AL East preview: Can the Yankees deliver? Will Jays, Rays break through? What's next for Red Sox, Orioles?
We begin our countdown to MLB Opening Day with a deep dive on the American League East.
Baseball season is right around the corner, which means it’s time for divisional previews! Between now and MLB Opening Day on March 30, Yahoo Sports will be rolling out our thoughts on each division, including a quick recap of the offseason and best- and worst-case scenarios for each team.
We begin with the American League East.
New York Yankees
Projected record (per PECOTA, as of March 7): 97-65
Best-case scenario: Few teams can harbor more bombastic dreams than the Yankees. And most of those start with Aaron Judge, a $360 million foundation. As you might’ve heard, he belted 62 homers last season, produced the best offensive line since Barry Bonds and won AL MVP. Judge, now donning the captain’s C on his uniform, does not need to repeat that to lead a dream campaign. His career numbers from 2017 to 2021 — .280 AVG with 39 homers per 600 plate appearances, the third-best overall hitter in baseball behind Mike Trout and Juan Soto by wRC+ — would do just fine, but in a best-case scenario, he posts another 53 homers and plays a strong right field.
What really sets off the dream, though, is the emergence of a long-awaited answer (or answers) at shortstop. Oswald Peraza, who debuted late in 2022 and eventually displaced frustrating stopgap Isiah Kiner-Falefa in the playoffs, wins the job out of spring training, then gets healthy competition from top prospect Anthony Volpe by late June. Volpe’s well-rounded bat plays at the major-league level immediately, giving the Yankees an abundance of young infield talent and creating the feeling of a new dawn.
They also get an offensive breakout from center fielder Harrison Bader and just enough from utility whiz kid Oswaldo Cabrera in left field, allowing them to keep Giancarlo Stanton healthy at DH, then swing a big trade for Pirates star Bryan Reynolds at the deadline to round out a thunderous lineup behind twin aces Gerrit Cole and Carlos Rodon.
Speaking of those aces, they stay healthy, and Rodon maintains his excellent form of the past two years, even with a more challenging division and home park. The fun, funky breakout of Nestor Cortes continues unabated to give the Yankees a dynamite top three. Once again confronted by the Astros in October, the Yanks finally get over the hump thanks to newfound depth.
Worst-case scenario: Re-signing Judge, of course, was necessary, but it didn’t solve the Yankees’ glaring problem from 2022: a complete lack of reliable hitting around him. By midseason, it’s clear that Peraza and Volpe aren’t ready for prime time offensively, despite promise for future seasons. Combined with ongoing injury woes for Giancarlo Stanton and DJ LeMahieu, the regression monster comes for Rodon, Cortes and catcher Jose Trevino.
GM Brian Cashman is once again faced with tough decisions about how to balance winning now with heralding the top prospects. He takes the tact of the past two seasons and goes with smaller, shorter-term gap-fillers in left field and the infield — to little avail. The Yankees cling to a wild-card spot behind a strong pitching staff but get wiped out early in October by a superior lineup.
Alternatively: Re-signing Judge, of course, was necessary, but it didn’t change the fact that he’s a mammoth hitter in his 30s — a group prone to injury and backsliding. Judge struggles to stay on the field, and a scrappy season drowns in a pool of long-term anxiety.
Regardless of record, what would success look like in 2023? Yankees fans will be dividing their attention between two poles: big-money, mid-career superstars and the emerging prospects-turned-rookies whom they hope to see form a future core.
Are Judge, Cole and Rodon healthy and at least mostly mimicking their recent selves? Is Stanton on the field?
Do Volpe and Peraza hit the ground running? The young middle infielders have been simultaneously put on a pedestal and buried by intense, franchise-carrying pressure. If they can handle their defensive roles, whatever those might be, and at least one of them proves to be a Rookie of the Year contender, the Bronx will cheer unironically. Ultimately, Volpe’s and Peraza’s acclimation to the big leagues will set the emotional tone of the Yankees’ season and retroactively color a wave of recent front-office decisions. — Crizer
Toronto Blue Jays
Projected record: 89-73
Blue Jays acquire Daulton Varsho, deal Gabriel Moreno to Arizona
Best-case scenario: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (who will still be just 24 this season) replicates his earth-shaking 2021, another Blue Jays star joins him a level up in the MVP race, and Toronto claims its first AL East crown since 2015.
