The Red Sox took the AL East in 2013 and then battled their way to their third World Series title in 10 years, but the division remains one of the most competitive in the game. The Rays won 92 games last season and they still feature an elite rotation and an offense that can give those starters more than enough support. The Yankees have abandoned their foray into fiscal restraint and reloaded with four major free agent signings aimed at bringing them back to the top of the standings. The Orioles surprised everyone with 93 wins in 2012 and the young core that made that possible is still around. At this time last season, the Blue Jays looked like the team to beat after landing Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and R.A. Dickey in a series of blockbuster trades. The Jays busted badly, but if they can get healthy they could still surprise people.
The Red Sox and the Rays still look like the teams to beat in the East, but no one in this division can truly be counted out. Boston hardly looked like the best team in baseball at the start but a number of significant improvements from key players carried them from worse to first. Here is a look at some of the AL East players who might see the most improvement in 2014.
Derek Jeter. Several key Yankee players need to bounce back from sub-par 2013 performances, but no one struggled anywhere near as badly as the face of the franchise. Yankee shortstops hit a combined .228/.283/.308 last year, a full 40 percent worse than league-average by wRC+. Out of the seven players the Yankees tried at short, only Luis Cruz hit worse than the .190/.288/.254 line the Captain posted in his 73 injury-hampered plate appearances. Even if age and injuries keep Jeter from being the superstar he has been over the previous 19 seasons, there is no reason to believe he is completely finished. He had terrible results on balls in play in that small sample of plate appearances last year, but he didn't struggle to make contact or control the zone. Jeter doesn't need to live up to his own Hall-of-Fame career standards to be an upgrade over plan-B option Brandon Ryan either. Jeter's worst full-season batting line is more than 20 percent better than Ryan's career line. He may be recovering from injury and he may be 39-years-old, but he is still Derek Jeter and chances are, he still has a little bit of greatness left in him.
R.A. Dickey. It was a tale of two very different seasons for the Jays' knuckleball specialist in 2013. In the first half of the season, the 2012 NL Cy Young Award winner struggled badly in his new Canadian home. The plus-control he discovered as a member of the Mets left him, resulting in 3.3 walks per nine innings. His strikeouts also dropped, and the combination of more walks and fewer whiffs produced a 4.69 ERA at the All-Star Break. He found his groove in the second half, however. His strikeout rate jumped up from just 6.4 K/9 in the first half to 8.0 after the break and his walk rate improved to 2.3 BB/9, a rate consistent with his numbers in New York. Home runs plagued him all season, but his 12.7 HR/FB rate is likely to regress towards the league average. It may be that Dickey is more affected by the environment around him than pitchers with more traditional arsenals and he needed some time to adapt or his first half may have simply been an ordinary slump. Regardless, during the final months of the season Dickey showed that he still has the ability to be control the game's most unpredictable pitch and keep hitters from making solid contact. He may never repeat his incredible 2012 performance, but he should be a much better pitcher in 2014 than he was in 2013.
Matt Wieters. The Orioles catcher may never become "Joe Mauer with power" the way some people predicted when he first landed in the majors, but he will probably be a much better hitter than he was in 2013. Wieters hit .235/.287/.417 last season after two seasons of above-average performances at the plate (by wRC+). The 27-year-old posted his lowest walk rate since he was a rookie, but most of his issues came from his .247 batting average on balls in play. Wieters popped-up more and hit more fly balls that stayed in the park than normal, but there is no reason to believe those numbers won't be more in line with his career rates next year. Wieters is such a good defensive catcher that he'd survive as a solid role player with a below-average bat, but if his numbers return to their 2011-2012 range, he becomes the type of star player the Orioles need to compete in this brutal division.
Jeremy Hellickson. The 26-year-old Rays starter never had the strikeout or walk numbers to support the 2.95 ERA he posted in 2011 or the 3.10 ERA he put up in 2012, but his fielding independent numbers don't believe he deserved his 5.17 ERA from 2013 either. Hellickson actually made a step forward in his strikeout rate and his walk rate last season, but a huge jump in BABIP and bad luck with runners on base left those improvements in the shadow of that ugly ERA. A fly ball pitcher like Hellickson isn't likely to allow a .307 BABIP forever. Even with the hard-luck results of 2013 against him, he has still out-performed his FIP and xFIP in his 576 ⅓ career innings. He can certainly do that once again in 2014 and if he continues to refine his command, his next sub-4.00 ERA might even have the support of his FIP and xFIP numbers.
Will Middlebrooks. Despite significant struggles in 2013, Middlebrooks appears to be the Red Sox starting third baseman at this point. The 25-year-old has legitimate right-handed home-run ability but his plate discipline and contact abilities remain a work in progress. Before injuries ended his 2012 season, he showed the kind of potential that had made him the Red Sox top prospect prior to the start of that season. He hit .288/.325/.509 with 15 home runs in 286 plate appearances in that first taste of the show. He was then slated to be the team's everyday third baseman in 2013, but his long swing and aggressive plate approach proved to be easy for major league pitchers to exploit and by late June he was headed back to Triple-A to with a .192/.228/.389 batting line. He returned in August and rebounded briefly before slumping again. Though strikeouts are certainly an issue for the young slugger, he has too much ability to drive the ball to be stuck hitting .263 on balls in play. Although he is certainly not patient at the plate, he doesn't chase out of the strike zone too much and he did improve his walk rate last season even as he struggled. The powerful youngster still has adjustments to make, but the Red Sox faith in him probably isn't completely unfounded and he should be a much better hitter in 2014.
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