2021 American League East Predictions By: Cole Weintraub

The 2021 Major League Baseball season will kick off on April 6th. Fittingly, the New York Yankees will face off against the Toronto Blue Jays at 1:00 EST in the Bronx on ESPN. The American League East will once again be one of the strongest divisions in all of baseball. In this article, I will give my AL East projections with predicted record, a team preview, and a breakout player from each team. Let the baseball season begin...

Baltimore Orioles

Image via Camden Chat

Projected Record: 68-94 (5th in the AL East)

As many baseball fans know, good pitching wins baseball games. The Baltimore Orioles have none. Besides left-handed starter John Means, there isn't one other proven pitcher on that roster, and don’t even mention Matt Harvey… even Félix Hernández opted out. The Orioles will have a lot of trouble getting outs, but this isn’t anything new.

José Iglesias, Hanser Alberto, Renato Núñez, and Dwight Smith Jr. are all out of the building, but the O’s can still swing it. After being diagnosed with testicular cancer last year, Trey Mancini is back. Just the fact that he’s back healthy is awesome. To go along with that, he’s good for 30+ homers this season and is my pick for American League Comeback Player of the Year. Ryan Mountcastle will try to translate his production from last season into the 2021 season and make a case for American League Rookie of the Year. He’ll see time both at first base and the outfield. The Orioles went out and signed two veterans in Maikel Franco and Freddy Galvis, two guys I see having representative seasons. Anthony Santander, who was recently bothered by an oblique injury, blasted 11 home runs last season with a .890 OPS through 37 games in 163 plate appearances. He’ll look to match that home run pace over a full 162. And finally, will we see Adley Rutschman? The 23-year-old catcher is ranked the second-best prospect in MLB.com’s top 100. Being able to swing it from both sides of the plate is always intriguing and Rutschmann can do it well. I hope he gets his shot this year and adds some excitement to their soon-to-be gloomy season.

Breakout Player: Ryan Mountcastle

I’ve seen this guy play since he was in AA, and it has been obvious that he can hit. Last year, during the shortened season, he got his shot. In 140 plate appearances, he hit .333 with 5 homers, 23 RBIs, and an OPS+ of 140. You could say he broke out last year, but Mountcastle only played 35 games. He broke onto the scene, but I think he can break out over 162 games. This is a guy who we could be talking about as one of baseball’s best hitters in the coming years. Hopefully, he can help turn around this struggling franchise...

Cole's Projection: .278 AVG28 HR, 95 RBI

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Boston Red Sox

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Projected Record: 81-81 (4th in the AL East)

After trading Mookie Betts in the 2019 offseason, it hasn’t been too sunny in Boston. In the 2020 sixty-game season, they finished in last place in the American League East for the first time since 2015. Going into the season, if you take a look at the Sox one through nine, they don’t look half bad. At the top of the lineup, you have the two former Dodgers Enrique “Kike” Hernandez and Alex Verdugo. Kike’s versatility is surely beneficial for the Red Sox. He can play in the infield and the outfield, and wherever you play him, you’ll get solid defense. Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez, and the Dominican-born third baseman Rafael Devers fill out the heart of the lineup. Last season, J.D. Martinez did not look like himself. The MLB eliminated the use of video during games because of the cheating scandals. That hurt Martinez. JD’s in-game swing analysis was what supposedly made him so good. Major League Baseball has reinstated video during games, with more restrictions of course, but I see this as a sign of a big year from the 11-year veteran. Behind the plate, the Sox have a top 10 catcher in Christian Vázquez, who has come around with his bat over the last couple of seasons. Near the bottom of the order, Boston has quite a few guys who could play big roles. In the offseason, they acquired Franchy Cordero from the Kansas City Royals. The ball jumps off Cordero’s bat and hopefully, he brings that to Fenway. He was recently put on the IL, but the Red Sox have the depth to fill that hole. They also acquired a cheater… I mean a super-utility man in Marwin González. Like Kike Hernandez, Gonzalez can provide plus defense at multiple positions. Boston also added Hunter Renfroe, who doesn’t hit for average, but can shoot the ball over the monster. To cap it off, you have Michael Chavis and Bobby Dalbec. The two power-hitting infielders have combined for 13 home runs in the spring. Sure, that doesn’t mean much, but these guys have a lot of pop. It may be a tad bit challenging fitting both of them into the lineup, but with a full season of play, both are capable of hitting 25+ home runs.

So I covered the Sox lineup, so let's flip the page to their pitching… and OH BOY, it’s not good. The Sox coaching staff is optimistic that Chris Sale will be back, but there is no timetable for his return. Past Sale, you have Eduardo Rodríguez, who consistently turns in solid seasons, but will likely begin the season on the IL. After that, you have zero idea what you’re going to get. Nathan Eovaldi, mediocre at best, Martín Pérez, mediocre at best, Garrett Richards, mediocre at best. What if they're not at their best? Their bullpen definitely could be worse though. They have a few semi-reliable relievers in the recently acquired Adam Ottavino and incumbents, Matt Barnes and lefty Josh Taylor. Really if the Sox had pitching, they easily would be a Wild Card contender, but we all can’t have nice things.

