AL East 2015 preview: Red Sox, Blue Jays contenders in wide-open division

With opening day approaching, the Big League Stew crew is here to get you up to speed on the season ahead. We're examining each division over the next two weeks, looking at the big questions, the important players and making our predictions. Our series continues in the AL East.

The American League East being a complete toss-up is nothing new. For the last few years, it’s been anyone’s division to win. Case in point: the Baltimore Orioles were the champs last year, the Boston Red Sox won in 2013 and the New York Yankees triumphed in 2012.

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After a busy offseason, the AL East is wide open again as we wait to see how the various subtractions and additions within the division shake out. The Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays were the biggest players, as Boston made over its pitching staff and added Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez. The Blue Jays signed Russell Martin and traded for Josh Donaldson. The Tampa Bay Rays lost manager Joe Madden and GM Andrew Friedman, but spent the offseason maneuvering anyway. Over in Baltimore, the Orioles saw Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis walk in free agency.

And, in case you missed the news, the Yankees got Alex Rodriguez back from a one-year suspension. Oh yeah, the AL East is going to be a lot of fun this year. Let’s delve deeper into the division with Big League Stew’s Chris Cwik, Mike Oz and Mark Townsend.

Manny Machado hopes both knees hold up in 2015. (USA TODAY Sports)
Manny Machado hopes both knees hold up in 2015. (USA TODAY Sports)

CAN MANNY MACHADO AND MATT WIETERS STAY HEALTHY?
The Orioles completed an unlikely run to the AL East title last season despite losing Manny Machado and Matt Wieters to season-ending injuries. Now they'll have to rely on both to stay healthy and remain productive to ease the loss of Cruz and Markakis in free agency. It's a dicey situation considering that Machado, who's only 22, has already undergone surgery on both knees, and that Wieters likely won't be ready for opening day following last June's Tommy John surgery. If both ultimately prove healthy, the Orioles offense should be in good enough shape with the newly acquired Travis Snider, bounce-back candidate Chris Davis and the often overlooked Adam Jones. If one or both are set back, the lost production might be too much to overcome.

WILL THE RED SOX HAVE ENOUGH STARTING PITCHING?
The Red Sox spent plenty of money on offense this winter, adding Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to the lineup on massive contracts and locking up 19-year-old Cuban prospect Yoan Moncada for many years to come. However, after failing to bring back Jon Lester in free agency, general manager Ben Cherington went for a surplus of mid-rotation arms by adding Rick Porcello, Justin Masterson and Wade Miley. Along with Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly, there's not a true ace in the projected starting five. In fact, it feels like all five are a coin flip in terms of which direction they'll go. Hey, three out of five wouldn't be bad, right?

WILL THE YANKEES BE BETTER OFF WITHOUT DEREK JETER?
It's a serious question, because once you strip away the pomp, circumstance and emotions surrounding Jeter's final season, you were left with an underwhelming .256/.304/.313 statline, four homers and very limited defense. In his chosen replacement, Didi Gregorius, the Yankees aren't likely to see a boost offensively — he was a .226/.290/.363 hitter last season with six homers — but they'll be able to bat him lower in the order, which helps. Gregorius is also a much better defender, so as long as he's saving hits and runs, the Yankees should come out ahead.

New Rays manager Kevin Cash. (USA TODAY Sports)
New Rays manager Kevin Cash. (USA TODAY Sports)

CAN KEVIN CASH KEEP THE RAYS ON TRACK? 
The Rays have managed to stay relevant in a difficult division due in large part to stability in the front office and in the manager's chair. Now we get to see how they'll react to major shake-ups in both areas. The changes probably won't impact their short-term outlook as much as the long-term, but just seeing how rookie manager Kevin Cash runs the show and adapts will be interesting. Joe Maddon had such a natural feel for his surroundings that he almost seems irreplaceable as a strategist and a clubhouse leader. Perhaps that's an overstatement, or perhaps the Rays hopes will hinge largely on Cash proving that theory incorrect.

CAN THE BLUE JAYS END BASEBALL'S LONGEST POSTSEASON DROUGHT?
While the Kansas City Royals were ending their 29-year postseason drought with a World Series appearance last season, the Toronto Blue Jays quietly moved into the unenviable position of owning baseball's longest active postseason layoff. The Blue Jays haven't reached the postseason since winning back-to-back World Series championships in 1992 and 1993, but might be in a decent position to change that. By adding Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin, they've expanded a veteran core that already includes Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes, Edwin Encarnacion, Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey. In a division that's not as strong as we're used to seeing, that might be enough to push for a wild-card position or better. Given that six of those core players are over 30, it also might be a now or never.

(USA TODAY Sports)
(USA TODAY Sports)

ALEX RODRIGUEZ: A-Rod is back, baby! And after this much time off, it’s unclear whether there’s anything left in the tank. Rodriguez was, once upon a time, one of the best players on the planet, but started to show signs of decline even before his most recent suspension. While the time off was probably good for his hip, we never really got to see him perform following that surgery. At age 39, he’s reached a point where projections are essentially useless. If you’re still playing baseball at 39, it’s likely because you’re one of the best players of all-time. Love him or hate him, A-Rod certainly fits into that category statistically. Still, even the all-time greats succumb to age, and that’s what Rodriguez could be looking at this year. Early reports suggested his bat looked slow this spring. Is he just shaking the rust off, or has Father Time caught up with him?

