Middling teams improving will make for a more competitive American League playoff race

Photo credit:© Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Veronica Chung
1 month ago
Finished is the long and mundane offseason drag and spring training is now here. With that, projections and speculations are trickling in as more fans and baseball insiders try to guess the layout of the 2024 season.
One thing evident throughout these past few months is the clear lack of major offseason moves from the American League (AL) East compared to other divisions. The good news is that AL East will be a fiercely competitive and exciting division this season once again, but the bad news is that a handful of others around the league have worked to improve their rosters to become true contenders. While AL East’s status as a perennial contender won’t change anytime soon, it’s undeniable that all five teams could be in for a rude awakening as they head into this spring.
To be fair, all AL East teams have strong rosters. No team in this division won fewer than 78 games and they were all able to hold their own in play outside of the division. Remember, the AL East had a winning percentage of .623 in April 2023, a historic number for a five-team division over that period of time, according to Sarah Langs. This was all possible either because teams knew how to develop their young players or because they made bigger signings to fill in their holes effectively. 
The biggest moves made in the AL East this summer came from the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles, who traded for slugger Juan Soto and ace Corbin Burnes, respectively. The Blue Jays tried and failed for Shohei Ohtani and wound up with Justin Turner and Isiah Kiner-Falefa, the Rays sold off some veteran names like Tyler Glasnow and Manuel Margot to get younger and cheaper, and the Red Sox have largely stood pat.
Outside of the AL East, a few teams made some major additions and should look to climb up the ladder this year. Some active teams were the Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners and Houston Astros. These teams took a risk to sign free-agents like Kenta Maeda and Michael Wacha while bringing in talents like Jorge Polanco and John Schrieber through trades. One of the more memorable moves is Jose Altuve’s extension signing from Houston – this signalled that the Astros were willing to do what it takes to bounce back from a frustrating season. All these moves certainly pose more challenges to AL East teams’ future in the playoffs down the road even if they don’t threaten the immediate future.
Another facet of this offseason is that other teams in the National League (NL) also have become creative in improving their teams. The Atlanta Braves, Arizona Diamondbacks, Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants were active during the offseason to either trade for more players or sign all-star level – in some cases, mega stars – players to fill in their roster gaps. The competition is becoming even more difficult and the rising competitiveness isn’t particularly the best news for AL East in the long run.
The PECOTA standings projections from Baseball Prospectus demonstrate how steep the competition will be this season, especially in the American League. Nine teams are projected to win at least 84 games and four of those teams are in the AL East. There are three division-winner spots and three wild-card spots available so if these projections wind up being anywhere near accurate, a few teams are going to have strong performances and come up short. 

AL East teams have always been at a disadvantage because winning 80-something games has never been enough to guarantee a division leader spot. For the past three years, AL East division leaders won at least 99 games and that left the remaining teams to battle out for the Wild Card spots. As the remaining teams got pushed out of the division leader race, they had to compete against more teams in the American League to lock in their own playoff spots. Have most AL East teams been successful at securing a playoff spot? Mostly yes. But is it guaranteed that they will be able to replicate that level of success in the 2024 season? Probably not. 
That’s not to discredit any offseason moves from AL East teams this offseason. The Baltimore Orioles traded for Corbin Burnes to boost their starting rotation and the New York Yankees enhanced the roster by trading for Juan Soto and signing Marcus Stroman. These were some of the more notable moves from the division and chances are, all five teams in the division might have done just enough to scrape by as contenders. 
The problem is that these moves are not flashy enough compared to other teams’ signings and trades. Granted, not all fancy moves pay off for the team. It’s entirely possible that some teams slump despite their productive offseason transactions. But if these moves do pay off for teams outside of AL East, the question becomes why AL East mostly stood pat when others were getting better. 
As time goes on, more teams will attempt to contend in 2024 and beyond. Teams in different divisions are trying new things to become sustainable contenders and those efforts most likely won’t just stop at one or two seasons. In this context, AL East’s general lack of transactions is proof that the division believes in the existing talents. Nevertheless, all five teams could be under fire for perceived complacency this season if these talents are unable to achieve their full potential. 
But the reality is that AL East proved to be a borderline fraud when the Blue Jays, Orioles and Rays all got hopelessly swept out of the postseason in 2023. All three teams lacked clutch performances, but it was also painfully clear that they didn’t do enough to address the shortcomings on their roster throughout last season. Regular season successes do count, but if AL East wants to maintain their supremacy, they will have to take back the postseason by winning games that matter the most.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if AL East records another strong season in 2024 despite some cracks in their rosters. The real question starts beyond this year and will always linger for a while: “Is the status quo going to be enough for AL East to stay competitive?” AL East teams will most definitely make moves to improve their rosters for years to come but whether they’ll make risky moves to contend is another question. 
AL East, as a whole, has remained risk-averse this offseason and chose to stay away from risky bets. But isn’t baseball about taking risks even if things can look crazy from the outside? Some bets are worth making and there’s nothing worse than regretting the road not taken. AL East has been the definition of dominance – it’d be a real shame if they let that change to mediocrity for the sake of nothing.


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