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Five questions for every AL East team in 2020

@williamfleitch
March 7, 2020

If you’re just joining us, we’ve been previewing the 2020 baseball season, division-by-division, for a month-plus now. Here’s what you’ve missed so far: Previously: The AL Central The AL West The NL East The NL West So today: The American League East! We will look at five pressing questions for

If you’re just joining us, we’ve been previewing the 2020 baseball season, division-by-division, for a month-plus now. Here’s what you’ve missed so far:

Previously:
The AL Central
The AL West
The NL East
The NL West

So today: The American League East! We will look at five pressing questions for each team heading into the 2020 season. At the end, we will make some actual predictions on the final standings, predictions that are unassailable and so obviously iron-clad correct 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 this season.

Blue Jays

1) Does Vlad Jr. explode this year?
We have gotten so used to teenagers showing up these days and setting the league on fire that Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s arrival in 2019 couldn’t help but feel like a little bit of a letdown. In 123 games, he hit 15 homers, showed some on-base skills and didn’t strike out as much as we expect sluggers to these days. That’s good! But it just felt ... not world-shaking. But this is when we remind you that he was 20 years old, and he’s Vlad’s son, and he tore apart Minor League pitching. The ascendance is coming.

2) Can the Making Gen-Xers Feel Impossibly Old All-Stars all secure their spots moving forward?
It remains absolutely insane to anyone who followed baseball in the ’90s and early 2000s that the sons of Vladimir Guerrero, Dante Bichette and Craig Biggio are all on the same team at the same time. Is there a Bernard Gilkey or Rico Brogna offspring out there anywhere? Vlad Jr. is the star attraction, but Bo Bichette was the better hitter in his 46-game cameo last year, even if it’s weird that he doesn’t have a permed mullet. Cavan Biggio impressed too: He had a higher OPS than Vlad Jr. did, for one thing. Is there any way to just extend all three of these guys to same deal? Do we require an old ’90s copy of Beckett’s for that?

3) Will the Ryu spending pay off?
The Blue Jays surprised many by signing Hyun-Jin Ryu to a four-year, $80 million deal in the offseason. He’s an excellent pitcher, but he’s not exactly durable or predictable: Is he the guy a team with a bunch of young players can rely upon to secure a foundation? Maybe, maybe not; but Ryu really has been fantastic for several years now, when you can get him on the mound. By the end of that deal, the Blue Jays will presumably be readier to compete in the AL East than they are now. The $20 million price tag might be too much for the fourth starter he might be by then, but that doesn’t mean he won’t still come in quite handy.

4) When does Pearson arrive?
The Blue Jays’ top prospect, ranked the No. 2 right-handed pitching prospect in baseball by MLB Pipeline, Nate Pearson hasn’t thrown a full season’s worth of innings, which is the primary objective for this season. He’ll start the season in Triple-A. But if 2021 is going to be a contending year like the Blue Jays clearly want it to be, they’ll want to get him up my midseason, one would think. The Blue Jays rotation is Ryu and ... a bunch of placeholders. If the Blue Jays want to take a big step forward, they need to show off the top-shelf pitching to go with all those ’90s princes in the lineup.

5) How much progress is expected?
For all the good feelings about the young lads Guerrero/Bichette/Biggio (not to mention the Lourdes Gurriel Jr. hanging around there), the Blue Jays still lost 95 games last year, the most in a season for the Jays since 1979. Fans can accept that step back as long as it means a step forward is coming. The playoffs are too big of a leap, but is 80 wins too much to ask? That’s the intermediate step they’ll need to make to become actual contenders in 2021. We’re just looking for progress here.

Orioles

1) What’s the heck is going on with Chris Davis?

Have you seen what this dude is doing this spring?

We don’t want to overhype anything, but it must be said: If Chris Davis somehow finds a way back to his 50-homer form this year, it’s the best story in Major League Baseball and probably the biggest thing that has happened in world history since the cotton gin, or maybe the Big Bang. The Orioles, surreally, still owe Davis $51 million over the next three years, and even for a team completely starting over like the Orioles, that’s too much money to just eat even if he hit .179 last year and that was a 15-point improvement over the year before. After his record-setting 0-for-54 slump last year, you can’t help but root for him, and considering how little else the Orioles have going on right now, watching the Davis of Our Lives soap opera will at least pass the time.

2) Which of these guys will be on the first competitive team?
When will the Orioles be good again? No one seems to know, but ostensibly, the whole plan here is to figure out what pieces here at this point will stick around until they get to that point ... and then probably trade off what you can of the rest. So which guys are part of the Orioles’ future? It’s maybe a little disturbing that the only sure answer right now is top prospect Adley Rutschman, but the Orioles will be looking for names to add to that list all year. Trey Mancini? Ryan Mountcastle? Austin Hays? The spectacularly maned Hunter Harvey? The Orioles will continue to plan for gold.

