2015 AL East preview

From left: Manny Machado of the Baltimore Orioles, David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox, Jacoby Ellsbury of the New York Yankees, Evan Longoria of the Tampa Bay Rays and Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays look to lead their teams to an AL East pennant.

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Uncertainties galore.

There’s really no other way to characterize life in the American League East this year. Preseason predictions may be worthy of a garbage can by late June. From Toronto to Tampa Bay, from Boston to the Bronx and down to Baltimore, there’s no golden thoroughbred in this horse race.

Good luck forecasting anything.

Still, there are reasons to like how some are trending. The Red Sox and Blue Jays made significant moves that may lead to jackpots later. The Orioles are hard to read, but it’s difficult to bet against a group that won 96 games last year. And who knows what the Rays and Yankees will offer in a turn of the page for both?

So for now, best guesses are en vogue. In three months, though, the landscape may look much, much different.

Here’s how the AL East breaks down (in alphabetical order, with last year’s finish in parentheses):

BALTIMORE ORIOLES (96-66, 1st)

Key Additions: 1B Everth Cabrera, OF Travis Snider

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Key Losses: OF Nelson Cruz, OF Nick Markakis, RHP Andrew Miller, C Nick Hundley

Strengths: With Cruz gone to the Seattle Mariners and Markakis, a long-time franchise staple, signing with the Atlanta Braves in the offseason, it’s easy to write off the Orioles. But that may be a mistake. Manny Machado, Matt Wieters and Chris Davis return, and Machado’s presence after missing the late part of last season with a right knee injury will be particularly positive for the defending AL East champs. They produced 705 runs last season, which was second in the division only to Toronto’s 723. Similar firepower is possible this summer.

Weaknesses: As much as it’s a positive that Machado, Wieters and Davis are returning, the Orioles will count on each to play to their potential. Remember, Machado’s injury required surgery, Wieters had a Tommy John operation and Davis hit .196 with just 26 home runs last season, his worst campaign in recent memory. If all three struggle, then the Orioles will falter along with them. It’s no lock that the recovery for each will be quick.

Best-case scenario: Would anyone be surprised if the Orioles won the division again? If Machado, Wieters and Davis compensate for the loss of Cruz and Markakis, it’s easy to see Baltimore atop the AL East at season’s end. That’s no small "if," but the possibility is there. Under manager Buck Showalter, Baltimore has won at least 85 games in each of the past three seasons and at least 93 contests in two of those campaigns. Consistency has become a staple of life in Charm City. Why should the run stop now?

Worst-case scenario: Machado, Wieters and Davis all underperform, dragging down the Orioles’ offensive output with them. Worse yet, more injuries happen, causing Baltimore to scramble. Even with the departures of Cruz and Markakis, the Orioles enter the season with the most complete roster within the division. But further injuries to key names could derail their desire to make the postseason for the third time in four years.

BOSTON RED SOX (71-91, 5TH)

Key Additions: 3B Pablo Sandoval, SS Hanley Ramirez, RHP Rick Porcello, LHP Wade Miley, RHP Justin Masterson

Key Losses: OF Yoenis Cespedes, C David Ross, 3B Will Middlebrooks

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Strengths: Plain and simple, the Red Sox are a better team than the one that ended last season a wretched 20 games below .500. The signings of Sandoval and Ramirez, while they include some risk, have the potential to offer high reward. Porcello and Miley are interesting additions to their pitching depth. Also, familiar faces such as Dustin Pedroia, Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino could be improved over what they offered last year. Expect to see an uptick from an offense that produced just 634 runs last season.

Weaknesses: The starting staff remains a question. As a whole, Clay Buchholz, Porcello, Miley, Masterson and Joe Kelly posted a cumulative 4.55 ERA last season. So the question around the Red Sox should be this: Can their offense offset what could be a shaky rotation? That’s difficult to answer. Boston may have to bank on remarkable one-year turnarounds from starters who all struggled last year outside of Porcello.

