AL East Preview: Can Red Sox Return To Being World Series Contenders?


The Boston Red Sox went from worst to first to worst. So they’re a lock to win the American League East in 2015, right?

You can bet the division’s other teams have something to say about that. The Baltimore Orioles, after all, ran away with the AL East last season, winning 96 games en route to a spot in the ALCS.

The New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays all have their strengths, too. But can any of those three knock off the O’s or hold down the Sox?

Let’s assess the AL East going into this season.

Baltimore Orioles
Strengths: The Orioles are a balanced squad.

A lot has been made of Baltimore’s inactivity over the offseason, especially with Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis and Andrew Miller departing in free agency. But the Orioles might be able to solve some of the questions internally, particularly if Manny Machado stays healthy and Chris Davis bounces back.

Catcher Matt Wieters, recovering from Tommy John surgery, should help before long, too.

The O’s don’t have a clear-cut No. 1 starter (a common theme in this division), but they have a rotation filled with underappreciated hurlers who comprise a sneaky good group. The emergence of Kevin Gausman, and potentially Dylan Bundy, is a plot worth monitoring.

The bullpen is strong, as well, even with Miller’s departure. Zach Britton is a ground ball expert in the ninth inning.

Weaknesses: The Orioles, by virtue of not making any major offseason moves, are putting faith in a number of unknown variables. This isn’t necessarily a weakness yet, but the O’s could kick themselves down the road if the dominoes don’t fall their way.

The rotation, as mentioned, is undervalued, but the lack of a true No. 1 is startling at times.

Projected finish: 88-74, first place

Boston Red Sox
Strengths: The Red Sox won the 2013 World Series in large part because of their overall depth. That depth wasn’t there last season, but Boston looks poised to enter 2015 with plenty of options offensively.

The Sox should score a whole bunch of runs this season, as manager John Farrell has the pieces to deploy a lineup that’s daunting from top to bottom. The additions of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval to the middle of Boston’s order should take pressure off David Ortiz, who continued to produce last season. And the emergence of Mookie Betts coupled with the return of some injured veterans could spell trouble for the pitching-thin AL East.

Weaknesses: The rotation is a red flag that keeps flapping in the breeze. While there’s certainly upside, there also are questions throughout the unit, making it impossible to pinpoint reasonable expectations.

Boston’s bullpen also could become an issue if aging closer Koji Uehara misses time or struggles like he did toward the end of last season.

Expect a lot of 10-9 games at Fenway Park this season.

Projected finish: 86-76, second place

Toronto Blue Jays
Strengths: The Blue Jays’ lineup is scary.

Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are 40-homer threats. Jose Reyes can be dynamic atop the order. Russell Martin is an excellent on-base guy. Josh Donaldson, in addition to being perhaps the league’s best defensive third baseman, is capable of doing damage at the plate.

Toronto will score runs in bunches this season.

Weaknesses: The Blue Jays also might give up runs in bunches.

Losing Marcus Stroman, a potential No. 1 starter in their rotation, to a season-ending ACL injury is totally devastating. Daniel Norris and/or Aaron Sanchez could emerge as a difference-maker, but that’s wishful thinking given each pitcher’s youth.

Great offense. Suspect pitching. Seems to be a common theme north of the border.

Projected finish: 83-79, third place

New York Yankees
Strengths: New York’s offense boasts power, particularly from the left side, which always is a good thing for a club that calls Yankee Stadium home.

Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda are two potential impact arms. Injuries are the only thing holding them back (and maybe stupidity in the case of Pineda).

The Yankees lost closer Mariano Rivera after 2013 and his excellent successor, David Robertson, after 2014, but the eighth and ninth innings should still be in good hands with Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller leading the charge.

Weaknesses: The Yankees’ lineup isn’t chock-full of whippersnappers, that’s for sure.

New York has a whole bunch of aging veterans, some of whom have battled injuries in recent years. It’s possible the Yankees won’t be able to get out of their own way if everything crumbles.

Also, A-Rod just won’t go away.

Projected finish: 80-82, fourth place

Tampa Bay Rays
Strengths: The Rays’ pitching staff no longer is the belle of the ball, but there’s still a chance it could end up being the division’s best.

You certainly could do worse than a rotation consisting of Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, Jake Odorizzi and Alex Colome, with Matt Moore expected back at some point in the middle of the season.

The bullpen also is strong with Grant Balfour, Kevin Jepsen and Brad Boxberger holding down the later innings, though Jake McGee’s injury hurts.

Weaknesses: There’s not a whole lot of thunder in the Rays’ lineup.

Sure, Tampa Bay’s offense never really looks sexy on paper, but this year’s group is especially lackluster. And it doesn’t help that manager Joe Maddon no longer is at the controls.

That isn’t a knock on new skipper Kevin Cash. He’s just unproven, whereas one could count on Maddon to work some magic with the roster in previous years.

Projected finish: 76-86, fifth place

Overall thoughts
The Red Sox have retooled in recent months and should return to contention in 2015. It’s difficult to tab them as the division winners, though, as there simply are too many questions in both the starting rotation and the bullpen.

The Blue Jays, like the Red Sox, have a very potent offense. Their defense also should improve with Martin behind the dish and Donaldson at third base. But pitching concerns again loom large.

The Orioles, while inactive for most of the winter, still are the most well-rounded team in the AL East. Expect them to edge out the competition for their second straight division title in a hard-fought race.

Thumbnail photo via Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports Images

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