Sports

NICK CAFARDO | SUNDAY BASEBALL NOTES

What has changed in the AL East?

With spring training winding down, we check in with all five teams.

If the Red Sox come together and the younger players carry the day, they might be the team to beat in the AL East.

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

If the Red Sox come together and the younger players carry the day, they might be the team to beat in the AL East.

With spring training nearly complete, we ask, “What has changed in the American League East?”

The Red Sox still leave you with questions about their future. That feeling is fueled by injuries to Eduardo Rodriguez and Carson Smith, the fact that Pablo Sandoval is still overweight and now injured (back), and the sentiment that Hanley Ramirez isn’t taking the move to first base seriously.

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“Let’s see how mature [Ramirez] is by May,” said one AL scout. “Let’s see how interested he is at first base after he strikes out with the bases loaded and has to field his position.”

MLB Network’s Mark DeRosa came away from Red Sox camp very impressed and feels they have fewer holes than most teams.

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The consensus among those who have watched the Red Sox regularly is, yes, they have question marks beyond David Price in the rotation, but if they come together and the younger players carry the day, they might be the team to beat.

We’ll see.

Rays manager Kevin Cash is making a convincing case for his team, saying the offense won’t be as bad as it’s being perceived. “Our lineup is longer now,” he said. “Last year, once we got through [the six-spot], we had some trouble. Because of the guys we’ve acquired, we’re able to go one through nine.

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“We’re going to hit for more power and I just think we have some really good hitters. Picking up a guy like Corey Dickerson, who will be in that DH spot, is really going to help our lineup, as is a guy like Brad Miller. We have Logan Morrison and Steve Pearce, who can play different positions. We think guys like [Kevin] Kiermaier will only get better. We have Desmond Jennings back for a full year. I just think we’re going to be able to score some runs and elongate that lineup. I just feel a lot better about what we can do offensively.”

Since taking over the Rays a year ago, Cash has bought into analytics and says they’ve influenced how he runs the game and the team. Cash, who’s not far removed from his playing days, said it took him most of last year to learn how to manage players and their very different needs. He feels he has a much better grasp of that now.

The Rays also have pitching guru Jim Hickey. Most baseball people are amazed that Hickey, in his 10th season with the Rays, has not been wooed elsewhere with a big-money deal, as the Marlins did with former Pirates pitching guru Jim Benedict.

Chris Archer is slated to the be Rays’ starter on Opening Day.

Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Chris Archer is slated to the be Rays’ starter on Opening Day.

The Rays have an exceptional young starting staff of Chris Archer, Matt Moore, Jake Odorizzi, Drew Smyly, and Erasmo Ramirez, all of whom appear fully healthy. Alex Cobb will be added to the mix by June/July after he recovers from Tommy John surgery. Blake Snell is a lefty prospect who will open at Triple A. The Rays lost closer Brad Boxberger for two months, so the bullpen is suspect to start the season.

The Rays are expecting big things from Smyly, who came from Detroit in the Price deal. Moore is a year removed from Tommy John surgery and has looked terrific.

Cash believes his pitching staff has a chance to be dominant.

“We’re all confident in what it could be,” Cash said. “We’re two weeks from Opening Day and we’re very optimistic, but we need to let our guys pitch and get their feet wet. Archer just had his best outing of the spring. Moore is throwing the ball well. Last year when Smyly was out there, we saw a glimpse of what he could be like if he stayed healthy. We know we have a very special starting pitcher on our hands.”

Cash acknowledged, “We know we’re going to have guys step up in the pen. This year we’re more mature in the rotation, but we’re a little more unknown in the pen, but we like our arms.”

The Rays’ infield defense is suspect up the middle; Miller, the new shortstop, has throwing issues, and second baseman Logan Forsythe doesn’t have great range.

Cash is high on catcher Curt Casali, 27, who hit 10 home runs in 101 at-bats in 2015. Rene Rivera and Hank Conger are battling it out for the No. 2 catcher spot, and it looks like Rivera will be the choice.

The Yankees’ spring training hasn’t resulted in any drastic changes.

Brian Cashman built up the bullpen knowing he has a rotation of six-inning pitchers who get exposed the third time around in the lineup.

