Throughout February and March, I spent a disturbingly large percentage of my pre-pandemic hours writing incredibly long division season previews for a season that, as it turned out, would not happen as originally planned. In these previews, I asked (and tried to answer) five big questions about each team in each division and then, at the end, predicted exact records for every one of them. For what it's worth, every one of these predictions would have been right on the money, had the season happened as scheduled. Trust me.
Anyway, now that we are getting a truncated season, it's time to dig back into these previews, under the decidedly new and unprecedented circumstances we find ourselves facing. Because there are only 60 games now, rather than 162, we will ask only two questions in these previews, often relating to these decidedly new and unprecedented circumstances we find ourselves facing. The predictions are still coming, though, and they're still 100 percent guaranteed correct. These will run twice a week until the season begins on July 23.
We begin with a little division called the American League East.
1. Is this the perfect scenario for the Hyun-Jin Ryu signing?
The Blue Jays announced that they were ready to start making some moves in the AL East by signing Ryu to a four-year, $80 million deal in the offseason, but even with the excitement of the deal, there was no question the signing was a risk. Ryu is an incredible pitcher when he's on the mound, but he's just not on the mound that often; last year was the first time since 2014 that he made more than 24 starts, and it certainly didn't go unnoticed that he seemed to wear down as the season went on. Fortunately for the Blue Jays, the season isn't going to "go on" the way it did last year. They only need Ryu to be Ryu for two months, rather than six. If he pitches his first two months as a Blue Jay like he did the first two months of 2019 as a Dodger -- he gave up just 12 earned runs in 11 starts in the first two months last year -- he'll win the AL Cy Young Award.
2. Can Vlad Jr. have the Trout bump?
I know this is impossible to believe, but Mike Trout was actually quite bad during his first season in the Majors: Can you believe Trout hit .220 over 40 games once? Vladimir Guerrero Jr., perhaps the most hyped rookie hitter since Trout, was a little better than that in 2019, in three times as many games, but it felt like he underwhelmed a bit after all the excitement we had waiting for him to arrive. But when you have talent like Vlad Jr., just like with Trout, it doesn't stay dormant for long. If Vlad Jr. erupts the way we're all expecting him (eventually) to, the Blue Jays have the sort of top-shelf star who can carry a team for two months.
1. How many rookies will we see?
Catcher Adley Rutschman and 2020 top pick Heston Kjerstad (an outfielder) aren't likely to see Camden Yards this year -- but they're coming, O's fans, they're coming. But we're reaching the point of the Orioles' rebuild that we're going to start seeing some guys. Considering much of being an Orioles fan right now is about waiting for all their prospects to show up, this is probably the biggest news they could hope for.
First baseman Ryan Mountcastle (their No. 4 prospect, per MLB Pipeline) could be the first to make it up, with outfielder Yusniel Díaz (No. 7), right-hander Dean Kremer (No. 9) and lefty Keegan Akin (No. 11) perhaps not far behind. Which of these players will be on the next contending Orioles team? This is the year we may at last start to find out.
2. How low is too low?
It's one thing to lose 100-plus games: The Orioles have done that a couple of years in a row now, and they were expecting to do so again this year. But it's quite another to, say, have the number of wins you have at the end of the year be in the teens. It hopefully won't be that bad for the Orioles in 2020, but it might be pretty close, particularly with their schedule being one of the toughest in the game. It might be fun to at last see some of the kids. But hopefully what's going to happen to the Orioles this year won't scar them, or their fans, for life.
1. Have the Rays been training for a season like this all along?
There is perhaps no team in baseball more ready for a short-sprint season like this than the Rays. They have everything you want:
• Pitching depth
• Comfort with unconventional strategies
• Multiple studs atop the rotation
• Positional versatility
The Rays also have a close-knit clubhouse, a top-shelf organization and a manager who has shown he's the perfect fit for the organization. No team can be ideally suited for such a strange season, but the Rays might be the closest.
2. When do we see Wander?
The top prospect in baseball wasn't slated to make his arrival until 2021, but he's in the Rays' 60-man player pool, and if they are fighting it out in the AL East come mid-September, will they possibly be able to resist calling up the wunderkind shortstop? An opportunity like this doesn't come up often, and it will be awfully tempting to call for all hands on deck in a pennant chase. In a tight division like this, the lightning-bolt talent of Wander Franco could be what tips first place one way or the other.
1. Can they slip in and take advantage of what's essentially a bonus year?
When the Red Sox traded Mookie Betts -- the Red Sox traded Mookie Betts! That's still so wild! -- they essentially admitted that winning the World Series in 2020, while important, might not be the top priority. But when they did that, they couldn't have known that the season they traded him for would be only 60 games: They traded 102 games less of Betts (and a lot of David Price money) for Alex Verdugo and company than they ever thought. That makes this year, particularly with such a crazy schedule, almost like "house money" for the Red Sox. They certainly have enough talent still on the roster to hang around the AL East, and "hanging around" is just about all you have to do in 2020.
2. Can Rafael Devers become a superstar?
The third-base phenom is still only 23 years old despite being in his fourth season for the Red Sox. Last year, he became the player we all thought he'd become, leading the AL in doubles and total bases and finishing 12th in AL MVP Award voting. But it still feels like he's just getting started here, particularly from a power perspective. Devers has the sort of talent that could win multiple MVPs, and he's another one of those guys who can carry a team over 60 games. If he comes roaring out of the gate, Boston fans won't miss Betts nearly as much as they might have expected.
1. So, who's healthy?
The Yankees were ravaged by injuries in 2019, and it felt like more of the same this Spring Training: Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, James Paxton and Aaron Hicks looked like they might miss the start of the regular season. Flash forward three long, idle months, and … well, not all of them are back, but most of them are. Brian Cashman says Stanton, Paxton and Hicks are all ready to go, and Judge says he'll be ready for Opening Day. Now, with all those players (and really all players in this short season), injuries could creep their way back into the picture, but if all those players are truly healthy, the one thing you were worried about with this Yankees team is no longer worth worrying about.
2. Is this still an all-in season?
One of the reasons the Yankees spent so much on Gerrit Cole and made it so clear that this season meant so much was because they'd just finished the first decade in 100 years that they hadn't reached a World Series. Does 2020 have the same urgency now? If the Yankees miss the World Series, which they spent so excessively to win for the first time since '09, is there something wrong here? Or does it just mean that '20 is a crazy year and one shouldn't ascribe too much long-term importance to it? Perhaps it's best for the Yankees to just go ahead and win the World Series and not leave any lingering doubt.
One man's AL East prediction …
Blue Jays: 31-29
Red Sox: 28-32