Moving on from the National League, we arrive at the division who provided us with the eventual World Series champions, the AL East.
A lot has happened since then, albeit consisting mainly of the Yankees spending money. Regardless, a handful of teams in this division have gotten better while one in particular hasn’t done much of anything.
Boston Red Sox
Player to watch: Will Middlebrooks
The Red Sox finished with a record of 97-65 last season, and eventually went on to capture another championship. What was special about this particular season was due to the one they endured before it, finishing with a record of 69-93 under Bobby Valentine and dead last in the AL East.
With how terribly that prior season transpired, it’s hard to imagine any bright spots along the way. Nonetheless, then 23-year-old third baseman Will Middlebrooks showed plenty of potential in just 75 games of action before regressing heavily in 2013.
- 2012: 286 plate appearances; .288/.325/.509, 15 home runs
- 2013: 374 plate appearances; .227/.271/.425, 17 home runs
While this roster has plenty of young talent to choose from – Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley, Felix Doubront to name a few – Middlebrooks is an interesting position because the Red Sox could trade him if they wanted to. Bogaerts and Bradley are just about to get their first full major league season under their belts, while Doubront appears to be set for the back end of the Red Sox starting rotation.
Middlebrooks is under team control until 2019, and he’s not even arbitration eligible until the season after next, but 2014 will hopefully be the year in which he finally realizes what kind of player he is. He’s not in a contract year or anything like that, but the organization expects him to be able to produce as their everyday third baseman. With all of the additions other AL East teams have made this off-season, it’s unlikely the Red Sox will just walk away with another division title.
Will Middlebrooks will have a lot to do with their season-ending results, for better or worse.
Tampa Bay Rays
Player to watch: Wil Myers
The Rays continued their winning ways last season with a regular season mark of 91-71. They went on to win the wild card elimination game against the Cleveland Indians before getting knocked out of the playoffs by the Boston Red Sox. They have made the playoffs in three of their last four seasons and there is no reason to doubt they will qualify this year. One player among many will look to provide the production needed to get the Rays back to the postseason.
It just so happens that this player only played half of a season for them last year.
We all know about 23-year-old outfielder Wil Myers by now. Last year the Kansas City Royals traded a plethora of prospects, including Myers, to acquire James Shields in order to bolster their starting rotation. While Shields carried Kansas City as far as he could, they missed out on the playoffs while Myers ended up winning the AL Rookie of the Year.
Heading into 2014, Myers gets the chance to prove his worth over a full season. The Rays will be hoping for more of what he provided last season.
- 2013: 373 plate appearances; .293/.354/.478, 23 doubles, 13 home runs
Those numbers came in just 88 games of action. With that sample size under his belt, it’s reasonable to project that he maintains that slash line while racking up 30-35 doubles and 20-25 home runs. The Rays have already won this trade. They’re used to winning trades. In 2014 and beyond, Myers could show us that it was more lopsided than many could have even imagined.
New York Yankees
Player to watch: Masahiro Tanaka
The Yankees signed everybody last season. Well not really, but they spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the long winter in order to improve their team. Why? Because the aging, injury-ridden Yankees of 2013 finished the season in a tie with the Baltimore Orioles – a record of 85-77 and no postseason baseball.
With Mariano Rivera retired, Derek Jeter retiring at the end of this season, Alex Rodriguez suspended for the entire season, Mark Teixeira never being fully healthy anymore – okay you get it; I could go on but the fact is: the Yankees need some help.
No signing will be more important in 2014 than starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka.
The Yankees still have plenty of offense on hand: new signings Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran to name a few. Assuming Jeter and Teixeira stay healthy, then they are all the better for it this season. The pitching, however, is something that really needed to be addressed in the off-season. With still-prospect Michael Pineda making the waves in Spring Training that many expected of him two years ago, maybe only signing one big-name starting pitcher was the right move after all.
Time will tell, but in the mean time look at the career numbers Tanaka put up in Japan over 7 seasons.
- Career: 172 games started, 1,315 innings pitched, 1,238 strikeouts, 275 walks, 2.30 ERA.
As for the Yankees starting rotation this year: C.C. Sabathia is coming off of the worst season of his career, Andy Pettitte retired, and Hiroki Kuroda is 39 years old. Tanaka is unproven in the states but has all of the potential to dazzle on the big stage. This year, more than ever, the Yankees need their investment to pay off.
Player to watch: Nelson Cruz
I’m not sure whether or not the Orioles got worse or better over the off-season, but it was heading way south until they signed starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez and one of the Biogenesis All-Stars, outfielder Nelson Cruz.
The impact Cruz has on the 2014 regular season is very important. His powerful right-handed bat should compliment the left-handed hitting Chris Davis very nicely, but it remains to be seen how Cruz will perform following his 2013 suspension due to involvement with PEDs.
As for his career track record, Cruz has been nothing short of a solid hitter and a reliable power bat. His averages are as follows.
- Career: 3,182 plate appearances; .268/.327/.495, 157 home runs.
More importantly if you’re an Orioles fan, Cruz has averaged 27 home runs over the past five seasons. Will that same Cruz show up, or will it be a less powerful Cruz that comes to the plate in 2014? I still think fans can count on at least 20 home runs. As for another plus: it’s only a 1-year/$8MM contract.
After eight seasons in Texas, this is essentially an audition for Baltimore. The signing provides the lineup with more power, an average at-best outfielder, as there’s always the option of slotting him in as the designated hitter.
If the Orioles are going to get back to the playoffs after missing out in 2013, the bat of Nelson Cruz will go a long way in getting them there.
Toronto Blue Jays
Player to watch: Brett Lawrie
Finally, we have the Toronto Blue Jays. I just don’t know what to say about them. They finished dead last in the AL East last season with a record of 74-88. They’re only getting older; Jose Bautista won’t be around forever to hit 25-40 home runs. In fact, five players hit more than 20 home runs for Toronto last season, but does it matter?
They have minimal pitching, Jose Reyes will need to stay healthy at shortstop for this team to have a chance, and as a whole Toronto has done nothing to improve their team heading into 2014.
One young position player who still has a bit to prove is third baseman Brett Lawrie. He’s only 24 and has plenty of potential, but he’s been decent at-best in parts of three seasons with the Blue Jays after coming over in a trade with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2011.
Here are his career numbers.
- Career: 1,149 plate appearances; .269/.328/.427, 31 home runs, 9.3 UZR
At 24 years old, Lawrie is one of the few bright spots on this Toronto Blue Jays team going forward, but they’re in need of much more help. He also has plenty to improve upon, and staying healthy will be key to that.
I’m not putting much stock in the Blue Jays heading into 2014; despite their offensive firepower they lack the starting pitching to make a positive impact. Is this a rebuilding year? It seems unlikely as they have barely made any moves. Perhaps it’s a transition year. Regardless, while the Blue Jays find themselves stuck in the mud, every other team in the AL East is improving.
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