2015 American League East Preview: 2013 All Over Again?
In 2012, the Boston Red Sox blew up their roster at the trade deadline and sank to the bottom of the AL East standings. They finished with 69 wins and had the 16th worst winning percentage in team history.
Magically, 2013 was a complete turnaround for the team, as they went on to win the division and defeat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series for their third ring in 10 years. Then 2014 happened -- they finished with a record almost identical to the 2012 team that forced the Red Sox to the bottom of the division yet again.
But are the Red Sox in position yet again to make a World Series run? We'll answer that and more questions below, but the AL East could be the most competitive division in baseball this year.
The rankings below are based on each team's nERD score, which is a numberFire-specific stat that calculates how many runs a team would be expected to defeat a league-average team by on any given day on a neutral site. For more details, click it here.
So, let's continue below to see who gets the upper hand in the AL East.
1. Boston Red Sox
nERD: 0.34 | Projected Win-Loss: 86-76 | Division Odds: 34.9% | Playoffs Odds: 55.4%
Based on our projections, it figures to be a great year for the Sox. Obviously unhappy with the offensive performance of its youngsters last year, namely Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts, the front office put a hold on the youth movement and brought in some veterans to strengthen the team's lineup.
The biggest weakness came from the players who manned the hot corner in 2014, ranking as the fifth worst team in wRC+ (82), which measures many runs a player generated for the team. In this instance, the 82 wRC+ is extremely below the league average -- between Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks, and Brock Holt, the hot corner was a liability for the offense.
So the Red Sox dipped into free agency right away. Because they were unsure of securing the services of Pablo Sandoval, the Sox brought back Hanley Ramirez. Once Sandoval did sign with the Red Sox, having Ramirez became a luxury -- he is now slated to begin the season in left field. As a result, Bogaerts will be able to slide back to his natural position at shortstop and the Sox have a problem -- yet again -- in the outfield.
Due to the signing of Rusney Castillo, Yoenis Cespedes was one of the first players to go this offseason. They still have the oft-injured Shane Victorino and the speedy Mookie Betts, meaning someone will be the odd man out. Betts will likely be the fourth outfielder, but an extended period of missed time for Castillo, Ramirez, or Victorino will allow Betts to grab a starting role he may not let go of. Worst case scenario, the Red Sox still have Daniel Nava and Allen Craig on the roster right now with Bradley and Garin Cecchini down in AAA to start the season -- though the latter could be shipped out in a trade package come July.
But while the Red Sox spent on position players, they declined to pay up to bring back Jon Lester or pursue James Shields and Max Scherzer. Instead, they used the stockpile of arms within their farm system to put a facelift on the rotation. They already secured Joe Kelly at the trade deadline when they got rid of John Lackey, but the offseason included Wade Miley coming over for minor leaguers Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa, a one-year deal for Justin Masterson, and another trade by exchanging Cepedes for Rick Porcello.
With 60% of the starting rotation turned over this offseason and a few power bats back in the lineup, the Sox are drawing comparisons of their 2013 team. Don't be surprised if they go worst-to-first for the second time in three years.
2. Tampa Bay Rays
nERD: 0.24 | Projected Win-Loss: 83-79 | Division Odds: 21.5% | Playoffs Odds: 39.8%
There may not be another team that underwent as many major off-the-field changes as they did on-the-field this year as much as the Rays did. Joe Maddon left behind his manager position for the Cubs, and former general manager Andrew Friedman left for a bigger paycheck to run the operations of the Dodgers. Yet with the loss of key front office personnel, the Rays are still poised to make some noise in the AL East and should be in the hunt for a wild card spot throughout the season.
The losses of Wil Myers, all-purpose guy Ben Zobrist, and Matt Joyce, who all combined for a 7.7 fWAR for the Rays in 2014, mean the Rays had to replace some significant production. Coming in to help this year is rookie outfielder Steven Souza, Jr. and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera.
If the Rays gain contributions from them and get another productive year from mainstays Evan Longoria and Desmond Jennings, then the offense should stay afloat in 2015. For a more in-depth look at the Rays offense our own Sal Cacciatore went through the value of each of the position players.
