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AL East Preview: Three key questions for each team

by Chris Brown

While there are no guarantees in the current environment, if all goes according to plan, there will once again be regular season MLB games in this country in just a few days. The shortened schedule figures to make the 2020 season more of a sprint than a marathon, with each game taking on a higher importance than in normal circumstances, and nearly every team could be capable of a remarkable 60-game run.

With that in mind, 110 Sports is getting you set for the action by previewing each division with three key questions for each team in the shortened season. We continue our series with the American League East.

Baltimore Orioles

Will this team win 15 games?

Fangraphs projects the Orioles for a 21-39 record — that’s the worst mark of any team in baseball, but it still seems optimistic. Baltimore has lost 100+ games in back-to-back seasons. In 2018, their record was an abysmal 47-115. Last year, the team improved by seven wins, posting a 54-108. But by many measures, this year’s Orioles team is significantly worse than last year’s on paper. The team dealt speedy infielder Jonathan Villar to the Marlins and traded pitcher Dylan Bundy to the Angels this past December. First baseman/outfielder Trey Mancini, the Orioles’ best player, will not participate in the 2020 season as he undergoes treatment for colon cancer. And only one pitcher on the team is projected by Steamer for an ERA below 4.00. So will this team win 15 games? It’s a legitimate question.

Which young players will show they should be part of the team’s future?

In case it wasn’t already abundantly clear, the Orioles are not a team that will evaluate its 2020 success based on wins and losses. What the season is for Baltimore is time to evaluate which players could be building blocks of the club’s rebuilding efforts. Outfielder Anthony Santander impressed in 93 games last season, hitting 20 home runs and 20 doubles. Austin Hays, the organization’s fifth-rated prospect, is slated to handle center field every day. He hit an impressive .309/.373/.574 in just 75 at-bats in the big leagues in 2019. The Orioles need to start figuring out which players in the organization they want to be a part of their next contending team. The season may be shortened, but there’s still plenty of time to access players.

Is there any chance Chris Davis can provide some return on his seven-year contract?

Remember back in the middle of the 2010s when Davis was one of the most feared sluggers in baseball? He led the majors in home runs with 53 in 2013 and 47 in 2015. After that 2015 campaign, Davis signed a seven-year, $161 million contract with the Orioles, the largest contract in franchise history. And while his first season under that contract was pretty productive (38 home runs, but with a .221 batting average), the three years that have come since have been nothing short of a disaster. In fact, Davis has been one of the worst hitters in baseball, if not the worst, over the last two seasons, hitting .172/.256/.308 in that span. The 34-year-old Davis was hitting well back in spring training, and the Orioles are certainly hoping they can still get some sort of return on that contract.

Boston Red Sox

Is the team’s shaky rotation too much to overcome?

The Red Sox enter 2020 in an interesting position. They’re certainly not in a rebuilding phase, but they traded 2018 AL MVP Mookie Betts and veteran starter David Price to the Dodgers back in February in exchange for salary relief and young prospects. The team also became involved in a sign-stealing scandal this past offseason, which only further hurt public perception. Then back in March the Red Sox lost ace Chris Sale for the season after he underwent Tommy John surgery, leaving a massive hole in a now very vulnerable rotation. Lefty Eduardo Rodriguez is now expected to lead the rotation after an impressive season in which he finished sixth in Cy Young balloting. Behind him are four pitchers who all posted ERAs above 5.00 at the major league level in 2019: Nathan Eovaldi, Martin Perez, Ryan Weber and Brian Johnson. It won’t matter how great the team’s offense is if the rotation doesn’t perform.

What can Alex Verdugo deliver?

One of the prospects Boston received from the Dodgers in the Mookie Betts trade was Verdugo, the Dodgers’ top prospect. The lefty outfielder was off to an impressive start with L.A. last season before suffering a back injury, which he’s now fully recovered from. Set to play right field for the Red Sox, Verdugo is known for having an outstanding arm and impressive line-drive stroke at the plate. There’s no asking any one player to replace Betts’ MVP-caliber production, but if Verdugo is indeed fully healthy, he could certainly prove to be an impactful middle-of-the-order bat for Boston in the shortened season.

Is their lineup deep enough?

Unlike the rotation, the Red Sox offense is one of its strengths, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any questions. The middle-of-the-order trio of Rafael Devers, J.D. Martinez and Xander Bogaerts is as good as any in the game. But there are questions about the depth of the lineup, particularly in comparison to the division rival Yankees. Outfielder Andrew Benintendi is coming off a down year but is still just 26 years old, first baseman Mitch Moreland has been a hot starter for the team but is not considered a top tier hitter at the position, and outfielder Jack Bradley Jr. is coming off a .225/.317/.421 season. There are hitters with potential outside those top three, including Verdugo, but also plenty of uncertainty. If others don’t step up, an injury or two — or even just poor performance from one star hitter — could be too much to overcome for a team that’s going to need to rely on a strong offense.

New York Yankees

Can the team stay healthy?

Had the 2020 season started as planned in the spring, the Yankees would likely have been without starters Luis Severino and James Paxton as well as outfielders Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks. Now, with the exception of Severino (who underwent Tommy John surgery), all of those players are expected to be good to go for the start of the shortened season. The big question, though, is whether the Yankees can remain healthy throughout the schedule. New York set MLB records with 39 injured list stints involving 30 different players last season. Some of that could be chalked up to bad luck, but there are also a number of injury prone players on the team’s roster. Perhaps the shortened season will help the Yankees in remaining healthy, but the shortened season means that there won’t be time to recover from a rough patch if the team is missing key players for a while.

