Elegy for 2021: Recapping the AL East, Team by Team

After a one-year hiatus due to the oddity and non-celebratory feeling of a season truncated by a raging pandemic, we’re bringing back the Elegy series in a streamlined format for a 2021 wrap-up. Think of this as a quick winter preview for each team, discussing the questions that faced each team ahead of the year, how they were answered, and what’s next. Do you like or hate the new format? Let me know in the comments below! We’ve already tackled the AL and NL Central; now it’s on to the East, starting with the American League.

Tampa Bay Rays (100-62)

The Big Question

The Rays are one of the best teams in history at competing on a year-in, year-out basis with a budget dwarfed by their rivals, right up there with Connie Mack’s, Charlie Finley’s, and Billy Beane’s A’s. But in a very tough division, they walk a very high player churn tightrope without a safety net. Would the Blake Snell trade finally be the one to knock Tampa Bay off that tightrope? The team has to stay smarter than its rivals, which is a lot tougher to do than it was in the heyday of any of the other teams listed above. It’s not so much of a question of if they got good value for Snell — they got real players in return — but whether the team’s rotation depth, already relatively thin with Charlie Morton‘s departure and Tyler Glasnow’s injury history, would be sufficient to prevent the Rays from having another down period.

How It Went

No splat this time! And there wasn’t even much awkward teetering or vaudevillian arm helicoptering. The Rays didn’t just survive, they had their first 100-win season in team history and left the three significantly richer squads in the division fighting for table scraps. And the Rays even did it mainly without Glasnow, who required midseason Tommy John surgery and will almost certainly miss the entire 2022 season. Nor did they do it by hiding a starting pitching deficit; the Rays led the AL in ERA with significant starting contributions from Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen, Rich Hill, and Luis Patiño. They were even a bit unlucky, with Ryan Yarbrough, Michael Wacha, and Josh Fleming pitching better than their ERAs.

The offense was just as robust. Willy Adames, arguably the best redundant player in baseball, was sent to Milwaukee for top value when the Rays were preparing to promote our future god-emperor-king, Wander Franco. Overall, the offense finished second in the AL in runs scored, had few gaping holes in the starting lineup, and yet again had such depth that legitimately useful players couldn’t crack the postseason roster. Mike Zunino’s yearly flip of the great season/horrible season coin came up on the right side, and the Rays even made a big veteran addition, snagging Nelson Cruz at the July deadline (though he wasn’t great in Tampa).

The Rays lost to the Red Sox in four games in the ALDS, always the risk in a game where the difference between great and awful teams is less of a chasm than in other sports (and just to be clear, I don’t think the Red Sox are remotely awful). Tampa Bay’s current strategy usually won’t be optimized for playoff formats simply because a sprint doesn’t value endurance the way a marathon does.

What’s Next?

Well, more of the same. The actual trades the Rays make might end up being surprises, but the fact that the team actively trades players nearing free agency and isn’t a player at the top end of the market won’t be. I don’t expect this to be too active an offseason in terms of trades, simply because the Rays have already cleared most of their remaining players who are getting expensive quickly. One exception may be Kevin Kiermaier. That doesn’t mean the Rays will be completely inactive this winter. Last year, they signed a healthy number of one-year deals to fill holes, and I expect them to do that again.

Player Projection Spotlight: Wander Franco

2022 ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Wander Franco (Preliminary)
90% .311 .373 .591 486 87 151 33 14 25 89 48 17 160 6.0
80% .301 .360 .528 489 83 147 30 12 19 78 45 13 141 5.0
70% .295 .352 .503 491 81 145 29 11 17 74 43 12 132 4.5
60% .291 .347 .486 492 80 143 28 10 16 70 42 10 127 4.1
50% .287 .341 .474 494 78 142 27 10 15 68 40 9 122 3.8
40% .285 .338 .459 495 77 141 26 9 14 65 39 9 117 3.5
30% .280 .330 .439 497 76 139 24 8 13 62 37 8 110 3.0
20% .275 .325 .416 498 73 137 23 7 11 58 36 6 103 2.6
10% .265 .310 .390 502 72 133 21 6 10 54 32 5 92 1.9

The curse of Joe Charboneau isn’t actually real. There’s kind of a selection bias involving rookies that makes it seem like a real thing, in that rookies who keep their jobs are more likely to have over than underperformed. That’s true for all players, of course, but rookies tend to have a more challenging time keeping their jobs when they underperform than a 29-year-old team veteran. Of course, there’s another Joe Charboneau curse involving alligators instead of sophomores, but biology and dark magicks are outside my narrow range of expertise.