Even more worrisome for the Rays this year though is the starting rotation. After letting David Price go to the Tigers, Alex Cobb is the elder statesman for the rotation at just 27 years old. Drew Smyly and Chris Archer were still productive last year, as Smyly was a solid fill-in as a return on Price and Archer had the second-best fWAR of the pitchers on the team (3.1). What the rotation really needs is a healthy Matt Moore though. He was an All-Star in 2013 (his last full season) thanks to a 3.29 ERA. He has the potential to be an ace for the rotation, and if he comes back healthy from Tommy John surgery, the Rays will have one of the deepest rotations in baseball.
A lot of questions surround the Rays, but considering the potential of the team, don't be surprised if they're still hanging around in September.
3. Baltimore Orioles
nERD: 0.24 | Projected Win-Loss: 83-79 | Division Odds: 21.7% | Playoffs Odds: 40.1%
The Orioles are projected for an identical record as the Rays, and their preseason nERD score is identical, as well. They have slightly better chances at the playoffs and winning the division. It's essentially too close to call for second place in the division.
Like the Rays, the lineup is full of potential with myriad questions. Can Manny Machado finally have a healthy, productive season? Can the 40-home runs and 108 RBI from Nelson Cruz be replaced? Can Chris Davis return to MVP form?
The Orioles don't have the flashy names or popular players, but they do have guys who produce. Their pitching staff always allows them to keep the games close, but expectations to replicate 2014 may be tougher this year in a reloaded division. Catcher Matt Wieters is slated to come back from his Tommy John surgery as well, so if he can carry over his hot start to 2014, the Orioles will be in business.
4. Toronto Blue Jays
nERD: 0.16 | Projected Win-Loss: 82-80 | Division Odds: 16.7% | Playoffs Odds: 32.5%
According to our projections, the Blue Jays could be a surprise team in this division, finishing just above .500 despite the losses of Melky Cabrera, Brett Lawrie, and Adam Lind, three of their top seven hitters according to fWAR last year. Replacing their production, though, is Josh Donaldson, coming off of one of his best seasons, and Russell Martin, also coming off of one of his best seasons.
But the Blue Jays have never had to worry about a productive offense -- it's the pitching that keeps troubling them. R.A. Dickey was nowhere near his Cy Young form last year, and while Mark Buehrle was the lone bright spot of the rotation, he wasn't dominant as we've seen him in the past. Overall, the starting rotation was 22nd in ERA (3.96) in the league last year.
But the Blue Jays do have some hope this year in Aaron Sanchez, their top pitching prospect. He will be eased into the rotation, but expectations could be huge after his 1.09 ERA in 24 games last year in the minors. If the pitching staff comes together for once, the Blue Jays may not have to stare at the cellar this year.
5. New York Yankees
nERD: -0.13 | Projected Win-Loss: 78-84 | Division Odds: 5.2% | Playoffs Odds: 12.4%
With all the teams in the division improving, the Yankees, who didn't do a whole lot in terms of transactions, could be in trouble. The Captain is gone, and the rotation has as many questions as ever. And while Alex Rodriguez is back on the team (yay?), a year off means he will have to earn playing time amidst criticism.
Didi Gregorious was brought over to fill the massive shoes of Derek Jeter, but he is still young. He brings little to the table offensively, and many look at him as a defensive specialist at the shortstop position. But he finally brings something to the table the Yankees desperately need: youth.
Another thing the Yankees desperately need is run production. Jacoby Ellsbury was brought in to save the team last year, and while he was the best position player on the team, just 16 home runs and 71 RBI won't cut it for the fans in New York. Mark Teixeira was hurt, again, last season, and the highly paid Carlos Beltran barely made it through half of the season. The Yankees were a bottom-10 team in runs scored last year, and that will need to change for the Yankees to get back to their winning ways.
The starting rotation has as many unknowns if not more so than the offense. C.C. Sabathia will probably be the opening day starter, but he is far from the ace he used to be. Masahiro Tanaka was doing well until his elbow surgery -- but he may have set himself back even more when he tried to come back at the end of last season. Michael Pineda looked like his old self, but the losses of Hiroki Kuroda (back to Japan) and Brandon McCarthy may have set this pitching staff back even further.
So, while the rest of the AL East continues to look for ways to improve, the Yankees keep getting stuck in the mud. While you could place the "potential" label on this team as well, they are getting older by the hour, and one more injury could cause the team to implode. The Yankees will always have their lore, but that can only carry a team so far. This year, it just might drop them to the cellar and give them their worst season since the mid-1990's