AL EastAnalysis

AL East Preview: 2023

Baseball's group of death

The AL East has a reputation for being historically one of the best divisions in baseball. It was formerly known as the division that featured perhaps the best rivalry in baseball between Boston and New York, two teams who were constantly vying for the division crown back and forth. That pattern has changed recently, however; the division has now become a battleground between all five teams – some with better chances than others – but nonetheless, it is the only division that features five teams who could all realistically put up a positive win-loss record. This could be a very exciting time for fans of teams in the AL East to watch and see who comes away with a playoff spot. Or, it could be one of the most stressful seasons, where no divisional matchup is easy, and nothing’s guaranteed like in other divisions. Either way, it should be a thrilling season to watch. Now, let’s introduce the five fighters.

New York Yankees: The Yankees and their empire have struck back. Their humiliating sweep by the Astros in the ALCS left a bad taste in the mouths of many fans, and the front office responded accordingly. Aaron Judge firmly cemented himself as the face of Yankee baseball for the next nine years after securing a mega free-agent deal with a monster 2022 MVP campaign in his contract year. The spending didn’t stop there, though, as Cashman wanted to keep the momentum going with the signing of Carlos Rodon, one of the best pitchers in baseball in the past couple of years since revitalizing his career after a long spell of injuries. The rest of the roster looks to be in ship-shape, too, as this squad, which won 99 games on the back of a robust first half, will look to be betting favorites to repeat.

That’s the positive outlook on things. However, for more of a grounded point of view that many New York fans have strongly-worded opinions about on social media, this team also definitely has its fair share of holes and missing pieces that keep them from being a true division runaway. Though you wouldn’t know by scrolling through Twitter, Isiah Kiner-Falefa is not the only problem on this team that holds them back. A good chunk of this lineup is well past its peak years, which is an issue. Giancarlo Stanton, Anthony Rizzo, and DJ LeMahieu are hitters who are still serviceable, but not exactly safe bets to repeat their past successes, with their age leaving open the possibility for a decline sooner than later.

Meanwhile, Josh Donaldson is already in the decline phase of his career, and I’m sure Cashman and Co. are counting down the days til they can get him off the roster. All this, along with average contributors like Aaron Hicks and Gleyber Torres, has made for an offense that will hinge on Judge’s health and performance. For a near-elite team like the Yankees, they can’t just rely on one player to carry the load as Judge often had to do last year. The callups of Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe, as well as an entire season of Harrison Bader, will help pick up the slack a bit. But for now, Judge is crucial to their winning on the hitting side of things.

While the offense has numerous question marks, the Yankees’ rotation makes up for it. To put it plainly, the Yankees have a monstrous spin. Bringing in Carlos Rodon to be co-ace with Gerrit Cole is an insane 1-2 punch that lineups will undoubtedly dread. But what sets a truly good rotation apart from others is its depth, and man, do the Yankees have depth. Nestor Cortes, Luis Severino, and (temporarily) Domingo German fill out the remaining spots, with Cortes and Severino hoping to build on last year’s success. Meanwhile, Frankie Montas, initially expected to round out that group, is recovering from shoulder inflammation and will miss the start of the year. It should be noted that Montas received favorable preseason projections after a disappointing introduction to New York last season, so it should be a big boon getting him back. There really is not a single weak spot in that rotation, and having Domingo German and Deivi Garcia as insurance is just fine by any standard.

The bullpen doesn’t lack firepower, either. Clay Holmes headlines a powerful group of young organizational breakouts, reclamation projects, and veteran signings that all have something to bring to the table. Jonathan Loaisaga should be as effective as ever, Tommy Kahnle looked tremendous in his time in LA, and the further development of arms like Michael King, Ron Marinaccio, and Luis Gil should be exciting to watch.

To be clear, the Yankees are a really good team. They’re loaded with stars at multiple positions, boast one of the top rotations in all of baseball, and have a new exciting wave of youth ready to take over in the infield. But while Cashman made some excellent moves when assembling this roster, some were also very questionable, which sets them apart from ever reaching the echelon of success that organizations like the Dodgers, Braves, and Astros have created from top to bottom. It could very well be that the Yankees go far this season, but their fatal flaws with faulty veterans providing little-to-no value to the roster and too much success being hanging on Judge makes me think they’re not an elite threat just yet.

