AL East Preview

A two-team race…for the World Series crown?

By: Jesse

Any preview of the American League East should start with the defending champions, so let’s start there:

The Boston Red Sox will NOT repeat in 2019.

If you ask any baseball fan to pick the one team since 2000 that they think has been the best franchise overall, I’d be willing to bet that most people would pick Boston. You might get a few Yankees in there, a few Cardinals, and probably some Giants too. But since 2004 (moving up the timeline a little), Boston has four World Series titles – ’04, 2007, 2013, and 2018.

And they will not be adding another banner this season.

It seems odd that a team that brought back essentially every piece from a championship winning season wouldn’t be the favorites to win another World Series, but Vegas Insider has the Red Sox at 7 to 1, tied with the Houston Astros, and behind?

Division (and eternal) rival, the New York Yankees.

The Yankees come in at 6 to 1 to win the 2019 World Series, and while other sites have those three teams tied, the Yankees are the reason that Boston won’t even win the division this year, let alone the championship.

The rest of the division? Better than last year, not good enough. Let’s get to it.

New York Yankees

Projected record: 101-61

Aaron Judge during a game against Baltimore last season | Photo by: Keith Allison

Even without signing Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, the New York Yankees are the favorites to win the American League East in 2019.

The Yankees won 100 games last season and still finished eight games behind the Boston Red Sox, which shows how unbelievable Boston’s season was. It’s also incredible when you consider that Aaron Judge played in only 112 games last season, as he was limited by injury.

If the Yankees can keep Judge and Stanton healthy, Aaron Boone’s squad has a chance to win 100 games again this year. But this team is much deeper than just those two big bats.

The Yankees still have Gary Sanchez behind the plate. Sanchez struggled last year, hitting just .186 in 89 games, but slugged 33 home runs in 2017, and is expected to return to those numbers. He was criticized heavily last year for his lack of hustle and/or effort on many occasions, but missed significant time with a groin injury that may (or may not) have had something to do with it.

The Yankees also acquired DJ LeMahieu in the offseason. LeMahieu hit .276 last season for the Rockies, but .310 in 2017 and an astounding .348 in 2016. LeMahieu is seen as one of the most fundamentally sound hitters in baseball, and adding him to the roster only helps New York’s chances.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Gleyber Torres, the former super prospect who will be entering his first full season with the club. Torres, the former Cubs farmhand, hit .271 in 123 games last season, smacking 24 home runs and driving in 77 runs. Just another name that makes me sad realizing he’s no longer in the Cubs organization.

While CC Sabathia has announced that the 2019 season will be his last, he’ll still be a large part of the Yankees pitching staff. It seems likely that James Paxton will head the rotation after being traded by the Mariners in the offseason. Along with Sabathia and Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ, and Luis Severino round out one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, and that doesn’t even touch the bullpen.

With names like Adam Ottovino, Aroldis Chapman, and Zack Britton, the Yankees likely have the top bullpen in baseball as well. Dellin Betances and Tommy Kahnle don’t want you to forget about them, either.

All in all, I’d be shocked if the Yankees don’t win at least 100 games and take the top spot in the AL East.

Boston Red Sox

Projected record: 95-67

The Red Sox celebrate a victory over the Baltimore Orioles in 2018 | Photo by: Keith Allison

Alex Cora’s defending World Series Champions are probably sick of reading pieces like this about how they won’t beat their division rivals this year.

Well, Red Sox players reading this, look away. This is another one of those.

For what it’s worth, I think the Red Sox are still going to be an excellent baseball team this season. They’ll make the playoffs and have a fighting chance to defend their crown as long as they stay healthy.

But 108 wins again? Not happening.

The Red Sox didn’t sign any big names this offseason, and for good reason: they already top the Majors in the payroll department, and bringing in any big contracts would push them further over the MLB’s “luxury tax” threshold. They brought back Nathan Eovaldi, agreeing to a four-year deal with him this offseason, but that’s been it.

Next season, Rick Porcello, Chris Sale, Xander Bogaerts, and Mitch Moreland will be free agents, and the Red Sox will probably owe Mookie Betts some extension money as well. The window might be closing for the next few years, but getting a title in 2018 made it all worth it.

Betts was incredible last year, hitting .346 and 32 home runs en route to winning the American League Most Valuable Player Award. He was also an All-Star and won both Silver Slugger and Gold Glove Awards as well. The Red Sox hope Betts will be able to put up similar numbers this season, and I don’t think that’s out of the question. Betts aiming for another .330+ and 30+ home run season could just be the new normal in Boston.

