Sports

Why Yankees will reclaim AL East crown

The Post’s Joel Sherman previews the AL East.

1. New York Yankees

O/U wins: 95.5

Key player: Gerrit Cole. Behind the ace, the Yankees have such rotation uncertainty concerning health and six-month durability that Cole is among the most indispensable players in the majors. The Yankees need him to be what he has been for the last three years — a sturdy, superb ace. Cole has thrown 551 ¹/₃ innings (including the postseason) the past three years — Zack Greinke at 523 is the only other pitcher over 500. Only Cole, Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer have qualified for the ERA title each of the last three seasons and have generated quality starts in more than 70 percent of their outings.

Player who’ll need to step up: Corey Kluber. Kluber’s five seasons from 2014-18 look a lot like deGrom’s last five seasons — a pitcher at the top of the sport. Kluber has made eight combined starts the last two seasons. The Yankees tried to get crafty — or too cute — in ALDS Game 2 against the Rays last year, deploying Deivi Garcia for an inning followed by J.A. Happ. If they comfortably start Kluber in Game 2 in 2021 it would mean that this experiment to bring the veteran righty in for one year at $11 million was a great success.

Name you’ll get to know: Nick Nelson. He had a 4.79 ERA in 11 appearances last year, but six of his 11 earned runs came in one ill-fated outing against the Phillies. He has power stuff and the potential to cover multiple innings. If right, he can be a 75-100-inning hybrid bridging a lot of critical innings over six months.

Biggest question mark: Where are the 130-ish non-Cole starts coming from? Kluber, Garcia, Domingo German, Michael King, Jordan Montgomery, Luis Severino and Jameson Taillon combined for 21 starts and 106 innings last year.

How it’ll go down: There is volatility here, particularly around the sturdiness of the rotation but also concerning whether Gary Sanchez is going to be a strong frontline catcher and Gleyber Torres a legitimate shortstop. But the depth of talent suggests 95 wins is within the 2021 Yankees’ grasp.

2021 MLB predictions AL East Yankees
Gerrit Cole and the Yankees have the depth to win the AL East.
N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg

2. Tampa Bay Rays

O/U wins: 86.5

Key player: Randy Arozarena. Despite a small-market payroll, the Rays brought back 11 of their top 13 in plate appearances. Tampa Bay’s success has long been tied to run prevention. But there is an avenue to upgrade on offense. One big item is whether Arozarena is indeed the difference-maker he was late last season and especially in the postseason, when he had 10 homers in 20 games.

Player who’ll need to step up: Chris Archer. The defending AL champs did not keep their rotation intact, as Blake Snell was traded to the Padres and Charlie Morton left via free agency to the Braves. Tampa Bay imported a veteran group, including Archer, Rich Hill, Collin McHugh and Michael Wacha, to help cover innings. Archer is returning to the team of his best success — teammates now with Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow, the return along with Shane Baz when Archer was traded to Pittsburgh. Can Archer still be at least an above-average innings eater?

Name you’ll get to know: Wander Franco. Generally viewed as the best prospect in the game, Franco was considered for a major league roster spot late last season, though he has never played above A-ball. He only turned 20 on March 1, but the switch-hitting shortstop is viewed to have such an advanced hitting approach that the clock is ticking toward his major league debut, probably this year.

Biggest question mark: Who is the real Austin Meadows? He was an All-Star with a .922 OPS in 2019 and fell to .667 last year with a .137 batting average in 16 playoff games. Tampa Bay’s offense is way more imposing if his lefty bat perks up.

How it’ll go down: The sum of the parts for Tampa Bay so often exceeds what is forecasted for the team. But there is a scenario in which the parts will soon include two daily stars in Arozarena and Franco plus Brandon Lowe. They have become a factory in maximizing arms and minimizing runs against. No one should be surprised if the Rays win the AL East again.

3. Toronto Blue Jays

O/U wins: 86.5

Key player: Robbie Ray. So much of this division is going to be about what happens behind aces Gerrit Cole (Yankees), Tyler Glasnow (Rays) and Toronto’s Hyun Jin Ryu. All of the teams have talent and questions there. With an investment in their lineup — George Springer and Marcus Semien — the Blue Jays pivoted to an upside play with their rotation by retaining Ray and trading for Steven Matz. Both lefties have talent, but a history of not fully harnessing the talent. Can Toronto get the duo’s upside?

