Sunday, February 25, 2024

State of the AL East: Will Orioles, Rays continue dominance or are Yankees, Red Sox back as favorites in 2024?

The AL East was flipped upside down last season. For the better part of the last three decades, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox were knocking heads atop the division, the Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays brought up the rear, and the Toronto Blue Jays resided in the mushy middle. That is no longer the case. Now the O’s and Rays are the dominant teams.

Here’s how the AL East shook out in 2023:

  1. Orioles: 101-61
  2. Rays: 99-63 (2 GB)
  3. Blue Jays: 89-73 (10 GB)
  4. Yankees: 82-80 (19 GB)
  5. Red Sox: 78-84 (23 GB)

Baltimore’s rebuild is over and the Rays won the second-most games in franchise history last year while the Yankees barely avoided their first losing record since 1992 and the Red Sox finished in last place for the third time in four years. This most certainly is not your older brother’s AL East. The balance of power has been flipped.

With the offseason winding down and spring training only a few weeks away, this is as good a time as any to check in on what has historically been the game’s most grueling division. Here is the state of the AL East.

Baltimore Orioles

Key additions: Corbin Burnes, Craig Kimbrel
Key losses: Adam Frazier, Kyle Gibson, Aaron Hicks

State of the Orioles: Jan. 31 to Feb. 1 was the most exciting two-day span in the Orioles history since … 2014? When the O’s swept the Tigers to reach the ALCS for the first time since 1997? Maybe even farther back than that. On Jan. 31, the Angelos family announced plans to set the team to Baltimore native David Rubenstein. It’s a fresh start away from the tightwad Angeloses.

Then, one day later, the O’s made the biggest pitching trade of the winter, landing Burnes for two prospects and a draft pick. Up until those two days, Baltimore’s offseason was at best underwhelming, with Kimbrel the only notable addition. Then suddenly one of the best teams in the league had the promise of new ownership and a new ace. It was worth the three months of quiet.

Baltimore won 101 games last year without a true ace and now they’ve added one of the best pitchers in the game to the sneaky great Kyle Bradish and the impressive Grayson Rodriguez. At some point soon Jackson Holliday will join Gunnar Henderson and Adley Rutschman in the lineup. Other than the Braves, is any team set up better long-term than the O’s? I don’t think so.

The state of the Orioles is that they’re one of the best teams in baseball (even if they don’t repeat last year’s incredible performance with runners in scoring position) and they added one of the best pitchers in baseball this winter. It’s really hard to improve a 101-win team. It’s possible they’ll win fewer games in 2024 but be a better team overall, and better positioned for a deep postseason run. 

What’s left to do this winter: Even with Burnes, there is room for more pitching, both in the rotation and in the bullpen. Rubenstein has not yet officially taken over the team, so throwing a wad of cash at Jordan Montgomery or Blake Snell may not happen, but what about Dylan Cease? The O’s still have plenty of high-end non-Holliday prospects to trade.

Also, are any extensions in the works? John Angelos said the O’s would have to raise ticket prices to afford extensions, which is nonsense. With Rubenstein on the way, the club could more aggressively pursue long-term deals with Henderson, Rutschman, and others. The Orioles have to at least touch base with their core players about extensions, right?

Boston Red Sox

Key additions: Lucas Giolito, Vaughn Grissom, Tyler O’Neill
Key losses: Adam Duvall, James Paxton, Chris Sale, Justin Turner, Alex Verdugo

State of the Red Sox: After another last place finish, the Red Sox parted with chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom and replaced him for former Red Sox pitcher Craig Breslow (but not before being turned down by several candidates). At Breslow’s introductory press conference, chairman Tom Werner said the Red Sox would operate at “full throttle” this offseason. They have done anything but.

Giolito is a better bet to give the Red Sox innings than Sale, and O’Neill fits the lineup better than Verdugo. Grissom could finally bring the stability the Red Sox have lacked at second base since Dustin Pedroia retired. Those were smart, sensible moves. They also aren’t nearly enough to turn Boston into a postseason contender. The rotation remains thin and the lineup very left-handed.

There is solid foundation here though. Rafael Devers is one of the best hitters in the game and Triston Casas is an emerging force at first base. Brayan Bello has been so impressive early in his career and Kutter Crawford made strides in 2023. The Red Sox have more young talent coming too, namely prospects Roman Anthony, Marcelo Mayer, and Kyle Teel. The cupboard is not bare.

The Red Sox went from last place to the World Series in both 2013 and 2018. Can they do it again in 2024? Stranger things have happened, but I wouldn’t bet on it. This offseason has felt like Breslow & Co. laying the tracks for 2025 and beyond more than gearing up for a run at the postseason in 2024. That said, a projected $178 million payroll is incredibly weak by ownership. 

What’s left to do this winter: The Red Sox need to do more than they could reasonably accomplish by Opening Day. They need a righty bat who can handle the outfield, and a rotation stabilizer. Montgomery is a popular target because his wife is doing her medical residency in Boston, but are the Red Sox willing to pay up? It seems unlikely. They’re cutting payroll, not adding.

Barring a surprise Montgomery (or Snell) signing, it seems like Breslow won’t do much more than tinker with the margins of the roster. Perhaps bring in a lower-cost starter and some bullpen depth. That is unlikely to be enough to vault the Red Sox into postseason contention, but with this team, who knows? Still, I’d call it well south of a “full throttle” offseason for Boston.

New York Yankees

Key additions: Trent Grisham, Juan Soto, Marcus Stroman, Alex Verdugo
Key losses: Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Michael King, Wandy Peralta, Luis Severino

State of the Yankees: Despite the team’s worst season in three decades, GM Brian Cashman and manager Aaron Boone remain, and the Yankees didn’t overhaul their coaching staff either. Bench coach Carlos Mendoza and hitting coach Sean Casey were replaced only because they left voluntarily (Mendoza is the Mets‘ new manager, Casey cited wanting to spend more time with family). 

