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2014 MLB Preview

2014 AL East Preview

Are the defending world champions even the best team in their own division?

Welcome to Grantland’s 2014 MLB division previews. From now until Opening Day, I’ll break down each team in each division, looking at key additions and losses, best- and worst-case scenarios, crucial story lines, and more. Up first: the AL East, which figures to be loaded yet again in 2014.

Note: I’m listing the teams alphabetically by city. If you want to know how I think they’ll finish, check back on Monday, March 31, for my season predictions.

For more, check out the AL CentralAL West, NL East, NL Central, and NL West division primers, the MLB Warning series, and all of Grantland’s 2014 season-preview goodness.

(Projected lineups and rotations via MLBDepthCharts.com.)

Baltimore Orioles

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Key additions: Nelson Cruz, Ubaldo Jimenez, David Lough, Ryan Webb, Jemile Weeks, Suk-min Yoon

Key losses: Scott Feldman, Jason Hammel, Jim Johnson, Nate McLouth, Michael Morse, Brian Roberts, Francisco Rodriguez, Danny Valencia

Projected lineup (ZiPS/Steamer hybrid projections for AVG/OBP/SLG):
RF Nick Markakis (.278/.342/.404)
3B Manny Machado (.270/.313/.434)
1B Chris Davis (.267/.340/.536)
CF Adam Jones (.277/.317/.471)
DH Nelson Cruz (.256/.314/.465)
C Matt Wieters (.250/.316/.425)
SS J.J. Hardy (.259/.303/.421)
LF David Lough (.267/.305/.396)
2B Jemile Weeks (.252/.322/.345)

In early February, I took a long look at the O’s, specifically their incredibly favorable regional sports network deal and the nagging idea that they could, and should, be spending more money to compete in the hellacious AL East. Well, GM Dan Duquette’s promise to bump the payroll above $100 million finally came true when the O’s signed Nelson Cruz late last month. The outfielder/DH is 33 years old and injury prone, can’t run and can’t field, and a lot of his power stemmed from playing his home games at Rangers Ballpark, the AL’s friendliest for hitters. Still, Cruz will be an upgrade over the mishmash of lousy designated hitters Baltimore used in 2013.

Cruz’s impact is just one thing to watch in Baltimore’s lineup this season, though. Manny Machado is still hoping to be ready for Opening Day, but suffered a setback last week while rehabbing his surgically repaired right knee, and now faces an uncertain time frame. Ryan Flaherty is competing with Jemile Weeks, Alexi Casilla, and prospect Jonathan Schoop for the wide-open second base job, but if Machado’s not ready on day one, Flaherty will likely man third base for the time being.

Meanwhile, while Duquette couldn’t stop raving about David Lough’s defense when we spoke last month, the O’s will have a more balanced lineup if they can get some offense from left field. Finally, while Adam Jones should remain consistent, the Orioles could see big swings from two of their other stars: Chris Davis should regress a bit after his dream 2013 season, while Matt Wieters should rebound after a disappointing offensive year.

Projected rotation (ZiPS/Steamer hybrid projections for IP, FIP):
Chris Tillman (175, 4.42)
Ubaldo Jimenez (196, 4.01)
Wei-Yin Chen (170, 4.32)
Bud Norris (101, 4.31)
Miguel Gonzalez (171, 4.58)

Signing Ubaldo Jimenez was the O’s biggest move of the offseason, but much of his successful 2013 campaign stemmed from weak second-half competition, and his fastball velocity is plummeting. Still, Baltimore’s rotation was far too thin for a wannabe contender before landing Jimenez, and his four-year, $50 million deal doesn’t look too bad compared with today’s surging salaries. For the O’s to compete in this division, though, they’ll probably need top prospect Kevin Gausman to crack the starting five at some point and begin living up to his substantial potential.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: Trading Jim Johnson to the A’s was largely a salary dump, but it could hurt the bullpen’s depth this year. Former starter Tommy Hunter looks like the new closer, while Ryan Webb looks like a solid, low-cost addition to the setup corps and is one of the most prolific ground ball–inducing pitchers in the game. Meanwhile, the bench might not be settled until just before Opening Day, but the cavalcade of second basemen in camp could yield some decent production at one of the team’s weakest 2013 positions, and Delmon Young could be a potent bench bat if he can earn a roster spot.