J.D. Martinez was also outstanding in 2018, hitting .330 while mashing 43 home runs and driving in 130 runs. Another season like that isn’t out of the question for Martinez, either. The other questions on offense will revolve around whether or not the Red Sox can get the production they need out of Moreland, Bogaerts, and Andrew Benintendi.

The Red Sox have more than enough talent on offense to repeat, and the starting pitching will still likely be great, but the bullpen could be what drags them down. Joe Kelly and Craig Kimbrel are gone, and they were arguably the two best arms in the Boston bullpen. Kelly signed with the Dodgers, and while Kimbrel is still a free agent, a return to Boston seems unlikely.

It could easily boil down to a playoff series between Boston and New York, but I think the Yankees will get the edge in the division and earn the home field advantage in that hypothetical series matchup.

Tampa Bay Rays

Projected record: 87-75

Tampa Bay’s Kevin Kiermaier looks on during a game against the Yankees in 2016 | Photo by: Arturo Pardavila III

It’s only fitting here at Midwest Sports Pulse (based out of Fort Wayne) that Kevin Kiermaier would get the photo section above. The Bishop Luers graduate, who made his debut on the last day of the season in 2013, is entering his fifth “full” season with the Rays, and his hope is to stay healthy in 2019. After two straight injury-shortened seasons, Kiermaier is aiming to be the face of consistency on offense and acquire his third Gold Glove Award.

The Rays lost out on the Nelson Cruz sweepstakes this offseason, but they managed to sign Avisail Garcia to likely fill the designated hitter role. Garcia played in only 93 games last year with the White Sox, but hit .330 in 2017. If Tampa gets a healthy Garcia (who’s 27 entering this season), they can expect a better batting average than Nelson Cruz and a good chunk of the home run production.

Perhaps the most interesting piece on offense for the Rays this year will be Tommy Pham. MLB Network has Pham ranked as the 45th best player in the Majors right now. After he was traded from St. Louis at the deadline last season, Pham went on to hit .343 in 39 games with Tampa and posted a .448 on-base percentage. Pham, who will be 31 on Opening Day, has also struggled with injuries in his career. If he can stay healthy and provide solid play in a corner outfield spot, he could be another huge boost to this offense over the course of 162 games.

Elsewhere, Blake Snell is undoubtedly the number one starter in the rotation for Tampa this season. Tyler Glasnow, who was acquired at the trade deadline from Pittsburgh last season, will likely be a starter despite some early struggles last year. Charlie Morton signed a two-year deal with the Rays this year after an All-Star appearance in 2018. Ryan Yarbrough will give Tampa another young arm to rely on for years to come.

Last season, the pitching situation was…interesting. The Rays, and manager Kevin Cash, decided late last year to use relievers for an inning or two to start the game before turning the ball over to the regular “starters.” It’s hard to knock the strategy, given that the Rays went 36-19 over the last two months of the season and won 90 games overall. Cash has already announced that the Rays will go with three starters to open the season and use this same strategy.

Ultimately, this Rays team is incredibly talented. They could end up winning around 90 games like last year, but in a division with two teams that are projected to win 95+ games, it won’t be quite good enough. It’ll be interesting to see where Tampa is in mid-July and whether they decide to be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline. The core is good, but the Yankees and Red Sox are liable to battle it out for the next few years (if Boston can figure out free agency), and the Rays could try and load up on prospects who will be ready for the big leagues a few years down the road. Tampa is in good position to win a division crown (or two) in the next 6-8 years, but 2019 won’t be one of them.

Toronto Blue Jays

Projected record: 76-86

Number one prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. bats as a member of the Lansing Lugnuts in 2017…when will he arrive? | Photo by: Joel Dinda

The Toronto Blue Jays are now three years removed from the franchise’s last playoff appearance. They haven’t sniffed a World Series since 1993, though that one was quite memorable (“Touch ’em all, Joe!”). There are still a number of players on the roster from the last few playoff appearances, but they aren’t likely to be there next time around, as the Blue Jays are fully in the middle of a rebuild.

The perfect season for this particular Toronto team involves those players getting off to hot starts and being dealt at the trade deadline for the next round of prospects. Seriously.