Breakout Player: Bobby Dalbec

Coming up through the minors, Dalbec was known for his power, and he showed that in the shortened season. He slugged eight round-trippers in 23 games and gave Red Sox fans a taste of what he’s best at, and that’s going yard. On the spring, he’s hitting .311 with 7 homers and 16 RBIs in only 51 plate appearances. I usually do not like taking too much stock in spring numbers, but based on last year's small sample, I believe the hype. I think he’s deserving of the starting first base role and in a full season, Bobby can crush 30 homers, especially in Fenway.

Cole's Projection: .255 AVG, 31 HR, 89 RBI

Image via Boston Globe

Toronto Blue Jays

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Projected Record: 87-75 (3rd in the AL East)

After their first playoff bid since 2016, the Jays are looking better than ever. Their talent all begins with their young core in Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. You could say they have the best young offensive talent in the league. The new acquisitions, centerfielder George Springer and middle infielder Marcus Semien will make an immediate impact on the lineup. Springer recently suffered an oblique injury that may hold him out for the beginning of the season, but I don’t see this as a long-term issue. Once upon a time, Semien was one of the worst defensive shortstops but turned that way around in his MVP-caliber 2019 season. He will have to slide over to second base to allow Bichette to play his natural position. This will be the first time Semien has played second base since 2014. Their situation behind the plate is up in the air at the moment. The fourth-year catcher Danny Jansen has shown little signs of becoming a successful big league hitter. His 85.1 average exit velocity in 2020 was among the bottom 5% of the entire league. Then you have Reese McGuire, who besides his issues off of the field, swung the bat well in his first 44 games that spanned from 2018 to 2019, hitting .297 with seven home runs in 138 plate appearances. In 2020, there was little production in his 45 trips to the plate. While he does not have any more minor league options, McGuire’s spot on the team is in jeopardy because of the emergence of 22-year-old catcher Alejandro Kirk. Kirk, who measures in at 5’8 and weighs 265 pounds, is the worst athlete and defender of the three catchers, but his impressive low strikeout rate is what separates him from Jansen and McGuire. In his only 25 plate appearances during 2020, he hit .375. Kirk played well in the spring, earning him a spot on the team. Jansen's defense makes him the favorite for the starting job.

The Jays pitching is their biggest issue coming into 2021. Besides the ace-southpaw Hyun-jin Ryu, Toronto does not have another credible starting pitcher. Their bullpen is brutal. They signed closer Kirby Yates in free agency, but an arm injury in the spring led to him getting Tommy John surgery, which takes him out of the upcoming season. With the closer's role in question, I have zero confidence in that bullpen. I think the Jays are a Wild Card team at best. Their powerful offense will be similar to the 2019 Minnesota Twins, but ultimately, their pitching will be their downfall.

Breakout Player: Teoscar Hernández

The 28-year old corner outfielder has displayed special power over the past couple of seasons. The ball just jumps off his bat differently. With the new additions to the lineup and the younger players developing, Hernandez will be in a position to drive in a lot of runs this year. Here are some eye-popping numbers that he produced last season that lead me to think he'll have a great 2021:

  • 11.1 Barrels/Plate Appearance % (5th in the MLB)
  • 40.3 Sweet Spot % (7th in the MLB)
  • 52.7 Hard Hit % (11th in the MLB)
  • 93.3 Average Exit Velocity (5th in the MLB)

Cole's Projection: .285 AVG, 32 HR, 112 RBI

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Tampa Bay Rays

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Projected Record: 89-73 (2nd in the AL East)

2020 was a fun year to be a Tampa Bay Rays fan. Pitching, timely hitting, defense, you name it, the Rays did it. In the offseason, their American League pennant-winning rotation lost some big names in Blake Snell and Charlie Morton. I’m still sitting here wondering why Kevin Cash pulled Snell in Game 6. A reunion with Chris Archer and short-term deals with Rich Hill and Michael Wacha are hopeful replacements for their two key losses. Tyler Glasnow, the new ace, has been working on a slider to add to his limited pitch repertoire. He’s shown how dominant he can be since getting to Tampa. The Rays bullpen is full of underpaid overachievers, but this unit has been one of the league's best. While they lost Jose Alvarado and Aaron Loup in free agency and Nick Anderson to a lengthy injury, it always seems like the Rays pen can get big outs. Diego Castillo & company will likely make up a closer by committee strategy.

Their lineup is by no means pretty, but it’s good enough. Austin Meadows, who had a stupendous 2019 season, battled injuries in 2020. Meadows can hit for average, hit for power, and drive the ball to all fields. He’s in for a big year. Last year, Randy Arozarena put up one of the greatest postseason performances in major league history. I expect him to come back to earth, but to have continued success in the heart of Rays' order. He’s also the favorite for the American League Rookie of the Year award. That lineup just has a lot of solid bats: Brandon Lowe, Ji-man Choi, Yandy Díaz, Willy Adames, and Kevin Kiermaier. There's even a chance we see MLB.com's number one prospect Wander Franco, who looks like he can do it all. On top of that, Tampa has a lot of depth. Their bench consists of Mike Brosseau, one of their postseason heroes, Yoshi Tsutsugo, the scrappy Joey Wendle, and recently acquired switch-hitting catcher Francisco Mejía. With all of that depth, they can form right-handed or left-handed heavy lineups based on who's pitching. I don’t see the Rays jumping the Yankees to win the American League East again, but they are my pick for the first wild card spot.

