Yankees vs. Everyone: Is New York vulnerable to a challenge in the AL East?

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Editor’s note: With Major League Baseball aiming to return for a 60-game season amid the coronavirus pandemic on July 23, we have updated our division previews. Plenty of questions remain about whether the season is safe or feasible, but as teams return to summer camp, here is a look at the on-the-field prospects for the division.

Could someone other than the New York Yankees have a chance to win the AL East?

When the Yankees signed Gerrit Cole, it seemed pretty clear that no one else had a hope against a team that won 103 games a year ago, despite a long list of injuries.

Then, spring training happened and the Yankees lost even more big names to the injury list. Luis Severino is out for the season after Tommy John surgery. James Paxton was shelved with back surgery. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton were in doubt. But post-coronavirus shutdown, all but Severino are expected to be ready.

The good news for the rest of the division is that in a short season, there’s always a chance to topple the giants. Or maybe that’s just good news for the Tampa Bay Rays, the scrappy Davids to the Yankees’ Goliath who won 96 games last year and the AL wild-card game.

[Still time to join or create a fantasy baseball league for the short season]

The Blue Jays will be young and fun, the Orioles are still trying to rebuild and the Red Sox, after trading Mookie Betts and facing their own injury issues, probably won’t be fighting for a playoff spot. 

So at least this Rays vs. Yankees tussle has a chance to be interesting into the fall.

Due up … 

Three people who could make the difference in the division this year.

By Mark Townsend

1. Chaim Bloom, Red Sox Chief Baseball Officer: Since taking charge of the Red Sox baseball operations department in October, Chaim Bloom has played a role in firing World Series-winning manager in Alex Cora and traded a former MVP in Mookie Betts. Needless to say, that's not how most baseball executives start a new job. Then again, not every executive comes into circumstances as combustible and unpredictable as those that have developed in Boston.

Fairly or unfairly, Bloom was thrust into a spotlight that could prove unforgiving if those two franchise-altering decisions don't pan out. He'll have some leeway on the Betts trade, which also included David Price being shipped to the Dodgers. A trade can't be fairly judged for two or three seasons. How Bloom handles the fallout from this winter should give Red Sox fans a fair indication of just how well prepared he is for the task at hand. 

2. Gerrit Cole, Yankees RHP: The unrelenting Yankees got their man again. The signing of Gerrit Cole to an MLB-record nine-year, $324 million contract for a pitcher added another ace to one of the game’s most talented starting rotations.

The Yankees' addition of Gerrit Cole was supposed to put New York over the top in the American League, but may end up being what keeps them afloat amid a barrage of rotation injuries. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
The Yankees' addition of Gerrit Cole was supposed to put New York over the top in the American League, but may end up being what keeps them afloat amid a barrage of rotation injuries. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

Unfortunately for New York, keeping the rotation healthy has been its biggest issue over the last two seasons. That trend continues into 2020 as they've already lost Luis Severino for the season to Tommy John surgery. James Paxton will be returning from surgery to remove a cyst near his spine. That will put immediate pressure on Cole and Masahiro Tanaka to be workhorses in the 60-game season.

Cole has been that and then some over the last three years. During that timeframe, the now 29-year-old right-hander has made 98 regular season starts and another seven in the postseason, all the October pitching coming for the Houston Astros. He’s both become more dominant, posting a league-leading 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings and career-best 6.8 WAR last season, and shown an ability to grow stronger as the season moves along. That’s exactly what New York will need from him. The question is: Can Cole maintain that workload and performance in 2020’s sprint?

3. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays 3B: Blue Jays phenom Vladimir Guerrero Jr. gave us tastes of the tantalizing upside we’ve been hearing about for years. Overall though, he didn't exactly set the world on fire. The 20-year-old slashed .272/.339/.433 and posted a disappointing 0.4 WAR, per FanGraphs, over 123 games. His 15 home runs and 69 RBIs were respectable for most rookies, but Guerrero wasn't regarded as just another rookie. He entered the league with nearly the same level of hype given to stars like Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani.

Perhaps the initial expectations were unfairly high. It’s also possible he wasn't fully ready despite the baseball world wanting to believe he was. Regardless, the future remains bright for Guerrero. The key thing to gauge during his sophomore campaign is whether he can counter the adjustments that will be made now that every team will have a solid scouting report. We know the special moments will come. If he can just find some consistency, both he and the Blue Jays will be well-positioned to take a step forward. If he can't, Blue Jays fans and baseball fans in general will be forced to exercise patience.

The Teams

How 2020 could go so right ... or so wrong ... for each team. Listed in order of projected standings via Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system.

By Chris Cwik and Jack Baer

New York Yankees

Best-case: Gio Urshela proves his breakout is for real, Luke Voit joins Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton in atop the homer leaderboards and the team trades for another top-of-the-rotation starter at the deadline. The scenario: Lead the AL in wins and grab a World Series title.

Worst-case: Literally anything bad — an injury, a decline, Yankee Stadium — happens to Cole, and suddenly the top of the rotation is no longer a strength and that $324 million deal gets off to a rough start. DJ LeMahieu no longer hits like an MVP candidate. The team stops getting .500 slugging percentages out of bench bats, while its vaunted bullpen depth falters. The scenario: A short season hits bumps in the road or injuries and the Rays overtake them to win the division.