3) Can they win more games than they did last year again?
Lost in the terribleness of last year’s Orioles team is that they actually improved by seven games from 2018 to ’19. Seven games is a lot of games! If they can improve by a similar amount, they might get back to double-digit losses.

4) What’s the strategy going into the Draft?
When you’re on as extended a turnaround as the Orioles are right now, this question may be more than any other on this list. They went after power early in their first Draft with Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson and Kyle Stowers. Is that the plan again? Or is it just “grab talent wherever you can find it, wherever they play?” For that matter: How’s that revamping of the international market presence going?

5) Everybody still being cool and patient out there?
Orioles fans knew this was going to take a long time, and they’ve been relaxed, as relaxed as any fan can be, about the beginning of this process. But it’s one thing to say that in Year One. Year Two is when the knee starts to get a little jittery. It is difficult, even if you agree with the long-term plan, for any fan to say, “I accept that my favorite baseball team is going to play 162 games this year and likely never contend, and probably next year too.” That is the deal the Orioles fans have made. But how long can they stick to it?

Rays

1) Do they have the best top three in baseball?
There is a lovely irony in the idea that the Rays, who first experimented with the opener concept and have shown a willingness to embrace unconventional thinking in a way that would terrify most teams, find their biggest strength in the most old-school notion of all: Get yourself a stud starting pitcher. The Rays have three in Charlie Morton, Blake Snell (who feels like a huge bounce-back candidate, and he wasn’t that bad in the first place) and Tyler Glasnow, all of whom would headline most team’s rotation.

2) When do we see Wander?
Yes, yes, the Rays are typically very patient with young players, and Wander Franco is so young, and still hasn’t played above Class A. But I’ll go ahead and just quote what MLB Pipeline, which has Franco as the No. 1 prospect in baseball, has to say about him : “If you were to build a hitter from scratch using all of the physical attributes and skills that have come to define great hitters, he'd probably end up looking something like Franco.” Uh, where do we sign up? He probably won’t get called up this year. But if he’s killing it in the Minors, and the Rays are hanging around the Yankees in August ... they have to be tempted, right?

3) Do they have enough on-base guys?
The Rays traded Tommy Pham in the offseason, and while the trade made some sense (Hunter Renfroe has more power, more years of team control and is four years younger than Pham), you have to think the Rays will miss Pham’s persistent ability to get on base. Austin Meadows and Ji-Man Choi are the only regulars above .360 OBP, and Renfroe was all the way down at .289. The Rays made the decision to add power at the expense of on-base ability. It better be the right one.

4) How much will we love Yoshi?
Japanese import Yoshitomo Tsutsugo got off to a blistering spring start and is clearly lined up to be one of everyone’s favorite attractions on the road. He was beloved in Japan, and for good reason. Watch this guy:

He should help with that on-base problem too, but you never know: We’ve seen difficulties with the transition from Japan before, particularly with sluggers. But I already can’t stop watching him hit, and he hasn’t even stepped on a big league diamond yet.

5) Can they catch a leaking Yankees team?
The Red Sox, with the trade of Mookie Betts, are in transition mode. But now with all the Yankees injuries, the Rays look primed to pick up the slack, with that top-shelf top of the rotation, a solid offense 1-9 and the great defense everywhere. The Rays have made it through their sagging period, and they now look as strong as ever. They remain limber and stealth and dangerous. If the Yankees really do wobble, what a story it would be if the Rays were the team that took advantage.

Red Sox

1) Is Sale OK?
This immediately became the most urgent and terrifying question for the Red Sox on Tuesday after Chris Sale left the mound with elbow soreness. After undergoing an MRI and getting multiple expert opinions on his elbow, it’s still unclear when he will pitch again in a competitive game. Could be April, could be next April. Sale was the ace who could settle down any other issues. Now he might be the biggest one.

2) Can they make people forget about Betts?
OK, maybe not “forget.” Obviously, the Red Sox are worse without Mookie Betts: Every team on the planet, even the Bugs Bunny one that just homered every pitch, would be worse without Mookie Betts. But we are still talking about only one season before he was going to hit free agency. (One that might not have Chris Sale as a part of it, which sort of makes it a gap year anyway.) Alex Verdugo is quite a piece to receive for one year of Mookie Betts, even if he’s missing the beginning of the year. He’s not Mookie Betts, and he never will be, but he’s here longer and could establish himself this year. There’s still a lot of offense on this team. There would be more with Betts, obviously. But this team has a 1/2/3/4 of Andrew Benintendi/Rafael Devers/Xander Bogaerts/J.D. Martinez. They are going to score lots of runs.

