X Factors in the American League East for 2019

Every team in Major League Baseball has an X factor to their success before the regular season begins. Here is every American League East team’s 2019 X factor.

Boston Red Sox: Matt Barnes

The Red Sox are the defending World Series champions. They have one of the best lineups in the sport, a deep starting rotation, and have won the AL East in each of the last three seasons; they’re going to be in the hunt for the AL pennant again in 2019. With that said, if their bullpen doesn’t internally improve, Boston’s aspirations of defending their crown in October are toast. Enter the 28-year-old Barnes.

The Red Sox decided to stick to their guns in the bullpen this offseason. And with closer Craig Kimbrel likely not returning and Joe Kelly signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers, their pen is going to be an enormous area of concern, especially in the backend. Barnes has been a steady right-hander in recent memory (Barnes has recorded ERAs under four in each of the last two seasons), but hasn’t been the anchor of the Red Sox pen. This season he projects to hold such a role.

Now, they have starting pitchers capable of pitching deep into games, which will help their bullpen in the dog days of summer. But if Barnes doesn’t lockdown the ninth inning, manager Alex Cora could spend the season shuffling roles amongst his relievers — which could turn into a nightmare. Simultaneously, if Barnes excels as the team’s closer he’ll fill the void created by Kimbrel’s absence.

New York Yankees: Gary Sanchez

The Yankees sported one of the best offenses in MLB for a second consecutive season in 2018. Whether it be the likes of Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Didi Gregorius, Aaron Hicks, rookies Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres, or the late-season emergence of Luke Voit, the Yankees had a fearsome lineup. And if Sanchez can return to his old self in 2019, that lineup will be formidable.

Last season was a challenging period of time for the Yankees hard-hitting catcher. He struggled mightily to keep pitches in front of him behind the plate, finished the season hitting .186, and was limited to 89 games due to injury. The year and a half prior Sanchez was one of, if not the most productive offensive catcher in the sport. Sure, he totaled a lot of strikeouts and was underwhelming behind the plate, but his ability to hit for power and be a force in the middle of the Yankees order made him an irreplaceable figure.

Every AL East team has an X factor heading into 2019 that could make or break their season. @RPStratakos takes a look at them all.Click To Tweet

The Yankees have built a deep bullpen, reliable starting rotation, and productive lineup. But if Sanchez endures another discouraging season, their strikeout-prone lineup could be overwhelmed by potent starting pitching yet again in the postseason. On the other hand, if he produces like the elite catcher the Yankees are enamored with, they could be the hardest team in the sport to beat in a five- or seven-game series.

Tampa Bay Rays: Kevin Kiermaier

The Rays were one of the most captivating stories in MLB last season, winning 90 games. While their pitching staff, most notably the team’s use of a bullpen day and Blake Snell winning the AL Cy Young Award, garnered the majority of the attention, the Rays offense was also impressive. And a resurgent Kiermaier could give the Rays a well-balanced offensive attack in 2019.

Over the last few seasons Kiermaier has been an elite defender. He has made several highlight-reel catches, can get behind any fly ball hit in his general vicinity, and has speed. Meanwhile, Kiermaier has also been a steady hitter, but hit just .217 in the 88 games he appeared in last season.

Kiermaier can put the ball in play, hit for contact, and wreak havoc on the basepaths. In an offense that potentially features Tommy Pham, Matt Duffy, Joey Wendle, Avisail Garcia, Willy Adames, and Austin Meadows, a contact-hitting and healthy Kiermaier would give the Rays offense depth and make their outfield sturdy. Heck, given the depth on their pitching staff, a consistent Kiermaier could put the Rays in the race to win the AL East.

Toronto Blue Jays: Aaron Sanchez

The Blue Jays are in a tough spot and the anticipated MLB debut of third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is the most promising event the organization can look forward to. At the same time, the Blue Jays are two years removed from having one of the best starting rotations in MLB; a well-rounded season from Sanchez could bring that aspect of their roster back to life.

Over the last two seasons Sanchez has recorded ERAs of 4.89 and 4.25, WHIPs of 1.56 and 1.72, and compiled a combined 28 starts. In his first full season starting with the Blue Jays (2016), the right-hander recorded a 3.00 ERA, pitched deep into games, could work out of trouble, and was in consideration for the AL Cy Young Award.

The Blue Jays starting rotation includes Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, Ryan Borucki, Matt Shoemaker, and Clayton Richard. It’s a staff that has the potential to be a reliable unit, but without a big season from Sanchez it will be difficult for that potential to become a reality. With that said, if he can regain his control and pitch with consistency, Sanchez and the Blue Jays could give the AL East a run for its money.

Baltimore Orioles: Renato Nunez

Are the Orioles a rebuilding team that’s several years away from posing a playoff threat? Yes, but they have some veteran and intriguing starting pitchers such as Alex Cobb, Andrew Cashner, and Dylan Bundy, as well as some veteran position players. This season is about finding players to build around, and Nunez is a candidate to become such a player for the Orioles.

After claiming him off waivers from the Texas Rangers in May, Nunez was a pleasant development for the Orioles. Hitting .275 while totaling seven home runs and 20 RBIs in 60 games, he was a steady hitter in the team’s lineup. Nunez also held his own at third base.

It may be another long year for the Baltimore faithful (the Orioles finished with an MLB-worst 47 wins in 2018), but the development of their young players, such as Nunez, will be a compelling storyline in 2019. With Manny Machado, Adam Jones, and Jonathan Schoop, among others, no longer with the team, it’s time for a new generation of players to grow out of the dirt at Oriole Park in Camden Yards. Perhaps individuals such as Nunez and other young Orioles give AL East pitching something it can’t sleep on.

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