2014 AL East preview
You want competition? The American League East will have you covered.
You want stars? The Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays, New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays will have enough to fill highlight reels throughout the summer.
You want drama? The division was the only one in the major leagues last year in which the top four contenders finished with at least 85 victories. There’s little reason to expect anything different this season.
The calendar has flipped from 2013 to 2014. But the AL East, as always, will be a beast. The division boasts the defending World Series champion (Red Sox), a re-vamped Pinstripe Empire (Yankees), a savvy Sunshine State threat (Rays), a Charm City contender that features one of the most dangerous players on a diamond in Chris Davis (Orioles), and if their health cooperates, the Blue Jays will be no pushover either.
Let’s start those organs, shall we?
Here’s how the AL East breaks down (in alphabetical order, with last year’s finish in parentheses).
BALTIMORE ORIOLES (85-77, T-3rd)
Additions: OF Nelson Cruz, RHP Edgmer Escalona, RHP Ubaldo Jimenez, OF Francisco Peguero, RHP Ryan Webb, INF Jemile Weeks
Strengths: The power is potent. Last season, Baltimore led the major leagues with 212 home runs — 24 more than the second-place Seattle Mariners. If Chris Davis can repeat his crazy-good 53 home-run season last year, the Orioles will be rough on pitchers again.
Weaknesses: Did they do enough to overtake the Red Sox and Rays? Doesn’t look like it. The Orioles were strangely quiet most of the offseason, with the exception of the Cruz and Jimenez signings. They should have done more to bolster their depth to win at least 90 games for the second time in three years.
Best-case scenario: The Orioles do just enough to earn an AL wild card spot. The Rays, Red Sox and Yankees figure to be the class of the division, so the climb facing the Orioles will be tough. But a postseason berth is possible.
Worst-case scenario: Not only do the Rays, Red Sox and Yankees leave them in the dust, but the Blue Jays pass them as well. Baltimore has won 178 combined games the past two years, so itâs hard to see a major slide ahead. But thereâs little room for error.
BOSTON RED SOX (97-65, 1st)
Additions: RHP Burke Badenhop, LHP Chris Capuano, INF Jonathan Herrera, RHP Edward Mujica, C A.J. Pierzynski
Strengths: Offense, offense and offense. The Red Sox led the major leagues last year in runs scored (853) and RBI (819), and they were second in hits (1,566). With so many potent bats returning, Boston should never search to stay active on the scoreboard.
Weaknesses: One is hard to find. But past success, and those memories of partying October away in the glow of their eighth World Series title, will be a hurdle in the months to come. "Turn The (Expletive) Page" has become a catchphrase throughout spring camp. Still, it’s so hard to repeat — no one has done it since the Yankees won three consecutive titles from 1998 to 2000 — and Boston will find the path back to the top rocky at best.
Best-case scenario: More confetti. More champagne. More ink. Does Jonny Gomes’ back have room for another World Series tattoo?
Worst-case scenario: Missing the playoffs. Plain and simple: This roster is too good not to expect consecutive playoff seasons for the first time since clinching three straight postseason campaigns from 2007 to 2009.
NEW YORK YANKEES (85-77, T-3rd)
Additions: OF Carlos Beltran, OF Jacoby Ellsbury, INF Kelly Johnson, C Brian McCann, 2B Brian Roberts, RHP Masahiro Tanaka, LHP Matt Thornton
Strengths: Take two? Joe Girardi must replicate his managing job from last season to keep the expectations outside his clubhouse from swallowing his team. The Yankees weren’t as good as the 85 victories showed, but Girardi did more with less time and time again. He must be creative once more for New York to return to the postseason after missing out last year for just the second time since 1995.
Weaknesses: A strength becomes a weak spot with the departure of closer Mariano Rivera. How do you replace greatness? Hold on tight and hope for the best. David Robertson, who has been strong in the eighth-inning role, should receive the closer job to start the Yankees’ post-Mo life. Other bullpen members like Shawn Kelley and Matt Thornton must be solid as well.
Best-case scenario: All the money, all the reward. Beltran, Ellsbury and Tanaka lead a pinstripe renaissance that extends to the World Series. Frank Sinatra becomes the soundtrack for a late October party.
Worst-case scenario: Big cash, big dud. The Yankees miss the playoffs again, despite their Tanaka-charged spending spree in the offseason. The Red Sox dance in their tears.
