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The Changing Landscape of the American League East

American League East

Buckle your seat belts, ladies and gentlemen. This is not in the AL East we’re used to any more.

After a turbulent regular season, marked by the Baltimore Orioles making the playoffs and the Boston Red Sox finishing in last place, the offseason that followed has been equally hectic. A flurry of big-name acquisitions by the Toronto Blue Jays, some smart deals by the Tampa Bay Rays, and the New York Yankees remaining over the salary cap despite limiting spending were just a few of the notable headlines from the offseason so far. However, while looking ahead at next year’s division picture, we should start by taking a quick look back at what happened in the recently concluded 2012 season.

LAST YEAR

Some quick hitters from last season’s AL East:

  • Buoyed by a strong bullpen and the emergence of some young players, notably Adam Jones, the Baltimore Orioles made their first playoff appearance since 1997, only to lose to the Yankees in 5 games in the ALDS.
  • The Boston Red Sox finished last in their division for the first time since they finished in 7th out of 7 teams in the two division, pre-WIld Card era of 1992.
  • Bobby Valentine orchestrated a circus of a clubhouse in Boston, leading to the trade of Kevin Youkilis, and Red Sox ownership gave up on the cause midseason, dealing Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, and Josh Beckett to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a collection of prospects.
  • The New York Yankees managed to win the division, winning 95 games to edge out Baltimore by two games, and got a big boost from a rejuvenated Derek Jeter, who led the league with 216 hits and batted .316.
  • David Price won the AL Cy Young Award, but the Rays fail to make the playoffs, finishing three games behind both the Orioles and Rangers for the two Wild Card spots.
  • Toronto got huge offensive years from Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, but still only managed to notch 73 wins, their fewest since 2004 when they won 67.

THE OFFSEASON

Coming as a surprise to approximately nobody, the Red Sox fired Valentine at the close of the regular season. He had publicly feuded with players, regularly made bizarre lineup choices, and then blamed his coaches for undermining him once the season had ended. Nobody in Boston will be sad to see him go, but his departure was only the start of the offseason craziness for the division.

Toronto

The Toronto Blue Jays have made the most noise by a mile so far, taking advantage of some teams looking to start over to bring in established players who give them a chance to be contenders right now. They brought on a trio of former All Stars, acquiring SS Jose Reyes, LHP Mark Buehrle, RHP Josh Johnson, and others from the Florida Marlins for a package that included SS Yunel Escobar and several prospects.

They weren’t finished though, signing free agent OF Melky Cabrera to a 2-year deal worth $16 million. The former Giant had a fantastic start to 2012, before being hit with a 50-game suspension for testing positive for PEDs. Toronto was willing to take a risk on Cabrera, hoping he can continue to post numbers like he was before the suspension. He had been leading the NL in batting average before getting hit with the ban, and they will hope that he can put up similar stats hitting in a loaded lineup.

Then to top it all off, just this week the Jays traded for last year’s NL Cy Young award winner, bringing in R.A. Dickey and signing him to a two-year extension. They did give up top Catching prospect Travis D’Arnaud in the deal, but they are clearly looking to win NOW, and this deal is the surest sign of their intentions.

Boston

After quickly disposing of Bobby Valentine, the Sox reached within the division to pilfer the manager of the Blue Jays, bringing back Terry Francona’s old pitching coach in John Farrell. Farrell made the move before Toronto G.M. Alex Anthopoulos began his aggressive measures to win, but maintains he has no regrets, and is excited about coaching in Boston. Red Sox management is hopeful he can coax the best out of pitchers Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, who both had the best season of their careers under Farrell when he was pitching coach here.

Boston has also stuck to their plan of not giving out any more long-term deals to free agents, apparently having learned from the debacles of Crawford and John Lackey. They instead have signed proven veterans, often coming off of down years, and are hoping they can provide stability for the team, both on the field and in the clubhouse. Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Jonny Gomes, David Ross, Koji Uehara, Stephen Drew, and (supposedly) Mike Napoli have all agreed to terms with the Sox on deals of three years or less. They will ideally give the Sox a chance to contend while also paving the way for top prospects such as Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley, Matt Barnes, and Allen Webster to mature and develop in the minors.

New York

With Alex Rodriguez slated to miss time this coming year, the Yankees brought in Youkilis to be his fill in, as I addressed last week. They generally stayed pat otherwise, bringing back veteran RF Ichiro Suzuki, who came over in a trade from Seattle last year. They will lean heavily on veterans such as Jeter, Robinson Cano, and a rehabbing Mariano Rivera to get them back into the playoffs next year.

 Tampa Bay

The Rays have made a gutsy decisions, but stayed true to their low-budget ways this offseason. They elected not to re-sign OF BJ Upton, who ended up receiving five years and $75 million from the Atlanta Braves, a price Tampa Bay was not willing to come close to. Instead, they locked up franchise 3B Evan Longoria through 2022, a deal worth up to $144.6 million when it’s all said and done. The new contract extension all but ensures he will spend his whole career with the Rays.

Then, they dealt number two starter James Shields to the Kansas City Royals for a package that included top KC prospect Wil Myers, an outfielder who will be able to help the Rays within the next two seasons.

Baltimore

In a word: nothing. The biggest move the Orioles have made is to bring back OF Nate McLouth, a .268 hitter who accounted for 7 home runs and 12 steals in the 55 games he played for Baltimore last year. While fans may be restless and hoping for more, the team will rely on manager Buck Showalter to guide his young squad back to the playoffs next season.

THE FUTURE

It’s a brave new world for the AL East. The last time that neither the Red Sox or the Yankees made the playoffs was in 1993, the year before the 1994 strike that resulted in, among other things, the divisions as we currently know them. This has a real chance to happen again in 2013, something that was unthinkable even a short 4 years ago, when in 2009 the Yankees won 103 games and the World Series, and the Sox won 95 games, only to fall in ALDS.

But, after the unpredictable nature of this past season and the quickly changing landscape of this offseason, it looks like the order is about to be shaken even more. As currently constructed, it is tough to see a Red Sox lineup made of veteran fill-ins coming off of the worst seasons of their careers producing enough runs to carry them, especially behind a pitching staff that is relying on the likes of John Lackey to give them stability. Now, if he can start looking like his old Anaheim self, and Lester and Buchholz return to the form they reached under Farrell, and Felix Doubront can continue to build on his strong start from last year… Those are obviously a lot of “ifs”, and fans remain decidedly underwhelmed at the playoff chances of next year’s team.

With the Orioles coming off of a playoff berth, the Jays newly loaded in both the lineup and the rotation, and Tampa continuing to build through young talent, it will be tough for an aging Yankees team and the patchwork Red Sox to make playoffs next year. Although the AL West may have 3 playoff-caliber teams (Angels, Rangers, Athletics), the cupcakes of Seattle and Houston undoubtedly make the AL East baseball’s toughest division once again.

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