The AL East looks to be one of the best and most competitive divisions in baseball in 2016. The Toronto Blue Jays have a truly lethal lineup and won the division in 2015. The New York Yankees experienced a renaissance from both Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, earning them a Wild Card spot. They only became better over the offseason, acquiring fireballer Aroldis Chapman to bolster an already elite bullpen and acquiring shortstop Starlin Castro to bolster their infield. TheBoston Red Sox signed an ace (finally!) in David Price and look to do an 180 from a terrible 2015 with young stars Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts leading the way. The Baltimore Orioles re-signed slugger Chris Davis and signed free agent pitcher Yovani Gallardo, giving even them a chance at the division. However, the Tampa Bay Rays are looked on as the weak point of the division. They finished 2015 with a record of 80-82, and their only off-season improvement is outfielder Corey Dickerson. So, what gives the Rays a real shot at the division?
First of all, true offensive firepower is not completely a necessity to win. Just look at the New York Mets in 2015. They scored just over 4 runs per game and hit a measly .244, yet they were able to win the division and go to the World Series. In 2015, the Rays hit .252 and scored just about 4 runs per game. In the off-season, they traded for outfielder Corey Dickerson from the Rockies. Dickerson hit .299 in 2015 and is a big addition to the top of the Rays lineup, complementing stud center fielder Kevin Kiermaier. The Rays lineup is far from perfect, and will need to find replacements for Tim Beckham and Hank Conger as the season goes along. But, if the Rays can come out swinging and get power contributions from the third baseman Evan Longoria and first baseman James Loney, they can score even more in 2016, giving them a shot to compete in every ballgame.
Rays’ offense is not going to win them the AL East, but their pitching will
The Rays staff is very underrated in big part because of the injuries it has faced, especially in 2015. Drew Smyly and Matt Moore both missed a big amount of time, and Alex Cobb was out for the entire season. But, do not be fooled: the Rays have a really good pitching staff. Chris Archer, the undisputed ace, had a 3.23 ERA in 2015 with 252 strikeouts. His sidekick, Jake Odorizzi, also had a very good 2015 season, putting up a solid ERA of 3.35. The Rays staff was oft injured and inconsistent, but this can change in 2016. Drew Smyly, acquired from the Tigers in the David Price deal, has shown his potential to be a good mid of the rotation pitcher. Alex Cobb missed the entire season, but he has a career ERA of 3.23. Unfortunately for the Rays, he is still recovering from Tommy John surgery and will not be back until early to mid-July. Matt Moore also had Tommy John surgery and came back in late 2015 after a full recovery. Moore did not pitch well with an ERA over 5, but he still has shown in the past his ability to pitch to the tune of a sub 3.5 ERA. Obviously, with Alex Cobb not returning in the beginning of the 2016 season, the Rays will be forced to rely on replacements. One option is Erasmo Ramirez, who did a serviceable job in 2015 pitching to the tune of a 3.75 ERA. The point here is that the Rays starting rotation could easily combine for an ERA of 3.4. The best team ERA in the entire American League in 2015 was the Houston Astros, and they had to a 3.57 ERA. Certain things would need to fall in place, but the Rays rotation could be the best in the American League in 2016.
Biggest weakness in 2015: Bullpen
Brad Boxberger got the job done as a closer, and Xavier Cedeno pitched very well, but the rest of the bullpen was just violently inconsistent. If the Rays want to win the division, this will be one area where they need to improve in 2016. They will need to rely on younger and less experienced arms in order to succeed, and may end up having to call up minor league prospects to do so. They also may need to send Drew Smyly to the bullpen, which would not be the worst scenario as they still have a deep rotation (and pitching out of the bullpen could save Smyly’s often injured shoulder). They also had a -3 WAR in 2015 from relievers who are not on the team anymore, so the Rays bullpen should turn for the better and be not great, but good enough.
Obviously, to say that the Rays are flawless is a huge stretch, and they very well could end up having a mediocre repeat of 2015. However, what team in the AL East is flawless? The Blue Jays, despite their massive offensive potential, are weak on the pitching end and will be missing David Price. The Red Sox signed Price, but what else did they really do to improve on their disastrous 2015 campaign? In 2015, the Yankees got a huge year out of 40-year old Alex Rodriguez, but can they really expect that production again from their offense? And the Baltimore Orioles, despite signing Yovani Gallardo, have one of the weakest rotations in the American League. The potential is clearly there and do not be surprised when, at the end of 2016, you see the Tampa Bay Rays atop the AL East.