The American League East has been the powerhouse of all of baseball in years past, but recently there’s been an apparent shift in power to the West coast, as well as the National League. The two biggest teams in past years, the Yankees and Red Sox, have been under much scrutiny this offseason, after the Yanks failed to make any major moves and the Sox missing playoffs the past two years, despite having one of the top payrolls. But the East is still the strongest division thanks to the emergence of the Orioles last year, the best front office in baseball coming from Tampa Bay, and the merging of the Miami Marlins with the Toronto Blue Jays. Every team in the division has a chance to win if it catches the right bounces, and this should be one of the best races in baseball this year.
1st Place- Rays
Pros- Most people may have Toronto ahead, but we prefer the Rays’ proven success, especially with their pitching and defense. Despite losing James Shields in the Wil Myers deal, they still bring the best rotation in the AL, starting with a core of Cy Young winner David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, and Matt Moore. The rest of the rotation will fill out with one of a few options, with Alex Cobb almost guaranteed the fourth spot, and Jeff Niemann, Chris Archer and newly acquired Jake Odorizzi battling for the last spot. The bullpen will bring back almost all of its pieces from last year, most notably Fernando Rodney, who set the record for reliever ERA in a season last year at 0.60, and Joe Maddon will have no problem having his relief corps close out games. The offense will bring back Evan Longoria, who is a game changer when healthy, as well as super utility man Ben Zobrist, and, at some point, uber prospect Wil Myers, with a 35+ home run potential bat.
Cons- Despite speed and power in the Rays’ lineup, they will have to rely on timely hitting and comeback years from the likes of Yunel Escobar and James Loney. Both of these players are coming off of bad years by their standards, but look to be prototypical Tampa pickups in that they suffered from bad luck the year before (Remember Casey Kotchman and Jeff Keppinger?). If these guys can find their way back to hitting well, this will be a lineup very capable of putting runs on the board, and it’s a given the pitching will keep them in most games. Another problem is the health of players. The Rays had a streak of bad injuries to key players, including franchise cornertone Longoria. When he’s in the lineup they score in excess of an extra run per game, which is a giant contribution. Keeping players off the disabled list will be key, and if they can, they could run away with the division.
Player to Watch- In 2011, Matt Moore stole all headlines by having dominant starts in the Bronx, and in Texas during playoffs. He topped many prospect lists, but many were disappointed by his 3.78 ERA showing last season. Granted, his overall stats were unspectacular, but looking closely, he was flat out dominant outside of the first and last months of the season. This seems to be related to an increased workload, and adjusting to major league hitting. Joe Maddon and Jim Hickey will have him throwing at midseason form all season, and he gives the Rays another left handed Cy Young contender at the top of their rotation. Look for him to dominate this year, he will be throwing gems like it’s going out of style.
Propect to Watch- Thanks to the Shields trade, the Rays replenished a farm system that was depleted thanks to much graduation of talent. No player was more important in that trade than Wil Myers, the number 4 prospect in all of baseball according to multiple rankings. He brings elite power, as well as potential for a good average if he can make more contact on curveballs, something the Rays desperately need. He will start the year in the minors to push back his arbitration clock, unless they can work out a long term extension like they did with Moore and Longoria. But he will make his debut this year and is expected to contribute immediately.
Swing Factor- The pitching and defense will be among the best in the league again, the offense is what needs to produce for the Rays to make playoffs. They are more than capable of putting together a plus offense with the high talent in the lineup, combined with master lineup creator Maddon. If the offense stays healthy, they’ll reach more productive plate appearances, instead of giving them to the likes of Hideki Matsui and Elliot Johnson in 2012, and that should be the extra push they need not only to make playoffs, but the beat out the rest of the division to earn the highly revered AL East crown.
2nd Place- Blue Jays
Pros- GM Alex Anthopoulos was busy this offseason, adding Melkey Cabrera, RA Dickey, and the Marlins (Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Emilio Bonifacio, Josh Johnson, and John Buck). This fills out a rotation that was previously led by Ricky Romero, who had a very discouraging 2012 campaign, but is still talented nonetheless. The rotation is full of ace type pitchers in Romero, Johnson and Brandon Morrow. Johnson was thought of as one of the best pitchers in baseball just two years ago, but injuries and an average season in 2012 have left many scouts wondering if he can find what made him so elite again. Morrow has flashes of brilliance, and had sustained success last year, and as the fifth starter in the rotation, won’t need to be a Cy Young contender, but could be the best fifth starter in baseball if he reaches his ceiling. The rotation will also have insurance in Kyle Drabek once he returns from Tommy John surgery, in case a current starter gets hurt or is ineffective. They will also be boosted by a Jose Bautista return, and Edwin Encarnacion, who is coming off a breakout year after hitting over 40 bombs. Brett Lawrie didn’t show off many home runs that made him a hot prospect last year, but the raw power is still there if he can find a way to tap into it. This team’s holes are few and far between, leaving a powerhouse in Toronto, looking to make their first playoff appearance in 20 years.