What the Yankees did do is remake their outfield. Burnes was the best pitcher traded this offseason and Soto was the best hitter traded this offseason. He brings a much-needed infusion of left-handed power and patience, and swagger too. The Yankees can be a very dull team. They certainly were in 2023. Soto, like Burnes, will be a free agent after 2024, but that’s a problem for later.

The Yankees also brought in Verdugo and Grisham, and the common thread between those two and Soto is lefties with better than average contact rates. New York’s lineup has been too right-handed and too prone swing-and-miss in recent years. There was a clear emphasis on correcting that. Stroman was then signed in to backfill innings vacated by King, Severino, and others.

Soto and Stroman and Verdugo are nice additions, but moreso than any other team in the AL East, the Yankees need the players already on the roster to be better in 2024. That means Aaron Judge and Anthony Rizzo staying healthy, Anthony Volpe taking a step forward, Carlos Rodón living up to his contract, etc. The Yankees are improved. Improved enough? That is unclear.

What’s left to do this winter: As is the case with most teams, the Yankees have room for more pitching. They’re only guaranteed to have Soto for one season. They should try to make the most if it and bring in Snell or Montgomery. That seems unlikely though. chances are any further additions will come in the bullpen, and those won’t be especially impactful given who’s available.

The Yankees were outbid for Yoshinobu Yamamoto and didn’t seem to push all that hard for Montgomery or Snell before pivoting to Stroman. Payroll is up about $8 million from last year, which is a nice increase but not a “we’re going to make sure 2023 doesn’t happen again!” blowout. Even though they traded for literally Juan Soto, the Yankees’ offseason feels somewhat incomplete. 

Tampa Bay Rays

Key additions: José Caballero, Jonny DeLuca, Phil MatonRichie Palacios, Ryan Pepiot
Key losses: Tyler Glasnow, Andrew Kittredge, Manuel Margot, Luke Raley, Robert Stephenson

State of the Rays: The Rays have done Rays stuff, which means they traded away a star player for cheaper players this offseason, and they’ve shuffled the margins of their roster in a way that freed up cash. DeLuca is more cost effective than Margot, Maton is a more cost effective Stephenson, etc. It’s what they Rays do. Their roster exists in a constant state of turnover.

Tampa did part of their offseason work at the trade deadline, when they acquired Aaron Civale. That saved them from trying to find a starter in a) a highly competitive offseason marketplace, and b) a thin free-agent class. It would not surprise me at all if Pepiot throws more innings than Glasnow in 2024. I doubt Pepiot will out-pitch Glasnow on a per-inning basis, but the Rays need volume.

Young players figure to again play a major role for the Rays in 2024. Junior Caminero made his MLB debut late last season and is on the short list of the game’s top prospects. He’s in line for more playing time. Perpetual prospect Shane Baz is due back from Tommy John surgery just in time to replace ace Shane McClanahan, who is down with his own Tommy John surgery.

The Rays really are incredible. They compete in the game’s toughest division despite running one of the smallest payrolls in the league each year. They’ve had trouble gaining traction in the postseason — Tampa has lost seven straight postseason games dating back to 2021 — but they’re competitive more often than not. There’s no reason to think they won’t be in 2024.

What’s left to do this winter: Other than maybe improving the backup catcher situation, not a whole lot. Tampa is in position to be opportunistic and jump on anything that makes sense. Isaac Paredes and Harold Ramírez have been in trade rumors all winter but the Rays don’t have to move them. Tampa’s roster may be the most Opening Day ready of the five AL East teams.

Toronto Blue Jays

Key additions: Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Yariel Rodriguez, Justin Turner (and Kevin Kiermaier, kind of)
Key losses: Brandon Belt, Matt Chapman, Jordan Hicks, Whit Merrifield, Hyun-Jin Ryu

State of the Blue Jays: The Blue Jays have had a “we tried” offseason. They pursued Juan Soto, but fell short. They pursued Shohei Ohtani, but fell short. They also pursued Yoshinobu Yamamoto, but, you guessed it, fell short there too. Rumors about a reunion with Chapman or a Cody Bellinger pursuit persist, though those signals aren’t strong. Their interest seems tepid.

As a result, Toronto has mostly landed second- and third-tier free agents. Kiner-Falefa and Cavan Biggio figure to platoon at third base to replace Chapman. Turner will replace Belt, and while he’s still very good, he adds another right-handed bat to a lineup that is already too right-handed. Belt was an important lefty presence a year ago in providing much-needed balance.

I’m a fan of the Rodriguez signing (which technically still isn’t official because he hasn’t secure a work visa yet). The Cuban righty should be at least a bat-missing setup man and there’s a chance he can start too. After last season, expectations for Alek Manoah must be tempered, although it’s hard to imagine him being worse. Perhaps Rodriguez can push him for the No. 5 starter’s spot in spring training. Competition is a good thing.

Similar to the Yankees, the Blue Jays need the players already on the roster to play better than they did in 2023. That starts with Manoah and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and also includes Alejandro Kirk. Those three went from a combined 13.8 WAR in 2023 to only 2.8 WAR in 2024. Manoah is the oldest at 26. There’s no reason they can’t bounce back. Now they just have to do it.

What’s left to do this winter: Toronto is the AL East team with the greatest potential to do something significant between now and Opening Day. I don’t know if that’s re-signing Chapman or signing Bellinger, Montgomery, or Snell, but something. They’ve taken small bites all offseason and I have a hard time believing this is really it. Feels like there’s more to come here.

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