In what has become one of the most unpredictable divisions in baseball, the AL East crown was captured by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2015, after a blistering second half that saw 3B Josh Donaldson solidify his MVP credentials, and slugger RF Jose Bautista make it to the postseason for the first time in his career.
The New York Yankees also surprised the league by snatching the first AL Wild Card, though they lost to the Houston Astros in the one-game playoff. Along with the Yankees, the Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, and Tampa Bay Rays have all made some strides to attempt to take the top spot away from the Blue Jays in 2016.
Falling short in the 2014 ALCS, the Orioles seemed ready to make another run last season. That was not the case, though, as the Orioles fell apart and couldn’t make up the ground required to sneak into the Wild Card. Baltimore, not content with a .500 (81-81) season, has made some key changes in order to reach the postseason again.
The biggest addition to the Orioles came from within, after the O’s signed 1B Chris Davis to a 7-year, $161 million deal to keep the big-bat in Baltimore. Davis lead all of baseball in HRs last season with 47, the second time (2013) he’s done so. The Orioles lineup looks as powerful as ever.
As I wrote about just under a month ago, the Orioles added Yovani Gallardo to bolster their pitching staff. The Orioles lost Wei-Yen Chen, the team’s best pitcher in recent seasons, but Gallardo should be able to replicate Chen’s production. The pitching staff still lacks a true ace though, and that could bite the Orioles late in the season.
If the Orioles want to return to the playoffs though, it will fall on the shoulders of young 3B Manny Machado. Machado, a 2 time gold glove winner, became an offensive mastermind in his fourth season. Cracking 35 HRs from the leadoff spot, the Orioles have perhaps the most frightening leadoff man in all of the MLB.
Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox made a late push to end up at 78-84, surviving injuries and poor play from many key players. Former LF (now 1B) Hanley Ramirez was the big signing before 2015, and it started off in perfect fashion for the Red Sox. Ramirez slugged 19 HRs in only 105 games, but a shoulder injury cost him the rest of 2015.
3B Pablo Sandoval, the other big move for the Red Sox prior to last season, fell off a cliff statistically. After being worth an average of 2.9 WAR his first 7 seasons, Sandoval managed to drop so far below, he actually provided -0.9 WAR to the Red Sox. Sandoval will have to improve if the Red Sox have playoff aspirations.
After failing to re-sign ace Jon Lester last season, the Red Sox went out and signed the best pitcher on the market, LHP David Price. This significantly improves Boston’s rotation, enough that pitching shouldn’t be a question heading into 2016. Price should contend for the AL Cy Young award once again, after finishing 2nd last season.
Many stories this season will be about the retirement of longtime fan-favorite DH David Ortiz, a 3-time World Series champion in Boston, and that’s fair. Ortiz has been one of the game’s best for over a decade. But if the Red Sox wish to contend, it falls on SS Xander Bogaerts and CF Mookie Betts, both talented young players.
New York Yankees
The biggest story in 2015 for the Yankees was the resurgence of DH Alex Rodriguez, fresh off a PED suspension and a multitude of injuries that left doubt that the 40-year old could produce. Rodriguez surprised everyone, reaching 33 HRs, his most since 2008. Rodriguez enters 2016 with many of the same questions, but he’s proved them wrong before.
Mashiro Tanaka, the staff-ace, is fully healthy and should be one of the better pitchers in the division. Tanaka survived a slow start to produce 3.0 WAR, barely a step down from 2014’s 3.3 WAR. The rotation also welcomes young stud Luis Severino, who pitched to a 2.89 ERA in 62.1 big league innings.
The Yankees will definitely need their older players to step up again, particularly C Brian McCann and RF Carlos Beltran. The big addition to the lineup comes in 2B Starlin Castro from the Chicago Cubs. Castro, a 3-time All-Star, had a down year in 2015. Castro’s power-stroke left him, as he only hit 36 XBH, down from 48 the previous year.
More than anything though, the Yankees will rely on what looks like the best bullpen in baseball. Along with former closer Andrew Miller and All-Star Dellin Betances, the Yankees added flamethrower Aroldis Chapman. Though Chapman will miss 30 games due to a suspension, this bullpen could carry the Yankees back to the postseason.
Tampa Bay Rays
A longtime underrated team, the Rays failed to make the playoffs last season, finishing 80-82. Though not a bad season by any means, the Rays need to find a way back to the postseason, as this is the second season in a row that the Rays missed out.
The success of the Rays starts and ends with the production of 3B Evan Longoria. In years past, a healthy Longoria put up 6.0 WAR or better with ease, but a healthy Longoria has failed to top 3.3 WAR the last 2 seasons. This may be the version of Longoria that’s here to stay, and that’s troubling for the Rays’ playoff hopes.
Chris Archer, a homegrown hard-throwing righty, put up an impressive season in 2015 in his first as the staff-ace. Archer struck out an impressive 252 batters, and accumulated 4.3 WAR in a campaign that ended in a top-5 finish in the AL Cy Young voting. This season doesn’t look like it’s their year though, as the Rays are simply less talented than the others in the AL East.
Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays, with the help of Donaldson, made it all the way to the ALCS last season, but fell to the eventual World Series champions, the Kansas City Royals. Still, it was an impressive season that saw the Blue Jays score more runs than any other team by a wide margin.
Donaldson and Bautista anchor a terrifying lineup, that also returns slugger 1B/DH Edwin Encarnacion, another member of the 40+ HR club along with Donaldson and Bautista. SS Troy Tulowitzki, a mid-season acquisition, must improve if the Blue Jays want to repeat as AL East champions.
The biggest question for the Blue Jays is their rotation, as they lost Price to the Red Sox. Marcus Stroman, at only 24, enters the season as the Blue Jays’ number-one pitcher. Stroman will have to continue to improve if Toronto plans on contending again, as the rotation is very unproven behind him.
2016 is unclear for the Blue Jays, as their performance depends on a lot of their players improving, but with their lineup, expect them to once again be one of the best offenses in all of baseball. Also expect Donaldson to contend for the MVP once again, as he’s proven to be one of the best in the game.
Though I my curse this piece in a few months, my gut tells me the Red Sox enter the season as the team to beat. There are a lot of concerns, notably their rotation behind Price and the health of Ramirez and Sandoval, but Boston’s ceiling is higher than any other AL East team.
This division should be a close race though, as the Red Sox, Orioles, Yankees, and Blue Jays all have a decent chance to take the AL East. In the end though, I’m picking the Red Sox, partly because I have no idea who to choose, and partly because tie goes to the best pitcher (Price).
Statistics provided by: baseball-reference.com, ESPN.com and MLB.com
Pictures thanks to: wbur.org, MLB.com, ESPN.com, csnne.com, Boston.com, businessinsider.com, Fox Sports, Washington Times, sportingnews.com