Bad news for Red Sox: Trip around AL East shows stacked division

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John Tomase
·5 min read
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Tomase: Reset of stacked AL East spells trouble for Red Sox originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The comings and goings in the American League East used to merit our daily attention, but after a winter in which the Red Sox mostly just fortified their roster at the margins, it's OK if you lost track of everyone else.

So in the spirit of catching up, here's what's been going on around the division and how it might impact the Red Sox in 2021. (Note: There is no point in discussing the rebuilding Orioles, so we'll limit our scope to the contending Rays, Yankees, and Blue Jays).

TAMPA BAY RAYS

Let's start with the defending division champs, who fell two wins shy of their first championship last year.

Tampa is entering another shedding cycle while preparing for its next generation of homegrown talent to arrive, with the damage felt most acutely in the rotation. Not only did the Rays watch right-hander Charlie Morton join the Braves in free agency, they also shipped former Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell to the Padres for a passel of minor leaguers, chief among them right-handed pitching prospect Luis Patino.

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They also traded former closer Jose Alvarado to the Phillies as part of a three-team deal with the Phillies and Dodgers, and they added former Cardinals All-Star and 17-game winner Michael Wacha in free agency.

Tampa was built around starting pitching last year, but without Snell and Morton -- as well as Yonny Chirinos (Tommy John) -- the Rays will be in a scramble for innings. The ace is Tyler Glasnow, a potential force whose breakout 2019 season consisted of only 12 starts, thanks to injury. He'll be joined by Ryan Yarbrough and Wacha, with 2020 rookie revelation Josh Fleming (5-0, 2.78) likely claiming a spot as well.

They'll then roll with an assortment of youngsters and openers who will probably pitch above the sum of their parts, because that's what the Rays do.

Offensively, they'll remain opportunistic while hoping for a bounce-back from 2019 All-Star outfielder Austin Meadows. Second baseman Brandon Lowe remains their most potent hitter, and at some point they will introduce five-tool shortstop Wander Franco, a 19-year-old switch hitter with superstar potential and the consensus top prospect in baseball.

That's the beauty of Tampa's pipeline: The Rays may take a step back in 2021, but it probably won't be for long.

NEW YORK YANKEES

Talk about a gamble. One year after making ace Gerrit Cole the highest-paid pitcher in history, the Yankees went the low-cost, high-upside route, a decision that could cement their rotation as the best in baseball, or leave them seriously floundering.

In former Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber and former No. 2 overall pick Jameson Taillon, the Yankees added a pair of pitchers with strong pedigrees who nonetheless combined to throw just one inning last year.

Kluber is coming off a shoulder tear, while Taillon's career has been marked by a series of season-ending injuries -- Tommy John in 2014, a sports hernia in 2015, and follow-up Tommy John last year. With former ace Luis Severino recovering from Tommy John himself and reliable right-hander Masahiro Tanaka returning to Japan, the Yankees will be betting heavily on Kluber and Taillon to stay healthy.

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Offensively, they didn't add so much as maintain, re-signing All-Star second baseman D.J. LeMahieu and inching towards a reunion with left fielder Brett Gardner. The lineup remains stacked, but the pitching staff could be an issue for a club that finished an uninspiring 33-27 last year before falling to the Rays in the ALDS.

After an uncharacteristically frugal offseason that included a rare trade with the Red Sox that allowed them to dump Adam Ottavino's salary, the Yankees could continue sliding back to the pack.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

The same cannot be said of our neighbors to the north, who appear intent on making a massive leap. Toronto reached the playoffs and was swept by Tampa in the Wild Card round last year. The Jays then made an impact in free agency, landing All-Star outfielder George Springer with a six-year, $150 million contract, as well as underrated infielder Marcus Semien on a one-year deal.

Adding those two veterans to a dynamic young core built around shortstop Bo Bichette, first baseman/DH Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and infielder Cavan Biggio has the Jays thinking division title for the first time since 2015 and World Series for the first time since 1993.

Their rise seriously complicates life for the Red Sox, even if the Rays and Yankees slightly regress. With expanded playoffs off the table in 2021, there's no path to four clubs from the same division reaching the postseason, as happened in the NL Central last year.That means Tampa, New York and Toronto could box the Red Sox out of the Wild Card before we even consider the contenders in the Central and West.

Toronto's question remains pitching. Ace Hyun Jin Ryu was the steal of last offseason, and he'll be joined atop the rotation by right-hander Nate Pearson, the No. 10 overall prospect in baseball, according to MLB.com. The Jays struck early to re-sign left-hander Robbie Ray and also acquired left-hander Steven Matz from the Mets, though he projects as more of a depth piece.

Finally, they also added former All-Star closer Kirby Yates, hoping that he rebounds after an injury-riddled 2020.

Still, the Jays may not need great pitching given the composition of their lineup. Springer is a force, Bichette was posting MVP numbers prior to an injury last year, and unheralded right fielder Teoscar Hernandez brings serious thump.

The days of the Red Sox going 15-4 vs. Toronto, as they did in 2018, are over.