Best-case scenario: Gausman cracks the rotation, stays there all year long, and gives the O’s the kind of equalizing power arm they sorely need. Machado returns to health and continues to play like one of the game’s brightest young stars. Bounce-back campaigns from Cruz and Wieters help the lineup click, and Baltimore rediscovers its 2012 magic on the way to another surprise playoff run.

Worst-case scenario: Machado struggles to return to health and form, Jimenez flails against AL East competition, and those playoff hopes evaporate amid a sub-.500 finish.

Boston Red Sox

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Key additions: Burke Badenhop, Chris Capuano, Jonathan Herrera, Edward Mujica, A.J. Pierzynski, Grady Sizemore

Key losses: Ryan Dempster, Stephen Drew, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia

Projected lineup:
CF Grady Sizemore (.252/.291/.383)
RF Shane Victorino (.271/.333/.423)
2B Dustin Pedroia (.286/.356/.427)
DH David Ortiz (.290/.380/.529)
1B Mike Napoli (.244/.343/.466)
LF Daniel Nava (.263/.347/.395)
SS Xander Bogaerts (.265/.327/.423)
C A.J. Pierzynski (.268/.300/.417)
3B Will Middlebrooks (.255/.298/.443)

When I visited Red Sox camp during spring training, I asked GM Ben Cherington if winning the World Series gave Boston more leeway when it came to making offseason personnel decisions. He said that was partially why some key 2013 contributors now play for other teams. The other reason: Boston’s impressive stable of young talent. Xander Bogaerts showed he could hold his own against big league pitching during last year’s stretch run and playoffs, and barring a last-minute move to re-sign Stephen Drew, Bogaerts will open the season as the team’s starting shortstop. Meanwhile, Jacoby Ellsbury had a great 2013 and had been with the Red Sox for nearly a decade, but it was easy to avoid the temptation to top the $153 million offer he got from the Yankees, considering the Sox have a five-tool prospect in Jackie Bradley Jr. Veteran Grady Sizemore has looked good in camp and might have a slight edge now, but health is always an issue for Sizemore, and one way or another, the center field job will be Bradley’s before long. Will Middlebrooks, another youngster, has looked lost at the plate for long stretches and is coming off a season in which he hit .227 with a .271 on-base percentage, but he’s got excellent power, and if he can improve his batting eye even a little, he’s perfectly suited for the Green Monster’s inviting target.

Even if the kids struggle, the Sox should be one of the better offensive teams in the league. Keep an eye on Boston’s defense and baserunning, though. Losing Ellsbury in particular robs the team of the most valuable baserunner in the majors and one of the league’s best glove men. While prospect hounds and Boston management are both bullish on Bradley’s long-term future, the Sox will get less out of center field across the board in 2014.

Projected rotation:
Jon Lester (207, 3.77)
John Lackey (190, 3.96)
Clay Buchholz (139, 3.90)
Jake Peavy (154, 3.87)
Felix Doubront (149, 4.05)

Normally, losing a pitcher who made 29 starts for a World Series winner wouldn’t be a good thing. However, the two-year, $26.5 million deal the Red Sox gave Ryan Dempster in 2012 was one of the few moves Boston made that offseason that didn’t work out spectacularly well. Dempster’s decision not to pitch in 2014 freed up a big chunk of cash, while also sparing management from having to decide what to do with a pitcher due to make $13.25 million but not good enough to crack the rotation. Even without Dempster, Boston has five veteran starters who all have the potential to turn in better-than-average seasons. There might not be a top-10 pitcher here, but there’s great depth.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: Adding Edward Mujica and freakishly consistent friend of Grantland Burke Badenhop gives the Sox two more strike-throwers in a bullpen already full of them. Add in the positive reports circulating on Andrew Miller this spring, and we could see a bullpen considerably deeper than the one that leaned so heavily on the trio of Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, and Craig Breslow last October. Moreover, thanks to one of the best farm systems in baseball, the Sox will have tons of options if anything goes wrong in the rotation or bullpen. Allen Webster, Brandon Workman, and Matt Barnes could all pitch meaningful innings for the Sox this year. The only real area of concern is depth on the left side of the infield.

