AL East preview: Assessing the division for 2024 and beyond

AL East preview: Assessing the division for 2024 and beyond originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Red Sox find themselves in a less-than-ideal spot heading into the 2024 MLB season.

They're widely expected to finish dead last in the American League East for the third consecutive year. Doing so would give them the most last-place finishes in MLB since 2010.

Meanwhile, the rest of the division appears set to compete for playoff spots in 2024. The Baltimore Orioles are poised to repeat as AL East champions, the New York Yankees made major moves in the offseason, the Toronto Blue Jays have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, and the Tampa Bay Rays find a way to contend year in and year out.

So, how should we expect the AL East to shake out? And even if the Red Sox are cellar dwellers again this season, what's the long-term outlook for them and the rest of the division? We'll attempt to answer those questions below.

Baltimore Orioles

2023 result: 101-61, first in AL East, lost to Texas Rangers in ALDS

2024 prediction: 94-68, first in AL East

While Baltimore's 2023 season didn't have a storybook ending, it served as a statement that the young O's have officially arrived.

Adley Rutschman solidified himself as arguably the best catcher in baseball with an All-Star nod to follow his Rookie of the Year runner-up campaign. Meanwhile, infielder Gunnar Henderson was unanimously voted the 2024 AL Rookie of the Year and earned some MVP votes to top off his stellar debut season. The up-and-coming tandem helped make the Orioles' offense one of the league's best, but pitching is what propelled Baltimore to the top of the division.

Adley Rutschman
Adley Rutschman headlines the list of talented young players in Baltimore.

Kyle Bradish emerged as the Orioles' ace and placed fourth in AL Cy Young voting. Closer Felix Bautista was in the Cy Young conversation until he suffered a torn UCL in late September. The O's will face some adversity to start 2024 as Bradish will be on the injured list with a UCL sprain in his throwing elbow. Bautista could miss the entire year after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Baltimore proactively filled those voids, acquiring ace Corbin Burnes from the Milwaukee Brewers and signing veteran closer Craig Kimbrel. It's unclear when Bradish will return, but if and when he does, he and Burnes will form a fearsome 1-2 punch. The rotation will be even scarier if former top prospect Grayson Rodriguez performs as he did in the second half of his rookie 2023 season.

The Orioles could have a top-two Rookie of the Year finisher for the third consecutive year. Their influx of future stars continues with the arrival of No. 1 ranked MLB prospect Jackson Holliday. The 20-year-old shortstop and son of former Colorado Rockies outfielder Matt Holliday is the favorite to win the 2024 Rookie of the Year award after lighting up the minors the last two seasons. Outfielders Colton Cowser (No. 19 overall prospect) and Heston Kjerstad (No. 32) could also continue Baltimore's youth movement.

Future outlook: The Orioles are positioned to reign supreme in the AL East for many years to come. MLB Pipeline ranks their farm system as the league's best entering the 2024 campaign. If they lock up their young talent on long-term deals and get more aggressive in free agency -- both more likely if the Angelos family's sale of the team goes through -- it isn't farfetched to believe multiple World Series titles are in the not-so-distant future.

New York Yankees

2023 result: 82-80, fourth in AL East, missed postseason

2024 prediction: 88-74, second in AL East

The Yankees failed to clinch a playoff spot last season for the first time since 2016. They were on the verge of their first last-place finish since 1990 before overtaking the Red Sox toward the end of the year.

General manager Brian Cashman did his part this offseason to avoid a similar result in 2024. The Bronx Bombers added 25-year-old slugger Juan Soto in a trade with the San Diego Padres and acquired outfielder Alex Verdugo from the Red Sox. They also signed veteran Marcus Stroman to bolster the rotation behind unanimous 2024 AL Cy Young award winner Gerrit Cole.

Juan Soto
Juan Soto and Aaron Judge will form one of the scariest offensive tandems in baseball.

