AL East preview: Can Red Sox bounce back from last-place finish?

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The American League East will be more competitive than ever in 2023.

The top three teams in the division -- the New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, and Tampa Bay Rays -- clinched playoff spots last year and are capable of doing the same this season. The Baltimore Orioles took a massive step forward and even flirted with postseason contention. The Boston Red Sox finished in last place and have their work cut out for them as they look to get out of the cellar and quiet the naysayers.

Predicting 2023 season stats for each player on Red Sox roster

It's been quite a while since all five teams in the AL East entered the season with playoff aspirations, but that's the case as we prepare for Opening Day on March 30. Before the fun begins, here's a complete breakdown of the division ahead of the new campaign.

1. Toronto Blue Jays

2022 result: 92-70, second in AL East, lost to Seattle Mariners in Wild Card series (2-0)

2023 prediction: 95-67, first in AL East

The Blue Jays were a popular World Series pick last year because of their loaded lineup and a pitching staff that added ace Kevin Gausman during the offseason. Those lofty expectations made their second-place finish and early playoff exit a massive disappointment.

While the hype around Toronto may have died down, it's a club that has what it takes to contend for a title in 2023. It made notable additions to both the lineup and the pitching staff over the winter. Former New York Mets and Oakland A's right-hander Chris Bassitt shores up a high-upside rotation that includes Gausman, Alek Manoah, and Jose Berrios.

The Blue Jays offense should remain one of MLB's best with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, George Springer, and Matt Chapman doing most of the damage. After trading slugger Teoscar Hernandez to the Mariners for bullpen help, they formed one of the best defensive outfields in the league by acquiring Daulton Varsho and Kevin Kiermaier to join Springer.

For Toronto to dominate this season, the bullpen needs to improve. A lack of depth in that department cost them last season, which explains why the club traded Hernandez to Seattle for reliever Erik Swanson. He'll join Jordan Romano, Adam Cimber, and Yimi Garcia in the back end of a Blue Jays 'pen that looks better on paper.

Overall, the Blue Jays are the most balanced team in the AL East. There is no excuse for them to not make a deep postseason run.

2. New York Yankees

2022 result: 99-63, first in AL East, lost to Houston Astros in ALCS (4-0)

2023 prediction: 93-69, second in AL East

The Yankees dominated the 2022 regular season only to get swept by the eventual World Series champion Astros in the American League Champion Series. As fun as that whole Aaron Judge storyline was, it was spoiled by his lackluster postseason performance and the team's World Series drought extending to 13 years.

It was a rough ending to a memorable season, but the Yankees should be back in the mix in 2023. They re-signed Judge to a nine-year, $ 360 million deal during the offseason and re-signed veteran first baseman Anthony Rizzo. Their biggest addition of the winter was former Chicago White Sox and San Francisco Giants ace Carlos Rodon, who will form one of the best 1-2 punches in baseball alongside Gerrit Cole.

The injury bug is the Yankees' biggest obstacle on their road to the World Series. They have had a number of players go down with injuries this spring including Rodon (forearm), outfielder Harrison Bader (oblique), left-hander Nestor Cortes (hamstring), reliever Tommy Kahnle (bicep), and righty Luis Severino (shoulder). None of those injuries are considered to be major, but it's a storyline worth monitoring as the season goes on.

One of the most exciting stories for the 2023 Yankees is top prospect Anthony Volpe making the Opening Day roster as the club's starting shortstop. Volpe is a frontrunner for the AL Rookie of the Year award after raking for the Bronx Bombers in spring training.

The Yankees should cruise to another playoff berth if Volpe, along with stars Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, DJ LeMahieu, Gerrit Cole, and Rodon, are healthy and productive. They're built to win their second straight division title and make another deep playoff run.

3. Tampa Bay Rays (89-73)

2022 result: 86-76, third in AL East, lost to Cleveland Guardians in Wild Card series (2-0)

2023 prediction: 89-73, third in AL East

Hopefully, those who have paid any sort of attention over the last several seasons have stopped sleeping on the Rays.

Tampa Bay has found a way to be a perennial playoff contender despite one of the lowest payrolls and a roster filled with players the casual fan has never heard of. After falling in the Wild Card round last year, the Rays look like they can make a deeper run in 2023.

