Path to the playoffs: AL East

Welcome to everyone's favorite division -- or least favorite, depending on your opinion of the Yankees and Red Sox. In the past five years, four different teams have won the division. The exception is Toronto, and the Blue Jays now have the longest playoff drought in the majors, having last reached the postseason in 1993. You may remember how that season ended.

Everybody says the AL East isn't as strong as it once was. That's true. The Yankees haven't made the playoffs the past two seasons and the Red Sox have suffered two terrible seasons sandwiching a World Series title. But it wasn't the worst division in baseball this past season. The AL East was a collective 12 games over .500 outside the division; only the AL West, at plus-13, was better.

In what appears to be a wide-open race, each team doesn't have to stretch the imagination to find a path to the playoffs.


Baltimore Orioles

2014: 96-66, plus-112 run differential, lost ALCS

2015 projection from FanGraphs: 79-83, minus-18 runs

After winning their first division title since 1997 and drawing their most fans since 2005, the Orioles have responded by doing ... nothing. They've lost Nelson Cruz to the Mariners and Nick Markakis to the Braves and the biggest news was the rumor that general manager Dan Duquette was a candidate for the Blue Jays' presidency, only to see owner Peter Angelos politely remind him that he has a contract through the 2018 season.

Replacing the production from Cruz and Markakis will be a challenge, but those two also missed just a combined 10 games; replacing their presence may be the bigger challenge. While Manny Machado and Matt Wieters missed time with season-ending injuries and then Chris Davis got suspended for amphetamines, Cruz, Markakis and Adam Jones were the rocks manager Buck Showalter wrote into his lineup every day.

But they're not irreplaceable. They were worth a combined 6.8 WAR via Baseball-Reference, and Cruz wasn't a good bet to repeat his 40-homer, 4.7-WAR performance anyway. Yes, the outfield looks a little barren to Jones' left and right, with Alejandro De Aza and David Lough the best candidates to start now, with Steve Pearce, hot off his surprising 2014 performance, filling in if he's not the DH. I suspect the O's will make an addition here, whether it's signing Norichika Aoki or trading for Marlon Byrd or maybe even Justin Upton. Colby Rasmus is also an interesting buy-low free agent.

How do the O's return to the playoffs? As you can see, the projection system used at FanGraphs foresees a big decline, but some of that is the way the system views the Orioles' rotation. It's not a strikeout rotation, which outperformed its periperhals in 2014, so the system sees regression. The O's were fifth in the AL in rotation ERA and had the second-best ERA after the All-Star break. They just need to maintain and rely on that great infield defense to help out.

There is the possibility, however, that the rotation does improve. Kevin Gausman should spend the entire season in the rotation for the first time, and he has potential to develop into a No. 1 or 2 starter. Dylan Bundy is healthy, and the top prospect could make an impact at some point. Plus, there is depth here in numbers. Unlike other teams, the Orioles can afford the inevitable injury attrition.

There are four primary reasons the offense can pick up after Cruz and Markakis:

1. Davis rebounds. An MVP candidate in 2013 after hitting 53 home runs, his OPS fell 300 points. The Steamer projection foresees a .242 average with 32 home runs, or about a two-win upgrade from 2014 (although still four wins below his 2013 level). The upside, of course, is even higher.

2. Wieters returns. He was off to the best season of his career when he went down in late May and had Tommy John surgery. He'll give the team more offense at catcher and be able to DH on his off days.

3. Jonathan Schoop improves. Rushed to the majors, he hit .209/.244/.354. His power (16 home runs) was a bright spot, but he has to improve his 122/13 strikeout/walk ratio.

4. Machado plays more games. He appeared in just 82 last year before injuring his knee.

The projections don't like the Orioles. But they didn't like them this past season, and Baltimore won 96 games.


New York Yankees

2014: 84-78, minus-31 run differential

2015 projection: 83-79, plus-17

Odd fact: The Yankees became the first team to get outscored in consecutive seasons and finish over .500 both years.

