The American League East had a lot of eyes on it in 2018 with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees once again locked in a battle for dominance at the top of the division. The division also saw an unexpected surge from a plucky, young Tampa Bay Rays team that missed the playoffs by only the slightest of margins. The Toronto Blue Jays and the Baltimore Orioles, by contrast, plummeted to the bottom of the division as they trudged through the muddy waters of their respective rebuilds.
The end result? The Red Sox capped off a historic 108 win season by knocking off their hated rival Yankees, the Houston Astros, and eventually the Los Angeles Dodgers to capture the 2018 World Series Championship. The Red Sox will enter the 2019 season looking to defend not only their World Series Championship but also the AL East division crown. However, the competition in the AL East will be as fierce as it has ever been in 2019. The New York Yankees have reloaded with the addition of several impact players such as James Paxton, DJ LeMahieu, and Adam Ottavino. The Tampa Bay Rays also beefed up their roster, adding Charlie Morton to their rotation and Avisail Garcia to the middle of their lineup.
Here is a more in-depth look at how the AL East shapes out heading into the 2019 season.
1. Boston Red Sox
The reigning World Series Champions are bringing back essentially the exact same roster for another go at it in 2019. The newly extended Chris Sale anchors a rotation that also features David Price, playoff hero Nathan Eovaldi, Rick Porcello, and Eduardo Rodriguez. On the offensive side, reigning American League Most Valuable Player Award recipient, Mookie Betts, will be looking to pick up where he left off in 2018, especially with his contract future looming over him and the team going forward. The Red Sox do, however, have some troubling question marks surrounding this year’s team. Will Dustin Pedroia be able to contribute after missing virtually all of the 2018 season? How will the bullpen perform following the departure of Craig Kimbrel? Did the team do enough in the offseason to ensure another division title in 2019?
Players to watch: Dustin Pedroia, Mookie Betts, Chris Sale
Health will be a key factor for the Red Sox this season, particularly when it comes to the returning Pedroia, who played in just three games last season. Pedroia is attempting to make a full return from knee surgery and is already slated to start the season on the injured list. The team believes that Pedroia will be ready to go by the time their home opener rolls around on April 12, but his ability to stay on the field for 100 or more games will be crucial for the success of the Red Sox this season.
Another health concern for the team pertains to their ace, Sale, who recently signed a five-year extension with Boston. Sale struggled with shoulder problems in 2018 which limited him to just 158 innings. Sale, when fully healthy, is the most dominant left-handed pitcher in baseball, so the Red Sox must do everything they can to ensure that he stays healthy enough to be an impact player in the later months of the season.
Lastly, there’s the reigning AL MVP, Betts. Will Betts have a repeat performance of his phenomenal 2018 season? If the Red Sox want to make another trip to the playoffs and, more importantly, the World Series, then Betts has to be at least just as good as he was last season.
2B, Dustin Pedroia (R)
LF, Andrew Benintendi (L)
RF, Mookie Betts (R)
DH, J.D. Martinez (R)
SS, Xander Bogaerts (R)
3B, Rafael Devers (L)
1B, Mitch Moreland(L)
C, Christian Vazquez (R)
CF, Jackie Bradley Jr. (L)
RHP Matt Barnes
RHP Ryan Brasier
RHP Tyler Thornburg
RHP Hector Velazquez
RHP Brandon Workman
RHP Heath Hembree
RHP Colton Brewer
LHP Brian Johnson
2. New York Yankees
The Bronx Bombers had a disappointing 2018 season by their standards, failing to reach the American League Championship Series as they did the year prior. A myriad of injuries to the starting rotation, as well as a late-season injury to superstar Aaron Judge, hampered the Yankees as they went into the postseason. However, the Yankees have restocked and reloaded for another campaign as they attempt to seize the AL East throne from their rivals up in Boston. Will their additions to the starting rotation and bullpen be enough to elevate them over the Red Sox? Will Gary Sanchez be able to rebound from a frustrating 2018 season? How will Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres perform in their sophomore seasons?
Players to watch: James Paxton, Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino
The Yankees made a significant splash in the offseason when they acquired Paxton from the Seattle Mariners for a package of prospects, most notably the highly touted Justus Sheffield. Paxton immediately gives the Yankees a major boost in their starting rotation, something they desperately needed in 2018. Paxton fanned 208 batters in his 2018 campaign, and the power lefty figures to be a major part of the Yankees’ success in 2019.
Sanchez will also have a lot of eyes on him in 2019. The 26-year-old catcher struggled mightily in 2018, hitting a meager .186 and being exposed as a liability behind the plate defensively. Through quite a few stretches of the 2018 season, the Yankees received more value and production out of the catcher position from their backup, Austin Romine. Thus, Sanchez will have to make a strong rebound in 2019 to keep his place in the lineup.