Player who’ll need to step up: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Guerrero’s bat has been good, but not elite as anticipated in his first two seasons. But he has slimmed down considerably — losing 40 pounds from last year in his estimation — and he will play this year at just 22. Toronto might be challenged on defense and with pitching depth, and — if so — the Blue Jays will often have to outscore their mistakes, Their offense should be upper-echelon and production growth from Guerrero should only make the Toronto attack stronger.

Name you’ll get to know: Simeon Woods Richardson. Toronto believes it has high-end pitching coming soon. Nate Pearson had a cameo last year, Alek Manoah (the 11th-overall pick in 2019) is a big talent and Woods Richardson could arrive this year. He was the key piece Toronto received from the Mets for Marcus Stroman.

Biggest question mark: Is there enough bullpen depth and quality? Toronto signed Kirby Yates off of an injury and he is never going to pitch for the Jays, needing Tommy John surgery. Rafael Dolis and Jordan Romano combined for a 1.40 ERA and struck out one of every three batters in their combined 38 ²/₃ innings last year. Is that sustainable for a full season and is there enough to get the ball to them?

How it’ll go down: Toronto’s lineup already was strong and should only be stronger with Springer and Semien — who also should add leadership. The question revolves around starting pitching and whether the Blue Jays have enough quality there. Even producing a league-average rotation should allow Toronto to challenge for at least a wild card.

4. Boston Red Sox

O/U wins: 80.5

Key player: Alex Cora. The Red Sox manager returns after a year suspension for his involvement as the bench coach in the Astros’ sign-stealing saga. He is trying to regain his reputation. And we are going to see if players who thrived under him and struggled last year, such as Rafael Devers and J.D. Martinez, return to being standouts under Cora’s leadership.

Player who’ll need to step up: Eduardo Rodriguez. The lefty missed all of last year after contracting COVID-19 and then myocarditis as a result. He was healthy in spring training and the Red Sox’s best path to contention would have him pitching like an ace and being joined around July by Chris Sale, who missed last season following Tommy John surgery. But this also is Rodriguez’s walk year, so he becomes an intriguing trade chip if Boston is out of it in July.

Name you’ll get to know: Jeter Downs. Fenway awaits a prospect named for the Yankees great. Downs, an infielder, was a key part of the trade that sent Mookie Betts to the Dodgers.

Biggest question mark: What is their mindset? The Red Sox are trying to be better in Chaim Bloom’s second season running baseball operations. But they still appear to be more playing the long game and so do Rodriguez, Martinez, Nathan Eovaldi and others become July trade chips?

How it’ll go down: The Red Sox have a puncher’s chance to be in at least a wild-card race because their top line of talent is still championship-special, but the pitching depth — in particular — is still a problem.

5. Baltimore Orioles

O/U wins: 64.5

Key player: Anthony Santander. Jose Ramirez, who finished second for the AL MVP, had the best OPS (.993) among switch hitters last year (minimum 160 plate appearances). Santander (.890) was second. As the Orioles try to lay cornerstones for a better future, can young hitters such as Santander and Ryan Mountcastle validate last year’s strong showing over a full season?

Player who’ll need to step up: John Means. The lefty was second for AL Rookie of the Year in 2019, but produced a 4.53 ERA in 2020. However, in his final four starts against the strong offense of the Mets and three AL East playoff teams (Rays, Yankees, Blue Jays), Means had a 1.52 ERA and a .488 OPS against. So much for Baltimore is establishing pieces for the future.

Name you’ll get to know: Adley Rutschman. The first-overall pick in the 2019 draft can come fast. He is a switch-hitting catcher with a projection to be above average on both sides of the ball.

Biggest question mark: When exactly do they try to win? It’s not yet. There are not many long-term pieces in place. And the market is small in a division with the mammoth Yankees and Red Sox, growing Blue Jays and resourceful Rays.

How it’ll go down: They are still taking baby steps toward contention, so the Orioles need players such as Mountcastle and Rutschman to show they are long-term answers.


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