Cons- There’s no denying this team is talented, but there are a lot of questions about the talent itself. Johnson has been oft-injured, and injuries in pitchers very rarely simply go away without having larger implications. Romero had struggles last year, most of which can be attributed to having an ineffective fastball. Without that pitch he can’t go to his secondary offerings, making his value extremely limited. Also, Bautista is coming off of wrist surgery, and as Baseball Prospectus pointed out, this type of surgery usually leads to power deflation and lessened production at the plate. There have been some cases where this isn’t the case, and the sample size is small, but for a guy like him with an all out swing it is definitely a concern. This team is very strong, but very rarely are the teams making headlines in the offseason the same ones making headlines come October. The Jays will need chemistry and players reaching into all their talent to win this tough division.
Player to Watch- With so much star talent being added this offseason and breakout players from last year, it’s very easy to forget about the man who has been productive in Toronto all along (or at least the last few years) in Jose Bautista. He’s hit 124 home runs the past three years in only 402 games. He came out of nowhere to become one of the most feared hitters in the game, and even though there is concern about his wrist following surgery, pitchers will still be reluctant to pitch right at him. His raw power can be used against any pitch, making him as tough as any batter to face. If he’s as productive as he was the past view years, he provides one of the strongest bats in the middle of a solid and deep lineup.
Prospect to Watch- After turning most of their prospects into proven talents in the Marlins and Mets trades, the Jays farm system has depleted from one of the best to a lower third ranked system. The remaining top prospects are still far from reaching the majors, much less leaving an impact on the team in 2013. The prospect closest to the show is RHP Marcus Stroman, drafted last year out of Duke with the 22nd overall pick. He brings a mid-90′s fastball with a power curve and a serviceable change, and should start the season in Triple-A affiliate Las Vegas. The Jays have plenty of depth in their rotation, but could use him as a bullpen arm to replace an ineffective or injured reliever. Expect him to make an impact when called up, as he’s had success in the minors and has great stuff and makeup.
Swing Factor- The Blue Jay brought a lot of talent North of the border this season, but they need to all produce at high levels for Toronto to make playoffs in the perpetually competitive AL East. Some need to ward off injuries (Bautista, Johnson) and some need to prove age is just a number (Buehrle, Dickey). Overall, this team is as talented as any, but history has shown throwing together top players doesn’t always pan out in a positive way. This is why we have the Rays ahead for now, because of their proven talent and track record of success. Don’t be surprised to see the Jays as the top team in the division though if they can pull their talent together.
3rd Place- Yankees
Pros- The Yankees offense is a good as any, using the three run homer to win many games. They’re powered by elite second baseman Robinson Cano, who helps make up for the rest of the aging offense with his production. Mark Teixeira’s batting average has collapsed the past few years, but he still brings plus power that plays up in the hitter friendly Yankee Stadium. Curtis Granderson has also emerged as a 40-home run hitter, bringing pop at the top of the order. The rotation also has arguably the most consistent starter in CC Sabathia, and will return Hiroki Kiroda, who managed an ERA of 3.32 last year. The bullpen will also bring back the greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera, and will be set up by the best set-up man in baseball in David Robertson.
Cons- The biggest concern with the Yankees this offseason was their inactivity. They managed no major moves, a surprising action considering their history of making moves and the depth of the free agent class. The team is also aging, and not well. Jeter is returning from a broken ankle, A-Rod could miss the whole season, Teixeira is a shadow of the man the Yankees signed in 2009 to an 8 year, $180MM deal. On the pitching side, Sabathia mised starts towards the end of the year, Mo is likely in his last year, and Kuroda just turned 38. The rotation is a mystery after Kuroda, with a bunch of below average pitchers gunning for the final few spots. Ivan Nova, David Phelps and Phil Hughes all had potential but they fail to live up to it, which puts more pressure on the offense to score. This team lives and dies by the three run homer, but they can’t rely on that too much longer.
