Just over a week ago, MLBTR’s Darragh McDonald discussed the National League Central, which is arguably MLB’s most tightly-contested division. While no other division compares to that projected dogfight, the American League East provides the Central with a worthy rival in that regard as the only other division that Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projects to not include a 90-loss team. Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that the battle for the AL East this year figures to be even more hotly contested. After all, PECOTA projects both the Pirates and Reds to finish with a lower win total than any of the teams in the AL East, while Fangraphs projects the East as the only division in the majors without a sub-.500 club.
That projection systems see the AL East as a division with five potential contenders is supported by last year’s results. The Orioles led the pack last season with a 101-win record, capturing the division title despite a strong showing from the Rays, who finished two games behind Baltimore. Both Tampa and Toronto also managed to make the postseason last year, while New York and Boston both remained on the periphery of the playoff picture into September despite ultimately coming up short. Since then, each club has seen significant changes, and with the likes of Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery still on the market, it’s easy to imagine one or more of these club’s further improving their stock prior to Opening Day. In the meantime, let’s take a look at where things stand in the American League’s most competitive division:
Orioles: 101-61 in 2023, FG projects 85 wins in 2024, PECOTA 86.2
The Orioles were perhaps the most surprising team in baseball last year, surging to the club’s first AL East title since the 2014 season thanks to contributions from youngsters like Gunnar Henderson, Adley Rutschman, and Grayson Rodriguez. Those same young players will be back this season and figure to be joined by consensus #1 overall prospect Jackson Holliday at some point this season, perhaps as soon as Opening Day. The club’s exciting young core figures to once again be complemented by solid veterans such as Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander as well, giving them a strong offensive nucleus with which to attempt to continue their reign atop the East.
With that being said, the club has seen some turnover this winter. Veteran starter Kyle Gibson departed the rotation via free agency this winter, and while the club swung a deal earlier this offseason to acquire former Brewers ace Corbin Burnes to front their rotation, dealing away promising southpaw DL Hall and infielder Joey Ortiz could be something of a blow to the club’s depth headed into the season. More noticeably, two key pitchers from the 2023 season are entering the season with significant injuries: closer Felix Bautista underwent Tommy John surgery late last year and figures to miss all of the 2024 campaign, while right-hander Kyle Bradish faces a lengthy absence of his own due to a UCL issue after leading the Baltimore rotation last season with a sterling 2.83 ERA across 30 starts.
While the injuries faced by Bradish and Bautista leave the Orioles without two of their top pitchers to open the season, the additions of Burnes and veteran closer Craig Kimbrel should help to soften those blows, and with youngsters such as Holliday, Cade Povich, and Coby Mayo all on the verge of contributing at the big league level, there’s plenty of reason to believe Baltimore can remain in the upper echelon of the league headed into 2024 as long as the club’s young stars can avoid taking a step back this season.
Rays: 99-63 in 2023, FG projects 86 wins in 2024, PECOTA 86.9
The Rays started the 2023 campaign on an incredible hot streak, winning a record-breaking 13 consecutive games to open the season last year thanks to strong pitching performances from the likes of Jeffrey Springs, Drew Rasmussen, and Shane McClanahan. Unfortunately, each of those aforementioned arms underwent season-ending surgery last year and are expected to miss at least the first half of the 2024 campaign, if not longer. Tampa’s rotation mix was further weakened by the club dealing right-hander Tyler Glasnow to the Dodgers back in December, leaving the club with little certainty in the starting mix outside of Zach Eflin and Aaron Civale. Another major loss from a production standpoint is shortstop Wander Franco, who posted 4.6 fWAR in 112 games last year but is facing sexual abuse charges in his native Dominican Republic that put his future in the majors in doubt.
Even with that hefty number of losses, however, the Rays still figure to be a force to be reckoned with headed into 2024. After all, the club sports one of the deepest lineups in the game, led by the likes of Yandy Diaz, Brandon Lowe, Isaac Paredes and Randy Arozarena. In addition to that group, the club sports plenty of young talent with the likes of Junior Caminero, Josh Lowe, and Curtis Mead all expected to contribute at the big league level at some point this season on the positional side. Meanwhile, the pitching staff boasts intriguing youngsters like Taj Bradley, Shane Baz, and offseason acquisition Ryan Pepiot, each of whom are likely to join Civale and Eflin as rotation pieces this season. The club’s perennially excellent bullpen continues to look strong as well, with a back-end trio of Pete Fairbanks, Jason Adam, and Colin Poche bolstered by offseason additions such as Phil Maton.
Given the number of significant absences the Rays are facing entering the season, it’s not necessarily surprising that projections systems expect the club to take a major step back in 2024. The club figures to rely on the likes of Jose Caballero and Taylor Walls in place of Franco at short and young, unproven arms like Bradley and Pepiot in place of established power arms like McClanahan and Rasmussen. Even so, the club’s deep lineup and strong bullpen figure to keep the club in contention for the AL East crown this season, particularly if the youngsters in the rotation find success in the big leagues.
Blue Jays: 89-73 in 2023, FG projects 85 wins in 2024, PECOTA 88.6
The 2023 season was a strange one in Toronto, as key stars such as Alejandro Kirk, George Springer, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. took steps back at the plate to leave the club with a surprisingly tepid offense. That didn’t stop the Jays from contending last year, however, as the club managed to sneak into the final AL Wild Card spot with an 89-win campaign thanks to a strong performance from the club’s starting rotation. Kevin Gausman, Jose Berrios, Yusei Kikuchi, and Chris Bassitt each combined to give the club above-average production while making more than 30 starts a piece, and veteran southpaw Hyun-Jin Ryu managed to step into the rotation and provide solid back-end production when youngster Alek Manoah struggled badly throughout the season.