The cavalcade behind Guerrero begins with Bo Bichette, who keeps rolling after slashing .337/.378/.553 in the second half of 2022. Bichette, among the weaker starting shortstops defensively, executes a glove glow-up, a la former teammate Marcus Semien — perhaps via some sort of delayed osmosis. Matt Chapman reinserts more power and reclaims his Gold Glove. Alejandro Kirk, a fire hydrant with superlative hand-eye coordination, competes for the batting title from his catcher spot. George Springer continues posting George Springer offense and stays healthier as his defensive burden is eased with a move to right field.
The additions of Daulton Varsho and Kevin Kiermaier transform a lackluster outfield defensive squad into one of the league’s best. Varsho, acquired in a trade that sent top catching prospect Gabriel Moreno to Arizona, fully proves that his oddball journey from catcher to the outfield has landed him in the right place. He again ranks among the elite outfield defenders in the game and pops 30 homers to go with it. Bolstering the outfield lifts starting pitcher Kevin Gausman after defense sapped an otherwise excellent season from him in 2022, Chris Bassitt lengthens the rotation with another reliable arm, and the Blue Jays lock in a more consistent fifth by helping Nate Pearson or Yusei Kikuchi find the plate.
But the real story is Alek Manoah, as the young ace steps into the spotlight to win the AL Cy Young with his first 200-inning campaign and goes toe-to-toe with the rest of the league’s best to assert his dominance with an October run that returns the Blue Jays to the World Series.
Worst-case scenario: Guerrero’s powerful 2021 starts to look more like the outlier as he struggles to lift the ball consistently. Bichette’s cold streaks continue to kneecap his overall line, and ripple effects of the infield shift restrictions raise serious questions about his future (and present) at shortstop.
Young players such as Kirk and Varsho take momentary steps back, while durability issues plague Springer, Kiermaier and other veterans such as Brandon Belt, forcing less proven players into the heat of competition in a daunting division.
Hard contact again limits Gausman’s upside, and the more questionable members of the rotation — Kikuchi, Jose Berrios — prove to be liabilities. Marginal additions in the bullpen don’t get Toronto into the same class as the diverse relief attacks wielded by the Yankees and Rays (or even the Orioles), and frustrating division losses pile up. The Blue Jays sink back under the 90-win line and miss the playoffs for the second time in three years.
Regardless of record, what would success look like in 2023? This roster is stacked enough that the record really will dictate success, but beyond winning, success for Guerrero, Bichette and Manoah matters more than for the others. The three young linchpins could front competing teams for years in Toronto.
But to do that, they have to be in Toronto. President Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins came from the thrifty Cleveland organization, and while they have spent on Springer, Gausman and Bassitt, they have not yet dished out the type of long-term deal that will be required to keep Guerrero or Bichette — a stark contrast to Alex Anthopoulos, the World Series-winning, core-securing GM the Blue Jays forced out by hiring Shapiro.
Besides wins, the best thing that could happen to the Blue Jays is one or both of those hitters demanding a big-time deal with his play and having that urgency reciprocated by the front office. — Crizer
Tampa Bay Rays
Projected record: 86-76
Rays sign Zach Eflin to a franchise-record free-agent contract
Kevin Kiermaier returns that Blue Jays catching card … by signing with Toronto
Best-case scenario: The best-case scenario for a team coming off four straight postseason appearances kind of has to involve playing deep into October. The Rays have become the poster franchise for small-market success, the exception to the rule that spending is a shortcut to championships. The past four seasons, they’ve accumulated the third-most wins in the American League, but they’ve made it past the division series only once in that span — and only twice in their 25-year history.
Best case: This is the year that changes. As always, it’ll be tough to score against Tampa Bay. But for once, that’s not because of their deft deployment of a bunch of dudes you’ve never heard of hurling gas. Even with Shane Baz out for the season, the rotation is sneaky top-tier with multiple Cy Young contenders. In this version of events, Shane McClanahan repeats last year’s first half for a full season, Tyler Glasnow bounces back from yet another injury to pitch like the player he was right before and right after he lost more than a year to the IL, and Zach Eflin is able to take what he learned in the Phillies bullpen and bring it back to the rotation.
The Rays’ gamble on letting last year’s lineup have another go — only healthy this time — works. Brandon Lowe makes a compelling case for most underrated player, Josh Lowe (no relation) shakes off his rookie regression to look more like his Triple-A self, the Isaac Paredes pick-up in spring training last year looks even more prescient than it did in 2022, Curtis Mead gets an early-season call-up and makes a seamless transition to raking in the big leagues, and Wander Franco plays 162 games (or something close to it) while making $182 million look like a steal.
