Yankees vs. Everyone: Is New York vulnerable to a challenge in the AL East?

Could someone other than the New York Yankees all of a sudden have a chance to win the AL East?

When the Yankees signed Gerrit Cole, it seemed pretty clear that no one else had a hope  against a team that won 103 games a year ago, despite a long list of injuries.

Then spring training happened and the Yankees have been taking Ls like they’re the Orioles. Not in games, mind you, but on the injury list. Luis Severino is out for the season after Tommy John surgery. James Paxton could be out until at least May. Aaron Judge won’t be ready for opening day. Giancarlo Stanton probably won’t either. It has to feel like 2019 all over again in Yankees camp.

The good news for the Yankees is that they’ve got incredible depth. The good news for the rest of the division is that there’s a chance. Or maybe that’s just good news for the Tampa Bay Rays, the scrappy Davids to the Yankees’ Goliath who won 96 games last year and the AL wild-card game.

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The Blue Jays will be young and fun, the Orioles are still trying to rebuild and the Red Sox, after trading Mookie Betts and facing their own injury issues, probably won’t be fighting for a playoff spot. 

So at least this Rays vs. Yankees tussle has a chance to be interesting into the summer, which is probably more than you could say if the Yankees were fully healthy.

Due up … 

Three people who could make the difference in the division this year.

By Mark Townsend

1. Chaim Bloom, Red Sox Chief Baseball Officer: Since taking charge of the Red Sox baseball operations department in October, Chaim Bloom has played a role in firing World Series-winning manager in Alex Cora and traded a former MVP in Mookie Betts. Needless to say, that's not how most baseball executives start a new job. Then again, not every executive comes into circumstances as combustible and unpredictable as those that have developed in Boston.

Fairly or unfairly, Bloom was thrust into a spotlight that could prove unforgiving if those two franchise-altering decisions don't pan out. He'll have some leeway on the Betts trade, which also included David Price being shipped to the Dodgers. A trade can't be fairly judged for two or three seasons. However, the appointment of a new manager, whether that continues to be interim manager Ron Roenicke or someone else, will give critics more immediate fodder. How Bloom handles the fallout from this winter should give Red Sox fans a fair indication of just how well prepared he is for the task at hand. 

2. Gerrit Cole, Yankees RHP: The unrelenting Yankees got their man again. The signing of Gerrit Cole to an MLB-record nine-year, $324 million contract for a pitcher added another ace to one of the game’s most talented starting rotations.

The Yankees' addition of Gerrit Cole was supposed to put New York over the top in the American League, but may end up being what keeps them afloat amid a barrage of rotation injuries. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

Unfortunately for New York, keeping the rotation healthy has been its biggest issue over the last two seasons. That trend continues into 2020 as they've already lost Luis Severino for the season to Tommy John surgery. Beyond that, James Paxton will be sidelined until May after undergoing surgery to remove a cyst near his spine. That will put immediate pressure on Cole and Masahiro Tanaka to be workhorses early in the season.

Cole has been that and then some over the last three seasons. During that timeframe, the now 29-year-old right-hander has made 98 regular season starts and another seven in the postseason, all the October pitching coming for the Houston Astros. He’s both become more dominant, posting a league-leading 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings and career-best 6.8 WAR last season, and shown an ability to grow stronger as the season moves along. That’s exactly what New York will need from him. The question is: How long can Cole maintain that workload? And just how much will New York’s season hinge on him remaining that guy in 2020?

3. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays 3B: Blue Jays phenom Vladimir Guerrero Jr. gave us tastes of the tantalizing upside we’ve been hearing about for years. Overall though, he didn't exactly set the world on fire. The 20-year-old slashed .272/.339/.433 and posted a disappointing 0.4 WAR, per FanGraphs, over 123 games. His 15 home runs and 69 RBIs were respectable for most rookies, but Guerrero wasn't regarded as just another rookie. He entered the league with nearly the same level of hype given to stars like Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani.

Perhaps the initial expectations were unfairly high. It’s also possible he wasn't fully ready despite the baseball world wanting to believe he was. Regardless, the future remains bright for Guerrero. The key thing to gauge during his sophomore campaign is whether he can counter the adjustments that will be made now that every team will have a solid scouting report. We know the special moments will come. If he can just find some consistency, both he and the Blue Jays will be well-positioned to take a step forward. If he can't, Blue Jays fans and baseball fans in general will be forced to exercise patience.

The Teams

How 2020 could go so right ... or so wrong ... for each team. Listed in order of projected standings via Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system.

By Chris Cwik and Jack Baer

New York Yankees

Best-case: The Yankees do exactly what they did last season and find a way to overcome injuries. Gio Urshela proves his breakout is for real, Luke Voit joins Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton in the 40+ homer club and the team trades for a top-of-the-rotation starter at the deadline. The scenario: 104 wins and a World Series title.

Worst-case: Literally anything bad — an injury, a decline, Yankee Stadium — happens to Cole, and suddenly the top of the rotation is no longer a strength and that $324 million deal gets off to a rough start. Neither Stanton nor Judge are healthy to open the season, and injuries nag them for months. DJ LeMahieu no longer hits like an MVP candidate. The team stops getting .500 slugging percentages out of bench bats, while its vaunted bullpen depth falters. The scenario: 86 wins, and Yankees fans collectively blow out their voice boxes booing the Astros in September.

