regular. Certainly not bad production out of second base, but not a great sign either way considering how poorly second basemen age. Will Middlebrooks will probably have another good-not-great year at the hot corner (if HE stays healthy). Shortstop Stephen Drew might not be able to hit anymore and Jose Iglesias, his backup, never could. Jonny Gomes is a platoon partner/backup policy for David Ortiz and will be decent at that job as far as it goes, so long as he's never allowed in the outfield. Shane Victorino might get some help from the Green Monster, but he's looked completely cooked since the middle of last year. There's a possibility that OF prospect Jackie Bradley, Jr., makes the squad as the starting leftfielder, but unless he morphs into Mike Trout Part 2, his success or failure at the plate will mean more for next season than it will for the current one.
If Bradley does make the roster, at least the fielding in the outfield will be salvageable, though at this point Bradley and Ellsbury should probably switch spots. Victorino in right field will be better than any of the alternatives, but still not good. Middlebrooks defends well at third base and Jose Iglesias is the best defender at short in baseball -- Sox fans just hope they don't have to see too much of him there. Pedroia defends his position very well and Napoli plays an adequate first base; Sox should be middle of the pack as fielders, unless Gomes and Mike Carp end up in the corners in which case all bets are off.
The rotation honestly shouldn't have been the disaster it was in 2012, but it was precisely such a disaster, and even with the return of John Farrell it's hard to ignore that disaster. New starter Ryan Dempster's move to the American League last year didn't treat him very well either, though at least now he's no longer in Texas. John Lackey's back and is roughly half the man he used to be; he's more or less a giant question mark in the number five spot. The unit's success or failure, honestly, is going rest on two men, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, pitching like the last two years never happened. If they pitch like it's 2010 all over again -- and about ten other things break right -- then Boston's got an outside shot at a Wild Card. The chances of that happening are, well, fairly slim. On the outside looking in right now is Rubby de la Rosa, who came over in the Dodgers megadeal; should someone falter, he should be the first arm up.
I caught some heat recently for disdaining Boston's pen, and on further examination it's better than I gave it credit for (though not as good as some insisted it was). In particular, the acquisition of Koji Uehara is a big positive for the unit, and if Junichi Tazawa keeps up the good work from last year those two men will be killer setup options. I'm less bullish on Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Miller, and Andrew Bailey -- Bailey specifically because of his recent injury issues -- but they're all fine relief options. I have my doubts about Daniel Bard sticking in middle relief for very long, and while Alfredo Aceves is my favorite member of the Sox pen, that has nothing to do with how well he pitches. Luckily for Sox fans, Craig Breslow and Franklin Morales should be back soon.
Fifth Place: The Baltimore Orioles
This is probably the weakest "2nd" ranking I'll give out across this entire subjective exercise. If the Yankees were healthy, they'd get it instead; if the Red Sox had one more legit bat, they'd take it down; even the Rays down at fifth are a breakout season or two away from jumping all the way up to second. As it stands, Baltimore's hitters are both healthy and have good recent track records, regardless of what you think about the dark magic that propelled the club into the playoffs last fall. The Orioles' weakness is not in their lineup. Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Chris Davis, and Matt Wieters are the big names to watch, in that order, with substantial contributions possible from Manny Machado, who will break camp as the starting 3B, and J.J. Hardy, who had a down year at the plate last year but has a track record of decent on-base skill and pop from the shortstop position. Brian Roberts is not the guy he used to be and second base is a work in progress for the team, as is left field, where Nate McLouth will likely start the season; however, as long as no one takes huge steps back -- and none of the Orioles' top four hitters had seasons last year that suggested they will or should -- the hitters should be respectable. Jonathan Schoop, of Netherlands WBC fame, will be starting the season in AAA at shortstop, an extremely aggressive move by Baltimore, to see if they can get him to the majors this season to solidify the middle infield. I have my doubts about how wise that move actually is.
Fielding is going to be an adventure for this club, though the departure of Mark Reynolds to Cleveland does make them a bit better in this regard. Machado's a shortstop playing third, but he has the arm to pull it off and was very good there last year in limited action; J.J. Hardy is one of those rare creatures: a Gold Glove winner who arguably deserved it (though Brendan Ryan of the Mariners probably deserved it a little bit more). Whoever actually plays second after Roberts' inevitable injury should at least be competent: Alexi Casilla's the safe bet, and he's not bad at all there. Chris Davis can't be worse at first base than Mark Reynolds, and while Jones is a liability in centerfield, he's not a huge one. His defense actually looked a bit better last year than it had in years past, though it's doubtful that trend will continue.
The rotation is where things will fall apart for the 2013 Orioles. Every single pitcher projected to be in it -- Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Jake Arrieta -- has giant warning flags attached to them. Chen pitched the most innings on the club last year, suffered mild fatigue down the stretch before reaching 200 innings and even then was only a league-average arm; Hammel put together 100 very impressive innings then hurt his knee and was lost for almost the entire rest of the year; Gonzalez came out of nowhere, made his MLB debut and baffled hitters over the course of about 100 innings as well, which sounds great until one realizes that now every advance scouting department in baseball has tape on him. If Gonzalez's ability to throw his breaking stuff to get swings and misses backslides in any meaningful fashion, he's in serious trouble. On top of being a poster child for inconsistency, Chris Tillman has been battling injury this spring, and Jake Arrieta's future likely lies in the bullpen unless a light goes on in his head real soon. Top pitching prospects Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman are on their way, but they won't be arriving before midseason at the earliest, and even then Orioles fans should temper their expectations of how the two young men perform in their first big league season. Steve Johnson's an interesting candidate to watch in AAA, but more likely than not last year was the best MLB ball he'll pitch in his career.
The bullpen was one of the best in baseball last year, and it's still a good pen, but it too should see some backsliding. Jim Johnson's probably not going to lead the league in saves again, and not just because it's really out of his control when he does or doesn't have a save opportunity. Those who loved Pedro Strop's outings in the WBC should be forewarned that Strop's command comes and goes fairly often, and when it goes, Strop's ability to get hitters at any level out goes with it. But LHP Troy Patton is a nice piece to have -- he can throw a lot of innings, isn't restricted to working only against left handed hitters and has a great strikeout to walk ratio -- and Darren O'Day's been very good for the club too. Luis Ayala isn't a bad reliever, but he'll probably take a step back from last season. Brian Matusz's brief flirtation with starting should end shortly with a return to the pen as a situational lefty, and while Tommy Hunter's nothing great, he's got the stamina to handle long relief.
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This is, again, the hardest divisional to call: There's no real favorite here, and I'd be as unsurprised to see New York finish first as I would Toronto. The only teams I think are substantially at a disadvantage in the race are Baltimore and Boston, and even then, there's just a few things that need to go right for either team for them to be right back in the conversation. The AL East is no longer the best division in baseball, but it might now be the most interesting.