In the decisive ALCS game, McClanahan holds the reigning champs scoreless; Dusty Baker never forgets the name.
Worst-case scenario: Look, it’s a tough division, and even with an expanded postseason, the third- or fourth-place finisher in the AL East (don’t look now, but the Orioles are good) is liable to miss out entirely. The Rays always seem to find a way, but their potential path to mediocrity in 2023 looks pretty clear. The team went from second in runs scored in 2021 to 21st in 2022. That alone didn’t keep them out of October, but once there, they managed a single run across 24 innings.
Then they didn’t do much of anything to bolster the offense in the offseason. Power was particularly lacking (25th in home runs last year), with Parades, who had never hit even a dozen dingers at Triple-A or higher, tied for the team lead with 20. If he fails to repeat that performance and B. Lowe’s back is still bothering him, there could be a serious lack of long ball in Tampa.
On paper, the pitching staff is built to withstand the losses of Baz and Corey Kluber, who left in free agency, and Glasnow is expected back before long, but what if anyone else goes down? (Or Eflin proves to be a bit of an overpay for a guy who is a career below-average pitcher?) “Someone gets hurt” is a cop-out answer when it comes to worst-case scenarios, but as spring training injuries have already shown, “everyone is healthier than they were last year” is far from an infallible plan for success.
Also in the worst-case scenario: Kevin Kiermaier — the second-longest tenured Ray in team history — looks like his old self again. Only now he plays for a division rival.
Regardless of record, what would success look like in 2023? In the season after the Rays made him the highest paid player with less than a full year of big-league service, Wander Franco showed further flashes of brilliance, but failed to play a full season. Injuries limited him to 83 games in 2022, but a healthy Franco should be a key part of the Rays’ 2023 plans.
He enters his age-22 season with ample opportunity to become one of the top shortstops in the game at a time when baseball is rife with talent at the position. His star status might’ve dimmed a bit during his absence, but the famously thrifty Rays decided he was worth the franchise’s largest financial commitment ever for a reason. The team that flips beloved players for cheaper options anytime they approach free agency instead made an 11-year commitment to Franco, and they’d love to see him flourish as the kind of player you can build around season after season.
Long-term success in Tampa Bay starts with Franco fulfilling his potential in 2023. The Rays stand to gain not just in the standings but also in the hearts of Floridians who can finally emotionally invest in a player who’s going to stick around. — Keyser
Boston Red Sox
Projected record: 79-83
Red Sox designate Jeter Downs for assignment, reopen old wound
Trevor Story to miss most if not all of 2023 after right elbow surgery
Sox give $300-plus million to Rafael Devers with 11-year extension
Best-case scenario: The boos that rained down on Red Sox brass at fan fest belied that this team has some real talent — new and old. What looked at some points like a disastrous offseason has given way to a club finally on the right path after initially floundering under new leadership. The early years of the Chaim Bloom regime were marked by loss, but that’s behind us now.
The next decade will be the Devers Era, and in this scenario, he has his best offensive season to date at 26 years old, underscoring that the Red Sox made the right choice in committing so much to someone just entering his prime. The Yoshida signing might’ve flown under the radar, but plate discipline is the kind of skill that translates, and on-base percentage is plenty flashy when you’re rivaling Juan Soto in walk-to-strikeout ratio. At 38, Justin Turner, who took a nasty ball to the face Monday, isn’t really a long-term replacement at DH. But for one more year, he hits like a 37-and-a-half-year-old — which is to say, something akin to the .319/.386/.503 he posted in the second half last season (the red hair does kinda clash with the uniforms, though).
And with the core of the previous championship club largely disassembled, fans turn their attention to the next generation of home-grown Red Sox. In his first full big-league season, Triston Casas puts up a Rookie of the Year campaign befitting the first baseman of the future at Fenway, punctuated by a Home Run Derby appearance.
The rotation? It stays healthy. Notably, Chris Sale shakes whatever curse has condemned him to a succession of absurd injuries and emerges with healthy methods for managing difficult emotions. And with the bullpen greatly improved, there aren’t as many heartbreaking losses as last year. In the end, the Sox gladly settle for a wild card.