Player to Watch- The whole team is a mess, with aging, hurt, overpaid players. For the Yankees to remain relevant this year they need their players to prove they still deserve the big money, and none is more important than Teixeira. He brings a legitimate middle of the order bat to the plate, but has had problems hitting against the shift in recent years. His average may decline because of that, but defenses can’t play against the home run, one of his best and most used weapons. His power has faded the past three years since tying for the league lead with 39 in 2009, and his contract has become more and more abysmal. There’s still power in the lineup, but they need Tex to step it up in 2013 to keep this offense elite. With his power back to where it was a few campaigns back, this could be one of the most dangerous lineups in baseball yet again.
Prospect to Watch- The choice here would have been left handed pitching prospect Manny Banuelos had he not required Tommy John, forcing him to miss the 2013 season. They have a trio of top outfield prospects in Tyler Austin, Slade Heathcott and Mason Williams, as well as top catching prospect Gary Sanchez, but all of them are in the lower levels and still a few years off. The prospect with the most chance to impact at the major league level is underdog Delin Betances, even after his awful 2012 attempt at a season. He managed an ERA above 6 between Double and Triple-A, but still brings a hot high 90′s fastball, coupled with a downer curve that projects as a plus pitch. His command hasn’t been anywhere near where it needs to be, so it appears he may have to move to the ‘pen to make it to the show. If he does, it will allow his velocity to play up even more, maybe reaching triple digits, which would turn him into a shut down reliever in an already stacked bullpen. If the Yanks realize he has no future as a starter early, he should have at least half a season of dominant late game appearances.
Swing Factor- The Yankees are putting a lot of faith into old players, but it’s worked remarkably well in their history, as any Yankee fan will tell you (27 rings! Yes, we get it). It seems as if each year we say this is the year they finally are too old and overpaid, yet they still are a force and make playoffs. The reason we feel that they do miss playoffs for the first time since 2008 is due to injuries and old age hurting them, as well as the Rays and Jays making big moves and developing young talent enough to push New York out of October Baseball. Last year’s Phillies are a great comparison, as they were plague by the same problems, and faced better, younger teams in the Nationals and Braves. The Yankees will need not only their hitters to stay healthy, but the pitching to somehow be effective past Kuroda, but if they manage to, we could be seeing the Bronx Bombers in the postseason yet again.
4th Place- Red Sox
Pros- They dumped over a quarter billion dollars in salary to the Dodgers, leaving one of the biggest markets with payroll flexibility to spare. They used that money to make some key signings this offseason in Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Koji Uehara and Mike Napoli. Even though they lost Adrian Gonzalez, the offense they have is as strong as any, with big names such as Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz. Will Middlebrooks also surprised many last year with his breakout debut, but appears to be a force to stay over at the hot corner, helping add even more depth to a loaded lineup. The bullpen also was fortified even more when they acquired closer Joel Hanrahan from the Pirates, to add to Uehara, Andrew Bailey and Alfredo Aceves. With former pitching coach John Farrell now at the head of the team in the manager’s position, it looks like he could help bring the starting five to a much better place than in the 2011 collapse and the train wreck that was 2012 for Beantown. The farm system also provides a bright future, with elite prospects like Jackie Bradley, Xander Bogaerts and Matt Barnes.
Cons- Even though Farrell is back, it’s gonna take more than an old pitching coach to get these pitchers back on track. John Lackey has thrown more bad starts than beers downed in the clubhouse (we’re just going to assume it’s a lot), and Clay Buchholz looks nothing like the hot prospect he was prior to debuting. The rotation is going to bring up many problems for Boston because their starters just don’t have very high ceilings anymore for what they can do. The offense is solid, but the pitching allows any team to get right back in the game. Also, where it was good the Sox freed up salary space, they filled it back up with players who aren’t much better, if at all. GM Ben Cherington seemed to have it figured out that long contracts are ridiculous, but still payed market value to players whose skillset could have been found for cheaper.
Player to Watch- The rotation is the biggest problem with this team, and they will be relying on former ace Jon Lester to hold it down in order to help the rest find their way back to productive innings. He used to be considered one of the best young pitchers in the game, but the past two years he hasn’t been anything more than an average starter for a team that needs more than that. Lester has overcome more than just a few rough seasons (he overcame cancer in 2007) and has the ability and mentality to be an ace on most ballclubs. Farrell will have to help him get back to what made him such a tremendous pitcher in years past, but if he can do that, expect the rest of the rotation to go as well, which could make the Red Sox surprise contenders.
