After going 11-3 in the postseason en route to winning the 2018 World Series, the Red Sox are taking aim at becoming the first repeat World Series winner since the Yankees won their third consecutive in 2000.
History says the Red Sox have an uphill climb.
Since 2000, only the 2001 Yankees and 2009 Phillies returned to the World Series after winning it the previous season. Nine of the World Series champions didn’t make the postseason.
The Yankees and Red Sox are the favorites in the American League East.
The Rays have a solid Big Three in the rotation while coming off a 90-win season. But the weird part is that the Rays will also use relievers as starters, a practice known as the “opener’’ strategy.
It worked last season. We’ll see if it becomes a trend.
The Orioles and Jays are going with youth.
The predicted finish: Red Sox, Yankees, Rays, Orioles, Jays.
Here’s what you need to know about the AL East:
BALTIMORE: The Orioles, coming off a difficult-to-believe 115-loss season, have new leadership in general manager Mike Elias, formerly with the Astros, and manager Brandon Hyde, formerly with the Cubs.
Second baseman Jonathan Villar, acquired from Milwaukee last season, could jump-start an Orioles offense that has been used to finishing last in the AL in stolen bases. He had 21 steals in 54 games with the team last season, helping the Orioles finish seventh in the AL with 81. Villar will pair with shortstop Richie Martin, a Rule 5 pick from the Oakland organization, in the middle infield. Martin, 23, is a rangy defensive player with a strong arm. He broke out offensively for Class AA Midland (Texas) in 2018, when he averaged .300 with a .368 on-base percentage with 25 stolen bases and 29 doubles in 118 games.
First baseman Chris Davis, in the fourth year of a seven-year contract that pays $161 million, is hoping an offseason of adjustments will make up for 2018, when he struck out 192 times in 470 at-bats and hit .168.
The rotation needs leadership in the top three slots: Right-hander Alex Cobb, after a late sign, struggled in the first half (6.41 ERA), but settled down after the break, going 3-3 with a 2.56 ERA. One difference was a better splitter. Opponents hit .300 against that pitch in June, but in each of the last three months of the 2018 season, they hit less than .200. Cobb suffered a groin injury Saturday, and might not pitch opening day as scheduled. Righty Dylan Bundy, 26, is a concern because his fastball velocity and command are off, and going to back to the second half of last season, he hasn’t been the same pitcher as when he first came to the majors. He gave up a club-record 41 home runs last season and struggled in spring games this year. Right-hander Andrew Cashner couldn’t duplicate in 2018 his season from 2017 in Texas. Cashner had a 5.29 ERA with 99 strikeouts and 65 walks for the Orioles. Maybe being reunited with his Rangers pitching coach from 2017, Doug Brocail, will help.
The No. 4 and No. 5 starters are right-handers David Hess and Mike Wright, who has made two starts in the last two seasons combined, but showed promise as a starter in the Grapefruit League this spring. Hess had good and bad moments last season, but in his final nine starts, after making adjustments, he had a 3.24 ERA with 40 strikeouts and 16 walks in 50 innings.
After finishing third in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting in 2017, left fielder Trey Mancini slumped to .216 in the first half of last season. He bounced back with a .276 average in the second. He goes into this season as one of the team leaders. Center fielder Cedric Mullins, who had a hit combined .289 with 21 stolen bases at Triple-A Norfolk and Double-A Bowie last season, hit .317 for the big club in August of last season, but .187 in September.
With Mark Trumbo starting on the injured list - he had surgery on his right knee in September - Davis could get more time at DH, with Trey Mancini playing first. Or, Renato Núñez, one the team’s most consistent hitters last season, could get DH at-bats with Rio Ruiz playing third.
After a confidence-building spring, catcher Chance Sisco was sent to the minors, leaving the catching duties to Jesse Sucre and Pedro Severino, the former Nationals prospect claimed on waivers in the final days of spring training. Severino, 25, played in four division series games for the Nationals in 2016 against the Dodgers, but then hit .172 in 2017 and .168 in 2018 before running out of chances. Sucre is the typical no-hit, all-defense backup catcher. He has a .223 career average. He’s played for Seattle and Tampa Bay, and last season with the Rays played in a career-high 73 games.
