gettyimages-12314008561.jpg
USATSI

The 2021 MLB season is fast approaching, and because there will be no expanded postseason this year, playoff spots will be at a premium. Three division winners and two wild card teams in each league, and that's it. Chances are this is the last time we'll see this postseason format, so enjoy it while you can. Personally, I love the chaos of the Wild Card Game.

The current postseason format creates a significant incentive to win the division. With that in mind, we're going to preview each division race and break down the potential X-factors between now and Opening Day, beginning today with the AL East. Here is one 2021 X-factor for each AL East club, listed alphabetically.

Baltimore Orioles: Young O's debuting (and spoiling)

This is now Year 4 of the O's scorched-earth rebuild and we should see progress this year. What does that mean, exactly? I think that means Adley Rutschman, the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft, making his debut at some point, and young pitchers like Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer, Bruce Zimmermann, and maybe even top prospects DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez starting to establish themselves as no-doubt big leaguers. The core of the next contending Orioles team should begin to take shape.

Baltimore has basically no chance to win the AL East -- FanGraphs postseason odds have the O's with a 0.0 percent chance to win the division -- but that doesn't mean it can't be a factor in the postseason race. The Orioles are going to spend the season playing spoiler and trying to make life miserable for the rest of the AL East. Consider their head-to-head records against the Yankees and Rays in 2019, the last full 162-game season:

  • vs. Rays: 7-12
  • vs. Yankees: 2-17

If the O's had instead gone, say, 4-15 against the Yankees and 5-14 against the Rays, Tampa would've been only one game behind New York in the AL East, and who knows how the season plays out? The Yankees were able to take their foot off the gas down the stretch that year because they had a fairly comfortable lead, and they built that lead by beating up on the Orioles in a way the Rays did not. Banking wins against bad teams is important.

Given where they are in their rebuild, Baltimore's top priority this season is developing young players and breaking them into the big leagues. The secondary goal is being competitive on the field, and since they're not going to make a run at the division title, the next best thing is ruining some other team's (or teams') season. Chances are one of the other AL East clubs is going to go, say, 11-8 against the O's rather than 16-3, and it could swing the division race.

Boston Red Sox: Eduardo Rodriguez

In 2019, the soon-to-be 28-year-old Rodriguez emerged as a top-flight starter, pitching to a 3.81 ERA with 213 strikeouts in 203 1/3 innings, including a 2.90 ERA with 111 strikeouts in 105 1/3 innings in his final 17 starts. In 2020, Rodriguez contracted COVID-19 and missed the season with a related heart condition. He fully recovered and made his Grapefruit League debut last week.

The Red Sox were an abysmal run prevention team last year -- Boston allowed 5.85 runs per game, better than only the Rockies (5.88) -- and they went for quantity over quality with pitching this offseason. They signed Martin Perez and Garrett Richards, and believe they've helped Nick Pivetta turn the corner. Prospects Tanner Houck and Connor Seabold are among the depth arms, and Chris Sale is due back from Tommy John surgery at midseason. Squint your eyes and you can see a competent rotation.

Rodriguez can be a true difference-maker, however, and in more ways than one. If he's able to pitch anywhere close to as well as he did late in 2019, he gives the Red Sox a legitimate ace. Are they an ace away from competing for a postseason spot? Maybe! I'd be careful to dismiss Boston just because the team had a terrible 60-game season a year ago and didn't bring in any big names for the pitching staff. Replacing a replacement-level starter with Rodriguez is a significant upgrade.

And, if the Red Sox are not in the postseason race, Rodriguez would be a nice trade chip. He's an impending free agent and it stands to reason the club would look to retain him long-term, but the same applied to Mookie Betts, and we know what happened there. Rodriguez pitching well means the Red Sox are in the postseason race at best and they have a great trade chip at worst. If he pitches poorly, then chances are neither of those things are true. Rodriguez's return is a major story for the 2021 Red Sox.

New York Yankees: Health

A new season and yet it's the same story with the Yankees, who have dealt with an inordinate number of injuries the last few years and taken steps to rectify that. Last year they hired Eric Cressey, a titan in the sports performance world, to oversee their training and conditioning department, and the club is quick to point out this offseason was his first full offseason with the team. Last year was about learning the players. This offseason Cressey could fully implement his programs.

