The 2019 regular season begins this week, which means the return — despite popular demand — of my AL East position comparison series.
The premise is simple. I’m ranking the five teams in the division at every position to predict how the AL East standings will shake out this season.
This is my seventh straight year of publishing these rankings (and third at BaltimoreBaseball.com), and I must say this one has a different complexion than the rest. In those previous six years, the Orioles were — or at least were attempting to be — a contending team. Like their four divisional opponents, they ranked near the top at some positions and near the bottom in others, featuring a roster of a few stars interspersed with unproven players.
This year, the Orioles have no such illusions of contention. They’ve fully committed to rebuilding from the ground up, and their talent level lags way behind their AL East foes. So don’t expect to see them at the top of any of these rankings. In fact, the biggest question may be, can the Orioles avoid being ranked last at every single position?
Let’s find out. We’ll get started today with the infields. Tomorrow, we’ll cover the outfields, designated hitters and benches, then wrap up on Thursday with the pitching staffs and managers.
- Gary Sanchez, Yankees
- Mike Zunino, Rays
- Danny Jansen, Blue Jays
- Christian Vazquez, Red Sox
- Jesus Sucre/Pedro Severino, Orioles
After two outstanding seasons to start his career, Sanchez went off the rails in 2018. He stumbled to a .186 average and struggled defensively with an MLB-worst 18 passed balls in 76 games behind the plate. Still, he’s just 26 years old and is one of the most explosive offensive catchers in the game. He socked 18 homers last season even while battling a groin strain that twice landed him on the disabled list. A return to full health could do wonders for Sanchez.
The Rays acquired Zunino, a defensive specialist with some pop (three seasons of 20+ homers), from Seattle to handle their catching duties. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, are handing the reins to a rookie, Jansen, their No. 3 prospect on MLB Pipeline. Jansen had an impressive minor league career and played well in a 31-game sample last season. Boston’s Vazquez cratered on offense last year, batting .207 with a .540 OPS, but he’s just one year removed from a .290/.735 performance.
The Orioles threw observers for a loop when they demoted their expected starting catcher, Chance Sisco, to the minors just before Opening Day. Instead, they’ll split time between career backup Sucre and former Washington Nationals’ prospect Severino. They’re both considered solid defenders, but they’re black holes with the bat. Sucre owns a career .568 OPS; Severino, .560. At some point, Sisco should return, but his 2018 was so brutal both defensively and offensively that it diminished his prospect shine.
- Justin Smoak, Blue Jays
- Mitch Moreland/Steve Pearce, Red Sox
- Luke Voit/Greg Bird, Yankees
- Yandy Diaz, Rays
- Chris Davis, Orioles
Former first-round pick Smoak, 32, is now a grizzled veteran in the young Blue Jays lineup, settling in as a solid middle-of-the-order bat. He’s nothing spectacular, but you generally know what you’re going to get with him. The same can be said of Boston’s veteran duo, Moreland and Pearce. Moreland is a league average hitter and former Gold Glove first baseman, while Pearce is a steady veteran — and 2018 World Series MVP — who can crush lefties and fill in capably against righties.
The Yankees and Rays have powerful but unproven candidates at first base. Voit played out of his mind after the Yankees acquired him last season, crushing 14 homers in 39 games, along with a .333 average and 1.095 OPS. He’s expected to split time with Bird, who has never put together a full, productive season in the majors. Meanwhile, the Rays swung a trade for the 27-year-old Diaz, who has the frame of a bodybuilder but has just one career home run to his name. They’re betting that with regular playing time, his power will show itself.
Do I even need to discuss Chris Davis? No, I don’t think I need to discuss Chris Davis.
- Gleyber Torres, Yankees
- Joey Wendle, Rays
- Jonathan Villar, Orioles
- Dustin Pedroia/Brock Holt, Red Sox
- Devon Travis/Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Blue Jays
Hey, look at that — the Orioles are out of the cellar, at least for this position. They can thank Villar, who was arguably the club’s best player during the final two months of the 2018 season. Villar, who stole 21 bases in 54 games with Baltimore, is expected to be a key figure in the Orioles’ lineup this year, although the trade asset might not last the whole season with the club.
