MLB Division Preview and Prediction: AL East

Since we are just about two weeks away from the start of the MLB regular season, it’s officially predicting time! We’ve spent the last couple months analyzing the top players at each position, but now, we’ll be projecting all 30 MLB teams, going divisional by division. Today, we’ll start in the AL East, which in my opinion, is by far the most intriguing division in the American League, as the Rays and Yankees will be fighting it out for the top spot, despite there being a substantial difference in money spent on their rosters. Before New York was hit by the injury bug, they looked like the clear-cut favorite in the division, but now, it’s much tighter. So, do the Yankees win this division for a second-straight season, or can they be unseated by an underdog? In this article, we’ll be completely analyzing these five teams’ outlook for this season: Orioles, Red Sox, Yankees, Rays, and Blue Jays.

1st Place: Tampa Bay Rays

rays
Photo Cred: insidehook.com

Projected Record: 100-62

Overall Rank: 4th

Lineup Rank: 17th

Rotation Rank: 1st

Bullpen Rank: 1st

Lineup Depth: 2nd

Pitching Depth: 2nd

LINEUP

Austin Meadows LF

Hunter Renfroe RF

Brandon Lowe 2B

Yandy Diaz 3B

Yoshitomo Tsutsguo DH* (Jose Martinez)

Ji-Man Choi 1B

Mike Zunino C

Kevin Kiermaier CF* (Manuel Margot)

Willy Adames SS

The Rays may have traded one of their top players in Tommy Pham, and don’t possess much star talent in their lineup, but it’s filled with plenty of depth. The acquisitions of Hunter Renfroe, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, Manuel Margot, Jose Martinez, and Randy Arozarena definitely have deepened the lineup, and all are intriguing players that could easily exceed expectations in 2020. Meanwhile, having players such as Yandy Diaz, Brandon Lowe, and Mike Zunino healthy for all full season will only help matters further, as all are everyday players they’re counting on. However, it’s the team’s heavy usage of platoons that fascinates me, as outside of Austin Meadows and Willy Adames, no player on this team is guaranteed to play versus both righties and lefties. Although there is too often a negative connotation when referencing platoons, I think it’ll work out tremendously for Tampa Bay; they’ll be able to get the most of their players by letting them play to their strengths. Heck, with Renfroe, Kiermaier, Margot, Adames, and Zunino in the mix, this could also be one of, if not the best defensive team in the MLB as well. It may not be super scary at first glance, but I wouldn’t be shocked out all if Tampa Bay’s lineup ranks in the top-ten in fWAR this season- they have a lot of upside.

ROTATION

Charlie Morton

Blake Snell

Tyler Glasnow

Ryan Yarbrough

Yonny Chirinos

Brendan McKay

The Rays popularized the use of openers, but this season, they won’t have any use for them- their rotation is stacked with high-end talent. Charlie Morton, Blake Snell, and Tyler Glasnow are all true aces, and all offer different levels of intrigue; Morton is as consistent as it gets, Snell figures to bounce-back from an unlucky 2019 campaign, and Glasnow is my current pick to win the Cy Young. However, both Ryan Yarbrough and ascending prospect Brendan McKay are terrific options to fill out the rotation, and heck, Yonny Chirinos would be a #3 starter for a lot of teams. When you have three Cy Young candidates, two of them whom weren’t healthy last season, and three middle-of-the-rotation starters, it’s clear that your rotation is going to be a strength. Not only does that apply for Tampa, but in my opinion, it’s clearly the best group of starting pitchers in all of baseball.

BULLPEN

Nick Anderson

Diego Castillo

Jose Alvarado

Chaz Roe

Colin Poche

Oliver Drake

Peter Fairbanks

Trevor Richards

The Rays would be able to get by even with a mediocre rotation, given how elite their bullpen is. Nick Anderson emerged as a superstar reliever last season, but he’s far from the only reliable reliever on this list. Diego Castillo, Jose Alvarado, and Colin Poche all have the potential to be top-ten relievers, and right behind them, Oliver Drake, Chaz Roe, and Peter Fairbanks all are excellent options out of the bullpen in the own right. Usually, when you trade your elite closing pitcher (Emilio Pagan), your bullpen shouldn’t be super strong. Yet, Tampa Bay figures to once again have the top bullpen in the MLB; between these group of relievers and their rotation, they’ll be a nightmare for opposing hitters to deal with.