Best-case scenario: The offense surges, and the pitching stabilizes. If those two things happen, then it’s possible to see the Red Sox becoming relevant in the AL East. Still, even with a retooled line-up, so much must happen right for Boston to crack at least 85 victories.

Worst-case scenario: The rotation becomes a disaster, and the signings of Sandoval and Ramirez don’t make as much of a difference as expected. It’s easy to see the Red Sox sinking to the bottom of the division if both those things happen. This feels like a boom-or-bust kind of season for them.

NEW YORK YANKEES (84-78, 2ND)

Key Additions: SS Didi Gregorius, OF/INF Garrett Jones, RHP Nathan Eovaldi, LHP Andrew Miller

Key Losses: SS Derek Jeter, RHP David Robertson, OF Ichiro Suzuki, 3B Martin Prado, RHP Brandon McCarthy, RHP Hiroki Kuroda

Strengths: It’s hard to find many. The Yankees are old, and Father Time still holds a perfect record. Jeter is gone and so are Robertson, Suzuki, McCarthy and Kuroda. Miller is a decent bullpen addition, but how many leads will he be given a chance to preserve? It’s the same story with Dellin Betances, another top reliever. Outside of the Tampa Bay Rays, perhaps no team in the division has more questions about its entire makeup. It’s a different day, indeed.

Weaknesses: Pitching could be suspect. CC Sabathia’s best days are behind him. Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda are good when healthy, but staying healthy is an issue. The bullpen should be a strength with Miller and Betances, but the Yankees need a strong year from Eovaldi to make the rotation better than average. As spring comes to a close, there are many questions, few answers. For an aging team, that’s not good.

Best-case scenario: Everything breaks the right way, especially within the rotation. The starters stay healthy for the most part. The bullpen lives up to its promise. A lot must happen right, but if most factors fall in their favor, the Yankees may hang around.

Worst-case scenario: The opposite of the above happens: Starters break down, the bullpen struggles and an old roster plays like its age. On paper, this season could be a grind. We’ll see if the Yankees make it more tolerable.

TAMPA BAY RAYS (77-85, 4TH)

Key Additions: SS Asdrubal Cabrera, C Rene Rivera, DH John Jaso, OF Steven Souza Jr., RHP Kevin Jepsen, RHP Ernesto Frieri

Key Losses: INF Ben Zobrist, DH Matt Joyce, OF Wil Myers, SS Yunel Escobar, RHP Joel Peralta

Strengths: The rotation will be a strength when it’s healthy. Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, Matt Moore and Jake Odorizzi should be the best starting five in the division. Problem is, injuries have scrambled those plans before Opening Day. Cobb (right forearm tendinitis) and Smyly (left shoulder tendinitis) are expected back by the end of April, and Moore (Tommy John surgery) has targeted a late June return. Until then, the Rays hope to survive with a rotation that includes Archer, Odorizzi, Nathan Karns and likely Erasmo Ramirez and Matt Andriese before Cobb, Smyly and Alex Colome, who’s out with pneumonia until mid-to-late April, make their season debuts.

Weaknesses: Where will the offense come from? The Rays had the AL East’s weakest offense last season with just 612 runs. Rivera, if he stays healthy, should be an upgrade over what Ryan Hanigan and Jose Molina offered at the plate. Still, are the additions of Cabrera, Jaso and Souza enough to make a difference in this department, even if Evan Longoria improves after an inconsistent 2014 campaign? It’s hard to see now.

Best-case scenario: The rotation regains its shape without more severe injuries the rest of the way, the offensive numbers are larger than expected and the bullpen is as strong as anticipated with Jepsen, Grant Balfour, Brad Boxberger and Jake McGee at the back of the bullpen. The Rays must develop a new identity with first-year manager Kevin Cash, who, at age 37, is the majors’ youngest man in his role. If that goes well, the on-field results should reflect the development.

