Hello, baseball fans, and welcome to the first divisional preview for the 2014 MLB season. To begin, I’m going to take a look at what is perhaps again the best division in baseball, the AL East. Apart from the Blue Jays, every team in this division has a realistic chance to reach the postseason. The Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees shared the same exact record last year (85-77), and each team has done nice work in the off-season, although the Yankees have, unsurprisingly, far outspent the Orioles for more prized free agents. The Tampa Bay Rays are coming off a season in which a group of talented rookies joined a couple of All-Star veterans to lead the team to a wild-card berth. Oh yeah, the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox happen to be in the division as well. Like I said, the AL East is one of the best divisions in baseball, and, as always, the battle for its crown should be very interesting.
1. Boston Red Sox
2. Tampa Bay Rays
3. New York Yankees
4. Baltimore Orioles
5. Toronto Blue Jays
1. Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox went from worst to first last year, winning the 2013 World Series in their first year under new manager John Farrell. The level of success established by the new manager will be continued this year, as the Red Sox will win their second straight AL East crown. David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia still make up the heart of this lineup, but young guns Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Will Middlebrooks should add some firepower to a lineup which last year scored the most runs in baseball. The rotation is very good too: Clay Buchholz, when healthy, is one of the best pitchers in the division, while Jon Lester and John Lackey are generally solid. Add to those three a full season of Jake Peavy, and the rotation should do very well. Come the ninth inning, Koji Uehara was the best closer in the league not named Craig Kimbrel last season, and he will look to continue his wild success this year. This Red Sox squad is talented, with a good mix of young talent and veteran leadership.
Best Case- The Red Sox repeat as World Series champions. Bogaerts wins ROY, Buchholz wins the AL Cy Young, and Ortiz keeps on launching balls into the atmosphere.
Worst Case- Ortiz’s aging body gives out, Buchholz is once again plagued by shoulder issues, and the rookies look unready and overhyped. The Red Sox win a wild-card spot but don’t go anywhere in the postseason.
Boston is Papi’s city, and he’s ready to lead them to another divisional crown.
2. Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays, as they have done for the past 5 years, found a way to win in 2013. Manager Joe Maddon led his squad to the AL Wild-Card game, where they beat the Cleveland Indians (only to lose to the division rival Red Sox in the divisional round). The Rays are hoping to replicate that success this season. Last year, ace David Price (who, despite trade rumors galore, is still in Tampa Bay) and All-Star 3B Evan Longoria were healthy and played well, but it was young talent that pushed the Rays into the wild card berth. Wil Myers, the crown jewel of the James Shields trade, was as good as expected, taking home the AL ROY award, and young pitchers Matt Moore, Chris Archer, and Alex Cobb all looked extremely promising. The players in the youth movement will only continue to grow and improve this season, which bodes well for the Rays’ playoff hopes. Add to that mix All-Star closer Grant Balfour, signed from the Oakland A’s this off-season, and the Rays look poised to make the postseason for the second straight year.
Best Case- Longoria plays like an MVP while staying healthy all season, Myers continues to improve, Moore and Price form a deadly duo at the top of the rotation, Balfour has 40 saves, and the Rays get back in the playoffs.
Worst Case- Longoria once again falls victim to the injury bug, Archer and Cobb don’t improve, Price is dealt mid-season, and the Rays miss out on the postseason.
Longoria is going to like what he sees from the Rays this year.
3. New York Yankees
2013 was a disappointing year for the Yankees. They finished tied for third in the AL East, missing the playoffs for only the second time in 19 years. In response, Brian Cashman went out and signed as many high profile free agents as he could. As a result, the Yankees are looking strong. The lineup is plain scary. Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran join Derek Jeter (who, if you haven’t bothered to come out from under your rock this winter, is retiring at the season’s end), Mark Teixeira, Alfonso Soriano, and Brett Gardner. These 7 guys are going to produce a lot of offense. The Yankees lost Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez and, most importantly, Robinson Cano this past off-season, yet the hit on their offensive production shouldn’t be too bad (except at second base. Brian Roberts would be a great replacement for Cano– if the year was 2007). The rotation is very good as well. C.C Sabathia looks slim and ready to make up for a disappointing 2013, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova are looking to improve upon strong showings last season, and, as for Michael Pineda and the newly signed Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees might have two of the best pitchers in the division at the end of their rotation. The bullpen obviously has been affected by the departure of the G.O.A.T Mariano Rivera, but David Robertson should do a serviceable job in lieu of Mariano. Besides, with their lineup, the Yanks are hoping that the leads they will be protecting are sizable.