2023 Win-Loss Prediciton: 96-66

Toronto Blue Jays: The Blue Jays have recently been one of the most entertaining teams to watch flourish into a true contender. Their exciting homegrown youth provides the thump in the middle of their lineup, and they also possess one of baseball’s top pitching staffs. Of all the offenses in the AL East, Toronto might have the least to worry about. Their lineup is built on exceptional defense, pure slugging, and clever platooning. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and George Springer should continue to be the anchors in this lineup, as all of their bats are among the most elite in the game and should continue to be. Vlad definitely took a step back with his bat last year, but some regression was expected, considering he put up a top-two MVP campaign the year before. Nevertheless, his bat will continue to be elite, and if he can also continue lifting the ball while making hard contact, his value will remain sky-high.

Bichette is always a bit of a strange type of star player who is a more offensive-first player at a defense-first position. A caveat of Bichette’s game comes from him having to rely purely on his bat for value, as his glove does not provide much. No need to worry, however – Bichette is an elite hitter. After a primarily slow 2022 season that saw him slump through various points, Bo exploded at the end of the season and put Toronto on his back with his bat to get them to 92 wins. Nothing in his approach at the plate should cause concern for worry besides maybe his walk percentage, but regardless, Bichette should be an elite hitter this coming season.

The rest of the lineup features brilliant defenders in Matt Chapman and newcomers Daulton Varsho and Kevin Kiermaier. Becoming a more balanced and sound defensive team was a primary goal for GM Ross Atkins this offseason, and he succeeded with that short-term goal by making the stunning Moreno-Varsho deal that was followed by bringing in a defensive wizard in Kiermaier to man center field. The problem is, he sacrificed outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and top prospect Gabriel Moreno. Atkins got his wish this offseason, but it has to be asked if he paid too high of a price.

Another more nuanced downside to the lineup re-shuffling is potentially messing up a good thing going on in the Toronto clubhouse. Teoscar Hernandez (traded to Seattle for reliever Erik Swanson) and Gurriel Jr. have been regulars in this group since 2018 and were rightfully influential mentors to some of the team’s youngest and most talented hitters. Not to say that the trade of these two players will have any disastrous effects on the team, but it usually hurts more than helps to ruin a good clubhouse vibe when something good is already going on. But with an improved defense, more balanced lineup, and deep collection of offensive depth, including all-stars Alejandro Kirk, Whit Merrifield, and Santiago Espinal as platoon options, this offense is one that looks far more ready to take on October than it has in years past.

The pitching, though, is not what I would call as balanced. The rotation is solid, but not as reliable. The 1-2 of Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman is probably one of the best in baseball, as those two feature prominently as true co-aces. But beyond that, there isn’t much. Chris Bassitt looks to be a really nice pickup, as he’s now firmly proved that he can be a consistent top starter with his vast array of pitches at varying speeds. This move was great on Atkins’ part, however, others have not looked so great.

The Jose Berrios project might not have been the move they hoped for in hindsight. Toronto thought they would be getting one of basebbaseball’s consistent starters that ate innings and helped carry a bulk of the workload, while pitching at a star level. They were so confident in this that, besides trading two top prospects for him, they also gave him a seven-year extension. Berrios proved to be a league leader in some pitching categories last year. The problem is that those categories were earned runs and hits, leaderboards of which not a single pitcher would want to be at the top.

Toronto’s front office decided to follow that up with the Yusei Kikuchi signing, and the Jays can now confidently say they have some of the worst and most overpaid starters of any rotation in baseball. Hyun-jin Ryu and the $20 million he’ll earn while not throwing a single inning this year just add insult to injury. Ross Atkins did a great job handing out money to Gausman and Bassitt and developing Manoah, but the rest of this rotation has been constructed awfully. Mitch White and Nate Pearson will surely get looks, but lousy injury luck and shaky performances make projection systems not the biggest fans of their game. If there’s one weakness that will bite Toronto this season, it’s going to be this rotation. They won’t be won’t be able to match up to either the Yankees’ or Rays’ staffs, and in a postseason series, there are really no reliable options past the first three. Expect top prospect Ricky Tiedemann or a potential deadline acquisition to be a large part of their plans later on because, currently, this rotation doesn’t complement that of a great team.

The relief corps is an area that doesn’t need as much help as the rotation as it is simply sufficient. It’s a solIt’sf unremarkable group that relies on top man Jordan Romano as the high-value closer and backups of Swanson, Anthony Bass, and Yimi Garcia to take on the later innings. What’s to like about the bullpen is that it primarily features relievers coming off their best seasons or recently finding success at the major league level. These guys have been battle-hardened to MLB hitting and are all primarily reliable in most relief situations. A downside here is the lack of depth. Toronto was lucky to have almost all their pen stay healthy last year and enjoy breakout successes from Romano, Bass, and Garcia, but with reliever seasons always being the most volatile year-to-year, that can’t be relied upon again. In addition, all bullpens will run into injury problems, and as of now, Toronto appears ill-equipped to back up any significant injuries.

