MLB 2020 Season Preview: AL East

Aaron Judge (Jim McIsaac |Getty Images)
  1. New York Yankees (Last Year: 103-59): 39-21

The Yankees are really good. There’s not really a weak spot in their lineup, led by Aaron Judge, DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, and Gary Sanchez. Judge, Aaron Hicks, and Giancarlo Stanton have battled injury issues throughout their careers, but all three are healthy going into this season. Gio Urshela locked down the third baseman job last season and Luke Voit is healthy again to man first. Should either of them or left fielder Brett Gardner struggle or get hurt, Miguel Andujar, Mike Ford, Mike Tauchman, and Clint Frazier are all reliable depth pieces. No immediate offensive help is coming up from the high minor leagues, but the Yankees have enough pieces all over the field that they don’t need any.

The Yankees made Gerrit Cole the highest paid pitcher in baseball history with a 9 year, $324 million dollar deal, and he’s worth every penny. The second best pitcher in baseball, Cole struck out 373 batters between the regular season and the playoffs last season, and strengthens the Yankees weakest position group. Behind him in the rotation are veterans James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, and J.A. Happ, with Jordan Montgomery returning from Tommy John surgery as well. Jonathan Loaisiga and top pitching prospect Deivi Garcia should factor into this season’s rotation as well. In the bullpen, closer Aroldis Chapman tested positive for COVID-19, and his status for opening day is in doubt. However, former Orioles closer and relief ace Zack Britton is more than capable of stepping into that role. Adam Ottavino, Tommy Kahnle, Chad Green, and Jonathon Holder are also all good arms to provide more coverage in the pen. 

2. Tampa Bay Rays (96-66): 35-25

After making the ALDS and pushing the Astros to 5 games last season, the Rays had a busy offseason. They acquired outfielders Hunter Renfroe and Manuel Margot from San Diego while parting ways with Tommy Pham. Margot and Renfroe join an outfield with Gold Glover Kevin Keirmaier (the handsomest man in baseball) and All-Star Austin Meadows, though Meadows is unlikely for Opening Day following a positive COVID test. The Rays also added 1B/Outfielder Jose Martinez and OF Randy Arozarena from St. Louis to add more depth for the upcoming season. On the infield, Martinez slots behind Ji-Man Choi at first, while Brandon Lowe, Willy Adames, and Yandy Diaz round out the other infield positions. The Rays also added Japanese Slugger Yoshitomo Tsutsugo to play third and DH. Consensus top prospect in baseball Wander Franco was also added to their player pool and may make his major league debut if the need arises.

Pitching is far and away the strength of this team. 2018 Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell is back and healthy, and he’ll slide into the third starter role behind Charlie Morton and Ryan Yarbrough. Tyler Glasnow is the team’s fourth starter after returning from a positive COVID test, and had a 1.78 ERA in 60 innings before injuries last season. The Rays have also been at the forefront of using “openers” for the last couple of years, using pitchers for 2-3 innings before making it a bullpen game. They continue to have a terrific bullpen this season, led by guys like Nick Anderson, Jose Alvarado, Chaz Roe, and Diego Castillo. The Yankees are the clear top team in the AL East, but the Rays are not far behind,

3. Toronto (Pittsburgh?) Blue Jays (67-95): 27-33

First, the bad news: the Blue Jays will not be playing in Toronto this season. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government of Canada is not allowing it. On Wednesday, July 22nd, MLB and the Blue Jays announced that most of their home games will be played at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. However, since that announcement, the state of Pennsylvania has denied the Blue Jays request to play its home games in Pittsburgh and it remains unclear where the Blue Jays will play their “home” games. Baltimore may be an option. Now onto the fun stuff. Last season was all about young talent for Toronto with Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. all making their Major League debuts last season. Vlad got all the hype coming in and, while he produced solid numbers, underwhelmed a bit and ran out of gas at the end of the season. A shortened season, better conditioning, and a move over to first base should help boost his numbers in a shortened season. While Vlad was the storyline, Bichette was more productive as a rookie. Bichette was worth 2.3 WAR with a .930 OPS in just 46 games last season while playing above average shortstop. Around those guys are more young talent in Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Rowdy Tellez, as well as veterans Teoscar Hernandez and Travis Shaw.

