2019 MLB Preview: Breaking down the excellent Eastern divisions

Image result for bryce harper
Bryce Harper’s wearing new digs for the next, oh, 13 seasons. KEITH ALLISON

The AL East has been a bloodbath for decades. Randomly pick a year and there’s a good chance the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have been contenders — in the last 20 years, the two have combined for seven World Series championships. The Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays have appeared in the ALCS in that timeframe; the Tampa Bay Rays played in the Fall Classic.

The NL East has its moments too, even if the titles are a bit harder to find. The Philadelphia Phillies beat those pesky Rays to claim the 2008 title. Josh Beckett shutout the Yankees in 2003 to claim the then Florida Marlins’ second title in a handful of years. The New York Mets played for the title twice; the Nationals have had some famous players but haven’t won a playoff series.

Going into 2019, the star power in these two divisions is kind of incredible. Recent award winners like Mookie Betts, Jacob deGrom and Blake Snell; dominant pitching dragons like Max Scherzer and Chris Sale; ultra-powerful sluggers like Aaron Judge, JD Martinez, Bryce Harper and Giancarlo Stanton. I didn’t even mention all the future superstars breaking in like Ronald Acuña, Gleyber Torres, Juan Soto and on.

The Easts are no joke. Let’s break it down.

AL East

1. New York Yankees

Goal: Win World Series
Most Important Player: Aaron Judge

The 2019 Yankees offense could be unbelievable. There’s so much power here, so much force that it calls to mind Daenerys Targaryen on the back of Drogon swooping down on Jamie Lannister. There’s an awful lot of fire and screaming.

Okay, that’s dramatic, but don’t discount the incredible power of this offense. The 2018 Yankees set a record having nine different batters hit at least 20 home runs on the path to a record-setting 267. Incredible, and yet all Aaron Judge and the boys can talk about this spring is shattering the home run record the team collectively set last season.

Maybe they can do it. The bigger concern is whether ace Luis Severino misses extended time, but the acquisition of James Paxton helps ease that potential loss. The Yankees have the resources to patch over such a blow, but replacing an ace mid-season isn’t for the faint of heart.

2. Boston Red Sox

Goal: Win World Series
Most Important Player: Mookie Betts

Rafael Devers broke into the big leagues as a top-10 prospect. So far, his MLB tenure hasn’t been great — he was replacement level last season according to bWAR. But the potential is there, especially if reports of Devers accepting advice about his approach are borne out on the field. He could use it, what with a walk rate less than 8% and an OBP last season less than .300.

The 2019 Sox are hardly dependent upon Devers, but if he finds the offensive potential he flashed in the minors, suddenly the champs are all the more dangerous. Mookie Betts, JD Martinez, Andrew Benintendi and Xander Bogaerts are about as strong a position-player core as you’ll find, after all. Of a more pressing concern for the Sox is a bullpen without any true lights-out options, but with such incredible high-end talent on the roster — Chris Sale, David Price, Betts, Martinez, etc — it won’t matter in the regular season.

October could be a different story. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

3. Tampa Bay Rays

Goal: Make the playoffs again (last: 2013)
Most Important Player: Blake Snell

Hard not to love the Rays, who continually find ways to compete with such limited resources. Still, they haven’t made the playoffs in several years and the path isn’t any easier in 2019. As usual, the Rays are thin on elite talent aside from the magnificent Snell, who rightfully won the 2018 AL Cy Young. He should be awesome again and pairing him with free agent acquisition Charlie Morton at the top of the Tampa rotation eases the burden on Manager Kevin Cash. If Tyler Glasnow can edge that walk rate down again, suddenly the Rays might have something. The team has proven they can win a lot of games relying on relievers to handle the whole game. It worked last season and it should work this season.

The 2018 Rays were a sneaky-good offense (6th in wRC+), led in part by Joey Wendle. Wendle had never played more than 30 games in the big leagues before last season, his age-28 season. Credit to him for striking while the iron was hot, but finding dudes like Wendle and getting production out of him is quintessential Rays. Chances are they do it again.

4. Toronto Blue Jays

Goal: Not screw up Baby Vlad
Most Important Player: Baby Vlad

The excuses were so stupid, and then fate went and bailed the Toronto front office out. On March 10, this news broke:

Let’s be real: the Blue Jays were thrilled about this. No, they don’t want their prized prospect to be seriously hurt. Baby Vlad isn’t seriously hurt. He’ll be fine, but most importantly for the Jays he’ll miss several weeks and need time once he’s healthy to get back up to speed. This cuts down that pesky service time — which, you know, leads to Guerrero getting paid what he’ll surely be worth.

For shame.

The Major League team needs him desperately, but I suppose that isn’t the concern for the front office. Randal Grichuk and Justin Smoak are OK hitters; Kevin Pillar remains a good defender. Danny Jansen has some power for a catcher.

Marcus Stroman is one of my personal favorite pitchers; dude has swag and is a master at messing with timing and keeping hitters off balance. I’d be thrilled if he had a big season, but I wouldn’t call that a great bet, though. He was hurt and bad for most of 2018.

5. Baltimore Orioles

Goal: Tank
Most Important Player: Uhhh …

Look. I … I can’t really polish this one. If you’re an Orioles fan, chances are you’re also a Ravens fan. Maybe just spend all summer studying up on Lamar Jackson? I’m only sort of kidding.

The Orioles waited way too long to trade Manny Machado and got little in return. Now comes the dark, hard road of a full rebuild, probably in the mold of what the Houston Astros did years back.