Breakout Player: Ryan Yarbrough

The simple answer may be that guy named Randy, but I’m going with the 29-year-old left-hander. Over the past few years, he has been one of the more overlooked reliable starting pitchers in the league, partly because he was buried beneath the likes of Glasnow, Snell, and Morton. While his ERA has hovered around 4 in his three years in the bigs, he has induced A LOT of soft contact. Since 2018, Yarbrough has allowed the lowest average exit velocity off at 82.6 MPH. I think he continues what he does best and steps up as the second starter in that rotation.

Cole's Prediction: 9-6, 3.36 ERA, 156 IP

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New York Yankees

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Projected Record: 101-61 (1st in the AL East)

At this point, it’s getting old seeing the Yankees get to the Division or Championship Series and losing. They have been bit by the injury bug since the 2019 season. I’ll give them some sympathy points for how many injuries they have endured and the fact that they were swindled out of a 2017 World Series appearance by the cheating scum in Houston. The Bronx Bombers made significant changes in the offseason. They resigned the 2020 MLB Batting Champion DJ LeMahieu, signed right-hander Corey Kluber, traded for Jameson Taillon, and added bullpen depth with submariner Darren O’Day and southpaw Justin Wilson. As a result, they allowed Masahiro Tanaka, JA Happ, and James Paxton to walk in free agency. I think the Yankees are an improved ball club and it all begins with their starting rotation. Some are skeptical about the cast that follows Gerrit Cole, but I'm not. Baseball fans know what Corey Kluber can be when he’s healthy, and I’m optimistic that he can make 30 starts. Kluber can pitch to a sub 3.60 ERA and be the temporary number two starter until Luis Severino fully recovers from his Tommy John surgery. Jameson Taillon, who's also coming off an injury, has looked healthy in the spring, and the Yankees are doing all they can to ease him back into game action. The six-foot-six lefty Jordan Montgomery, who earned Yankee fans' respect after a gutsy performance in game four of the 2020 ALDS, has a crucial role as the staff's only left-handed starter. Domingo German makes his return after a long and well-deserved suspension. In Spring Training, German was dominant turning in a 1.38 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 13 innings. Domingo's performances earned him the fifth spot in the Yanks' rotation over Deivi García. They hope he can continue that success and eat up innings. The Yankees took a big hit when lefty reliever Zack Britton required elbow surgery and will be without him until close to the All-Star break. I think the bullpen is strong enough to work past Britton's injury.

The spring injuries did not stop there, as Luke Voit partially tore his meniscus. He also required surgery and is out till sometime in May or June. This is a huge loss for that Yankee lineup. Newly acquired Jay Bruce will step in as the interim first baseman. His lefty power could make him a solid fill-in. The health of the Yankees will define their season yet again, especially that of Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. Judge and Stanton are both capable of putting up MVP-type campaigns, but we have not seen a full season where both teammates are healthy. Gary Sánchez could be on his last legs with the Yankees' organization. Gary will look to flush his embarrassing 2020 season down the drain and return to form both offensively and defensively. But really, does Gary even have a defensive form? Yes, bad form. The Yankees have shown that they are not scared to use backup catcher Kyle Higashioka. There isn't too much to say about second baseman DJ LeMahieu. He's going to hit, hit, play good defense, and hit some more. Aaron Hicks believes his surgically repaired elbow is back to normal. He brings a high walk rate and on-base percentage to the Yankee lineup. I would be surprised if he did not score 100+ runs this season. Gio Urshela has been Mr. Consistency since breaking onto the scene in 2019. He's been so good that the Yankees completely kicked Miguel Andújar to the curb, even after a rookie season in which he hit just under .300 and close to 30 home runs. Gleyber Torres had a very disappointing 2020 season, but baseball fans should take last year with a grain of salt. He'll blast 30 homers this season. Whether or not 10-12 of those will come against Baltimore, I am really not sure.

With how talented their rotation, bullpen, and lineup are, it would be another disappointing year if the Yankees do not make it to the Fall Classic.

Breakout Player: Clint Frazier

In 2021, Frazier will finally get his chance as the starting left fielder in the Bronx. He has shown impressive bat speed and power to all fields which adds a lot of excitement to the bottom of the Yankee lineup. Not to mention, his defense improved mightily in 2020. It will be a true test for Frazier to cover all that ground in left field at Yankee Stadium. His discipline at the plate and ability to work deep counts has also improved. Last season, he was among the top 7% with a walk rate of 15.6% (9.1% higher than 2019). I think Clint Frazier will prove his worth and be considered a top 10 left fielder when the 2021 season is all said and done.

Cole's Projection: .273 AVG, 26 HR, 93 RBI

Image via Yanks Go Yard

Created By
Cole Weintraub