Best-case scenario: If Middlebrooks and/or Bradley struggle or a crack appears in the rotation, the Sox have more than enough prospect ammunition to pull off a significant deadline deal and reload for another deep October run. The top of the AL is loaded this year, but a return trip to the Fall Classic is certainly possible.

Worst-case scenario: Cherington’s patient approach and investment in youth should set up the Red Sox for a long run of future winning seasons, but if the parts don’t click into place right away, 2014 could wind up as a bridge year that leaves the Sox just short of the playoffs.

New York Yankees

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Key additions: Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Kelly Johnson, Brian McCann, Brian Roberts, Masahiro Tanaka, Matt Thornton

Key losses: Robinson Cano, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez (suspension)

Projected lineup:
CF Jacoby Ellsbury (.281/.338/.429)
SS Derek Jeter (.269/.328/.364)
RF Carlos Beltran (.274/.336/.481)
1B Mark Teixeira (.246/.338/.461)
C Brian McCann (.259/.339/.460)
DH Alfonso Soriano (.240/.292/.454)
LF Brett Gardner (.258/.338/.380)
3B Kelly Johnson (.234/.316/.406)
2B Brian Roberts (.246/.306/.366)

Chris Stewart, Jayson Nix, Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells, and Eduardo Nunez all earned 300 or more plate appearances for the Yankees last season, and a broken-down Travis Hafner had 299. When GM Brian Cashman said the Yankees were more like a 79-win team than the 85-win squad that showed up in the standings — both in terms of run differential and overall talent — he wasn’t kidding. The five-year, $85 million deal the Yankees gave Brian McCann could go down as one of the best moves of the winter, given McCann’s skill set (excellent defense, good batting eye, and a left-handed power stroke that could net huge numbers at Yankee Stadium) and the Yankees’ lamentable catching situation last year. Adding Ellsbury to an outfield that already features Brett Gardner gives the Yanks seriously impressive defensive speed and baserunning, too.

Conversely, aside from McCann, the rest of the infield looks dreadful. Derek Jeter turns 40 this year, Mark Teixeira’s wrist issues could linger, Kelly Johnson is a defensive liability at third, and Brian Roberts is a shell of his former All-Star self. With no high-impact infield talent at the high levels of the minors, the Yankees might need to make a trade at some point. Given their surplus of young catching and pitching talent, they have the ammo to secure a functional infielder, if not a great one.

Projected rotation:
CC Sabathia (213, 3.71)
Masahiro Tanaka (207, 3.43)
Hiroki Kuroda (199, 3.94)
Ivan Nova (168, 3.98)
Michael Pineda (93, 4.33)

This is shaping up to be a strong starting five. Masahiro Tanaka could give the staff a big lift (and more than make up for the loss of Andy Pettitte), Ivan Nova has breakout potential, and Pineda looks incredibly sharp this spring. The biggest variable might actually be CC Sabathia, who lost a Chris Sale in weight over the winter, but is a few years removed from his peak and now brings some velocity concerns. With so much fierce competition in the division and elsewhere, the Yankees need a big year from the rotation if they hope to contend for a playoff spot in 2014.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: Joe Girardi did an excellent job of building quality bullpens around Mariano Rivera the last few years, tapping into the Yankees’ stable of young pitchers. Those bullpen-assembling skills will be tested this year, with Rivera retired, David Robertson taking over as closer, and uncertainty over who will pitch the high-leverage relief innings before the ninth. At 37 years old and coming off a poor season, it’s hard to imagine Matt Thornton being the answer. One added benefit of Pineda emerging as the favorite for the fifth starter’s job, though, is that David Phelps can move to the pen, where he could be a big help. As for bench depth and major league–ready talent … there’s not much to say. The Yankees have the most depth at catcher, but McCann will likely need less help than almost anyone else on the roster this year.