2023 Win-Loss Prediction: 92-70

Baltimore Orioles: For a team on the precipice of one of baseball’s most exciting youth movements, the Baltimore Orioles sure did not act like that team this past offseason. 2022 was a year of so much progress and forward motion away from those dreadful tanking-era O’s to a team with a real identity and a collection of some of the most endearing and tremendous youth talent. So it seemed particularly odd that Baltimore didn’t do more to capitalize on that optimism. Now, an offseason isn’t automatically graded poorly when a team doesn’t make a lot of noise, as there’s always a context from which every team must evaluate their strengths and weaknesses.

But Baltimore is now at the point of their contention plan where it’s evident that all the building blocks are in place to succeed and play at the major league level. That’s why I thought the focus should then turn to the finishing touches. That incredible 2016 World Series Cubs team was built very similarly to the current Orioles in their early days too. The plan was to assemble a solid offensive youth core through years of tanking that would then be supplemented with strong free-agent additions. It’s the same plan current Baltimore GM Mike Elias carried out (although the new draft lottery will make this rebuilding plan less viable in today’s game). Unfortunately, Elias seemed to want only to stick his toe in the water to get a feel for things instead of committing to superstars in a free-agent class that featured numerous.

So, for a team that had the chance to vault itself into the legitimate contender tier, it’s disappointing not to see the same confidence exhibited by Baltimore’s front office. Of course, maybe that’s part of Elias’ master plan, and in the end, I’m just a talking head. But for now, I’m skeptical of how Baltimore is planning to win with this bevy of young talent, as they don’t seem to want to add any impact talent from the market.

The best way to describe this offense is as one that is beginning to flourish while also still being a work in progress. The graduation of not one, but two #1 overall prospects in baseball gives this offense a realistically high ceiling to aim for, and Cedric Mullins helps provide some guaranteed production as a dual threat with his bat and center field defense. And while prospects have such a high chance of not finding their footing and never reaching their true abilities, Gunnar Henderson and Adley Rutschman are about as close you can get to instant locks to reach superstardom.

That area of their offense is the envy of every team, but the depth further down proves to be shaky and largely dependent on simply average bats to fill in positions. The willingness to give regulars Ryan Mountcastle, Austin Hays, and newcomer Adam Frazier a good chunk of playing time worries me a bit. The Orioles will have to scrape as many wins as they can against AL East opponents to have a shot in the playoff race, and those mentioned regulars don’t do a lot to help. Meanwhile, the improvements that Ramon Urias, Jorge Mateo, and Anthony Santander showed last year are highly encouraging to this offense and help ease the load for a team that is going to be putting a lot of stress on youth talent. Urias and Mateo saw their talents and value skyrocket this past season due to their extreme defensive improvements, helping to strengthen a young rotation that will need all the help it can get. Now, about that rotation…

To clarify further, it has to be said that last year’s Orioles starters definitely overperformed. Now, that might be a harsh way of discrediting a young collection of arms with a realistically projectable ceiling to succeed, but I don’t see this rotation being the team’s strong point this year. It’s a mix of journeymen starters and recent Triple-A graduates finding success in the big leagues. Cole Irvin was a good enough pickup recently that helps Baltimore find more assured innings, and Kyle Gibson does a similar job in that he will do what he does best, and munch up as many innings as he can. The glaring flaw in both of these pitchers’ games is the fact that they don’t exactly pitch well, but instead just pitch a lot.

That’s not the case, though, when it comes to Dean Kremer, Austin Voth, or Tyler Wells. All three of these guys to a certain degree figured out how to pitch effectively for the first time at the big league level and the front office will be anticipating how high they can go. Kremer looks like the best of the bunch and seeing how much of his success last year was realistic according to luck factors, the talent is real and repeatable. Voth is trickier to figure out as this was the first time he had a good stretch of innings in a sample size of 83. The stuff is there with him, but consistency will have to follow as well in order for success. And with Wells as a solid fifth man at the back with Kyle Bradish, Mike Baumann, and the healing John Means, this rotation rounds out to be just average.

That might be OK though, as the bullpen has many exciting arms. For a system lacking in pitching development for years during the dark ages of the tank, it was shocking to see how many young components from the system and waiver claims broke out. For a group that had no identity coming into the year, the O’s bullpen came out looking completely different. The emergence of Felix Bautista, Dillon Tate, Bryan Baker, Cionel Perez, and Keegan Akin all happened at the same time and the pen now boasts a really solid core that’s under team control for many more years. Bautista is the gem of this collection as his 2022 puts him in the elite tier of closers in baseball. That leaves me not too worried overall about Baltimore’s pitching staff. The rotation is in need of help, and eventually, Grayson Rodriguez or DL Hall could be answers, but the team will be relying on that pen plenty for now.