Joey Rickard came to camp expecting to compete for a job as a fourth outfielder. After hitting .340 in the Grapefruit League, he’s likely the starting right fielder in Yankee Stadium Thursday.
BOSTON: The Red Sox are also trying to win their fourth consecutive AL East title after seasons of 93, 93 and 108 victories. The team is basically the same except for the bullpen. They are missing their closer, righty Craig Kimbrel, and a key setup guy, right-hander Joe Kelly, who signed with the Dodgers.
Manager Alex Cora says we’ll have to wait for the season to start to see who his closer will be. It will likely be either righty Matt Barnes, who had 96 strikeouts in 61 2/3 innings last season, or flame-throwing right-hander Ryan Brasier, who had 29 K’s and seven walks in 33 1/3 innings in 2018.
The 2019 AL MVP, right fielder Mookie Betts, 26, who also won a Gold Glove, says there are many things he can improve on. “I want to be more consistent, have fewer downs,’’ he says. Last year, Betts hit .346 with 32 home runs, 80 RBI with an OPS of 1.078 and stole 30 bases. Betts’ worst monthly average last season was in June, when he hit .290.
Second baseman Dustin Pedroia, 35, had a strong spring after complications from surgery on his left knee limited him to three games in 2018. But he’s going to start on the injured list. Brock Holt and Eduardo Núñez will share second in Pedroia’s absence.
The rotation could be the best in baseball: Lefties David Price (3.58 ERA in 2018), Eduardo Rodriguez (3.82) and Chris Sale (2.11), and right-handers Rick Porcello (4.28) and Nathan Eovaldi (3.81). Price finally pitched well in the postseason, and Eovaldi was a postseason hero after arriving in a trade from Tampa Bay.
Nothing has changed in the infield: Steve Pearce, the World Series MVP, and Mitch Moreland will platoon at first. Xander Bogaerts, a free agent after the coming season, will play short. At 22, third baseman Rafael Devers, 22, played sloppy defense and regressed at the plate, dropping from a .284 average to .240, but he was a factor in the postseason, hitting .385 in the ALCS.
Designated hitter J.D. Martinez has a chance at winning a Triple Crown, after hitting .330-43-111 last season.
The outfield has everything: power, speed, high-average hitters and Gold Glove candidates on defense. Andrew Benintendi will be in left, Jackie Bradley Jr. in center and AL MVP Mookie Betts in right. Bradley and Betts won Gold Gloves for their defense last season.
NEW YORK: The Yankees, who lost to the Red Sox in the division series last year after they were a 100-win wild-card team, have been to the postseason in 20 of the last 24 seasons, but haven’t won the World Series since 2009. Because of that, manager Aaron Boone, in his second season, is on the hot seat.
The Yankees added left-handers J.A. Happ (free agent) and James Paxton (trade from Seattle), to the rotation. The ace of the staff, right-hander Luis Severino, 24, will not be back until at least May because of a shoulder injury. Severino battled fatigue at the end of 2018. He had a 2.12 ERA in his first 19 starts last year, but after July 12, it was 5.69.
The rest of the rotation has Happ and southpaw CC Sabathia, 38, who says this will be his last season. Sabathia starts the season on the suspended list (five games) and when he returns, he goes to the injured list, so the Yankees probably won’t see him in the rotation until mid-April. Sabathia is 14 strikeouts short of 3,000 for his career. He has 246 wins and a 3.70 ERA. He’s a strong Hall of Fame candidate.
Third baseman Miguel Andújar, who hit 27 home runs as a rookie, made a strong showing this spring in improving his defensive flaws. The Yankees will be without injured shortstop Didi Gregorius until early June, but Troy Tulowitzki will be the starter in his place. The Yankees are banking on catcher Gary Sánchez coming back from an awful offensive season, in which he batted .186 and struck out 94 times.
