What does 2021 have in store for the AL East?

It seems like a lifetime ago since I watched Blake Snell (and later Justin Turner for different reasons) slouch off the field at Globe Life Park in Arlington in Game Six of the World Series. It was the closest the Rays have ever got to lifting the big prize in what was the strangest of seasons. We’re now just over a month away from those magical words all baseball fans relish – no, not “Trevor Bauer is still unsigned,” but “Pitchers and catchers report.”

Snell is now in San Diego and there are many other movers and shakers in the always-competitive American League East.

There are a lot of questions for the five teams going into 2021. Can the Rays, now minus last season’s 1 and 2 starters, retain their American League crown? Is the addition of Corey Kluber enough to improve the Yankees’ pitching? Can the additions of George Springer and Michael Brant… oh wait… push Toronto’s young stars further into the playoffs? Just where are the Red Sox headed? Can the Orioles lose fewer than 100 games?

We’ll start in Florida and take a look at the Rays. If you have read my first piece with ‘Bat Flips and Nerds’, you’ll know that the Rays are my team. They have been now for over a decade and in this time I have learned many things. I have learned that, yes, you can make the same joke about Tropicana Field attendance every couple of weeks and get a smattering of likes on Twitter but I have also learned that when this front office makes a trade, they do it for a reason. While most other MLB teams have gone in peaks and troughs, I have never known Tampa Bay to ‘tank’ any seasons. They wheel and deal but always stay competitive.

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I have no doubts that this will be the case this season despite the not-insignificant losses of Snell and Uncle Charlie Morton. The Rays always find ways to scrape those 2-1 and 3-2 victories which are so crucial. The offensive personnel is largely unchanged from last year but with both Springer and Brantley off the free-agent market leaving Jackie Bradley Jr. the prime outfield free agent candidate, rumours of Kevin Kiermaier being traded have picked up pace. To many in Tampa Bay, the thought of KK39 moving on is unthinkable but the truth is, nobody on any Rays roster at any time is untouchable.

The one thing that the Rays can count on is their farm system which is of course headlined by baseball’s number one prospect Wander Franco who we may just see at the Trop before the end of the season. He is joined by the likes of Vidal Brujan; Lucius Fox; Kevin Padlo; Shane McClanahan and Shane Baz who are all highly touted prospects. In the recently-published Baseball America list, last year’s postseason breakout star, Randy Arozarena comes in at 17 and new addition Luis Patino sits just below at 23.

All of this bodes well for Kevin Cash’s men but another club in the division that knows all about young prospects is the Blue Jays. Toronto’s young ‘legacy’ infielders of Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. inspired them to the playoffs only to be beaten at the first hurdle by their division-rival Rays. Another year of experience behind this young team meant many were tipping them for better things in 2021 – and that was before they landed arguably the most plum free-agent position player in George Springer. For roughly three hours, the whole of baseball Twitter thought that his former Astros teammate Michael Brantley had joined him before it emerged he had actually re-signed with Houston. We could go down a rabbit hole about baseball journalists being desperate to be ‘first’ even at the expense of accuracy which is unlike any other sport I know but that’s for another day.

Add to this 2019 All-Star reliever Kirby Yates who is primed for a bounce-back year and surely nothing can stop the northern outfit? Well, the rotation leaves a few question marks. Hyun Jin Ryu is a stud at the top of the rotation and there is definitely potential in the rest of the starting stable with Nate Pearson a potential rough diamond and Robbie Ray also primed for more than what he showed in 2020.

That being said, it will be extremely exciting to see what the Jays can bring to the table with the addition of an elite outfielder who has championship-winning experience, despite the question marks over who is going to take the ball every day.

That leads us on to the Bronx whose starting rotation has also created plenty of chatter. Undoubtedly, they have one of the best in the game in Gerrit Cole heading the rotation and the recent acquisition of Corey Kluber gives them an excellent number two. The rest of the rotation is full of question marks. Jordan Montgomery and recently acquired Jameson Taillon are solid if unspectacular pieces. Luis Severino will not return until at least the All-Star break meaning the lower end of the Yankee pitching core will be any from Deivi Garcia, Domingo German, Michael King, Jonathan Loaisiga, Asher Wojciechowski and Clarke Schmidt. While not a catastrophe of a back-end of a rotation, it is not without worry for Yankees fans.

