clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Could This Be the Year the AL East Finally Flips?

After decades of Yankees–Red Sox dominance at the top of the division, this offseason has shown the Blue Jays and Rays are ready to turn the AL East on its head

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Yankees and Red Sox have ruled the AL East since its modern inception. Starting in 1994, the advent of the six-division era, at least one of those two teams has finished first or second in the division every single season.

But something’s different this year: As a condensed, frenzied offseason approaches its close, the division hierarchy seems to be flipping. The Yankees and Red Sox are now the third- and fourth-favorites, respectively, to win the AL East, according to FanDuel odds. Ahead of them are the Rays, two-time reigning division champs who still have all their most important players, and the Blue Jays, who look like the most exciting team in the American League.

The Yankees and Red Sox should still contend in 2022, of course—and with the addition of yet another wild-card berth in each league, there might be enough playoff spots to go around for all four AL East contenders. FanGraphs currently lists the entire quartet amid the top six in projected wins in the American League. (Sorry to Baltimore, which FanGraphs projects to have simultaneously the majors’ least-talented team and hardest schedule.)

But the balance of power might have shifted. The Rays and Blue Jays now have their best chance ever to seize control of the division—a feat they almost accomplished last season. Tampa Bay coasted to a division title in 2021 with an eight-game gap, while Toronto finished just a game behind the Red Sox and Yankees. Both of the two upstart teams also had much better run differentials than the two typical titans:

  • Rays: +206
  • Blue Jays: +183
  • Red Sox: +80
  • Yankees: +42

That shiny run differential didn’t translate to enough wins for the Blue Jays to qualify for the playoffs, but they’ve remained aggressive this winter to consolidate around a young, dynamic core. The highlight acquisition came in a trade with Oakland this week, as Toronto exchanged four prospects—none of them top-tier—for third baseman Matt Chapman.

At his best, Chapman is a two-way star; he received MVP votes in 2018 and 2019. He’s suffered an offensive downturn since the start of 2020, with a hip injury and strikeout rate that ballooned to 33 percent. But even as an average hitter, the three-time Gold Glover is an exceptionally valuable player because of his defense: Since 2018, his first full season in MLB, Chapman has recorded 63 defensive runs saved, the most for any player at any position. Among third basemen, Nolan Arenado (54) is the only other player above 23 DRS in that span.

Now, the Blue Jays’ biggest splashes aren’t purely exciting additions, but rather replacements for players lost this offseason. New starter Kevin Gausman takes the rotation spot vacated by Robbie Ray, last year’s Cy Young winner, who signed with the Mariners in November, while Chapman—with an ensuing infield shuffle—effectively replaces Marcus Semien, who went to the Rangers after finishing third in MVP voting last year. Ray and Semien weren’t just productive, but healthy as well: Ray made 32 starts and Semien played in all 162 games.

Yet the Blue Jays should also expect full seasons from George Springer, whose injuries limited him to 78 games last season, and José Berríos, who made 12 starts for Toronto after a July trade. And unlike New York and Boston—we’ll get there—the Blue Jays’ roster doesn’t exhibit any glaring weaknesses.

The rotation might not have a true ace, but it compensates with three legitimate candidates—Berríos, Gausman, and Hyun-Jin Ryu—while second-year starter Alek Manoah, youngster Nate Pearson, and free agent signee Yusei Kikuchi all offer tantalizing potential. (Manoah might have graduated to the top group already, after posting a 3.22 ERA and 3.80 FIP in 20 starts last season.)

And the lineup should mash in a manner reminiscent of the 2015 Blue Jays, who, led by MVP Josh Donaldson, José Bautista, and Edwin Encarnación, scored 127 runs more than any other team—a gap of 0.8 runs per game, the largest between the two top-scoring teams since 1953. After trading for an All-Star third baseman from Oakland, those Blue Jays won their first and still-only AL East title since the move to the six-division structure.

More than merely winning, though, they won in style. Bautista’s famous bat flip against Texas in that year’s ALDS was a fitting climax to their season, full of righteous swagger and tremendous spectator fun.

This current core of Springer, Chapman, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Bo Bichette should promise the same sort of combination. “Last year was the trailer,” Guerrero, who finished second in MVP voting last year, said on Thursday. “Now you guys are going to see the movie.”