Worst-case scenario: The rotation sustains more injuries after April, and the offensive numbers don’t see a significant increase when compared to last year’s output. It’s no surprise, but the Rays will be built on pitching and defense once more. But if the pitching sputters, they could strain to score enough runs to remain competitive late in the season.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS (83-79, 3RD)

Key Additions: 3B Josh Donaldson, C Russell Martin, LF Michael Saunders, 1B Justin Smoak

Key Losses: OF Melky Cabrera, RHP Casey Janssen, OF Colby Rasmus, RHP Brandon Morrow, DH Adam Lind, OF Anthony Gose, 3B Brett Lawrie

Strengths: The Blue Jays should be excited about the additions of Donaldson and Martin, in particular, but bringing aboard Saunders and Smoak are also reasons to believe that Toronto will be better than in 2014. They’re more well-rounded than a year ago, when they were a trendy pick to win the AL East. If health cooperates, and if all the big names produce as expected, then the Blue Jays can contend in the division.

Weaknesses: Pitching may derail the Blue Jays’ hopes of threatening for the division title. Marcus Stroman tore the ACL in his left knee during spring drills in March and will be out for the season, which is a huge blow. R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle, two aging veterans, can be inconsistent. It’s also unknown what Aaron Sanchez, Drew Hutchison and Daniel Norris will offer. The other pieces to become a contender are there if the pitching cooperates.

Best-case scenario: Winning the division is no pie-in-the-sky fantasy. The Blue Jays made some savvy moves in the offseason, and perhaps they’ve learned from the disappointment of recent years, when early thunder gave way to late disappointment. If everything comes together — mainly, if the rotation holds up its end of the bargain — then Toronto will be worth watching.

Worst-case scenario: Another year, another tease. The Blue Jays appeared on the verge of becoming a constant threat in the AL East last year, but they faded late as the Orioles ran away with the division. A repeat of such a scenario would be a disappointment, given all the work Toronto did to improve its situation in the offseason. Time will show if the Blue Jays can overcome the pitfalls that led to their demise in recent years.

MOST DANGEROUS PLAYER

Without Cruz in the division, the most dangerous bat belongs to David Ortiz. He hit .263 with 35 home runs and 104 RBI last year, all while trying to stay motivated during Boston’s disastrous season. He’s 39 years old to start this summer, which makes him sort of a timeless wonder. With all of the Red Sox’s moving and shaking in the offseason, they’ll still bank on Ortiz and his Big Papi power to provide fireworks from the batter’s box. His home-run total last season was the most since he launched the same amount in 2007. Similar production would make him dangerous again.

BEST MANAGER

Joe Maddon received most of the buzz of late with what he did as part of the Rays, but with him moving on to the Chicago Cubs, it’s hard to argue with what Showalter has accomplished with the Orioles in recent years. Baltimore was a baseball wasteland before the veteran manager arrived before the 2011 season. Since, Showalter has led the Orioles to two playoff berths and no fewer than the 85 victories in each of the past three seasons. It’s hard to see how Showalter will stray much from what has led to Baltimore’s success in recent years. Yes, he’ll be without Cruz. Yes, he’ll be without Markakis. But why bet against the man? He has turned the Orioles into a perennial AL East contender.

SLEEPER

It’s hard to call the Blue Jays a "sleeper" with all their movement in recent years, but this is still a franchise that hasn’t appeared in the postseason since winning the World Series in 1993. They appeared on the cusp of sliding into the playoff picture last year until a late-summer fade, but this could finally be the time that everything comes together. The additions of Donaldson, Martin and Smoak are reason enough to watch closely. If Dickey and Buehrle can put together solid seasons, and if the offense can provide enough pop, Toronto may end its long postseason drought.

TEAM WITH ISSUES

The Yankees could be in for a long year. No more Jeter. The starting pitching is suspect. Robertson, the former closer, signed with the Chicago White Sox in the offseason. New York hasn’t missed the playoffs in three consecutive seasons since a dry spell from 1982 to 1994. It could happen again this year.

FINAL THOUGHT

OK, buy a lottery ticket now if you know what will happen in the AL East. On paper, there are many average-to-below-average teams that may surprise with a few breaks and better-than-expected years from key players. Baltimore appears like the early favorite, but truthfully, almost nothing about this division is easy to predict.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.