Hello all and welcome to the first in our series of the 2021 Division Previews: AL East edition! I’ll be taking you through each team in reverse order of standings from last season. We’ll highlight each teams strengths and weaknesses as well as go over projected lineups, benches, rotations, and bullpens. We’ll also be talking about any storylines to follow and prospects who will be making an impact this season. A few quick notes before diving in:
- I’ve based the information in the tables heavily on Roster Resource. While they may not look exactly the same, I have included extra players in some spots where I think they might be applicable.
- Players who are currently on the IL will either be listed at the bottom of their respective table or in the paragraphs that follow them. I tried to only do this with projected starters who are guaranteed to start the season on the IL (Chris Sale, Luis Severino, etc.)
- If I didn’t touch on your favorite prospect, don’t worry — we have an entire hub of top prospects lists for your enjoyment and research purposes.
- The MLB announced that for the 2021 season, exclusively on road trips, a team will be allowed a taxi-squad of 5 players. I did not include who those players may or may not be simply because there will be so much variance based on a team’s needs to determine their taxi-squad right now.
Spring is here so let’s get into it!
2020 Record: 24-36 (.400 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
- Additions: Marwin González, Adam Ottavino, Hunter Renfroe, Enrique Hernández, Garrett Richards, Franchy Cordero, Hirokazu Sawamura
- Subtractions: Andrew Benintendi, Dustin Pedroia, Jackie Bradley Jr.
My 2020 predictions were pretty bearish on the Red Sox as I predicted them to slip to fourth place in the division behind Toronto. Boston did me one better, however, narrowly losing out on fourth place to the Orioles and found themselves at the bottom of the AL East at season’s end. It would be tough to blame the offense for this slide though. All told, Boston batters hit a fairly solid combined line at .265/.330/.445 . Their 292 runs scored (4.9/game) and 106 wRC+ both place at #11 in the league. Their 81 home runs (t-12th), 278 RBI (t-11th), and 31 stolen bases (11th) are nothing to sneeze at either. At worst this was a middling offense on paper. At best, it could sniff the top 10 of league production in some categories. This was a team very much hampered by its pitching staff. But more on that later.
Shortstop Xander Bogaerts once again anchored the lineup, hitting .300/.364/.502 with 11 homers and 8 stolen bases across 225 plate appearances. Bogaerts will play the 2021 season at age 28 and will once again look to be one of the better hitting young shortstops in a league that is currently flush with them. Also on the left side of the infield is the 24-year-old third baseman Rafael Devers, who was looking to build upon his breakout 2019 campaign. The shortened season wasn’t as kind to Devers, who while still an above-average hitter in 2020 somewhat failed to take another step forward in his development. His .263/.310/.483 line was markedly down from his robust 2019, and a huge spike in K% (17.0 in 2019 to 27.0 in 2020) was a big factor. Still, the quality of contact was still there for Devers, and he was quietly on pace for a 30-homer season. 2021 will be an important year for Devers as he continues to solidify himself as Boston’s 3B of the future.
The retirement of stalwart second baseman Dustin Pedroia squashed any plans of a comeback, and the Sox inked former Dodger Enrique Hernández to a 2-year, $14mm pact. Hernández figures to get most of his work at the keystone for Boston but has experience all over the field as a super utility player and can slot into just about any position on the diamond. While his bat has never been anything too exceptional, his defensive versatility and clubhouse presence are enough for Boston to trust him going forward, especially when lined up against LHP. He may cede some playing time with Michael Chavis, who was dismal at the plate in 2020 after an encouraging 18 homer performance in 95 games back in 2019. Chavis can play first base as well, but with the arrival of prospect Bobby Dalbec, he may be out of luck. Dalbec is young and promising but very, very raw. Despite his impressive 8 homers in a 23-game cameo, Dalbec struck out at an astronomic 42.4% rate.
Behind the dish the Red Sox will once again look to Christian Vázquez to be the underrated backstop he has proven himself to be over the last few years. Vázquez played in a career high 138 games in 2019 and ended up with 23 homers and a .276/.320/.477 line which by 2019 catcher standards was eerily similar to that of J.T. Realmuto. Vázquez kept the ball rolling in the shortened 2020, sporting a .283/.344/.457 with 7 homers and 4 stolen bases. The primary backup job will go to Kevin Plawecki, who filled the same role last season and was quite good in his very limited playing time. The career backup catcher appeared in 24 games last season and produced a .341/.393/.463 for the Sox.
In the outfield, Boston will have 2 more very familiar faces leaving them for the 2021 season. After trading Mookie Betts to the Dodgers in the 2019-2020 offseason, the Red Sox traded Andrew Benintendi to the Royals in a 3-way deal with the Mets and lost Jackie Bradley Jr. to free agency. The Benintendi trade is a disappointing way to end the Boston stint for the 26-year-old, who over the course of 5 seasons and 485 games with the team looked like one of the better up-and-coming outfielders in the game. Replacing him underneath the Green Monster will be Franchy Cordero, netted from Kansas City in the swap. Cordero, just 2 months younger than Benintendi, has only 315 major league plate appearances under his belt in the last 4 seasons. Various injuries have played a major role in this, most recently a broken right hamate bone that kept him out of action for a month and a half in late 2020. Cordero has a large, powerful frame at 6’3”, 226 lb coupled with impressive speed for a player his size. This power/speed combo could very well pay dividends for the Sox if Cordero can stay on the field. But so far in his career, that has been a mighty big “if”. Cordero has also been unable to get into game action after being placed on the COVID-19 list, so Marwin González is likely to replace him in LF if he is not ready for Opening Day.
In center, Boston will roll with another recent big trade acquisition in Alex Verdugo. Verdugo finally found some consistent playing time in Boston after struggling to get an extended look on a crowded Dodgers roster. And it paid off. Verdugo hit a career-best .308/.367/.478 across 53 games in 2020 along with 6 homers and 4 stolen bases. He also led off in 33 of those 53 games, which leads me to believe manager Alex Cora is comfortable batting Verdugo in front of the likes of Bogaerts, Devers, and J.D. Martinez — a very good situation for the 24-year-old Verdugo. With a full 162-game season of regular outfield work, the Sox should be excited for what they can get out of their leadoff man.
Over in right field, Boston can pretty much no longer rely on J.D. Martinez for passable defense, as his usage there has dwindled to almost nothing. Instead, Boston will employ newly signed Hunter Renfroe for duty in right. Renfroe made his debut back in 2016 with San Diego and averaged just over 28 homers each season between 2017-2019 before ending up in Tampa as part of a trade. His excellent power potential is somewhat hindered by his strikeout downside and propensity for very low on-base ability (.290 career OBP). He was quite dismal in 2020 with Tampa, sporting a .156/.252/.393 line across 42 games. Boston will hope they can get out of Renfroe what Tampa could not — a passable outfielder whose power can help outweigh his lack of, well, everything else.
The biggest question mark Boston will have on offense this season is probably J.D. Martinez. After an excellent first 2 seasons for the Red Sox in which Martinez swatted a combined 79 homers, the slugger dropped off precipitously in 2020. In 54 games, Martinez hit a paltry .213/.291/.389 (77 wRC+) and saw dips in nearly every quality contact metric. At age 33, is it the beginning of an age-related decline for JDM, or simply a rather ugly stretch of ~50 games? Boston will certainly be hoping for the latter as Martinez will be entrenched at DH for them for at least one more season (two if he declines his opt out after 2021).
Off the bench, Boston will have the luxury of deploying new addition Marwin González at multiple positions where needed. Through 9 seasons between Houston and Minnesota, González has line up at every non-catcher position on the diamond. And he has done so, with the exception of 2020, with an average-to-above average bat. Now he will reunite with manager Alex Cora who served as his bench coach back in Houston. Yairo Muñoz proved to be an effective 4th or 5th outfielder for the team in his brief 12-game cameo in 2020. Christian Arroyo and Jonathan Araúz both figure to get some work as backup infielders, with Marcus Wilson, Jarren Duran, César Puello, and Michael Gettys all vying for bench spots as well.
Projected Starting Rotation
Where the 2020 Red Sox offense was above average, the pitching staff was abysmal. Boston starters last season registered a 5.34 ERA (5.50 FIP/4.98 xFIP).
With Chris Sale set to return in May at the earliest, Eduardo Rodriguez will serve as Boston’s rotation anchor. E-Rod did not pitch in 2020 following his development of myocarditis, or inflammation in the heart, following his COVID-19 diagnosis. The team was initially hopeful Rodriguez would be well enough to take the field last season, but he was shut down at the beginning of August out of an abundance of caution. It’s a tough break for the lefty, who had been steadily improving since his 2015 debut. In the last 4 seasons, Rodriguez has posted good strikeout rates, has kept the walks in check, and has limited homers a bit more each year. He’s also managed to throw more innings, something Boston desperately needs. He posted a career high 203.1 IP in 2019 across 34 starts, which works out to just about 6 innings per start. With his health concerns hopefully behind him, Rodriguez will have a long road ahead of him in order to work his arm strength back up to become the innings workhorse the team needs him to be.