Those additions should help the Yankees return to contention, but there’s one major concern heading into Opening Day. Cole has been shut down for at least a month due to nerve inflammation and edema in his right elbow. He's expected to be out until early June/late May. That's good news in the grand scheme of things, but still a massive blow to the Yankees' pitching staff that certainly kills some of the excitement that surrounded the club this offseason.

Despite Cole’s injury, New York should be markedly better than last year. To return to the postseason, the non-Soto/Aaron Judge hitters need to step up and Stroman needs to pitch like a legitimate front-end arm.

Future outlook: Soto might be a one-and-done in Yankee pinstripes. If that's the case, New York will need to revitalize its lineup with another active offseason while hoping its top prospects Jasson Dominguez (No. 41 ranked MLB prospect), Spencer Jones (No. 84), and Roderick Arias (No. 86) pan out. Anthony Volpe taking a step forward in his second full season would also be a major development. If Cashman stays aggressive and the prospects play to their potential, the Yankees should be a perennial AL East frontrunner going forward.

Toronto Blue Jays

2023 result: 89-73, third in AL East, lost to Minnesota Twins in Wild Card Series

2024 result: 86-76, third in AL East

Toronto has been a popular World Series pick in recent years and thus has been a massive disappointment. It hasn't made it past the Wild Card round of the playoffs since 2016.

To avoid a similar result in 2024, it'll need a bounce-back season out of its star-studded lineup. The group greatly underperformed in 2023, finishing 14th in runs scored and 11th in OPS. Those are disappointing results when you have All-Stars Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., George Springer, Matt Chapman, and Alejandro Kirk.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
The Blue Jays need more consistency out of their offense after a disappointing 2023 campaign.

Pitching, on the other hand, was a strength for the Jays despite former Cy Young candidate Alek Manoah's bizarre falloff. The 26-year-old right-hander was demoted to the Florida Complex League -- AKA rookie ball -- after a disastrous start to the season. He made 19 starts with the big-league club, posting an abysmal 5.87 ERA and 1.74 WHIP through 87.1 innings.

Without Manoah, Toronto still overwhelmed opposing hitters with third-place Cy Young finisher Kevin Gausman, Chris Bassitt, Jose Berrios, and Yusei Kikuchi. The pitching staff notched the fourth-best ERA in MLB while striking out the second-most batters.

As for offseason changes, the Blue Jays will roll with Isiah Kiner-Falefa at third base with Chapman leaving in free agency for the San Francisco Giants. Kiner-Falefa also offers defensive versatility following the departure of veteran Whit Merrifield. Former Red Sox first baseman/designated hitter Justin Turner was signed to add some right-handed pop to the middle of the lineup.

If their offense plays to its potential, the Blue Jays could win the division crown. It'll require stellar seasons out of Guerrero and Bichette, plus Springer proving he isn't running out of gas at 34 years old.

Future outlook: Toronto's window to contend is starting to close. Springer is declining, Guerrero, Bichette, and Bassitt are scheduled to become free agents after the 2025 season, and Gausman is approaching his mid-30s. The farm system ranks 24th out of 30 MLB teams, per MLB Pipeline. The Blue Jays need to approach these next couple of seasons with a serious sense of urgency.

Tampa Bay Rays

2023 result: 99-63, second in AL East, lost to Texas Rangers in Wild Card Series

2024 prediction: 85-77, fourth in AL East

The Rays are constantly overlooked around this time of year, only to finish with 90+ wins and a playoff berth. It would be even more surprising than usual if that trend continued this season.

Tampa will be without its star shortstop Wander Franco, whose career is likely over at 22 years old due to serious allegations of an improper relationship with a 14-year-old girl. Also gone are ace Tyler Glasnow (traded to Los Angeles Dodgers), 2023 breakout reliever Robert Stephenson (signed with Los Angeles Angels), and outfielders Manuel Margot (with Minnesota Twins) and Luke Raley (Seattle Mariners).

