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Just in time for Opening Day, we’ve arrived at the third and final part of my AL East position rankings series. If you’re just joining us, welcome! I was starting to wonder where you were.
To recap, I’m comparing the Orioles to their division opponents at every position. Part One covered the infields, and Part Two focused on the outfields, DHs and benches. The Orioles have ranked last in all but one category so far.
Let’s wrap things up with a ranking of the starting rotations, bullpens and managers.
- Red Sox
- Blue Jays
The Red Sox rotation is stacked with aces, led by Chris Sale, who signed a five-year, $145-million extension to stay in Boston for the next half decade. Sale, arguably the most dominant starting pitcher in the majors today, has finished in the top six of the AL Cy Young vote seven years in a row without winning one. With a 10.9 career strikeout rate and 5.31 strikeouts-to-walks rate, both the best of any MLB starting pitcher, you have to think it’s a matter of when, not if, he’ll bag a Cy Young. Two of his teammates in the rotation have already done so: David Price (2012) and Rick Porcello (2016). Rounding out the Boston rotation are 2018 World Series hero Nathan Eovaldi and former Orioles prospect Eduardo Rodriguez.
The Yankees took a hit in spring training when ace Luis Severino suffered shoulder inflammation that will keep him off the mound until at least May. Still, they have the pitching depth to withstand his loss. Reliable right-hander Masahiro Tanaka slides to the top of the rotation — he’ll start Opening Day against the Orioles — and a pair of quality lefties, offseason acquisition James Paxton and 2018 trade deadline prize JA Happ, wait behind him. CC Sabathia, entering his final major league season, will join the group at some point after starting the season on the injured list.
Of course, who even needs five starting pitchers? The Rays don’t. Their “opener” experiment worked astoundingly well in 2018, and they’re rolling with it again this season. But that’s not to say they don’t have any good starters. They boast the defending Cy Young winner, Blake Snell, whose 21 wins and 1.89 ERA both led the AL last year. The Rays also, uncharacteristically, spent money on the free-agent market, landing ground-ball specialist Charlie Morton for two years and $30 million.
In a Toronto rotation that has gone through plenty of turnover, 27-year-old Marcus Stroman and 26-year-old Aaron Sanchez still remain. The two homegrown pitchers will look to rebound after combining for just 39 starts and a 5.21 ERA last year. The Blue Jays have patched together a back end of the rotation that includes veterans Clay Buchholz (who will start the season on the IL), Clayton Richard and Matt Shoemaker.
The Orioles’ rotation, simply put, is a mess — and that was before Alex Cobb was scratched from the club’s Opening Day start with a groin strain. Top three starters Cobb, Dylan Bundy and Andrew Cashner combined for 46 losses and a 5.23 ERA in 2018, and Bundy gave up an Orioles record 41 home runs. The No. 4 and 5 spots could be a carousel all season, with David Hess and Mike Wright likely getting first dibs, although the Orioles will also be utilizing an opener as early as the second game of the season.
- Red Sox
- Blue Jays
For just the second time, the Orioles aren’t ranked last. The bullpen could be the strength of the team. Mychal Givens pitched well in the closer role in August and September last year, which the Orioles hope is a better indicator of his 2019 performance than his rough spring training was. Underrated left-hander Richard Bleier, who had a 1.93 ERA in 2018 before his season was cut short by lat surgery, returns to a setup role, joining middle men Miguel Castro and Paul Fry. Veteran Nate Karns, who will initially work in relief, is an intriguing addition.
I like the Orioles’ bullpen a bit better than the Blue Jays’, which is led by hard-throwing but volatile closer Ken Giles. Toronto signed veteran right-handers Bud Norris and Daniel Hudson to cover the late innings, but they also have the youngest — and least experienced — pitcher in the major leagues. Nineteen-year-old Rule 5 pick Elvis Luciano, who has never pitched above rookie ball, cracked their Opening Day roster. Luciano, born February 15, 2000, will become the first person born in the 2000s to play in the bigs. I feel older than I ever have.
The Yankees, as has been their tradition the past several years, are primed to unleash a dominant bullpen full of strikeout artists. Even with Dellin Betances (15.5 strikeout rate last season) beginning the season on the shelf, the Yankees’ stacked relief corps includes Chad Green (11.2) and free agent signing Adam Ottavino (13.0) to set up overpowering closer Aroldis Chapman (16.3). All had an ERA below 3.00 last season. And that’s not even to mention former Orioles closer Zack Britton, who’s starting his first full season in New York after the club acquired him last July. Suffice it to say the Yankees won’t be giving up many late leads.
The Rays have an adaptable group of pitchers who are just as adept at pitching the first inning as they they are at handling the late ones. The crew includes frequent opener Ryne Stanek, who “started” 29 games last year, and win vulture Ryan Yarbrough, who bagged 16 victories by pitching the middle innings. The Rays don’t have a set closer, but lefty Jose Alvarado (2.39 ERA and 11.3 strikeout rate in 2018) will get save opportunities.
Boston’s bullpen is the weak link of the championship-caliber team, especially after losing closer Craig Kimbrel and setup man Joe Kelly in free agency (although a reunion with the still-unsigned Kimbrel is possible). The closer duties will shift to either 2018 surprise Ryan Brasier, who worked to a 1.60 ERA in the regular season and 1.04 in the playoffs, or veteran Matt Barnes, who strikes out a ton of batters but is susceptible to walks. Hard-throwing Heath Hembree remains in the Sox bullpen as well.
1. Alex Cora, Red Sox
2. Kevin Cash, Rays
3. Aaron Boone, Yankees
t-4. Brandon Hyde, Orioles
t-5. Charlie Montoyo, Blue Jays
In my seven years of doing these team comparisons, I don’t think I’ve ever included a tie before. Ties seem like such a cop-out. Somebody has to have an advantage over the other, even if you have to dig for it. But in this case, I don’t know how to differentiate between the AL East’s two rookie managers, Hyde and Montoyo. Both are highly respected baseball men who have spent decades in the game developing players at all levels. Both were most recently bench coaches for successful organizations; Hyde with the Chicago Cubs and Montoyo with the Rays. Both are getting their first opportunity at a big league managing job. So, for now, they’re tied, until we learn more about their managerial tendencies.
As for the returning managers, it’s hard to bet against a skipper who led his team to a championship in his first year, as Cora did in 2018. Boone, a fellow rookie manager last year, also helmed a 100-win team, although his tactics in the Yankees’ ALDS loss to the Red Sox were heavily criticized. I’m sliding him behind Cash, the only manager in the division who has more than one year of experience on the job. Cash has done an admirable job of getting his players to buy into the Rays’ analytics-heavy approach, including the use of openers last season, with great results.
- Red Sox
- Blue Jays
After carefully considering the position rankings and other factors at play, I’m making the bold prediction that the AL East standings will end up…exactly the same as last year. Where do I find the courage? The Red Sox, despite their shaky bullpen, have such a stacked lineup and starting rotation that they’ll repeat as division champs, and the Yankees will ride their bullpen to a second straight wild card spot. The Rays, for all their innovations and deft maneuvering, can’t quite catch up to the high-spending behemoths.
A last place finish for the Orioles feels unavoidable. It’s just hard to see the Orioles overcoming the talent gap between themselves and the rest of the division. In these rankings, they finished last place (or tied for last) in 11 of 13 categories, and didn’t place higher than third at any position. Even the Blue Jays, a fellow rebuilding club, edged them out in most cases.
Now, let’s sit back and watch how atrociously incorrect all my rankings turn out to be. Today, the story of the 2019 season will begin to unfold.
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