Ready or not, regular season baseball is coming this week. The Yankees open with an interleague series against the Nationals on Thursday, but the majority of the Bombers’ slate will be against its AL East divisional rivals. Bobby gave a good rundown of the schedule here, but the gist is: 40 games vs. intradivision rivals, which I’ll preview today. The other 20 come against NL East opponents to be previewed later this week.
It’s been a while since we’ve written any season preview posts. I did write the catch up article at the end of June, but our player-specific pieces have been dormant since March. We won’t get to wrap up our player previews at this point, but today, we give you a roundup of the AL East. Let’s get to it.
Tampa Bay Rays
With apologies to Steven, now is not the time to respect the Rays. To be clear, Tampa Bay is a good team and almost certainly the Yankees’ toughest divisional competition this season. However, the Rays didn’t actively do anything to significantly close the gap with the Yankees. The only thing that actually might shrink the difference is COVID-19, as absurd as that statement is. With fewer games comes more variance, and thus a better chance for the Rays to finally do something better than the Wild Card.
For an offseason refresher, here is Tampa Bay’s winter review.
Considering the state of the world, it makes the most sense to address the Rays’ health first (I’ll do this for each team). The Rays have just one player currently on the injured list confirmed to test positive for COVID-19 (Austin Meadows). Others, like Randy Arozarena and Yonny Chirinos are currently on the shelf too for undisclosed reasons, though you can infer what’s going on there. There is one more “traditional” injury to note: oft-hurt prospect Brent Honeywell had an elbow procedure and likely won’t pitch this year.
Pitching is the one area the Rays can go toe-to-toe with just about any other team in the league. Charlie Morton, Blake Snell, and Tyler Glasnow make for a stellar trio atop the rotation. The bullpen features last year’s breakout fireman, Nick Anderson, alongside Diego Castillo, José Alvarado, and more.
I think the number one concern for Tampa Bay is its offense, which looks pretty mediocre. The Rays were 16th in runs scored last year, subtracted arguably its best hitter (Tommy Pham) and may not have Meadows at the start of the year. Tampa Bay does have a number of options to replace Pham’s offense (Hunter Renfroe, José Martínez, and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo). None, however, look like certain upgrades to an offense that really needs a big lift.
Boston Red Sox
Make no bones about it: the Red Sox are worse than last year. The organization traded away its best player (Mookie Betts) and lost its best pitcher (Chris Sale) to Tommy John surgery. It’s hard to imagine them as much of a threat this season, especially with an incredibly thin pitching staff. Still, the team’s offense could be good enough to outslug some teams even with Betts around anymore.
For an offseason refresher, here is Boston’s winter review.
Eduardo Rodríguez and Darwinzon Hernández are sidelined because of positive coronavirus tests. E-Rod would have been the team’s opening day starter whereas Hernández is a prospect who should still see some time in Boston’s bullpen this year. Aside from COVID-19 related health issues, the Red Sox also won’t have newbie Colin McHugh for opening day whose still working to return from an offseason elbow procedure. The aforementioned Sale is done for the year. Lastly, the only other player I haven’t yet mentioned is Dustin Pedroia, who’s hardly played since 2017 because of serious knee injuries. Don’t expect to see him anytime soon.
Even without Betts, Boston’s offense is still going to be pretty good. JD Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, and Rafael Devers are a force in the middle of the lineup and certainly can win games for the Sox on their own. PECOTA projects Boston to score 307 runs this year, which isn’t far behind its 318 run projection for the Yankees.
The Red Sox’ starting pitching looks pretty bad. It was stretched thin last season, but rather than try to patch things up, Boston’s big addition was Martín Pérez. He joins Nate Eovaldi and Rodríguez at the top of the rotation, though the latter may miss a start or two to start the season. Eovaldi and Rodríguez are two solid mid-rotation arms, but if the rest of your starters are filled out virtual no names, you’re in trouble.
Toronto Blue Jays
It’s not a matter of if, but when, the Blue Jays will be a threat. We all know about the young studs the lineup already features. The pitching hasn’t come together just yet, but the front office certainly tried to patch things up over the winter, particularly with the Hyun-Jin Ryu signing. On paper, it’s pretty safe to assume that the Yankees and Rays are better teams, but who knows what can happen in a 60 game sprint. Granted, things could be a bit tougher on the Jays since the team won’t play in its home city all season. This is a team that certainly can wreak some havoc, but they’ll also have to show some extra resiliency.
