MLB 2015 Preview: AL East

Spring training is right around the corner, and there is no better time to start talking about baseball. Throughout the upcoming weeks I will be previewing each of the six divisions in Major League Baseball and giving my prediction for each. This week I’ll start with the American League East.

For the first decade of the 2000s, this division was ruled by the Boston Red Sox or the New York Yankees, but now there is much more parity. Last season the Baltimore Orioles took this division by winning 96 games, 12 more than the second place Yankees. I think this season this division should be one of the most competitive in baseball with no clear-cut team at the top.

5. Tampa Bay Rays.

Manager – Kevin Cash

General Manager – Matthew Silverman

Home Ballpark – Tropicana Field

2014 Record – 77-85.

Key Departures – Joe Maddon, Wil Myers, Yunel Escobar, Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce, David Price (Traded at the deadline last season)

Key Additions – Asdrubal Cabrera, Ernesto Frieri, Steven Zouza, Rene Rivera.

Key Returners – Evan Longoria, Matt Moore, Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi, James Loney, Desmond Jennings.

Pitching Staff

This staff is loaded with talented guys such as Matt Moore, Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, and Jake Odorizzi. I would consider this staff one of the most underrated in the game. Moore was hurt for most of the 2014 season, but he was fantastic in his rookie season in 2013. If he can come back and be the pitcher he was, you have a top-line starter. Chris Archer was once regarded as one the top prospects in the Chicago Cubs system, and since he was traded away to Tampa Bay for Matt Garza, he has not disappointed. Archer had a nice season for a pretty mediocre team in 2014. He won 10 games with an ERA in the low 3s and had a WHIP that ranked in the top half of the league. Alex Cobb probably had the best season of any Rays’ starter last season. He too won 10 games and had an ERA of 2.87. He rebounded well after coming back from a scary head injury in 2013. Lastly, the Rays have a talented young started in Jake Odorizzi. He was a key part of the trade that sent James Shields to Kansas City and was regarded as one of the better prospects in that trade. He showed flashes of what he can be in 2014, it will be interesting to see what he can do in a full season.

Lineup

The departure that will impact the Rays the most is that of manager Joe Maddon. In past seasons when many thought the Rays were not in a position to compete, they still had a chance because they had a great manager in Maddon. The Rays do have the pitching to compete, but I don’t think they have a lineup that can pose much of a threat to opposing teams. They do have some nice pieces in Longoria and Jennings, but besides those two guys, their lineup is pretty barren.  This was a team that won only 77 games in 2014, and that was with Zobrist, Joyce and Myers. I can’t imagine this team improving on that win total without those guys or anyone to replace them.

4. New York Yankees.

Manager – Joe Girardi

General Manager – Brian Cashman

Home Ballpark – Yankees Stadium

2014 Record 84-77

Key Departures – Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki, Shane Greene, Alfonso Soriano, David Robertson.

Key Additions –  Andrew Miller, Nathan Eovaldi, Chase Headley, Didi Gregorius.

Key Returners – Mashiro Tanaka, Brian McCann, Mark Teixeira, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, Carlos Beltran, Dellin Batanches, CC Sabathia, Alex R

Pitching Staff

The Yankees have some big names at the top of their rotation with Tanaka and Sabathia, but Tanaka is coming off an elbow injury and Sabathia is also coming off an injury and only getting older. They have some good, young, talented pitchers in Michael Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi, but at this point those guys are still question marks. The Bronx Bombers should have one of the best bullpens in baseball with Andrew Miller and Dellin Batanches. Batanches was a finalist for Rookie of the Year award, but Jose Abreu had something to say about that. Miller was a lockdown setup man last season between the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles, which led to him signing a huge contract this offseason. Overall, I think there are some big question marks in the Yankees starting rotation. If those questions are answered in a positive way, the Yankees could be a contender for the divisional crown, although I don’t see that happening.

