The American League East had three teams with 90 wins in 2012, with the rise of the Baltimore Orioles and sudden demise of the Boston Red Sox marking an interesting shift in the division’s power balance.
With the Sox and Toronto Blue Jays sagging well below their expectations this season, it is perfectly reasonable to expect both teams to rebound in 2013. When they do, their success will combine with the continued strength of this year’s top three teams to form what could possibly be the strongest division in the history of baseball.
The strength of the AL East has been unparalleled for the last five years. During that time frame, the average win total of an AL East team is just over 85 games. The top three teams in the division have been averaging over 93 wins over that same period.
The AL West has come on strong this season as a rival in terms of top-to-bottom quality, posting a higher combined winning percentage (.542) than the five AL East team’s (.519). However, two key factors likely stand in the way of the West being a lasting threat.
The first is the simple law of averages. Over the last five seasons, the West has finished with a cumulative winning percentage above .500 just twice; the regression of Oakland will likely exceed any spike in the Angels’ win total, meaning a decline in wins is inevitable.
The other huge factor is that, starting next season, the woeful Houston Astros will be joining the West, simultaneously reducing the collective power of the division and providing the rest of the AL with many easy wins.
What does all this mean for the AL East? In all likelihood, it means that each team is going to pick up an extra couple wins in games they would normally be playing against better competition. Given the high caliber of the East teams to begin with, this factor could push them into the conversation for all-time best.
The New York Yankees have had a stranglehold on the division for the last 17 years, averaging 97 wins per season and capturing 13 AL East titles. While they may not quite hit 97 wins in 2013, it’s fair to expect them to reach 95.
New to the AL East elite, the Tampa Bay Rays have the quality young pitching to keep them in the thick of the division race for many years to come. Since a stunning run to the World Series in the 2008 season, the Rays have averaged 92 wins per season despite continually losing players to free agency. Like the Yankees, they’ll be back right around that number next season.
The Orioles are the most vexing of the AL East teams. After failing to win more than 70 games since 2006, nobody was expecting this team to suddenly contend for a division title. While their razor-thin run differential (plus-7 for the season) suggests a .500 team that will regress next year, with their young talent the Orioles can be expected to stay in the 85- to 90-win range.
The Blue Jays seem to be a team that just can’t get over the hump, middling away in the high-70 to low-80 win range almost every season over the last 17 years. Their pitching continues to be a problem, allowing the fifth-most earned runs in MLB during the 2012 season. It’s hard to see that number improving much next year, which means that the Jays will likely spend another year winning 70 to 75 games.
The Red Sox took the most catastrophic fall of any team in recent memory, plummeting to just 69 wins after taking 90 the year before and averaging 93 over the previous 10. The Fenway fire sale means that this is not a team that will be back in the 90s next season; however, improved health and a new manager alone should bring this team back to 80 to 85 wins.
Adding up the projected win totals of the Yankees (95), Rays (92), Orioles (90), Red Sox (84) and Jays (74), the division is guaranteed at least a .537 combined winning percentage. If the Orioles make a bigger leap, the Sox rebound or the Jays finally emerge, that number will only climb.
While it’s true that some of these wins will come at the cost of divisional opponents (and therefore have a zero-sum effect on the division’s overall cumulative record), a winning percentage that high would make the AL East one of the greatest of all time.