Here’s what I think we know: There will be a 162-game season this year. There may be bumps in the road due to COVID-19, but every team is going to get as close to 162 games as they can.
Last year, of course, the season was only 60 games. There were small sample sizes everywhere, making predictions for this year problematic. Were off years by players/teams because they aren’t good, or were they flukes and bounce-backs should be expected? Were great years indicative of more good things to come?
For now, I will begin my division by division previews with the AL East. As I did last year, I address each team in my expected order of finish.
- New York Yankees. I predicted them to finish first last year and was happily surprised they didn’t—I am a Rays fan, after all. I’m putting them first again because they still have the best team in the division on paper, but they are not at all invulnerable. Their pitching staff is suspect, not because of quality but because they are having to rely on starting pitchers coming back strong from injury after Gerrit Cole. Of course having Cole is a very nice luxury. They hope to get back Luis Severino in July. Their two new staff members, Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon, both last pitched a full season in 2018. Taillon had TJS. Kluber first broke his arm in 2019 then had a teres major tear (a muscle in the shoulder) requiring surgery last year. If Kluber is able to approach his 2015-2018 self, he especially is a big pick up. The Yankees also get back Domingo German, who missed last year after a domestic violence suspension. No longer on the staff are Masahiro Tanaka, who returned to Japan, and JA Happ.
The Yankees’ position player lineup is stable, including the one position they needed to upgrade: catcher. Gary Sanchez has hit below the Mendoza Line twice in the last three years, including an abysmal.147/.253/.365 last year (“good” for a 69 OPS+). Otherwise their main issue is health and how the backups play. Two years ago, they sustained a record number of injuries but seemingly every one they brought up next played like an All Star. They had a significant number of injuries last year too…and the depth players did not play as well. If the team stays healthy this year, they’re a WS threat. If they don’t, they could drop to third place.
- Tampa Bay Rays. The reigning AL pennant winner. I did not like letting Charlie Morton walk, and sign a contract the Rays could have afforded with the Braves. Trading Blake Snell wasn’t a surprise; that’s the Rays’ MO. They’ve developed and used pitchers well enough also to get the benefit of the doubt with those sorts of moves. They’ve brought back Chris Archer, who’s obviously hoping to regain the form he had in his first stint with the team. Rich Hill has also joined the team. The most interesting thing to watch is to see who among their very deep farm system makes their debut. This is a team that will continue to be competitive, a strong threat for the playoffs, and then hoping to get hot in the playoffs.
- Toronto Blue Jays. Last year they played their home games in Buffalo. This year they stay in Dunedin, at least until/unless Canada relaxes its COVID restrictions such that sports teams can travel in and out of Toronto without quarantines. I really doubt that happens until well into the summer. Wherever the team plays, they should have a potent offense with George Springer and Marcus Semien added to Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Lourdes Gurriel, and Teoscar Hernandez. Their problem is pitching once you get past Hyun Jin Ryu. Steven Matz (0-5, 9.68 ERA) and Robbie Ray (2-5, 6.62 ERA) both have to be a whole lot better, or the Jays are going to have to win a lot of slugfests to stay in contention. This team’s ceiling is very high if they get adequate pitching.
- Boston Red Sox. They’ve rehired Alex Cora as their manager. That’s probably their biggest acquisition…one I dislike, BTW. They did sign Enrique Hernandez, which is a plus. I don’t think the Hunter Renfroe signing will move the needle much though. Meanwhile, they’ve traded Andrew Benintendi and did not re-sign Jackie Bradley, Jr. Benintendi had regressed the past two years, and last year was just plain bad—I think he’s fixable, though, and believe playing in spacious Kaufman Field might be a good thing for him. Dustin Pedroia is now officially retired but really never was going to be a regular player again. Last year I had a similar thought about the Red Sox as I wrote above about the Blue Jays—that they might be in a lot of fire fights. I was wrong, though, because their offense was much worse than I thought it would be. I do not foresee a big turnaround this year. I was right that the pitching staff last year would be a tire fire; it absolutely was. It will be somewhat better this year with Eduardo Rodriguez recovered from COVID-induced myocarditis, which kept him from playing last year. Chris Sale could also be back in the second half. However, he’s under contract through 2025, so it will be no surprise if the Red Sox go very slow with him. It might be 2022 before we see him on the mound again, especially if they are out of contention by the end of July. I think they will be.
- Baltimore Orioles. On the one hand, it’s no fun rooting for a team when the big hope is that they don’t lose 100 games. I know that feeling from the Devil Rays days. On the other hand, it will be fun to have Adley Rutschman and a plethora of other young players start showing what they can do. This will at least be a more entertaining team than the 2019 version.