In 2023, the American League East was arguably the most brutal division in baseball history.
The Orioles, Rays, Blue Jays, Yankees, and Red Sox combined for a 449-361 record, a whopping .554 winning percentage. Outside of the division, the AL East teams had a 189-101 mark, a mind-blowing .652 winning percentage that would translate to a 106-56 record over a full season.
The bar for success among AL East teams was historically high in 2023 — and somehow seems like it might get higher in 2024. The Red Sox’ uphill path from their last-place finish last season to a position of contention appears to be getting steeper.
One day after the Yankees acquired outfielder Alex Verdugo from the Red Sox in exchange for three pitchers on Tuesday night, the Yankees completed a deal with the Padres to bring Juan Soto — a free agent after the 2024 season — to the Bronx as the centerpiece of a seven-player deal.
The headliner going to San Diego is 28-year-old righthander Michael King, who grew up in Rhode Island and pitched at Bishop Hendricken and Boston College, and has developed from a 12th-round pick in 2016 into a starter.
Soto is one of the best hitters through his early 20s in major league history. The Yankees’ lineup, which was thin in 2023 — particularly when Aaron Judge was out — suddenly looks imposing.
On Wednesday morning, with the Verdugo trade complete and rumors of the Soto deal percolating, Triston Casas was volunteering alongside lefthanders Brennan Bernardino, Chris Murphy, and Brandon Walter at the Greater Boston Food Bank to support the charity’s mission of eliminating hunger. He took a break to take stock of the Yankees’ lineup.
“[Adding Soto and Verdugo] would definitely play to their advantage, especially in their stadium, to have as many lefthanded bats as possible, especially splitting up Gleyber [Torres] and Aaron Judge [in the lineup],” Casas said.
“Hopefully they don’t get that combo, because Dugie and Soto might combine for 60 homers, with Soto hitting 59 of them,” Casas joked. “[Soto and Verdugo] are both really scrappy in their own right in terms of grinding out at-bats, being very selective, getting on base, and setting the table. It’d be a force to be reckoned with, so hopefully they only [get] one.”
Hours later, the deal for Soto had been completed. And it’s possible that Soto isn’t even the most significant player who will come to the division this winter.
“Hearing about [Shohei] Ohtani and the Blue Jays, that would be crazy, too,” said Casas, a nod to Toronto’s pursuit of the two-way superstar.
As the Sox’ competitors fortify, it’s worth asking what will be required for Boston to contend.
When MLB expanded the playoffs to a 12-team field in 2022, there had been a sense that a win total in the mid-80s would position a team to make a run at a postseason spot. That was the case in 2022, when the Rays (86 wins) and Phillies (87) made the playoffs, and in 2023 (Diamondbacks, 84).
But in the American League last year, the last wild-card spot went to the Jays, who won 89 games; the 88-74 Mariners missed the postseason. If the bar is raised even further by the moves of the Yankees, Blue Jays, and others, the Sox will face an even more daunting path to reassert themselves as contenders.
It’s still early in the offseason, with the baseball world still slowed by the unsettled fates of Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto. Still, with the Yankees having jumped the division in their effort to upgrade, the Sox’ roster still has shortcomings.
The club has yet to address its needs in the starting rotation or at second base. Meanwhile, some of the Sox’ more valuable contributors in 2023 — Justin Turner, Adam Duvall, James Paxton, and Verdugo, to name a few — are gone.
The Red Sox have made trades to solidify their middle-innings arms, acquiring reliever Greg Weissert from the Yankees in the Verdugo trade, Justin Slaten from the Mets moments after he’d been taken from the Rangers in the Rule 5 draft, and adding Isaiah Campbell from the Mariners in exchange for Luis Urías.
Plenty of time remains to improve, and plenty of players who would represent upgrades remain available. But clearly, for the Sox, there’s more to be done — and the standard for improving to compete in a loaded division is only getting more formidable.