Going back a decade-and-a-half, the American League East was among the most interesting divisions at the top, one of the least interesting toward the bottom. The Yankees and Red Sox duked it out for the title, and no one else threatened for the playoffs.
That evolved in 2008, when Tampa Bay broke through with a pennant-winning season. In the past six seasons, all five teams in the division have won at least one title. And this year, all five enter with expectations — some realistic, some less so — of reaching the postseason again.
Try handicapping this one. We did.
Boston Red Sox
2015 record and finish: 78-84, fifth in AL East
2016 FanGraphs projection: 91-71, first
Significant additions: SP David Price, RP Craig Kimbrel, RP Carson Smith, OF Chris Young
Significant losses: SP Wade Miley, RP Craig Breslow, SP Rich Hill
Why they’ll win the division: An offseason overhaul orchestrated by a new front office that appears to be backed completely by ownership.
The standings show that the Red Sox finished last in three of their last four years; prior to that, they had finished last in their division (or league) three times total since 1930. (Boston fans, of course, are mollified by the fact that the odd year out here resulted in the 2013 World Series title.) The most significant development in last summer’s lost season was a new leader in Dave Dombrowski, who previously built both the Marlins and Tigers into pennant winners. Dombrowski entered into his first offseason in Boston armed with the Red Sox’s financial muscle and used it to sign the biggest free agent on the market: lefty David Price, to a seven-year, $217 million deal. But he did more than that, transforming the bullpen by snaring one of the best closers in the game, Craig Kimbrel, from San Diego for four minor-leaguers — none among Boston’s top prospects. He then spun starter Wade Miley, who had a disappointing season in Boston and clashed with Manager John Farrell, for quietly effective reliever Carson Smith. In shortstop Xander Bogaerts, center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr., versatile Mookie Betts and catcher Blake Swihart, the Red Sox have an under-25 core-of-the-future that might not match that of the Cubs but isn’t terribly far behind. In summers past, Dombrowski has pulled off deals to land stars at the deadline (Price in 2014 in Detroit), and given the Red Sox’s wealth both in cash and prospects, Boston should be buyers at the deadline this year.
Most significant question: Can Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval be part of the solution instead of the problem?
Boston’s 2015 was supposed to turn around in part because they signed these two sluggers last offseason. But disaster struck over the course of the summer. Ramirez, originally a shortstop with the Red Sox organization before becoming a star with the Marlins and eventually a third baseman with the Dodgers, tried to convert to left field. It didn’t work out. His .717 OPS was well below his .873 career mark entering the season, and he played just 105 games. Sandoval, fresh off his third World Series title with San Francisco, posted a .658 OPS that not only was the lowest of his career but was the worst among the 22 third basemen with enough plate appearances to qualify for a batting title. Now, Ramirez moves to first base — yet another adjustment. They are owed, collectively, more than $145 million. They must perform.
Spring training battle to watch: Sort out the rotation?
Price’s arrival gives the Red Sox an instant ace, and his career marks at Fenway Park (1.95 ERA, 0.946 WHIP, .550 OPS against) should quell fears about spending so much on a lefty given the close proximity of the left-field wall. But there’s much to figure out behind him. Clay Buchholz has never made 30 starts or thrown 190 innings, and this will be his 10th major league season. Rick Porcello cost the Red Sox outfielder Yoenis Cespedes in trade, then a four-year, $82.5 million contract extension that kicks in this season — yet his 4.92 ERA was the fourth-worst among pitchers with at least 170 innings last year. Eduardo Rodriguez was intriguing as a rookie, giving up one or fewer earned runs in 12 of his 21 starts, but now he has to eliminate the inconsistency that led to four starts of six earned runs or more. Joe Kelly, Roenis Elias and Henry Owens are all candidates as well. Whatever the names, they will be counted on to improve upon a 4.39 rotation ERA that was 13th in the American League.
Did you realize? Since he came to the Red Sox in 2003, David Ortiz — who has said he intends to retire after this season — has posted a .951 OPS, trailing only Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera among players who have 5,000 plate appearances in that time (about 385 per year). During those 13 seasons, he trails only Pujols in homers and slugging percentage, only Cabrera and Pujols in RBIs and doubles.
Toronto Blue Jays
2015 record and finish: 93-69, won the AL East, lost to Royals in ALCS
2016 FanGraphs projection: 84-78, third
Significant additions: RP Drew Storen, SP J.A. Happ, RP Jesse Chavez, RP David Aardsma, OF Junior Lake, GM Ross Atkins
Significant losses: SP David Price, SP Mark Buehrle, C Dioner Navarro, OF Ben Revere, RP Mark Lowe, RP LaTroy Hawkins, GM Alex Anthopoulos
Most significant question: What impact does Anthopoulos’s departure, and Atkins’s arrival, have on the momentum the Blue Jays built?