In other words, don’t expect Franco to disappoint. In the short-term, he wasn’t even playing over his head, as ZiPS translated his minor league performance to an .801 OPS in 2021, very close to his actual performance. Now, it’s not a guarantee — we’ll talk about that with another player later — but the Franco storyline maintained its luster this season.

Boston Red Sox (92-70)

The Big Question

One of the striking things about the Red Sox in the projections I ran before last season was the health of the pitching staff. Nathan Eovaldi, Eduardo Rodriguez, Garrett Richards, and Martín Pérez, four-fifths of the projected starting rotation, all have injury histories, and 2021 was a full season coming off a very odd shortened one. The Red Sox tended to be a strong team when everybody was healthy in the simulations, but when they rolled snake eyes, suffered a lot of injuries and had to rely on just their minor league depth, they fell harder than the Yankees, Rays or Blue Jays.

How It Went

Like the Rays, Boston’s big question turned out to be a non-issue. The rotation did struggle in early summer as the team went 25-28, permanently relinquishing a first-place divisional lead that maxed out at 4 1/2 games. But the rotation also stayed healthy, and the while team only had six pitchers make multiple starts, all six were the intended starters (the above quartet, Nick Pivetta, and the returning Chris Sale). The offense was impressive all season, and the team’s bets on players like J.D. Martinez and Hunter Renfroe roaring back from blecch 2020 seasons paid off handsomely. Enrique Hernández ended up being one of the best signings any team made last year. After some postseason magic, he’s already practically a folk hero in Boston, a rare utility infielder who has enough recognition to be identified by just his first name.

What’s Next?

Eduardo Rodriguez is set to be the team’s biggest free agency loss this winter and one I think the team will try to make up for elsewhere in the market. In my opinion, E-Rod is one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball and the Sox showed no indication they were worried about his seasonal ERA when they started him in the playoffs. Losing Mookie Betts felt awful, and I understand the desire of many for the Red Sox to face some kind of justice at the hands of the universe to set things right. But the universe doesn’t work that way and the Red Sox find themselves a team that nearly made the World Series and has a flexible payroll situation. With Richards unlikely to have his $10 million option picked up, Boston probably has about $50 million in space under the luxury tax threshold (under this CBA). I don’t think they’re going to go right to that luxury tax line, but they can theoretically go after any player available in free agency. I’d love to see Boston go after Carlos Correa, move Xander Bogaerts to second, and set Hernández up to have a high-end Tony Phillips jack-of-all-trades season.

Player Projection Spotlight: Nathan Eovaldi

ZiPS Projection – Nathan Eovaldi (Preliminary)
2022 10 6 0 3.87 28 27 151.0 148 65 19 33 163 120 3.0

Eovaldi doesn’t strike me as likely to get many Cy Young votes, but I’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t get any. He’s no longer the pitcher who could hit 98-99 mph and fail to punch out batters, and that splitter was really the thing he needed to make everything better. His ERA underperformed his FIP, as it’s done throughout his career, but that’s been less of an issue in recent years. From his plate discipline stats, ZiPS thinks that there are still a few more strikeouts to wring out of his stuff.

New York Yankees (92-70)

The Big Question

I’ll resist using the Spider-Man pointing fingers meme, but the big question going into 2021 for New York was similar to Boston’s. The offense looked like nothing to worry about, but many of the starting pitchers after Gerrit Cole had long injury histories. I also had a mild concern about the bullpen being less deep than in past years. At this point, with Gleyber Torres‘ 2020 still likely to be a stone-cold fluke, issues with run-scoring weren’t even on my horizon.

How It Went

The rotation didn’t stay as healthy as Boston’s, but the Yankees essentially got solid performances everywhere, except for a Andrew Heaney pickup that didn’t quite work out. The bullpen concerns turned out to not be a thing either, and even with Zack Britton’s elbow injury, the group finished third in baseball in reliever WAR.

Instead, it was the offense that caused the Yankees to tread water for much of the season. There were injuries, but they also just simply received a lot of subpar performances. DJ LeMahieu did not come close to matching a 2020 in which he had a reasonable MVP argument, and Brett Gardner proved to be a great example of what happens when you keep a player a year too long rather than let them go a year too soon. Torres got most of the press for being lousy, but neither Gio Urshela nor Gary Sánchez was really any better. To top things off, neither of the team’s big trade deadline pickups, Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo, hit with particular distinction down the stretch.

Amusingly, in the end, the Red Sox and Yankees finished with identical records, meaning that we essentially got the same October baseball as we would have gotten before the second Wild Card, with the two teams just calling their matchup the Wild Card game instead of game 163.

What’s Next?

