State of the AL East: Yankees or Rays? How good are the Red Sox and Blue Jays?

The last time we saw the American League East, the Tampa Bay Rays were the class of the division while the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays were putting together playoff runs of their own — and the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles were battling at the bottom.

Since then, an offseason filled with changes saw Blake Snell and Charlie Morton leave Tampa Bay, free agents George Springer and Marcus Semien ink deals with Toronto, and multiple high-upside pitching moves for New York and under-the-radar veteran additions in Boston. And a Baltimore team still waiting for a talented group of prospects to get to Camden Yards.

We asked ESPN MLB experts David Schoenfield, Bradford Doolittle and Joon Lee to take stock of where things stand in the revamped division entering 2021.

Are the Rays still a World Series contender after their quiet offseason?

David Schoenfield: Sure. Yes, it won’t be easy replacing Snell and Morton in the rotation. But remember, the Rays won two-thirds of their games last season even though those two were more good than great in the regular season. They went a combined 6-4 with a 3.88 ERA while averaging just 4.4 innings per start. Tampa Bay won’t be able to rely as heavily on the bullpen over 162 games as it did over 60 (with expanded rosters), so a couple of guys in the rotation need to step up and chew up some innings, with Tyler Glasnow foremost in that group. Still, these are the Rays, they have a lot of good baseball players on their roster and that depth will keep them near the top of the division.

Bradford Doolittle: Well, I don’t think it was all that quiet. Parting ways with pitchers like Snell and Morton is pretty noisy. The Rays are among the seven or eight teams in the American League that if they won the pennant, it would not be a great surprise. The pitching staff figures to have less stability in the starting rotation, and with some teams, that would worry you. With the Rays, you assume that it’s just a matter of trading rotation production for bullpen production. They will be leaning a bit more on the transition of prospects into producers than with last year’s team, but the Rays are so good at development that that doesn’t seem like a crisis, either. Tampa Bay can get to the playoffs, and if it does, the Rays will again be tough to beat.

Joon Lee: I think it’s incredibly tough to rule out the Rays as a legit postseason contender, even without Morton or Snell at the top of their rotation. The rotation certainly won’t be the same, but this is the same squad that seemingly adds lockdown previously no-name relievers who all throw 98 mph on an annual basis, to the point where it wouldn’t surprise me if we one day learned that the Rays actually have a machine that creates these pitchers out of thin air somewhere in Tropicana Field. Most of the offense returns here, so I think they’ll be right in the mix as one of the stronger squads in the American League.

Have the Yankees become the team to beat in the division?

Schoenfield: While the Rays perhaps lack star power, the Yankees are loaded with it, but it comes with a big asterisk: Can all those stars remain healthy? When Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton battled injuries in 2019, remember that the second string stepped up big time and the Yankees won 103 games. That didn’t happen in 2020 and the Yankees scuffled to a 33-27 season. Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon were certainly great in 2018, when they were last healthy, but will their ultimate value be much different from what Masahiro Tanaka and J.A. Happ provided in recent years? I’ll put the Yankees as the best team in the division since their upside is clearly highest in the division, but they’re not a big favorite in my book. I just worry about all the injury risk.

Doolittle: Yes, the Yankees are the clear preseason favorite. It’s fair to worry about the collective health of the starting rotation given the number of red flags in that group. But even if the Yankees end up having to piece things together in that area more than they like, they’ll still have a terrific bullpen and the best all-around offense in the division. New York has the most complete roster in the AL East. The teams behind them are good enough to make them work, though, so marking the Yanks as favorites is only the starting point for a very good division.

Lee: Barring injuries, yes, but that feels like a potentially big if. There was a lot of panic last season about the Yankees missing the playoffs when their big bats went down with injuries and the team’s depth didn’t step up to fill that production at the same levels. The team is replacing Tanaka and Happ with Kluber and Taillon, and the rotation will need them to produce in order for the Yankees to live up to the expectation that the talent on this roster demands.

How good are the Blue Jays after adding Marcus Semien and George Springer?