Lineup

Much like their pitching staff, the Yankees’ lineup is loaded with big names. Brian McCann, Mark Teixeira, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran were all stars at one point in their career. I would argue three of those four are in the declining years of the career. Alex Rodriguez is coming off a year-long suspension for testing positive for steroids, and he’ll be turning 40 this upcoming season. The Yankees did sign Chase Headley in the offseason, and it seems like we’ll be seeing less and less of A-Rod this season. The Yankees will have to pay him $61 million during the next three seasons. Didi Gregorius will have to do the unenviable task of filling the shoes of legend Derek Jeter. Like their pitching staff, the Yankees’ lineup just has too many question marks. If the Yankees aging veterans can perform like they have in their past, they can contend. All that is not very possible because unless you’re Ted Williams, you’re most likely not getting better as you age. The Yankees do have some nice pieces, but just too much uncertainty for me to give them more than an outside chance to contend for a division.

3. Boston Red Sox

Manager – John Farrell

General Manager – Ben Cherrington

Home Ballpark – Fenway Park

2014 Record – 71-91

Key Departures – Jon Lester (traded last season at the deadline), Yoenis Cespedes, David Ross.

Key Additions – Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, Rick Porcello.

Key Returners – David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts, Mike Napoli, Rusney Castillo, Allen Craig, Shane Victorino.

Pitching Staff.

Unless the Red Sox trade for Cole Hamels, they do not have a clear-cut number one in their rotation. They do have some nice starters in Rick Porcello, Joe Kelly, Clay Buchholz, Wade Miley and Justin Masterson, but I would not say you could rely on those five guys to seriously contend for a division crown. The Red Sox do bring back Koji Uehara as the closer. They have the potential to have a good bullpen with guys like Edward Mujica, Junichi Tazawa and newly acquired Robbie Ross. Overall, I think the Red Sox are one ace away from being the division winner.

Lineup

This rendition of the Red Sox lineup is loaded with big names and great hitters. This team shouldn’t have a problem scoring runs. The only way they don’t score runs is if Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval don’t respond well to playing in Boston. Also, Ramirez will have to adjust playing a new position in left field. I expect a bounce-back season from Dustin Pedroia, and David Ortiz has not showed any signs of slowing down in his old age. It will be interesting to see how their young position players such as Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Christian Vazquez and Xander Bogaerts develop. Allen Craig struggled last year between St.Louis and Boston. It was just two seasons ago when he was one of the better hitters in baseball. It will be interesting to see if a full season in Boston will be good for him. Rusney Castillo was signed late last season out of Cuba, and he will have a shot to play centerfield along with Betts and Bradley Jr. The Red Sox are loaded with outfield pieces that could be expendable in a trade for a guy like Cole Hamels. If Sandoval and Ramirez perform to their expectations, the Red Sox will have one of the best lineups in baseball. I think it will be their pitching staff that will hold them back.

2. Baltimore Orioles

Manager – Buck Showalter

General Manager – Dan Duquette

Home Ballpark – Oriole Park at Camden Yards

2014 Record – 96-66

Key Departures – Andrew Miller, Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis.

Key Additions – None

Key Returners – Adam Jones, Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, Chris Tillman, JJ Hardy, Manny Machado, Kevin Gausman.

Pitching Staff.

Much like the Red Sox, the Orioles do not have a clear-cut number one their rotation, yet they found a way to win 96 ballgames with this pitching staff last season, and there is something about manager Buck Showalter that makes everything work. I think Kevin Gausman has the ability to develop into the dominant ace of this rotation. They also have a young kid in Dylan Bundy that has the stuff to become an ace. For now, while those guys are still developing, the O’s will have to rely on Chris Tillman to anchor this pitching staff. Tillman has won 13-plus games during the past two years and was an All-Star in 2013. The O’s also had one of the best bullpens in baseball last season. Yes, they lost Andrew Miller to free agency, but they still have some really good pieces in that bullpen.  Zach Britton saved 37 games last season. Darren O’Day and Tommy Hunter were two of the best and most reliable seventh and eighth inning guys in baseball last season. Even though the O’s lack an ace at the top of their rotation, I think they have a good enough bullpen and good enough starters to compete for the division. In the end, I see them being a wildcard team.