DEPTH

With a six talented starting pitchers, and relievers such as Jalen Beeks and Andrew Kittredge not even being able to find a spot in the bullpen, the Rays have plenty of organizational pitching depth. Plus, since they’re utilizing so many platoons, they’re well-equipped to deal with injuries from the position player side, while players such as Joey Wendle, Daniel Robertson, Michael Perez, Nate Lowe, and Michael Brosseau all are capable of filling in as well.

BREAKOUT PICK: Hunter Renfroe

Renfroe’s 2019 season looks like a disappointment on the surface, but he was excellent with a 132 first half wrc+ before trying to play through a foot injury, and also improved significantly defensively. Now back fully healthy and with a new organization, I expect him to somewhat replicate Pham’s lost production.

MOST LIKELY TO DISAPPOINT: Yonny Chirinos

Chirinos (7.70 K/9) didn’t miss enough bats last year, and based on his expected statistics, definitely benefitted from some luck. I see him as a clear step behind the other five notable starting pitchers in the rotation, though it appears he’ll open up as the team’s #5 starter.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The low-budget Rays may not have made any blockbuster moves this offseason, but with every small acquisition they made, it’s clear that they’ve transformed themselves into arguably the deepest team in the MLB. They almost have too much pitching for their own good, and unlike their division rival, will be able to handle any injuries that come their way, similar to 2020. With their defense and pitching, they’re my pick to allow the least amount of runs, and when you can do that, you’re going to win a lot of games.

2nd Place: New York Yankees

colespringtraining
Photo Cred: CBS Sports

Projected Record: 98-64

Overall Rank: 2nd

Lineup Rank: 3rd

Rotation Rank: 7th

Bullpen Rank: 5th

Lineup Depth: 5th

Pitching Depth: 1st

LINEUP

DJ LeMahieu 2B

Brett Gardner CF

Gleyber Torres SS

Gary Sanchez C

Luke Voit 1B

Mike Tauchman LF

Miguel Andujar DH

Gio Urshella 3B

Clint Frazier RF

Right now, it’s almost. given that outfielders Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton will miss opening day, while Judge could be out much longer with a stress fracture in his ribs. Considering he was my MVP pick before news broke on the injury, that’s a major loss for them, and as a result, their lineup looks much less dangerous at the moment. However, the trio of DJ LeMahieu, Gary Sanchez, and Gleyber Torres should provide some optimism for Yankees fans, while Luke Voit’s offense and Mike Tauchman’s defense are also helpful parts of their overall team. In place of Judge and Stanton will be Miguel Andujar and Clint Frazier, two young former top prospects who figure to be major defensive liabilities and are uncertainties at the plate. In other words, New York really needs a healthy Aaron Hicks (Tommy John surgery) back as soon as possible, but still, there’s enough star talent present to hold the fort if Judge and Stanton can return sooner rather than later.

ROTATION

Gerrit Cole

Masahiro Tanaka

JA Happ

Jordan Montgomery

Jonathan Loaisiga

When the Yankees signed Gerrit Cole to a nine-year, $324 million contract, it was expected that he’d be the ace of arguably the best starting rotation in all of baseball. However, since then, the team has lost Luis Severino for the season and James Paxton until June, which will put pressure on the likes of JA Happ, Jordan Montgomery, Jonathan Loaisiga, and other young pitchers to help fill the void. Once Paxton comes back, this will be a solid rotation, especially with Cole leading way, but I’m expecting general manager Brian Cashman to add an impact pitcher at some point this season.

BULLPEN

Aroldis Chapman

Zack Britton

Adam Ottavino

Tommy Kahnle

Chad Green

Ben Heller

Jonathan Holder

Luis Cessa

Luckily for the Yankees, even if they have to rely on some unproven players in the rotation, they have the type of bullpen to be able to compensate for that. Chapman, Britton, Ottavino, Kahnle, and Green are all established and excellent relievers at this point, and right behind them, Heller, Holder, and possibly even Cessa could thrive with a large role in 2020. They’re a little thin on bullpen depth after their top five options, but if they can just get 5-6 quality innings from their starters, they should be able to win plenty of close games this season.

