Yanks, Rays and Jays expected to battle it out for AL East crown

BY J.A.SCHWARTZ

The Tampa Bay Rays are the defending American League champions, and they pushed the Dodgers to six games in the World Series before being defeated. Despite their achievements in 2020, the Rays enter the 2021 season no better than the fourth choice to represent the AL in this year’s Fall Classic, behind the Yankees, White Sox and Twins.

This past offseason was anomalous primarily because there were (and, in some cases, still are) unanswered questions about fan attendance at 2021 regular season games. Without that information, teams couldn’t make reasonable projections as to their likely revenue, and that led most clubs to be fiscally conservative in terms of free agent signings. Only a handful of franchises will increase their payrolls from their pro-rated 2020 levels this year, which may tend to level the playing field for those front offices hopeful of positioning themselves as contenders for the pennant.

American League East

The New York Yankees will begin the season with the most talented (and most expensive) roster in the American League. Their offseason moves included resigning DJ LeMahieu, arguably their most reliable offensive threat over the past two seasons, and trading to acquire Jameson Taillon from the rebuilding Pirates to bolster a rotation that lost Masahiro Tanaka to his native Japan after seven seasons with New York. They also enticed Corey Kluber, a two-time Cy Young Award winner, to don their pinstripes after two seasons largely ruined by injury. After leading the AL in runs scored last year, the Yankees should again feature a slugging lineup that may benefit from full seasons from oft-injured outfielders Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge. If Taillon and Kluber can augment ace Gerrit Cole in the Yankee rotation, New York should return to the playoffs with a chance to end a drought of 11 years without a championship.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
The Yankees hopes for their first World Series championship since 2009 could get a major boost from a healthy Giancarlo Stanton. The NL MVP in 2017 when he slugged 59 home runs for the Marlins, he’s only been in the lineup for a total of 41 regular season games the past two seasons but he hit six long balls in seven games during the 2020 postseason.

The Tampa Bay Rays spent their offseason as defending AL pennant winners trading established stars on large contracts. They jettisoned ace lefty Blake Snell and his $39M remaining salary to San Diego in return for a package of less expensive talent, and let #2 starter Charlie Morton sign with Atlanta. They were second in the AL in ERA last year, and lead the league in that statistic since the start of the 2019 season, and figure to depend upon their talented pen to keep them in games. Their projected payroll for 2021 is $57 million, 26th in the majors, but their farm system has consistently churned out high quality, cost-controlled players, and will be relied upon again this year to continue that trend. Breakout star Randy Arozarena, who set records for both hits and home runs in a postseason with his performance in October, will be counted on to provide pop in the middle of the Rays order, which will be largely unchanged from the lineup that finished sixth in the AL in runs scored a year ago. Waiting in the wings is Wander Franco, the consensus best prospect in the entire league, who, at 20, may make his major league debut sometime this summer and could well be an impact addition for a team that depends on the contributions of young, inexpensive talent.

The Toronto Blue Jays made the league’s biggest splash this offseason, luring George Springer north of the border from Houston to plug into a young lineup loaded with talent. Springer’s six-year, $150 million deal is the biggest in club history, and sent a clear signal to the team and the rest of baseball that the Blue Jays were ready to contend in 2021. They also added Marcus Semien to play second, and closer Kirby Yates as free agent signees, pushing their payroll to $132 million this season, fifth highest in the league and 13th overall. After finishing third in the league in runs scored a year ago, the Jays hope that Semien and Springer can provide depth to a lineup that already features emerging young stars Bo Bichette and Vlad Guerrero Jr., 23 and 22 respectively. Toronto, who will be forced to play their “home” games in their spring home of Dunedin, FL to start the season, hope to bring their exciting squad back north of the border at some point this summer after toiling in Buffalo during the truncated 2020 campaign. Their Canadian fans will be hopeful that their rotation, fronted by Hyun-Jin Ryu, can hold opposing teams at bay while their batsmen bludgeon the opposition, though their next young potential star, Nate Pearson, will likely miss the start of the season with a groin strain. Pearson, who frequently pitches at 100 MPH or more, could emerge as the ace the Jays have lacked since Roy Halladay left town over a decade ago.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
After starting his career with seven seasons in Houston, 2017 World Series MVP George Springer moved north of the border to join the talented young nucleus of the Toronto Blue Jays. The most sought after offensive free agent in the class of 2020 is tied for fourth all-time with 19 postseason home runs.

The Boston Red Sox are a team in a period of transition. After winning the 2018 World Series with a franchise best 108 wins, the Red Sox have missed the playoffs each of the past two seasons. A year after trading franchise icon Mookie Betts to the Dodgers, the Red Sox allowed Jackie Bradley Jr. to leave via free agency and traded Andrew Benintendi to the Royals. Their lineup will continue to be supported by young slugger Rafael Devers, who will anchor the middle of an attack that should also feature Xander Bogaerts and JD Martinez, who hopes to bounce back from a miserable 2020 season. The pitching staff has to be an improvement over last year’s collection of arms that finished 14th in the AL with a 5.58 ERA, and should welcome the returns of Eduardo Rodriguez (COVID-19/myocarditis) and ace Chris Sale (Tommy John surgery) this year to help carryovers Nathan Eovaldi and Martin Perez. Despite their $170 million payroll in 2021, the Red Sox were largely restrained this offseason, failing to sign any free agent to a deal longer than the two years and $14 million offered to utility man Kike Hernandez.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Boston is hoping that seven-time All-Star Chris Sale can return to his old form after missing the 2020 season due to Tommy John surgery. The one-time ace for both the White Sox and Red Sox set a career high with 308 strikeouts during his first year with Boston in 2017.

The Baltimore Orioles should improve over their 2020 performance, but aren’t likely to contend in 2021. They’ve started to elevate some of their better prospects to the major leagues, and saw significant contributions from Austin Hays and Ryan Mountcastle last year, both of who will help power the middle of their lineup this season. Their payroll will be 28th in the majors in 2021 at $45 million, and their biggest offseason signee was Freddy Galvis, who was added for $1.5 million to be the everyday shortstop. A return to health by Trey Mancini, who missed 2020 while being treated for cancer, will be a feel good story for O’s fans. They also figure to be excited for the likely debut of former #1 overall pick Adley Rutschman, who could take over behind the plate as soon as September of this year, giving Baltimore fans something to look forward to after a run of four consecutive losing seasons.

About J.A. Schwartz

J.A. Schwartz is a reporter and columnist for the Martinez Tribune. He's also a licensed professional in the health care field when he's not opining on the world of sports and culture for the benefit of our readers.

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