Though the midseason acquisitions of David Price and Troy Tulowitzki had the greatest impact on Toronto securing its first postseason berth since 1992, Price’s departure after the season, even for the intra-division rival Red Sox, might not have been as significant as that of the man who pulled off those deals. Anthopoulos is young, well-spoken and Canadian — which counts for this club, which considers itself a national franchise — but when Mark Shapiro arrived as the new team president, he and Anthopoulos couldn’t work out a deal for the native son to stay. Thus, Atkins, a longtime Indians executive, inherits the general manager role — and Anthopoulos’s staff. Shapiro and Atkins will be responsible for deciding whether to keep the heart of the Blue Jays’ best-in-the-game lineup, sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, in Toronto beyond this year; both are free agents.
Spring training battle to watch: Drew Storen vs. Roberto Osuna
Osuna made his major league debut last year at 20, and he had inherited the closer’s role by late June. He did just fine, saving 20 of 23 opportunities, and his ERA was never higher than the 2.58 at which he finished. A better indication of his stuff: He had 75 strikeouts in his 69 2/3 innings, and his 0.919 WHIP was fourth-best among American League relievers, trailing only Kansas City’s Wade Davis, Andrew Miller of the Yankees and Houston’s Will Harris. Storen arrives from Washington in a trade for center fielder Ben Revere, boasting both closer experience and the scars that come with it — 29 saves in 31 opportunities last summer before the Nationals turned to Jonathan Papelbon instead, and two franchise-altering blown saves prior to that — and he has this season to prove what he’s worth in free agency. Atkins has said the club will arrive at spring training without assigned roles. Will they be assigned by the start of the season?
Did you realize? Toronto not only had the best offense in baseball in 2015 — judged by what matters, runs scored — but it was historically good. The Blue Jays’ 891 runs scored was 127 more than the next closest team, the Yankees — an average of 0.78 runs per game more. Since baseball expanded in 1961, no team had outscored the second-place team by such a margin.
New York Yankees
2015 record and finish: 87-75, second, lost to the Astros in first round
2016 FanGraphs projection: 85-77, second
Significant additions: SS Starlin Castro, RP Aroldis Chapman, OF Aaron Hicks
Significant losses: C John Ryan Murphy, RP Adam Warren, IF Stephen Drew, SS Brendan Ryan
Most significant question: How will they use this three-headed bullpen monster and what will it mean?
No team strengthened a strength like the Yankees did — and without adding a single free agent. Last year, Andrew Miller was signed to a four-year, $36 million contract — and he became one of the game’s best closers, with a 2.04 ERA and 0.859 WHIP, blowing just two saves. He was set up by monstrous Dellin Betances, who by some measures was better — a 1.50 ERA and 1.012 WHIP. Now, here comes Aroldis Chapman, the hardest thrower in the game, ostensibly to be the closer after he was acquired by trade with the Reds. So the back end of the Yankees’ pen now features Chapman (15.74 strikeouts per nine innings in 2015), Miller (14.59) and Betances (14.04) — the top three pitchers in the majors in strikeouts per nine innings last year. The obvious impact: The Yankees can shorten games in which they have a lead, a la the Royals of the past two seasons. But will Manager Joe Girardi slot them by inning? Will he mix and match? Or could one of them be dealt at the trade deadline to address another need?
Spring training battle to watch: CC Sabathia vs. himself
The last three seasons have been rough on the big lefty. He has managed just a 4.81 ERA and 1.402 WHIP during that time, well off his career numbers. His velocity is down at least in part because of a nagging knee problem. And last October, just before the Yankees’ first-round loss to Houston, he checked himself in to an alcohol rehabilitation center. This is a big year for Sabathia, who turns 36 in July. The Yankees’ rotation could use his old self because would-be ace Masahiro Tanaka hasn’t gotten through a major league season healthy yet, Nathan Eovaldi appears eminently hittable, Michael Pineda hasn’t thrown 175 major league innings in a season, etcetera. Sabathia is due $25 million this year, and unless he misses significant time with left-shoulder injuries this year, a $25 million option for 2017 will kick in. So many reasons to watch this spring to see how Sabathia is handling all of that — on and off the field.
Did you realize? Since the turn of the century (beginning with the 2000 season), Alex Rodriguez is second in the majors in homers (539), runs scored (1,509) and RBIs (1,592) — all to Albert Pujols — even though he’s just 11th in games played during that time, due largely to his year-long suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs. After hitting 33 homers a year ago, he needs 27 this season to tie Babe Ruth for third on the all-time list at 714.
Tampa Bay Rays
2015 record and finish: 80-82, fourth
2016 FanGraphs projection: 82-80, fourth
Significant additions: OF Corey Dickerson, SS Brad Miller, 1B Logan Morrison, OF/1B Steve Pearce, RP Danny Farquhar, C Hank Conger
Significant losses: RP Jake McGee, SS Asdrubal Cabrera, SP Nathan Karns, OF Grady Sizemore, OF/C John Jaso, RP Ernesto Frieri
Most significant question: Is Evan Longoria still an elite player who can carry a team?