The outfield, from left to right, is Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks (injured list) and Aaron Judge, who hit 27 home runs last season. Giancarlo Stanton, in his first year in New York after a trade from the Marlins, hit 30 home runs with 100 RBI last season.
The Yankees retained lefty Zack Britton - note the new spelling of his first name - and added free-agent right-hander Adam Ottavino to a bullpen that has righties Chad Green and Dellin Betances helping to set up lefty closer Aroldis Chapman, who saved 32 of 34 last season with a 2.45 ERA. Best bullpen in baseball? It might be.
TAMPA BAY: The Rays have been to the postseason four times since they became a team in 1998, the last time in 2013. They lost to the Phillies in the 2008 World Series. In the other three postseason appearances, they’ve lost in the division series.
How often does this happen? The Rays won 90 games last season, but finished third in the AL East, 18 games out.
The Rays will use three starters and two openers in their rotation. The ace is southpaw Blake Snell, the 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner with 21 wins and a 1.89 ERA. He’ll pitch his first opening day start at home against the Astros after signing a five-year, $50 million contract. Charlie Morton, 35, has had a 3.13 and 3.62 ERA in each of the last two seasons for Houston. The third starter, right-hander Tyler Glasnow, 24, arrived in Tampa Bay after a trade from Pittsburgh mid-season and struck out 64 batters in 55 1/3 innings for the Rays.
Rays manager Kevin Cash started the “opener” strategy last season when injuries hurt his rotation. He said the key to making the strategy work is to mix and match styles, such as having a flame-throwing pitcher work the first inning and then follow with a pitcher who can string together a few innings.
The big story in the outfield is right fielder Austin Meadows, the Pirates’ No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, ninth overall. Meadows is an elite prospect the Rays acquired, along with Glasnow, when they traded righty Chris Archer to Pittsburgh. Meadows, 23, is a potential power hitter with good on-base skill and above-average defense. He’ll be in the Rays’ outfield with center fielder Kevin Kiermeier and left fielder Tommy Pham, picked up from the Cardinals last season.
With Sergio Romo gone - he saved 25 games last season - the Rays will likely use a closer-by-committee.
TORONTO: After losing consecutive American League Championship Series in 2015-16, the Blue Jays finished fourth in two consecutive seasons, last year by a 35-game deficit. Since their first postseason in 1985, the Blue Jays are 2-5 in the ALCS. They won the World Series in 1992 and 1993.
Like the Orioles, the Blue Jays are about growing the kids. The key pieces for the Blue Jays are in the rotation, led by right-handers Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez and lefty Matt Shoemaker. They need health. Stroman had two consecutive seasons of 200 innings before shoulder and blister injuries limited him in 2018. Injuries are the reason Sanchez, who was 15-2 with a 3.60 ERA while finishing seventh in the AL Cy Young voting, has made 28 starts combined in the last two seasons. If Stroman and Sanchez don’t pitch well for the Blue Jays, it’s going to be an extra long season in Toronto. Shoemaker with the Angels had forearm injuries the last two seasons after posting a 3.88 ERA in 2016.
The No. 4 starter is left-hander Ryan Borucki, 24, who had a 3.87 ERA in 17 starts last season. He’s a promising prospect. Any of the starters, except for Borucki, has a chance to be traded. The Blue Jays would love nothing more than to trade Sanchez or Stroman at the deadline. They have said good-bye to J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada, Roberto Osuna and Aaron Loup, meaning this season is about development.
The Jays’ top two prospects - third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., son of the Hall of Famer, and shortstop Bo Bichette, son of Dante, a four-time All-Star - will make their debuts this season. Their third-best prospect, catcher Danny Jansen, 23, will start the season behind the plate.
The outfield, from left to right, will be Teoscar Hernández (22 home runs, but a .239 average), Kevin Pillar and Randal Grichuk. Kendrys Morales is the DH with Justin Smoak at first.
The left side of the infield has third baseman Brandon Drury and shortstop Freddy Galvis, but they are only holding spots until Guerrero and Bichette are ready.
Righty Ken Giles is the Jays’ closer. He saved 26 of 26 in 2018.