20 questions that will define the AL East

February 21st, 2019

It’s easy to forget this now, but heading into last season, it was the Yankees, not the Red Sox, who were widely considered the heavy favorite in the American League East. In fact, picking Boston to win the division became a sort-of indicator of hipster contrarianism; sure, the Yankees just brought in Giancarlo Stanton, but Boston might be pretty good too ...

It turned out that Boston was indeed quite good: 108 wins, the most in franchise history, and a blitz through the playoffs, losing just three postseason games en route to its fourth World Series title in the last 14 years. The 2018 Boston Red Sox were one of the best teams of your lifetime. All that’s left for them to assure their immortality is to go out and win another one, becoming the first team this century to repeat.

Yet you still see the Yankees as a popular offseason pick to win the division, thanks largely to their additions and, mostly, the lack thereof from the Red Sox. That’s how good the AL East is: A team wins 108 games, coasts to a title and brings everybody back ... and it still isn't the popular pick to win the division.

Thus, today, our weekly series previewing each of baseball’s six divisions continues with the AL East. Our previews have been extended games of 20 Questions, in which we look at four pressing questions for each team heading into the 2019 season, and at the end, we will make some actual predictions on the final standings.

Let’s take a team-by-team look at the biggest questions:

Toronto Blue Jays

1) When Is Vlad Jr. Getting Here?

It might be a tough season for the Blue Jays, but it’s going to get brighter, no matter what, when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. arrives. He’ll likely start the season in the Minors, which he’s being impressively (if perhaps unnecessarily) cool about, but he’s the No. 1 prospect in baseball and will become the biggest story in the sport whatever day he’s called up.

2) Will there be a major overhaul?

The Blue Jays still have a considerable number of veterans who probably won’t be a part of the next division-winning Blue Jays team, but they could very well bring in kids who will be. Kendrys Morales and Justin Smoak are free agents after this season, and Marcus Stroman, Ken Giles, Kevin Pillar, Aaron Sanchez and even Randal Grichuk all hit the market after 2020. The Jays will surely put all those players on the market, and if they have hot starts, they could build the next batch of players who will surround Vlad Jr. for the next half decade or more. The first round of rebuilding is over. Now it’s time for the second round.

3) What’s the new manager like?

Charlie Montoyo is the sort of baseball lifer everybody should root for. He was a Minor League grinder as a player, with 10 years rattling around as a player and a total of only five MLB at-bats back in 1993. He became a rookie league manager shortly after he retired, and then he spent more than 13 years as a Minor League manager (he’s the Durham Bulls’ winningest manager) before getting bumped up to Tampa Bay as the Rays' bench coach in 2015. His hiring by the Blue Jays is a culmination of 20 years of grinding ... and now he’s going to have to grind some more as manager of a team that, in many ways, is starting over. You can expect some Rays-esque creative deployment of talent, but this is going to be more a learning year for Blue Jays fans about their manager than it will be for him. It’s impossible to argue he hasn’t earned this spot.

4) Will they ever bunt again?

This is a little baseball-nerdy, we’ll grant you, but ... last season, the Blue Jays laid down only five sacrifice bunts, not just the lowest in baseball, but in fact the lowest in baseball history since they started counting sacrifice bunts in 1894. This is in large part the way baseball is going now; after all, three other teams had seven or fewer in 2018. Can they get it down to four? Three? Absolute zero?

Baltimore Orioles

5) It can’t be worse than last year, right?

This is the point where we remind you that the Orioles finished 61 games out of first place last year. That is legitimately difficult to do! The Orioles have finally succumbed to the inevitable and are starting over, and they’ve got a new front office that appears to have the right attitude, sensibility and long-term outlook that’s going to be required to dig out of this mess. But that’s not going to make 2019 all that much easier to watch.

6) Can Chris Davis give them anything?

Davis had one of the all-time nightmare seasons in 2018, posting a .168/.243/.296 slash line in 522 plate appearances. And if you think you were hard on Davis last season, check out Jim Palmer.