Best case- Tanaka wins ROY, Pineda pitches well, and Jeter plays like he’s a decade younger, leading the rejuvenated lineup to the AL East crown.
Worst Case- The injury bug bites the Yanks. Jeter’s aging body completely crumbles, along with those of Texiera, Sabathia, Beltran, McCann, etc… Robertson is a disappointment, Tanaka doesn’t live up to the contract, and Pineda’s arm falls apart once more. The Yankees miss the playoffs and send their captain off on a sour note.
Alex wants to play, too! How upsetting!
4. Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles, a year after making a surprise playoff run, didn’t have enough in the tank to win a 2013 wild card spot. Without Yankee-like willingness to spend, the Orioles did not massively improve this off-season. Still, they should be good enough to compete for a wild-card spot this summer. Joining home run king Chris Davis and All-Stars J.J Hardy, Adam Jones, and (a favorite at College Sports Town and someone who will hopefully make a full recovery soon soon) Manny Machado are sometimes-exciting 2B Jemile Weeks and the powerful Nelson Cruz. The lineup is talented, but a lot will be asked of them due to the state of the Orioles’ pitching staff. Chris Tillman, Bud Norris, and Miguel Gonzalez are decent, and the newly-acquired Ubaldo Jimenez was effective last year for the Indians, but the Orioles’ rotation is pretty lackluster. The bullpen will likely be worse than last year’s, without former All-Star Jim Johnson, and the Orioles lost out on All-Star Grant Balfour. The immortal Tommy Hunter will be closing games for the O’s. The Orioles better hope they score a lot of runs, because it seems that a lot of runs will be scored against them.
Best Case- The lineup produces wildly, and the rotation is just good enough to win games for the Orioles. They squeak into the playoffs when the Yankees and Rays falter.
Worst Case- The production of the lineup is not enough, as the leaky rotation lets up too many runs. The Orioles can’t win the close games they did in 2012, and they can’t replicate their success from that year. They miss the playoffs again.
Machado and the O’s have a shot to make the playoffs if he can come back to make plays like this!
5. Toronto Blue Jays
It’s painful to admit it, but I was way off last year when I predicted the Blue Jays would be the best team in the AL East. They were a disappointment last year, and I think the disappointment will continue this year. They have a similar situation to the Orioles in that they have a powerful lineup (albeit not as good as the O’s) but questionable pitching. Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion all are very talented, but beyond those three, there are many question marks. Is Brett Lawrie going to fulfill his potential as a top 3B? Is Melky Cabrera going to return to his San Francisco form or were the PEDs just really effective? Even with the questions, the lineup is still in better shape than the rotation. R.A Dickey did not play like a reigning Cy Young winner last year (thanks for Syndy, you guys!), as his knuckleball appeared less effective. In order for the Jays to improve, R.A must retrieve a little bit of that 2012 magic. The rest of the pitching staff is equally inconsistent. Mark Buehrle, Brandon Morrow, and J.A Happ were disappointing last year, and will likely remain disappointing in 2014. The bullpen was good last season, but its status this year is unclear; their prospective closer, Casey Janssen, has not pitched this spring, but All-Stars Steve Delabar and Brett Cecil have been good thus far. Still, the bullpen would be more useful if the Jays had leads to protect. The Blue Jays have some good pieces, but it would be very surprising for them to make a playoff run.
Best Case- Reyes, Bautista, and Encarnacion are All-Stars, Lawrie is the second best 3B in the AL East, Dickey and Co. get their act together, and the Blue Jays contend until September.
Worst Case- Reyes and Bautista are injured/traded, Lawrie is a disappointment, Dickey’s knuckleball is flat, and the Jays flounder.
Jose is clearly attempting to run away from this ill-fated team.
There you have it. The AL East crown will return to Boston next year, and the Rays will accompany the Red Sox to the postseason. That’s it for the first edition of College Sports Town’s 2014 divisional previews. Next up, the impressive AL Central, the home of two of my playoff teams– but not necessarily the ones you would think.