Tomase: The path to Red Sox making playoffs starts with Rays, Orioles originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
For the Red Sox to sneak into a wild card spot, their first order of business is simple: don't finish last.
Even with an expanded playoff field, only three wild cards will advance. For a time last August, it looked like all of them could come from the American League East, at least until the Orioles faltered en route to a respectable 83 wins.
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The 78-win Red Sox could only stare longingly at the outskirts of the race. With the start of the 2023 season just a little over a week away, now is a good time to zoom around the AL East and see where the Red Sox fit. The good news is a path clearly exists out of the cellar.
We recently detailed the travails of the Yankees, who remain the division favorites but will open the season without starters Carlos Rodon (elbow strain) and Frankie Montas (shoulder surgery) and maybe Nestor Cortes (hamstring), too. Relievers Lou Trivino and Tommy Kahnle will start on the injured list, as well as center fielder Harrison Bader. Montas could miss the entire season, while the rest should return in April or May.
Tomase: Predicting the Red Sox' opening day roster, version 2.0
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Let's consider the Yankees untouchable for the purposes of this exercise. How many teams might the Red Sox realistically expect to leapfrog?
Starting from the back, the Orioles are a regression candidate and a half. Projected to win only 61 games last year, they shattered expectations behind the fruits of the game's best farm system, particularly future MVP candidate Adley Rutschman behind the plate. Shortstop Gunnar Henderson also arrived, and right-hander Grayson Rodriguez isn't far behind.
The problem is the Orioles did nothing this winter. General manager Mike Elias stoked expectations of aggressively targeting impact talent, but instead the O's stuck to their plan of marginal signings, content to wait for the farm to arrive. (Sound familiar?)
Baltimore signed starter Kyle Gibson, utilityman Adam Frazier, and reliever Mychal Givens to one-year deals. The O's traded for catcher James McCann to serve as Rutschman's backup. They added middling left-hander Cole Irvin from the A's to take a spot in their rotation. And that's about it.
Prospects rarely develop linearly, and in a division as rugged as the AL East, we shouldn't be surprised if the lack of winter reinforcements is reflected in the standings. The Red Sox, with their more established veteran additions, have every reason to think they'll surpass the Orioles in 2023.
OK, so that's fourth place, and it's a start. Next up are the perpetually overachieving Rays, and at this point it would be foolish to bet against them, even if the only player on the roster you can name without Baseball Reference is Wander Franco.
But at some point it's fair to wonder when the inputs and outputs will misalign. No team that churns its roster as much as the Rays can maintain the perfect equilibrium of new prospects replacing old without the pipeline running dry, even if only for a year.
The Rays boast the game's No. 5 farm system, according to Keith Law, and No. 6 via Baseball America. They made one big addition this winter, stealing former Phillies right-hander Zack Eflin from the Red Sox in free agency for three years and $ 40 million. Otherwise, they made a million trades, extended left-hander Jeffrey Springs and infielder Yandy Diaz, and said goodbye to familiar names like Kevin Kiermaier, Mike Zunino, Nick Anderson, and Ji-Man Choi, among others.
Where this leaves them is hard to say, but they only won 86 games last year, and they've already received bad news in the form of yet another injury to ace Tyler Glasnow, who will probably miss another month with an oblique injury. That's on top of season-ending Tommy John surgery for promising right-hander Shane Baz, and more Tommy John for closer Andrew Kittredge, who could return later this summer.
The Rays are masters of piecing it together, but their margin for error is nonexistent, and the Red Sox have the resources to add, should they find themselves in contention. As things stand now, both the Orioles and Rays are limited by bottom-five payrolls.
That leaves the Blue Jays, a team that has consistently played below the sum of its parts despite boasting some of the most exciting young players in baseball. The Jays won 92 games last year before being swept in the wild card round by the Mariners, and they acted aggressively this winter to address roster deficiencies.
A lineup that had been too right-handed said goodbye to outfielders Teoscar Hernández and Lourdes Gurriel and said hello to slugging prospect Dalton Varsho and veteran first baseman Brandon Belt. They join a core that includes 25-and-under All-Stars Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Alejandro Kirk, as well as slugger George Springer and Gold Glove third baseman Matt Chapman.
Varsho and free-agent signing Kevin Kiermaier should upgrade Toronto's porous outfield defense, super utility Whit Merrifield provides valuable depth, and right-hander Chris Bassitt arrives to fortify a rotation fronted by All-Stars Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman.
The Jays have positioned themselves to challenge the Yankees for first place and aren't a realistic target of the Red Sox. But the Orioles and Rays are a different story, and if you're looking for a road to the playoffs, you'll want to hop on 95 in Boston and see how far south you get.