Best-case scenario: The new acquisitions all pan out, Teixeira heals quickly, Jeter’s swan song goes better than expected, and 10,000 trolling columnists get to write gloaty pieces about how dumping Robinson Cano’s non-hustling ass led to an AL East title.

Worst-case scenario: This old team plays like an old team, and the Yanks settle for fourth place.

Tampa Bay Rays

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Key additions: Grant Balfour, Heath Bell, Logan Forsythe, Ryan Hanigan

Key losses: Sam Fuld, Kelly Johnson, Jose Lobaton, Fernando Rodney, Alex Torres

Projected lineup:
LF David DeJesus (.242/.318/.367)
2B Ben Zobrist (.262/.352/.416)
3B Evan Longoria (.261/.347/.482)
RF Wil Myers (.260/.326/.438)
DH Matt Joyce (.245/.337/.429)
1B James Loney (.268/.321/.386)
CF Desmond Jennings (.246/.326/.394)
SS Yunel Escobar (.254/.322/.350)
C Ryan Hanigan (.246/.336/.317)

This is shaping up to be the Rays’ highest Opening Day payroll in franchise history, up slightly more than $10 million from last year’s $61.9 million mark, which was the third-lowest in the majors above only the awful Marlins and Astros. Much of that new spending stemmed from fresh multiyear deals for returning players David DeJesus and James Loney, plus money for new catcher Ryan Hanigan, the prize of a three-way deal that gave the Rays an elite defensive catcher to pair with Jose Molina. Glove work will be key for Tampa Bay once again this season, led by arguably the best defensive infield in baseball.

The question, as usual, is whether the Rays can generate enough offense to match their stellar run prevention. Expect the usual platoons and time-shares, as Joe Maddon rotates different players in and out of the lineup and squeezes every last drop of value out of all of them. Last season, that formula, coupled with a surprisingly effective season from cheapie pickup Loney, gave the Rays the fifth-best offense in the majors on a park-adjusted basis. There’s some downside risk this year, with Loney possibly in line for some regression and an old lineup (featuring four players older than 30) in place. On the other hand, Wil Myers has a shot at a big breakout campaign as a sophomore. He could hit 30 or more homers, and even if he falls short of that mark, he should give Tampa Bay’s attack a huge lift.

Projected rotation:
David Price (210, 3.20)
Alex Cobb (195, 3.43)
Matt Moore (171, 3.84)
Chris Archer (157, 4.11)
Jake Odorizzi (93, 4.65)

Look at the stats David Price posted after returning from the DL last season: 131⅔ innings pitched, 113 hits, eight homers allowed, 102 strikeouts, 13 walks, 2.53 ERA, and a .233/.253/.337 opponents’ line. Price is back after offseason trade rumors proved moot, and he could be primed for a full season on par with what he delivered late in 2013. Meanwhile, Alex Cobb was terrific before and after getting hit in the head by a line drive and missing time, and Matt Moore, Chris Archer, and Jake Odorizzi bring plenty of youth and upside. If injuries or ineffectiveness strike, Jeremy Hellickson (due back in late May), hard-throwing righty prospect Alex Colome, and veteran offseason pickup Erik Bedard1 will offer ample depth. This should be one of the AL’s best rotations.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: When I visited Rays camp last month, GM Andrew Friedman couldn’t stop raving about offseason trade acquisition Logan Forsythe; 27 years old and healthy this spring, Forsythe might be the best bet for a big performance leap among the current Rays, and he doesn’t even have a starting job. Adding Forsythe, Hanigan, Heath Bell, and Juan Carlos Oviedo, in addition to upgrading from Fernando Rodney to Grant Balfour at closer, figures to give the Rays the kind of 1-through-25 strength they’ll need to compete with their star-laden rivals.

