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The AL East is back and better than ever

With five teams aiming at the playoffs, the AL East may be primed for its most competitive year in some time.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Roughly halfway through 2015, right before the Toronto Blue Jays completed one of the best second halves in recent baseball history, the New York Yankees looked likely to win the AL East. They had put together a good season by the midway point of the year, but also didn’t appear to have any competitors. Nearly nobody could have foreseen the torrid run Toronto was about to start on, and the division looked primed for another relatively week year.

Of course, this division put three teams in the playoffs in 2016, and looks to be strong in 2017 as well. This is an evaluation that goes beyond the Boston Red Sox, too. Every team in the AL East has a reasonable path to the postseason, and the ensuing Wild Card race (and perhaps the division race as well) could be a memorable one.

According to FanGraphs’ projected standings, each of the five teams in the AL East should finish with a record of 81-81 or better. If the projections come true, the AL East would have the highest combined winning percentage in the majors:

Projected winning% by division

Division Wins Losses Win%
Division Wins Losses Win%
AL East 422 388 52.1%
AL West 419 391 51.7%
NL Central 400 410 49.4%
NL West 400 410 49.4%
NL East 398 412 49.1%
AL Central 391 419 48.3%
Data via FanGraphs

While finishing .500 is hardly a remarkable feat, such a finish would be only a few games out of the second Wild Card — which, per FG’s projections, should go to the 83-win Angels, Mariners, or Rangers — and easily within striking distance for an entire season. The parity in the American League that marked 2016 appears likely to return again this season, meaning the two Wild Card spots could be attainable for a large number of teams.

Surprising nobody, Boston and Toronto should be at the top of the division. The Red Sox boast one of the most complete teams in baseball, backed by a star-studded rotation and plenty of capable rotation players. Mookie Betts seems to get better every season, and he’s surrounded by enough talent to make many other teams salivate.

New York, Baltimore, and Tampa Bay all have their faults, but each of these teams also has a reasonable upside that could result in a playoff appearance. The Yankees’ interesting blend of veterans and prospects could pay off if a few players develop sooner than expected, for example. Tampa Bay may still have the best pitcher in the division in Chris Archer, and Baltimore will look to rely on the same offense-heavy approach that netted the team a Wild Card spot last season. In short, there is a compelling reason to believe even in the teams not named Toronto or Boston.

Of course, it’s equally possible that each of these three teams lacks the talent to compete in this division as well. If the Yankees’ veterans like Matt Holliday or Chris Carter can’t contribute, the team could fall out of the race relatively early. The same could be said for Baltimore’s less-than-solid rotation, or the comparative lack of talent around Archer and Evan Longoria in Tampa Bay. For all the upside, there is plenty of risk for many teams in the division as well.

The AL East of the late 1990s and early 2000s was a hotbed for competition, as the Yankees and Red Sox often battled through entire seasons for the crown. As these two teams grew older and began to rebuild, though, the division became much more open and a little less competitive. From 2010 to 2015, every team in the division finished in first place at least once, putting an end to the dynasties from New York and Boston.

Now, the division may be in a sweet spot of competitive balance. The veteran teams like the Red Sox and Blue Jays are near their peak years of skill, while young teams like the Rays have enough talent to make a run as well. However unlikely it may be that every team finishes with a .500 record or close to it, there’s certainly enough reason to believe in the possibility.

The overall amount of potential in the AL East is significant. Boston may be the clear frontrunner, and Toronto the clear runner-up, from the vantage point of early March, but every team has a compelling reason to believe as well. FanGraphs doesn’t project any other division in baseball to even come close to having a .500 team in fifth place, and the competitiveness that each team’s talent could bring to the Wild Card and division races is nothing short of compelling. Every team in baseball wants to believe that they have a shot at the beginning of the season. In the AL East, every team is right.