Nathan Eovaldi had an excellent bounce back from his disastrous 2019 campaign, posting a 3.72 ERA (3.87 FIP/3.32 xFIP) with career-best strikeout (26.1 K%) and walk (3.5%) percentages. The 2020 version of Eovaldi was much more the pitcher Boston envisioned when they signed him to a 4-year deal after his excellent 2nd half for them in 2018. But whether or not they will receive the 2019 or 2020 Eovaldi is anyone’s guess. For what it’s worth, Eovaldi was able to improve his Chase Miss% on his cutter, splitter, and curveball by sizeable margins last season, including a very impressive 80% mark on the curveball in 2020.
Garrett Richards was brought in on a one year deal with a team option for 2022. Richards had a nice run from 2014-2018, but was limited to only 138.2 IP over the final 3 seasons of that stretch. In his 2nd year with the Padres in 2020, he managed to make 10 starts of 4.03 ERA ball. Richards possesses some elite spin on 3 of his pitches — his curveball, four-seam, and slider. He’s also currently working on re-deploying his once-effective sinker. If Richards can continue to generate the swings and misses like he did back in Los Angeles, he could very well be a great value signing for the Sox with the potential for an affordable 2nd year.
Martín Pérez is back in Boston for 2021. Pérez won’t rack up Ks or limit walks all that much, but he can effectively eat innings without completely tanking the offense’s chances to win. The Sox brought Pérez back for the same reason they signed him last offseason: to anchor the back half of the rotation that has a lot of question marks.
Speaking of question marks, here’s Nick Pivetta. Ever the breakout candidate, the out-of-options Pivetta came over to Boston from Philly last August in the Brandon Workman trade. Pivetta had been working out of the pen for the Phils but made 2 starts for Boston and was surprisingly good – 2 runs across 10 IP. All told, he had a 6.89 ERA (5.68 FIP/5.19 xFIP) on the year which was actually worse than his 2019 in which he got moved to the bullpen by Philly. Boston seems to think Pivetta can still make it as a starter, and he very well may get the chance to do so until Sale returns or one of their younger arms supplants him.
That brings us to the rest of the crop. Boston actually has some intriguing young arms – many of whom could be or already are MLB-ready. Tanner Houck’s fate of bullpen vs. rotation has been up in the air, but he impressed mightily across 3 starts in 2020 — 17.0 IP, 0.53 ERA (3.25 FIP/3/73 xFIP) with a 33.3 K%. The walks (14.3%) weren’t great and a 95.9 LOB% is far from sustainable, but Houck looks like he’ll get one of the first shots to crack the rotation. Connor Seabold also figures to be in the mix, but will most likely start the season at the alternate camp. Seabold projects as a solid back end starter — something Boston will most likely need dearly this season. Finally we have Bryan Mata. Mata seemed to be having a breakout in 2019 in High-A ball before injury and poor performance in Double-A tanked his season a bit. He has been known to have command issues but can make for a viable starter if he continues to develop.
Matt Barnes stepped into the closer role full time after Brandon Workman was shipped to Philadelphia along with Heath Hembree. Barnes continued what he’s been doing for several seasons now — generating a ton of Ks and a ton of walks — a 30.4 K% and a 13.7 BB% to be exact, and turned in a 4.30 ERA (4.84 FIP/4.01 xFIP), his highest since 2015. Barnes is entering his last year under contract in Boston, and if the team underperforms he could very well end up with the same fate as Workman did in 2019 as the team continues to stockpile younger talent.
Coming over in a rare trade with the Yankees, Adam Ottavino will slide into a late-inning set up role for Boston. Ottavino enjoyed several effective seasons between Colorado and New York before a less effective 2020. For what its worth, Ottavino’s peripherals all looked fine (3.52 FIP/3.78 xFIP) and he kept his K% solid at 29.4% and cut back his BB% from 14.1% to 10.6%. Like Barnes, Ottavino is also in his last year under contract and could very well end up either A) in the closer role for Boston if Barnes is shipped off or is ineffective, B) shipped off himself as the Sox continue to re-tool their roster, or C) both.
Darwinzon Hernandez is entering his 3rd MLB season and still has a huge walk issue (20.0 BB%) but has elite strikeout potential (32.5 K%). His volatility will relegate him to middle relief, but has potential to be a devastating reliever if he can get the walks under control. Matt Andriese will factor into the middle innings as well, he doesn’t bring anything flashy to the table but has an effective 4-seam/changeup combo and a high spin curve that can generate swings and misses. Possibly a very good under the radar signing here for Boston.
Ryan Brasier expects to get some later inning work as well. He had a nice 2020, 25 IP of 3.96 ERA ball (3.15 FIP/4.04xFIP) with good strikeout (27.3 K%) numbers while working heavily with his mid to high 90s mph four-seamer. He has yet to appear in a spring game, but it is not injury related. Hirokazu Sawamura, the 10-year NPB vet making his stateside debut, is in the mix for middle and late relief as well. He does have closing experience, but manager Alex Cora has stated he will not be expected to be placed in that role. It’s always tough to gauge how starts from NPB and other foreign leagues will adjust to MLB, but it’s worth noting that Sawamura’s 2.88 career ERA, 22.0 K% and 7.5 BB% across 944 IP is encouraging.
Storylines to Follow
One of Boston’s biggest keys to success will hinge upon the health and performance of Chris Sale. Since his rookie year in 2010, Sale has been an absolutely dominant pitcher, compiling a 2.89 ERA (2.86 FIP/2.90 xFIP), 30.2 K%, and 5.4 BB% across 1482.1 IP in 207 starts dating back to when he took over as a starter full time in 2012 all the way through 2018. It was in 2018, however that the injuries set in. Shoulder inflammation limited him to 158 IP in 2018 and 2019 was cut short due to elbow issues which ended up being a UCL tear requiring Tommy John surgery. Sale received the surgery last March and would put his timetable to return in May at the very earliest. With Boston not expected to be the most competitive of AL teams, it would make sense for the Sox not to rush Sale back. He is under contract for 3 more seasons after 2021, with a vesting option for 2025. Sale will be 32 years old this season, so age related decline could also throw a wrench into the team’s plans for Sale. All told, the Red Sox are a far better team when Sale takes the ball every 5th day and his return will only hasten Boston’s return to competitiveness.
J.D. Martinez has been a boon to the Sox lineup since signing with the team going into 2018. In his first two seasons with Boston, Martinez was an MVP candidate and anchored the lineup around Bogaerts, Devers, and Mookie Betts. However, 2020 was an aforementioned disaster comparatively. Martinez has the 3rd of 3 opt-out clauses of his contract coming up at the end of 2021. If he declines it, Martinez will receive $19.35MM for the 2022 season. Given his recent poor performance and his comments last year about the uncertainty of the market, it’s likely Martinez will decline the opt out and instead take his money. He’ll be playing the 2022 season at 34 years old, and if his bat continues to lag he won’t receive that kind of money on the open market. A poor-hitting Martinez staying on the payroll will further financially hamstring a Boston front office that has admitted they are trying to restructure the payroll. The team will also still be paying both Chris Sale and David Price, further mucking up plans for spending freedom. Martinez’s production in 2021, and subsequently his opt out decision, are going to be crucial for Boston’s future plans. Unless they throw caution to the wind and completely blow up plans to stay under the luxury tax, in which case this was an exercise in futility.
One of the prospects to come over in the trio of players in the Mookie Betts deal, INF Jeter Downs has the potential to be the second baseman of the future for the Sox. Downs has improved every step of the way in his minor league career, spending 2017-18 in Rookie Ball and Low-A for the Reds before being traded to the Dodgers. His 2019 between High-A and AA for the Dodgers? a .276/.362/.526 batting line with 35 doubles, 24 homers, and 24 steals. He is also drew 60 walks (11.2%) and played great infield defense, although it seems that he is better suited for second base instead of shortstop. With Xander Bogaerts currently entrenched at shortstop, that’s fine by the Red Sox. Downs may play 2nd fiddle to current Red Sox top prospect Triston Casas, but he is projected to break into the majors this year where we may not see Casas until 2022. A possible infield of Devers, Bogaerts, Downs, and Casas should have Red Sox fans very, very excited.
2020 Record: 25-35 (.417 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
- Additions: Maikel Franco, Félix Hernández, Freddy Galvis, Yolmer Sánchez, Fernando Abad, Matt Harvey
- Subtractions: José Iglesias, Alex Cobb, Hanser Alberto, Renato Núñez
The O’s came in at #17 in the league in runs scored at 274 (4.6/game), smack in the middle at #15 with 77 homers (.171 ISO) and a 104 wRC+ which places them just a bit behind Boston at #13. Much like Boston, too, the Orioles were a middling-to-above-average offense that was thwarted by its pitchers. In a repeat of last offseason, the Orioles traded their shortstop and one of their better hitters in José Iglesias who was sent to the Angels in December. Iglesias hit .373/.400/.556 in 39 games where he usually hit in the #2 or 3 spot in the order. The O’s will also go into 2021 without Hanser Alberto, the 28 year old 2B/3B who slashed .283/.306/.393 last year with 3 homers and 3 steals. Alberto never had a penchant for drawing walks (2.6 career BB%) or power (.099 career ISO) but looked to be coming into his own a bit in 2019 when he hit .305/.329/.422 while playing at 2B, 3B, and OF.
