2021 MLB season preview: AL East

A new season brings a relatively similar American League East, even if there is a slight tint of shuffling taking place. 

Going back to the usual 162-game grind definitely brings a different angle all teams will have to work around, and AL East clubs are certainly no exception to this. Even still, a new season brings the same goal – continue with the process, even if the process is a rebuild for some and a Commissioner’s Trophy for others. 

Whatever the light at the end of the tunnel brings to the AL East, one should expect a heated race from start to finish. Here is how I expect the division to play out.

1. New York Yankees (2020 record: 33-27)

In terms of raw star power and pure capability, the Yankees, even with their well-noted injury issues over the past several seasons, take the top spot in the division. An offense ripe with power and potential starts with DJ LeMahieu (who was re-signed during the offseason) and goes right through a batting order containing Luke Voit, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gleyber Torres and Co. in no particular order. 

The x-factor for New York will be the rotation – most notably, who is able to amass innings behind Gerrit Cole. Perhaps it is Corey Kluber or Jameson Taillon, who were quietly brought in during the offseason. Maybe it is Luis Severino, who is expected to make his return to the mound sometime during the summer months. 

No matter who pitches the necessary innings, New York has proved to the pundits they can navigate through injuries. Obviously too many problems on the Injured List (IL) are not encouraged, but nevertheless, New York has the depth to offset potential losses. Being the cream of the crop on all sides of ball brings its perks, and, well, here you have it. 

2. Toronto Blue Jays (2020 record: 32-28)

An up-and-coming team in Toronto is expected to make a ton of noise this season. A high-ceiling (and more in-shape) Vladimir Guerrero Jr., a star-studded outfielder in George Springer (who signed a lucrative six-year, $150 million deal with the team over the winter) and a capable southpaw in Hyun-Jin Ryu (who finished third in last year’s American League Cy Young Award voting) all look to take the Blue Jays to a level they have not been at in close to five seasons. To say there is excitement in the air north of the border would be an understatement, to say the least. 

The offense should score. A lot. The question for Toronto, similarly to New York, will be who steps up to pitch the necessary innings behind their top starter. Steven Matz, Robbie Ray and/or MLB Pipeline top-100 prospect Nate Pearson could all ring the bell, but this will remain to be seen. The jury will be out anyway regardless, as a slew of Toronto players (including Springer, Ray and others) have been hit with an early injury spell. The short-term outlook for Toronto might be a bit bumpy, but health-permitting in regard to the long-term prospects of the season should give Toronto fans reason for optimism this season. 

3. Tampa Bay Rays (2020 record: 40-20)

I think Tampa Bay fans have heard enough about how their postseason (and World Series) aspirations were dashed last season, so I will refrain from writing up a storm about it. However, I am sure Rays’ fans would like to get the sour taste out of their mouths, right? Luckily for them, Tampa Bay still has enough talent to make another run, even if the new season brings a new-look team. After all, the small-market club saw two of their premier (and traditional) starters in Blake Snell (trade) and Charlie Morton (free agency) depart. 

Any casual baseball fan, let alone die-hard, knows how Tampa Bay operates. Next pitcher up, next batter up. That will be the theme of their campaign. The good news? Tyler Glasnow and Ryan Yarbrough are still steady names to rely upon, while Wander Franco (the top prospect, per MLB Pipeline) looks primed and ready to take all of MLB by storm. Tampa Bay might have to go through an adjustment period, but they will still be in the postseason mix come September. 

4. Boston Red Sox (2020 record: 24-36)

Now, Boston did finish last in this division last season, even over the rebuilding Orioles. Nevertheless, the Red Sox will still look to play spoiler, and, over the course of an entire 162-game campaign, should be better than last year, even if by default. Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, Alex Verdugo and J.D. Martinez will (health permitting) lengthen a lineup still attempting to overcome the loss of Mookie Betts. Potential American League Rookie of the Year candidate in Bobby Dalbec (who led all American League batters in Spring Training with seven home runs) will only add to the fun that is Boston’s potential starting nine. 

Pitching, pitching, pitching, however, is the name of the game, and to keep it blunt, the Red Sox are not particularly deep. Chris Sale, who is gradually returning from Tommy John surgery, might be able to strengthen a weak Boston rotation during the latter months, but even still, the depth just is not there compared to the teams at the top. 

5. Baltimore Orioles (2020 record: 25-35)

Another rebuilding season means Baltimore is bound to be in for another relatively long 2021 campaign. Achieving long-term success, however, means the makeup of the current roster might be lesser than one would anticipate. This does not mean Baltimore will be completely bottom-tier, though – Trey Mancini’s return to the fold, in addition to Austin Hays and Ryan Mountcastle getting a full season’s worth of at-bats, will give Baltimore a glimpse of light at the end of the rebuilding tunnel. Pitching will, again, be thinner compared to other clubs, but again, this is by design. Baltimore is looking at the long-term picture, and the long-term picture looks bright. Just a few more seasons…

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