You don’t want Palmer that mad at you in Baltimore. The only way Davis is going to be worse in 2019 is if he literally refuses to take his bat up to the plate with him, but the Orioles, who still owe him $84.45 million over the next four years, would like him to at least show something. When do they hit the point when it’s just not worth keeping him on the roster anymore, no matter how much they owe him? The Orioles would rather not find out.

7) Will any young players break out?

On-field performance is hardly the measuring stick for the new Orioles administration, but if they’re going to go out and play 162 games anyway, you’d like to see at least a couple young players step up and show they are worth keeping around for the long haul. Who are the likeliest candidates? Richie Martin is a Rule 5 pickup and 2015 first-round pick who the Orioles are going to just throw out at shortstop to see what happens. Maybe DJ Stewart? Cedric Mullins? Prospects Yusniel Diaz and Ryan Mountcastle might be the only long-term building blocks we’ll see this year.

8) Can this be fun, anyway?

The Orioles will be bad this year, but all told: This is as much as the sun has shined on the Orioles since Zach/Zack Britton never made it into that Wild Card Game. The team, at last, has a new direction, one that’s more in line with what baseball is in the year 2019, and will be in the years to come. They’ve got an energetic new manager and a front office with a proven track record of success elsewhere. It’s going to take a while for the Orioles to get where they’re going. But at last everybody understands where they’re trying to go. It might not always feel like it in '19, but that’s progress.

Tampa Bay Rays

9) Hey, are they doing the opener thing again?

The Rays ushered in a whole new philosophy of pitcher management in 2018 – one that many analytical sorts had been arguing for for years – but, with the additions of Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow, some wondered if they would stick with it in 2019. The answer has already come this spring:

Morton, Glasnow and 2019 AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell are those three starters. So the opener it is! Sergio Romo isn’t around anymore, but the Rays have plenty of candidates to shuffle around. If the Rays continue to have success with the strategy – and they did win 90 games in '18 – expect this to become more and more common.

10) Is Avisail Garcia really the answer at DH?

Nelson Cruz and the Rays felt like such a perfect match this offseason that I legitimately thought he was on the Rays for a while. But nope: The Twins will enjoy the fruits of Cruz’s labors, and the Rays ended up with Garcia. Garcia is entering his prime at the age of 27, and he was fantastic two years ago, even ending up in the All-Star Game. But he took a huge step back in an injury-plagued 2018; his OBP actually fell 100 points. If he’s the '17 Garcia, he’ll fit in just fine here, even if you wish he had a little bit more power in the middle of the order. But you can’t help but wonder if the Rays will regret not making the Cruz signing happen.

11) Can Pham be Pham-tastic?

You might not have noticed, but Tommy Pham was absolutely unreal after the Cardinals traded him to the Rays at the Trade Deadline. Look at this line in 39 games: .343/.448/.622. Over a full season, that would make him a top-five hitter in each category. Of course, Pham has struggled with injuries throughout his career, and he’s much older than most people realize: He’ll be 31 on Opening Day. Freed from having to play center field, if Pham can stay healthy, the Rays might have a stealth MVP Award candidate on their hands.

12) Can they hang with the big dogs?

The Rays were particularly great in the season’s final two months, going 36-19. Unfortunately, as typically happens with the Rays, it didn’t matter, because the Red Sox were having their historic season and the Yankees went out and won 100 games themselves. The bar for entry is perpetually higher in the AL East. It is to the Rays’ credit that they are loading up for this season, and they look to have one of the 10 most talented rosters in the game. Unfortunately, they still have the Red Sox and Yankees to deal with. Everything has to fall exactly right for the Rays to hang. Maybe this is the year it does.

Boston Red Sox

13) Can they keep the party going?

For all their success over the last 15 years, the Red Sox have never repeated as World Series champions and, all told, they’ve never come all that close. The Red Sox have only reached the playoffs once after they’ve won the World Series this century, and the last time they won one, they followed it up with a last-place finish. The Red Sox clearly think they have what it takes: They’ve brought back nearly the exact same team as last year. Will they be as urgent as will be required in this division?