The Blue Jays added Hyun-Jin Ryu with an $80 million contract after a year in which he produced a 2.32 ERA and finished second in the NL Cy Young Voting. He heads a rotation that includes veterans Tanner Roark and Matt Shoemaker. Chase Anderson, Trent Thornton, Ryan Borucki, and Anthony Kay all serve as depth options for the staff or out of the pen. Top prospect Nate Pearson is also ready to join the rotation when they call him up. The bullpen, led by closer Ken Giles, was perfectly average last season, finishing 15th in the MLB in ERA last season. They added Anthony Bass and Shun Yamaguchi to try and bolster the pen, but are also banking on some of the starting pitching depth back there as well. The Blue Jays are in a similar spot to the Marlins, with their young talent farther along, but playing against the AL and NL Easts will hurt their record.

4. Boston Red Sox (84-78): 27-33

The Red Sox traded away a top 5 player in baseball when they sent Mookie Betts and David Price to the Dodgers for Jeter Downs and Alex Verdugo. Betts has finished in the top 10 in MVP voting in each of the last five years, winning one. Verdugo will get the first crack at replacing him after a solid 2019 season in which he posted over 3 WAR, but anyway you slice it there will be a downgrade. Despite losing Mookie, the Red Sox offense is still very potent. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts slashed .309/.384/.555 and finished 5th in MVP voting while 3rd baseman Rafael Devers hit 54 doubles and finished 12th. Designated Hitter J.D. Martinez was not as good as he was in 2018 but still hit 36 home runs and finished 21st in MVP voting in 2019. Left Fielder Andrew Benintendi took a bigger step back in 2019, but is still just 26 and two years removed from a very good season. Veterans Mitch Moreland, Jackie Bradley Jr, Christian Vasquez, and Jose Peraza round out the lineup, with corner infield prospect Bobby Dalbec close to contributing as well.

The Red Sox pitching staff is a disaster. Chris Sale is out for the season with Tommy John surgery, and David Price was shipped off to Los Angeles as part of the Mookie Betts trade. Presumptive Opening Day starter Eduardo Rodriguez won 20 games with a 3.8 ERA last season, but tested positive for COVID-19 and will not be available for the start of the season. Depth piece Collin McHugh opted out of the season due to the pandemic. With several absences, Nathan Eovaldi becomes the Opening Day starter. Eovaldi had a 5.99 ERA in just 67.2 innings last season, as both a starter and a reliever. Veteran number three starter Martin Perez has a lifetime 4.72 ERA and has a 5.49 ERA over the last two years alone. The Red Sox are also counting on veterans Zack Godley, Brian Johnson, and Matt Hall to provide something in the rotation. The bullpen had a tough 2019, though had some bright spots. Brandon Workman had a 1.88 ERA in 71 innings and Matt Barnes was worth 1.3 WAR over 64 innings.  However, the bullpen as a group had a 4.40 ERA and walked 605 batters, worst in the league, and the entire pen remained with the team. They may get some help from prospects Bryan Mata and Tanner Houck but not enough to turn this unit into a strength. 

5. Baltimore Orioles (54-108): 19-41

The Orioles are bad, no sugarcoating it. Their best player from 2019, Trey Mancini, is out for the season after having a malignant tumor removed and their biggest prospect, Adley Rutschman, is at least a year away. Outfield prospects Austin Hays and Yisniel Diaz should see at bats this year, but mostly we’ll see middling veterans vying for playing time and to show they belong. Jose Iglesias was signed to play short and add some stability, and they return guys like Rio Ruiz and Pedro Severino, but this season is all about development. At least Chris Davis’s contract expires in three years.

John Means had a very impressive rookie season, finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting after posting a 3.6 ERA in 155 innings. Behind him in the rotation are veterans Alex Cobb and Wade LeBlanc. Tommy Milone, Asher Wojciechowski and rookies Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer will add low quality depth behind them. The bullpen was terrible last year, but has some promise. Mychal Givens had a down year, but has been a quality reliever in the past, and Hunter Harvey showed potential in a small sample size of just 7 outings a season ago. After 3 straight sub 2.00 ERA seasons, Richard Blier’s ERA ballooned to above 5 in 2019, and the Orioles are counting on some sort of a bounceback season. With 40 games against the AL East and 20 more against the NL East, it’s gonna be a long short season in Baltimore.

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