2015 PREVIEW AL EAST: My how times have changed

Could this be the Blue Jays' year? If certain things break their way it very well could be, as the division is as wide open heading into a season as we can remember.

 

BALTIMORE ORIOLES - (2014 record: 96-66, First in AL East)

 

The Baltimore Orioles followed up their first AL East title since 1997 with an offseason that featured much of nothing. The O's watched as slugger Nelson Cruz and longtime staple Nick Markakis leave as free agents, while not doing much to replace them.

 

The loss of Cruz' 40 home runs will be tough for an Orioles team that scored more runs than anyone in 2014. They are hoping that the returns of both Manny Machado and Matt Wieters will make up for some of the lost production and hopefully Chris Davis returns from his amphetamine suspension showing some of the form that saw him swat a league-best 53 home runs in 2013.

 

Chris Tillman will open the year as the team's ace, but you better believe that by the end of the year Orioles fans are hoping Kevin Gausman assumes the role going forward. Gausman, Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris are all solid options, while prized prospect Dylan Bundy could also see time this season. Gausman is the guy, though, who needs to breakout. Essentially, minus Ubaldo Jimenez, who despite his high salary has been relegated to the bullpen, the rotation is the same one that last year ranked fifth in the American League and were second among AL East teams with a 3.61 ERA.

 

X-FACTOR: CHRIS DAVIS

 

What exactly happened to Chris Davis last season? After his monster 2013 that saw him drive in 138 runs, Davis slumped badly in 2014, as he saw his average drop over 100 points and his production cut nearly in half. That on top of a suspension that cost him most of the final month and the postseason has people wondering if that magical campaign two years ago was an aberration. If there was anyone in the Orioles' lineup who could make up for the loss of Cruz it would be Davis. If it's more of the same, he could find himself out of a job and the O's could find themselves struggling.

 

PROGNOSIS: We are going to hear this a lot, but the AL East is wide open this year. You could probably make a case for every team to win, so to say the defending champion Orioles have a shot is not a stretch. That offense that carried them last season, though, is nowhere near what is was. The rotation should be better, but probably not enough to equal out the loss of Cruz. Still, how many teams will throw a pitcher out there every day that will give their team a chance to win? Not to mention they have one of the best players in the AL in Adam Jones, as well as a bullpen that is on par with the best units in all of baseball. However, I'd feel a whole lot better about this team if I knew what Davis was going to bring to the table.

 

BOSTON RED SOX (2014 record: 71-91, Fifth in AL East)

 

The Boston Red Sox were on top of the world with a World Series title in 2013, but ended up pulling up the rear in the AL East in 2014, losing 91 games in a season that saw them bring some young talent like Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts to the forefront.

 

After a year of transition, though, the Red Sox are ready to once again compete following an offseason that saw them open up the piggy bank with the acquisitions of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. They also revamped their rotation, bringing back Justin Masterson, while adding starters Wade Miley and Rick Porcello.

 

The additions of Ramirez and Sandoval, as well as Cuban Rusney Castillo should help a lineup that last year ranked third worst in the AL with 3.91 runs per game.

 

It will be interesting to see how Boston manager John Farrell finds a way to fill out a lineup each night, especially in the outfield, where Shane Victorino could be out of luck with all this young talent and the fact that Ramirez is slated to play left field.

 

X-FACTOR: STARTING ROTATION

 

Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Justin Masterson, Wade Miley and Joe Kelly. Not exactly a Murders' Row of starters. In fact it's a group that doesn't really have an ace and probably doesn't even have a solid No. 2. Buchholz has shown he can be as good as anyone when he is on, but those flashes are too few and far between. Plus, he is always hurt. Masterson had injury problems last season and could be the steal of the offseason if he is healthy. Still, don't be surprised to see them deal some of that young talent for a proven ace (Cole Hamels) if they get off to a bad start.

 

PROGNOSIS: Boston has a plan. They needed to upgrade its lineup and did. The pitching acquisitions may not wow you, but they are a group that relies heavily on the ground ball. Defensively, Boston is pretty sound in the infield. So, this unit may actually be better off than a lot of people are giving it credit for. Still, that might not exactly be the staff I'd want inside Fenway Park. Make no mistake, though, the Red Sox are going to win because of their lineup, which might be the best in the game from 1-to-9. That's why they will contend in the AL East this season.

 

NEW YORK YANKEES (2014 Finish - 84-78, Second in AL East)

 

For the first time since 1995 the New York Yankees will head into a season without Derek Jeter at shortstop. They'll also head into a season having not reached the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time since missing out on the playoffs every year from 1982-93.

 

Injuries derailed the Yanks in 2014, but they still were runners-up to the Orioles in the division and were only four games out of a wild card spot.

 

Aside from Didi Gregorius stepping into the gigantic shoes left behind from Jeter, the Yankees are pretty much going to resemble the same team they were a year ago. Well, with the exception of a returning Alex Rodriguez, who will likely serve as the team's everyday designated hitter after being suspended for PEDs all of last season.

 

On paper this rotation is as solid as any in baseball. The key there is can they stay healthy. Masahiro Tanaka is always one pitch away from elbow surgery, CC Sabathia is returning from knee surgery and Michael Pineda has yet to avoid the injury bug since joining the Yankees. Newcomer Nathan Eovaldi comes in with some high hopes and Ivan Nova should join the group sometime in June.