For an offseason refresher, here is Toronto’s winter review.
There are a number of Blue Jays on the injured list for…undisclosed reasons. Infielder Brandon Drury, outfielder Jonathan Davis, and pitchers Elvis Luciano, Hector Perez, and Wilmer Font make up this bunch. Other injuries include newly acquired starter Chase Anderson, whose strained oblique will keep him out of the rotation in the early going. Reliever Yennsy Díaz is also out with a strained lat.
Toronto can stack up with the best of ’em in terms of raw talent on the position player side. From Vlad Guerrero Jr. to Bo Bichette to Lourdes Gurriel (among others!), the Blue Jays lineup boasts a load of offensive potential. Whether or not those hitters are ready to live up to their billing in 2020 remains to be seen, but it’s certainly better to have the underlying talent than not. The lineup is a threat to become a force at a moment’s notice.
This became pretty obvious over the last few days, no? Where are the Jays going to play? Canada doesn’t want them, and understandably so given how the United States has handled this pandemic. The season starts this week and the Blue Jays have no idea where they’ll call home this season. For all intents and purposes, Toronto will play a 60-game road schedule and players won’t be able to ever be fully comfortable. That’s a huge disadvantage.
Before this news broke, I was going to use this section to talk about Nate Pearson’s debut date. He’s one of baseball’s top pitching prospects that could be the team’s ace for years to come. How long will the Jays keep him on the sidelines, especially if they are in contention?
After a 54-108 record last year, this season’s 60-game slate is merciful. Baltimore is still a long way from contention and will almost certainly finish last in the division this summer. Since the Orioles are going to be the divisional doormat, it’s going to be pivotal for the Yankees to clean up against them.
I didn’t do an offseason review for the Orioles. Not that you missed much!
As far as I can tell, Baltimore actually has no players on the shelf for COVID-19 or undisclosed reasons. The team does have a big void in Trey Mancini, who’s currently undergoing chemotherapy to treat stage 3 colon cancer and won’t play this year. Hopefully the treatment goes well and he can return strong in 2021. In terms of baseball-related injuries, O’s shortstop Richie Martin broke his wrist in an intrasquad game last week. Lastly, staff ace and 2019 breakout John Means is currently dealing with a dead arm.
You can’t make me try to find a strength on this club. Sorry.
Will we see Adley Rutschman? Last year’s number one overall pick is the focal point of Baltimore’s long-term plans. The 22 year-old catcher has spent a little bit of time with the team at Summer Camp, but it’s still a bit difficult to imagine that he’ll actually play for the Birds this season. There’s no question that he’d give fans something to watch for, but considering that the Orioles imported the Astros’ mindset with the hiring of Mike Elias, the organization probably won’t start his service time clock.
Before we wrap this up, let’s take a glance at a couple of projections for the AL East this year. First, Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA:
As expected, the shortened season will make this division race relatively tight in PECOTA’s eyes. Still, the system has the Yankees on top by roughly four games, which is actually relatively big given the limited schedule. Only the Dodgers (92.1 percent) have better division title odds than the Yankees this season.
Let’s turn to Fangraphs, which uses ZiPS and Steamer:
Things are uncomfortably tight here! The Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox are all within three games of each other. What’s clearer: these projections like the Yankees a bit less than PECOTA does.
As you know, 2020 is far from normal. A lot can go wrong on and off the field this year, and whether or not we actually finish the season isn’t totally certain. But as it stands, the Yankees *should* win this division. They are the best and deepest team from top to bottom. Still, a shortened season can throw a wrench into things, which will make a team like the Rays a bigger threat than under normal circumstances.
Talent aside, there’s a decent chance that the team that stays healthiest will come out on top. And I’m not talking about typical baseball injuries, either. The coronavirus could easily derail any team’s season. It feels weird and gross to say this, but if you consider the Rays the Yankees’ only true competition for the division title, perhaps the Yankees are at a health advantage. The Rays will need a tight ship and good fortune to avoid multiple players going into the COVID-19 protocol considering how quickly Florida’s situation has deteriorated. Meanwhile, New York is in better shape for the time being.