AL East Observations

Best Pitchers going into 2019 Best Position Players going into 2019
1. Chris Sale 1. Mookie Betts
2. Blake Snell 2. Aaron Judge
3. Luis Severino 3. JD Martinez

NL East

1. Philadelphia Phillies

Goal: Win the World Series
Most Important Player: Bryce Harper

You might have heard — they had a rather busy offseason. Here are the big names the Phils brought onboard:

    • Jean Segura
    • Andrew McCutchen
    • JT Realmuto
    • Bryce Harper

Pretty good, particularly Realmuto and Harper who are sizable upgrades over the players who held their positions last season (Andrew Knapp and Jorge Alfaro at catcher, who amassed a reasonable 2 bWAR and the trio of replacement level the Phils had in right field). The 2018 Phillies won 80 games; the 2019 version should be better, even if Aaron Nola isn’t quite as ridiculous this coming season. Plus, it helps when you sign away your division rival’s nominal best player.

Weird to say this about a dude who just got the biggest contract in the history of American professional sports, but is Bryce Harper sorta kinda underrated? Probably not, but don’t be surprised if he makes a run at his second MVP.

Despite the spending spree, the Phils are probably the most logical place for the still unsigned Dallas Keuchel. If you’re going for it — something something stupid money — you might as well go for it. He’d add depth, a lefty-touch and a probable 200 innings to an already good rotation with Nola, Jake Arrieta and pitching gif icon Nick Pivetta.

2. Washington Nationals

Goal: Win the World Series
Most Important Player: Max Scherzer

Well, one of the two phenoms is still around.

Stephen Strasburg was supposed to be Roger Clemens 2.0. The hype going into the 2009 draft was unbelievable. Strasburg annihilated college and flashed stuff that gave prospect watchers all sorts of tingly feelings. He got to the bigs and showed that same prowess; I called his starts “Strasmas” with my friends.

It’s unfortunate that the biggest event of Strasburg’s career might just be the Nationals shutting him down before the 2012 playoffs in an effort to lengthen his career after Tommy John surgery. The Nats lost in 5 in the NLDS and have never gotten further than that; Strasburg has been pretty good but not quite what was hoped for. Then again, expecting an inner-circle Hall of Famer is absurd.

But there’s another young phenom around in Washington, a welcome distraction from Harper’s disappearance. Juan Soto, a 19-year-old outfielder, produced a whopping 142 wRC+ in 116 games. Nothing to sneeze at. For what it’s worth, ZiPS likes him a lot in 2019; 154 wRC+.

Reason to believe. Anthony Rendon is awesome. Max Scherzer is unconscionable. Harper or not, this team can still win.

3. Atlanta Braves

Goal: Build on a successful, surprising 2018
Most Important Player: Ronald Acuña

The 2018 Braves are why I love baseball. Before the year there was little reason to believe they’d claim the NL East crown — the future was bright, but perhaps not the present. Yet, they did, led by a consistent superstar in Freddie Freeman and a boatload of fun young talent. Acuña, Ozzie Albies, Mike Foltynewicz all broke into the mainstream. Heck, even Nick Markakis had a surprising year.

If Acuña replicates his 2018 performance over a full 162-game slate … wow. It’s a tall order, but the young left fielder has visions of MVPs dancing in his head for good reason.

Speaking of MVPs … the Braves added Josh Donaldson, who recently has been made of glass but was once legitimately a superstar and easily could be one again. If he is — if Josh Donaldson is Josh Donaldson again — with a repeat turn from Folty and maybe a strong Kevin Gausman performance and voila, this team could be as exciting and frisky as last year’s version, even if the division has shuffled some top talent into Citizens Bank Park.

4. New York Mets

Goal: Make the playoffs
Most Important Player: Jacob deGrom

Brodie Van Wagenen certainly wasn’t lazy this offseason, adding 2B/1B Robinson Cano, closer Edwin Diaz and infielder Jed Lowrie in an effort to drag a Metropolitan team somewhere close to contention. Cano is still a good player, even if the Seattle Mariners cut bait at the right time, and Diaz is an incredible reliever. One could ask why the Mets — they won 77 games last season — thought they were only an aging second baseman and about 70 dominant innings away from contention, but alas, the team is better. One wonders what Dallas Keuchel might do for a squad primed to give a lot of innings to Jason Vargas (wait, is a 5.77 ERA bad?) He’d be far from the ace here, which strikes me as a great way to deploy 2019 Dallas Keuchel.

Improved, yes. Good enough for October? Ehhh … more than a few things need to break correctly. But good enough — much like the Cincinnati Reds — to entertain fans deeper into the season.

5. Miami Marlins

Goal: Lose every game?
Most Important Player: Sixto Sanchez?

Look, what is there to say? The Derek Jeter era in Miami hasn’t been pretty. El Capitan showed up and immediately salary-dumped the reigning NL MVP and then about a month later traded the new NL MVP. As Dan Syzmborski pointed out in his ZiPS preview for the team, even including the haul for JT Realmuto, the Marlins might have only scraped up a couple big league regulars.

Fun times in Miami! Don’t give these people your money, fans. Seriously.

NL East Observations

Best Pitchers going into 2019 Best Position Players going into 2019
1. Jacob deGrom 1. Anthony Rendon
2. Max Scherzer 2. Freddie Freeman
3. Aaron Nola 3. Bryce Harper
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