DEPTH

Due to injuries of Severino and Paxton, not only could Loaisiga get a shot, but youngsters Michael King, Deivi Garcia, and Clarke Schmidt may also be counted upon in the rotation. Additionally, veteran relievers Tyler Lyons, Dan Otero, and Luis Avilan should be considered for the bullpen, as ZiPs projections forecast them to be better than Holder and Cessa, while they have enough role players to count on in the lineup. They’ve already cut into their depth due to their recent injuries, but they still rank in the top-five in terms of lineup and pitching depth.

BREAKOUT PICK: Jonathan Loaisiga

Loaisiga was limited to 31.2 innings, but he posted a serviceable 4.44 xFIP during that time, and has excellent spin rates with his fastball and breaking ball. He’s been excellent at striking batters out at every level, and as the team’s #5 starter, I expect that to translate to big-league success.

MOST LIKELY TO DISAPPOINT: Brett Gardner

Mike Tauchman was heavily considered for this spot, but at least he is under the age of 30 and is a defensive wizard in the outfield. Gardner, on the other hand, well over performed his anticipated power and on-base numbers, and at 36-years-old, I don’t expect him to hold up as the team’s starting center fielder. His expected regression is a major reason why getting Hicks back as soon as possible is critical for the team’s success.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Up until Judge’s last setback, I still had the Yankees winning the division. At this point, however, they’ve cut into their depth so significantly, that I’m not sure they can overcome any more injuries; they can’t rely of unknown contributors having unsustainably terrific seasons again. They have the game’s best starting pitchers, plenty of high-end relievers, and multiple All-Stars in the lineup, but unless Judge is back sooner than expected, I now see the Rays as the front-runner to win the AL East.

3rd Place: Boston Red Sox

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles
Photo Cred: NBC Sports

Projected Record: 82-80

Overall Rank: 17th

Lineup Rank: 11th

Rotation Rank: 20th

Bullpen Rank: 8th

Lineup Depth: 7th

Pitching Depth: 25th

LINEUP

Andrew Benintendi LF

Rafael Devers 3B

Xander Bogaerts SS

JD Martinez DH

Mitch Moreland 1B* (Jose Peraza)

Michael Chavis 2B* (1B)

Jackie Bradley Jr. CF

Christian Vazquez C

Kevin Pillar RF

With Mookie Betts leading off and playing right field, the Red Sox would not only possess a top-five lineup, but possibly could’ve made the playoffs this season. Now, however, that’s not likely to happen, though this is still a talented lineup. Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers figure to man the left side of the infield for years to come, as both are 5+ WAR players capable of winning AL MVP in any given year. Meanwhile, although I’m worried about his potential declined, JD Martinez remains an elite hitter at the moment, while Christian Vazquez is a fringe top-ten catcher. Since new acquisition Alex Verdugo won’t be ready for opening day due to a stress fracture in his back, the outfield doesn’t look great, but it’s far better than the right side of the infield- the combination of Michael Chavis and Jose Peraza versus lefties is far from ideal, to say the least.

ROTATION

Eduardo Rodriguez

Nathan Eovaldi

Martin Perez

Matt Hall

Ryan Weber

Not only was Chris Sale already a step behind as he recovered from pneumonia, but he’s now been completely shut down due to an elbow injury, and it’s hard to count on him for this season. Therefore, the Red Sox rotation may be a major weakness this season. Eduardo Rodriguez proven himself as a reliable middle-of-the-rotation starter, but he’ll be relied on far too heavily, and although Nathan Eovaldi and Martin Perez have a lot of upside, they’re definitely not locks to live up to that potential this season. After that, it’ll be some combination of Matt Hall, Collin McHugh, Ryan Weber, Brian Johnson, and openers, and unless McHugh holds up as a starter, having those pitchers make up the back-end of their rotation doesn’t figure to end well.