There’s still a lot to like about this team. Gallo, for example, will likely be fine, and it’s too soon to shovel coffin dirt on LeMahieu. The team did get mostly full, healthy seasons from Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, something they weren’t quite sure about in March. I think the Yankees are a better team than Boston on paper, but they also are in a tighter payroll situation than the Red Sox are. And yes, I’m saying that with a grimace because the Yankees certainly can bust through the luxury tax threshold if they choose to do so. But these aren’t the Yankees of 25 years ago, an organization that will use their payroll to push around the rest of the division. New York can make a competitive offer to any free agent they want, but they’ll have to be willing to spend money they weren’t in 2021.

The other thing to look out for on the horizon is that though the team has some $115 million coming off their payroll after 2022, one of their players hitting free agency that winter is Judge, who I think the Yankees ought to sign to an extension as soon as possible.

Player Projection Spotlight: Gleyber Torres

2022 ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Gleyber Torres (Preliminary)
90% .303 .384 .552 489 77 148 30 1 30 101 65 21 150 5.1
80% .288 .367 .509 493 73 142 26 1 27 92 61 16 134 4.0
70% .276 .352 .474 496 70 137 26 0 24 84 58 13 121 3.2
60% .272 .347 .461 497 69 135 25 0 23 82 57 12 117 2.8
50% .269 .343 .450 498 68 134 24 0 22 80 56 11 113 2.6
40% .266 .338 .438 500 67 133 23 0 21 77 54 11 108 2.3
30% .259 .331 .417 501 65 130 22 0 19 74 53 10 101 1.8
20% .252 .322 .400 503 63 127 20 0 18 70 51 9 94 1.3
10% .241 .308 .374 506 60 122 19 0 16 65 48 6 84 0.5

If Torres never gets close to where he was two years ago, his projections will be among those I most regret. Not just because I’ll be mistaken about a player on the same level of error as Lastings Milledge, but because our look at Torres as a superstar was so brief. ZiPS hasn’t given up on the shortstop, but that projection is a huge step down from the bullish ones it gave him the last two years. It’s become fashionable to suggest that Torres was always overrated, but this isn’t a case of a player who put up huge numbers in Toledo or Rochester or Tacoma. He’s a guy who hit 62 homers in his first two seasons in the majors at age 21 and 22. He’s 25th all-time in WAR for a shortstop through age 22!

2021 was bleak, but it was also just his age-24 season, and ZiPS agrees with xSLG that based on his Statcast data, he should have slugged in the neighborhood of 50 points higher. But even if the computer is relatively bullish, there’s just a lot more risk than there appeared to be even a year ago.

Toronto Blue Jays (91-71)

The Big Question

The offense, supercharged by the awesome sons of previous awesome big leaguers, was a good one, but did the rotation have the depth to stay with the division’s big spenders? The pickups of George Springer and Marcus Semien were good ones, but Toronto did go the value route when it came to starting pitching, re-signing Robbie Ray to a one-year pillow contract, trading for Steven Matz at a time he just barely avoided being non-tendered by the Mets, and at least initially, keeping Tanner Roark starting in the second year of a contract that was increasingly looked like dead money. Nate Pearson had tremendous upside, but it was also hard to gauge how many innings they could expect from him given a 2020 during which he only threw 18.

How It Went

Roark was terrible, but his stay was short-lived, and he was designated for assignment a few weeks into the season. Matz and Ray turned out to be terrific options. Ray was particularly dominant, perhaps with some thanks to his mono-color dreampants. Unless the CBA negotiations cast a pall over everything, he’s headed for a much larger contract this winter than he initially appeared to be. The Jays got very little from Pearson, mainly due to his recurring groin injuries, an issue that has not yet been entirely resolved. The larger pitching problem was the bullpen, which suffered through a rash of injuries, resulting in some stretches of the season during which the team basically had to rely on Jordan Romano and Tim Mayza to carry them.

One preseason question that was answered with an exclamation point was what to expect from Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who appeared to have been passed in the pecking order by Bo Bichette in 2020. Any residual concerns about his bat were wiped away as he spent most of the season with serious Triple Crown hopes. Even with the likelihood that he’ll be the first star hitter to lose an MVP award by virtue of not also being a pitcher, 2021 can’t be called anything but an overwhelming win for Vladito.

What’s Next?

One problem with getting all-world performances from short-term players like Semien and Ray is that you have to figure out how to replace their performance quickly. No team can pull off coups like that without a lot of luck — even the Rays — so if you’re doomed to lose that performance, you have to make up for it elsewhere. The good news for the Jays is they have the best payroll situation of any AL East contender and go into the offseason about $15 million under where they were in March. They likely have $100 million before the tax threshold cap, wherever it turns out to be (I don’t expect the luxury tax is going anywhere this winter). The breakout by Large Adult Pitcher Alek Manoah and the acquisition of José Berríos makes up a lot for the loss of Ray, but I’d still like to see them go after one of the big pitchers available, like Kevin Gausman. Max Scherzer on a rich three-year deal would be a lot of fun! It will also give the team a fallback if they don’t extend Berríos, a free agent after 2022.

