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    Sunday, February 25, 2024

    AL East Preview: Judge, Yankees lead MLB's deepest division

    The Yankees' Josh Donaldson (28) celebrates with Aaron Judge after Donaldson hit a three-run home run off Detroit relief pitcher Will Vest during the sixth inning of a spring training game on March 21 in Tampa, Fla. (Chris O'Meara/AP Photo)

    From 1998-2003, the five AL East teams finished in the exact same order every season. Back then, the New York Yankees were dominant, the Boston Red Sox were contenders and everyone else was left chasing those teams — and that remained the status quo for a while.

    Consider this a different era.

    In the past nine seasons, every team in the division has won it at least once. Boston has placed first three times, but the Red Sox have also finished last four times — including 2022. The days when the order of finish was so easy to predict are long gone.

    Last season did end with a familiar group at the top — the Yankees went 99-63 — but below them the race was intriguing. Toronto and Tampa Bay both earned wild cards, but they had to hold off a Baltimore team that improved by 31 games from the previous season.

    When asked what he'd expect from the division this year, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde drew a laugh with the simplicity — and obviousness — of his answer.

    “I think our division's pretty good. It'll be good next year, too," Hyde quipped. “Listen, we play in a tough division. Those teams aren't going anywhere. It was nice that we took big steps last year, big strides, to be able to compete with them the way we did. ... We're not sneaking up on them this year. They know that we're a talented group, and we're looking forward to the challenge of being in a really, really tough division."

    How they project:

    1. New York Yankees. Aaron Judge returns after hitting an American League-record 62 homers last season with a $360 million, nine-year contract and a new role as captain for the Bronx Bombers — the franchise’s first since Derek Jeter. The Yankees added two-time All-Star lefty Carlos Rodón to bolster the Gerrit Cole-led rotation but otherwise are bringing back largely the same roster that won the division in 2022 before getting swept by the Astros in the AL Championship Series. New York hasn’t been to the World Series since 2009, its second longest pennant drought since the club won its first in 1921.

    2. Tampa Bay Rays. Tampa Bay has made the postseason four straight years, and the Rays did it last season despite injuries to shortstop Wander Franco (limited to 83 games) and second baseman Brandon Lowe (65 games). Right-hander Tyler Glasnow missed almost the whole season, and Shane McClanahan finished sixth in the Cy Young vote despite his own shoulder problems. Outfielder Kevin Kiermaier and catcher Mike Zunino are gone from last season's team, but at this point the Rays have earned the benefit of the doubt that they can withstand losses like that and still win.

    3. Toronto Blue Jays. The Blue Jays started slowly enough that they switched managers, and a 46-28 mark under John Schneider was enough to lift them to a wild card. Toronto's lineup is certainly good enough to contend for a pennant with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., George Springer, Matt Chapman and Bo Bichette, although outfielder Teoscar Hernández was traded to Seattle. The Blue Jays' pitching staff was top-heavy last year. Alek Manoah finished third in the Cy Young race and Kevin Gausman had a fine season as well, but Hyun Jin Ryu had forearm problems and made only six starts.

    4. Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox lost shortstop Xander Bogaerts and slugger J.D. Martinez, and infielder Trevor Story had elbow surgery. Boston did make some significant additions, though, adding closer Kenley Jansen, infielder Justin Turner and outfielder Masataka Yoshida. Perhaps most importantly, the Red Sox kept Rafael Devers, signing the third baseman to a massive deal. That was a big move for a fan base still smarting from the losses of Mookie Betts and Bogaerts in recent years. Boston could use a healthy season from Chris Sale, who has pitched in only 11 games over the past three years.

    5. Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles could contend for a playoff spot and still finish last. They had a pretty quiet offseason, and it remains to be seen if they could afford that in this division. Rookie catcher Adley Rutschman led last year's resurgence, and there are more top prospects on the way. Infielder Gunnar Henderson made it to the majors toward the end of last season, and pitcher Grayson Rodriguez could give a big boost to the rotation. The area to watch in Baltimore this year is the bullpen, which came out of nowhere to vault the team into contention in 2022. If there's regression, the team will have a harder time duplicating that promising showing.

    New schedule

    With a more balanced schedule this year, AL East teams will face each other 13 times apiece instead of 19. If they perform well outside of the division, multiple wild cards could again come from this group of five.

    Every AL East team had a winning record outside the division last year. Even Boston, which was 26-50 against its division rivals, was 52-34 against everyone else.

    Not counting the expanded 2020 postseason, the AL East has produced 10 wild cards in seven seasons since 2015. No other division has had more than six.

    More prospects

    Although the Orioles have received the most attention of late for their minor league system — they have four top-50 prospects according to MLB Pipeline — the other AL East teams have some young players they can look forward to.

    Shortstop Anthony Volpe is the No. 5-ranked prospect and reached Triple-A last year in the Yankees' organization. Right-hander Taj Bradley (No. 20) went 7-4 with a 2.57 ERA for Tampa Bay's Double-A and Triple-A affiliates in 2022.

    The Red Sox promoted infielder Triston Casas (No. 23) to the majors last September.

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