Prospect to Watch- Even though he hasn’t even faced Triple-A pitchers yet, scouts are falling in love with shortstop Xander Bogaerts. He offers plus power at a premium position, a very rare find. Even though he’s going to start the season in the minors, it’s a possibility he gets the call if he gets off to a hot start, or experiences sustained success. His big right handed bat will play big with the green monster in left at Fenway Park, making his impact immediate and felt by everyone who watches. There are some concerns about his defense and whether he may have to move to third, but Middlebrooks is blocking the hot corner, and there’s nowhere else for Bogaerts to play. His defense may not win him gold gloves as short, but the fact that he can hit for average and power at that position automatically make him one of the most valuable players in the game. Get ready for his debut, it’s something you won’t want to miss.
Swing Factor- Their offense is strong and can score with the best of them, but the pitching absolutely has to improve if they want to be playing October baseball. Lester, Buchholz and Lackey all have the ability to pitch big games and be consistent, and the Sox will need them to do that in 2013. The offense can bail them out and the bullpen will hold onto leads, but there has to be improvement in the starters’ results if they want to challenge in this tough division, where any of the five teams has the potential to make playoffs.
5th Place- Orioles
Pros- After a shocking trip to playoffs last year, the team has experience in tough game, and also has added faith in manager Buck Showalter. The pitching was strong and consistent all year, and the offense was timely, as they won one run games at a .763 clip last year, the third best of any team in history. Jim Johnson also emerged as one of the games elite closers after notching an AL best 51 saves. Adam Jones finally put all his tools together and had the year eveyone knew he was capable of. Matt Weiters continues to cement his place as one of the top catchers in the game after another solid campaign. Chris Davis also turned out a good year, hitting 33 bombs, which is impressive especially when remembering he came along with Tommy Hunter for relief pitcher Koji Uehara. The team also graduated one of the best prospects in the game in Manny Machado, who helped the O’s down the stretch. They also feature the best pitching prospect in the game in Dylan Bundy, who made his debut last year, allowing no runs in a handful of innings.
Cons- Despite the great season in 2012, the one run win rate is simply not sustainable. The run differential was only +7, 8th in the AL. The rotation was also pitching way over its collective head, with guys coming out of nowhere to have great seasons like Miguel Gonzalez and Jason Hammel. They have talented starters in Chris Tillman and Zach Britton, but have a badtrack record of developing top flight pitching propects (Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz). Whatever the problem is in Baltimore, it needs to be fixed, as there are two more high caliber pitchers on their way in Bundy and Kevin Gausman. Even if it’s just a streak of bad luck, it’s a concerning sign that they can’t take top pitching talent and turn it into anything more than average relievers at best. Matusz was a top five prospect at one point and had to finally be sent to the relief corp after putting up ERAs that would push double digits, something unheard of even in the most offensive heavy eras in baseball.
Player to Watch- Now that he signed a long term extension, Adam Jones can comfortably and officially be called the face of the Orioles. He burst out last year with a .287 average with 32 homers, serving as an offensive catalyst for a team with a talented lineup. He needs to keep his production up and continue to anchor this offense to keep them in contention, because much of the pitching success last year appears fluky thanks to advanced stats such as Fielding Independent Pitching, and the more widely used batting average on balls in play. The offense will need to put runs on the board to stay in games, and Adam Jones is as good as any player to have in the three hole for this team, to help them produce and contend.
Prospect to Watch- Some may have him farther off than next year, but it’s a flat out lie for anyone to say Dylan Bundy won’t make at least a few starts in Baltimore in 2013. One of the most polished pitchers ever taken out of high school, he ascended all the way up to the show in his first professional season, something unheard of for someone of his age. He brings a high 90′s fastball with a plus curveball and change up, as well as a potential plus plus cutter if the organization decides to let him throw it. Regardless, he projects as a true ace pitcher already at such a young age, and should break the O’s unfortunate streak of highly regarded pitching prospects busting at the major league level.
Swing Factor- Their miracle season in 2012 may have been largely due to a good dose of luck, but there is still a very talented and young team in Baltimore getting ready to blossom. For them to contend again in 2013 they will need their pitching and hitting to become more consistent, and not rely on walk off and extra inning wins as much. The pitching overachieved last year, but since they did it once, there’s reason to believe that they can succeed again, even if it is unlikely. In any other division we have the Orioles much higher, but this is the bet division in baseball one through five. If they can find consistency with their young talent, look for the Orioles to make another surprise run in 2013.