There have been recent links with Luis Castillo from the Reds who could single-handedly answer a lot of the above questions. Rumours are that Cincinnati asked for Gleyber Torres and/or Clint Frazier to which Brian Cashman and co. said “get lost” and they had as much right to do so as the Reds had to ask. Y’know, because that’s how trade negotiations work.

The return of DJ LeMahieu was a big boost as he has so often been the offensive spark regardless of what position he is plugged in to. If the Yanks’ offensive juggernaut can stay healthy all at the same time and click the doubts about pitching may be a moot point.

The Yankees old enemy from Boston have made some recent acquisitions in the ever-quiet and reserved utility man Kike Hernandez and pitcher Garrett Richards. That being said, the Sox have been a bit of a bridesmaid this winter when it comes to free-agent signings. The phrase “the Red Sox were also interested” has been uttered plenty by Passan, Rosenthal et al this offseason and, while Hernandez could fill the role Brock Holt was so beloved for, it will be a mix of stars who have not quite shone so bright, bit-part journeymen and young players who will line-up at Fenway in 2021.

Rafael Devers and Christian Vasquez will highlight the line-up with a young supporting cast of Michael Chavis, Bobby Dalbec and Alex Verdugo. There have been strong rumours about trading away Andrew Benintendi with the Marlins apparently very interested and with enough depth in their system to pull such a move off. Whether the Ohio-born outfielder stays or goes will be a big indicator as to the Red Sox and GM Chaim Bloom’s intentions this season.

Richards will add to a starting rotation that includes Chris Sale, Nathan Eovaldi and Eduardo Rodriguez which, while talented, all of these names are coming back from various injuries. Can Xander Bogaerts return to the form of a couple of years ago? If he does then there is potential for him to spark this lineup. On paper, this is definitely a competitive team but we don’t play baseball on paper.

It looks like it will be another season without much winning baseball in Baltimore. In 2021, though, there are some more reasons to be cheerful. Not least, the fact that Trey Mancini is back after missing the 2020 season after successful surgery for colon cancer. The Florida-born 1B/OF is not only a key member of the Orioles’ roster but an extremely popular guy so his return is a wonderful boost for everyone in baseball.

On top of this, the emergence of Ryan Mountcastle last year and the expected debuts for the likes of Rylan Bannon, Ryan McKenna and Yusniel Diaz – acquired from the Dodgers in the Manny Machado trade in 2018 – shows that the Orioles farm system is starting to churn out a lot of the talent acquired in drafts and trades. Perhaps a year too early but an Adley Rutschman sighting before the end of the season is not entirely out of the question. Cheap and cheerful pickups such as Yolmer Sanchez and Chris Shaw will get plenty of opportunities and yes! Chris Davis is still in Baltimore!

I’ll level with you here – I’m not an Orioles beat writer and their pitching is a guessing game. John Means and Alex Cobb will be at the top of the rotation and Hunter Harvey will anchor the bullpen but between them, there are a plethora of names from prospects to Rule 5/waiver pickups who could fill various roles both in the rotation and bullpen.

So there is light at the end of the tunnel at Camden Yards – despite legendary announcer Gary Thorne’s exit from the MASN booth – but anything other than a fifth-place finish will be a fairly substantial shock.

Regarding the rest of the division, here’s how I think it’ll look.

  1. Yankees
  2. Blue Jays
  3. Rays
  4. Red Sox
  5. Orioles

My heart says Rays to repeat but, while I do believe they will be competitive and could pull off a playoff place even in third place, they have subtracted too much where others have added. The Jays will be an extremely dangerous outfit regardless of where MLB’s COVID nomads play their home baseball this season. The Rays could out-pitch just about anyone but as mentioned, if New York’s bats all sing in harmony this year then look out.

Let’s keep everything crossed for an uninterrupted season and that the off-field debacle and compressed season that defined 2020 will be a thing of the past and if that happens then won’t everyone win? Nope, still doesn’t make the thought of a Yankee division win any softer. Still, the 162-game season with (at least some) fans that we took for granted pre-COVID would be a wonderful thing. I cannot wait.

Mark Strange is one of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @realmarkstrange

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