AL East Position Comparisons: Part I

Posted on March 27, 2014 by Paul Folkemer

With the 2014 season nearly upon us, it's time for my second-annual position-by-position comparisons of the American League East. Just as I did in 2013 (Part IPart II and Part III), I'll be ranking the Orioles, Red Sox, Yankees, Rays and Blue Jays at each position on the field, and will then unveil my predicted standings for the 2014 season. Let's get started with the infield.

CATCHER

1. Brian McCann, Yankees
2. Matt Wieters, Orioles
3. A.J. Pierzynski, Red Sox
4. Ryan Hanigan/Jose Molina, Rays
5. Dioner Navarro, Blue Jays

Every AL East team except the Orioles brought in a new catcher this season, and the Yankees ended up with the biggest prize, landing McCann on a five-year deal. McCann was one of the best offensive catchers in baseball during his nine years with the Braves, posting an .823 OPS. At age 29, he should have a few strong seasons left in him. Wieters had a career-worst .235 average in 2013, but still brings power and excellent defense. Pierzynski is known as one of baseball's biggest irritants, but is a reliable backstop, having played 128 or more games for 12 straight years. The Rays are willing to endure horrific offense from Hanigan and Molina for their defensive and pitch-framing abilities. Navarro was inexplicably the Jays' only major league free-agent signing this winter. He was strong in part-time duty for the Cubs in 2013, but before that, he hadn't had a good season since 2008; he could be overexposed as a regular catcher.

FIRST BASE

1. Chris Davis, Orioles
2. Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays
3. Mike Napoli, Red Sox
4. James Loney, Rays
5. Mark Teixeira, Yankees

It's hard to go wrong with a guy coming off a 53-home run season, who also happened to be a Gold Glove finalist. Davis' 2013 breakout makes him the division's best first baseman, in my mind. Encarnacion is a prolific slugger in his own right, with 78 homers during the past two years and back-to-back seasons with a .900-plus OPS. Napoli had a great first season for the Red Sox in 2013, and earned a new deal, but there are still concerns about the health of his hip, which caused the Sox to restructure his original contract. Loney, a journeyman, had a breakthrough season with the Rays last year, but it was so out of line with his previous career numbers that it might have been a fluke. And remember when O's fans were livid that Teixeira, a Maryland native, spurned the Orioles for the Yankees in 2009? It turns out he might have done the Birds a favor. Teixeira has been reduced by injuries to a shell of his former self and still has three years and $67.5 million remaining on his contract.

SECOND BASE

1. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox
2. Ben Zobrist, Rays
3. Ryan Flaherty, Orioles
4. Brian Roberts, Yankees
5. Ryan Goins, Blue Jays

The top two are easy. With the departure of Robinson Cano from the division this winter, Pedroia -- a former Most Valuable Player -- is the AL East's best second baseman. The underrated Zobrist is No. 2, assuming he actually remains at second base rather than hopping around to different positions as he often does. After that, it gets difficult. I'm banking on the upside of Flaherty -- and, perhaps eventually, Jonathan Schoop -- to give the O's some production at second base. They'll be replacing Roberts, who joined the Yankees and seems to be on his last legs as a viable major leaguer. The Blue Jays are going with Goins, a rookie defensive specialist who probably won't hit well enough to succeed in the bigs.

THIRD BASE

1. Evan Longoria, Rays
2. Manny Machado, Orioles
3. Brett Lawrie, Blue Jays
4. Will Middlebrooks, Red Sox
5. Kelly Johnson, Yankees

As stellar as Machado was for the Orioles in 2013, he's not quite on the level of Longoria, who has established himself as an elite third baseman both offensively and defensively. Machado will start the season on the disabled list, but assuming he's able to return quickly, he ranks No. 2. Lawrie has so far been unable to live up to his outstanding 2011 rookie season, as his offensive stats have plummeted since, but don't forget that he's 23 years old. Middlebrooks, too, will try to reclaim his rookie-season glory of 2012 after his OBP dropped to .271 last year. Johnson is joining his third different AL East team in three years, but at an unfamiliar position -- 16 of his 1,051 games have been at third base. His bat isn't quite good enough justify a starting role.

SHORTSTOP

1. J.J. Hardy, Orioles
2. Yunel Escobar, Rays
3. Jose Reyes, Blue Jays
4. Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox
5. Derek Jeter, Yankees

Coming off an All-Star, Gold Glove-winning and Silver Slugger-winning 2013 season, Hardy has taken the throne as the division's best shortstop. Escobar, though, isn't far behind -- last year, his OPS+ (OPS adjusted to the player's ballpark) was equal to Hardy's and his defensive numbers were the best of his career. Reyes might be the most talented shortstop in the division if he's healthy, but at this point, that's a big if. Reyes has spent time on the DL during five of his past six seasons, including 2013, when he missed 69 games. ESPN's Keith Law ranked Bogaerts, 21, as the No. 2 prospect in baseball, and he's widely regarded as a star in the making. But he could have some growing pains during his first full season as an everyday player. On the other end of the career spectrum is the 39-year-old Jeter, who will retire after the 2014 season. After a year destroyed by injuries, he might not have much left in the tank. But knowing Jeter, it wouldn't be surprising if he found one last bit of magic during his farewell tour.

***

In our next installment, we'll compare the outfields, designated hitters and bench for each team.

next up:

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