14) They sure they’re cool with this bullpen?

While the Yankees went out and secured what could be one of the deepest bullpens in recent baseball history, the Red Sox waved goodbye to Joe Kelly and (apparently) Craig Kimbrel and have replaced them with ... no one. Seriously, the bullpen was the Sox’s major worry last season, and they’ve brought back the same 'pen minus its two best October pieces. There’s some debate as to whom the closer will be, maybe Ryan Brasier, maybe Matt Barnes. But frankly, just getting to the closer looks like a challenge here. Bullpens are famously unpredictable: Maybe a lot of these guys step up. But if the Red Sox struggle this year, this will be why.

15) Can they mash THAT much again?

The Red Sox offense was ludicrous in 2018, and most of their stars are either entering or are smack in the middle of their primes. The top four of Andrew Benintendi, Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez and Xander Bogaerts is a gauntlet no pitcher wants to see to start a game, and there’s plenty of depth, too, particularly if Dustin Pedroia can come back healthy. (That could be a big if, though.) The rotation looks as solid as the bullpen looks shaky, but the Red Sox, if they’re going to hold off the Yankees (and the Rays, for that matter), need to hit roughly as well as they did last year.

16) Can they add if they need to?

The Red Sox have the highest payroll in the sport, so they’re not being cheap, but they are also over the luxury-tax threshold and don't want to push it any higher. (As their quiet offseason will attest.) They also have a ton of pending free agents, including Chris Sale, Rick Porcello, Bogaerts and Mitch Moreland. (Not to mention a potential Betts extension to figure out.) But things go sideways during a season sometimes, particularly because of injury. What do the Red Sox do if any of their stars go down, either in the lineup or the rotation? They’re insanely good, but they’re not deep enough to withstand multiple injuries. Will they spend to give them that depth? Can they? Everything went right for the Red Sox last year. But it doesn’t usually go that smoothly.

New York Yankees

17) Can Aaron Judge get healthy again?

The much-hyped combination of Judge and Giancarlo Stanton (and Gary Sanchez) didn’t get to fully play out last year, largely because injuries limited Judge to 112 games. He was still fantastic in those 112 games, but if he can get back to 150 games, the Yankees can be the Yankees they were supposed to be all along. (Sanchez bouncing back would help as well.) Considering the Yankees still won 100 games last year, they could be leaping into quite rareified air indeed.

18) Is James Paxton the ace?

The Yankees have gone an unusually long time without a true shutdown ace, and it’s not like Paxton is immediately expected to fill that role. But it’d sure be nice if he were the 2017, 2.98 ERA Paxton rather than the 2018, 3.76 ERA version. The good news is that his strikeout rate went up last year while his walk rate stayed steady; it’s his home run rate going up that hurt him. While that problem might not be solved at Yankee Stadium, he still has the best stuff on the staff. With that incredible bullpen, he’ll have plenty of help.

19) Can Luke Voit keep the magic?

Voit, discarded by the Cardinals early in the year, had a stunning 1.095 OPS in 39 games, solving a first-base situation that had become a bit of a problem. Expecting that from Voit for a full season is a bit unrealistic, but if Greg Bird can’t stay healthy, Voit won’t have a backup, let alone a platoon partner. Can he hold down the job for a full season?

20) Is this really the best bullpen ever?

The Yankees have, oh, seven bullpen arms who would instantly become the best reliever on almost any other team in the sport. Bringing in Britton and Adam Ottavino to a staff that already had Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Chad Green and Tommy Kahnle is downright unfair. If you’re behind by more than two runs in the fifth inning, you may already be toast. The Yankees are shortening the game to an absurd level. You can’t entirely eliminate bullpen volatility. But the Yankees sure have come close.

Predicted standings

  1. New York Yankees: 104-58
  1. Boston Red Sox: 95-67
  1. Tampa Bay Rays: 90-72
  1. Toronto Blue Jays: 72-90
  1. Baltimore Orioles: 50-112