The Yankees have no better understanding of how good or healthy Masahiro Tanaka will be, or how deep he can go. What they do know is Luis Severino should be a special starter, and perhaps their future No. 1. They have no more of an idea whether Michael Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi can be steady, mid-rotation starters. All of which sets up New York’s three-headed bullpen monster of Aroldis Chapman (when he returns from his 30-game suspension), Andrew Miller, and Dellin Betances.

Alex Rodriguez is batting .300 this spring.

Steve Nesius/Associated Press

Alex Rodriguez is batting .300 this spring.

The Yankee lineup has no surprises either. Jacoby Ellsbury is already dealing with an injury. Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius should be a very good double-play combo up the middle. Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Carlos Beltran still have enough power to make a difference. Brian McCann should be a force offensively and continue to handle the pitching staff so well. The Yankees are solid if they stay healthy and don’t age before our eyes.

The Orioles, as one scout put it, “are going to be an adventure.” Their outfield defense with Mark Trumbo and Hyun Soo Kim could be unsightly, but “they will bash,” said the scout. “There won’t be a lot of hit and runs, but they will hit.

“Their starting rotation is pretty unimpressive, and while they have a very good bullpen, they could use another lefty other than [Zach] Britton.”

Spring training did provide the Orioles some answers. The starting rotation is a problem. On the positive side, perennial prospect Dylan Bundy, out of minor league options, has had an impressive camp and should be a key bullpen piece. Rule 5 outfielder Joey Rickard will stick as the extra outfielder and provide late-inning defense. Trumbo has hit well and played right field better than expected. Kim is worse than expected in left.

The Blue Jays’ starting pitching lacks depth, though the consensus is Marcus Stroman can be the ace if he remains healthy. The Jays are figuring out what to do with Aaron Sanchez, who has pitched lights-out and should win the No. 5 job.

Spring training did not yield new contracts for impending free agents Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, which means both have incentive to have monster seasons to maximize their future earnings.

The Jays’ starting rotation of Stroman, R.A. Dickey, J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada, and Sanchez must prove itself. But that was also the case six weeks ago.

Apropos of nothing

Will MIddlebrooks, reflected in these sunglasses, is batting .184 this spring.

Morry Gash/Associated Press

Will Middlebrooks, reflected in these sunglasses, is batting .184 this spring.

1. The Brewers’ third base competition isn’t going all that well. Veteran Aaron Hill is hitting .150. Former Red Sox Will Middlebrooks is hitting .184, and another former Sox, Garin Cecchini, is hitting .200.

2. While it was my responsibility at the time to write about the late Arthur Pappas’s conflict of being team doctor as well as limited partner of the Red Sox, he was a man who never compromised those principles. He served Red Sox players well for many, many years.

3. When you saw the Marlins’ Perry Hill and the Red Sox’ Brian Butterfield together on the field the other day in Jupiter, Fla., you saw the two best infield coaches in the business.

4. Since I picked Texas as my sleeper team, I’ve heard from a number of people who like the Rangers to go all the way. Not so much a sleeper anymore.

5. Ruben Amaro Jr. may be pioneering a new career as a coach and likely a manager down the road, but as the Phillies’ GM, he left that organization in tremendous shape. Amaro made great deals for young players at the end of his tenure, including quite a haul from Texas for Cole Hamels.

6. The Red Sox are way more concerned with Pablo Sandoval than they are with Hanley Ramirez. The Sox’ best bet to get Travis Shaw consistent playing time is to use him in left. Having Sandoval be unseated by Shaw at third and sit on the bench would not be a good thing. A few veteran players on the team want Sandoval to keep the job.

7. Not sure why Alex Rodriguez announcing he might be done after 2017 is such a big story. He’ll be 42 and at the end of his contract. The only caveat would be if he’s within reach of Barry Bonds’s home run record — he’s 75 behind.

8. Scouts lament that the toughest thing to find is catching. There are some decent catch-and-throw guys, but those who also hit (hello, Blake Swihart) are rare.

9. The Red Sox are worth $2.3 billion, according to Forbes, behind the Dodgers at $2.5 billion and the Yankees at $3.4 billion. Franchise values rose by an average of 7 percent from 2015 because of better-than-anticipated national broadcast deals. The Giants ($2.25 billion) and Cubs ($2.2 billion) round out the top five. The World Series champion Royals were 25th at $865 million.