Austin Hays finally looks like he’ll get a shot at a full season of work, and while I originally expected him to be the primary leadoff hitter, the team seems to be invested in lefty Cedric Mullins leading off against right handers. Judging by how they’ve deployed lineups this spring, Hays could leadoff against lefties while hitting somewhere in the 4-5-6 range against righties. Hays’ cameo at the end of 2019 was quite good, but 2020 saw a big dip in the power department (.265 ISO in 2019, .115 in 2020) as well as the walks dipping and the strikeouts going up a tick. Still, Hays can bring the O’s a baseline average bat with a lot of room for improvement and a good glove in the outfield.
That brings us to none other than Trey Mancini. The 29-year-old Mancini did not play in 2020 after a colon cancer diagnosis understandably kept him off the field for quite a while. With his cancer in remission, Mancini is back and ready to hit the ground running. 2019 saw him break out in a big way, when he played 154 games and hit .291/.364/.535 with 35 HR and 203 R+RBI. Mancini’s story is nothing short of inspiring, and he’ll look to be the focal point of the O’s lineup for the coming seasons. He’ll be in arbitration again next year, and I imagine the team will either want to avoid it or hammer out an extension with their best hitter. Expect to see him somewhere in the 2-3-4 lineup slots.
Anthony Santander is currently penciled as #3 hitter behind Hays and some combination of DJ Stewart and Pat Valaika. The switch hitting Santander isn’t much of an on base threat, but he managed 20 homers in only 93 games back in 2019 and followed that up with 11 more in 37 games of the shortened season (he lost about 3 weeks of 2020 to an oblique strain). Santander is still just 26, rarely strikes out, and can go yard from time to time. Along with Hays, Santander is a nice offensive asset for a team in the midst of a rebuild.
Following them in the lineup will be one of the more intriguing bats for Baltimore, Ryan Mountcastle. The 23 year old has bounced around the diamond a bit due to defensive issues, but seems to be pencilled in as Brandon Hyde’s starting 1B. Mountcastle has produced in just about every step of the way in the minors, culminating in a .312/.344/.527 line with 25 homers in 127 AAA games in 2019. The O’s gave him a shot in 2020, sticking him in left field before a transition to mostly 1B. By year’s end, he was also regularly hitting out of the 3 or 4 hole (in part due to Santander’s injury), a role he very well could end up in again this year. Mountcastle managed 35 games this past season with an encouraging .333/.386/.492 line with improved walk (7.9%) and strikeout (21.4%) rates. At just 24, Mountcastle is looking like a future contributor to the O’s as they build themselves back into contention.
After Mountcastle, the catching tandem of Chance Sisco and Pedro Severino will once again hold sway in Baltimore. The lefty Sisco will get work against righties while the righty hitting Severino will, you guessed it, start against lefties. Sisco can draw walks and get on base at a reasonable clip (.330 career OBP) but neither him nor Severino have produced much at the plate. O’s fans look like they’ll have to endure this at least 1 more season with star prospect Adley Rutschman on the rise. But more on him later.
For their new double play tandem, the O’s will deploy Freddy Galvis at short and Yolmer Sánchez at 2B. Galvis signed a one year deal with the team after spending the last 2 seasons with Toronto and Cincinnati where he hit a combined .252/.299/.431 (89 wRC+) with 30 HR and 5 SB. Galvis can handle both SS and 2B if needed and while his days of double digit steals may be over he has developed some pop over the last couple of seasons that will help bulk up the bottom third of the order. Sánchez never hit much in his 7 seasons with the White Sox (79 career wRC+) but brings with him above average defense that can help improve the O’s fielding up the middle. He will have a bit of competition in Jahmai Jones, who came over from the Angels in exchange for Alex Cobb. Jones hasn’t been able to get an extended look in the majors just yet, but he sports good on base ability and speed with a solid glove. Richie Martin will also factor into the middle infield, but he missed the entirety of the 2020 season with a broken wrist and is currently rehabbing surgery after a broken hamate bone.
Rounding out the bottom of the lineup we have the aforementioned Galvis and Sánchez along with 3B Maikel Franco. Rio Ruiz was originally penciled in to start at 3B prior to the team signing Franco. Ruiz doesn’t offer much in the way of rate stats — .229/.299/.393 in 617 PA for Baltimore — but he did manage to knock 9 homers in just 54 games last year. As a right handed bat, Franco can give the Orioles more options to possibly platoon him with the lefty hitting Ruiz. Franco’s bat has been roughly league average over the last 3 seasons — a 92 wRC+ with 47 homers in 1136 PA.
The O’s are also still carrying Chris Davis on their roster to help fill out the bench. The once premier power hitting first baseman has absolutely cratered in the last few seasons, failing to even hit north of .179 going all the way back to 2017. Davis’ poor performance and massive paycheck have drawn the ire of fans over the past few years, and the hope of a bounceback fades as Davis enters his age 35 season. Whatever the Orioles can get out of Davis’ bat at this point is gravy, especially after he suffered a back strain in early March.
Projected Starting Rotation
Returning to his role of fronting the O’s rotation in 2021 is lefty John Means. Means was on a lot of radars last year as a breakout candidate (he used to be, but he still is, too) and didn’t quite deliver as many had hoped. He did generate bit more K’s (23.9 K% up from 19.0%) and improved upon an already excellent walk rate (4.0% down from 6.0%) but the ERA was a bit unsightly at 4.53 (5.60 FIP/4.45 xFIP). He also had a sizeable jump in swinging strike rate, improving from 9.9% in 2019 to 12.5% in 2020. You also have to think that the 21.8% HR/FB isn’t going to hold up going forward, even with Means frequently pitching in several smaller AL East ballparks. Means is a serviceable pitcher that will help hold down the rotation until some of the O’s upper level pitching prospects arrive.
Speaking of prospects, Keegan Akin is slated to pitch right behind Means in the rotation. Akin made his MLB debut last season, making 8 appearances (6 starts) and ended the year with a 4.56 ERA (3.27 FIP/3.85 xFIP) and a promising 30.2 K%. The walks were just around league average as well at 8.6%. One of the bigger knocks on Akin is his lack of a truly effective 3rd pitch after his 4-seamer and changeup, but his slider and curveball are weapons with potential that will be key in his development into a possible middle rotation arm.
Dean Kremer, like Akin, has good strikeout potential as he registered a 26.5 K% in his 18.2 IP across 4 starts in 2020. He has an effective four-seamer despite the velocity sitting in the lower 90s, and a nice curve that he can bury in the zone. A developing changeup would give Kremer a 4th pitch in his arsenal to go along with the four-seamer, curve, and slider. Akin and Kremer are both young with very limited exposure in the majors, and the Orioles depth chart currently has them pencilled in as full time starters. It’s going to be a difficult road to navigate for the 2 pitchers as they manage a full time workload. If things break right, they could end up with 2 very solid mid-rotation arms by season’s end.
Félix Hernández hooked on with Baltimore as a non-roster invitee as well. The former Cy Young Award winner is in his 3rd uniform in the last 3 seasons as he attempted to break camp with the Braves in 2020 before opting out of the season. King Felix will be 35 in April and is quite far removed from his dominant days back in Seattle. After 15 seasons and 2,729.2 IP, it’s no surprise that father time has caught up with Hernández. Still, an effective year from Félix would not only be a welcome sight for fans, but could play right into the Orioles’ hands who could flip Hernández to a contender for a return of talent at the deadline. Unfortunately, it looks like Hernández may start the season on the IL after he left his last start with elbow pain. This could very well turn out to be an undeserving end for an amazing career.
To supplement their somewhat shaky rotation, the O’s have a slew of younger arms and non roster invitees to help fill out their depth. Principal among those younger, MLB ready arms is Michael Baumann. Baumann doesn’t have the ceiling of prospects Grayson Rodriguez or DL Hall, but he is closer to a major league mound and has the numbers to prove it. Succeeding at just about every minor league level, Baumann threw 70 innings in 2019 to the tune of a 2.31 ERA (2.63 FIP/3.18 xFIP) with an 24.3 K% and a 7.8 BB%. He has an above-average high-90s fastball and an effective slider and is currently tooling around with a changeup and curveball. Baumann will probably get a crack at the rotation at some point, but his stuff may play better out of the pen. Zac Lowther will also be in the mix, who has posted similar AA numbers to Baumann but does so without the velocity that his teammate possess. Alexander Wells, Bruce Zimmerman, and Wade LeBlanc could all possibly see some action as well. LeBlanc is on his 2nd try with Baltimore, after 22.1 IP of forgettable 8.06 ERA ball in 2020.
