The Melee for the AL East

Patrick McDermott

After years of being baseball's dominant division, the AL East looks very different heading into the 2013 season. There are no longer any also-rans here, but that may also mean the days of Eastern dominance are gone.

The American League East has been baseball’s best division for a long time now. 2012 was the second straight season that the division had three 90 game winners and in two of the three seasons before that, the division hosted two 90 win teams and one team that won 89 games. Just one other division has had a season in which three teams won 90 or more games (AL Central in 2006) under the current divisional system. We have gotten use to three way battles for the divisional title and one wild card spot coming from the East ever since Tampa Bay became a perennial competitor, but this year promises to be more wide open then ever before. In fact, predicting a winner in the AL East this season is a excellent way to look extremely foolish.

Let’s take a look at the five AL East teams in order of their 2012 records, shall we?

New York Yankees: The Yankee won 95 games last year and yet it is hard to project them for much more than 87 wins next year after they have done so little to improve this off-season. They lost Nick Swisher, Raul Ibanez, Eric Chavez and Rafael Soriano. They will have just half a season of Alex Rodriguez, at best. The replacements for these players, guys like Ichiro Suzuki and our old friend Kevin Youkilis, are not exactly inspiring choices, but the biggest thing dragging down the Yankees win total is age. Yankees hitters average 33 years old last season and their pitchers were an average of 30.5 years old. The team hasn’t change much apart from aging and it is hard to see how that would be a positive. Despite winning the division last season, the Yankees are no longer the favorite and it is easy to see this team imploding as the years catch up to them

Baltimore Orioles: The Orioles won 93 games last season, necessitating the most massive "but" in the history of conjunctions. The necessary qualifying statement here is that the Orioles run differential was not indicative of a 93 win team -- not even close. By Pythagorean record, the Orioles were expected to win just 82 games. Whether their improbable success was luck, brilliant management, or some cruel cosmic joke like the platypus, it isn’t likely to happen again. Baltimore appears to have failed to capitalize on their instant competitor status this off-season by wooing top free agent talent, and while Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy might offer some increased production, it is hard to see how this Baltimore team could be even an 82 win team in 2013. Even after winning more than 90 games last year, the Orioles still look like the worst team in the AL East right now.

Tampa Bay Rays: The cost-conscious Rays might be the smartest team in baseball. They managed to turn two expensive years of James Shields into six much cheaper years with Wil Myers, the best hitting prospect in baseball, and still got a nice bonus of arms to work with at the additional cost of just Wade Davis. However, after winning 90 games and missing the playoffs in 2012, it isn’t clear that the 2013 team is better for those deals. Myers is a good investment, but he will probably be held back until June to control his service clock and it will be difficult for him to match the 4 fWAR Shields provided in just over three months as a rookie. The Rays also lost their third best position player (by fWAR) when B.J. Upton signed with the Braves. A healthy Even Longoria, replacing their previously awful shortstops with Yunel Escobar, and progress from Desmond Jennings, Matt Moore and others should help keep them near the top of the standings, but there isn’t a lot of room for error here and 87-88 wins seems like a reasonable projection.

Toronto Blue Jays: The fourth place team in the 2012 AL East race is the favorite in 2013. That is something you don’t see too often. The Blue Jays have earned that honor this off-season however, landing every productive player not named Giancarlo Stanton from the woeful 2012 Marlins and then swinging another significant trade for the NL Cy Young winner, R.A. Dickey. The Blue Jays have gone from a 73 win team to a potential 90-plus win team in just a few short months, and they are the hands-down winner for the most improved MLB team. General manager Alex Anthopoulos has decided that now is the time for his club to win and he has bet big on that notion.

On paper, this is now the most talented club in the AL East, but you do have to wonder if that talent will actually take the field. Their best player, possibly the best player in baseball, Jose Bautista is returning from wrist surgery. Jose Reyes is probably their second best player and durable is not a word people typically use to describe him. Both Marlins' pitching imports showed signs of decline last year, with Josh Johnson’ strikeout rate heading towards Earth as Mark Buerhle’s batted balls head in the opposite direction. R.A. Dickey and Edwin Encarnacion are both coming off seasons that vastly exceeded their previous track records. As much as the Blue Jays deserve the high praise right now, they may not run away with this division and almost every key player on the club has a few question marks.

Boston Red Sox: While Ben Cherington has not done anything on par with what Mr. Anthopolous has done, our Boston Red Sox are probably the second most improved team in the division. After finishing last at 69-93, they also needed the most improvement, but run differential didn’t actually see the 2012 Red Sox as being quite as bad as their record. If the Blue Jays, who had the same Pythagorean record (74-88) can become a 90 win team, the Red Sox improvements should be enough to at least push them past Baltimore and into the same range as the Yankees and Rays. Boston might have more question marks than anyone else right now, but they aren’t as old as New York or as inexperienced as TampaBay. Injuries devastated the offense last year and nearly every important player slumped their way to a career worst season. Some of those under-performers might be on their way down, but many will bounce back. The core of this team is not radically different from the one that won 90 games in 2011 and 89 in 2010. A fourth or fifth place finish is a very real possibility but it is by no means a certainty. The 2013 Red Sox will not need 2012 Baltimore Orioles-style divination to be contenders in this weakened AL East.

From the top to the bottom of the division, every team in the AL East can justify the idea that they are a contender in 2013. This is partly because it now seems unlikely that the division will have two 90 win teams in this year. The AL West, which had two 90 win teams and an 89 win team last year now appears to be the superior division. The second wild card spot could mean that two AL East teams make the playoffs once again, but even that is far less certain than in past seasons. Toronto and Baltimore are no longer certain guaranteed second division clubs and their rise has come at a time when New York, Boston and TampaBay have all stumbled. It should make for a grudge match of a divisional race where absolutely anything is possible.

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