2020 AL East Preview

Anthony Santander, J.D. Martinez, Gerrit Cole, Blake Snell and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Anthony Santander, J.D. Martinez, Gerrit Cole, Blake Snell and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Graphic: (Getty Images)

At least two teams from the American League East have made the playoffs in each of the past five seasons, and as strange as a shortened 2020 season figures to be, the division figures to continue that streak with two of the elite teams in the majors — the Yankees and Rays — heading up the division.

Illustration for article titled 2020 AL East Preview
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The questions are who will win the division, and whether the young Blue Jays or hard-hitting Red Sox might also make a push toward October. There’s also, of course, the matter of whether the season gets completed, because, you know, coronavirus.

The one thing that does seem a certainty is another season of misery for the Baltimore Orioles, who not only get to square off against four divisional rivals who overmatch them, but a strong group of teams from the National League East in the geographic schedule.

Sorry to all the other Jesse Spectors for ruining your Google results.

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BALTIMORE ORIOLES

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

Trey Mancini
Trey Mancini
Graphic: (Getty Images)

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

COVID Response: “We need to [have] precaution all the time with what’s going on. I think that we need to make every single effort to try to play the game to bring some joy to the fans. Hopefully, everybody’s smart about doing the right thing and just be careful, wearing masks as much time as possible and keep social distancing.” — Outfielder Anthony Santander, who missed time in training camp after testing positive for coronavirusStaying Away: Baltimore’s best hitter last year, outfielder Trey Mancini, hasn’t officially opted out of the season, but is on the 60-day injured list after undergoing surgery and starting chemotherapy in April to treat Stage 3 colon cancer. His treatment is supposed to last six months.

Oh, He’s Here Now? Former Red Sox, Tigers, and Reds shortstop José Iglesias takes over for Richie Martin, a Rule 5 pick who stuck last year but didn’t hit at all, and will miss most, if not all, of this season with a broken wrist.

Where’d He Go? Second baseman Jonathan Villar, who played all 162 games for the Orioles last year, was traded in December to the Marlins for minor league left-hander Easton Lucas.

What To Expect: It’s impossible for the Orioles to have a third straight 100-loss season, but there’s little reason to believe that this rebuilding team is going to finish anywhere but last place in the East for a fourth consecutive year. They stink to begin with, and with Mancini out and Villar gone, their best hitter is… Santander… who just had coronavirus. Pitching-wise, John Means is alright, but let’s not go bananas about a guy who was a 26-year-old rookie and had a 4.41 FIP while giving up 23 homers in 155 innings, with 121 strikeouts. And he’s the unquestioned ace of the staff. Do you see how many good teams are in the AL East and NL East? The Orioles are going to get their doors blown off.

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BOSTON RED SOX

BOSTON RED SOX

Chris Sale
Chris Sale
Photo: (Getty Images)

BOSTON RED SOX

COVID Response: “All three of them actually, the testing has been better on all three of them. We know they’re getting over it and once we start getting those better tests, we’re getting close.” — Interim manager Ron Roenicke on Eduardo Rodriguez, Darwinzon Hernandez, and Josh Taylor, who all tested positive for coronavirus… what it means, exactly, that “the testing has been better,” who knows? They, y’know, have the virus.

Staying Away: Nobody has opted out of the season, but the Red Sox will be without ace Chris Sale, who had Tommy John surgery in March.

Oh, He’s Here Now? Former Blue Jays and Giants center fielder Kevin Pillar, an older and worse version of Jackie Bradley Jr., signed a one-year deal to, uh, back up Jackie Bradley Jr.

Where’d He Go? Mookie Betts got traded to the Dodgers for pennies on the dollar, along with David Price, who opted out of the season and saved the Red Sox a bunch of money by doing so. Everything’s coming up John Henry’s wallet!

What To Expect: Remember last year, when the Red Sox let Craig Kimbrel walk, didn’t find a legitimate closer to replace him, and spent the season watching their bullpen implode? Yeah, Brandon Workman is penciled in as the closer, and the rotation is now worse without Sale, Price, and, for at least a while, Rodriguez. The J.D. Martinez-led lineup remains potent, especially at Fenway, so there should be a lot of 8-7 games. No team in the division is as hard to get a handle on as the Red Sox, who can contend for the division title if things break their way, or find themselves trying to avoid the indignity of battling the Orioles for the cellar if anything else goes wrong.

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NEW YORK YANKEES

NEW YORK YANKEES

Aaron Judge
Aaron Judge
Graphic: (Getty Images)

NEW YORK YANKEES

COVID Response: “I feel like we’re following all protocols. We have not had any other positive tests. We’ve adhered to all the contact tracing. … so we feel like we’ve handled it and are handling it. … Even moving forward, a positive test is probably going to come our way. And it’s about doing all the things that hopefully as a whole keep us safe and healthy.” — Manager Aaron Boone, after Aroldis Chapman, who had been participating in preseason camp, tested positive for coronavirus

Staying Away: While the Yankees haven’t had any players opt out of the season, Chapman obviously won’t be with the team at the start. Reliever Luis Cessa also has tested positive for COVID-19, as did second baseman D.J. LeMahieu, though the leadoff man is on his way back.