CHRIS DAVIS: Last season was an absolute disaster for Davis. He hit just .196 over 525 plate appearances, and was popped with a 25-game suspension after testing positive for amphetamines. Davis has a medical exemption this season, and will be allowed to take medication to treat his ADHD. There’s some hope this will help Davis reach his previous levels of production. The Orioles will need it. With Nelson Cruz now in Seattle, and Matt Wieters coming off an injury, the spotlight will be on Davis to carry the team early. He’s also entering the final season of his contract, and could earn a ton of money on the market if he can re-establish himself. He may not return to MVP-form, but there’s no way he can possibly be as bad as he was in 2014.

MOOKIE BETTS: No one player has seen his stock rise more in the past year than Betts. After ranking 75th on Baseball America’s top prospect list, Betts tore up the minors, eventually reaching Boston at age 21. He did not disappoint, hitting .291/.368/.444 over 213 plate appearances. Betts came into the spring competing for a starting spot, but has played so well that he can’t really be denied a starting spot at this point. While it wasn’t a huge sample size, there was nothing in Betts’ major-league numbers that suggests regression is on its way. His walk rate was solid, he didn’t strike out a lot and he showed solid power and speed. He looks like a potential top-of-the-order hitter who can play in the outfield or at second base. The hype may have gone way too far, as he appears to be everyone’s favorite sleeper heading into the season. The skills are certainly there, though, it’s just a matter of Betts proving he’s the real deal.

New Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin. (USA TODAY Sports)
New Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin. (USA TODAY Sports)

RUSSELL MARTIN: Martin is coming off arguably the best hitting season of his career, but a big reason he received a five-year, $82 million deal this offseason is due to his defense. Martin is regarded as one of the best pitch framers in the game, and is consistently able to steal strikes at a higher rate than most other catchers. While the concept of catcher framing among stat-heads is relatively new, there’s evidence that it can play a major role in a player’s value. Martin will need to show those skills immediately, as the Blue Jays are set to open the year with two rookies in the starting rotation. While his hitting should provide a nice offensive upgrade, what Martin does behind the plate will have a far greater impact on the Blue Jays this year.

JAKE ODORIZZI: Odorizzi appeared on the Baseball America Top 100 prospect list four times, but never placed higher than 67th. He’s always been a highly regarded player, but lacked an out pitch. That may have changed last season. Odorizzi learned how to throw a split-change after talking with Alex Cobb, and saw his strikeout numbers take a big leap forward. The pitch became his go-to in two-strike counts, and induced the highest whiff rate among all his offerings. Odorizzi was always considered a mid-rotation starter prior to adding the pitch, and could develop into something more now that he can effectively put people away. If the Rays hope to contend this season, they’ll likely have to depend on their strong pitching staff. Odorizzi taking a step forward would do wonders.

David Ortiz hugs new Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval. (Getty Images)
David Ortiz hugs new Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval. (Getty Images)

BLUE JAYS
• Best case: Josh Donaldson gets ever better in 2015, and creates the most potent offense in baseball with new teammates Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. So good that they don't miss injured starter Marcus Stroman too much.
• Worst case: Their young pitching doesn’t materialize and they’re left depending on R.A. Dickey to be a Cy Young-type pitcher again. Which, eek.

RED SOX
• Best case: They prove that you don’t need an ace to win a division. Unless they get Cole Hamels, in which case, that’s a pretty good best-case scenario.
• Worst case: Pablo can’t hit, Hanley can’t play left, the pitchers can't move out of the middle of the road and Big Papi can’t stop stepping out of the batter’s box.

RAYS
• Best case: The Rays, without Joe Maddon and David Price and Wil Myers and Ben Zobrist, don’t miss a beat because of their smart, small-market ways. Oh, and their deep pitching.
• Worst case: New manager, new GM, injured No. 1 starter and a declining cornerstone in Evan Longoria.

YANKEES
• Best case: A-Rod hits 40 homers and the rest of the under-performing acquisitions from recent years step up as the Yankees shock us all.
• Worst case: Tanaka’s elbow pops for real and we’re left with a loooooong summer of The A-Rod Show.

ORIOLES
• Best case: Chris Davis rebounds, Matt Wieters is OK, Manny Machado plays like it's 2013 and they don’t miss Nelson Cruz much.
• Worst case: They pull off the Red Sox first-to-worst fall, 2015 style.

CHRIS CWIK
Order of finish: Red Sox, Blue Jays, Orioles, Rays, Yankees
AL East top hitter: Edwin Encarnacion
AL East top pitcher: Alex Cobb
AL East top rookie: Daniel Norris



MIKE OZ
Order of finish: Blue Jays, Red Sox, Yankees, Orioles, Rays
AL East top hitter: Josh Donaldson
AL East top pitcher: Masahiro Tanaka
AL East top rookie: Steven Souza



MARK TOWNSEND
Order of finish: Red Sox, Blue Jays, Rays, Orioles, Yankees
AL East top hitter:  Adam Jones
AL East top pitcher: Chris Archer
AL East top rookie: Dalton Pompey



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Mike Oz is the editor of Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at mikeozstew@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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