With all due respect to these players, the names Randall Grichuk, Aaron Sanchez, Kevin Pillar, Marcus Stroman, Kendrys Morales, and Justin Smoak don’t strike much fear into the hearts of baseball fans, and even less into the hearts of people who don’t regularly follow baseball. Smoak and Morales will be free agents at year’s end. The other four are free agents after next season. The best thing Toronto can do is trade away all of those guys for the next batch of playoff-bound Blue Jays.

That next batch will undoubtedly be led by Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the number one prospect in Major League Baseball.

Guerrero Jr. is unlikely to be on the Opening Day roster, but his arrival should come shortly after that. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the son of Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero (who knew?), can absolutely mash baseballs, just like his daddy. I’m no Blue Jays fan, but I am salivating at the thought of another player named Vladimir Guerrero in the big leagues. His dad was one of my all-time favorite players, and I attribute my desire to swing at high pitches to watching him rake every pitch in every location during my formative years.

The offense is really nothing to fear without Guerrero Jr. in the lineup, and the pitching staff is pretty mediocre as well. Stroman will likely be the top target of contenders come the trade deadline, but Sanchez and Ken Giles could be solid enough to warrant some interest. Sanchez is only 26, so it is plausible that the Blue Jays try to hang on to him, but Giles will be 30 by the time he hits free agency, and there isn’t generally a ton of interest in 30+ year old pitchers (just ask Jake Arrieta, or the aforementioned Craig Kimbrel).

Don’t miss out on watching Guerrero Jr. when you can, but don’t commit this roster to memory.

Baltimore Orioles

Projected record: 58-104

Chris Davis (19) strikes out looking against Toronto in 2017 | Photo by: Keith Allison

Well, it’s going to get a little better this year, Baltimore!

All of that talk about a rebuild in the Toronto section? Yeah, the Orioles are firmly in the middle of their own rebuild.

Balitmore lost 115(!) games last season, which is the 15th worst record (by winning percentage) in baseball since the modern era, which started in 1900. Because I’m sure you’re curious, the worst was the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics, who finished 36-117. (Fun facts: the most losses in a season belong to the 1962 New York Mets, who went 40-120. Before the “modern era” started in 1900, the Cleveland Spiders lost 134 games while winning only 20 in the 1899 season. Isn’t baseball fun? Imagine being on that team and in that locker room.)

The Orioles hired a new manager in Brandon Hyde, and there’s a fair amount to be amped for in the future. Dealing Manny Machado last year brought in a wealth of new prospects, none more exciting than Yusniel Diaz. Diaz played all of last year in Double-A with the Dodgers and Orioles affiliates and is easily the Orioles new top prospect.

The Orioles also have three pitchers in the farm system that are going to play major roles in the years to come in DL Hall, Grayson Rodriguez, and Dean Kremer. Hall and Rodriguez were both first-round draft picks, while Kremer was another part of the Machado trade. Kremer struck out 180 batters last year in High-A and Double-A.

As far as the roster at the big league level, there isn’t much to make opposing pitchers shiver with fear. Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo would have struck fear in the hearts of pitchers from 2013-16, but both are now past their prime. Trumbo hit 47 home runs in 2016, but only played in 90 games last year as he dealt with injuries. Davis had an abysmal 2018, hitting just .168 in 128 games. The same Chris Davis hit 53 home runs in 2013, and 47 in 2015. The power is there for both of these guys, but it isn’t likely to show itself at those levels again.

Jonathan Villar hit .260 last season with the Brewers and Orioles, and he could provide some consistency at the top of the lineup. Trey Mancini has been another consistent bat, hitting 24 home runs in each of the last two seasons.

The Orioles have a number of players without a ton of experience at the major league level to keep an eye on this year, including Cedric Mullins, DJ Stewart, and Rio Ruiz. Joey Rickard is a name who will likely be with the club for the length of the season, and Renato Nunez could provide some offense as well. Don’t be surprised, however, if the Orioles lead the MLB in strikeouts as some of these younger players get adjusted to being every day players in the majors.

Andrew Cashner, Dylan Bundy, and Alex Cobb will likely head the rotation this year. All three pitched more than 150 innings last season, but all three also had ERAs above 4.90. David Hess split time between Baltimore and the Norfolk Tides (AAA) last season. He went 3-10 when with the Orioles, but kept his ERA under that 4.90 number (barely – 4.88). He and newcomer Nate Karns should round out the rotation, but keep in mind that Karns is coming off two straight injury-shortened seasons.

All in all, the Orioles will not lose 115 games this season, which is better news than last year, I suppose. But don’t be surprised in the slightest if they still drop 100 games in 2019.

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