Take a look at the American League East right now, and you’ll see it has a fairly typical collection of star power. The Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays have most of it after their winter shopping sprees, but the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles each have their share.

But then you might also notice that the AL East’s collective star power seems to be missing something. In turn, you might begin to wonder if the division is going to produce a legit World Series threat in 2015.

Getting to the point: Is it a problem that the AL East could be lacking in established aces in 2015?

This shortage is a relatively recent development. In Jon Lester, Masahiro Tanaka and David Price, the AL East had three of the AL’s top 10 pitchers at the All-Star break by FanGraphs WAR in 2014. Though fWAR wasn’t convinced, Mark Buehrle had the AL’s fifth-best ERA at 2.64.

But that was then. This is now.

Courtesy of a July trade with the Detroit Tigers, Price is no longer a Tampa Bay Ray. That makes Alex Cobb their best starter. He may have a 2.82 ERA since the start of 2013, but that’s over only 309.2 innings.

Likewise, Lester is no longer with the Boston Red Sox after first being traded to the Oakland A’s and then signing with the Chicago Cubs. Boston’s top starter is now Rick Porcello, who was less than ace material even in a career year in 2014.

In Toronto, Buehrle regressed to post a 4.64 ERA after the break, which his peripherals said was bound to happen. In him and R.A. Dickey, the Blue Jays have two guys atop their rotation who are more innings-eaters than aces.

In New York, the torn UCL in Tanaka‘s right elbow means his outlook for 2015 has less to do with his talent and more to do with his health. With CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda also standing out as health risks, the injury bug could well keep the Yankees from enjoying an ace in 2015.

This just leaves the Baltimore Orioles, who have become infamous for their lack of an ace starter. They got by on a bunch of middle and back-end guys in 2014, and they are bringing all of them back for 2015.

So based strictly on appearances, there could indeed be a shortage of established No. 1s in the AL East in 2015. And while that shouldn’t be too big of a problem in the regular season, conventional wisdom says it could make whoever climbs out of the AL East easy pickings in the postseason.

When we take it for granted that having a legit No. 1 starter can go a long way in October, we’re thinking of the anecdotal evidence. Heck, look at what Madison Bumgarner just did. Before him, there was Lester in 2013, Chris Carpenter in 2011, Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum in 2010, Sabathia in 2009, Cole Hamels in 2008, Josh Beckett in 2007 and so on down the line.

Now, the apparent value of a No. 1 starter in October wouldn’t be that concerning if the AL’s other divisions were also lacking in aces. But the AL Central has Price, Corey Kluber, Chris Sale and Phil Hughes, and the AL West has Felix Hernandez, Yu Darvish and (eventually) Garrett Richards.

Names like these make the AL East look overmatched in the ace department now. And later, the anecdotal evidence says that could doom the division’s representative (or representatives) in October.

So then, Mr. John and/or Jane Q. AL East Fan. Are you all good and worried yet? Based on how scary things look, you should be.

But here’s the good news: There’s often a big difference between appearance and reality, and this is a case where the latter isn’t as dire as the former.

One reason not to worry about the AL East’s shortage of established aces is that not all aces need be established. Seemingly ordinary pitchers have been known to become aces, you know.

As Red Sox manager John Farrell told Ian Browne of MLB.com“Every guy that evolved into a No. 1-type starting pitcher, they had opportunity, they had support around them and they performed their way into those roles.”

This is where there’s room for optimism. For though the AL East may have a shortage of established aces, it’s not short on potential aces.

Most notably, all Cobb needs to do to become Tampa Bay’s ace is handle a bigger workload. The Red Sox have the occasionally dominant Justin Masterson, who may be dominant again if he’s able to put his 2014 knee problems behind him. In Kevin Gausman, Nathan Eovaldi and Marcus Stroman, the Orioles, Yankees and Blue Jays each have one guy who at least has ace-level stuff.

But there’s an even bigger reason not to fret too much about the AL East’s shortage of established aces: When it comes to October, the anecdotal evidence for the value of a No. 1 starter is misleading.

Take it from Ben Lindbergh, who tackled the topic with Colin Wyers in 2012 at Baseball Prospectus and again with Russell Carleton at Grantland in 2014. The idea both times was to look for statistical support the notion that teams with No. 1s have an automatic edge in October, and both searches came up empty.

Here’s an excerpt from the Grantland article:

Russell examined the first three pitchers who started for each team in each series. He also looked at Game 1 starters only. No indicator of the quality of those starters (strikeout rate, walk rate, home run rate, ground ball rate, linear weights) proved to be a significant predictor of a team’s postseason success…

So what is a strong predictor of postseason success? It turns out the answer is regular-season records, meaning that, overall, “team quality does tend to win out.”

Yeah, I too was surprised to hear that. But once you remember how the 2014 Tigers and Washington Nationals and 2011 Philadelphia Phillies all failed to make it past the first round and how the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz Atlanta Braves only won one World Series, you realize there is something to the notion that great starting pitching alone doesn’t guarantee October glory.

So regarding the AL East’s potential to produce serious World Series contenders in 2015, the real question is if the division is going to produce any teams that are just plain good. And to this end, FanGraphs likes its chances:

The Orioles being out of the picture isn’t surprising, as they’ll be hard-pressed to overcome the losses of Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis and Andrew Miller. But even with them absent, the AL East is still projected to have four of the AL’s top eight teams in 2015.

Granted, only the Red Sox are projected to be elite. But the Blue Jays, Rays and Yankees project to at least be good enough for the wild-card hunt, and the Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants just showed that being good enough for the wild-card hunt can mean being good enough for the World Series.

This is not to say we have to take the projections’ word for it. They hinge on players living up to expectations, and these expectations can be flimsy.

For example, FanGraphs‘ projections expect healthy and productive versions of Tanaka and Sabathia to lead the Yankees’ starting rotation. If they’re undone by health woes, the Yankees will be in trouble.

As for the Rays, FanGraphs projects them to finish seventh in position player WAR in 2015. They were 14th in position player WAR in 2014 and Wil Myers is gone now, so that’s a bit hard to believe.

But even if you move the Yankees and Rays from the “definite contenders” to the “maybe contenders” pile, it’s harder to do the same with the Red Sox and Blue Jays.

One thing both the Red Sox and Blue Jays should do in 2015 is hit. With Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez joining a lineup that already included David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Mike Napoli, the Red Sox have a lethal offense. With Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin joining a lineup that already included Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Reyes, the Blue Jays’ offense is arguably even more lethal.

This wouldn’t matter if neither team figured to pitch well in 2015, but both should. Though the Blue Jays have a shaky bullpen and the Red Sox’s pitching staff is more about depth than quality, FanGraphs sees enough talent to project both to finish in the top half of MLB in pitching WAR.

When we started, appearances suggested that the AL East’s shortage of established aces would be a problem for the division’s would-be World Series contenders in 2015. But it looks like less of a problem knowing that the division isn’t short on potential aces, and even less of a problem knowing that the anecdotal evidence for the value of elite starting pitching in October doesn’t hold much water.

Really, the teams with the best hope of winning in October are the good all-around teams. The AL East has two of those at worst, and four of those at best. That’s about as good as gets for any division.

That’s the best way to look at the AL East. It’s not as well-stocked with established aces as it was even as recently as the first half of 2014, but that’s a black mark that looks worse than it should hurt.


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.  

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