We come to you bearing excellent news. Even though it is still freezing outside, and the pandemic is still happening, the baseball season is close. If you were to put together a weekly preview of each MLB division and finish by the time the season begins -- presuming you give yourself an extra week for playoff predictions, of course! -- you'd have to start this week. You can actually start counting down the weeks.
Thus, today, our weekly series previewing each of baseball's six divisions begins with the American League East. Our previews will look at four pressing questions for each club heading into the 2021 season. At the end, we'll make some actual predictions on the final standings -- predictions that are unassailable and so obviously ironclad that we're a little worried you won't even bother to watch the actual games once we read them. We are willing to assume such a risk.
Let's take a team-by-team look at the biggest questions in the AL East this season.
1) How much does Springer change things?
It has been a long, long time since the Blue Jays were the team that got the top free-agent bat on the market, but this is, after all, what they’ve been building toward for the last few years. George Springer gives the Jays, who just broke through and made the playoffs after all, instant credibility, and he also gives them a fantastic hitter atop their lineup, as well as a guy all the young players can pattern themselves after. We’ll see how long he can hang in center field, but right now, for this roster, he’s the perfect fit. Blue Jays fans are going to love him.
2) Is Vlad going to finally bust out?
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is good. He was good his rookie year, and he was a little better last year, But he hasn’t become Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Destroyer of Worlds yet, and that’s still causing a fair share of worry in Toronto. They had, after all, sort of been counting on that. He is somehow only 21 years old -- he is two years younger than Orioles franchise savior Adley Rustchman, who has yet to make his big league debut -- and there keep being little improvements on the edges. Guerrero also played every single game last year. One of these years, and maybe it’s this one, he might just become that MVP everyone expected him to be right out of the gate. If that happens, the Blue Jays’ ceiling just gets higher from here.
3) Is there enough in the rotation?
Blue Jays fans knew they needed some help in the back of their rotation, but all told, Steven Matz might not have been exactly what they had in mind. The Blue Jays have an AL Cy Young Award contender in Hyun Jin Ryu, but he isn’t really a 35-start type of guy. And the Blue Jays don’t have many of those, at all. Right now, this looks like a rotation for a .500 team: Average, fine, but very much prone to breaking down over a full season. Will they look for a midseason addition? What happens if Ryu gets injured? Toronto may have to win a lot of 9-7 games.
4) Hey, where are they playing?
Oh, yeah: That. Last year they played in Buffalo, but, if everything goes the way it’s supposed to, there will be a Minor League season in Buffalo in 2021, so that place is occupied. And I don’t know whether you’ve tried to cross over into Canada in the age of COVID anytime recently, but it’s not so simple, and essentially impossible for a baseball team that just happens to be on a road swing. The most recent reports have the Jays at least starting their season in Dunedin, Fla., not unlike how the Toronto Raptors have been playing their games in Tampa. But the Raptors, a talented team, are clearly suffering from the exchange rate: They’re having their worst season in nearly a decade. Can the Blue Jays avoid the airbnb whiplash?
1) When does Adley get here?
As we just reminded you, Adley Rutschman is two years older than Vladimir Guerrero Jr. So it’s probably time for The Sign of the New Age to show up at some point, yes? He probably would have gotten the call last year had 2020 been normal, so this more “normal” year should, at the very least, get him a callup by midseason, maybe earlier. He’s the No. 2 prospect in baseball, he’s on the cover of season preview magazines even though he hasn’t played a game in the Majors yet, and he’s the single biggest hope for the distant future that the Orioles fans have. He can’t get here soon enough. (No pressure, kid.)
2) How does Mancini look?
Trey Mancini has been a figure of strength and resilience for the Orioles, and really for all of baseball, as he fought back from Stage 3 colon cancer. He said he’ll be ready for a full season, and that’s good, because he’s instantly, if healthy, the best hitter on this roster by a large margin. Now, in the long-term calculus of what the Orioles are doing, a 29-year-old mid-tier slugger who’s a free agent after the 2022 season would be exactly the sort of guy they’d look to trade. But can they trade a beloved team leader like Mancini? If he has a great year and the Orioles have another lost season … will he want them to?
3) Who are the keepers?
The Orioles are still in organizational-restructuring mode, which means seasons like last one, and this one -- and probably the next one -- are largely about finding pieces who are young and cheap enough to be a part of the next great Orioles team, rather than part of this one. So who sticks? Rutschman, obviously. Is Ryan Mountcastle the first baseman of the future? Does Austin Hays have staying power? Tanner Scott? Keegan Akin? That’s the point of playing all these games in 2021: Finding out who is going to be playing all those games in '24. In the words of The Joker, we’re gonna have tryouts.
