Between 1998 and 2005, the Yankees finished first and the Red Sox finished second in every season. It's hard to explain to the youngsters just how remarkably unremarkable it was. The Yankees and Red Sox played predictable baseball inside a protective bubble that kept the baseball goblins out. There weren't a lot of surprises every year. The goblins took their frustrations out on the rest of the division, and they were merciless. The Orioles are still squirrely from the trauma.
It's not like that now. There are five teams in the AL East, and all five of them have a shot at the postseason. There has to be some suspension of disbelief to include the Orioles in there, but I have it. This could be the season of five 84-78 teams with a round-robin, best-of-17 playoff to sort through who wins the division and who wins the wild cards. The stress would make Rob Manfred look like an older Bud Selig, and we would enjoy every second.
On those teams, there are interesting players. You might say that some players are more interesting than others. Here are the most interesting players on each AL East team.
Baltimore Orioles - Kevin Gausman
If you're going to assume that the Orioles have a chance to contend, you're assuming that they have a chance to find enough starting pitching to contend. If you're assuming they have a chance to find enough starting pitching, you're assuming that Kevin Gausman is productive, healthy and left alone.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Gausman was in the majors 11 months after getting drafted fourth overall. One year he's roaming around Baton Rouge, playing Super Smash Bros. at Grimson's house until three in the morning, and the next year he's a millionaire making his first big-league start. That career path happens only to the best of the best, the elite of the elite. Pitchers who make the majors a year after being drafted are the Rhodes Scholars of the industry: They're about as likely to be the President of the United States as an unemployed gadfly, statistically.
After that rookie season (solid peripherals, poor ERA), though, the Orioles got a little strange with how they handled Gausman. He was on the Triple-A shuttle for most of 2014, coming up when they needed a spot starter and pitching effectively. He couldn't crack the initial rotation, not with Bud Norris pitching well and Ubaldo Jimenez making too much to give up on, so he didn't stick until July. He pitched effectively. If promise were a cologne, you would still pass out before the ground floor if you were stuck in an elevator with him.
Then he ... started in the bullpen for 2015? And after he missed time with a shoulder injury, he ... moved back to the rotation? There were trade rumors? We're over three seasons into the Kevin Gausman experience, and no one knows what it's really like. That's not supposed to happen to the fast-tracked college stars.
Long capsule short: He has a starting job this year. A clear, unambiguous spot in the Orioles' rotation. The last time we saw him, he did this:
Hopefully over a full season, we'll figure out if the Orioles knew something we didn't all along, or if they were just strengthening their brand by yo-yoing Gausman around.
Boston Red Sox - Pablo Sandoval
In 2011, there was a picture of a shirtless Pablo Sandoval in a swimming pool that went viral, at least among Giants fans. He's looking up, happy, making "hang loose" signs with his hands, looking trim, if not muscular. It was a picture that warmed up a cold offseason day, tweeted out by Pablo himself as a way to say, "I'm fit. I'm ready. Let's go."
Five seasons later, people are still arguing about his weight.
Maybe it's more important to back up. The reason it was a big deal was because Sandoval was supposed to be the only good hitter on the 2010 Giants. He ended up being a bench player on a World Series-winning team, which naturally motivated him for the following season. He had a fantastic follow-up season, and that's where the causation-correlation avalanche started. When he's svelte, he rakes. When he's out of shape, he slumps.
Except we're not so sure about that causality. Bill Hanstock wrote about how the arrow is probably pointing the other direction. When he rakes, he's svelte. When he slumps, he's out of shape. The URL of that post includes "pablo-sandoval-fat-shape-oh-god-so-sick-of-this" and, well, shucks, Bill, buddy, I got some bad news for you ...
Here's what I know: When Sandoval is right, he's one of the most exciting players in the league. He's gregarious, mirthful, swinging at pitches he has no business hitting and hitting them well.
Sandoval was supposed to use Fenway Park as a stage, breaking free from the foggy canyon he used to call home. His numbers were supposed to move from park-depressed to gaudy. He was supposed to become the toast of the town.
He ate the toast of the town. We're still here talking about his weight, dang it, and while I'm pretty sure his chances of a renaissance would be at least a little better if he looked like a Navy SEAL, I'm not going to write him off because of spring pictures. Sandoval is still one of the most unique hitters I've ever seen, and I've seen him do it well when he's at his roundest. The defense at third might be another issue, but his March weigh-in shouldn't make you give up on him.
A .325 batting average with 18 homers. That's my guess. Because if he doesn't, oh, no. This contract still has four more years to go. This will never end if he doesn't save us now. Please save us, Pablo.
New York Yankees - Starlin Castro
Starlin Castro's career with the Cubs, in one GIF:
It doesn't matter how he screwed up. It's just important to know that he screwed up. Again. Dale Sveum ruefully shook his head, whereas other managers might have yelled at him like he was an anthropomorphic chipmunk. But if there was a better example of frustrating young talent on the Cubs, if not baseball, over the last 10 years, it was kept from us. Castro was a .300 hitter as a 20-year-old rookie shortstop, and he got better the next season. That's a path to the Hall of Fame, not a regional doghouse.