In addition to talent, the Blue Jays should benefit from better luck this season. Toronto fell short of its Pythagorean expected record—based on run differential—by eight games a season ago. That underperformance was the largest in the American League. (In the NL, the 110-loss Diamondbacks were nine games below their 101-loss expectation.) Fortunately, that type of misfortune doesn’t typically linger across seasons.

From 1969 (the first season of the divisional era) through 2019 (to avoid pandemic weirdness), the 100 “unluckiest” teams, in terms of the difference between their actual record and Pythagorean record, finished an average of 7.7 wins below expectation. The next year, though, those teams finished an average of just 0.3 wins below expectation—meaning, essentially, all their bad luck disappeared. A whopping 81 percent of those unlucky teams had better records the following season.

The Blue Jays might also gain from an unprecedented advantage: Opposing players must be vaccinated against COVID-19 to cross the Canadian border to play in Toronto. It’s unclear how many stars this mandate will prevent from facing the Jays, but in an era of homogenous ballparks and easier travel, a team needs a really weird situation to create a meaningful home-field advantage—like the Rockies, who hold three of the four strongest single-season home-field advantages in the six-division era (not counting the shortened 2020 season) thanks to the various effects of Coors Field’s altitude. And this situation may just be weird enough to grab the Blue Jays a few extra wins over the course of the season.

Toronto, however, is not alone in its battle against the division’s usual hegemons. Tampa Bay’s already usurped the Yankees and Red Sox two years in a row, in fact, and is essentially poised to run back the same roster that won an AL-best 100 games last season. The Rays have remained quiet this offseason: They traded away a few platoon bats—Jordan Luplow, Mike Brosseau, and Joey Wendle—and lost a couple relievers, most notably Collin McHugh, while adding Corey Kluber and reliever Brooks Raley for pitching depth.

Otherwise, the main reason for excitement in 2022 is that they’ll have a full season from Wander Franco. Despite having played just 70 career big league games, last season’s no. 1 prospect already projects as one of the dozen best position players in the majors.

Top Position Player Projections in 2022

Player Projected WAR
Player Projected WAR
Juan Soto 7.4
Mike Trout 6.6
José Ramírez 6.2
Aaron Judge 5.9
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 5.9
Mookie Betts 5.8
Trea Turner 5.4
Alex Bregman 5.3
Carlos Correa 5.3
Ronald Acuña Jr. 5.3
Wander Franco 5.1
Corey Seager 5.0
Bryce Harper 5.0
Kyle Tucker 5.0
Bo Bichette 4.9
Marcus Semien 4.9
Byron Buxton 4.9
Francisco Lindor 4.9
Via FanGraphs

Words don’t do Franco’s potential justice: He hit .288/.347/.463 (127 wRC+) as a 20-year-old shortstop. Since the start of modern baseball, only Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Correa, and Fernando Tatis Jr. have hit better at that age and position.

Beyond Franco, the Rays had a sneakily excellent lineup last season—only the Astros and Blue Jays had a better team wRC+—and 11 of the top 12 players in plate appearances are still on the roster. And that count doesn’t include the likes of Taylor Walls and Vidal Bruján, products of one of the league’s best farm systems who are due larger roles this season

And while FanGraphs’ preseason projections place Tampa Bay behind both Toronto and New York in the AL East pecking order, it’s worth noting that projections struggle to properly account for the Rays’ depth. Over the last four seasons, Tampa Bay has outperformed its forecast by a wide margin every year. That doesn’t mean the Rays always play better than expected—projections overshot their actual record in both 2016 and 2017—but there’s certainly reason to believe the Rays will win 90-plus games once again, no matter what the early forecasts say.

Rays Actual vs. Projected Win Totals

Year Projected Actual Difference
Year Projected Actual Difference
2018 75.6 90 +14.4
2019 84.3 96 +11.7
2020 33.8 40 +6.2 (16.8 prorated to 162 games)
2021 82.9 100 +17.1

As a contrast with the Rays, the Red Sox are not returning all of their key players. Last season, Boston claimed 92 wins, beat the Yankees in the wild-card game, and upset the Rays in the ALDS—but Boston looks worse this time around, definitely in the lineup and potentially in the rotation, too.

The 2021 Red Sox enjoyed a full season of Hunter Renfroe and a partial season from July acquisition Kyle Schwarber, who combined for 3.2 WAR; now they’re both gone, with no replacements in sight. Currently the Red Sox seem slated to start Jackie Bradley Jr., who’s back in Boston after an utterly disastrous season in Milwaukee: He hit .163/.236/.261, which was 65 percent worse than league average for by far the worst performance at the plate for anyone with at least 400 plate appearances.

