It’s March, so you know what that means. Spring training is in full swing, and the season is almost upon us. So, it’s—hold on, I’m being handed a note. Ah, well. Nevertheless! I suppose you miss a lot of news when you spend all your time in the Lands Between.
So, we don’t know when the season will start, if the season will start, or what the playoff format will be, but over the next month and a half, the staff of Beyond the Box Score will be predicting the winners of each of division. We’re probably getting a season, and winning the division in a 12-team playoff format will probably mean something. Even if neither of those things are true, the content machine must be fed.
We’re beginning with the most tightly contested division in the majors: the AL East. Last season, four teams from the East finished with 90 wins or more, and none of these teams got noticeably worse over the offseason. Of course, the offseason isn’t over (and it may never end), so the power structure could change if one of these teams picks up a handful of remaining free agents. Anyway, on to the predictions.
Andrés Chávez: Tampa Bay Rays
Four teams will vie for the AL East crown: the Tampa Bay Rays, the Toronto Blue Jays, the New York Yankees, and the Boston Red Sox. The Rays took the division last year with an eight-game cushion, and despite the Jays bringing in ace Kevin Gausman, they remain the favorites to repeat in 2022.
Tampa won’t have Tyler Glasnow, who will be recovering from Tommy John surgery, but they have two future aces in Shane McClanahan and Shane Baz, plus the experienced Corey Kluber and an army of talented, versatile arms to round out the staff.
Perhaps more importantly, they will have a full season of young phenom Wander Franco (who hit .288/.347/.463 with a 127 wRC+ as a 20-year-old in 2021) to headline the lineup. The Rays have some offensive firepower, with Franco, Brandon Lowe, Mike Zunino, Randy Arozarena, and other talented hitters that form an impressive unit.
The Blue Jays may be one big piece away (either an infielder or another impact pitcher) from really challenging the Rays, but the Yankees and Red Sox (two teams that could also bring in some big pieces after the lockout) do seem to be half a step behind.
In the end, the four teams will likely be fighting all year, and the difference between the winner and the rest of the pack will be shorter than eight games. However, the Rays are the favorites because of their impressive young talent and their ability to stick to an organizational philosophy.
Kenny Kelly: Toronto Blue Jays
As a longtime Rays disrespecter, they can’t keep getting away with it. Eventually, the Rays’ miserly approach is going to come back to bite them in the regular season. It’s already backfired in the postseason (see: ‘declining Charlie Morton’s option’ and ‘2021 ALDS’).
Someone is going to overtake the Rays, and it might as well be the Blue Jays, the lone 90-win team who missed the playoffs last year. Losing Marcus Semien and Robbie Ray stings, but Toronto has enough there to succeed without them. Vladmir Guerrero Jr. fully arrived in 2021, and Bo Bichette keeps getting better. The 2021 squad was really a healthy George Springer away from a playoff berth.
Before the lockout, the Blue Jays made one big signing in inking Kevin Gausman to a five-year deal, and with Semien gone, there’s a rather noticeable hole at second base. Perhaps Cavan Biggio’s down year was a blip, but more likely, the Jays could use some reinforcement there.
Even without Semien, the Jays still have a lineup that should be one of the most productive in the majors. Without Ray, Toronto still has a formidable one-two punch in Gausman and José Berríos. The Blue Jays should have made the playoffs in 2021. They’re not going to fall short again in 2022. You know, if there is a 2022.
Matt O’Halloran: Boston Red Sox
This may be a homer pick, but homer picks aren’t necessarily bad picks. The Red Sox are bringing back the majority of a roster that just won a Wild Card spot en route to the ALCS, farther than any other AL East team.
The losses of Hunter Renfroe and Kyle Schwarber do leave a hole in the lineup, but I would expect an addition to supplement these losses once the lockout ends; NPB outfielder Seiya Suzuki or a reunion with Kyle Schwarber seem the most likely. Lineup mainstays Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, JD Martinez, and Alex Verdugo, as well as 2021 breakout star Enrique Hernández, form one of the more dangerous lineups in baseball. If Bobby Dalbec’s late-season surge (1.047 OPS from 7/29 on) wasn’t real, a reinforcement in Triston Casas figures to be in the big leagues this summer.
The top of the rotation will be anchored by the formidable 1-2 punch of Nathan Eovaldi and Chris Sale, in his first full season back from Tommy John Surgery. Garrett Whitlock and Tanner Houck will each have an opportunity to earn a spot in the rotation after dazzling in the bullpen in 2021. If they continue to pitch as well as they have out of the bullpen, this could be one of the best rotations in baseball.
In the end, this division is anybody’s (well, except the Orioles). While I doubt they will be widely considered the favorites, the Red Sox will be very competitive in 2022, and already showed in 2021 just how much they can surprise everyone.
Steven Martano: Toronto Blue Jays
Last season the Blue Jays were right in the thick of things in the AL playoff race. Sure, the Rays ended up running away with the division, but a raw and extremely talented Toronto team that won over 90 games last year looks poised to take the next step forward.
Last year the Jays won 91 games (shockingly only good for fourth place in an uber-competitive division), but based on their run differential of 183, their Pythagorean record was a robust 100-62. Their young core is a year older, and they’ve upgraded their rotation.
No one will argue that Toronto’s young players are an unmitigated offensive juggernaut that will continue to plate a ton of runs. The Jays scored the third-most runs in the AL only behind Houston and Tampa, and their offensive triumvirate of Vlad Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio is still developing and yet to hit its stride. Expect all three to perform better than 2022.
Toronto’s pitching was adequate last season, but they’ve put together a solid rotation going into 2022. Despite losing Robbie Ray, who pitched great in a contract reset year (and ended up with the Mariners on a multi-season deal). This season the Jays get a full year of Jose Berrios, and newly acquired Kevin Gausman, who is coming off a career year 4.8 fWAR. With mainstay third starter Hyun-Jin Ryu, Toronto has a strong top-three.
The Jays are more balanced and more mature than last season and are poised to take a step forward, winning the AL East for the first time since 1993.
Estevão Maximo: Toronto Blue Jays
The lockout began with plenty of good and even great players still left in free agency. While there is only so much that can change regarding the landscape of division and championship favorites, plenty could happen between now and the beginning of the season. Who’s to say that Freddie Freeman or Matt Olson aren’t playing in the AL East come summer.
This is almost a disclaimer for everything that I’m about to say. However, unless something extraordinary happens I would give the slight favoritism for the Toronto Blue Jays to win the highly contested AL East.
The Toronto Blue Jays are an up-and-coming team, and management has shown a willingness to spend to surround this strong offensive core with the necessary pieces to contend.
The loss of Robbie Ray was properly supplanted by the addition of Kevin Gausman. Marcus Semien is gone, but this offense remains one of the five best in baseball with ease. The team that finished with a Pythagorean W-L record of 99-63 last year now has a full season of deadline acquisition José Berrios.
One figures that’s almost a given that the Rays will outperform their projections in what has become almost a seasonal tradition so they can’t ever be ruled out. The Yankees should figure to be in the race as well and I see Boston somewhat behind with too much uncertainty surrounding the staff, but nothing is truly off the table.
This figures to be one of the more exciting division races in all of baseball