The name that caught my eye the most on this depth chart though was Matt Harvey. Much like his new teammate Hernández, Harvey is far removed from his glory days on the mound. While the results aren’t there, Harvey keeps trying his hand at a comeback for his age-32 season. Harvey’s statcast profile is far more blue than red and it’s gotten to the point where we can’t expect much, if anything, from him. Personally I’d love to see Harvey rebound after his fall from grace, and I’m sure the O’s would too if they could turn the minor league deal into a useful asset.
|Mid||Travis Lakins Sr.||R|
Baltimore’s relief corps will look a bit different going into this season, as stalwarts Mychal Givens and Miguel Castro will both be suiting up for different teams in 2021. These two moves somewhat cleared the way for Hunter Harvey to move into the closer role, a move that’s been in talks for quite a while now. Harvey was a bit limited last year due to an elbow issue that kept him sidelined for the first 2 months of the season. Harvey relies mainly on his fastball, a pitch that he can top out at around 99 MPH coupled with a 31.9 CSW%. Manager Brandon Hyde had expressed confidence in Harvey, but it seems the injury bug has bitten again. Harvey went down on March 12 with an oblique strain and was placed on the 60-day IL, a move that will keep him out through the start of the regular season. It’s a frustrating step for Harvey who seemed to have the keys to the castle, but hopefully he can be on the mend soon and reclaim his spot.
Tanner Scott was arguably Baltimore’s best reliever last season, making 25 appearances for 20.2 IP, a shiny 1.31 ERA (3.48 FIP/x3.97 xFIP) with a 26.7 K% and a 11.6 BB%. He sports a very strong fastball/slider pitch mix with good velocity on the fastball and even better spin rate on the slider. The walk rate has room for improvement but everything else looks like Scott has the makings of a very capable reliever. If he can tap into his strikeout potential further, he could easily take the next step into elite reliever territory. Hyde has said that they will most likely go with a hot-hand approach at the closer role, but look for Scott to possibly be closing out the most games with Harvey on the IL
Along with Scott, César Valdez enjoyed a great 2020 and his was much more of a surprise. After toiling in the minors for the majority of his career, Valdez tossed 14.1 IP with a 1.26 ERA (2.14 FIP/3.62 xFIP) and a very low walk percentage (5.7%). However, as I said in my fantasy breakdown for Baltimore — 35-year-old relievers who are suddenly good should be treated with caution. And basically all of the projection systems agree — as they all have him regressing to a mid 4’s to mid 5’s ERA. The O’s will squeeze what they can out of Valdez, and if it’s anything close to 2020 they’ll be pleased.
Dillon Tate and Cole Sulser may get some shots at save opportunities as well. Sulser closed out 5 games for the O’s last season but with his strikeout and walk percentages almost the same at an unsightly 19.0% and 17.0%, respectively, that does not an effective reliever make. He also managed to blow 3 saves in 8 tries. Sulser may fare better outside the higher leverage spots where his mistakes can be more easily absorbed. Tate was another quietly solid Baltimore reliever after a rocky rookie campaign in 2019. Tate tallied average strikeouts (21.9%) and walks (7.8%) but was able to keep major runs off the board thanks in part to a 0.84 WHIP despite a 61.6 LOB%.
Shawn Armstrong looked like a solid option as well, throwing 15.0 inning for a 1.80 ERA (2.99 FIP/4.05 xFIP). He showed a career best in walks (5.3 BB%) and his 2nd best mark in GB% (43.6%) since back in 2016 when he made 10 appearances for Cleveland. He won’t be in the mix to close out games, but he is a reliable middle reliever that Brandon Hyde can run out to keep the game close.
The last big name here is Paul Fry. Fry broke out in his 3rd big league season, mainly riding the success of his slider. Fry’s slide piece registered a 35.5 CSW% that opponents could only manage a .132 AVG on. His 2.45 ERA last year isn’t too betrayed by his 3.69 FIP and 3.32 XFIP, and the 29.6 K% is nothing to sneeze at. Fry and Scott will both factor into the middle and late innings, and it would not surprise me if either of them ended up as a primary closer by the end of the year, whether it be for Baltimore or elsewhere.
Storylines to Follow
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention following Trey Mancini’s return. As I briefly mentioned earlier, Mancini is taking the field after a stage-3 colon cancer diagnosis last spring. News like that is enough to shake any person to their core, let alone someone who was only 28 years old at the time. Now that he is in remission, Mancini looks ready to pick up where he left off in 2019 when he was undoubtedly the O’s best hitter. I’m sure that many fans will be watching and cheering for Mancini to start mashing baseballs again now that he is thankfully on the mend.
While I originally planned to subvert expectations and talk about Mountcastle here, I’ve gotta give it to Rutschman. Once again all eyes will be on star catching prospect Adley Rutschman, who is on the short list for best minor leaguer in all of baseball. Rutschman might have already been knocking on the door of the majors if there was a minor league season in 2020, and it looks like he will start the year at AA. If his development continues as planned, Rutschman could be on the fast track to his major league debut by the end of the year. The switch hitting catcher’s arrival will be one of the most crucial steps in the Orioles’ rebuild.
2020 Record: 32-28 (.533 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
- Additions: George Springer, Marcus Semien, Kirby Yates, Tyler Chatwood, David Phelps, Steven Matz, Francisco Liriano
- Subtractions: Ken Giles, Taijuan Walker, Jonathan Villar, Matt Shoemaker, Travis Shaw, Shun Yamaguchi, Chase Anderson
|5||Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||1B||R|
|6||Lourdes Gurriel Jr.||LF||R|
The Blue Jays continued to improve their roster this offseason following a 2019-2020 offseason as well as a 2020 trade deadline in which they aggressively pursued more talent. It didn’t work out in 2020 however as the Jays were bounced from the postseason by the Rays in the Wild Card round. Still, the Jays remain a formidable team and have since further reinforced their lineup. The Jays were #7 overall in runs scored with 302 (5.0/game) while hitting a collective .255/.325/.441 (105 wRC+). The lineup was, as expected, anchored by Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., but the trio of major leaguer sons were also aided mightily by the likes of Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Rowdy Tellez, and Teoscar Hernández who all had a wRC+ of 133 or higher.
Naturally, the Jays went out and reinforced their lineup in a big way. They added center fielder George Springer and infielder Marcus Semien and nearly signed Michael Brantley as well in a somewhat confusing episode. They also added some intriguing arms on the pitching side, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Springer will get the bulk of the leadoff work in this lineup. He’s been a star ever since arriving in the bigs for Houston back in 2014. He was also one of the few Astros batters spared of a brutal 2020 season that plagued the likes of Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and others involved in the sign stealing scandal. While Springer still saw a slight dip in performance last year, he was still quite good, hitting .265/.359/.540 (146 wRC+) with 14 homers in just 14 games. The steals have all but dried up for Springer, as he’s not reached double digit swipes since 2015. But just as it was in Houston, I don’t think it’s going to matter too much with the bats behind him in this lineup. Springer is going to be leading off for one of the more prolific offenses in the league that is now poised to be even better. Quite an enviable position. However, it was revealed on Tuesday that Springer suffered a Grade 2 strain of his oblique at some point. Toronto seems confident about Springer returning to action in a few days, so missing Opening Day is not definite.
Another new addition in Marcus Semien will be following Springer. A shortstop by trade, Semien is actually moving over to 2B in deference to Bo Bichette. Semien has spent the last 8 seasons between the White Sox and A’s before signing a 1-yr/$18mm deal with Toronto. Semien’s triple slash has never looked that pretty – he owns a lifetime .254/.322/.425 (105 wRC+) but between 2015-2019 he amassed double digit homers and steals in each season, including a 27/10 total in 2016 and 33/10 total in 2019. One thing a bit concerning to keep an eye on — Semien’s statcast numbers in exit velo, HardHit%, xBA, xSLG, xwOBA, and Barrel% were all among the league’s worst in 2020 despite respectable in almost all of those categories the year prior. Semien is moving to a much better lineup and figures to be smack in the middle of it.
Behind him will be shortstop Bo Bichette, who many in the industry are very high on for only having played 75 major league games. But their predictions are far from unfounded. Bichette has hit .307/.347/.549 (134 wRC+) in those 75 games, with 16 homers and 8 steals. For someone who just turned 23 this month, that’s a great looking stat line. Where it may not look as great is firstly his ability to draw walks. In 2019, his 6.6 BB% was below the 8.5% league average, and in 2020 it got even worse, as Bichette posted a 3.9 BB% in comparison to the 9.2% league average. In such a small sample, this wouldn’t be terribly alarming, but coupled with a 45.5 O-Swing% in 2020 (up from 38.6% in 2019) and a drop in O-contact% to 66.1% (was 70.6%) and this looks like a young hitter losing discipline. He did, to his credit, increase his contact on balls thrown in the zone, an increase of just over 10% to 91.5%.
Outfielder Teoscar Hernández had himself a bit of a breakout in 2020, slashing .289/.340/.579 (143 wRC+) with 16 home runs and 6 steals in 50 games. His quality of contact was basically the inverse of Semien’s, scoring in the 92nd percentile or better in Exit Velo, Hard Hit%, xwOBA, xBA, xSLG, and Barrel%. The main knock on Hernández is his strikeouts, as he has posted K rates north of 30 since becoming an every day player. But if selling out for power means a 25+ homer bat in the middle of the lineup, I think the Jays will gladly take it.
Next up is Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who is making the full move to 1st base as the team shuffles the infield a bit. Vlad had another solid season last year, cutting back on the Ks by about 2% and knocked 9 homers in 60 games. The 22-year-old reportedly came into camp in much better shape this year (some might say, the best shape of his life?) and has focused on improving his athleticism. If Vlad can continue to harness his incredibly powerful swing, he will be a threat for years.