Prediction: It won't happen three years in a row. Which means the Yankees have to score more runs and/or allow fewer just to stay at 84 wins.

So far, they lost closer David Robertson but signed Andrew Miller, coming off his season of destruction. They re-signed third baseman Chase Headley and pitcher Chris Capuano and acquired shortstop Didi Gregorius from Arizona. Yankees fans will be thrilled to see what a shortstop who can go to his left actually looks like. Oh, and Alex Rodriguez returns to baseball. He's not the reason to predict a path to the playoffs.

This is:

Masahiro Tanaka

CC Sabathia

Michael Pineda

David Phelps

Max Scherzer

Yes, you read that correctly. I'd say Scherzer would make for a pretty nice No. 5 starter. The list of potential suitors for the ace right-hander is limited, given his reported asking price of $200 million, give or take a small mansion. The Yankees say they're not interested. The Yankees always say they aren't interested until they are. They have the money if they want to spend it: Their projected payroll right now is $38 million less than the Dodgers' payroll, and there's no reason they can't spend what the Dodgers are spending, so that leaves plenty of room to sign Scherzer and still have money left over for a nice dinner at NYY Steak.

Anyway: Scherzer, a healthy CC, a healthy Tanaka, a full season from Pineda ... that's a scary rotation.

Beyond that: Full seasons from Headley and Martin Prado and the addition of Gregorius will make the infield much better (don't be surprised if Gregorius even outhits 2014 Derek Jeter); Brian McCann, just 31, is certainly capable of a better season; Carlos Beltran is getting up there in age (37), but Steamer projects better numbers for him; Jacoby Ellsbury's first year in the Bronx was so-so; and Dellin Betances and Miller -- 6-foot-8 and 6-7, respectively -- may be the most intimidating bullpen duo in the majors.

There are obviously injury concerns with Sabathia, Tanaka and Pineda. But we keep trying to kill off the Yankees and they haven't completely capitulated just yet. If that group stays healthy and they bring in Scherzer to lead the way, it could be the Yankees in the East.

Blue Jays

Toronto Blue Jays

2014: 83-79, plus-37 run differential

2015 projection: 84-78, plus-29

Nobody can hit these days. The Angels led the majors with 773 runs. In 2009, that would have ranked 12th. In 2004, that would have ranked 18th. So teams are starving for offense.

But the Blue Jays have hitters. Among players with 400 plate appearances, Jose Bautista ranked fifth in the majors in wOBA (weighted on-base average, a metric that captures a players complete hitting performance); Edwin Encarnacion was 12th; Russell Martin 19th; and Josh Donaldson (48th), with the A's last season, now moves to a better hitter's park. Bautista and Martin ranked third and fourth in OBP; Bautista, Encarnacion and Donaldson all ranked in the top 12 in home runs.

No, 2015 isn't 2014, but that projects as the best middle of the order in the majors.

Did I mention Josh Donaldson? He ranks second in Baseball-Reference WAR among position players the past two seasons, behind only Mike Trout. How can you not get all dreamy over that trade if you're the Blue Jays? Donaldson was about four wins above average last season; Blue Jays third basemen were about average, so Donaldson is a four-win upgrade, given similar rates of production.

The Jays lost Melky Cabrera via free agency but made a sneaky good pickup in Michael Saunders, a guy who could have a big season as he leaves the marine layer in the Pacific Northwest. If he stays healthy, don't be surprised if he replaces Cabrera's value -- less average, but a little more power and better defense.

Everyone says the Jays don't have an ace -- not that you need an ace to make the postseason. But maybe they do have one: Marcus Stroman may be only 5-9 but he had a big rookie season, posting a 3.65 ERA in 130.2 innings. His FIP was even better, at 2.84. He has six pitches and throws hard and throws strikes. Don't be surprised if he's a top-10 starter in the AL.

