2021 MLB Season Preview – The AL East

Happy Opening Day! After an miserable year in 2020, including an abbreviated sixty game schedule, fans are looking forward to a full 162 game season. Best of all, fans will be allowed in MLB ballparks. The stadiums will not be sellouts at first, but as COVID vaccinations continue, capacities will increase. Normalcy is slowly returning.

The AL East Division is always competitive, and will continue to be in 2021. Today, we’ll take brief looks at each team in the East and assess their chances of winning the division. Let’s get started!

  • Boston Red Sox – After last year’s disaster, there’s nowhere to go but up. Alex Cora is back to manage the team after a year away from baseball account the much publicized Astros sign stealing scandal. Over the winter, the Red Sox added Kike Hernandez, Franchy Cordero, and Marwin Gonzalez to their lineup. They brought in former Yankee Adam Ottavino to their bullpen and Garrett Richards for the rotation. This team will hit, but their success will ride on pitching. Nathan Eovaldi is back throwing 100 mph seeds and Eduardo Rodriguez is back after missing 2020 with post-COVID related heart issues. Chris Sale (recovery from Tommy John surgery) is slated to re-join the team after the All Star break. If their bullpen holds up and does the job, the Sox will be much better in 2021. However, they’re still behind upper-echelon teams like the Yankees, Rays and Blue Jays.
  • New York Yankees – Last year’s Yankees finished 2nd behind the Tampa Bay Rays. Injuries are a big reason why, as Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton each missed more than half the season. Remaining healthy is the biggest concern for manager Aaron Boone and the Bronx Bombers. If the bodies hold up, the Yankees are the most talented team in the division. The Yankees lineup is basically unchanged from last year. Good health also goes for pitching – if newcomers Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon make all their starts, good things will happen.
  • Tampa Bay Rays – The Rays are for real. Sure, things change every year because the team’s salary structure dictates they must. Kevin Cash is a top-notch manager (other than that Blake Snell World Series thingy) and gets the most from his players. Willy Adames, Mike Brosseau, Randy Arozarena and Tyler Glasnow make up a formidable core. They have the lineup to compete and score a lot of runs. As with most teams, pitching well – especially in relief – is key to success. Beyond Glasnow, the Rays rotation is a patchwork quilt of recycled and older starters. Diego Castillo, Pete Fairbanks and Chaz Roe are good at shutting teams down. They’ll be at or near the top the entire way.
  • Toronto Blue Jays – What a lineup. After the Yankees, these Baby Jays have the best lineup in the AL East, and maybe the entire league. Over the winter, GM Ross Atkins brought in CF George Springer, 2B Marcus Semien and starting pitcher Steven Matz. The Jays and manager Charlie Montoyo have young flamethrower Nate Pearson slotted in behind Hyun-Jin Ryu in the rotation. Again, pitching well will be important – especially in this loaded division.

Enjoy the games today and the entire season! There’s no day quite like Opening Day. For me, it’s better than Christmas.

Are Astros Nearing the End?

The Houston Astros are a household name in Major League Baseball as a result of reaching the playoffs four of the past five seasons. In 2017, they won their first World Series championship, and last year battled seven games in a classic World Series against the Washington Nationals. This past November came the bombshell revelation of their 2017 sign-stealing scandal, tainting the sole title they have.

After a tough start to 2020, the Astros rebounded from a 7-10 start, climbing to a record of 14-10 going into Thursday afternoon’s game in Denver against the Colorado Rockies. Beating up on bad Giants, Mariners and Rockies teams has propelled them to a seven game winning streak.

All is not well, as José Altuve is barely hitting his own weight with a .180 average and .241 OBP. George Springer is struggling at .215 on the season, while ace Justin Verlander is shelved as a result of a forearm strain. Josh James, a 27 year old with a 100 mph fastball is no longer in the rotation because of inability to throw strikes. James’s bloated ERA of 11.17 has relegated him to mop-up duty. Lance McCullers, Jr’s ERA sits north of 5.00 in his first year back from Tommy John surgery.

Only Zack Greinke and 24 year old rookies Brandon Bielak and Blake Taylor have provided reliable mound-work in Verlander’s absence. On the offensive front, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel, Alex Bregman and Michael Brantley have picked up the slack. Josh Reddick is an active contributor to the Astros cause as well.

Yesterday, Astros beat-writer Brian McTaggart announced last year’s rookie sensation Yordan Álvarez is out for the season with a partial tear in his right knee.

The Astros have many questions going beyond this season. Springer (30 yrs. old), Brantley and Reddick (both 33) will become free agents. Behind the plate, Martín Maldonado gives excellent defense and is cheap (3.5 M through 2021), but a poor hitter and better as a back-up.

The aforementioned Justin Verlander, now 37, faces an uncertain future. He went on the shelf after his Opening Day win with a forearm strain. This type of injury to a pitcher is an ominous sign, and often leads to Tommy John surgery. Greinke’s outings are as good as ever, however, he is 36 years old and the velocity is declining. Young José Urquidy (on 10-day IL) is ready for a spot in the rotation. 22 year old Forrest Whitley may be ready sometime in 2021.

The Astros owe Verlander a prorated portion of his 33 million dollar salary for this year and the full amount in 2021. Greinke has a price tag of 35M this year and next. However, 10.33M is paid by Arizona, resulting in a little financial relief. Altuve’s contract runs through 2024 at 29M/year. Gurriel is still productive, but enters arbitration this winter. Because Houston owes so much in active contracts, it may result in them trading the 36 year old Gurriel and go with 23 year old Abraham Toro.

If 2020 were a normal season, the team’s budget would have been just over 230 million dollars. For 2021, eighty-nine million dollars is dedicated to Verlander, Greinke and Altuve. New general manager James Click has decisions to make about Astros future. Myles Straw and Kyle Tucker can fill in if Click moves on from Brantley, Reddick, and Springer,

Will owner James Crane further distance himself and his team from the disgrace from the sign-stealing scandal? Former manager A.J. Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow are history, and letting Springer, Reddick, and Brantley will remove a few more pieces. But Altuve, Greinke and Verlander aren’t likely to go anywhere unless Crane is willing to eat most of their contracts.

Correa and Bregman are young superstars not yet in their prime. It remains to be seen if the Astros keep one or both upon entering free agency. Winning games fixes a lot of problems, moreover, Houston seems to be back on track for the time being. However, if they fall apart, it will be interesting to see what ownership decides to do.