But that's where he went, straight to the doghouse, where he shuffled around and watched the Cubs get younger and better around him. They have Ben Zobrist now, who is probably the better player, and he doesn't even cost much more. It made sense for the Cubs to ditch him, especially with Javier Baez in reserve.
It also made sense for the Yankees to buy low. Castro will be just 26 this year, and he's a three-time All-Star with four above-average seasons at the plate. He's something of the prize acquisition of the offseason for a wealthy team hoping to contend, so he has to be doing something right.
You can't just point to the good years, though, not after his lost 2015. There are a few players who have enjoyed as much career success as Castro at his age. Andrew McCutchen and Dustin Pedroia, for two. Jay Bruce and Melvin Upton, for another two. He's not exactly at the crossroads yet, but it's starting to make less and less sense to point back at his productive seasons and say, "Yeah, but look what he did back there!"
There might not be a better change-of-scenery player. The expectations are low, and the park is friendly. It would be so very Yankees if this is how they found their second baseman for the next five years. It would be so very Cubs if Castro's World Series-winning hit wasn't for them.
Tampa Bay Rays - Matt Moore
Back in 2012, Moore was a dandy baseball story. The second start of his career came in the postseason. And before he had a regular rotation spot, he had a long-term deal. A shaky pair of starts at the start of that season made some Chicken Littles run around, but he was outstanding, just as expected, for the next two seasons. He was a model of realized potential.
Then came the trap door. Moore is coming off two lost seasons, the first because of Tommy John surgery, and the second because of, well, Tommy John surgery, but it was combined with reduced velocity and terrifying results. His detour in Triple-A went swimmingly (58 strikeouts, 40 innings), and his spring is going well, so far. It's also worth noting that the reduced velocity got better as he got stronger, as you would expect from a recovering young pitcher. He might not be the Clayton Kershaw-type that some of us were anticipating, but he should be at least a solid starting pitcher.
He still has ace potential, though. He could be the 1b to Chris Archer's 1a, which works out because Jake Odorizzi has at least 1c stuff, and there's no denying the 1d performance of Drew Smyly before he was injured last year. The Rays could be overstuffed with dominant starting pitchers, and that's before we even get into the return of Alex Cobb. Everything the Rays are trying to do this season runs through the rotation.
The bellwether of the young rotation is probably Moore, then. He might settle into a Hector Santiago kind of role, where he helps his team win without attracting any attention at all, and he would still be a bargain for a Rays team that needs bargains. But he could also become the thunder-belching demon that he was just about to, and we'll look back at the 2016 Rays as a team we all missed with our preseason predictions somehow.
Toronto Blue Jays - J.A. Happ
Happ is a member of the Jeremy Guthrie All-Stars, throwing way, way harder than you thought he did when you first heard about him. He might be a chapter president. Left-handers who throw in the mid-90s should be a coveted commodity, not afterthoughts in a transaction carousel. He swirled around the vortex of the 2011-12 Astros, dropped by the Blue Jays for a couple seasons, went to the Mariners in an unheralded deal and was traded to the Pirates in a really, really unheralded deal. If someone whispered the words "three years, $36 million" to you on July 31, you would have guessed that the economy collapsed and we were all going to the grocery store with wheelbarrows of post-WWI deutschmarks right now.
No, it's just J.A. Happ, sudden ace and ostensible David Price replacement, which we were all expecting. It's almost like he's a part of Moneyball XI: We'll Try Anything Once, in which teams are guessing that the new market inefficiency is pitchers who impress in ludicrously small samples. John Krasinski will play Rich Hill in the movie, and he'll look at the camera every five minutes because he can't believe what Rich Hill did last year, either.
Happ did it for longer, but his success with the Pirates -- which possibly followed a template that started before he was kissed on the soul by Ray Searage -- was still incredibly brief. We're talking 11 starts to move from a generic innings-eater to a potential solution on a contending team. And the Blue Jays aren't exactly counting on him, but they're not not counting on him. Marcus Stroman is a marvel, but he's still a year removed from serious injury, and R.A. Dickey will be 42. Marco Estrada has never been a paragon of consistency and his strikeout rate keeps dropping at the same time his walk rate goes up. The Blue Jays might score 900 runs this year, but they'd like to allow fewer than 900, too.
Happ is a testament to a club that has incredible faith in itself, then. A team that's well beyond the sample-size crutches that dumb writers like me lean on when they can't understand a phenomenon. They looked at those starts with the Pirates and saw a hard-throwing lefty with command he'd never shown before, and they got him for $100 million cheaper than they might have if he had done it for the entire season. They might know what they're doing.
Or he could be J.A. Happ with a nicer car. His top similarity score right now is Jon Niese. His top sim score through age 32 is Jason Vargas. Both of those are just about perfect. And while you can win a pennant with a Niese or a Vargas -- it's been done in each of the last two seasons -- it's not exactly the kind of pitcher who moves the preseason over-unders. The Blue Jays gambled millions they usually don't spend, and they're betting on their own analytics as much as they're betting on Happ.