The rotation, meanwhile, lost Eduardo Rodríguez in free agency, leaving Nathan Eovaldi as the only sure thing. Chris Sale should make more starts this season than in 2021, as he recovered from Tommy John surgery, but he can’t pitch in Toronto because he’s not vaccinated, and more broadly Sale will be shut down for weeks and miss the start of the season because of a stress fracture in his rib cage.

Boston benefitted from relative injury luck last season; according to Baseball Prospectus, the Red Sox ranked second out of the 10 playoff clubs in terms of least value lost to injuries, behind only the Brewers. And if that luck worsens this year, the Red Sox’s failure to add meaningful depth this offseason could put them in real trouble. The club’s free agent activity has consisted of signing five low-cost pitchers for a total of six years and $33 million guaranteed.

The Yankees have been more active than Boston, but they boast a similar amount of obvious deficiencies. They haven’t signed any new players so far in free agency, choosing only to bring back first baseman Anthony Rizzo, reserve outfielder Tim Locastro, and reliever Joely Rodríguez. Rather, their big acquisitions for 2022 came in trades: first, last summer, when they added Joey Gallo, who is also under contract for 2022; and second, this week, when they traded Gary Sánchez and Gio Urshela to the Twins for Josh Donaldson, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, and Ben Rortvedt.

The latter was an unusual trade, not only because it involved five big leaguers and zero minor leaguers, but also because it didn’t appear to make perfect sense for either team. The Twins need to sign a star (Trevor Story, perhaps?) for their talent loss to look like anything other than cost-cutting. And from New York’s perspective, the deal mainly improved the defense, with Kiner-Falefa filling the team’s vacant shortstop position and Rortvedt likely to join incumbent backup Kyle Higashioka in a catching platoon to replace Sánchez.

So instead of going after any of the five high-profile free-agent shortstops available this winter, the Yankees chose to trade for one who’s never reached double digits in home runs in a season, and has a stellar glove but shaky bat. That sounds a bit like the logic for the Blue Jays’ Chapman trade, but there are two key differences. First, even Chapman at his worst is better at the plate than Kiner-Falefa at his best. Chapman had a career-low 101 wRC+ last season; Kiner-Falefa’s has never risen above 94 in any season. And second, the Blue Jays already have a superpowered lineup, while the Yankees needed an offensive boost because they ranked 10th out of 15 AL teams in runs last season despite nearly full seasons from Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton.

That second point deserves further elaboration: Against their deserved historical reputation, the Yankees have a better pitching staff than lineup now, just as they did in their run to the wild card last season. The club’s planned starting rotation for 2022 actually looks like one of baseball’s best, with Gerrit Cole followed in some order by Jordan Montgomery, Jameson Taillon, Nestor Cortes Jr., and a healthy Luis Severino. The bullpen is always great.

But for an offense desperate for production beyond Stanton and Judge, the new starters don’t help. Out of 44 catchers whom FanGraphs projects to take at least 250 plate appearances next season, Higashioka is in a tie for the 34th-best offensive projection, while Rortvedt ranks 42nd. And out of 43 shortstops projected for 450-plus plate appearances, Kiner-Falefa’s offensive projection places him 41st.

New York can hope for better health from centerfielder Aaron Hicks, who played only 32 ineffective games before undergoing wrist surgery in 2021—but does anyone want to bet on Hicks, Judge, Stanton, and Donaldson all staying healthy for the full season? Or for the entire team to be available for every game, given the vaccination mandates in both Toronto and New York, where the Yankees play more than half their games (81 at home, plus two at the Mets)? Judge is the team’s best position player, but he doesn’t sound like someone who’s received his shots.

The projections still believe the Yankees and Red Sox to be potential playoff teams—especially the Yankees. But the two powers enter the season with much less margin for error than usual. That’s in part an indictment of the strange, cost-conscious roster-building strategies upon which those clubs have embarked, and in part a glowing reflection of the more complete teams in Tampa Bay and Toronto.

It still feels silly to predict anything that’s never happened before, and, again, the modern AL East has never finished with both the Yankees and Red Sox outside the top two spots. But the division’s two most fearsome rosters, right now, don’t reside in the northeastern United States. As usual, the AL East looks like the best division in baseball. But the contours of that dominance may present differently in 2022.