Sitting atop the rankings are two players who finished in the top four of last year’s AL Rookie of the Year vote: Torres (third) and Wendle (fourth). The sky is the limit for the 22-year-old Torres, who socked 24 homers and 77 RBIs with an .820 OPS in 123 games last year. And the Yankees signed three-time Gold Glove second baseman DJ LeMahieu as an overqualified backup. The Rays’ Wendle, meanwhile, batted .300 with a .789 OPS last year while starting at four positions. He’ll get the bulk of the playing time at second.
Pedroia held the No. 1 spot in these rankings for years, but no longer. The former AL MVP is getting long in the tooth (I say, as if I’m not older than him) and injuries have wrecked his last two seasons. The 35-year-old played just three games last year and will open 2019 on the injured list with left knee issues. While he’s out, utility men Holt and Eduardo Nunez will fill in.
Speaking of injuries, the Blue Jays’ snakebitten Travis has spent major time on the shelf in all four big league seasons and will do so again this year, with knee surgery landing him on the IL for at least the first month. His replacement is Gurriel, a second-year player who showed a decent bat but struggled defensively in a 65-game sample last year.
- Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox
- Troy Tulowitzki/Didi Gregorius, Yankees
- Willy Adames, Rays
- Freddy Galvis, Blue Jays
- Richie Martin, Orioles
Bogaerts is coming off the finest season of his career, in which he set new personal bests in home runs (23), doubles (45), RBIs (103) and OPS (.883). He’s not a great defender, but with a bat like that, he doesn’t need to be. Elsewhere, the Yankees suffered a blow with Gregorius’ Tommy John surgery that will keep him out until midseason, but you could do worse than replacing him with a five-time All-Star, Tulowitzki, who was released by the Blue Jays in December.
The 23-year-old Adames took over the Rays’ shortstop job midway through last season with solid results, and should only get better. The Jays went defense first with their signing of the light-hitting but durable Galvis, who has played all 162 games each of the last two years for two different clubs.
The Orioles are expected to turn the job over to the rookie Martin, who was a well-regarded prospect with the Oakland Athletics before the O’s plucked him in the Rule 5 draft. Martin’s glove is major league caliber, but he needs to prove he can hold his own on offense. He swung a hot stick early in Grapefruit League play before falling into an extended slump.
- Miguel Andujar, Yankees
- Rafael Devers, Red Sox
- Vladimir Guerrero Jr./Brandon Drury, Blue Jays
- Daniel Robertson, Rays
- Renato Nunez/Rio Ruiz, Orioles
Two years ago, the hot corner in the AL East was manned by stars Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson and Evan Longoria. Now, a new crop of young third basemen is on the rise. The most exciting of the bunch is Guerrero, the No. 1 prospect in baseball, who has the same gift for hitting as his Hall of Fame father. Guerrero, though, won’t open the year in the big leagues because of an oblique strain (and because the Blue Jays are manipulating his service time to gain an extra season of club control). The journeyman Drury will keep third base warm for him.
For now, the top spot in the rankings belongs to Andujar, last year’s Rookie of the Year runner-up, who batted .297 with an .855 OPS, 27 homers and 92 RBIs. The 24-year-old’s emergence was one reason the Yankees weren’t pressured to pursue Machado in free agency this offseason. The Red Sox are still waiting for the same kind of breakout from Devers, who is entering his second full season. He batted just .240 with a sub-.300 OBP last year, but managed to tally 21 home runs. And he’s still just 22 years old.
The Rays’ expected starter at third, Matt Duffy, was recently shut down with a left hamstring injury, so the mantle has been handed to utility man Robertson, who quietly posted a .797 OPS last year while starting at five positions. And the Orioles, as usual, rank last. Their incumbent third baseman, Nunez, struggled defensively in spring training while battling biceps soreness, opening the door for newcomer Ruiz to siphon starts from him at the hot corner.