Entering the offseason, the club seemed poised to make big changes as they were connected to the likes of Shohei Ohtani and Juan Soto, though they ultimately ended up having a much quieter offseason. After watching the likes of Matt Chapman and Brandon Belt depart in free agency, the club brought in the likes of Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Justin Turner to fill the void at third base and DH while adding to their pitching depth with the addition of Yariel Rodriguez. Those minor moves leave the club likely to look for internal improvements as they hope to return to the postseason in 2024. Some of that improvement could come from the club’s young talent, with top pitching prospect Ricky Tiedemann likely to debut sometime this year while the likes of Davis Schneider and Ernie Clement figure to attempt to establish themselves in larger roles.
While the club’s lineup took a bit of a hit this winter after a disappointing 2023 campaign, a robust pitching staff figures to keep the Blue Jays afloat this season even if the offense fails to take a step forward. It’s easy to imagine the club returning to the postseason in 2024 if stars like Bo Bichette, Guerrero, and Springer can deliver impactful performances, especially if the club gets strong production from its supporting cast of hitters like Turner, Schneider, and Daulton Varsho.
Yankees: 82-80 in 2023, FG projects 89 wins in 2024, PECOTA 94.7
After missing the postseason for the first time since 2017 and barely escaping the 2023 season with a winning record, the Yankees wasted no time this winter in looking to improve the club’s postseason chances for year two of Aaron Judge’s nine-year megadeal with the club. That included a complete retool of the club’s outfield mix as the club acquired Juan Soto, Trent Grisham, and Alex Verdugo to complement Judge on the outfield grass while balancing a lineup that leaned too right-handed in 2023. The blockbuster deal for Soto and Grisham cost the club plenty of big league pitching talent, including the likes of Michael King and Randy Vasquez, though New York went on to patch up the club’s starting rotation by landing veteran right-hander Marcus Stroman in free agency.
That lengthy offseason shopping list seems likely to leave them in strong position to contend this season even as they lost the likes of Luis Severino, Harrison Bader, and King from last year’s club. Even as the club added a quality mid-rotation arm, solid outfield regulars, and a superstar bat to its mix, however, it’s possible the club’s most impactful improvements could come internally after the club dealt with a hefty number of injuries last year. Judge followed up his 2022 AL MVP-winning performance with another season that saw him post an OPS north of 1.000 in 2023, though he was limited to just 106 games by a toe injury. Meanwhile, southpaws Nestor Cortes and Carlos Rodon both struggled badly with injuries and ineffectiveness last year but still carry front-of-the-rotation upside when healthy, while veteran hitters like Stanton and Anthony Rizzo could also benefit from improved health this season and rebound from difficult 2023 campaigns.
Of all the clubs in the AL East, it’s easy to make the argument that the Yankees did the most to improve this winter. While even those additions may not be enough to catch up to the club’s divisional rivals on their own after an 82-win campaign, improved health from the club’s key regulars both on the mound and in the lineup could certainly help the club avoid missing the postseason in back-to-back campaigns for the first time since the 2013 and ’14 seasons.
Red Sox: 78-84 in 2023, FG projects 81 wins in 2024, PECOTA 79.2
It’s been a strange offseason in Boston, as the club began the winter with promises of a “full throttle” approach to the 2024 season and a goal of improving the club’s rotation. Despite those major plans, the club has generally opted for smaller moves throughout the winter. Perhaps the club’s most notable move was parting ways with longtime ace Chris Sale in a trade that netted the club young infielder Vaughn Grissom, while Sale’s spot atop the club’s rotation appears poised to go to right-hander Lucas Giolito.
The club also added outfielder Tyler O’Neill in a trade with the Cardinals while signing veteran closer Liam Hendriks to a two-year deal, though the righty won’t impact the team until the second half at the earliest as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. Those moves more or less leave the club in a similar position as they were last season, with Giolito replacing Sale while O’Neill and Grissom figure to replace Adam Duvall and Turner in the club’s lineup. While the club’s most significant offseason losses have been replaced in one form or another, other departures such as those of James Paxton, Alex Verdugo, and John Schreiber have all gone unanswered to this point in the winter.
Despite the club’s many question marks, there’s some reason for optimism in Boston, thanks to the young talent that could impact the club this year. In addition to Grissom serving as a potential solution at second base, Triston Casas, Jarren Duran, and Brayan Bello took significant steps forward last year and could prove to be core pieces for the club, while youngsters like Wilyer Abreu and Ceddanne Rafaela could also impact the club this season after making brief cameos in the majors last year. It’s certainly possible to imagine Trevor Story returning to the form that once made him a star with the Rockies now that he’s further removed from the elbow troubles that cost him much of last season, and Masataka Yoshida could be an impactful bat if he can recreate his performance from the first half of 2023 over the full season this year. Meanwhile, the rotation features a handful of interesting youngsters such as Tanner Houck, Garrett Whitlock, and Kutter Crawford, any of whom could prove to be an impactful arm if they manage to take a step forward this year.
On the heels of a 2023 season that saw three of the division’s five teams make the postseason and its fifth-place finisher end the season with a better record than the fourth place finishers of four other divisions, it’s perhaps not a surprise that the AL East figures to once again be among the most competitive divisions in baseball this year. After a busy offseason in the division, which team do you think will come out on top? Was the Yankees’ splashy offseason to put them back in the driver’s seat? Will another year of development for the young players in Baltimore allow them to repeat their dominant 2023 campaign? Will the deep rosters of the Rays or Blue Jays manage to outlast the competition? Or could the Red Sox outperform the projections and take the division on the back of their young players and rebound candidates?
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