The AL East has, throughout my lifetime, has been referred to as the toughest division in baseball, if not all of sports. The New York Yankees have fielded a seemingly endless array of high-priced superstars as their division-mates took turns trying to keep up. The Toronto Blue Jays had their glory years in the early nineties, capturing back-to-back championships. The Baltimore Orioles had Cal Ripken Jr. and a cast of sluggers and also Mike Mussina and were legitimate contenders, much as they find themselves in recent years. The Boston Red Sox have assembled a strong core that has won them 3 World Series and continues to be a dominant force on the baseball landscape. The Yankees, ever the Yankees, have spent like a sugar daddy all winter; splurging on basically every available free agent of any star-power or legitimate quality. The one absent from this list until recently were the Tampa Bay Rays. When I was younger, the Devil Rays were the worst team in baseball and it wasn’t close. Their reputation around the game and among players was seemingly as bad as their on-field results, and their on-field results were quite simply atrocious. A change in ownership, a big change in strategy and a whole lot of sabermetrics turned things around for the Rays in recent years, however, and they have been a tiny-payroll juggernaut for a half a decade running. Though the payroll structures around the league look similar to years gone by (it goes NYY, BOS, TOR, BAL, TBA, ranked by payroll) This year, scouts think that the Rays are the team to beat thanks to an assembly of young talent (mostly enviable pitching depth) playing supporting roles to superstars Evan Longoria and David Price.
The Rays’ offseason has been pretty un-Rays-ish, as they declined to trade David Price in spite of most of the baseball world being convinced they would, and they re-signed James Loney to a fairly high-priced deal. The Red Sox let Jacoby Ellsbury and Jarrod Saltalamacchia walk in free agency this offseason, but spent enough to retain key 2013 contributor Mike Napoli to man first base for them for the next two years, along with signing A.J. Pierzynski to replace Salty behind the dish. The Sox’ budding prospects Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley, Jr. figure to get the playing time that would have gone to Ellsbury and fellow departed free agent (probably?) Stephen Drew, but otherwise the bulk of the World Series Champion squad from 2013 remains in tact moving into this year. The Orioles spent most of the offseason being ridiculed by their fanbase for not being active enough in improving the team. The team, however, effectively waited out the market on some fairly large upgrades in Nelson Cruz and Ubaldo Jimenez, and have taken a number of lottery tickets in minor-league signings; most notably this week’s pact with Johan Santana. The Yankees were the Yankees, scooping up long-time rival Ellsbury along with former Cardinal Carlos Beltran and former Brave Brian McCann before giving a record contract to Masahiro Tanaka, a spending spree that totaled over a half-billion dollars in commitments. The Jays didn’t do a whole lot, even after a lost season in which their pitchers were completely abysmal. The team replaced catcher J.P. Arencibia after a historically bad season by signing Dioner Navarro, despite the latter not having been a starting catcher since 2009. They made no moves to upgrade their pitching staff, claiming to instead be confident in the development of their young internal options.
Projection systems all seem to agree that the Red Sox are the odds-on favorite to take the divisional crown, but the gap between them and the Orioles (projected to pull up in last) is only 10 wins, not far off the margin of error that inherently comes with such projections. The middle is where things appear to get really interesting though. The middle three teams (the Rays, Yankees and Jays) are projected to be so close in talent level that there’s only projected to be 1.1 wins between 2nd and 4th place. It’s truly anyone’s game, and despite being the favorite, Boston will need to avoid any prolonged slumps or in-division losing streaks to prevent them from losing the lead that their talent should provide.
A fair amount of players in the East, like any division, are real wild-cards. A lot of starters on contending teams (they’re basically all potentially contending teams) this year will be rookies or young players in general. Their lack of track records, positive debuts or not, preclude us from knowing whether we should expect them to struggle to adapt through their ‘sophomore slump’ or either continue or start a breakout. Wil Myers, Chris Archer, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr, Manny Machado, Will Middlebrooks and more are all fairly unseasoned players that are being relied on by their clubs to fill starting roles at key positions in what shapes up to be a fight to the 162nd game.
In addition to the question marks raised by the youngsters around the division, an even greater question mark looms for some clubs in the form of a fairly large number of major injury risks being relied upon to fill starting roles on teams that really require their contributions. Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista, Evan Longoria, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, Brian Roberts and Brett Gardner are all position players at the tops of their teams’ depth charts, and every one of them has spent significant time on the DL in the past two seasons with a fairly major injury. It’s difficult enough to replace production around the diamond when injuries take their toll, but replacing members from a list like that is surely a position that no management staff can envy.
Overall, the AL East figures to be as competitive and exciting as ever, giving all it’s fans a reason to celebrate the fact that it is also the most watched and most expensive. You have to earn it here, and as fans we wouldn’t have it any other way.