Severino was arguably the best pitcher in baseball through the first half of the 2018 season, but it was a much more grim picture after the All-Star break. Severino went 5-6 with a ghastly 5.67 ERA in 12 starts after the All-Star break. The 25-year-old righty is expected to miss at least the first month of the season as he recovers from inflammation in his rotator cuff. The Yankees hope that he can regain his form from the first half of 2018 when he was downright dominant.
3. Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays shocked the baseball world in 2018 by winning 90 games despite a severe lack of starting pitching depth and an incredibly young roster, in general. The Rays’ manager, Kevin Cash, did a phenomenal job innovating and experimenting with the roster he had and leading the team to a successful season. The Rays just barely missed the playoffs last year, but with a few key additions and a strong crop of young players, the team figures to be right back in the mix for a playoff spot in 2019.
Players to watch: Blake Snell, Charlie Morton, Tommy Pham
Blake Snell won the American League Cy Young Award in 2018, going 21-5 with a dazzling 1.89 ERA while recording 221 strikeouts in 180 innings pitched. The Rays wasted no time in signing the stud left-hander to a five-year extension this offseason. Snell will once again lead the charge for the Rays in 2019, giving the team a true ace at the top of their rotation to combat their AL East rivals.
The Rays further bolstered their starting rotation by signing Morton, a former Astros star, to a two-year contract. Morton is coming off another stellar year as he went 15-3 with a 3.13 ERA in 2018. The 35-year-old right-hander gives the Rays a hard-throwing strikeout machine to go behind their brilliant ace at the top of their rotation. Snell and Morton make one of the most formidable one-two pitching punches in the league.
The most significant member of the Rays’ lineup is undoubtedly Pham, who finished the 2018 regular season red-hot, batting .368 in September as the Rays scratched and clawed their way towards a potential Wild Card berth. Despite falling short of that goal, Pham established himself as the leader of the Rays offense and figures to pick up where he left off heading into the 2019 season.
4. Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to their standing in the AL East. The team is in the middle of a rebuild following the departures of several key players, including Tulowitzki, Josh Donaldson, and Russell Martin. The team is also under new management, having let go of long-time manager John Gibbons this offseason. Charlie Montoyo will now be at the helm of the Blue Jays as they attempt to improve upon their 73-89 record from the 2018 season.
Players to watch: Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
The two most important players for the Blue Jays in 2019 are, without a doubt, Stroman and Sanchez. Both of these young pitchers were, at one point, looked at as potentially aces for their ballclub. However, injuries and inconsistency have plagued both Stroman and Sanchez throughout their careers so far, and the 2019 season may be their last chance to get on the right track. Without these two returning to form the Blue Jays are slated for another troublesome season, as the rest of their starting rotation leaves much to be desired.
If there is a bright spot on this Blue Jays roster, it might be at second base, which is occupied by Gurriel. The 25-year-old expat from Cuba had a strong 2018 campaign, batting .281 with 11 home runs in 65 games played. Gurriel figures to be a central part of the Blue Jays offense in 2019 and beyond, especially since he signed a seven-year contract with the team back in 2016 that will have him in Toronto through the 2023 season.
LF, Teoscar Hernandez (R)
2B, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (R)
1B, Justin Smoak (S)
DH, Rowdy Tellez (L)
CF, Kevin Pillar (R)
RF, Randal Grichuk (R)
3B, Brandon Drury (R)
SS, Freddy Galvis (S)
C, Danny Jansen (R)
5. Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles are a case study for how miserable and arduous a rebuild can be. The team is saddled with horrible contracts in the form of Chris Davis, Alex Cobb, and Mark Trumbo. The team had to trade away its homegrown superstar, Manny Machado, all while they sank to the very bottom of the AL East with a league-worst 47-115 record. The Orioles, much like the Blue Jays, had a change in leadership this offseason, letting go of Buck Showalter and hiring Brandon Hyde as their new manager. The 2018 season was horrible and, unfortunately, 2019 does not project to be much better.
Players to Watch: Dylan Bundy, Trey Mancini, Richie Martin
What has happened to Bundy? Several years ago he was considered the Orioles top prospect, and he was so highly regarded that the organization held off on calling him up to the majors to protect him from being exposed too early. However, Bundy has seemingly gone backwards in his development, going 8-16 with a miserable 5.45 ERA in 2018. He still has good stuff, but Bundy will need to do a complete 180 in his career to give Baltimore some hope.
Mancini is one of the lone bright spots in Baltimore, smashing 24 home runs in 2018 and establishing himself as a promising middle-of-the-order bat. Mancini will have to lead the way once again, and hopefully the 27-year-old can improve on his overall numbers in 2019.
The Orioles selected Martin with the number one overall pick in the Rule 5 draft this offseason, and the 24-year-old shortstop has been making a strong case for winning the full-time job out of spring training. Martin will have to beat out veteran infielder Alcides Escobar, but if he does then he could provide the Orioles with another young talent to build around going forward.