4) Is everybody OK with a potential step back?
This might be hard to remember, but the Orioles did not, in fact, finish in last place in the AL East in 2020. In fact, at times, they were pretty fun. To the credit or detriment of the Orioles' staff, depending on your perspective, that did not change their viewpoint on their team or their timeline on returning the contention: They’re staying on course and not being seduced by finishing one game ahead of the Red Sox. (Though I’m sure it felt good.) That’s to say, the Orioles are almost certainly going to finish last in the AL East this year, and probably by a rather wide margin. The plan is still in place, the goals are all still ahead of them, nothing has been broken here, but still: It’s tough to remain patient forever, particularly when there’s a step backward from the previous year. The Orioles are going to stay the course. Can their fans? Can the rest of us?
1) How much are they going to miss those pitchers?
The Rays were a delightful breakthrough story throughout 2020, a team that outlasted the far-better-funded Yankees and stormed all the way to the World Series. But the signature moment of that World Series might have even been when manager Kevin Cash pulled Blake Snell in Game 6, leading to a Dodgers comeback and, ultimately, a championship. That’s not something he’ll have to worry about in 2021, because Snell is now in San Diego. The other star starter for Tampa Bay, Charlie Morton, is now in Atlanta. Those are two big arms, huge pieces in their World Series run. Tyler Glasnow is back, but no matter how much you squint and pretend it’s 2013 again, free-agent signings Chris Archer and Michael Wacha are not Snell and Morton. How do the Rays offset the rotation falloff?
2) How real was Randy’s October?
Of all the predictions nobody made before the 2020 season, “Randy Arozarena will be on the cover of the World Series program” is one of the crazier ones. Arozarena had more postseason at-bats than he did regular-season ones, and, boy, did he make the most of them, smashing 10 homers and generally going Barry Bonds on the best pitchers in baseball in the most important games. All of last season, you thought, “Yeah, the Rays are good, but they really need a big bat.” Then Arozarena became that big bat. The question is whether he can stay that big bat. He doesn’t have to be Bonds for a full season. But he probably needs to be their primary power source. Can he do that?
3) When do we see Wander?
He’s the No. 1 prospect in baseball, he’s only 19 years old (though he’ll be 20 by Opening Day) and he’s the center of everything the Rays are planning for the next five years. But when does he get the call? He has been invited to big league camp, and they’ve already given him No. 5, so clearly he’s part of their plans very soon. But how soon? He hasn’t played above Class A Advanced, after all. How long can Willy Adames really hold him off? The next era of the Rays begins when Franco first steps on the field. That could happen sooner than anyone thinks.
4) How big of a step back do they take?
Fun fact: The Rays have improved their winning percentage every year since 2016. That’s the goal of any franchise: to just get better and better. But if they’re going to do that this year, they’re going to have to win 109 games. That’s probably not going to happen, but the Rays could take a minor step back and still make the playoffs. The Yankees are still here, the Blue Jays are charging and the Red Sox aren’t finishing in last again, so the Rays have their work cut out for them. Is this a gap year until the Franco era? Or are they trying to return to the World Series?
1) The pitching can’t be that bad again … can it?
Heading into the 2020 season, everybody knew the Red Sox would have pitching issues, but the hope was that their bats would buy them enough wiggle room to still win games. After the first week of the season, in which Red Sox starter after Red Sox starter was shelled, it became very clear: The Red Sox rotation was going to render them uncompetitive. Two months later, the Red Sox had finished in last -- behind the Orioles! -- and the rotation was even more in shambles. So, any hope for 2021? Well, Eduardo Rodriguez is back after his scary battle with COVID-19, which is a good place to start. Expect the Red Sox to (smartly) be as safe as possible with Chris Sale, coming off Tommy John surgery last March, so that leaves Nathan Eovaldi, new signee Garrett Richards and … well, there are three starters here. And, you know, that’s more than last year.
2) Is J.D. Martinez going to remember he’s J.D. Martinez?
J.D. Martinez’s first two years in Boston were all Sox fans could have possibly hoped for. Last year was … well, jeez, he had a lower OPS than he did back in those Houston days, before he unlocked his swing and became an MVP candidate. The pandemic has been hard on everyone, so we should probably give him a pass on a down season in an insane year, but if the Red Sox are going to outslug their pitching issues, they need Martinez to hit like Martinez. He only has two years left on that five-year deal, and the Red Sox surely imagined one down year among those five. Here’s hoping that year is now out of the way.
