“Spring training is a time for lists and rankings, optimism and delusion.” — An AL East manager not from Boston or Toronto
Two of the best teams in all of baseball reside in the AL East. That’s the stark reality facing the GMs of the chasing pack in the East. Realistically, to reach the playoffs you have to dethrone either the Blue Jays or Red Sox. Both rosters are well managed, rich in talent, with deep minor league systems and most importantly of all, they are executing an actual plan. How then can you start to make inroads into the gap? One way is by matching up to them in the key areas like starting pitching and specifically the anchor of the rotation.
The five likely opening day starters have been ranked by longevity, success, fit for the club and the results are surprisingly close. Chris Sale is 22-9 the past two seasons, admittedly a slightly disrupted 2020 season and is one of the best LHP in SSG. He is in his prime years (31 yrs old), well paid ($22m) and is the anchor of an excellent rotation in Toronto. The off-season acquisition of Robert Stephenson and Jameson Taillon will only make that rotation stronger. Arguably Stephenson may be the real #1 in Toronto (law enforcement is still investigating the acquisition to see if any crime took place during the steal from Cincinnati) but for now Sale is the top guy and with the offence behind him, he could easily break his career high in wins in 2021.
Zach Greinke is probably the most well known of the five AL East #1’s and had he not been coming off a big injury, would be the undoubted #1 overall. How will his 37 year old body cope with the demands of being a #1? If he can find the form of 2020 prior to his injury then the Orioles will be tough to beat in a 3 game series. Greinke was up on Ks, down on walks, HRs and his ERA was on course for a career best mark. Put simply, he gave great value on his $18m contract. The Orioles starting rotation has some really good mid-rotation talent but Greinke is that elite pitcher – future hall of famer for sure. The Orioles need him to give them what he gave them last year, but over a full season if they are to compete. He just might.
Boston has the luxury of having the deepest starting rotation and GM Denyer may not even know who his #1 is but for now Matt Barnes looks like getting the nod. Barnes is the elder statesman of the Red Sox rotation at 30 years old – which is scary news for the rest of the East, but he is still growing as a pitcher, getting better year on year. To date he hasn’t been a big wins guy but he gave the Red Sox 29 starts in their championship winning season and most of them were quality. He was up on K/9, down on HR/9 and his walks were low. The wins were elusive but he often matched up against the opposing #1 and the Red Sox regularly needed their bullpen to hold on to what Barnes had given them to secure wins. With a ludicrously strong catcher pairing to throw to, Barnes always seems to be in control and personal glory may follow and if that happens GM Paul Denyer may need to dip his hands into his pockets and pay Barnes who is the least well paid of the 5 on $7.5m.
Tampa’s GM brought in Jose Quintana in 2020 to try and give his team a genuine #1. Does the arrival of Yu Darvish mean that earlier move hasn’t worked? That’s certainly the take around the press room. Darvish is quality, or has been at least. Rarely injured, he has given good service in three different cities in the past 3 seasons before signing a longer deal in Florida. The word on Darvish is he is fickle but when he’s on, he’s really on. Tampa can put Quintana at #2 where he looks better suited and let Darvish duel with the likes of Sale, Greinke, Barnes and Skaggs. On his day he can make a real difference and the Rays are looking to him to take the pressure off the young hitters. Its a risky strategy but the fans are enthused by the signing. It remains to be seen how long the honeymoon period lasts.
Rounding out the 5 is Tyler Skaggs who is no mean pitcher – another guy who has bounced around a bit before finding a home in New York. Skaggs was 6-12 in 2020 but that’s more a reflection of his team’s problems than his own. He bounced back from a poor season in Cleveland with a really strong showing on a losing team – his 3.61 ERA would likely have seen him into double figures for wins in any other AL East team in 2020. He has been encouraged by the pieces the Yankees are assembling around him and may end up as something of a mentor to Ron Lowe and Alfredo Flores. The Yankees future superstars Israel Avila and Manny Sanchez should give him more run support while Ketel Marte is a standout defender who may save a few runs. Skaggs needs to play his part (and earn his $16.6m salary) if the Yankees are to progress as much this season as they need to close the gap in the East.