Moving over to 3B is Cavan Biggio who may have the brightest future of the Bichette/Biggio/Guerrero Jr. trio. Biggio hasn’t hit for a ton of average in his young career, but has an elite walk rate of 16.1% in his 695 plate appearances. He also hit 16 homers and stole 14 bases in only 100 games back in 2019. Biggio could easily attain a 20/20 season with an elite on base ability.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. will handle left field duties but the team has expressed interest in starting him at 1B in order to further diversify their roster. Gurriel Jr. has been a highly underrate bat the last 2 seasons, totalling a .289/.336/.538 (128 wRC+) line with 31 homers in the 141 games he’s played. He won’t take many walks (lifetime 5.2 BB%) but you could a whole lot worse for the bottom third of your lineup.
Rowdy Tellez and Randal Grichuk will platoon in the DH spot. Tellez can also rotate into 1B and Grichuk can handle the OF if need be. Tellez and Grichuk both don’t possess much on base ability but have both posted ISO marks well above average throughout their careers. Danny Jansen will be the primary catcher with both Reese McGuire and Alejandro Kirk vying for the backup job. Both Jansen and McGuire project as average to below average bats while Kirk has shown some serious on-base ability throughout his minor league career and has a great rapport with Blue Jays pitchers. He will certainly be giving Jansen a run for his money and could steal the starting job down the line.
Projected Starting Rotation
Hyun-Jin Ryu will get his 2nd opportunity to helm the rotation this year. In an abbreviated 2020, Ryu was stellar, throwing 67 innings with a 2.69 ERA (3.01 FIP/3.32 xFIP). The Jays handed Ryu a large contract do to just that — log quality innings every fifth day. His strikeout rate is not elite (22.3%) but he will keep runs off the board.
The rest of this rotation is where it gets…interesting. The team lost Chase Anderson, Taijuan Walker, and Matt Shoemaker who made a combined 19 starts last year. Robbie Ray will get his chance to recapture what he was able to do in 2017, but you’d swear that pitcher existed ages ago, as Ray has been much harder to stomach the last few seasons. He can get you strikeouts, but his homer problems have skyrocketed, topping out at 2.26/9 last season. Ray is much better suited as a back end starter. But he’ll be getting a lot more responsibility than that.
Following him is Tanner Roark who has basically performed like Ray but without the strikeouts. The Blue Jays will hope they can get 150 IP out of him, but they’ll need their offense to be on the ball when Roark is on the mound — Roark’s 4.65 ERA over the last 4 seasons have been far from ideal. Steven Matz will help fill out the back of the rotation after being traded by the Mets. Matz was nothing short of abysmal last year, making 6 starts and 3 relief appearance to the tune of a 9.68 ERA (7.76 FIP/4.15 xFIP). His hard contact numbers have been steadily climbing for several season and culminated in one of the league’s worst overall marks last year. Ross Stripling, another of the team’s trade acquisitions at last year’s deadline will also be in line for a volume of starts. Out of all the non-Ryu starters, Stripling’s case file is probably the least unsightly. He enjoyed several quietly close to average seasons on the Dodgers before losing his touch a bit last year when he posted a career-worst walk rate (8.2 BB%) and his lowest K% since his rookie year (18.2%).
The main attraction of this rotation would have been prospect Nate Pearson, who was slated to be in the rotation prior to straining his groin in the first week of March. Pearson only managed 4 starts and a relief appearance in 2020 and the results weren’t anything to write home about. But, it was only 18 innings and the future still remains bright for Pearson. The team had a scare when he was shutdown with elbow pain late last year, but it appears to be behind him. There is currently no timetable for his return, but it shouldn’t keep him out for any extended part of 2021. Pearson is one of the better pitching prospects in baseball and the tall righty could be fronting this staff for years to come.
With Ken Giles headed to the Mariners, Toronto looked to free agent acquisition Kirby Yates to handle closer duties. Yates had something of a career renaissance in 2017, pitching for a 2.63 ERA (2.62 FIP/2.75 xFIP) and a 38.3 K% across 119.2 innings. Yates did go down with elbow inflammation late last season, but he was reportedly feeling fine and had already made his Spring debut. However, in a cruel twist of fate, it was revealed on Monday that Yates suffered a flexor-pronator strain in his right arm and is expected to need Tommy John surgery. Still, at just a 1-yr/$5.5mm commitment, the Jays didn’t invest much in Yates. But it’s still a troubling development for both Yates and the Jays.
Stepping into Yates’ shoes will possibly be Jordan Romano who made some strides in 2020. He only has 30 major league innings under his belt, but can touch the high 90s with his fastball and generates a lot of swing and misses on his slider. Rafael Dolis will also return to the Jays’ pen. Dolis was impressive in his 2nd major league debut (he hadn’t pitched stateside since 2013). Mainly a sinker baller now, Dolis can rack up Ks (31.0 K%) but the walks are a bit of an issue (14.0 BB%).
Ryan Borucki and new additions Tyler Chatwood and David Phelps will help fill out the middle innings. Borucki’s sinker/slider approach yielded results last year — 2.70 ERA (3.61 FIP/4.91 xFIP) and a 28.8 K%, but he had an inflated 16.4 BB% and a miniscule 5.6% HR/FB suggests some regression. Chatwood has bounced between the rotation and bullpen the last few seasons and could serve as an opener for the Jays if need be. Phelps has now gone from starter to long reliever to middle reliever in his career, and although 2020 was a letdown, the Jays are hoping he can capture a similar performance to what he gave the team during his first stint with them in 2019.
Entering his 15th major league season is Francisco Liriano. The veteran lefty last pitched in 2019 and pitched exclusively in relief for the first time in his career. That season for the Pirates, Liriano threw 70.0 innings with a 3.47 ERA(4.53 FIP/4.92 xFIP) and still possessed his strong slider that boasted a 33.9% CSW. The 37-year-old will look to continue his career reinvention in low leverage innings for Toronto.
Anthony Kay is an interesting arm who can work either long relief or spot starts for the Jays’ rotation. Kay can hit mid to high 90s with his fastball and is reportedly developing a cutter that can help deepen his arsenal a bit. Kay currently relies on a fastball/curveball/changeup mix and while his stuff won’t exactly blow you away, he can definitely prove to be an effective multi-inning reliever if not a starter in due time.
Storylines to Follow
The Blue Jays went for it this offseason after an excellent 2020 that saw them make the playoffs and nearly leapfrog the Yankees in the standings. They added a premier bat in George Springer and a solid middle infielder in Marcus Semien to complement their already impressive lineup. While it is certainly refreshing to see the Jays in a position of strength and spending (including signing Ryu last offseason) my question is, will it be enough? Ryu is an ace, but with Nate Pearson’s status up in the air and the rest of the rotation not looking like something you’d wanna show off to your friends, will they be able to keep this admittedly robust offense in the game? Now while I admit that “will they win games?” is a pretty broad storyline to follow, context is important here. The Jays are on the cusp of being a highly competitive team. They have one of the most exciting young group of hitters in the game and are making moves to make this team complete. But with Steven Matz and Tanner Roark And Robbie Ray assumedly getting the bulk of your starts, will the lineup be able to come through? To me the Jays are a fascinating team on the rise and I look forward to seeing how they handle their competition in the coming season.
Now I don’t think I would have written most of that last paragraph without mentioning the importance of Nate Pearson to this team. Probably the best right-handed pitching prospect in the game right now, Pearson has the tools to bring any rotation to the next level. His fastball regularly hits the high 90s that he can push to over 100 in a pinch. His slider is excellent as well, registering a 39.7% CSW in his brief 18 inning cameo last season. As I touched on earlier, Pearson was shut down last season with elbow pain and after injuring and slightly re-aggravating his groin this Spring, and there isn’t a timetable for his return. While the injury doesn’t seem incredibly serious, the Blue Jays are being and have every reason to be extremely careful with their highly valuable young starter. There will be plenty of starts to have when Pearson is healthy, and hopefully that is sooner than later.
2020 Record: 33-27 (.550 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
- Additions: Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon, Darren O’Day, Justin Wilson, Jay Bruce, Derek Dietrich, Robinson Chirinos
- Subtractions: Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, Adam Ottavino, J.A. Happ, Tommy Kahnle, Ben Heller, Jonathan Holder
The Yankeed ended last season with 315 runs scored (5.25/game) which was good for 4th overall in the league. Collectively, they hit .247/.342/.447 (116 wRC+) and were headlined by 2nd baseman DJ Lemahieu who led the entire team with a 176 wRC+. The Yankees deep lineup was the crux of their season, which ultimately came to an end in the ALDS at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays. This year, the Bombers are hoping for another trip to the postseason. Lemahieu was re-signed to a 6-year deal and the team made several trades and signings to help bolster their bullpen and rotation.
