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2019 Preview: American League East

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox

FORT MYERS, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 27: Alex Cora #20 of the Boston Red Sox looks on against the Baltimore Orioles during the Grapefruit League spring training game at JetBlue Park at Fenway South on February 27, 2019 in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

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For the past few years we’ve done previews on a team-by-team basis. There are good points to that, but it’s also the case that every single team has dedicated websites, beat reporters and fan bases which are able to talk about, say, the 12th pitcher in a majors/AAA/AA rotational structure and talk at length about the club’s third string utility infielder. We aren’t really going to match that level of detail here, so doing deep dives on teams doesn’t really serve the hardcore fans. At the same time, the non-hardcore fans just want the gist: “Is that team going to be good or bad and/or are they going to pose a threat to my team?”

For that reason we’re trying something new: divisional previews with shorter blurbs on each team but a more general “what’s gonna happen in this division this year” slant. We feel like that is the level of inquiry people are coming here to get, whereas they’re more likely to check out a team-dedicated outlet to get the super nitty gritty. Maybe we’re wrong, but it’s good to try new things. Cool? Cool.

First up, the American League East!

I won’t say the AL East is the best division in baseball. I think the NL Central and East are more competitive, top-to-bottom, as they each have four potential playoff contenders and I think the AL East only has three. It is the case, however, that the AL East has the best team and, probably, the best two teams overall. It also has one of the strongest Wild Card contenders. The real difference is the bottom of the division which has one team that is early in a rebuild and another one which is still a flaming hole in the ground. Maybe you disagree with that overall assessment, but no one gives awards for “best division” and anyone who roots for a division rather than a team should direct themselves to some college football forum where they root for conferences like insane people.

Let’s talk about the teams:

Boston Red Sox: The champs and, by our estimation, still the best team in baseball. They still have the best offense of anyone and, as they appear more stable at first and second base to begin this year than they were early last year, they may actually be more balanced than they were in 2018. Not that you need too much balance when you have Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez and the other stars up and down the order. The rotation is likewise a strength with a, presumably, healthy Chris Sale returning, the postseason David Price renaissance hopefully carrying over and a full year of Nathan Eovaldi. Whether the rotation is strong or great depends on Rick Porcello and Eduardo Rodriguez. Porcello’s got a reverse Brett Saberhagen thing going on -- he’s been good in the even years and bad in the odd ones -- but if he breaks that trend and builds on his mild 2018 bounceback it will make Alex Cora’s life easier. Rodriguez is in The Best Shape of His Life, so that has to be good, right?

The big issue, as everyone knows, is the bullpen. Craig Kimbrel is gone and, presumably, not returning. Joe Kelly left for L.A. They just lost Steven Wright to an 80-game PED suspension. As Tigers fans recall, GM Dave Dombrowski does not have a great track record in cobbling together bullpens, and the 2019 Red Sox’ bullpen is definitely a cobble job in progress. If the Yankees catch Boston, it’ll likely be because the late innings are killing ‘em.

New York Yankees: Like the Red Sox, the lineup is set, with the possible exception of first base. And, of course, one can ask whether Troy Tulowitzki can really stay in the lineup and be an asset at short until Didi Gregorius comes back. If he can’t one may ask why the Yankees seemed to have no real interest in signing Manny Machado. But I suppose wanting to do things like “acquire good players” and “get better” are radical concepts in Major League Baseball these days. Aside from that the team is loaded as usual, with Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andujar and Aaron Hicks causing all kinds of problems for opposing pitchers. And that’s before you figure that Gary Sanchez is due for a substantial bounceback.

The pitching is the opposite situation from the Red Sox. New York’s bullpen is absolutely stacked with Chad Green, Zack Britton, Adam Ottavino, Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman constituting the best and hardest-throwing relief corps in baseball. They’ll be needed given the uncertainty with the rotation. Luis Severino’s shoulder makes him a question mark. Masahiro Tanaka has only pitched 180 innings once in his five seasons and CC Sabathia’s swan song will likely feature a lot of starts on the short side of things. There’s a lot of pressure on newcomer James Paxton and on J.A. Happ, especially if Severino has to miss a chunk of time. Organizational pitching depth is not strong, so if things go south, figure the Yankees to be in the market for a starter. They probably should’ve called Dallas Keuchel, like, yesterday.

Tampa Bay Rays: Last year’s surprise 90-win team will not be sneaking up on anyone this year, but they also have a load of young talent to augment those returning. And some not-so-young talent, with the addition of starter Charlie Morton and catcher Mike Zunino. Aside from them the Rays are looking for steps forward from Willy Adames, Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow. They added Yandy Diaz and Avisail Garcia. They’ll get a full seasons from 2018 acquisition Tommy Pham. Every one of them has the talent pull off a big year and if a couple of them come through with top-of-projection performance the Rays could have something pretty special on their hands. They also may not need to rely quite as heavily on their opener/bullpenning formula that gave them so much success last year, with the club featuring a solid one-two-three rotation of Cy Young winner Blake Snell, Morton and Glasnow. On the other two turns through the rotation, however, be prepared for a full-on relief pitching assault. If he’s counting his steps, Kevin Cash is gonna go through, like, five Fitbits this year compared to last year’s seven.

Toronto Blue Jays: New manager Charlie Montoyo will take the reins of a rebuild that still has a ways to go. Familar faces like Randal Grichuk, Kevin Pillar and Justin Smoak are back on offense and Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez will pitch every five days, but it’s obviously a team in flux. The biggest story this year will be Vladimir Guerrero Jr., baseball’s best hitting prospect, who will eventually land in Toronto after the Jays are done manipulating his service time. Shortstop Bo Bichette will likely be in the majors at some point in 2019 as well. The Jays have a top-3 farm system by most evaluators, so the future is, well, in the future. I am not a gambling man, but there aren’t many safer bets than “the Jays will finish fourth in the AL East this year.”

Baltimore Orioles: You bet on the Jays to finish fourth because one of the few safer bets is that the Orioles will finish in last. Normally when a team loses 115 games that’s the number which stands out the most, but I’m more impressed with them finishing 61 games out of first place. Say what you want about the 2018 Orioles, but they put in some serious effort to get where they got.

Now, with new GM Mike Elias and new manager Brandon Hyde, Baltimore will try to figure out how to climb out of that deep, deep hole. Don’t expect too high a climb. Dylan Bundy, Andrew Cashner and Alex Cobb are familiar names who will keep the O’s in some games on their good nights, but almost everyone surrounding them will either be bad, anonymous or both. It’ll be interesting to see if Chris Davis can rebound from one of the worst offensive seasons, ever, by a regular player. It’ll be interesting to see what new philosophies the front office employs as it tries to build an entirely new analytics department and player development process. There will not, however, be anything else interesting at the major league level apart from some possible player flipping and draft jockeying. The future in Baltimore is still many, many years away.

The upshot: Boston and New York will be 1-2, but could flip-flop depending on injuries, big and/or slump seasons and random variation. They’re closer in talent than the eight games separating them last year suggested. I’ll pick Boston to win the division, but it will not be an upset if the Yankees do. Whoever doesn’t is almost assured of the first Wild Card and I think the Rays are the strongest contender for the second Wild Card in the AL. Toronto and Baltimore will be cannon fodder.

Follow @craigcalcaterra