Updates on nine

1. Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals — He’s shaping up as a favorite to win the National League Cy Young this year. He’s in his walk year, throwing as well as he ever has, and seems to have put everything together. One other interesting aspect to Strasburg’s potential boom season is pitching with Max Scherzer. Not only is Scherzer a perennial Cy Young candidate himself, as one AL executive said, “He makes the people around him better. Look at Rick Porcello and how he benefited from having Scherzer around him compared to being away from him in Boston. Scherzer is like a second pitching coach. He’s able to detect flaws in delivery or a slight mechanical thing. He also kept Porcello’s mind sharp, as the two were always talking about pitching and how to pitch to hitters.”

2. Nick Ahmed, SS, Diamondbacks — The East Longmeadow native is doing exactly what the Diamondbacks wanted to see in spring training. Ahmed is hitting .412 with a home run and 11 RBIs. Ahmed’s defense has never been in question, and now his offense is catching up. Ahmed hit .226 last season and was the subject of trade rumors this winter. Fellow shortstops Jean Segura and Chris Owings also have had good camps, and Tony La Russa, Arizona’s chief baseball officer, expects all three to rotate. “Nick has done a great job with the bat. He hit over .300 in Triple A [in 2014] and we knew he could hit, and in spring training he’s hit the ball well. We have a lot of great competition and right now we just don’t know how it’s going to go,” La Russa said.

3. James Loney, 1B, Rays — Can the Rays get someone to take Loney? With Adam LaRoche retiring, the White Sox have LaRoche’s $13 million salary to play with and Loney makes $9.67 million. It would seem like a decent fit, but the White Sox are carefully going through their options; Loney, Allen Craig, Ryan Howard (with relief from Philadelphia), and Carlos Quentin all make sense.

4. Tony La Russa, chief baseball officer, Diamondbacks — La Russa knows enough to not put too much stock in spring training records, but the Diamondbacks have had a strong showing. According to La Russa, “Zack [Grienke] has been tremendous for us and his presence I think is going to create a good atmosphere for our other starters.” La Russa thinks righthander Rubby De La Rosa “can get to the next level this year.”

5. Jon Lester, LHP, Cubs — The fact he has a chip in his elbow seems to be an issue that he didn’t have with the Red Sox. Lester has been able to pitch with it and intends to keep doing so. This could, however, become a problem. Lester has also had trouble throwing to the bases for many years and that hasn’t seemed to get better.

6. James Shields, RHP, Padres — Jon Heyman’s report of the Orioles and Red Sox inquiring about Shields was supported by a major league source. Shields makes the most sense for the Orioles, who are desperate to upgrade their staff. The Red Sox have the prospect depth to offer. Shields is battle tested in the AL East.

7. Jonathan Lucroy, C, Brewers — There’s still interest in Lucroy but the rebuilding Brewers might hold onto him until the trade deadline. They’ve been holding out for a decent package of prospects, and the Rangers and Nationals have shown interest. Lucroy remains one of Milwaukee’s top remaining assets.

8. Jason Grilli, RHP, Braves — Grilli has quickly become a trade subject. He has come back fast from Achilles’ surgery and is already throwing 93 miles per hour. With Carson Smith down, Grilli actually makes some sense for the Red Sox, and John Farrell has always been a big fan of the former All-Star. The Rays, Mariners, and Twins are looking for relief help.

9. Nick Swisher, 1B/OF, Braves — What will the Braves do with Swisher? He’s owed $15 million and doesn’t have a set role. Given his balky knees he’s best suited to be a DH, but AL teams haven’t shown much interest. The Braves would have to eat money regardless of whether they release him or trade him.

Extra innings

As the story goes: When Jeffrey Loria owned the Expos, he was obsessed with Derek Jeter. So he ordered his general manager, Jim Beattie, to try to make a deal with the Yankees and to give up whatever he had to. Beattie offered Yankees GM Brian Cashman Vladimir Guerrero and Pedro Martinez. Stunned, Cashman told Beattie, “I can’t trade Derek Jeter.” . . . Wish Ryan Kalish (28) and Mark Melancon (31) a happy birthday on Monday.

Royal challenge

No pressure, KC, but baseball is in the midst of its longest stretch without a repeat World Series champion since the event began in 1903. It’s been 15 seasons and counting since the Yankees won the last of three straight in 2000. The feat has been accomplished 14 times, with the previous longest stretch going for 14 years — spanning the 1977-78 Yankees and the 1992-93 Blue Jays. The multiple winners, and how close they came to continuing the run:

Compiled by Richard McSweeney

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.
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