The O’s lose a lot of run production in the middle of their lineup with the loss of Nelson Cruz. They lose one of the better on-base men in baseball in Nick Markakis. On the plus side, they still have one of the best players in the game in Adam Jones. They still have one of the best shortstops in JJ Hardy. Also, if he stays healthy, they should have Manny Machado for a whole season. When healthy, Machado has already shown to be one of the best young players in the game. He is coming off a knee injury, so if he can come back in a positive way the Orioles still should have a pretty good middle of the order. Matt Wieters is also coming off an injury, so it will be nice for the O’s to have their catcher back for a full season. They had a pretty good lineup last season without Machado and Wieters. With key players coming back this season, the O’s should be able to replace the production of Cruz. I would have liked for the O’s to do a little more spending this offseason because they are banking a little too much on the return of some players. They will need to somehow fill the void of Nick Markakis in right field to be a true contender.

1. Toronto Blue Jays

Manager – John Gibbons

General Manager – Alex Anthopoulos

Home Ballpark- Rogers Centre

2014 Record – 83-79

Key Departures – Brett Lawrie, Casey Janssen, Colby Rasmus.

Key Additions – Josh Donaldson, Russell Martin, Michael Saunders.

Key Returners – Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Reyes, Adam Lind, Mark Buehrle, RA Dickey, Marcus Stroman.

Yes, you read that right. The Toronto Blue Jays will win the American League East this season. I love the moves they have made this offseason. For the first time in more than 20 years, there will be postseason baseball north of the border.

A lot of Jays fans were upset last trade deadline when GM Alex Anthopoulos failed to make any moves to improve a team that had a chance to make the playoffs. Anthopoulus finally put those critics to rest this offseason when he signed Russell Martin and traded for Josh Donaldson. The Jays should have one of the best lineups in baseball. You take two of the best offensive players in baseball in Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion and put them with one of the top all-around players in the game in Donaldson, you have one of the best 3-4-5 in the game. Not to mention you still have a great leadoff man and shortstop in Jose Reyes. Martin should be a huge upgrade over Dioner Navarro behind the dish. He really knows how to handle a pitching staff, and he can hold his own at the plate. I expect the Jays to turn the corner this season, much like what the Kansas City Royals did last season, and make the postseason for the first time in 20-plus years.

Pitching Staff.

I would like to see the Jays pick up one more starter, but for now they have a solid 1-2-3 in RA Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Marcus Stroman. Dickey and Buehrle are pretty well known commodities, but I think this might be the season Marcus Stroman bursts on to the scene. He had a really nice rookie season going 11-6 with a 3.65 ERA. He did all that in just 130 innings. I can’t wait to see what he can do with a full season to work with. I expect the Jays to round out their rotation with Drew Hutchinson and Aaron Sanchez. Hutchinson can be a serviceable four or five starter, but nothing more than that. Sanchez on the other hand has the potential to be one of the Jays better starters. He is a highly touted prospect and a former first round pick. He is very young but had some big league experience last season out of the bullpen for the Jays. In just 33 innings pitched, he posted a 1.09 ERA and struck out 27 batters. He can be a very good four-starter in this rotation. The Jays lost their closer in Casey Janssen, so they will need to replace him somehow. The only complaint I have with the Jays’ offseason is they did not pick up much bullpen help. They have some nice pieces in the bullpen with Todd Redmond, Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup. It’ll be interesting what they do in spring training to address the closer role. Even with the question mark of the bullpen, I still think the Jays have enough in the rotation and certainly have enough in that lineup to win this division.

Follow Bobby on Twitter @RENorell_III