With LeMahieu back in the fold, he’ll get the majority of leadoff duty. His adversity to strikeouts and elite on base ability make him a perfect fit for leading off ahead of the powerful middle of the order bats the Yankees possess. Right fielder Aaron Judge will take up the 2nd spot in the order. When healthy, Judge is among the best hitters in the league but his career has been absolutely marred by constant injury. The 6’7”, 282lb outfielder has a body type more typical in football or basketball, and the constant question remains whether or not his large body can stay healthy for a full season. After playing in 155 games in his excellent rookie year in 2017, Judge has barely been able to crack 100 games played, and even managed only 28 last season. If he can stay healthy, he is among the top outfielders in the game. However, that “if” is just as large as Judge is. Until he can play a full season, color me concerned.
Aaron Hicks will get both center field duty and is projected to hold down the #3 spot in the lineup. Hicks enjoyed a nice 2020 season, playing in 54 games in which he hit .225/.379/.414 (123 wRC+) to go along with 6 homers and 4 swiped bags. He won’t hit for average, but he can get on base and run into the occasional homer, while providing excellent defense in center. Because one hulking giant wasn’t enough for the Yankees, they also employ one Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton’s days in the outfield are basically over for the most part, but his penchant for injury has drawn the ire of many fans. However, Stanton did produce when he’s on the field. In his 3 seasons in pinstripes, Stanton has hit .266/353/.507 with 45 long balls. The inherent problem, though, is that figure comes with only 199 games played in the possible 384 of the last 3 seasons. Stanton was also a force in the 2020 playoffs in which he hit .308/.387/1.038 with 6 home runs across 7 total games against the Rays and Cleveland. Much like Judge, Stanton is an intimidating presence at the plate when he is healthy. And both of their ability to stay in the lineup has and will be crucial for this team to succeed.
Luke Voit led the league in homers last season with 22 and will be entrenched as the team’s everyday first baseman. With a 152 wRC+, he was one of baseball’s best hitters in the shortened season. Gleyber Torres took over full time shortstop duty with the departure of Didi Gregorius, and 2020 was not so kind to Torres. After almost winning Rookie of the Year in 2018 and a great 38-homer season in 2019, Torres was roughly league average last year in the 42 games he played around a hamstring injury. If he can somewhat return to the hitter he was in 2018-19, the Yankees lineup could be all the more dangerous.
Gary Sánchez was another casualty of 2020, but this was not a 1 year aberration. Sánchez has seen a brutal crater in production over the last several seasons, leading many to question whether or not he has a future with the team. The Yankees continue to express confidence in Sánchez, so it looks as if his job is safe for now. Any production he can give the team at this point would be a positive, but with a steady increase in strikeouts and batting averages dipping well below .200, it’s not looking likely.
Clint Frazier seems to have finally wrestled the starting left field job away from Brett Gardner, a role he’s been aspiring to ever since being acquired from Cleveland back in the summer of 2016. His defense is still somewhat questionable in the outfield, but it’s improving and easy to overlook when he produces at the plate. In his first time having a “full time” role last season, Frazier hit .267/.394/.511 with 8 home runs and 3 steals in 39 games. The strikeouts are a bit of a concern, but to Frazier’s credit he’s been slowly cutting back on them since 2018. The Yankees are deep at the outfield position, so Frazier will have to continue to impress if he wants to hang on to the gig.
3rd baseman Gio Urshela looks to continue his breakout since landing in New York. He played in 43 games last season and put up a very similar overall performance in comparison to 2019. His power and average took a little bit of a dip, but he increased his walks and decreased his strikeouts, and all told his 133 wRC+ was right in line with 2019 (132 wRC+). After an underwhelming first few seasons in the bigs, many were unsure if Urshela’s performance in 2019 would stick, but it looks as if he has figured it out. If nothing else, Urshela also brings some excellent glovework at 3B, and he has even been getting reps at shortstop just in case.
The Yankees bench will be a bit more fluid than it has in years past. Kyle Higashioka was dealing with an injury in camp but looks to be fine — he’ll serve as the primary backup catcher and a decent option should Sánchez continue to struggle. Brett Gardner will lock down a spot after re-signing once again. He and Mike Tauchman will figure to be the primary backup OF should any of their starters falter or succumb to injury. The team also picked up veteran Jay Bruce on a minor league deal, and he has shown he can handle both 1B and OF duties and is making a case for a bench spot. Tyler Wade will be the primary backup IF. Wade can play basically anywhere but his bat has been dreadful – in 4 seasons the best he has managed is a 87 wRC+. Mike Ford looked like he was on the verge of a breakout in 2019, but in 29 games last year looked absolutely helpless at the plate – .135/.226/.270 with only 2 home runs across 84 plate appearances. He has a good chance of starting the year at AAA. Derek Dietrich’s name has also been thrown around as a utility INF/OF type. Dietrich has struggled the last 2 seasons but had several serviceable seasons in Miami. He can handle multiple positions, will run into a handful of home runs, and provides a lefty presence at the plate that the Yankees have very little of. He has an outside shot of supplanting Wade.
2018 Rookie of the Year runner-up Miguel Andújar had been fighting for a roster spot prior to injuring his hand/wrist a week ago, and according to the team the injury is not healing as quickly as they’d like. Given his struggled both at the plate and on defense the last two seasons, coupled with the emergence of Urshela, it was a longshot Andújar would start the year on the big league roster.
Projected Starting Rotation
With ace Gerrit Cole manning the helm once again, the Yankees had some big changes in their starting rotation. Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, and J.A. Happ are all gone in free agency. That trio has handled quite a bit of work for New York over the last 3 seasons, all with varying degrees of success. Nevertheless, the Yankees went in a different direction and made 2 key moves: trading for Pirates’ Jameson Taillon and signing Corey Kluber to a 1-year deal. Cole, Kluber, and Taillon are all locks for the rotation, with multiple options for the Yankees to fill out the rest.
Cole may not have racked up the K numbers he did in Houston — but we’re still talking a 32.6 K%. He made 12 starts, threw 73.0 innings, and ended the year with a 2.84 ERA (3.89 FIP/3.38 xFIP). It wasn’t the Cole that some fans were expecting, but he was still elite and on the shortlist for one of the best pitchers in the game right now. Write him down for 200 IP, elite strikeouts, and an ERA below 3.
Kluber and Taillon is where things get more interesting. Kluber has barely been able to pitch over the last 2 seasons due to a teres muscle strain and a broken arm from a comebacker line drive. He’ll play this season at age 35 and with well over 1,000 innings on his arm, it’s tough to say what Kluber can still give you. Still, if he can perform anything close to his Cy Young Award winning heyday, this will be an absolute steal for the Yankees. Taillon made 7 starts in 2020, throwing 37.1 innings with a 19.0 K% and a 4.10 ERA (3.80 FIP/4.06 xFIP). He still has an excellent walk percentage – 5.1% last year, 6.0% career — with mid 90s fastball velocity and a good spinning curve. This trade could work out well for New York, a move similar to the James Paxton/Nathan Eovaldi trades of years past. At worst, Taillon can help soak up innings at the back of the rotation. At best, he can be an excellent #2 behind Cole.
Jordan Montgomery’s 2020 wasn’t exactly what the team envisioned coming off his Tommy John surgery recovery that kept him sidelined for most of 2018-19. He didn’t go very deep into games, completing 6 innings in just 1 of his 10 starts. What Montgomery can do though is induce soft contact, with above average 6.0 Barrel%, 29.9 Hard Hit%, and 84.6 mph average exit velocity. If he can tap into his strikeout potential, Montgomery can be an excellent back end arm.
The 5th starter spot and beyond is where things get hazy. Deivi García was the early favorite for the spot, but a dip in production and spike in hard contact last year seem to be giving the team some apprehension of handing him the spot outright. Domingo Germán has had an excellent spring, but his domestic violence suspension and somewhat puzzling semi-serious retirement posts on social media loom large over the heads of the Yankees. Unfortunately, it seems like domestic violence isn’t something the Yankees are terribly bothered by as evidence of their still employing Aroldis Chapman.
Clarke Schmidt, Mike King, and Jhoulys Chacín are all in the mix for spot starts as well. Schmidt went down with an elbow injury and it’s unclear how long he will be out. Chacín hasn’t looked all that great in Spring Training and will most likely serve as AAA depth. King has had some solid results since getting a real look last season, but it’s up in the air whether or not King is better suited as a swingman or a traditional middle reliever.
What may end up being the X-Factor for this team is Luis Severino. Severino hasn’t pitched since 2019 in which he only threw 12 innings. This past February, the team revealed Severino would require Tommy John surgery and will start 2021 on the IL. From what we have heard, he seems to be progressing well from the surgery, and recently threw a 20-pitch bullpen session off of a mound. With a May-June return not completely out of the question, the Yankees could very well be flush with starting pitching options come this summer.
Although he’ll start the season serving out his 2 game suspension for throwing at Mike Brosseau last season, Aroldis Chapman will serve as the team’s primary closer. His average fastball velocity has been somewhat declining, but he still sat at an elite 97.8 mph avg velocity last season. He also brings a very good slider to the table that keeps hitters off balance when dealing with his very fast 4 seamer. He will be the go-to option to close out the 9th.