3) Is it time to start thinking about an extension for Devers?
Rafael Devers took a step back both offensively and defensively in 2020, but, again, it was a pandemic year, and he’s only 24 years old. He also has mentor Alex Cora back in charge, which can only help. So maybe the Sox should make sure Devers sticks around? And maybe now’s the time to do it? Devers and the team came to an agreement before hitting arbitration, so maybe there’s some common ground, but it’s difficult to see any sort of clear future for the franchise that doesn’t involve their young star third baseman. Which begs the question …
4) What is the plan here, exactly?
The Red Sox are not bad. Not at all! They should be considered a playoff contender; FanGraphs has them as a Wild Card team. But it’s still a little confusing as to what the Red Sox’s precise plan is. They’re good enough to hang around the playoff chase now, but no one would consider them in any sort of prime position. They weren’t in on any free agents even though they’ve finally gotten under the luxury-tax threshold, their farm system still has tons of reconstruction for Chaim Bloom to work on, and, no offense to Richards, but if he's the only guy to bring in to solve your rotation problem, you still very much have a rotation problem. The Red Sox are never going to vanish, and it’s not like the only path forward is tearing everything down and starting over, but it is also not abundantly clear what the Red Sox are constructing right now. They’re not really pushing hard to contend now -- the Blue Jays, sensing an opening, are arming up -- but Boston is not putting together an obvious plan to be a juggernaut like it has been over the last decade, either. You know what the Red Sox are doing? They’re acting like a team in the National League Central: Win 85-87 games, maybe you get a division title out of it, maybe you sneak in the Wild Card. There’s one problem, though: The Red Sox aren’t in the NL Central. They’re here.
1) Is there enough starting pitching?
There’s a school of thought that the Yankees should have pushed harder to get, say, a Trevor Bauer this offseason. They are, after all, the Yankees, and having another ace to go with Gerrit Cole would make them … well, it would make them the team that makes big moves like that, like they used to be. (Now that team is clearly the Dodgers.) The Yanks went quantity first, and they’ve got a ton of options, from new high-ceiling arms like Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon to young hopefuls like Deivi García. Is Luis Severino a pivot guy? The Yankees will still be cobbling together this staff all year and will surely be shopping at the Trade Deadline. The lineup has all the juice. But the Yanks will rise and fall with this staff.
2) How healthy can they be?
We all know that, when healthy, the Yankees have a lineup that is downright overwhelming. But as we also all know, the Yankees' lineup is never healthy, at least not all at the same time. It is as if there are invisible snipers on the roof of Yankee Stadium, shooting BBs at all the Yankees' tendons and ligaments. One of these years -- and maybe it’s a year when players are quarantined and able to focus solely on baseball and fitness regimens the entire six months -- they’re all going to be healthy at once. If that happens, the rest of this division doesn’t stand a chance.
3) Does a decision need to be made on Judge?
Aaron Judge only has two years left before his contract runs out, so you would think the Yankees would be making sure they have their guy -- who has his own judicial branch in right field, for crying out loud -- locked up moving forward. But it’s more complicated than that. First off, he has played more than 112 games only once in his career, and he only played half the games last season. Second, the Yankees have a potentially huge extension waiting for Gleyber Torres in a few years that they need to be prepared for. And, biggest: Judge is already almost 29 years old, and in the first year of a new contract, he’d be 31. He’s going to want a longterm deal, because, jeez, he’s Aaron Judge. Are the Yankees willing to give him one? If not … this is all anyone’s going to be talking about the next two years. If he’s healthy, that is.
4) How urgent are they going to be?
Here is your periodic reminder that the Yankees have not been to the World Series in going on 12 years now. Twelve years! There are 13 teams that have gone to the World Series since the Yankees last did. That’s almost half of baseball. This is the freaking Yankees here. Sure, they’re spending a lot, but they’re not in the park of the Dodgers, and they’re not nearly as aggressive as, say, the Padres have been. It’s a little silly to say that George Steinbrenner would have never stood for this -- the Yankees’ best periods were when Big George would stay out of the way -- but also … George Steinbrenner would have never stood for this. The Yankees are in a historic drought right now. Will they start acting like it?
One man’s prediction (subject to roster changes)
NYY -- 92-70
TOR -- 87-75
TB -- 83-79
BOS -- 81-81
BAL -- 65-97