Best-case scenario: In my offseason edition of The 30, I ranked the Rays as the top team in the AL, and nothing has changed my mind since. Earning the franchise’s second World Series trip is a very real possibility.

Worst-case scenario: The AL East will be loaded again, and as many as four or five total wild-card contenders could emerge from the Central and the West, too. Ninety wins would’ve left Tampa Bay out of the playoffs last year, and that wins total might not be enough this year, either.

Toronto Blue Jays

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Key addition: Dioner Navarro

Key losses: J.P. Arencibia, Rajai Davis

Projected lineup:
SS Jose Reyes (.288/.341/.427)
RF Jose Bautista (.263/.377/.521)
1B Edwin Encarnacion (.272/.362/.510)
DH Adam Lind (.264/.325/.458)
CF Colby Rasmus (.248/.317/.453)
LF Melky Cabrera (.288/.331/.432)
3B Brett Lawrie (.267/.328/.440)
C Dioner Navarro (.259/.321/.411)
2B Ryan Goins (.240/.279/.334)

It all depends on injuries. Last year, Jose Bautista and Colby Rasmus each missed 44 games, Edwin Encarnacion missed 20, Brett Lawrie missed 55, and Jose Reyes missed 69, making the Jays’ lineup one of the league’s hardest hit by disabled-list stints. While Reyes is always an injury risk and the 33-year-old Bautista has missed major chunks of time two years in a row, the Jays should expect better than last year’s worst-case scenario when it comes to health … and ensuing performance.2 Every projected starter is forecast to produce league-average or better numbers, except the no. 9 hitter, Ryan Goins. Projections admittedly miss the mark all the time, but the Jays stand to win a few more games simply by avoiding a repeat of last year’s apocalyptic bad luck.

Projected rotation:
R.A. Dickey (183, 4.26)
Mark Buehrle (205, 4.39)
J.A. Happ (140, 4.54)
Drew Hutchison (112, 4.38)
Brandon Morrow (152, 4.04)

Things could have gone differently for the Jays, who reportedly had a one-year deal worked out with Ervin Santana before he signed with the Braves instead. It’s admittedly entirely possible the Jays would be a fourth- or fifth-place team even with Santana or another new pitcher, given how loaded the AL East looks, but adding another arm would have boosted a largely questionable rotation. R.A. Dickey isn’t going to match his 2012 Cy Young season again, and it’s tough to imagine him being anything more than a league-average pitcher in the AL. Brandon Morrow’s always had potential, but he’s entering his eighth major league season, and we still don’t know if he can be effective over 32 starts, or if he can even make 32 starts. The hope is that Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, or another prospect can come up at some point this season and pitch well, because the odds of the five current projected starters making 162 starts and pitching well all season lie somewhere between “wildly unlikely” and “no chance in hell.”

Bullpen, bench, and depth: The bullpen might’ve been Toronto’s biggest strength during an otherwise lost 2013 season, and the unit could get even better this season if Sergio Santos can stay healthy all year and some of the organization’s top young arms end up apprenticing in the pen before moving to the rotation. Still, the Jays shipped off several talented prospects — including Noah Syndergaard, Travis d’Arnaud, Jake Marisnick, and others — last offseason in an ill-fated attempt to build an immediate winner, and if the go-for-it-now experiment doesn’t start bearing fruit soon, the Jays might wish they could have those young guys back.

Best-case scenario: Last year’s preseason exuberance is finally rewarded, as a healthy lineup and loaded bullpen fuel a wild-card run.

Worst-case scenario: We saw it last year. Unless Encarnacion’s shoulder parrot eats him, things can’t possibly get any worse than they were in 2013.

Filed Under: MLB, MLB Preview, AL East, Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays, Jonah Keri

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri

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