2023 Win-Loss Prediciton: 84-78

Boston Red Sox: What is one supposed to make of the Chaim Bloom era? From the time he arrived in Boston, it was going to be interesting to see how he would merge philosophies from the small-market Rays with the Red Sox and their spending habits. We’ve seen three seasons so far under Bloom, during which he traded away an MVP, finished at the bottom in the AL East twice, but also finished just two wins away from a pennant in 2021. It begs the question – what will 2023 hold?

With both the trade deadline and offseason being used to overhaul the roster, the Red Sox are starting to take on a very different identity than in years past. With Xander Bogaerts going to San Diego and JD Martinez taking a job in LA, nothing really remains of that former championship team except for Chris Sale and the newly extended Rafael Devers. For a team that didn’t want to commit to keeping its longtime captain around, the other moves Boston made this offseason were strange, to say the least.

Alright, you skip on Bogaerts and go for another bat, and it’s…Masataka Yoshida? Don’t get me wrong, Yoshida has had an illustrious track record in NPB combined with a style of play that might see him hit close to .300 while leading off every day. But the willingness to pass on someone as important to the franchise and the fanbase as Bogaerts while then turning around and handing out a five-year deal to a hitter who’s never played in MLB doesn’t do the front office many favors.

That’s the story of Boston’s offseason so far: getting worse overall through free agent losses and injuries and replacing them with suboptimal backups. Missing Trevor Story for most of the year? The ever-inconsistent Adalberto Mondesi will take over at shortstop. Lost offensive production from Xander Bogaerts? 38-year-old Justin Turner and new center fielder Adam Duvall are there to make up for all those runs! Nathan Eovaldi leaves for Texas? Corey Kluber and his 89-MPH fastball are there to take over. Now, yes I’m being a little facetious with how I’m describing the moves Boston has made. They basically ended up doing their free agent shopping at a 99-cent store and somehow came out overpaying when it came to deals like Yoshida’s. There’s a semblance of a core that’s still intact here, but with every passing year and major free agents leaving, it’s hard to see a sustainable winning team in Boston.

It should be stated though that this is still the Boston Red Sox. Count them out too quickly and they’ll they’ll make you pay. Nobody saw them doing much of anything after a dreadful 2020 and they followed it up with a hard-fought ALCS exit. This team still has star power. Devers and his freshly-signed extension was the biggest win of Boston’s offseason and he can now proudly call himself the face of this franchise. The main goal of every extension is to capitalize on the first couple of prime years before it starts going downhill, and Devers has plenty of gas left in the tank.

Triston Casas will also be one of the most exciting young hitters to watch. A top prospect whose game profiles similarly to Sox legend Big Papi, Casas’ bat is the real deal, and a full season manning first base gives him all the right circumstances to break out big time. There’s the reliable Alex Verdugo who’s usually safe for a good three-WAR season, as well as Enrique Hernandez, who, with a full season on the field, will be much better than last year’s injury-riddled performance.

So the offense has potential. It certainly lacks depth, however. In the event of an injury (which there always is), Boston looks pretty unprepared to back it up. Christian Arroyo provides minimal offense and is mostly there for his defensive versatility, while the most realistic option from the farm to rely on is Ceddanne Rafaela, who realistically needs a bit more time to cook in the minors. 

The rotation should be decent. Trying to predict any meaningful innings out of Chris Sale at this point has become a guessing game and Nick Pivetta is an almost sure lock for innings but inconsistent production. But where this rotation has something to be excited about is in its upside. Brayan Bello had a rough debut season but he’s still young with frontline-starter potential. Garrett Whitlock is another arm who just keeps getting better. He excels as a long reliever, but if he can stretch those innings to a starter role, his ceiling can be significant. The rest of the rotation is nothing special and the bullpen will be simply good enough with the additions of several veterans like Kenley Jansen and Chris Martin that are at least more reliable than Ryan Brasier and Kutter Crawford.

At the end of the day, this is roughly a 78-win team that got worse overall. While many share my opinion that this team is not all that great, I once again remind you that this is the Boston Red Sox, and if any team were to hit a stride and ride that to the playoffs, it’s this team. So, while they are not to be counted out, the Red Sox are on paper probably the worst in the division.