BULLPEN

Brandon Workman

Matt Barnes

Josh Taylor

Heath Hembree

Darwinzon Hernandez

Colton Brewer

Austin Brice

Marcus Walden

Red Sox fans may not believe this to be the case, but honestly, the bullpen may be the strength of their time. Brandon Workman, Matt Barnes, and Josh Taylor are all elite strikeout inducers that’ll be reliable at the back-end of games, and in my opinion, the duo of Darwinzon Hernandez and Colton Brewer provide plenty of intrigue in the middle innings; both dealt with poor luck last season, and Hernandez is a multi-inning lefty weapon who can even be the “bulk” pitcher after an opener. From there, although Marcus Walden has received favorable projections, the bullpen depth definitely thins out. Yet, it’s not inconceivable that this bullpen could be similar to the Yankees, as it has a lot of upside based on their five top relievers, which is always what you want in a relief corps.

DEPTH

A major reason the Red Sox were forced to hit the reset button by trading Mookie Betts and David Price was their lack of depth, which wouldn’t mesh well with a poor farm system and financial constraints. Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom has made it a priority to fill out the margins of the roster, bringing in players such as Kevin Pillar and Collin McHugh on one-year deals. However, considering that they can barely fill out a five-man rotation, it’s safe to say the team has very little pitching depth, though Pillar, Cesar Puello, Kevin Plawecki and third-base prospect Bobby Dalbec give them enough firepower to deal with some position player injuries or struggles.

BREAKOUT PICK: Martin Perez

Bloom clearly sees something in Perez after signing him to a one-year, $6 million contract, despite coming off of four straight seasons with an xFIP of 4.60 or higher. However, he threw a cutter (30.8%) for the first time in his career last season, and thus, was able to limit his fastball usage (67.3% to 42.3%) significantly. He fell apart towards the end of the season, but he did limit hard contact (96th percentile 29.7% hard-hit rate allowed), and based on the major gap between his weighted on-base average (wOBA, .334) and xwOBA (.304), it’s safe to say he was much better than he got credit for. Now, he still needs to work on striking out (7.35 K/9) more batters this season, but his revamped pitch usage did allow him to get more swings and misses (9.2%); as he continues to work on maximizing his pitch arsenal, perhaps this will be the year he puts it all together.

MOST LIKELY TO DISSAPOINT: Michael Chavis

Chavis started his rookie season out strong with a 105 first half wrc+, but that number quickly dropped to 64 for the second half. The 24-year-old’s strikeout rate (33.1%) is a major concern, and even worse, his 20.9% soft contact rate and 45% ground ball rate are way too high. He’s a solid defender, but for someone who’ll be expected to take a step forward in 2020, I’m not sure he’ll even be able to have a 1 WAR season based on his major offensive shortcomings.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Even if the Red Sox kept Betts and Price, it’s unlikely they would’ve finished higher than third place in the AL East. They may have made a wildcard push, but they simply don’t have enough starting pitching to get through a full season, while their lineup is no longer the potent force it once was. They’re heading in the right direction with Bloom leading the way, but 2020 figures to be a year in transition in Boston.

4th Place: Toronto Blue Jays

vladandbo
Photo Cred: The Athletic

Projected Record: 71-91

Overall Rank: 25th

Lineup Rank: 21st

Rotation Rank: 25th

Bullpen Rank: 29th

Lineup Depth: 19th

Pitching Depth: 14th

LINEUP

Bo Bichette SS

Cavan Biggio 2B

Lourdes Gurriel Jr. LF

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 3B

Travis Shaw 1B

Randal Grichuk CF

Teoscar Hernandez DH

Danny Jansen C

Derek Fisher LF

With Travis Shaw (age 29) being the oldest player in the Blue Jays’ lineup, it’s safe to say that the team’s group of position players are very young and exciting. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette each have a lot of potential, but right now, Cavan Biggo is the only player in this entire lineup that Toronto can completely count on; their outfield is a mess, and although I expect better seasons from Travis Shaw and defensive wizard Danny Jansen, neither are a lock to be worth 2 WAR in 2020. Therefore, although practically every player in this lineup has the talent to be above-average hitters in 2020, it’s still a lackluster lineup- I don’t expect any player out of these nine players to post a 3 WAR, which speaks to the work that still must be done before they’re truly ready to compete.