Drew Hutchison had a fine season in his return from Tommy John surgery; he'll do better than 11-13 with a 4.48 ERA. Veterans Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey provide durability and stability. Lefty Daniel Norris, one of the best pitching prospects in the game, jumped from Class A to the majors after striking out 163 in 124.2 innings; he could be this year's Stroman. Aaron Sanchez looks like a shutdown reliever the team needs after allowing just 14 hits in 33 innings after his recall to the majors.

The Jays could use a second baseman, maybe free agent Asdrubal Cabrera, which would mean a lineup something like this:

SS Jose Reyes

C Russell Martin

RF Jose Bautista

1B Edwin Encarnacion

3B Josh Donaldson

LF Michael Saunders

2B Asdrubal Cabrera

DH Dioner Navarro/Justin Smoak

CF Dalton Pompey

That's an offense that can score runs. The 22-year-old drought may be over.


Tampa Bay Rays

2014: 77-85, minus-13 run differential

2015 projection: 83-79, plus-13

Everyone seems down on the Rays. David Price is gone, Matt Joyce was shipped out, Wil Myers just got dealt and manager Joe Maddon opted out of his contract. The Rays can't spend like the big boys and they're coming off their worst season since they were the Devil Rays.

A few reasons to believe in a path to the playoffs:

1. The rotation could still be the best in the league. Alex Cobb -- with a 2.82 ERA the past two seasons -- has an argument as the best starter in the division. The Rays have four starters lining up behind Cobb and coming into their own at the same time: Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, Jake Odorizzi and Matt Moore (coming off Tommy John surgery).

2. Evan Longoria will return to being an MVP candidate.

3. They'll hit better with runners in scoring position. They hit .241 with runners in scoring position this past season, including the worst wOBA with the bases loaded in the AL. Both figures were below their overall season totals, so expect some of that bad luck to reverse.

4. Ben Zobrist is still a good player.

5. Nick Franklin may become a good player.

6. They traded Myers but picked up a guy named Steven Souza from the Nationals. After crushing Triple-A pitching, he projects to be just as good as Myers, if not slightly better.

7. Catcher Rene Rivera, acquired from the Padres in the three-way deal that sent them Myers, is one of the best pitch-framers in the business. And he will hit better than the dearly departed Jose Molina.

8. That projection above suggests the Rays will be in the race (it doesn't include Wednesday's trade). Given the potential of the rotation, the Rays can win 90 again, just like they did in each from 2010 to 2013.

Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

2014: 71-91, minus-81 run differential

2015 projection: 87-75, plus-53 runs

Boston's busy offseason has been much discussed. Many believe the Red Sox still need to pick up another starter to anchor the rotation, but FanGraphs already projects them as the best team in the division.

That may be surprising after this past season's last-place finish, but general manager Ben Cherington has done a nice job reconstructing his starting rotation. Rick Porcello, Wade Miley and Justin Masterson aren't flashy but should be a durable and reliable trio (especially if Masterson's knee, which bothered him in 2014, is healthy).

Plus, the Red Sox can dream on these possibilities:

1. Mookie Betts, All-Star. Yes, he's that good.

2. Xander Bogaerts, All-Star. His rookie season was a disappointment. He also just turned 22. It all comes together this year.

3. Rusney Castillo does the job in center field with a solid all-around season (that 87-win projection actually includes Castillo being only a replacement-level player).

4. David Ortiz has one more big season.

5. Pablo Sandoval thrives, hitting doubles off the Green Monster.

6. Hanley Ramirez is motivated and healthy and hits and plays left field at least as well as Manny Ramirez did. OK, better than Manny.

7. Dustin Pedroia goes back to hitting .290-.300 with 15-20 home runs.

8. One or two of the young pitching prospects -- Henry Owens, Matt Barnes, Eduardo Rodriguez, Anthony Ranaudo -- makes a big impact, either in the rotation or bullpen.

And then they may add Cole Hamels, or trade for a starter during the season ...