2014 Division Preview – American League East

AL East

Welcome to the final edition of 500 Level Fan’s divisional preview series.  Today’s focus is on the AL East, the home of the Blue Jays.

Defending Champion

Boston Red Sox

Past Five Champions

2013 – Boston

2012 – New York

2011 – New York

2010 – Tampa Bay

2009 – New York

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 97.6

Best Player

Evan Longoria, Rays

In a division stocked with veteran players and former All-Stars, Longoria takes the cake.  He is only 28, meaning he has only just entered his prime years, and he seems to get better each and every year.  Last season Longo eclipsed the 30 HR mark for the third time in his six year career, and topped an .840 OPS for the sixth straight year, while finishing 6th in AL MVP balloting.  He plays outstanding defense at third, and has developed into a real team leader on the Rays, continuing to lead the cash strapped franchise into contention.  This year the team is poised to be even better, and so is Longoria.

Honourable Mention: Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox; Manny Machado, Orioles

Best Pitcher

David Price, Rays

The number of elite pitchers in the AL East has dwindled over the years, and with newcomer Masahiro Tanaka still an unknown quantity, the best bet here is Price.  A year removed from his Cy Young season, Price struggled early in 2013 before missing the entire month of June due to injury.  When he returned he was just as dominating as ever.  From July onwards, Price made 18 starts, posting a 9-4 record, 2.53 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 102 strikeouts, and only 13 walks (!) in 131.2 IP.  For the season, he led the entire American League in both complete games (4), and K/BB (5.59).  He enters 2014 as the undisputed ace on a contending team, and is also on a contract year.  Will he still be a Ray in October?

Honourable Mention: Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees; Jon Lester, Red Sox

Three Storylines For 2014

1. Same Old Yankees

In 2008 the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time in ages, and responded by going on a massive spending spree in the offseason.  In 2013, they missed the playoffs again, but this time promised fiscal restraint and professed a desire to stay below the luxury tax threshold.  That lasted for about ten minutes.  When all was said and done, the Yanks spent just under $460-million on just four players.  Will Carlos Beltran, Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Brian McCann make them better?  Absolutely.  But with the departure of Robinson Cano, and the continuing fade of Jeter and Teixeira, the infield looks awful.  Plus with the retirement of Mariano Rivera there is a huge hole in the bullpen, and plenty of question marks in the rotation.  These are the Yankees, however, so holes don’t stay unplugged very long.

2. World Series Hangover?

The Red Sox shocked the baseball world by going from worst to first and winning the 2013 World Series (to the dismay of Jays fans everywhere).  But now comes the tough part: trying to do it again.  No team has repeated since the 1998-2000 Yankees, and the road will be difficult for the Sox.  They lost Ryan Dempster, Stephen Drew, and offensive sparkplug Jacoby Ellsbury over the winter, and didn’t really bring in anybody save for A.J. Pierzynski (who disappointed in Texas last year).  They are putting a lot of faith in rookies Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts to pick up the offensive slack, and are hoping that the rotation can stay healthy – easier said than done with injury stalwarts Jake Peavy and Clay Buchholz.  One can easily see Boston romp to the division title, but one can also see them regress back to fourth place.

3. Don’t Forget About the Rest

As is so often the case with the AL East, the Yankees and Red Sox hog all the headlines.  But there are other very good teams that play here too.  In fact, the Tampa Bay Rays just might be the division favourite after having a very un-Ray like offseason.  They actually spent money in re-signing James Loney and bringing in closer Grant Balfour.  They also hung on to ace David Price despite his looming free agency, and he leads a stacked starting five.  Baltimore regressed last year, as expected, but also spent some money this offseason.  Ubaldo Jimenez will help a young rotation and Nelson Cruz has the potential to add plenty of pop in the outfield, not to mention young stars Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, and Manny Machado.  Then there are the Jays, who, well, uh, umm….yeah.

Interesting Stat

Speaking of the Jays – they didn’t do much in the offseason, but they did make one very important move: upgrade the catcher position.  In 2013, Blue Jay catchers weren’t just bad – they were abysmal.  Toronto’s catchers ranked dead last in the AL in average (.194) and OBP (.235), and were third last in OPS (.583).  They also finished with the third most strikeouts (169) and the second fewest walks (30) – not a good combination. The trio of J.P. Arencibia, Josh Thole, and Henry Blanco were bad, but Arencibia by far was the worst – especially his splits.  On the road last season, Arencibia hit .147 with an absolutely unfathomable OBP of .185.  New catcher Dioner Navarro won’t confuse anybody for Buster Posey, but with a career OBP of .313 he looks like Carlton Fisk compared to what Toronto had last year.

What the Bloggers are Saying

I reached out to Ernie Paicopolos, Editor-In-Chief of Fenway Nation, an outstanding Red Sox blog to get his take on what is in store for the AL East this season.

Biggest Storyline

I’d say the Yankees are the biggest storyline to watch out for in 2014.  They spent half-a-billion dollars and they still have holes – mostly in the infield and bullpen.  Adding Ellsbury, Beltran, McCann and Tanaka will clearly make them better – but how much better over their 85 wins last year (thanks to an amazing job by Joe Girardi)?  I see them getting 88-90 wins for their over-spending.  Lots of angst in the Bronx – whihc is a good thing!

Most Interesting Player

The AL East player I’m most interested to see this year is Wil Myers.  The kid hit .293 with 13 HRs in just 88 games last year – even though he looked a little overmatched at times in the post-season  I see a break-out year for him in 2014 – maybe even MVP-type numbers.  The Royals will soon regret that deal for ‘Big Game’ James Shields.

Who Wins?

Sorry to say, I don’t think the Red Sox or the Jays will win the AL East in 2014.  I think the Rays are going to put it all together this year – led by Myers, Longoria and their young pitching.  I see Tampa reeling off 98-100 wins and taking the division with relative ease.  I think the Red Sox will finish a somewhat distant second (94-95) wins and barely take one of the Wild Card slots.

Who Should Win

Tampa Bay

Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column on March 27th.

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