Schoenfield: I love the offense, especially when you factor in a bounce-back season from Semien, a potential breakout from Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and a full year from Bo Bichette (and more of the same from Teoscar Hernandez). But that rotation could be a hot mess. Hyun-Jin Ryu is the only reliable arm at this point, and I don’t know if the bullpen is good enough to cover if Robbie Ray and Steven Matz don’t have better seasons after struggling in 2020.

Doolittle: Toronto is right there with the Rays as the second-best on-paper team in the division. If the Jays can get consistent starting pitching, they will be a much-improved team. If their young hitters — Guerrero, Cavan Biggio, Bichette — progress as a group, then a run at the Yankees is within the realm of possibility. However, because there is some uncertainty in the rotation that could be exacerbated by what to me doesn’t look like a very good team defense, it’s possible that Toronto could end up having to outscore teams more than it would like. Because of that, I’d say the range of outcomes for the Jays is wider than that of the Yankees and Rays.

Lee: I view the Blue Jays in the same way that I viewed the White Sox a few years ago, which is an incredibly fun young team with an enormous potential. Between the trio of sons of former big leaguers, I view Bichette as the biggest potential game-changer, although I’m hoping we see Guerrero fulfill more of the enormous potential he so clearly possesses with the bat. I don’t think this will necessarily be a playoff team this year, but it’s a group I view as making a big splash next season.

What do you make of Boston’s series of under-the-radar moves this winter?

Schoenfield: It reminds me a little bit of 2013, when the Red Sox were coming off a 69-93 season and signed a bunch of veterans to fill some holes. That strategy worked to perfection and the Red Sox won the World Series (and then fell off to 71-91 in 2014). Maybe Hunter Renfroe is the 2013 version of Shane Victorino and Enrique Hernandez is Stephen Drew. Most likely, however, the Red Sox won’t find the same good fortune. They will be better than in 2020, but that’s because they have Eduardo Rodriguez back in the rotation, with Chris Sale joining him later on.

Doolittle: They look like something of a run prevention mess to me and yet have a good enough offensive profile to still project at right around .500. Chaim Bloom was part of a Rays front office that was better than anyone at figuring out how to keep teams off the scoreboard. It’s possible that even as the Red Sox look to 2022 and beyond, he’s got a plan for this year’s pitching and defense that ends up being better in practice than it looks in projection. Right now, though, this looks like a stopgap kind of season between last year’s bottoming-out and what I presume will be next year’s leap back into serious contention.

Lee: David stole my thunder! I view this team structurally as very similar to 2013. The team’s front office framed that season as a bridge year, but of course, they ended up winning the World Series. Bloom made a lot of similar signings this offseason, working to build the group’s depth. The main difference between 2013 and 2020 is that because Sale is coming off of Tommy John and won’t be back until well after the season is underway, this feels like a potential fringe playoff team. I do wonder how much patience John Henry will have for the team’s current long-term organizational philosophy if this group doesn’t make the playoffs this season. Ben Cherington approached building the Red Sox with a similar philosophy and was kicked out the door for Dave Dombrowski when things didn’t happen fast enough for Henry’s liking.

What would a successful 2021 season look like for the Orioles?

Doolittle: How many under-25 players have established themselves as legit major leaguers by the end of the year? How many players new to the organization have been improved by the Orioles’ big league development processes? The baseline is somewhere in the range of 95 to 100 losses and if they beat that, it’s a good season. The arrival of Adley Rutschman should get everyone in Baltimore excited by what’s to come. Then again, if he comes up and flops and the O’s lose 110 games at this stage of their rebuild, it’s going to be hard to be excited about what’s going on.

Schoenfield: I think Brad nailed it. They need the younger starters — Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer, Zac Lowther — to show something that suggests they can pitch in the major leagues, because right now John Means is really the only starter who has shown the ability to pitch at this level. They have a couple of highly rated pitchers in the minors in Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall, but the hope has to be when those two are ready they will be joining two or three other established starters.

Lee: Continue to build a solid foundation for an organization moving forward. I am really excited to see what Rutschman looks like at the major league level, considering there hasn’t been much of an offensive influx at the catcher position prospect-wise in a considerable amount of time. We’re starting to hit the point of the Orioles’ rebuild where this team needs to begin seeing something resembling results this year after the seasons of losing. – MLB