The bedrock of what Tampa is doing is the one player who signed a long-term extension with the club while teammates David Price, Ben Zobrist, Wil Myers, Wade Davis and others were traded away. But with at least seven years and at least $110.5 million remaining on his contract, Longoria has posted a .744 OPS over the past two seasons that puts him 12th of 21 third basemen with enough plate appearances to qualify among league leaders during that time — behind such notables as Trevor Plouffe and Luis Valbuena. He hasn’t been an all-star or won a Gold Glove since 2010. Is he still a cornerstone?
Spring training battle to watch: Chris Archer vs. superstardom
No Tampa player, including Longoria, has truly broken through and become the kind of star around which MLB could build marketing campaigns. But 27-year-old right-hander Archer could change that. Last summer, he parlayed his all-star season into a gig doing commentary on ESPN’s broadcast of the American League first round, a performance for which he received almost universal raves. That sort of mass appeal has nothing to do with his pitching — which is his best attribute. Archer’s ERAs the last three years seem similar: 3.22, 3.33, 3.23, respectively. But that number belies how dominant he became in 2015, when his strikeouts per nine innings climbed to 10.70 from 8.02 the year before, his strikeout percentage to 29 percent from 21.1 in 2014. Plus, his 2.90 FIP (fielding independent pitching) ranked only behind Chris Sale of the White Sox, David Price of the Tigers and Blue Jays and Carlos Carrasco of the Indians among AL starters. The Rays, too, locked up Archer to a longterm deal before he became eligible for arbitration. The team holds options on him for 2020 and ’21, meaning if he becomes the kind of star he seems capable of becoming, it’ll almost certainly be in Tampa.
Did you realize? Kevin Kiermaier trailed only two other American League outfielders — Mike Trout and Lorenzo Cain — in WAR, according to FanGraphs? This despite the fact that his .718 OPS ranked 18th of 23 qualifying outfielders in the AL — and, indeed, was below the .739 OPS turned in by an average AL outfielder in 2015. Kiermaier’s value, then, comes primarily on defense. He won the Gold Glove, indicating he passes the eye test in center field. More importantly, he led all of baseball with a 30.0 ultimate zone rating (UZR) — an advanced metric quantifying how many runs he saved the Rays with his defense. The next highest UZR in baseball: Jason Heyward’s 20.2.
2015 record and finish: 81-81, third
2016 FanGraphs projection: 78-84, fifth
Significant additions: DH Mark Trumbo, RP Vance Worley, OF Hyun-soo Kim, OF Joey Rickard
Significant losses: SP Wei-Yin Chen, OF/1B Steve Pearce, OF Gerardo Parra, C Steve Clevenger, OF David Lough, OF Junior Lake
Most significant question: Are they on the verge of doing more?
As it stands, the week pitchers and catchers report for most teams, the Orioles’ biggest offseason move was to keep one of their own; first baseman Chris Davis returned with a seven-year, $161 million deal that was the largest in franchise history. Beyond that? They lost their most reliable starter in Wei-Yin Chen (Marlins) and, in an extraordinarily competitive AL East, have largely moved backward. But as they approached workouts, there was still a chance Baltimore would improve itself by signing right-hander Yovani Gallardo and/or outfielder Dexter Fowler. Either would help. But there’s some thought that if the Orioles were to sign one — and therefore sacrifice their first-round pick in the June draft as compensation — they might as well sign both because they can’t lose their first-round pick twice. Gallardo, though flawed, has made at least 30 starts in seven straight seasons — all with a 3.69 ERA. Fowler was the regular center fielder for the Cubs in 2015 and would likely shift to left given the presence of franchise stalwart Adam Jones.
Spring training battle to watch: Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy vs. potential
Only the Tigers’ rotation had a worse ERA than Baltimore’s starters last year (4.53). Chris Tillman, who looked poised to be the ace, instead posted a 4.99 ERA and a 1.387 WHIP. Now, with Chen gone, Orioles fans will look once again to Gausman, who just turned 25, and Bundy, the former first-round pick who’s now 23. Gausman at least has flashed some in the majors, making 37 starts over the past two seasons (though never throwing as many as 115 innings in a year). Bundy missed 2013 following Tommy John surgery and hasn’t returned to either health or form, throwing just 22 innings at Class AA last year before encountering shoulder problems. The Orioles would be far closer to a contender in the division if one or both of these right-handers step forward. Bundy’s case is particularly interesting because he is out of options, meaning the Orioles will have to keep him in the majors or risk losing him — and they don’t have the organizational depth to do that.
Did you realize? Since 2012, no American League team has won more games than the Orioles — at 355, an average of nearly 89 per year. That has gotten them two playoff appearances and won victorious postseason series, but no wins beyond the first round.
The Post’s Preseason Picks Series
Feb. 8: National League East
Feb. 9: National League Central
Feb. 10: National League West
Feb. 16: American League East
Feb. 17: American League Central
Feb. 18: American League West