How big of an impact will the addition of Gerrit Cole have?

If Severino were not sidelined for the season, the Yankees would currently be in the discussion for not only the best lineup in baseball, but the best rotation as well. While the latter is no longer the case, the addition of Cole was massive in helping to resolve the issue of starting pitching depth which crept up in 2019. Behind Cole will be Masahiro Tanaka, Paxton, J.A. Happ and Jordan Montgomery, who finished sixth in Rookie of the Year balloting just a few years ago. Health, as mentioned, is the biggest question, but there’s no doubting that the addition of Cole gives the Yankees just about every piece it needs to compete for a World Series title.

Can Gleyber Torres handle shortstop effectively?

After five seasons wearing the pinstripes, Didi Gregorius has now taken his talents elsewhere, signing a one-year deal with the Phillies this past offseason and reuniting with former Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi. In his place, Gleyber Torres will shift from second base to shortstop while DJ LeMahieu will handle the keystone. Torres is coming off a monster sophomore season, hitting .278/.337/.535 with 38 homers in 144 games. There are some questions about the 23-year-old’s range at shortstop, but with the Gold-Glover LaMahieu manning the keystone, the Yankees are counting on Torres’ defense being solid enough to not hurt the team significantly on that end.

Tampa Bay Rays

Does their depth give them the ideal roster for the 60-game season?

The trio set to lead the Rays’ rotation — Charlie Morton, Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow — is one of the best in baseball, and the team also, as usual, has a great deal of depth at its disposal. Starters Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough both impressed in 2019, and MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince recently ranked Tampa Bay as having the fourth-best bullpen in baseball. They may not have the big name closer, but the Rays have a host of intriguing arms capable of posting lights out numbers at the back of the bullpen. The Rays also have a large group of position players capable of handling spots all over the field, and the best farm system in MLB at their disposal. They could be perfectly suited to succeed in the shortened season.

Is there any chance that Wander Franco gets the call?

Baseball’s No. 1 prospect is just 19 years old and hasn’t played above the High A level, so the fact that this is even a question some are asking shows just how much of an incredible talent he is. MLB.com’s scouting report on Franco reads in part: “If you were to build a hitter from scratch using all of the physical attributes and skills that have come to define great hitters, he’d probably end up looking something like Franco.” The shortstop was included on the Rays’ taxi squad and has reportedly long made it his goal to reach the majors in 2020. While that seems unlikely, things could change quickly if the Rays are in the playoff hunt and believe Franco could help them down the stretch.

Can the Rays’ bullpen repeat its 2019 success?

As mentioned, Tampa Bay’s bullpen is considered one of the best in baseball, but given the lack of highly-proven arms amongst their relief corps, it’s fair to question whether or not they can repeat last year’s success, particularly given that many of the team’s top relievers broke out in the second half last season. Nick Anderson, who’s expected to receive the majority of the team’s save opportunities, struck out 41 batters in 21 ⅓ innings after arriving in a mid-2019 trade from the Marlins. Colin Poche allowed just a .222 slugging percentage in his final 22 innings of last season. And Diego Castillo found a new gear down the stretch last season as well. If these relievers and others can carry over that success into 2020, the Rays could certainly challenge the Yankees for the top spot in the division.

Toronto Blue Jays

Is there enough talent in the rotation for them to be a contender?

The Blue Jays’ emerging core of young hitters is incredibly impressive — more about that group in a minute. The biggest concern with Toronto’s roster is the rotation. The team brought in longtime Dodger Hyun-jin Ryu on a four-year deal this past offseason, and overhauled the other spots in the rotation significantly, but the arms behind Ryu have plenty of risk. Tanner Roark, Chase Anderson and Trent Thorton all posted ERAs above 4.00 last season, and Matt Shoemaker only pitched 28 ⅔ innings due to injury. The Blue Jays do have other young arms they can give a shot if some of these veteran, historically middle-to-back-end-of-the-rotation pitchers don’t pan out, but there’s no clear No. 2 or 3, reliable arm behind Ryu. That’s something that could prevent the team from finding success no matter how good the offense is.

Which young hitters are ready to take the next step?

The projected top four hitters in the Blue Jays lineup are 22, 25, 26, and 21 years old. From Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette to Lourdes Gurriel Jr., the team has an influx of young hitters bursting onto the major league scene at the same time. The potential exists for the Blue Jays to have one of the best lineups in the American League if the cards fall right, but that all depends on which of those young hitters is set to elevate their performance to the next level. The best hitting prospect in recent memory, Guerrero disappointed slightly in 2019, but he’s just 21 years old. Meanwhile, Bichette and Biggio have the makings of one of baseball’s better middle infield duos, but there are questions there as well. One thing that is for certain: for the Jays to have any chance of surprising in 2020, they’ll need their young hitters to keep improving. 

Does Nate Pearson get an opportunity?

One of those other young arms mentioned in the first Blue Jays question is Pearson, the club’s top prospect and the No. 8 overall prospect in Major League Baseball. The 23-year-old impressed back in Spring Training, topping 100 mph with regularity. He also possesses strong breaking pitches and a changeup which had Blue Jays hitters off balance. It seems clear that Pearson is pretty much ready for major league action, but service time considerations could lead the Jays to leave him off their Opening Day roster. Barring something unforeseen, though, it seems likely he’ll get the call at some point during the shortened season. Few rookies could make as much of an impact in 2020 as Pearson if given the chance.

Click here to see our other 2020 division previews.

Photo by Arturo Pardavila III / Flickr

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