ROTATION

Hyun-Jin Ryu

Tanner Roark

Chase Anderson

Matt Shoemaker

Shun Yamaguchi

After signing him to a four-year contract worth $80 million, the Blue Jays are hoping that Hyun-Jin Ryu can immediately be their team’s ace, and continue to be effective without striking a lot of hitters out. His projections aren’t favorable for the upcoming season, however, and it doesn’t help matters that they team clearly overpaid for two “innings eaters” in Tanner Roark and Chase Anderson. Though Toronto probably won’t have to cycle through pitchers the way they did last year, they’re not necessarily much better, unless Ryu can once again defy the projections- something that isn’t impossible.

BULLPEN

Ken Giles

Anthony Bass

Rafael Dolis

Sam Gaviglio

Trent Thornton

Thomas Pannone

Jacob Waguespack

Wilmer Font

After throwing fewer fastballs and more sliders in 2019, Ken Giles was able to raise his strikeout rate significantly, and is one of the better relievers in baseball. However, outside of Dominican reliever Rafael Dolis, who was signed out of the Nipon Professional Baseball league in Japan, there isn’t anyone I project to have a FIP under 4.50. Simply put, that’s incredibly worrisome, and as a result, I’m expecting Toronto to really struggle with run prevention this season; it’s not as though there are many reliable options in the rotation either.

DEPTH

Unless Joe Panik suddenly turns back the clock to when he was one of the best young second basemen in the MLB, I don’t see any role players capable of filling in a spot in Toronto’s lineup, although outfielder Billy McKinney remains an intriguing player. The same can be said for the pitching, but luckily for Toronto, flame- throwing prospect Nate Pearson should be in the majors by June, and he honestly could immediately be their best starter. Overall, though, Pearson is the only exciting player that isn’t currently in their starting lineup or rotation.

BREAKOUT PICK: Danny Jansen

Jansen will allows be a defensive-first catcher, but based on the gap between his wOBA (.275) and xwOBA (.314), as well as with his slugging percentage (.360) and xSLG (.418), he has the capabilities to be much better than his 68 wrc+ and 1.4 fWAR he posted last season. Plus, at just 24-years-old, he still figures to be the team’s catcher of the future.

MOST LIKELY TO DISAPPOINT: Reese McGuire

Due to some legal issues, there’s a chance the Blue Jays won’t be able to have Reese McGuire serve as their backup catcher anyways. However, if he’s cleared, I still am not forecasting a successful season for him. Between his putrid plate discipline (40.4% chase) and inability to hit the ball (24.1% hard-hit), he’s much closer to a .309 xwOBA/.402 xSLG type of hitter, rather than the .364 wOBA and .526 SLG he had last season. For whatever reason, Toronto seems fixated on having the 25-year-old split time with Jansen, but in my opinion, that would be a massive mistake.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Many see the Blue Jays as a contending team that is very close to finishing off their rebuild, but I’m not sure that’s the case. Outside of Guerrero Jr., Bichette, Biggio, Jansen, and Pearson, who all aren’t exactly guaranteed to be stars for various reasons, there isn’t much else for them to build around. As for their 2020 outlook, they don’t have enough offensive firepower nor defense to compensate for their poor pitching, and in a tough AL East, that won’t fly. I’m only expecting a slight improvement from the 69 games they won last season.