Tampa Bay Rays

New Rays slugger José Martínez, acquired from the Cardinals in a typically opaque Tampa trade, is one of the new puzzle pieces manager Kevin Cash will try to arrange into a true contender. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Best-case: The Rays actually are smarter than you. The team uses quick hooks, platoons and develops six two-way players to gain an edge over opponents. They may not have star power, but they somehow manage five All-Stars as one-time trade acquisitions like Yandy Díaz, José Martínez and Hunter Renfroe all bat .330 with 24 home runs before the break. They even get Mike Zunino to hit above the Mendoza Line. You, an ardent Rays hater, start to find the team likable. The scenario: 99 wins and an AL East crown.

Worst-case: The team with all the answers doesn’t have many when its offense shows just how much it relied on Tommy Pham’s on-base skills at the top of the order. Brandon Lowe’s contract stops looking like an incredible bargain when his 35 percent strikeout rate persists. The much-hyped rotation trio of Blake Snell, Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow experience more of their past arm troubles, and the rest of the staff rebels against the opener. Top prospect Wander Franco’s meteoric rise slows down, delaying his potential debut to 2021 at the earliest. The scenario: 81 wins, as questions about the team’s future in Tampa persist.

Boston Red Sox

Best-case: Mookie Betts? Never heard of him. Alex Verdugo doesn’t fully replace Betts’ production in the outfield, but he shows enough promise to get Red Sox fans excited. Andrew Benintendi proves last season’s swoon was a fluke, and puts up numbers reminiscent of his strong 2018 season. Rafael Devers, still just 23, continues to mash, while Michael Chavis takes a big step forward. Chris Sale’s injury and health issues don’t linger too long. The Red Sox find a usable fifth starter, and become a surprising contender. The scenario: 90 wins and a wild-card spot.

Worst-case: Any hopes of the playoffs left with Mookie Betts, and Fenway Park attendance shows it. MLB eventually levies surprisingly harsh sign-stealing punishment. Sale posts a 5.00 ERA until the All-Star break, then undergoes Tommy John surgery a full 11 months after he started feeling elbow pain. With another spot to fill, the rotation becomes a season-sinking fiasco. J.D. Martinez’s bat suffers badly without access to the in-game video he utilizes and the lineup collapses around him. The Dodgers trade Brusdar Graterol for multiple prospects after a dominant rookie season in the bullpen, just to rub it in. The scenario: A very sustainable, cost-efficient 74 wins.

Toronto Blue Jays

Best-case: Some prospects need time to adjust to the majors. Did you know Mike Trout only batted .220 over his first 40 games in the majors? Because of that, it comes as no surprise when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hits .320 with 38 home runs in 2020 and elevates himself into the MVP discussion. Bo Bichette plays well enough to surpass his dad’s 5.7 career WAR. Cavan Biggio gets a little less selective, starts hitting for average and emerges as a star at second base. Hyun-jin Ryu stays healthy, and somehow the rest of the patchwork rotation is just good enough. The scenario: 85 wins and a lot of optimism for the future.

Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette looked like a star in a scorching 46-game MLB debut in 2019, during which he batted .311 with 11 homers. (Photo by Icon Sportswire)

Worst-case: The team realizes three-and-a-half hyped prospects does not an MLB lineup make. Vlad Jr.’s elite hit tool takes another year to come into place, and a season of defensive lowlights lands him at first base for good. Bichette doesn’t replicate his .368 BABIP and has the full sophomore slump. Ryu’s relatively healthy 2019 turns out to be a well-timed fluke, and the rotation experiences something similar to last year’s chaos. The scenario: 64 wins as the team loses fans to streaming blackouts.

Baltimore Orioles

Best-case: The 2020 Orioles don’t care about wins and losses, man. They care about development. When the season is over, they’ll tell you the true value of the year was the future contributors they met along the way. In an ideal world, Austin Hays, Anthony Santander and Chance Sisco prove they are pieces worth building around. Defensively challenged prospect Ryan Mountcastle comes up and mashes enough to assert himself as a future All-Star. Hunter Harvey stays healthy and John Means continues to look like a mid-rotation starter. The scenario: 70 wins, and a supercut of Orioles fans pronouncing Pedro Severino’s name.

Worst-case: You probably have much better things to do than read about the 2020 Orioles’ worst-case scenario. If you don’t, buckle up. We’re talking about a team that won 54 games last year and projects to be significantly worse. The lineup sinks to even lower depths after non-tendering its most valuable position player. Scores of players join Yankees star Gleyber Torres in feasting on the pitching staff. The farm system sees little growth, with No. 1 pick Adley Rutschman stumbling at Double A. The only thing that costs the Orioles more than Chris Davis’ contract is the legal bill owed to the World Series champions down the road whose existence the club fought to prevent. The scenario: 42 wins, enough to cement a place as one of the worst teams in MLB history.

Fun Meter

How entertaining will this division be as a race and summer-long TV show?

By Mike Oz

The AL East has Gerrit Cole and Gleyber Torres, Vlad Jr. and whatever the Rays are cooking up in their baseball laboratory. But there’s no more Mookie Betts, which is seriously hampering the fun meter.

The true measurement of fun in the East probably depends on how “fun” you think the Yankees are — either their potential dominance or another round of being hit by every possible injury. Whether you love or hate the Bronx Bombers, you have to admit that Torres is one of the best young talents in the game, which earns a point in the fun column.

Over in Toronto, the Blue Jays might not win as many games as other teams, but watching a second-generation team is a concept that baseball always finds fun. With Vlad Jr. and Bo Bichette, they’ll take some big swings. They’ll miss a lot too. But they’ll be worth tuning in for.

If Chris Davis can have a comeback season after last year’s infamous drought at the plate — he’s batting over .500 in the spring with three homers — that would be a tremendously fun story.

AL East UFR (Ultimate Fun Rating) = 7.4

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