Player Projection Spotlight: Hyun Jin Ryu

ZiPS Projection – Hyun Jin Ryu (Preliminary)
2022 12 8 0 3.80 27 27 149.3 148 63 21 31 133 118 3.0
2023 10 7 0 4.01 24 24 132.3 135 59 20 27 110 112 2.4

ZiPS has been a fan of Ryu but does not see a bounce back to his 2019-20 level on the horizon. Even though he isn’t a power pitcher who relies on dominating batters, a sudden dip in strikeout rate is concerning for a pitcher of any stripe, especially when it’s backed up by the advanced stats, as it is in this case. What worries me is that Ryu’s changeup just isn’t the swing-and-miss pitch it once was. His changeup’s put away percentage (the percentage of two-strike pitches that result in strikeouts) peaked at 32% in 2018, fell into the low 20s in ’19 and ’20, and declined to just 14% in 2021. ZiPS sees a better season for Ryu in 2022 but more like that of a number-two starter in his decline.

Baltimore Orioles (52-110)

The Big Question

When does Ravens training camp start?

OK, that was just me being mean to my hometown. From a player development standpoint, my hypothesis going into the season was that the Orioles would be one of the teams hardest hit, baseball-wise, by the COVID-19 year. The team was already past the point of their rebuild when they were actively trading veterans for prospects and well into the stage where you throw a lot at the wall and see what sticks. Losing most of a major league season and all of a minor league season really hurt Baltimore, as they had a lot of interesting and interestingish pitching prospects in the upper minors to look at, names like D.L. Hall, Mike Baumann, Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer, and Zac Lowther. Instead, most of them lost most or all of a year of development time.

How It Went

Not very well. Kremer and Akin, already aging out of prospect status, got the most opportunity as a result, and both looked utterly overmatched; they would likely have benefitted from that lost Triple-A season. Hall made solid progress but had his season cut short by an elbow injury. I would argue that Grayson Rodriguez was the only high-level pitching prospect whose stock was improved by the 2021 season, and Baltimore’s top pick in 2020, Heston Kjerstad, suffered a bout of myocarditis that destroyed his season.

The news was better elsewhere on the offensive front. Cedric Mullins had a star-level season (more on that in a minute), and Ryan Mountcastle had a solid, though fairly one-dimensional, campaign in his first full season in the majors. The team’s best prospect, Adley Rutschman, didn’t stall out in the upper minors as Chance Sisco did and should spend most of the 2022 season in the majors.

What’s Next?

The Orioles went all-in on a complete teardown, and like someone who has just jumped from an airplane with a parachute, there’s no ability to change plans now. The biggest worry is that the lack of success in developing pitchers so far will keep the O’s from taking a big step forward. There are pieces in the lineup to build around in Rutschman, Mullins, and Mountcastle, but all bets are off until the Orioles prove that they can turn a deep farm system into one that successfully graduates those players into the majors.

Player Projection Spotlight: Cedric Mullins

2022 ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Cedric Mullins (Preliminary)
90% .293 .363 .552 574 92 168 35 9 32 79 60 37 145 6.3
80% .280 .348 .503 578 88 162 32 8 27 72 56 32 129 5.0
70% .274 .340 .481 580 85 159 31 7 25 68 54 30 121 4.4
60% .270 .334 .466 582 84 157 30 6 24 66 52 27 115 4.0
50% .265 .328 .454 584 82 155 29 6 23 64 50 25 111 3.6
40% .263 .325 .441 585 82 154 28 5 22 62 49 24 107 3.3
30% .257 .317 .426 587 80 151 26 5 21 60 47 22 101 2.8
20% .251 .309 .406 589 79 148 26 4 19 57 45 19 93 2.2
10% .242 .297 .382 592 75 143 24 4 17 53 42 16 84 1.4

Is Mullins a five-win player? Probably not. But a large chunk of his improvement is likely for real; there was little BABIP flukiness driving his 2021. His plate discipline was clearly improved from his past stints in the majors, but it’s a little too soon to say that 2021 is his baseline. But I would call this a bullish forecast, as you should any time a player’s 20th percentile projection would have been considered a solid result a year before. The O’s have 99 problems, but center field ain’t one of the ’em.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Either with or without Old Bay, that projection for Mullins is mighty tasty.

(I’ll take the 60-70th percentile for 2022).