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Division Dynamics: AL East

Looking at what stands between the Rays and the postseason

Japan v MLB All Stars - Game 4 Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images

We cover a lot of Rays news here at DRaysBay. As a Rays blog, some would even say that it’s our main purpose. However, the Rays do not exist in a vacuum. They are part of a far grander picture: the beautiful sport of baseball. If we zoom in from there, they still hardly exist on their own, and if we want to see the team achieve the goal nearly every Rays prognosticator has set as the Rays New Year’s Resolution (Make The Playoffs™), we need to be aware of our surroundings.

With that in mind, let’s begin a series that we will check in with periodically throughout the season (and offseason): Division Dynamics.

Until Major League Baseball starts reading my crazy blog post ideas regarding realignment, the Rays are stuck in the American League East for the foreseeable future. On the one hand, this is frustrating. It has been, pretty clearly, the best division in baseball since the Rays inception. Since the wild card came into play (1995), teams from the AL East have captured 21 of the 31 wild card spots up for grabs. That’s more than double what the expected return on wild cards would be in a three-division league.

A good portion of this postseason dominance has come, of course, from sharing a division with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. The two teams are among the most storied in the sport, and they often run the league’s highest payrolls. With two teams that seem like, at worst, 50/50 shots to make the postseason every year (any Rays fan would take either of those sides being a 50/50 shot at the playoffs in 2019), that leaves a very tight window for other AL East teams looking to compete. Only once since the inception of the second wild card spot (2012) has an American League division taken both of the wild card spots. Naturally, it was the East in 2016, with the Blue Jays and Orioles battling it out.

However, the National League offers a bit more hope, as three of the seven seasons with two wild cards have seen those two teams come from the same division. This is excellent news for the Rays because, as we’ll get to now in our Around the Horn section, it certainly doesn’t seem as though New York or Boston are going anywhere soon.

Around the Horn

Here is where we’ll check in briefly with what each team in the division is doing, and how those moves impact the Rays

Boston Red Sox: The reigning champs have had a rather quiet offseason, which makes sense given that they just completed one of the dozen or so best seasons in baseball history, and that they also did so while carrying the largest payroll in team history. The most notable moves have be the re-signing of World Series heroes Nathan Eovaldi (man, it was painful watching him help Boston secure a ring) and Steve Pearce (David Price should’ve won WS MVP), and the relative lack of signings on the bullpen front.

Last year’s closer Craig Kimbrel (2.74 ERA; 3.13 FIP in 2018) remains a free agent, while one of last year’s best setup man, Joe Kelly (4.39 ERA; 3.57 FIP) will be pitching for the Dodgers in 2019. The bullpen was the one weak spot to the 2018 Red Sox, and as of yet, it appears as though that may be the case again in 2019. Of course, with a lineup as terrifying as Boston has, and a rotation as deep as the Red Sox have, that bullpen is merely a chink in the armor rather than any sort of kryptonite, especially when it comes to the regular season. It would be shocking to see them miss the playoffs in 2019.

New York Yankees: Meanwhile, the Yankees keep getting some nice breaks as well. Troy Tulowitzki fell right into their laps, as the skilled but fragile veteran will be playing for New York, while being paid by Toronto for the 2019 season. The Yanks already have an embarrassment of riches on the infeld (and they’re not out of the market for Manny Machado, either), and Tulo will act as the stop gap at shortstop until Didi Gregorius (he of the 120 OPS+ in 2018) returns from injury midway through the season.

The Yankees have spent the entire offseason seemingly hellbent on taking the divisional crown back from Boston. First, they gave up a couple young pieces to land certifiable ace, James Paxton, from the Seattle Mariners, and then they bolstered their rotation (last year’s weakness) by re-signing midseason acquisition J.A. Happ, and giving C.C. Sabathia a one-year deal to see what he has left in the tank.

The team lost David Robertson to free agency (two years, $23 million with Philadelphia), but they re-signed Zach Britton, and we all know that had an arm or three to spare out there anyways.

There was a brief moment during the Yankees-Red Sox ALCS where it appeared as though the Yankees were actually the Team of Destiny for 2018. Cashman and co. appear to be locked in on making sure that they achieve that status in 2019.

Toronto Blue Jays: Here’s the good news for Tampa Bay: the Jays appear to have accepted their role as a team heading towards a full rebuild. The team cut the aforementioned Tulowitzi (you’re welcome, New York) and traded away Aledmys Diaz, and they are now projected to be just a 77-win team, per FanGraphs (the Rays are projected at 86 wins and the second wild card, for what it’s worth).

With Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette both possibly debuting in 2019, the future isn’t far off in Toronto, but it also isn’t here just yet. There’s a very good chance that because of the unreal talent of those two, and the fact that players are having success at younger and younger ages in the modern era, the Jays sneak up on the division one of these years, but I’d peg it as 2021, or 2020 at the earliest, rather than this upcoming season. But the long-term fear of the squad is there, and it is real.

Baltimore Orioles: The O’s have recently turned over some fresh faces in their front office, hiring Mike Elias as the executive vice president and general manager; Sid Mejdal as the assistant GM of analytics; and Koby Perez to lead the international scouting department. These are moves that supposedly have them moving in the right direction (it would be hard to be less analytical than Buck Showalter), but these moves were also made too late to likely have an impact this offseason.

This is still a team projected to lose 100 games in 2019. Do you have any idea how hard it is for projections to say a team is going to lose triple-digit games? If the Rays spend any of 2019 worried about the O’s, it’ll mean something has gone horribly wrong. It’s worth keeping an eye on the moves this new regime makes, however, to see if they are truly going to be smarter than past iterations.