TAMPA BAY RAYS (92-71, 2nd)
Additions: RHP Grant Balfour, RHP Heath Bell, INF Logan Forsythe, C Ryan Hanigan
Strengths: The re-signing of first baseman James Loney to a three-year, $21 million deal in the offseason guaranteed that each member of the Rays’ infield will return. That’s a good thing, because all were AL Gold Glove Award finalists last season, and at least two could have claimed the hardware. Expect the same strong play this summer, with third baseman Evan Longoria as the group’s anchor.
Weaknesses: Can their offense be on par with the pitching and defense? The Rays ranked eighth last year in the AL in RBI (670) and ninth in runs scored (700), which isn’t bad, but those totals can be better. Division rivals like the Red Sox, Orioles and Blue Jays scored more often. Tampa Bay needs more bite at the plate.
Best-case scenario: An October stay lives beyond the AL Division Series. For the first time since clinching a World Series berth in 2008, the Rays play into the ALCS, with their sights set on another Fall Classic. David Price is dynamite, Wil Myers is stellar in his sophomore season and Evan Longoria is a staple in the lineup at least 90 percent of the time.
Worst-case scenario: The Red Sox make this season appear like a replay of the last. The Yankees back up their big spending in a bigger way. Suddenly, the Rays miss the playoffs for just the third time in seven years.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS (74-88, 5th)
Additions: C Erik Kratz, C Dioner Navarro
Strengths: The potential for power is always there with bash brothers like Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind in the lineup’s front half. If those bats are hot â and yes, they have the potential to sizzle â pitchers throughout the AL should watch out. Opponents should proceed with caution anyway, given that the Blue Jays ranked fourth in the major leagues last year with 185 home runs.
Weaknesses: A rotation of R.A. Dickey, Drew Hutchison, Mark Buehrle, Brandon Morrow and Dustin McGowan doesn’t strike fear into anyone. Dickey, the 2012 National League Cy Young Award winner, must be better after stumbling through last season with a 14-13 record and a 4.21 ERA in 34 starts. Toronto ranked 25th in the major leagues with a 4.25 staff ERA last year.
Best-case scenario: The Blue Jays make 2013 seem like a bad dream. Bautista and Encarnacion power them near the top of the AL East, helping clinch a wild card berth in the process. How rare are the playoffs for the Blue Jays? They last reached them in 1993, when they won their second World Series.
Worst-case scenario: Deja vu strikes. Injuries. Bautista and Encarnacion are muzzled. Dickey labors again. Yikes.
Chris Davis, Baltimore Orioles — What more could he do in 2013? He led the major leagues with 138 RBI and 53 home runs. He smacked 42 doubles. He had the potential to ignite Baltimore’s lineup with one swing, with one crack, a gift few possess in this game. He batted a career-best .286, and his wins-above-replacement figure was a career-best 6.4. It’s unreasonable to expect the same pace this summer. But when Davis is confident at the plate, few in the division are better.
John Farrell, Boston Red Sox — Remember Bobby Valentine? No worries, few in New England do either. Boston’s turnaround from a close-your-eyes 69-93 in 2012 to a can-you-believe-it 97-65 championship run last year is a credit to Farrell’s leadership. Sure, players win titles, and no trophy presentation was ever held in a corner office. But talent only goes so far if the right clubhouse culture is absent. The worst Boston had to offer was followed by its sweetest best.
Baltimore Orioles — You know what you’ll receive with the Rays and Red Sox. The Yankees, with their massive payroll, will knock on the door too. But the Orioles are like a blurry Polaroid: Developing and difficult to read. Davis is a stud, plus Cruz and Jimenez are intriguing additions. Still, they feel a level or two below the AL Eastâs prime contenders. Who knows? Perhaps theyâll surprise.
TEAM WITH ISSUES
Toronto Blue Jays — Fool us once, Toronto, shame on you. Fool us twice, and the fault is ours. The Blue Jays were a trendy pick last year to rise as the AL East champ. Then reality hit: Injuries, fatigue, a starting rotation that broke down, optimism that was dashed. Who’s to say things north of the border will improve? Until the Blue Jays can turn promise into production, it’s best to proceed with caution.
By now, the saying sounds cliche, but itâs so true: The AL East is one of the most difficult divisions in baseball and all of professional sports. How’s this for a reason to watch? The Red Sox are returning champs, the Yankees are big spenders (again) and the Rays look primed to contend with their core group back from last year. Throw in potential from the Orioles and Blue Jays, and the storylines will fly as fast as David Price’s heat. Sound fun? We agree.