5th Place: Baltimore Orioles

brandonhyde
Photo Cred: Hartford Courant

Projected Record: 56-106

Overall Rank: 30th

Lineup Rank: 30th

Rotation Rank: 30th

Bullpen Rank: 26th

Lineup Depth: 16th

Pitching Depth: 27th

LINEUP

Austin Hays CF

Hanser Alberto 2B

Trey Mancini RF

Chris Davis 1B

Renato Nunez DH

Rio Ruiz 3B

Anthony Santander LF

Pedro Severino C

Jose Iglesias SS

For years, the Orioles possessed one of the top lineups in the MLB. Now, only Chris Davis remains, and with a -1.3 fWAR projection from ZiPs for 2020, the Orioles front office has no choice but to continue to count down the days until his massive contract comes off the  books. As for the rest of the team, Jose Iglesias is a slick defender at shortstop, and you could do worse than Rio Ruiz and Pedro Severino at their respective positions, but still, they only two players worth monitoring for the upcoming season are Austin Hays and Trey Mancini. Hays burst onto the scene late last season, is one of their better prospects, and should be a terrific defensive center fielder, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he even won the 2020 Rookie of the Year award. As for Mancini, he’s a strong offensive producer with defensive shortcomings when healthy, but right now, it doesn’t appear he’ll be ready to play by opening day. If that’s the case, then this Orioles lineup may stack up as one of the worst I’ve seen; Mancini was the only player they could count on to be at least a league-average hitter, which says a lot about where they are as a team right now.

ROTATION

John Means

Alex Cobb

 Asher Wojciechowski

Wade LeBlanc

Kohl Stewart

If you thought the Orioles’ lineup was bad, wait until you get a glimpse of their rotation! ZiPs currently forecasts John Means as the only starting pitcher that’ll have a FIP under 5.00, and even he is a prime regression candidate given his high fly ball and low strikeout rates. I’m expecting Baltimore to cycle through pitchers all year long, but for the second straight season, they easily have the worst rotation in the MLB.

BULLPEN

Mychal Givens

Richard Bleier

Hunter Harvey

Miguel Castro

Shawn Armstrong

Paul Fry

Tanner Scott

Dillon Tate

Honestly, the Orioles’ bullpen may not even be too bad in 2020. Mychal Givens and Richard Bleier figure to bounce-back after fluky seasons last year, while Hunter Harvey, Tanner Scott, and even Paul Fry are all interesting players. However, after that, I don’t have any sort of confidence in their other options, and it’s not as though they have much talent waiting in the pipeline. It could be a far worse group, as a couple of these pitchers could even emerge as trade-chips. However, it’s far from the ideal, as in my opinion, it’s still a bottom-five relief corps.

DEPTH

I’m a fan of Chance Sisco being an offensive-minded backup catcher, while ZiPs projections are high on players such as Cedric Mullins and Dilson Herrera; prospect Ryan Mountcastle, whether it’s in the infield or outfield, also could make his major-league debut. However, unless pitching prospects Zac Lowther, Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer, and Michael Baumann (reliever) prove capable of taking on major-league roles in 2020, it’ll be up to the likes of Ty Blach and Cole Sulser to provide depth in the rotation and bullpen, respectively. They have more position player depth than you’d expect, but obviously, it’s not comparable to anything a competitive team has to offer.

BREAKOUT PICK: Hunter Harvey

Once a former top prospect, Hunter Harvey transitioned to the bullpen halfway through 2019, and immediately was able to improve his strikeout (11.88 K/9) and walk (2.70 BB/9) rates. His fastball was up to 98-99 MPH in his brief stint in the majors last season, and I’m bullish on his potential as a late-inning reliever for them moving forward.

MOST LIKELY TO DISAPPOINT: John Means

Means did a great job limiting hard contact (30.5% hard-hit rate) last season, and only slightly outperformed his .305 xwOBA allowed last season. However, he doesn’t strike may batters out (7.55 K/9), nor does he induce many ground balls (30.9%). Plus, I don’t believe he’ll sustain his strong 2.21 BB/9, as only 38.9% of his pitches were in the zone last season. I could see him being a decent #4 starter next season, but he almost certainly won’t replicate his 3.60 ERA from 2019.

FINAL THOUGHTS

When you’re projected to have the worst lineup and rotation, it’s safe that you should be ready for a very long season. That’s the case with the Orioles, as right now, they appear to be the clear-cut favorite to finish with the MLB’s worst record and “earn” the #1 overall pick. In a way, that’s probably a success for them; in an ideal world, they do in fact finish with the worst record, while their intriguing relievers, as well as the duo of Hays and Mancini, perform up to their capabilities.

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