Broken Bat Blog: AL East Preview

by contributing blogger Vivianna Velazquez

Last season, the AL East continued a slow overall decline that can be expected when the Red Sox and the Yankees don’t play the roles to which the baseball world is accustomed. Two teams finished under .500, while another two barely made it over the 50% mark. The lowly Baltimore Orioles could do no wrong, the Yankees suffered a sporadic offense that kept them out of first, and Boston’s sweethearts finished in last place. In the middle of the mix were Toronto and Tampa Bay, the first put out a strong lineup that did everything right and the later threw a formidable pitching staff at its opponents.

Most of the 2015 AL East teams don’t look the same as last season after the wheeling and dealing of the offseason. The Orioles continue 2015 with the same core players that got them to the post season except for Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz. The duo will be missed after leading the team’s offense last season. Cruz was their RBI leader, while Markakis was a top OBP guy. The fact that this will give more room for Delmon Young to get some more at-bats probably won’t make up for the loss. There will be pressure on Chris Davis to make up the difference, which only a healthy Chris Davis can do. More recently, Brewer-turned-Oriole J.J. Hardy is questionable for Opening Day--an otherwise all around reliable presence. Fan favorite Matt Wieters is still struggling to return from Tommy John surgery after a few spring training games. Even though they stayed in first without him last season, that won’t be possible again without Cruz and Markakis. The Orioles will be knocked down more than a notch, at least, by the Boston Red Sox.
Last year, the Yankees offense wasn’t impressive, but it was enough to put them in 2nd place and over .500 when it was all said and done. This season, their offense is on the plus side with the return of Alex Rodriguez. He’s said to be the 2015 full time DH, but how long will that last with veterans like Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, and Brian McCann needing rest periodically? Injury prone Ellsbury will also need a break from defending centerfield. The lineup comes with the “if they can stay healthy” contingency--by now a New York motto. Already, new shortstop Didi Gregorius has had to deal with a sprained wrist and the backup second baseman, Jose Pirela, is out with neck and back pain from a wall collision in the outfield. The Yankees’ starting rotation is a mixed bag. Most of the rotation showed well in Spring Training, but there are plenty of reasons that won’t be the case all season. Tanaka’s ability isn’t in question, but elbow trouble that kept him off the mound for over two months last season will most likely creep up again. CC Sabathia is, well, old and not adjusting well. Nathan Eovaldi is new to the AL East, and Adam Warren, although a proven pitcher, has only started three major league games in his career. Ivan Nova will be missing in action until at least May while he tries to make his way back from Tommy John surgery. Lasty, Michael Pineda is still searching for his first full MLB season since 2011. The rotation can go either way. If Spring Training is any indication, it can be solid, but for how long?
After finishing third in the division last season, the Blue Jays needed to improve on their pitching. The only AL East team with worse pitching was the Boston Red Sox. Unfortunately for them, not only did they not up their pitching game during the offseason, but they lost their closer and now Marcus Stroman, expected to have been a strong starter, is out for the season to repair his left ACL. On the plus side, Jays’ fans will most likely get their wish and see rookie Daniel Norris on the 25-man roster come opening day, but it’s happening after only 22.2 Triple-A innings. There were a few changes in the offense. You’ll still see a productive core in Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion, but on a team where everyone did their part, what happens in spots 6 through 9 might matter. Without Melky, the core will only have some some pretty inexperienced players and Russell Martin to help out.  There were no big acquisitions to fill voids. It looks like this season they may need to find the Yankees’ lost aura and mystique to climb to the top. A big chunk of the starting lineup have hardly done this before. Many are predicting a high finish for the Jays on account of Triple-A numbers transferring to the majors, but that might just be what puts a team no where near the postseason.
Historically, Tampa’s pitching is reliable. We saw that last season and we’ll see it again this season even with Alex Cobb and Drew Smyly on shaky ground due to injury. They’re expected to be back in action by the end of April. What Tampa was missing last year was big bats. They lost Ben Zobrist and Matt Joyce. Both were strong contributors in 2014, the first was an on-base machine, while the later contributed in bringing guys home and getting on base. They didn’t snatch up a slugging free agent, but the absence of Joyce will cause some defensive shuffling that puts rookie Steven Souza Jr. in right field and possible pop in the lineup from the rookie. It will be tough for Tampa to climb higher than they did last season without showing some gain in their offense. They’ll be about as exciting as last season, subtract some of that excitement without the beloved Joe Maddon leading the charge. Tampa will be flopping for 4th or 5th place in the division.

Overall, the Boston offense showed the most gains with the additions of Pablo Sandoval and
Hanley Ramirez. The question is will that be enough to move them into 1st or 2nd place with the loss of Lester, Lackey and some key guys from the pen. The Red Sox 2014 season was one they will be glad to forget. The end result was last place in the division, but the constant pain along the way may have been the bigger impact. They spent a total of 1 day in first place, were shut out 15 times, and at least once suffered a 10 game losing streak. The Red Sox had about 11 different starting pitchers and platooned for three of the defensive positions. Off season moves will definitely bring stability, but can they improve what was the worst offense and pitching in the division? Their best starters, Jon Lester and John Lackey, won’t be in Boston to help this season, neither will Andrew Miller and Badenhop out of the bullpen. Offensively, for the most part, the batters you expected to get on base did, but when you only have one guy driving them in (David Ortiz), well, that just won’t work. For 2015, Boston has brought in 3x World Champion and 2x All Star Pablo Sandoval. He’s three years removed from his best season, but no one is doubting that he will be a massive compliment to Ortiz in that lineup. They also added Hanley Ramirez for his second stint with the Red Sox. At 31 years of age, Ramirez is several more years removed from his best days, but will still contribute to a lineup. At .283/.369/.448, Ramirez will complete a core lineup difficult for any ace to get through. Another key to the addition of Ramirez will be his activity on the bases. Last season the Red Sox stole only 63 bases, when the top 3 base stealing teams in the American League stole over 110 each.

The Red Sox pitching is what still looks a little shaky. Clay Buchholz will be the Opening Day starter after performing more like a number 4 or 5 starter for the AL Central or West last season. He is their soldier and a fan favorite, but for a team that got some guns for their line up, they sure are taking a chance with their starting rotation. Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Justin Masterson, Wade Miley, and Steven Wright all have the potential to be mediocre compared to what they had in Lester; luckily, for them, their offense will consistently give them at least 3 or 4-run leads to work with. Their closer, Koji Uehara will most likely not be available to start the season because of a hamstring injury, but if the lineup shows up, they won’t need a closer to hold a 4 run lead. This season the Red Sox will be a team to be reckoned with; if they’re not in first for most of the season, they will definitely be putting the pressure on whatever team is.

#1 - Boston Red Sox
#2 - New York Yankees
#3 - Baltimore Orioles
#4 - Tampa Bay Rays
#5 - Toronto Blue Jays

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