Tampa Bay Rays

New Rays slugger José Martínez, acquired from the Cardinals in a typically opaque Tampa trade, is one of the new puzzle pieces manager Kevin Cash will try to arrange into a true contender. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
New Rays slugger José Martínez, acquired from the Cardinals in a typically opaque Tampa trade, is one of the new puzzle pieces manager Kevin Cash will try to arrange into a true contender. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Best-case: The Rays actually are smarter than you. The team uses quick hooks, platoons and develops six two-way players to gain an edge over opponents. They may not have star power, but they somehow squeeze huge production out of Yandy Díaz, José Martínez and Hunter Renfroe. They even get Mike Zunino to hit above the Mendoza Line. You, an ardent Rays hater, start to find the team likable. The scenario: An AL East crown sets them up for a deep postseason run.

Worst-case: The team with all the answers doesn’t have many when its offense shows just how much it relied on Tommy Pham’s on-base skills at the top of the order. Brandon Lowe’s contract stops looking like an incredible bargain when his 35 percent strikeout rate persists. The much-hyped rotation trio of Blake Snell, Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow experience more of their past arm troubles, and the rest of the staff rebels against the opener. The scenario: A .500 record, as questions about the team’s future in Tampa persist.

Boston Red Sox

Best-case: Mookie Betts? Never heard of him. Alex Verdugo doesn’t fully replace Betts’ production in the outfield, but he shows enough promise to get Red Sox fans excited. Andrew Benintendi proves last season’s swoon was a fluke, and puts up numbers reminiscent of his strong 2018 season. Rafael Devers, still just 23, continues to mash, while Michael Chavis takes a big step forward. The Red Sox find a way to fill out the rotation without Chris Sale, and become a surprising contender. The scenario: 34 wins and a wild-card spot.

Worst-case: Any hopes of the playoffs left with Mookie Betts. With another spot to fill, the rotation becomes a season-sinking fiasco. J.D. Martinez’s bat suffers badly without access to the in-game video he utilizes and the lineup collapses around him. The Dodgers trade Brusdar Graterol for multiple prospects after a dominant rookie season in the bullpen, just to rub it in. The scenario: A very sustainable, cost-efficient 25 wins.

Toronto Blue Jays

Best-case: Some prospects need time to adjust to the majors. Did you know Mike Trout only batted .220 over his first 40 games in the majors? Because of that, it comes as no surprise when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hits .320 with 38 home runs in 2020 and elevates himself into the MVP discussion. Bo Bichette plays well enough to surpass his dad’s 5.7 career WAR. Cavan Biggio gets a little less selective, starts hitting for average and emerges as a star at second base. Hyun-jin Ryu stays healthy, and somehow the rest of the patchwork rotation is just good enough. The scenario: About 30 wins and a lot of optimism for the future.

Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette looked like a star in a scorching 46-game MLB debut in 2019, during which he batted .311 with 11 homers. (Photo by Icon Sportswire)
Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette looked like a star in a scorching 46-game MLB debut in 2019, during which he batted .311 with 11 homers. (Photo by Icon Sportswire)

Worst-case: The team realizes three-and-a-half hyped prospects does not an MLB lineup make. Vlad Jr.’s elite hit tool takes another year to come into place, and a season of defensive lowlights lands him at first base for good. Bichette doesn’t replicate his .368 BABIP and has the full sophomore slump. Ryu’s relatively healthy 2019 turns out to be a well-timed fluke, and the rotation experiences something similar to last year’s chaos. The scenario: 24 wins as the team loses fans to streaming blackouts.

Baltimore Orioles

Best-case: The 2020 Orioles don’t care about wins and losses, man. They care about development. When the season is over, they’ll tell you the true value of the year was the future contributors they met along the way. In an ideal world, Austin Hays, Anthony Santander and Chance Sisco prove they are pieces worth building around. Defensively challenged prospect Ryan Mountcastle comes up and mashes enough to assert himself as a future All-Star. Hunter Harvey stays healthy and John Means continues to look like a mid-rotation starter. The scenario: The team stays healthy and we get a supercut of Orioles fans pronouncing Pedro Severino’s name.

Worst-case: You probably have much better things to do than read about the 2020 Orioles’ worst-case scenario. If you don’t, buckle up. We’re talking about a team that won 54 games last year and projects to be significantly worse. The lineup sinks to even lower depths after non-tendering its most valuable position player. Familiar AL East opponents join Yankees star Gleyber Torres in feasting on the pitching staff. The only thing that costs the Orioles more than Chris Davis’ contract is the legal bill owed to the World Series champions down the road whose existence the club fought to prevent. The scenario: 15 (!) wins, enough to cement a weird place in history as one of MLB’s worst teams.

Fun Meter

How entertaining will this division be as a race and summer-long TV show?

By Mike Oz

The AL East has Gerrit Cole and Gleyber Torres, Vlad Jr. and whatever the Rays are cooking up in their baseball laboratory. But there’s no more Mookie Betts, which is seriously hampering the fun meter.

The true measurement of fun in the East probably depends on how “fun” you think the Yankees are — either their potential dominance or another round of being hit by every possible injury. Whether you love or hate the Bronx Bombers, you have to admit that Torres is one of the best young talents in the game, which earns a point in the fun column.

Over in Toronto, the Blue Jays might not win as many games as other teams, but watching a second-generation team is a concept that baseball always finds fun. With Vlad Jr. and Bo Bichette, they’ll take some big swings. They’ll miss a lot too. But they’ll be worth tuning in for.

If Chris Davis can have a comeback season after last year’s infamous drought at the plate, that would be a tremendously fun story.

AL East UFR (Ultimate Fun Rating) = 7.4

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