Wander Franco, a 22-year-old shortstop with elite talent, is healthy after missing a chunk of the season with a quad injury. Slugging second baseman Brandon Lowe should also be back at full strength after an injury-plagued season. Right-hander Tyler Glasnow should return to the top of the rotation after missing most of 2022 due to Tommy John surgery, though he’s currently dealing with an oblique injury that will sideline him for the first few weeks. Randy Arozarena (fresh off an electrifying World Baseball Classic with Mexico), Yandy Diaz, and Isaac Paredes aren't household names, but they’ll certainly make their presence felt in the Rays’ underrated lineup.

Even with Glasnow out, pitching remains Tampa's biggest strength. Shane McClanahan is a legitimate Cy Young candidate after a strong 2022. Zach Eflin signed a three-year, $ 40 million deal in the offseason to mark the largest free-agent contract in Rays history. Drew Rasmussen and ex-Red Sox southpaw Jeffrey Springs amassed ERAs under 3.00 last year. The bullpen is deep with Pete Fairbanks and Jason Adam holding down the back end.

The Rays might not have enough firepower to edge out the Blue Jays or Yankees, but this isn’t a club you want to face in a playoff series.

4. Boston Red Sox (83-79)

2022 result: 78-84, fifth in AL East , missed postseason

2023 prediction: 83-79, fourth in AL East

The Red Sox are coming off a last-place season that was topped off by the departure of homegrown shortstop Xander Bogaerts in December. Fans showed their frustration with the front office by loudly booing chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom and owner John Henry during Winter Weekend. Needless to say, the level of optimism surrounding the club for 2023 is stunningly low.

There are reasons to be positive, but we’ll start on the negative side. Trevor Story, who was supposed to replace Bogaerts at shortstop, will miss most of the season after undergoing elbow surgery. That forced Kiké Hernandez to move to short and former Braves slugger Adam Duvall was signed to fill the void left in center field.

Then there’s the injury-prone pitching staff. Chris Sale — while he looked great this spring — has made only 11 starts since the end of 2019. James Paxton has made only six in that span and is already dealing with a hamstring issue. Brayan Bello is a promising young talent but will begin the season on the injured list with a forearm issue. Garrett Whitlock, a reliever-turned-starter, will join Bello on the IL. Corey Kluber turns 37 in April and although he was solid last year in Tampa, he has a recent injury history of his own.

So yes, there is plenty to be concerned about and the pessimism is understandable. But what if I told you this is a team that could still sneak into the playoffs?

Obviously, a ton needs to go right for that to happen. The No. 1 priority is keeping the starting rotation healthy. That alone is a lot to ask with this frail group.

Masataka Yoshida needs to prove he’s worth his five-year, $ 90 million contract and his World Baseball Classic success can translate to MLB. Justin Turner needs to replicate or exceed the production J.D. Martinez provided in the DH spot last season. Duvall has to stay healthy and add thump to the lineup. Rafael Devers needs to have an MVP-caliber season.

That’s asking a lot, but it isn’t impossible. The biggest improvement made over the offseason is the overhauled bullpen, which now includes veteran closer Kenley Jansen, veteran set-up man Chris Martin, and left-hander Richard Bleier. What was a serious weakness in 2022 could be a strength in 2023.

It’s a team filled with “what ifs.” If those “what ifs” come to fruition, the third Wild Card spot could be in play.

5. Baltimore Orioles

2022 result: 83-79, fourth in AL East, missed postseason

2023 prediction: 79-83, fifth in AL East

Oddsmakers set the Orioles' win total at 62.5 ahead of the 2022 season. They blew past that mark with 83 wins and barely missed out on a playoff berth.

Now it's just a question of whether they’ll regress to the mean or take another step forward in 2023. To accomplish the latter, they will lean heavily on their exciting young talent. Second-year catcher Adley Rutschman -- last season's AL Rookie of the Year -- and rookie infielder Gunnar Henderson will help, but the organization may regret not making bigger splashes over the offseason.

Baltimore’s only notable offseason additions were second baseman Adam Frazier, starters Cole Irvin and Kyle Gibson, and backup catcher James McCann. Those acquisitions serve as replacements rather than legitimate upgrades.

Perhaps the O's can build off last season and make another surprising run, but their inability to make any blockbuster moves over the winter will prevent them from making another significant leap in such a competitive division.

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