3) Is there any sort of plan for the bullpen?
It is widely forgotten now, but the Red Sox, as good as they were in 2018, weren’t considered an overwhelming favorite to win the World Series that year because of their bullpen. It turned out that Joe Kelly and others stepped up and Nathan Eovaldi and others became their best selves, but no one saw that coming, or should have. The bullpen looks wobbly again this year, though with all the other offseason goings-on with the Red Sox, no one’s focusing intensely on this one. Interim manager Ron Roenicke believes it’s a “team strength.” If that’s true, the Red Sox may be in more trouble than we thought.

4) Anybody notice there’s still a ton of young talent here?
Rafael Devers is only 23, but he looked like an MVP contender most of last year; there is massive, massive upside with him. Bogaerts was even better. Benintendi is 25. Michael Chavis burst out of the gate last year. The Red Sox are going to have to figure out how to pay all these guys someday, but the idea that the cupboard suddenly went bare after the Betts trade is quite silly.

5) Can everybody keep the faith?
Look, the Red Sox are a good team. They really are! That offense is great, Sale might not end up missing THAT long and, again, the analytics folks think they're as much a Wild Card contender as just about anybody else. But it is one thing to say, "Look, FanGraphs says we're a 50-50 shot for the postseason!" It's another thing to say, "Uh, management just traded away our best player, so you tell me: How much of a chance do they think we have this year?" Most teams in the Red Sox's position expect to add talent before the season. Instead, the Red Sox traded away their best player. It might be the right move in the long term. But 2020 isn't the long term. 2020 is now.

Yankees

1) Wait, is everyone just going to get hurt again?
One of the reasons the 2019 Yankees were so fun was that they were so unexpected: Gio Urshela, Mike Tauchman, Luke Voit, the joy of them was that they seemed to be great because they were wearing the Yankees uniform, holding down the fort until the big guys came back. Well ... it looks like the big guys aren’t coming back anytime soon. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are both going to miss Opening Day, Miguel Andújar is still recovering from a lost season, and we haven’t even started talking about the rotation injuries just yet. (But oh, we will.)

2) OK, seriously, what does the back half of the rotation look like?
As exciting as it was when the Yankees signed Gerrit Cole—and it was very exciting—it sort of looks like now that the Yankees are a Gerrit Cole or two short, doesn’t it? With Luis Severino out for the year and James Paxton out for maybe the first month (and maybe more, you never know, these are pitchers we’re talking about) and Domingo German suspended for the first half of the season, suddenly the Yankees have … Jonathan Loaisiga in their rotation? And they’re counting on Jordan Montgomery and J.A. Happ, the latter of which they spent most of the winter desperately trying to trade. Imagine what happens if Cole or Masahiro Tanaka run into any problems, as pitchers tend to do.

3) Is Gleyber ready to take the leap?
For all the talk of Judge and Stanton, the player most likely to be the most valuable Yankees position player over the next half-decade or so is Gleyber Torres, who hit 38 homers last year and, we remind, is only 23 years old. But now the Yankees are relying on him to be the everyday shortstop – he’s played a lot of second base the last two years -- despite some questions about his work at the position. This is a team full of stars, injured and/or healthy, but Torres may have the highest upside, not just for the future but for 2020. Is he ready for that burden? Because with Judge and Stanton out, everyone’s going to be looking directly at him.

4) Can the bullpen hold up?
With all these injuries, it has become even more apparent that the bullpen is the Yankees’ strength, still. There isn’t a weak arm out there: Every single guy scares you a little. But they’re also increasingly old (Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, and Adam Ottavino are all 32 or older), which not only will sneak a tick or two off your fastball but also makes you more likely to break down.

5) Does nothing matter without the Series?
There was something about that stat, that the Yankees didn’t make a single World Series last decade, that clearly stuck in the Yankees’ craw. Signing Cole signaled that they were in for it all right now, that the Death Star was indeed fully operational. (It sure scared the Red Sox off.) But the injury woes have popped back up, and while that didn’t seem to matter in 2019, they can’t count on the Tauchmans of the world stepping up forever. The Yankees are expected, by their front office, by their fans, by a baseball world that may actually be rooting for them if they play the Astros, to win the World Series. But this seems like a lot of questions for a team so many people expect to win the World Series.

Predicted standings (barring roster changes):

Yankees: 96-66
Rays: 94-68
Red Sox: 86-76
Blue Jays: 72-90
Orioles: 61-101

In two weeks: The National League Central.