The Yankees doubled down on Cressey as their injury prevention guru by taking on a great deal of risk over the winter. Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon, their top two rotation additions, combined to throw one inning in 2020. Kluber suffered a torn shoulder muscle in his first start last season and Taillon is returning from his second Tommy John surgery. New York's current rotation depth chart looks something like this:

  1. RHP Gerrit Cole (amazing)
  2. RHP Luis Severino (expected back from Tommy John surgery at midseason)
  3. RHP Corey Kluber (limited to 36 2/3 innings by injury from 2019-20)
  4. RHP Jameson Taillon (coming back from his second career Tommy John surgery)
  5. LHP Jordan Montgomery (5.11 ERA in 2020)
  6. RHP Domingo German (missed 2020 serving domestic violence suspension)
  7. RHP Deivi Garcia (promising prospect likely to have a workload limit in 2021)
  8. RHP Clarke Schmidt (shut down 3-4 weeks with an elbow injury last month)

On offense, Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge have combined to play only 441 of 768 possible regular season games in their three seasons as teammates, or 57 percent. There were some fluky injuries there -- Judge had his wrist broken on a hit-by-pitch and he broke a rib diving for a ball in the outfield -- but clearly, keeping the two on field has been difficult. The Yankees have insane offensive depth and have weathered Judge's and Stanton's injuries before. That doesn't mean they want to do it again though.

The health questions in the rotation are a greater concern because the Yankees don't have as much depth on the mound as they do at the plate, plus teams are expected to take it easy on their pitchers this year after the short 60-game 2020 season. Going from, say, 60 innings in 2020 to 180 innings in 2021 is a huge jump. If the Yankees stay healthy, I think they're clearly the best team not just in the AL East, but in the American League. If they deal with injuries again, winning the division is far from a sure thing.

Tampa Bay Rays: Offense

The Rays ranked ninth in OPS+ (109) and 12th in runs per game (4.82) last season, so the offense was merely good rather than great. Then, in the postseason, they scored 79 runs in 20 games, and Randy Arozarena scored or drove in 23 of them, or 29 percent. He was a one-man wrecking crew. The rest of the Rays generated only 56 runs in 20 games, or 2.8 per game. It's a minor miracle (and a testament to their pitching) Tampa Bay advanced to within two wins of a World Series title.

Of course, the Rays subtracted from that pitching over the winter, essentially replacing Charlie Morton and Blake Snell with a smorgasbord of arms that includes Chris Archer, Rich Hill, Luis Patino, and Michael Wacha. The Rays know pitching and they get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to arms. Offense? Not so much. It has never been their forte, and they employ a village to score the runs they do score. No team platoons and matches up as much as the Rays.

Tampa Bay made no significant additions to the lineup. Instead, they will bank on improvement coming via a full season of Arozarena (he was not called up until Aug. 30 last year), a healthy Austin Meadows, Yandy Diaz rediscovering his power stroke, and general improvement from Willy Adames and Brandon Lowe. Their ace in the hole: Wander Franco, the game's No. 1 prospect. We have seen many prospects come up and make an immediate impact in recent years. Franco could be the next.

It is not unreasonable to expect the Rays to again be an excellent run prevention team this season even with Morton and Snell plying their trade elsewhere. For Tampa, the difference between fielding an average-ish offense and a legitimately above-average offense could be the difference between another AL East title and settling for something less. It's unfair to expect Arozarena to do that in a full 162-game season, but they need him to hit, and they need Meadows and Franco to be impact players as well.

Toronto Blue Jays: Bullpen

Gosh, I love this lineup so much. The Blue Jays averaged 5.03 runs per game last year, seventh most in baseball, then they added George Springer and Marcus Semien. Springer and Semien improve the defense as well, and it is perfectly reasonable to expect young hitters like Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to take another step forward with experience. I mean, look at this:

  1. CF George Springer
  2. 2B Marcus Semien
  3. SS Bo Bichette
  4. RF Teoscar Hernandez
  5. LF Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
  6. 3B Cavan Biggio
  7. 1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
  8. DH Rowdy Tellez
  9. C Danny Jansen

The rotation is not dissimilar from what the Yankees will run out there in 2021. Both teams have a legitimate ace (Cole and Hyun-Jin Ryu), a veteran bat-misser looking to bounce back (Kluber and Robbie Ray), an innings guy (Montgomery and Tanner Roark), and a high-upside youngster (Garcia and Nate Pearson). Both teams have great offenses, there's little doubt about that, and they could have very good rotations should things break their way.

The bullpen is another matter. When the Yankees have a small lead in the late innings, they're going to drop the hammer with Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman, and the Rays will throw Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, and Peter Fairbanks at you. The Blue Jays have Kirby Yates, who is coming off elbow surgery, and Rafael Dolis and Jordan Romano. Dolis and Romano were great last year! Their track records are really short though. They threw 38 2/3 innings combined in 2020. 

One thing the Blue Jays have going for them is inventory. They have everything from wily veterans (Tyler Chatwood, David Phelps, Ross Stripling) to hard-throwers (Ryan Borucki, Thomas Hatch, Anthony Kay, Julian Merryweather, and the currently injured Patrick Murphy) to swingman types (Trent Thornton, Jacob Waguespack, T.J. Zeuch). Toronto has a lot -- a lot -- of arms to cycle through until they find the right mix. A bad bullpen will sink a season fast. In the AL East, even a mediocre one may not be good enough.