With the Super Bowl on the horizon, Major League Baseball’s (hopeful) 2021 season is starting to take shape. The American League East is always a competitive division with the traditional big spenders in New York and Boston, the always creative Rays, and, now, the rising Blue Jays. While the Orioles have doubled down on the idea of pairing down payroll and waiting for their farm system to produce, the rest of the division seems all in on contending in 2021.

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But, this year is a bit different for the AL East. Each team is taking more of a calculated risk than ever before. When looking at each team, one can see a scenario where they run away with the division title. But, the opposite scenario is equally plausible. While the likely only sure thing is the Orioles finishing in last place, the Red Sox have the look and feel of a team that will hover around .500 if everything breaks right. While there is some talent, especially on the offense, this Red Sox club, as currently constituted, just don’t have the depth or the starting pitching.

It is clear that the other three teams have every intention of making the playoffs and have operated as such this winter. But, each of them have potentially fatal flaws. While that is generally true of every team, these three teams are betting big on upside. If they bet correctly, playoffs are likely. If not, there won’t be mediocrity. It’ll be worse. With so much uncertainty, the 2021 AL East looks to be the most fun division in Major League Baseball and the one in which teams are taking big gambles for big payoffs.

Yankees Bet on 2018

With Masahiro Tanaka heading back to Japan—and pitching poorly in the 2020 playoffs—the Yankees began the winter with Gerrit Cole and not much else in the way of a sure thing. In the past, the Yankees would’ve gone out and signed the top starter, in this case, Trevor Bauer. Instead, the Yankees are choosing to stay under the luxury tax threshold, rather than sign one of the top 10 starters in the sport.

Their plan began shortly after attending Corey Kluber’s showcase. Evidently, the soon to be 35 year old showed enough for them to offer a one year, $11 million contract. The risk, obviously, is minimal in terms of commitment. If Kluber can’t regain the form that made him a Cy Young Award winner, the Yankees are spending less than a qualifying offer would cost.

After pitching over 200 innings for five consecutive seasons, Kluber has experienced a rash of injuries over the past two seasons. However, most of those injuries could be attributed to bad luck. In 2019, he was struck by a line drive, resulting in a fractured arm. Then, during his rehab, he injured his abdominal and never returned, only throwing 35.2 innings. Last year, he was traded to the Texas Rangers and threw just one inning all season after tearing a muscle in his shoulder.

The Yankees are betting on Kluber’s long rehab and a return to form to solidify the second spot in the rotation. There are reasons to believe. He’s never been a hard thrower so even a slight decrease in velocity won’t force a change in his process. Relying on a sinker, Kluber has generated a ground ball rate of 44.7 percent during his career, a skill that an older pitcher tends to keep. But, he’s 35 and has made just 8 starts in two years. Pitchers age and Kluber has a lot of innings on that arm. The odds of him returning to Cy Young form are long. The Yankees aren’t paying him to be that, but they certainly need him to be a reliable, above average pitcher, something he hasn’t been since 2018.

As if not risky enough, General Manager Brian Cashman then decided to trade for Jameson Taillon. The 29 year old didn’t pitch at all in 2020 due to flexor tendon injury and UCL revision, a procedure he first had in 2014. 2018 was Taillon’s one full season in the Major Leagues and he showed that he can be a top of the rotation starter. In 191 innings, he allowed 179 hits, posting a 22.8 strikeout rate, a 3.20 ERA, and a 3.46 FIP.

Acquiring Taillon for four mid-range prospects, the Yankees are betting that Taillon is healthy and that his new found mechanics after studying biomechanics will not only keep Taillon on the mound, but help him to reach his 2018 standard. Taillon has already demonstrated his toughness when he came back from cancer and is candid about his new approach and why he was injured. It remains to be seen if his body can bounce back from that surgery, even thought he is taking quite a thoughtful approach.

With Luis Severino expected back midseason, the Yankees’ projected top four starters come with the highest upside in the league. Cole seems to be a given as the best pitcher not named Jacob deGrom. But, the rest—who combined for a grand total of one inning pitched last season—are risks. If Cashman bet right that the trio can pitch like it’s 2018 again, the Yankees are going to win the World Series. If not, it could be a struggle to win 85 games.

Rays Betting On Their Process And Bullpen

It’s seems disheartening to see the Rays trade away Blake Snell for three prospects and Francisco Mejia after their World Series appearance. It also seems disheartening that they have only added veteran Michael Wacha, re-signed Mike Zunino, and traded Nate Lowe for three prospects. All of these moves—and lack of moves—seem more like a team simply shedding payroll and rebuilding.

But, the Rays have a history fielding a flexible, credible roster. Offensively, their is depth and flexibility with role players such as Ji-Man Choi, Yandy Diaz, Joey Wendle, and Mike Brosseau able to play multiple positions and give ideal split matchups. Randy Arozarena may not be the monster he was during the postseason, but he looks to be an above average everyday hitter. Brandon Lowe may be one of the more underrated players in the sport.

