The good news for the Yankees is the Rays have lost significant pieces from their formidable starting rotation and the Red Sox are practically invisible this winter. The bad news is the Blue Jays are getting more dangerous by the day, adding George Springer to their young lineup and seemingly determined to keep spending in the free-agent market.
How that all plays out should make for a fascinating season in the AL East.
The Blue Jays served notice they’re serious about trying to win big again, signing Springer on Tuesday and making a run at Michael Brantley before the lefty-hitting outfielder re-signed with the Astros on Wednesday.
Perhaps noteworthy as well, Toronto took a relatively low-risk gamble on Kirby Yates, hoping he can return from injury to his 2019 form as one of the most dominant closers in the majors.
If the Jays can make a move to acquire starting pitching, something many people in baseball are expecting, they have to be taken serious as a contender.
For now, though, it’s hard to say they’re better than the Yankees, or the Rays as well. Just because the Yankees are mostly standing pat with a team that hasn’t been able to get over the hump in the postseason doesn’t mean they’re won’t be a powerhouse again, especially if they can get lucky with injuries for a change.
In any case, the Jays’ deals for Springer and Yates make it a good time to size up the state of the AL East.
While Springer’s six-year, $150 million deal was a reminder the Blue Jays are a big-market operation when they feel like spending, it was also a statement on the coup the Yankees pulled off in signing D.J. LeMahieu for $90 million over the same six years.
“You can’t knock Toronto for going the extra mile to get Springer,” one rival executive told me, “but it just tells you how fortunate they are that LeMahieu was willing to make that deal (for $60 milliion less than Springer) because he wanted to stay there. If he doesn’t take the extra years to lower the AAV, I don’t know if they sign (Corey) Kluber for $11 million, when they’re up against the luxury tax.
“And I think they’re rolling the dice on Kluber at that price, but if he stays healthy he gives them a quality arm they really need.”
If it turns out the Yankees do little else this winter, bringing back LeMahieu assures them of being an offensive juggernaut similar to the last couple of years, when they led the AL in runs scored in both 2019 and 2020, despite a rash of injuries to some of their best hitters.
As for pitching, there’s some uncertainty behind Gerrit Cole, as it appears Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton are moving on, but Kluber offers the potential for another dominant starter, while Luis Severino and Domingo German loom as impactful comeback candidates, and there are enough promising young arms to provide depth.
In short, the Yankees have been a few timely hits in October away from going back to the World Series in any of the last four seasons. They still have plenty of talent.
ODDS THEY WIN THE AL EAST: 2-1.
ONE BIG MOVE THEY NEED TO MAKE: Not many options with their high payroll and the determination to stay under the luxury-tax threshold. But they could use a little more bullpen depth, perhaps someone like Shane Greene or Brandon Kintzler.
They owned the Yankees last season, making good on my pick for them to win the AL East and the AL pennant, but that was over a 60-game season with dominant starters like Blake Snell and Charlie Morton who are now in San Diego and Atlanta, respectively.
Of course, the Rays never seem to run out of young arms, and they added a highly-regarded young starter in Luis Patino from the Padres in the Snell trade. Also, as we all know by now, they’re all about the bullpen, which was the best in the majors last season, even if their philosophy may have cost them a chance to win the World Series when Kevin Cash famously pulled Snell too quickly in Game 6.
But I have to believe that losing Morton and Snell will be significant, and the Rays aren’t built to beat up on teams offensively over 162 games in the manner of the Yankees — unless Randy Arozarena proves to be the slugging machine who hit 10 home runs in 18 post-season games last October.
In short, the Rays will still be very good, but that dominance over the Yankees will be hard to carry over from 2020 to 2021.
ODDS THEY WIN THE AL EAST: 3-1.
ONE BIG MOVE THEY NEED TO MAKE: They seem pretty much done, other than perhaps trading Kevin Kiermaier in what would be another cost-saving move.
3) BLUE JAYS
The Jays were already a young team on the rise, making the expanded playoffs last year with a 32-28 record that was due mostly to strong lineup that scored 302 runs in 60 games, third in the AL behind the Yankees (315) and the White Sox (306).
Furthermore, with Bo Bichette at age 23 next season and Vlad Guerrero Jr. at 22 leading their youthful crop of home-grown position players, they figured to be better in 2021 even before they added Springer’s firepower.
The signing of Yates, meanwhile, could be equally impactful, considering their bullpen was a weak spot last year, ranking 12th in the AL with a 4.71 ERA. The righthanded Yates is a bit of a gamble, after missing most of last year due to bone chips in his elbow, but the surgery he had to remove them is considered relatively routine, and if he gets back to commanding his devastating splitter, he could be a difference-making closer for the Jays.
Still, Toronto still needs another starter to go along with Hyun-Jin Ryu in an otherwise mediocre rotation (though top prospect Nate Pearson has a high ceiling). The expectation is they’ll either sign someone or make a trade with the surplus of outfielders they’ve created with the Springer signing.
ODDS THEY WIN THE AL EAST: 6-1.
ONE BIG MOVE THEY NEED TO MAKE: Sign Jake Odorizzi to beef up their starting rotation.
4) RED SOX
The Sox have spent the winter bargain-hunting and making their fans furious, with no indication they’ll be contenders in 2021. As one Boston sportswriter wrote this week, “The Red Sox haven’t been this irrelevant in nearly 30 years.”
Indeed, it may be a long time before they live down their decision to trade Mookie Betts, all the more so when he helped the Dodgers win a championship, as GM Chaim Bloom goes about the business of rebuilding a franchise that became top-heavy with big contracts and then imploded partly due to pitching injuries to the likes of Chris Sale.
The Sox pitching was so bad last year that it finished 14th in the AL with a 5.58 ERA, and so far the outlook isn’t much better for 2021.
In short, the rebuild may take awhile.
ODDS THEY WIN THE AL EAST: 40-1.
ONE BIG MOVE THEY NEED TO MAKE: They’ve done almost nothing so far this winter, as Bloom looks for bargains to keep the payroll down. At the very least they should take flyers on starting pitchers like Garrett Richards and Anibal Sanchez.
It went largely unnoticed outside of Baltimore, but the Orioles were somewhat improved after two abominable seasons in which they won 47 and 54 games, respectively, and actually finished ahead of the Red Sox in 2020 with a 25-35 record.
But that may have been at least partly the result of a 60-game season, as they continue to endure the pain of a complete rebuild. Their long-range hope is an improving farm system that features five players in Baseball America’s latest list of the top 100 prospects in baseball.
ODDS THEY WIN THE AL EAST: 100-1.
ONE BIG MOVE THEY NEED TO MAKE: Simply put, they’re not making one.