Typically a high leverage inning fireman, Chad Green has been thrust into a much more high pressure situation with the team’s trading of Adam Ottavino and the injury to Zack Britton. Green’s incredible fastball along with his very effective curve and revitalized slider make him an extremely effective high leverage reliever. He’ll be supported in the later innings mainly by new additions Darren O’Day and Justin Wilson, who is doing his 2nd stint in pinstripes. O’Day has been an incredibly consistent reliever in his 13 year career, and has found a great amount of success over the last 2 seasons in Atlanta, in an albeit small 21.2 IP sample size. In that timeframe, he’s made 27 appearances with a 1.25 ERA (2.60 FIP/3.97 xFIP) and a 31.8 K%. He heavily utilizes his slider to great effectiveness — just ask Pirates catcher Tony Wolters. Wilson is moving across town after spending the last 2 years with the Mets where he logged 58.2 IP and a 2.91 ERA (3.62 FIP/4.01 xFIP). He doesn’t generate elite levels of strikeouts, but he’s done an excellent job of limiting hard contact in his career. This past Monday, Wilson exited from his appearance against the Phillies with shoulder tightness which is less than ideal. The Yankees could very well be without another of their top lefty relief arms for a while.
Lucas Luetge, Luis Cessa, Nick Nelson, and Jonathan Loáisiga will all serve in middle innings and long relief in some capacity. Luetge is an interesting arm, he hasn’t pitched in the majors sine 2015 and his overall body of work wasn’t all that impressive. The lefty has been excellent so far this Spring though, throwing 6.1 scoreless innings while ringing up 13 batters. Both Cessa and Loáisiga have bounced between rotation and bullpen the last few seasons, but outside of an emergency it seems as if their time in the rotation is done. Both are effective at keeping walks in check, and although his strikeouts dipped last year (22.0 K%) he historically has been able to generate them at a solid pace (26.5% career).
Some minor leaguers who could get a crack at the bullpen include Albert Abreu and Luis Medina, both power righty arms that have become hallmark in the Yankees’ minor league system. The team also has a bevy of non roster invitees like Kyle Barraclough, Adam Warren, Nick Goody, and Tyler Lyons who all have an outside chance of making the team, but could all very well end up back in free agency by Opening Day.
Lefty Zack Britton will be sorely missed by the Yankees. Britton has been one of the Yankees’ best relievers since coming over from Baltimore, a steadying force in the later innings and could easily step into a closing role when needed. Britton is having surgery to remove a bone spur in his elbow and plans to be back on the mound sometime in the 2nd half of the season.
Storylines to Follow
As it once was and seemingly always shall be, the Yankees starting pitching depth is in question. Whether it’s Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton or Michael Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi, the Yankees haven’t been able to take the leap into reliable and consistent middle of the rotation arms. But the acquisition of Jameson Taillon from the Pirates and the signing of Corey Kluber has given renewed hope that the Yankees may finally have a good supporting cast behind their ace. With a cavalcade of young arms that can eat innings at the back of the rotation, it’s going to fall on Kluber and Taillon (and Jordan Montgomery, too) to provide consistent pitching that can keep the already thinning bullpen from burning out.
On the other side of the ball, two Yankees hitters are coming off of disappointing 2020s that need to be improved, one much more dire than the other: Gleyber Torres and Gary Sánchez. While many are far less worried for the usually consistent Torres to bounce back from his somewhat sluggish 2020, Sánchez may be on his last chance with New York. After a big burst onto the scene in 2016-2017, the backstop has been ice cold and oft-injured. Not to mention his much-questioned defensive ability. Torres and Sánchez will both be hitting towards the bottom of the lineup, but if they can produce the Yankee lineup would go from excellent to elite in a hurry. That is, if they can continue to keep both Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge healthy and hitting. There are a whole lot of “if”s standing between New York and another title.
Deivi García finally made it to the Bronx last season after quickly becoming one of the better arms in their system. The results were mixed in his 6 starts but García did show his ability to deep into games, throwing 6+ innings in 4 of his 6 starts and racked up 27 K’s in just 28.1 IP. García has looked quite good so far in Spring Training, but the crowded rotation and re-emergence of Domingo Germán as well as the looming return of Luis Severino casts some doubt on García’s ability to stick around on the big league roster. The Yankees seem committed to keeping him as a starter and for good reason, so a bullpen job is probably not necessary at this point. García has shown he can succeed at the major league level at just 21 years old, and could very well be one of the better starters on their roster this season.
2020 Record: 40-20 (.667 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
- Additions: Francisco Mejía, Rich Hill, Chris Archer, Luis Patiño, Michael Wacha, Collin McHugh
- Subtractions: Blake Snell, Charlie Morton, José Alvarado, Nate Lowe, Hunter Renfroe
The Rays finished last year with 289 runs scored (4.8/game) which was good for 12th best in the league. Collectively they hit .238/.328/.425 (110 wRC+) with 80 homers and 48 stolen bases. The steals mark was quite good, coming in at #6 league wide. The hitting side of things was led by the likes of Brandon Lowe, Willy Adames, and Randy Arozarena to name a few, while Tyler Glasnow, Blake Snell, Charlie Morton, and Ryan Yarbrough fronted a very good starting rotation. While the pitching may look a bit different going into 2021, much of the hitters we’ve become familiar with will be back again for Tampa Bay this season.
Austin Meadows saw a major dip in production last year after a very good 2019 when he hit 33 home runs and had a 143 wRC+. In 36 games in 2020, Meadows hit .205/.296/.371 (87 wRC+) and saw a spike of over 10% in his K% to 32.9%. Part of Meadows’ issue was a sudden platoon split issue, something that never bothered him much in his career. Last season, Meadows hit just .143 against lefties. If he can’t muster the same results at he did in 2019, Meadows may find himself in a platoon situation as the Rays are not short of options.
Second baseman Brandon Lowe picked up where he left off after his excellent 2019, cutting back on the strikeouts by a massive amount while steadily increasing his walk rate. He also sweated 14 home runs in just 224 plate appearances. Lowe makes excellent quality of contact and brings the Rays a layer of versatility that they can deploy either at 2B or in the outfield. A more recent breakout star, Randy Arozarena, will be the starter in left field. You may remember Arozarena from the 2020 playoffs in which he had one of the most productive postseasons ever — a .377/.442/.831 batting line with 10 homers over the course of 77 at bats. Projections aren’t as rosy on Arozarena as you’d expect, but he can easily clear 20 homers and 15 steals if he stays on the field.
With regular 1B Ji-Man Choi sidelined with a knee injury, the Rays will turn to a combination of Yoshi Tsutsugo and Yandy Díaz to handle 1B in his absence. Tsutsugo’s first season stateside was less than ideal as in 511 games he totalled a .197/.314/.395 (98 wRC+) batting line. However he can still take a walk at a great clip (14.1%) while making very hard contact when he does connect. Díaz saw his quality of contact plummet from 2019 levels, but his mitigation of striekouts (12.3%) and strong walk capability (16.7%) make him an asset. Over the last 3 seasons, Díaz has played just about 1 full regular season, and in 152 games he’s hit .285/.367/.445 with 17 homers.
Manuel Margot has possibly his best season since 2017, but saw his power potential drop off precipitously with only 1 homer and a .083 ISO. He’ll handle RF duties with Meadows being more heavily used in a DH role these days and as a LF when he is needed on defense. Joey Wendle was also quietly above average last year, as his .286/.342/.435 (116 wRC+) line can attest to. Wendle doesn’t possess a ton of power, but he limits strikeouts (17.7% career) and can get on base (.332 career OBP) while providing the Rays with defensive versatility at 3B, 2B, and SS. Outfielder Brett Phillips will also see time in CF and RF, but will start the year on the IL with a hamstring strain.
Willy Adames was one of the more surprising Rays bats to break out a bit last year. His strikeouts spike by about 10% to an unsightly 36.1%, but he seems to be selling out a bit for power, as his ISO shot up from .164 to .222. He’ll have some time to continue to prove his worth with top prospect Wander Franco looming. CF Kevin Kiermaier was the subject of a lot of trade speculation in the offseason, but it appears his role is safe for now. Kiermaier has never been a wizard with the bat, but he can still provide double digit steals and excellent defense in center. Mike Zunino and Francisco Mejía will handle the bulk of catching duty. Zunino set a career-high eye popping 44.0 K% last season and Mejía has yet to deliver on his prospect status he held back in Cleveland and San Diego. Tampa is not going to generate a ton of offense from the catcher position aside from the occasional Zunino homer.
Projected Starting Rotation
|7||Brent Honeywell Jr.||R|
Typically an area of strength for the Rays, the 2021 starting rotation is looking a bit dicer than it has in years past. With the trade of Blake Snell to the Padres and the departure of Charlie Morton in free agency, the burden of leading this staff will fall squarely on the shoulders of Tyler Glasnow.
Glasnow had an exciting breakout in 2019, tossing 60.2 innings across 12 starts with a 1.78 ERA (2.26 FIP/2.94 xFIP) and excellent strikeout (33.0%) and walk (6.1%) numbers. While his 4.08 ERA wasn’t as attractive, he improved to an incredible 38.2 K% and 14.0 Swinging-Strike%. Coupled with an inflated HR/FB of 23.4%, it’s easy to see why Glasnow was the victim of some bad luck in regards to his ERA. Glasnow is a presence on the mound at 6’8″ and pounds the zone with a high 90s running fastball and a great curveball that bottoms out to generate a ton of swings and misses. Glasnow has some of the nastiest stuff in the game and has the chance to break into the upper echelon on starters this year.