Oh, He’s Here Now? Not that anyone’s forgotten, but Gerrit Cole is a Yankee now.

Where’d He Go? Shortstop Didi Gregorius left for Philadelphia as a free agent, allowing Gleyber Torres to slide to his natural position at shortstop, with LeMahieu returning to second base after a year as a super-utility man, and Tyler Wade assuming the do-it-all role.

What To Expect: So much depends on the health of the large but fragile sluggers, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. The Yankees won 103 games last year in a season where so many people got hurt, and LeMahieu became an MVP candidate. The Yankees’ lineup, even when not everyone is healthy, is impossible to deal with. And now they’ve added Cole to a rotation that features Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton. Even without Chapman, the bullpen is one of the best in the game, led by Zack Britton, Tommy Kahnle, and Adam Ottavino. Anything but first place will be considered a massive disappointment.

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TAMPA BAY RAYS

TAMPA BAY RAYS

Austin Meadows
Austin Meadows
Graphic: (Getty Images)

TAMPA BAY RAYS

COVID Response: “It’s awesome to be back. I was quarantined for a while and before, you’re not around people as much, so it’s nice to get back in the team atmosphere and everybody is joking around. It’s just nice to see coaches again. … It’s nice to be around the team and feel like you’re getting better.” Pitcher Tyler Glasnow, who recovered from COVID-19 in time for the season

Staying Away: All of the Rays appeared to be good to go for the season until Austin Meadows tested positive during camp. The Rays, meanwhile, will not be taking part in the season.

Oh, He’s Here Now? Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, who hit 29 home runs for the Yokohama DeNA BayStars last season, arrived in the United States as the subject of an incredible tribute video from his former team. It’s been approximately 400,000 years since then, but the additions of Tsutsugo, Hunter Renfroe, and José Martinez are transformative to the Rays’ lineup.

Where’d He Go? Avisail Garcia, who hit a career-high 20 homers last season after years of being hyped for his potential in Detroit and Chicago, headed back to the Midwest, landing with Milwaukee as a free agent.

What To Expect: For all the talk about the Rays leaning on an opener, the trio at the top of their rotation — Glasnow, Blake Snell, and Charlie Morton — is as good as you’ll find. Tsutsugo and Renfroe joining Meadows (once he returns) in the middle of the order means that Tampa Bay can slug it out with teams like the Yankees and Twins, and Martinez is the type of guy who gets to the Rays and puts it all together, kind of like Garcia did. The bullpen is a question mark, but there’s a variety of types of pitchers down there and enough talent for Kevin Cash to figure out how to get games closed out. This is a team that should make back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since 2010-11, and it wouldn’t even take that much of a stumble by the Yankees for the Rays to win the third division title in franchise history.

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TORONTO BLUE JAYS

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

Vladimir Guerrero
Vladimir Guerrero
Graphic: (Getty Images)

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

COVID Response: “I apologize for that, at no point was I saying I was going to break the rules or we’re going to break the rules. We know as a team that’s not an option and to get through this season, everybody is going to have to buy in and everybody is going to have to adhere to whatever protocols we’re set under.” Infielder Travis Shaw, backtracking on critical comments he’d tweeted about lockdown policies in Toronto, where the Blue Jays aren’t even 100 percent certain to play their home games anyway

Staying Away: The Blue Jays have six players — Jonathan Davis, Brandon Drury, Wilmer Font, Elvis Luciano, Alek Manoah, and Hector Perez — on the injured list for undisclosed reasons. That’s unusual! It’s probably totally unrelated to that COVID-19 outbreak last month at the Blue Jays’ facility in Dunedin, Fla., right? Right?

Oh, He’s Here Now? It makes sense, given that their starting rotation last year was the biggest pile of trash in Ontario this side of Doug Ford, but the Blue Jays have four starters who weren’t with them in 2019 — Hyun-Jin Ryu, Tanner Roark, Chase Anderson, and Shun Yamaguchi — and one, Matt Shoemaker, who appeared in just five games for Toronto.

Where’d He Go? Did you know that Justin Smoak is 14th in Blue Jays history in home runs, with 117? He hit more home runs for the Blue Jays than John Olerud, Kelly Gruber, and Ed Sprague. Amazing. Well, he’s gone now, having signed with the Brewers as a free agent. Some guy named Vladimir Guerrero Jr. gets to play first base now.

What To Expect: The Jays will probably be pretty good. The short season gives them a chance to avoid having flaws exposed that would definitely be exposed over 162 games, but a lineup with Guerrero, Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. is going to be A Problem for years to come. Now, it’s concerning that a team with so much young talent is losing out on valuable development time, because this could’ve easily been the bridge year between the doldrums and contending. Maybe it could still be that. Maybe the Blue Jays just make the leap a little earlier than expected because of the short season. The “they could turn some heads” kind of teams all can do that this year. But, really, a good season for Toronto would be finishing with a winning record. And, y’know, nobody else getting coronavirus.

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Sorry to all the other Jesse Spectors for ruining your Google results.