 

The biggest thing to watch on this team will be in the bullpen where Dellin Betances assumes the closer's role, as David Robertson left for Chicago as a free agent. Betances drew comparisons to Mariano Rivera in 2014 and was an All-Star a year ago in a setup role. The Yankees also signed lefty specialist Andrew Miller, who could also fill the ninth inning role should Betances falter. Betances, Miller or even Andrew Bailey as closer, the bullpen should be among the best in baseball

 

X-FACTOR: MASAHIRO TANAKA

 

Tanaka burst upon the major league scene last season, but his year was derailed by a torn ligament in his elbow. The Japanese star was able to avoid surgery, but for how long. Tanaka adjusted his usual offseason program and has not been throwing with as much intensity as he had in the past. It's seemed to have worked, as he's been solid this spring. The fact remains, though, that at some point the elbow is going to give out. It could be this year, next year, or 10 years down the line. If it holds up this summer he is the best pitcher in the division and the Yankees could be a big factor.

 

PROGNOSIS: The Yankees were among the worst scoring teams in the league last season. A lot of that has to do with injuries to Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira, a particularly tough first year in New York from Brian McCann and the absence of A-Rod. It may be asking a lot for those veterans to stay healthy, but McCann showed signs of adjusting to New York late in the season and could be in store for a big year. If the starting pitching holds up and the veterans in the lineup can play to the back of their baseball cards the Yanks should find themselves in the playoff mix.

 

TAMPA BAY RAYS (2014 Finish - 77-85, Fourth in AL East)

 

After six straight winning seasons the Rays fell back under .500 last season. And now they head into the 2015 campaign with a new manager in Kevin Cash and former head of player personnel, Andrew Friedman, in Los Angeles.

 

Not long after Friedman left for the Dodgers, manager Joe Maddon opted out of his deal and took a job with the Cubs.

 

So, essentially the Rays are starting over, as new general manager Matt Silverman restocked the farm system and unloaded the likes of Ben Zobrist, Wil Myers and Matt Joyce.

 

If Tampa is going to win this season it's going to be because of their rotation. It may not include a David Price or James Shields anymore, but few teams would turn away from a top-3 of Alex Cobb, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi.

 

X-FACTOR: STEVEN SOUZA

 

The Rays took a big chance on acquiring Souza in the deal that sent Wil Myers to San Diego. While Myers already had an AL Rookie of the Year trophy to his name, Souza has yet to do anything on the big league level and actually only had three hits in 23 at-bats in limited time with the Nats last season. The Rays, though, thought he'd be an upgrade. They aren't alone. Souza owned a .350/.432/.590 line with 18 homers and 26 steals in 96 games at Triple-A last season. A 20-20 season is not out of the question. Evan Longoria is the foundation, but Souza is the building block to the future.

 

PROGNOSIS: The Rays may have the best young pitching in the division, but outside of Longoria, the lineup leaves little to be desired. This is probably a "take your lumps" type of year for Cash and the Rays, but better days are in store. Even then, though, without a new stadium deal or television contract, the Rays will continue to be a glorified minor league system for other teams willing to spend money.

 

TORONTO BLUE JAYS (2014 Finish - 83-79, Third in AL East)

 

Stop me if you have heard this before. This season the Toronto Blue Jays are going to take the next step. Yep, we have heard this same cry in each of the last few seasons, yet, the Blue Jays are still searching for their first postseason appearance since 1993.

 

The Jays, though, again had some high hopes following the offseason acquisitions of catcher Russell Martin, outfielder Michael Saunders and third baseman Josh Donaldson. However, they are already off to an inauspicious start as Saunders suffered a torn MCL and could start the year on the disabled list, while potential breakout ace Marcus Stroman will be lost for the year after tearing an ACL during a routine fielding drill.

 

Still, when everyone is healthy Toronto should have one of the better lineups in the league with the new additions, as well as Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes and Edwin Encarnacion. Staying healthy, however, is the key term.

 

With Stroman gone the Jays, like they probably would have done anyway, will have to lean heavily on veterans R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle at the top of the rotation, while more may be asked from youngsters like Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris.

 

X-FACTOR: BRETT CECIL

 

The Blue Jays lost Casey Janssen to free agency this winter and have not really had any luck finding someone to fill his shoes. So, that means lefty Brett Cecil will fill the role, at least at the outset. How he performs early on could determine the Jays' success and what they will do going forward. Should he falter, though, remember this name ... Rafael Soriano.

 

PROGNOSIS: The Blue Jays' hopes took a huge hit when Stroman went down. Without him the rotation could be a little shaky if the youngsters don't develop the same way Stroman did a year ago. And that wouldn't be good news for a bullpen that already has question marks. Still, this lineup is good enough to compete for a wild card and possibly even a division crown in an AL East that really is up for grabs. That young pitching needs to come through. If not it'll just be more disappointment north of the border.

 

PROJECTED FINISH

 

1. BOSTON

 

2. NEW YORK

 

3. TORONTO

 

4. BALTIMORE

 

5. TAMPA BAY

 

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