2023 Win-Loss Prediction: 80-82

Tampa Bay Rays: One of the most difficult things about winning in baseball is actually sustaining success. The Rays have now been a steady lock for the playoffs over the last four seasons and have done it with very different teams each season. The way the Rays are run ensures lots of roster turnover and depth in a system built on the next-man-up mentality. It’s not a very pretty style of baseball for your average viewer. While the Yankees and Blue Jays will be wowing fans with spectacular Aaron Judge moonshots and Vlad Jr. tanks, the Rays don’t have that same type of awe-inspiring star power.

In fact, the team really does not boast any true stars with the exception of Wander Franco, who still has a potential Hall of Fame ceiling to grow into, but he has to prove it over the course of a full season. So, while some may hold that lack of excitement against them, the Rays don’t mind, cause they’ve figured out a winning formula that works, and you can bet they’re going to roll it out again in 2023. The formula goes something like this: start the offseason by trading reliable starters that are arbitration eligible, get value from those trades that will help the team sooner than later, and finally, make sure there’s an above-average player at each position. It’s been a hallmark of this team that continues to run out players that, on the surface, look nothing special, but with expert planning from the front office, utilize them in such a way to get the most possible out of them. It should be something of the same story this year.

One underrated aspect of this Rays squad is their infield. When on the field and playing at their normal levels, Tampa Bay could have three different four-plus WAR players at third, short, and second. Yandy Diaz cemented himself as a top third baseman in 2022 with expert plate discipline that was Juan Soto-esque. The aforementioned Franco will man short and with his 80-grade future value and abilities that could one day take him to Cooperstown; he’ll be a fun, young phenom to watch. And finally, the most unsung hero of the group who was the thump behind the 2020 and 2021 Rays offense, Brandon Lowe will be back full-time after letting his back heal. His power is very necessary for this lineup that has trouble with the long ball sometimes.

The infield depth is also very strong. Isaac Paredes had a quiet breakout last year and he’ll be getting lots of reps at DH and first. An exciting young bat in Jonathan Aranda will also be getting at-bats this year as his bat-first approach should help a lineup starved of hits last year. Where I have problems with this team is in the outfield. It was a goal for the front office to get more assured offense after the horrid showing in the Wild Card round against Cleveland, but they made no such moves. The signal from that is clear: the Rays think they have a good enough group and didn’t feel the need to add more. I think that’s a bit overconfident of them.

Randy Arozarena is the best bet to put up strong numbers of the outfielders in this group, as his raucous style of play and base running is aggravating sometimes but also has plenty of rewards with it. In center field, Jose Siri will be taking the reigns from Kevin Kiermaier and should get a full season of play from his glove alone. Right field is a mess. The options currently are Manuel Margot, Josh Lowe, and Harold Ramirez – declining vets and struggling rookies that, when platooned together, could put up some positive value. But as starters, they just don’t cut it. If there is one big deadline deal the Rays will do this coming season, I can almost guarantee you it’ll be a bat for a DH or outfield spot.

Wait, so how is this slightly above-average offense going to win ballgames? It won’t. But the pitching will: 

The best way I can describe this entire staff of arms is like a multi-headed hydra. Where most teams are scrapping to find arms that can eat up innings, Tampa Bay has a good nine pitchers who could all realistically be part of the rotation. Where most teams are handing out multi-year deals to relievers in their declining years, the Rays have a sturdy group of righties and lefties whose depth goes down to their AA bullpen. It’s a staff that’s built to remain adaptable and keep lineups constantly guessing and off balance.

Shane McClanahan, Tyler Glasnow, and Drew Rasmussen are prototypical power pitchers who should terrorize offenses with 100+ mph fastballs and sharp breakers. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Springs and new guy Zach Eflin will utilize heavy sinkers and offspeed to induce weak contact that an elite defense can gobble up. There’s There’sno weakness in that rotation and the thought of top prospects Taj Bradley and Luis Patino breaking out is scary.

And like the old saying goes, “Out of the frying pan and into the fire,” because after the starters is a stable of elite one-inning relievers. The combination of Pete Fairbanks and Jason Adam at the back end is lethal. Those are arguably two top-ten relievers that will be splitting most of the save opportunities. The rest of the pen features various arm angles and pitchers that are all like their own tool on a swiss army knife. Colin Poche, Jalen Beeks, and Garrett Cleavinger are great lefties while Shawn Armstrong and Ryan Thompson provide shutdown righty options. Overall, it’s a pitching staff that will have lineups flailing, but last year’s playoffs showed us that pitching can only get them so far. 

2023 Win-Loss Prediction: 93-69

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