Ryan Yarbrough is another one of the seemingly endless amount of Rays who had a quietly great 2020. Yarbrough made 11 appearances (9 starts) and recorded a 3.56 ERA (3.80 FIP/4.33 xFIP) in 55.2 IP. He nicely kept the walks down to 5.1% but unfortunately the same goes for strikeouts with a 18.8% mark. Luckily for Yarbrough, he lives on inducing weak contact, with some of the best average exit velo (82.6 mph) and Hard-Hit % (25.1%) in the league.
In order to help fill the void left by Morton and Snell (and Yonny Chirinos‘ Tommy John surgery) the Rays signed both Rich Hill and old pal Chris Archer to one year deals. Hill is entering his 17th major league season and even at age 41 is still managing to post above average results. In 8 starts for the Twins last year, he posted a 3.03 ERA (3.99 FIP/4.93 xFIP) although his strikeout (19.9 K%) and walk (10.9%) were far worse than his career average. He’s also battled a ton of injuries over the past few seasons, so a lot of innings might not be something the Rays can count on Hill for. However, coupled with their very good bullpen, Hill could serve a vital role at the back of the rotation, eating 4 or 5 innings per start and handing the game off to the relievers. Archer is a different story. Ever since his peak around 2015 or so, Archer’s production has been slowly eroding. Things didn’t improve when he was traded to Pittsburgh culminating in a 2019 of 23 starts, a 5.19 ERA (5.02 FIP/4.36 xFIP) and the highest walk percentage since his rookie year at 10.5%. He then spent the entirety of 2020 on the shelf after needing neck surgery. It’s hard to say what to expect out of Archer for 2021, and to his credit he has made it known he is willing to be flexible for the team, but as of right now its hard to envision him as a league average starter who can maybe give you 5 innings per start and some good strikeout numbers and hope the offense keeps you in the game.
Michael Wacha was originally brought in as rotation depth but is now looking like the #5 starter for the Rays. He’s looked good in Spring Training but was quite hittable last year, with a 6.62 ERA (5.25 FIP/4.30 xFIP) despite some solid peripherals. Knowing the Rays’ penchant for picking up diamonds in the rough, Wacha could very well turn back the clock to his early days in St. Louis. Following Wacha on the starter depth chart are a multitude of minor leaguers but the likes of Luis Patiño, Brent Honeywell Jr., and Shane McClanahan come to mind most frequently. McClanahan made the Rays’ postseason roster last year but served entirely in relief, casting doubt on if the team sees him a starter, at least for right now. Honeywell Jr.’s name has been floated around the Rays top prospects lists for years as injuries have decimated his development. He may finally crack the big league roster this season whether it be as a starter or an opener. Finally we have Patiño. Coming over from San Diego in the Blake Snell deal, Patiño is one of the better pitching prospects in the game right now. His stuff is still unrefined and he can struggle with command, but given time under Tampa’s tutelage, he can go very far. Look for Patiño to be one of the first arms they call on when reinforcements are needed.
The Rays bullpen was great in 2020, pitching a total of 269.2 innings (3rd most) with a 3.37 ERA (3.45 FIP/4.16 xFIP) with a 23.5 K% and a 7.8 BB%. 12 different pitchers recorded a save for Tampa in 2020, and Nick Anderson led the team with 6. Riding his devastating fastball/curveball combo, Anderson made 19 appearances total, tossing 16.1 innings to the tune of a sparkling 0.55 ERA and a 44.8 K%. Anderson was on the rise even back in Miami, and he delivered in a big way this past season. However, down the stretch and into the playoffs, Anderson himself admitted to some fatigue that led to a rough postseason for him. That led to a reveal earlier this week that Anderson has a partially torn elbow ligament and will likely be out of action deep into the 2021 season. Luckily for the Rays, they have several other options to lean on in late game situations, leading to a mix and match strategy that could see another 12 or more names notch a save for Tampa in 2021.
Pete Fairbanks emerged in the 2020 playoffs as a late game option as well, and although he too had a bit of a stall in the World Series, he recorded a 2.70 ERA (3.04 FIP/3.58 xFIP) in 26.2 innings on the year with a 33.3 K% but is still learning how to get his walks (12%) under control. He and Anderson both possess excellent, mid-to-high 90s fastballs and Fairbanks pairs his with one of the best sliders in the game. But Fairbanks and Anderson are not alone in the late-game mix. As the Rays are wont to do, they have plentiful options at their command and Diego Castillo is one of them. Castillo had his best year in the majors last season, making 22 appearances and recording 4 saves. Castillo’s fastball is may be the fastest out of the closer trio, regularly sitting in the high 90s and can get over 100 at times. Given Tampa’s propensity to not stick to traditional roles, it’s anyone’s guess who will be closing out the most games for the team this season, but the chances are they’re going to be a tough at bat.
The middle innings will be hosted by a combination of Ryan Thompson, Ryan Sherriff, Cody Reed, and Chaz Roe. Thompson and his sidearm delivery made his MLB debut last season and delivered 26.1 IP — the 2nd most among Rays relievers — with a 4.44 ERA (4.33 FIP/3.75 xFIP). He won’t blow you away with velocity, but possesses a nice fastball/slider combo that can keep hitters off balance. Sherriff had a short but meaningful 2020 campaign in which he threw a scoreless 9.2 IP with 2 more in the playoffs for good measure. Reed has only logged 18.1 IP over the last 2 seasons, but he did so with a more than acceptable 3.44 ERA (4.18 FIP/3.93 xFIP) while relying heavily on his still improving slider that clocked in at an excellent 40.5% CSW last season. Much like Reed, Chaz Roe is a slider-heavy reliever as well, and Roe’s wiffleball-like variety is known around the league for its deadliness.
The Rays bullpen is a challenge from top to bottom and will continue to befuddle hitters in 2021. Any slack left from the rotation will be picked up with grace by this relief corps.
Storylines to Follow
The Rays have been a starting pitching factory over the last decade plus, and that very well may remain true with some of the arms soon to break the big leagues. But this year seems a bit different. Retreads like Michael Wacha, Rich Hill, and Chris Archer will surely be sturdy enough to hold down a few innings with occasional blow ups before handing things off to the bullpen. But will it be enough support for Tyler Glasnow? The Rays made the World Series last year and traded away one of their best starters and let the other depart in free agency. While, as a Yankee fan, I have learned to not doubt the thought processes of the Rays’ front office as I am consistently wrong, but for a team with a very open window at a title, their first title, this strikes me as a strange move. This team’s offense and bullpen are great and will carry them far, but if they breakdown again when it counts, will it be worth it?
I am also very excited for Randy Arozarena. He had one of the best playoff performances we’ve seen in recent memory and he seems to just be getting started. The Rays gave up a good prospect in Matthew Liberatore to acquire Arozarena (and José Martinez) and the return on investment has been beneficial to say the least. Arozarena just turned 26 last month and he could very well be a household name by the end of the year.
As much as I’d love to take the easy way out here and say Wander Franco, I will refrain. We all know Franco is coming and he’s going to be here soon. Who I am most excited to see is 2B prospect Vidal Brujan. Brujan is still only 22 and has yet to play above AA, but he has the makings of a possibly elite leadoff hitter who can steal bases and hit from both sides of the plate. He makes good contact, he can play good defense at the keystone, and gives Rays fans a ton to be excited about. He probably won’t be up as soon as Wander Franco, but I think he’s quietly poised to make a big impact.
So, the question you may be asking is “So who is going to win this division?” And to be fair, I’ve thought about this quite a bit myself. The Rays lost some key pitching but are still an annoyingly deep roster. The Yankees made some improvements but seem to be constantly susceptible to nagging injuries. Do the Jays have enough firepower to compete with the rest of the AL? Who’s ahead of the rebuild game, the Sox or O’s?
Looking at last year’s prediction, the only team I got correct was the Blue Jays in 3rd place. So for this year I figured I don’t have a lot to lose. And of course, all disclaimers apply (I am often wrong about many things) and feel free to use this to laugh at me later on:
|1||New York Yankees||98-64||.604|
|2||Tampa Bay Rays||92-70||.569|
|3||Toronto Blue Jays||88-74||.543|
|4||Boston Red Sox||78-84||.481|
I think this top 3 of this division is going to be incredibly close throughout the year, but the Yankees seemed poised to take back the division crown from the Rays. Don’t sleep on Tampa though, they are still a well-oiled machine and could easily win 90+ games with their current roster, let alone any in-season call ups and trades that could occur. The Blue Jays are a rapidly improving team, I just don’t see them leapfrogging the Rays or Yankees just yet. Their starting rotation is fairly suspect and their bullpen depth isn’t as impressive as that of Tampa. The Red Sox are a team that could jump right back into .500+ baseball, but there are too many question marks in their rotation to hand them an even season as of today. The Orioles, unfortunately, are occupying last place in my predictions. I think they have some intriguing arms and some good prospects on the way, but they just don’t have the star power or depth to compete with the rest of this admittedly very strong division.
Photos by IconSportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)