The Post’s Joel Sherman previews the AL East.
1. Tampa Bay Rays
O/U wins: 34
Key player: Austin Meadows. The Rays’ offense is largely interchangeable pieces used to maximize selective skills and hide deficiencies. Meadows’ .922 OPS was the best for a Ray who qualified for the batting title since Ben Zobrist (.948) in 2009. The lefty-swinger might have been the best hitter in the majors last September (nine homers, 1.216 OPS). However, he will likely miss at least the beginning of the season after contracting COVID-19.
Player who’ll need to step up: Hunter Renfroe. He is talented enough to have hit the same 33 homers as Meadows last year despite playing home games in pitching-haven San Diego. But Renfroe also managed to bat just .216 with a .289 on-base percentage. The Rays obtained Renfroe hoping to unlock a righty complement to Meadows, who was taken four picks ahead of Renfroe, who went 13th overall in the 2013 draft.
Name you’ll get to know: Nick Anderson. Who was the best reliever in the majors from Aug. 1 on last year? The Rays obtained Anderson on July 31 from the Mariners, and from there on he struck out 41 of the 78 batters he faced and walked just two while holding batters to a .160 batting average. He has one of the majors’ best curveballs. Tampa Bay does not lock itself into relief roles, but traded its primary closer, Emilio Pagan, in the offseason, so Anderson’s importance only grows.
Biggest question mark: Will they score enough? No team can go as comfortably 20 or 25 deep with pure pitching stuff as the Rays. They again project as elite run preventers. To outdo the Yankees in the AL East, the Rays have to score more. The wild card in all of this is Wander Franco. He is just 19. He has not played above High-A. But he is the consensus best prospect in the game, which means the shortstop has a chance to show up at some point and make an impact. Will that be 2020?
How it’ll go down: The pioneers of the opener have in many ways been unknowingly preparing to play a 60-game season. By deploying multiple pitchers to attack each game, the Rays were putting September emphasis on games all the time. The oodles of power arms are even more of a blessing in this forum.
2. New York Yankees
O/U wins: 37 ¹/₂
Key player: James Paxton. There is no Luis Severino or Domingo German this season. Masahiro Tanaka could be limited early after taking a Giancarlo Stanton liner off the head. So the need for Paxton to be a worthy No. 2 behind Gerrit Cole grows. Paxton has never stayed healthy enough to qualify for an ERA title in a 162-game season. Can he make 12 starts after an offseason in which he had back surgery?
Player who’ll need to step up: Gary Sanchez. He has been on the injured list four times in the last two seasons, all for lower-body maladies. How many games does he catch this year? Because the backup now is not the reliable Austin Romine, but the greater unknown of Kyle Higashioka. Can Sanchez avoid injury, extended strikeout binges and persistent passed balls?
Name you’ll get to know: Clarke Schmidt. Severino and German are out. Tanaka, Aroldis Chapman and Luis Cessa are either out or dubious for at least the start of the season. The Yankees will be challenged to cover innings. Schmidt, the 16th-overall pick in 2017, has navigated from Tommy John surgery to potential key piece along with other youngsters such as Deivi Garcia and Jonathan Loaisiga.
Biggest question mark: How much of last year was a fluke? Players such as Mike Ford, Mike Tauchman and Gio Urshela went from unknowns to major producers. Was this a sign of an organization that will always find a way or fortune?
How it’ll go down: The Yankees have depth of talent, and what is interesting is the team once owned by George Steinbrenner now believes in patience over the course of a season to let the depth of talent win out. The depth is obviously valuable no matter how many games, but are the dents in the pitching health a bad omen from the outset?
3. Toronto Blue Jays
O/U wins: 28 ¹/₂
Key player: Hyun-Jin Ryu. Before internally believing they were true contenders, the Blue Jays front office stepped out of its financial comfort zone to hand Ryu a four-year, $80 million pact. His 2.32 ERA led the NL for the Dodgers last year. How does the lefty translate to the AL East? He pitched well in his two starts in AL parks last year (13 innings, three runs against the Angels and Red Sox).
