MLB 2014 Preview: American League East

This offseason, OF Jacoby Ellsbury departed Boston and landed in New York to play for the Yankees.

RED SOX

As big of a disaster as the 2012 Red Sox were, the 2013 version was a stunning success on so many levels. Not only did they win the World Series (and 97 games along the way), they also reshaped their roster in a brilliant manner. Shortstop Stephen Drew provided a WAR of 3.4 on a one-year deal, and OF Shane Victorino posted a WAR of 5.6 in the first year of his 3 yr/$39MM deal.

The Red Sox had the best offense in baseball, but now they have lost their 1st, 6th, and 7th most valuable position players (OF Jacoby Ellsbury, C Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Drew) to free agency. Blue-chip prospects Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley, Jr. replace Drew and Ellsbury, respectively . Don’t expect the same production, but this is the right move. The Red Sox did retain the services of 1B Mike Napoli for 2 yr/$32MM. Napoli produced a WAR of 3.9 last year, but that was on a high BABIP (0.367)and he is 32. On the other hand, he may accrue a WAR of 4 to 5 in the next two years, which makes this right about the market rate, and like the Victorino deal, this is a short-termer.

A lot of things broke right for the Red Sox last year, but there is a ton to like about their current avoidance of long-term free agent signings. It’s the years, rather than the dollars, that usually do in the Yankees. Boston will regress from last year, but this is an excellent team that can repeat.

RAYS

Tampa grinded out another playoff appearance with a 91-win campaign last year. The pitching was solid (14th in team WAR), but the Rays position players (2nd in team WAR) really put them over the top.

Per usual, the Rays did not dive deep into the free agent market, though they did some things that run counter to the way they typically operate. Usually the Rays jettison relievers due to their overpriced nature on the market, but they signed Grant Balfour to a 2 yr/$12MM deal. They also acquired Heath Bell and are actually paying him less than his previous two employers. The Rays also have a history of picking up 1B off the scrap heap (hello, Carlos Pena and Casey Kotchman), sprinkling some magic fairy dust on them to resurrect their careers, and watching them leave. James Loney figured to join that club, but the Rays signed him to a 3 yr/$21MM deal. He needs to provide only 1 WAR per year to match the price for his services, but it was just interesting to see the Rays run counter to their M.O.

Once again, Tampa saw quite a few guys depart and some guys come in, but the core of this team remains the same. They will compete, like always.

YANKEES

Writing about the Yankees here is a difficult task. Let me start by saying that the Yankees will have to battle for a postseason spot. They are a better than average team, but their infield might be an atrocity. They aren’t better than the Rays or Red Sox but do have a chance to win the division and will fight for a playoff spot via the Wild Card at least.

Since I don’t see a way to break them down in less than thousands of words, I will outline what consistently befuddles me about the way the Yankees operate. Simply contrast the players they brought in (namely C Brian McCann, OF Jacoby Ellsbury, OF Carlos Beltran, and SP Masahiro Tanaka) to how the Red Sox won the World Series last year. For one reason or another, these deals are inherently flawed. McCann is on his way to 1B or DH before the end of the contract, which devalues his bat. Ellsbury is 30 years old and has missed the better part of two of the last four seasons. Beltran is a liability in the field, but New York needs the DH spot to rest their other fielding liabilities. Tanaka has never thrown a pitch in MLB and can opt out of the contract after four years. The problem is that the Yankees will inevitably sign him to a record contract if he opts out. In their pursuit of stars, the Yankees commit resources for way too long.

ORIOLES

After making the playoffs in 2012 (despite a +7 run differential), the Orioles put together a solid campaign in 2013, but their 85 wins were good for only 3rd in the AL East. Still, it’s hard to argue against it being a successful year in that division for the O’s.

In the offseason, the Orioles made moves with major implications by signing SP Ubaldo Jimenez and OF Nelson Cruz. Both contracts will cost a draft pick. After Jimenez pitched well to poor results in 2011 (3.67 FIP vs. 4.68 ERA), he pitched horribly with horrible results in 2012 (5.06 FIP vs. 5.40 ERA). In 2013, he was a new man, posting a 3.43 FIP and a 3.30 ERA. So which version of Jimenez will show up in 2014? As for the Cruz acquisition, it’s a poorly conceived, “go for it” move because he is a poor fielder with only one skill (hitting homeruns). That’s the most valuable skill for a batter, but it isn’t worth giving up the draft pick compensation for just one year (even if it was their second pick due to signing Jimenez).

The Orioles still have some terrific position players (IF Manny Machado, 1B Chris Davis, CF Adam Jones, and C Matt Wieters), but adding Jimenez won’t push them over the hump and Cruz is unlikely to provide more than McLouth did last year.

BLUE JAYS

Along with the Angels, the Blue Jays were one of the most disappointing teams in the American League in 2013. A starting rotation with Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, R.A. Dickey, and Brandon Morrow should have been formidable. And an offense with 1B\DH Edwin Encarnacion, SS Jose Reyes, RF Jose Bautista, and OF Colby Rasmus should have been productive.

Instead, Morrow and Johnson barely pitched and an expected 6 WAR went directly into the toilet. To compound the problem, Dickey surrendered a lot more gopher balls (35 last year vs. 24 in 2012). The only guy who met expectations was the guy who probably shouldn’t have (Buehrle). Reyes deposited another 1.5 WAR in the crapper by getting hurt, and the Blue Jays did not have enough depth behind a solid core of front-line players. The cherry on the top is that the Jays were the second worst catching team in the majors (-1.1 WAR) after trading prospect Travis d’Arnaud to the Mets (Dickey trade) and giving up too soon on Yan Gomes (trade with Cleveland for Esmil Rogers). (As a side note, four catchers were involved in the Dickey deal, and I will award a gold star to anybody that can find a deal so catcher laden.)

If it seems like we are looking back an awful lot for a preview, that’s because there’s no new ground to cover. Toronto has made minor moves. The Blue Jays have been linked to Ervin Santana (and Ubaldo Jimenez before him), but even with him in the fold, they would lack the depth to contend in the brutal AL East.

Photo by Keith Allison (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license)

Ty Whetstone

Ty Whetstone is a lifelong baseball fan that was turned on to Sabermetrics by posting on baseball message boards. In his real life, he works as an accountant. He enjoys traveling with his family and playing golf in his free time.