Even more notable than the Rays' departures are their injuries. Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen, and Jeffrey Springs will stay sidelined due to elbow injuries sustained last season. That leaves Zach Eflin, Aaron Civale, Zack Littell, Ryan Pepiot, and Taj Bradley in a rotation that won't wow anyone. However, if any organization can get the most out of its pitchers, it's Tampa Bay.

Zach Eflin
Zach Eflin will lead a depleted Rays rotation in 2024.

The offense remains criminally underrated with Randy Arozarena and Yandy Diaz leading the way. Josh Lowe, Brandon Lowe, Isaac Paredes, Jose Siri, and Harold Ramirez shouldn't be slept on either. Plus, we should get an extended look at top infield prospect Junior Caminero.

Betting against the Rays at this point would be foolish. But on paper, they don't appear to have the upside of the Orioles, Yankees, or Blue Jays.

Future outlook: Losing Franco is a major blow, but the Rays' future still looks bright with one of the best farm systems in baseball (No. 6, per MLB Pipeline). The aforementioned Caminero (No. 4 MLB prospect) is set to take the league by storm this season. Shortstop Carson Williams (No. 20), infielder Curtis Mead (No. 55), and first baseman Xavier Issac (No. 58) round out their list of Top 100 MLB prospects. Tampa isn't going anywhere anytime soon. It'll continue to churn out premier young talent while developing some of the game's best pitchers.

Boston Red Sox

2023 result: 78-84, fifth in AL East, missed postseason

2024 prediction: 79-83, fifth in AL East

The unrest among Boston fans is palpable after yet another letdown offseason. Coming off two straight last-place finishes, the Red Sox did next to nothing to improve after promising to go "full throttle" under new chief baseball officer Craig Breslow.

Pitching was the No. 1 priority heading into the winter and the team somewhat addressed that need by signing ex-Chicago White Sox righty Lucas Giolito. Unfortunately, Giolito will miss the entire season due to a partially torn UCL, leaving youngster Brayan Bello as the team's de facto ace. Nick Pivetta, Kutter Crawford, Garrett Whitlock, and Tanner Houck round out a rotation that still leaves plenty to be desired.

Red Sox pitcher Brayan Bello
Former top prospect Brayan Bello is the Red Sox' de facto ace following a letdown offseason.

While Boston's lineup should be its strength, it isn't without its own question marks. For example, someone needs to step up and fill the shoes of Justin Turner, who served as the club's veteran leader and right-handed slugger in 2023. Newcomer Tyler O'Neill could fill the latter role, though he's an injury waiting to happen. He's played more than 100 games just once in his six-year career.

Other questions include: are Wilyer Abreu and Ceddanne Rafaela ready for a full MLB season? Is the second base situation solved with the addition of Vaughn Grissom — who’s already hurt — or will it be another brutal year defensively at the position? And will Trevor Story finally start living up to his Red Sox contract?

There are more questions where that came from, meaning a lot needs to go right for Boston to even sniff a playoff spot. The more likely outcome is veterans on expiring deals like Kenley Jansen, Chris Martin, O’Neill, and Nick Pivetta will be sold at the trade deadline as the team looks ahead to 2025.

Future outlook: The Red Sox are banking on their trio of prized prospects -- shortstop Marcelo Mayer (No. 15 MLB prospect), outfielder Roman Anthony (No. 25), and catcher Kyle Teel (No. 40)-- saving the organization. Outfielders Ceddanne Rafaela (No. 76) and Wilyer Abreu will be counted on to start the youth movement this season. First baseman Triston Casas already looks like a perennial All-Star candidate.

Even with all of these promising youngsters, John Henry and the Red Sox ownership group need to start putting their money where their mouth is. They've seemed entirely disinterested in paying top dollar for premier talent, and that needs to change for Boston to get out of the cellar and regain its reputation as a powerhouse in the AL East.