Worst-case scenario: The Bogaerts departure continues to haunt the Red Sox as Trevor Story’s recovery hits some hiccups that push his return to 2024. Without either of those players, the glaring absence of production at shortstop (after an offseason headlined by stars of the position) highlights how a team that was supposed to replace splashy signings with careful construction still looks pretty slapdash. It’s hard to say which is more depressing: that 2022’s fifth-place finish wasn’t rock-bottom or that the team with the most World Series wins this century is battling the Orioles for fourth in the division.
Even if Casas and Yoshida are going to be key contributors of the next great Red Sox team, it doesn’t take the sting out of watching them struggle to adjust to major-league pitching. And sure, Justin Turner is a delight in the clubhouse and pretty powerful for a 38-year-old, but there’s nothing inspired about the move to swap him for J.D. Martinez. Devers can’t do it all alone, and ultimately there isn’t much more to the story than a last-place team that lost its best player and did little to add. Fans might’ve been able to forgive the team for trading Mookie Betts if the plan had worked. But three years later, patience has officially run out.
Regardless of record, what would success look like in 2023? This is not a team that’s getting the benefit of the doubt if it does anything other than contend. Maybe that’s unfair to the development of promising young players such as Brayan Bello, which could very well accompany a fourth- or fifth-place finish. Unfortunately, though, fans are already frustrated and more than ready for results.
Bringing back Bogaerts and working toward retaining Devers would’ve been enough to buy Boston some leeway in the eventual standings, but even the Devers extension didn’t move the needle much once Bogaerts was gone. Red Sox fans are ready to call 2023 a failure, and it’ll take real results to change minds. — Keyser
Projected record: 74-88
Orioles follow breakout season by adding Kyle Gibson, Cole Irvin
Best-case scenario: All aboard the young talent express! You don’t have to be a distinguished baseball historian to recall how quickly rebuilding franchises can kick into gear as juggernauts. Baltimore GM Mike Elias was a key architect of an Astros team that ascended into “The Astros” in a hurry. Catcher Adley Rutschman, who announced himself as an elite talent in 2022, leads the way with a full season that puts him in MVP contention. Gunnar Henderson, the club’s second-round pick in the same draft, wins AL Rookie of the Year with a confident showing on the left side of the infield. And Cedric Mullins approximates his 30/30 season from 2021 to solidify a full-on-good top of the order.
Top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez forces his way to the majors by May and immediately steps to the front of a rotation that includes under-the-radar find Dean Kremer — a pitcher at least one projection system saw coming — and revitalized trade acquisitions Kyle Gibson and Cole Irvin. Continued innovation in the pitching sphere helps manager Brandon Hyde deploy another shockingly effective bullpen behind terrifying closer Felix Bautista, hearkening back to the Buck Showalter days, and the feel-good scrappiness of 2022 carries over.
Young stars are supplemented with upticks from veterans Jorge Mateo and James McCann, and the front office finally decides to buy in and add pieces at the trade deadline. Riding a wave that includes more prospect arrivals, including outfielder Colton Cowser, Baltimore collects 93 wins and a triumphant AL wild-card spot, notching postseason upsets and reaching the ALCS.
Worst-case scenario: You also don’t need to be a baseball historian to recall that the Astros’ upstart return to relevance in 2015 was followed by a middling 2016 in which they won two fewer games. Development is not linear — for young players or young teams.
Rutschman doesn’t fare as well after the league gets a more thorough book on him, Henderson’s strikeout rate balloons into problematic territory, sending him on a return engagement to Triple-A, and no other young contributors establish themselves as forces in the majors.
Rodriguez’s path to a big-league mound is again blocked by injury, and the underwhelming-looking rotation pitches like the past says it should. Without continued bullpen magic, the Orioles sink back into the AL East cellar and enter the winter anxious that their key young players have stalled out.
Regardless of record, what would success look like in 2023? With the Orioles bursting at the seams with optimism, a sub-.500 season would likely feel like a letdown, but it shouldn’t. A team in such an embryonic stage has a lot of variance baked in.
If Rutschman and Henderson once again play like foundational players, that’s a win. If the team again manifests some player development magic by improving veteran pitchers or unearthing unheralded gems, such as Mullins, that’s a win. If Rodriguez and other prospects arrive and look similarly promising, that’s cause for celebration in the streets. The Orioles don’t need to have a parade — or even make the postseason — to finish the season with ticker-tape dreams. — Crizer