There was a time in the recent past when the AL East was clearly the toughest division in all of sports.
Payroll juggernauts in New York and Boston made the division a financial behemoth, while market inefficiency experts Tampa Bay eliminated the remaining wiggle room. Toronto put together teams capable of beating the best outside of the division, but struggled against the three AL East juggernauts. Baltimore plateaued as a 65-70 win team under the circumstances before a 2012 explosion.
Many argued that any AL East team could win the World Series in any given year. It would be tough to argue against that logic. Even some of the poorer Orioles teams had enough talent to assert themselves against non-division opponents. Yet, as we look ahead to 2013, the AL East appears to be in an unfamiliar state of disarray.
The Yankees and Red Sox both appear to be very expensive, mortal teams. The Tampa Bay Rays have several question marks on their roster. The Toronto Blue Jays have completely overhauled their roster, though how it will play out on the field remains to be seen. The Baltimore Orioles have stood pat thus far after a dream season one year ago.
The AL East seems as wide open as ever. Five teams are roughly capable of competing with one another, though many would score the Rays, Jays and Yankees as the favorites to come away with the division crown. Yet, with so much parity in the “toughest division in sports”, there has never been more reason to feel that the AL East has wandered into vulnerability.
Looking back at the 2012 season, each team’s WAR reflects the notion that the AL East is the strongest division in the league. By combining each team’s pitcher and hitter WARs into a type of team WAR, we get a sense of where each team stood.
The Yankees, who won the division, had a team WAR of 51.1. The mathematically defiant and eventual wild card winning Orioles had a team WAR of 31.9. Third place Tampa Bay had a team WAR of 45.5. The Blue Jays had a team WAR of 23.4, the Red Sox 34.5.
With an average team WAR of 37.3 in the division, the AL East ranks second in 2012 behind the top-heavy, four team AL West, which averaged a team WAR of 41.7, on the strength of Oakland (41.8), Texas (50.4) and Los Angeles (47.4). In the majors, the AL East ranks third in average team WAR with the NL East averaging a team WAR of 40.5.
There are two caveats to this, of course.
The AL East’s average WAR was negatively impacted last season by the Blue Jays’ staggering injury woes. The team was forced to rotate replacement level players in and out of the roster as a result of injuries to key players like Jose Bautista and Brandon Morrow. Consider that Bautista had a WAR of 3.2 in just 92 games while Morrow had a staff high WAR of 2.4, despite making 11 fewer starts than team leader Ricky Romero who posted a career worst WAR of 0.5.
A healthy 2012 Blue Jays conceivably cements the AL East’s status as juggernaut. Unfortunately, sports aren’t that simple.
Second, the AL West will have Houston join the fold next season. The Astros had a major league low 17.6 team WAR in 2012 and, like the Orioles, haven’t done much to tweak their roster. If we retroactively drop the Astros in to the AL West, the AL East has the higher average WAR. It should be noted, however, that making the retroactive switch gives the NL Central the highest average team WAR in baseball at 40.68.
The shift of the Astros may play a starring role in how the balance of power amongst divisions is decided in 2013.
While the almost certain dogfight that will take place is sure to entertain baseball fans during 2013, how the AL East stacks up against other competition is largely a mystery. With so much turnover among Tampa Bay and Toronto’s rosters, New York and Boston’s clear reason for concern and Baltimore’s uncertainty, it’s difficult to project how they will fare.
If we continue using the team WAR model I’ve suggested above, the division becomes very congested.
Based on 2012 production, The Yankees, with their only notable activity being the addition of Kevin Youkilis, have had their team WAR drop by 10.2 thus far.
The Orioles have stood pat for the most part though, given some of their subtractions, have increased the team’s WAR by 0.1.
The Tampa Bay Rays have lost many players via free agency and trade, and have had their team WAR drop by 11.6, though it should be noted that the addition of Wil Myers should positively impact that number.
The Red Sox have acquired a number of veterans and increased their team’s WAR by 7.8. (The new number includes Mike Napoli, whose deal has yet to be finalized.)
How does the new division stack up based on these new numbers? The Red Sox would have the highest team WAR at 42.3, followed by the Blue Jays (41.2), the Yankees (40.9), the Rays (33.9) and finally the Orioles (32.0). The disparity between first and last (10.3) is the smallest margin in the league. And, as I mention above, the consensus appears to be that Toronto, Tampa Bay and New York are the division favorites. Not Boston, which leads under this framework.
While the AL East still stacks up as a relatively strong division on paper, the NL East looks like it could be a challenger, as does the NL Central now that it is Astros-free and with a Chicago Cubs team that has strengthened its pitching staff. The AL West should also stay in the discussion, though the Houston effect takes away from its formidability.
With all of this in mind, the AL East could easily regain its possession of the toughest division title. A resurgence from a Mark Teixeira or Jon Lester or Romero could easily tilt the tables the AL East’s direction.
Going forward, we can assume that the group is solid. Opponents will dread playing any of its inhabitants. Its inhabitants will dread playing one another.
It stands to be a year of increased parity within the division, yet each contender within the division comes an entirely noteworthy set of questions that could drastically alter 2013’s narrative. How will the Yankees recover at their age? Are the Red Sox talented enough? Can the Rays score enough runs? Will the Blue Jays have the requisite consistency? Can the Orioles do it again?
Do you think the AL East is still the best division in baseball?
References & Resources
All WAR statistics come courtesy of Fangraphs.