Player who’ll need to step up: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. He was good last year, but not as good as fellow 2019 rookie, shortstop Bo Bichette. The Jays envision a future in which that duo anchors the lineup for years. Guerrero was moved from third to first this year to give him greater comfort.
Name you’ll get to know: Nate Pearson. He is 6-foot-6, 250 pounds and throws his fastball at triple digits regularly. If Toronto is a surprise contender it is because its positional young core proved precocious and Ryu’s finesse and Pearson’s power carried the rotation.
Biggest question mark: How does a mostly young roster handle being team nomad? The Canadian government barred the Blue Jays from playing their home games in Toronto. So in this already strange season, they are looking at essentially 60 road games. This for a team in which just two players, Randal Grichuk and Travis Shaw, are the only members of the projected nine position players with even more than three years experience.
How it’ll go down: If their young players continue to progress and they can turn closer Ken Giles into another piece or two by the Aug. 31 trade deadline, that would mark this as a step-forward season for the Jays.
4. Boston Red Sox
O/U wins: 29 ¹/₂
Key player: Nathan Eovaldi. Rick Porcello left in free agency. David Price was traded. Eduardo Rodriguez was on the COVID-19 Related Injured List during much of spring training 2.0. Chris Sale will miss all of 2020 following Tommy John surgery. They made a combined 113 starts last year. Eovaldi is in the second season of a four-year, $68 million pact. Boston needs him to have results befitting his stuff if, for nothing else, to perhaps make him more attractive in a trade.
Player who’ll need to step up: Alex Verdugo. In Andrew Benintendi, Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez, Boston still has a formidable lineup top four. But not as formidable as when Mookie Betts was in it. He was traded to the Dodgers and Verdugo was the key piece in return. The lefty swinger will replace Betts in right field. How much of the production can he replace to make this trade more palatable for the Red Sox faithful?
Name you’ll get to know: Bobby Dalbec. He missed the early portion of spring training 2.0 recovering from coronavirus. To gain playing time, he may have to move from third, where Devers plays, to first. There is a Luke Voit profile in there — homers, strikeouts, walks.
Biggest question mark: Just how far will a 2020 teardown go? The 2018 season ended in a championship, with Betts as Boston’s best player and Sale the best pitcher. Can the Sox find new homes for Martinez, Eovaldi and perhaps Benintendi and a talented reliever such as Matt Barnes or Brandon Workman?
How it’ll go down: The rotation is too shattered, so even contention over 60 games is going to be difficult.
5. Baltimore Orioles
O/U wins: 21
Key player: Mike Elias. In his second-year as general manager, Elias oversees a roster that does not clearly have a player that will be part of the next good Orioles team beyond perhaps starter John Means and reliever Hunter Harvey. Elias was part of the Astros teardown/buildup and has arguably a tougher task here. Baltimore had the first pick in the draft in 2019 (catcher Adley Rutschman) and the second this year (outfielder Heston Kjerstad). Is that the beginning of a building block toward a better tomorrow?
Player who’ll need to step up: Harvey. The 22nd pick in the 2013 draft, Harvey has managed just 6 ¹/₃ innings in the majors due to injury. The son of former star closer Bryan Harvey will receive the chance to prove himself full time in the pen.
Name you’ll get to know: Ryan Mountcastle. His bat appears ready, but questions persist where on the diamond (third, first, corner outfield) he will play and whether the Orioles will start his service clock this year.
Biggest question mark: Is there anything more important than getting closer to the end of contracts for Chris Davis (two years at $46 million after this season) and Alex Cobb (one year at $15 million)? Both have been busts and Baltimore is playing for a future date when it hopes to have more talent and a cleaner financial picture.
How it’ll go down: The Yankees went 17-2 versus the Orioles in 2019 and won the division by seven games over the Rays, who were 12-7 against Baltimore. For now, the Orioles are a piñata that the best teams must beat up on over 162 games or 60.
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