On face value, the Rays seem to lack rotation depth. But, they are built different, using openers, having bullpen days. With a deep, diverse bullpen, the Rays will minimize their shallow rotation. And, the Rays always seem to develop more. With the consensus top farm system with players seemingly brought up every season, depth shouldn’t be an issue. And, they back that bullpen with an elite level defense. Last year, the American League champions ranked second in defensive runs saved.

Oh, and they have baseball’s top ranked prospect, Wander Franco, almost ready to contribute at the Major League level.

On paper, the Rays look like they are taking a step back. And, talent-wise, their rotation is taking that step back. But, the Rays are going to bet on their process, their bullpen, and their depth. It could result in another division title. Or, they could sink to towards the bottom in an off year. It’s important to remember that they dominated in a shortened season. Can they ride their bullpen and depth over the course of an expected full season? They are betting on it.

Jays Betting That The Rotation Can Keep Up

The Toronto Blue Jays have been a fun organization to watch this winter. In truth, they are where the Orioles want to be in about two to three years. They have a core of excellent young players in Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, and Lourdes Gurriel. They are supported by a core of Randal Grichuk, Teoscar Hernandez, and the recent free agent signings of George Springer and Marcus Simien. In short, the Blue Jays have an incredible lineup. They’ve fortified the bullpen by signing Tyler Chatwood and Kirby Yates to add to hard throwing Jordan Romano.

They have definitely had an exciting winter and they are a much improved team. But, they are quite similar to the Yankees in that they are betting on a rotation of question marks to support a high powered offense.

Hyun-Jin Ryu is the staff leader and is coming off of an elite 2020 in which he posted a 2.69 ERA (3.01 FIP) while compiling a 26.2 percent strikeout rate and minuscule 6.2 percent rate. While impressive, it should be noted that Ryu has only topped the 180 innings pitched mark just twice in his seven years in the Major Leagues. So, unlike the Yankees with Cole, the Blue Jays do have to worry about their ace staying healthy for the long season.

Like the Yankees, however, the Blue Jays are hopeful that the other four members can stay healthy and produce. There is a big reason to think Nate Pearson is in for big things in 2021. He’s a hard thrower, he’s had success when he’s been able to be on the mound. But, he’s topped 100 innings in professional baseball just once. Last year, he was able to make four starts before going on the DL with a groin injury. So, no matter what, his innings will be limited. The rest of the projected rotation—Steven Matz, Ross Stripling, and Robbie Ray—have all had previous success. All of them have an injury history. And, all of them haven’t been above average starters since 2018, just like their Yankees’ counterparts.

The Blue Jays have a lineup that can compete with anyone. They have a solid bullpen. But, their rotation, like the Yankees, could either pitch them to the playoffs or be the reason why they hover around the .500 mark. They are betting on the upside of their rotation and bounce back seasons from Matz, Stripling, and Ray. It’s a big bet to make, especially considering how talented their offense is.

Way Too Early Predictions

Heading into February and with Trevor Bauer still a free agent, it is likely things could change for any and all of these contenders.

The Yankees seem to be making the safer bets. Corey Kluber’s injuries have been more or less flukes. While he may not be an ace any more, his sinker can still get outs. He still shows swing and miss ability. Jameson Taillon’s new found knowledge of Biomechanics and resulting new arm action look promising. He’s motivated, still young, and has come back successfully before. And, the Yankees have something the Blue Jays and, to a lesser degree, the Rays lack: young pitchers who could contribute right away. Jordan Montgomery, Deivi Garcia, and Clarke Schmidt have all pitched in the Majors and do have high upside. And, they happen to have the best bullpen in the division to help limit the number of innings needed from that rotation. Of the three teams, the Yankees are making a less risky bet.

The Rays have a history of defying the odds so it is hard to bet against them. With their reliance on openers and different pitching strategies, they are most likely to overcome the odds. However, 2021 looks to be far too difficult a task. Their offense will likely not produce enough to support a staff that will be asked to do so much over the course of 162 games. They are betting on themselves and their process, which works most of the time. It just seems that it’s too much to ask this year.

The Blue Jays will be a fun team to watch this season. They will likely lead the league in runs scored and most power categories. But, they are making the biggest bet on their pitching. They have an ace lacking a health history. They have a young, promising starter who will be on an innings limit. And, the other three veterans are being asked to rebound from some scary seasons, while trying to avoid their recent injury history. They are making the biggest, most risky bet of the three teams because of a lack of a track record. There’s a high payoff, but an equal low if it doesn’t work.

Now, if one of these teams signed Trevor Bauer, they instantly become the front runner, but it seems more likely that they’ll just make a bet, hoping for everything to break right.

Gary Armida
Gary Armida

Orioles Analyst

First and foremost, a Father. After that, I am a writer and teacher who not only started my own company and published an i-magazine as well as a newsletter, but have been published by USA Today, Operation Sports, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Digest, Gotham Baseball Magazine, and numerous other publications. As an educator, I have 20 years of classroom experience and am utilizing that experience in my current position as department coordinator. Wrote the book The Teacher And The Admin (https://theteacherandtheadmin.com/the-book/) and operate that website which is dedicated to making education better for kids.