With football season behind us, it’s time to turn our attention to baseball. As players report for Spring Training, I’ll tell you who to keep an eye on in each division. Let’s take a look at the American league East, perhaps the most dominant division in baseball. An MLB high (and maximum) 3 teams made the postseason last year from this division, and a representative from the AL East has gone on to the ALCS every year since the Wild Card round was introduced in 2012. The Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Orioles look to make it back to the postseason and contend for a World Series title, while the Yankees and Rays will try to unseat their rivals and make a run of their own.
Tampa Bay Rays (2016: 68-94, 5th Place)
Lineup: The Rays have one of the youngest rosters in baseball, and it’s full of power. Anchored by longtime 3rd baseman Evan Longoria, the budding stars will look to the veteran for leadership. Outfielders Colby Rasmus, Kevin Kiermaier, and Steven Souza can take anybody deep and should all surpass 15 home runs in 2017, assuming they stay healthy. However, while not known for his glove, DH Corey Dickerson can play the field in a pinch. The most intriguing roster move was a mutually beneficial trade with the San Fransisco Giants at the end of 2016 in which the Rays sent pitcher Matt Moore in exchange for a sure-handed shortstop in Matt Duffy. Duffy is sure to be a solid contributor at the bottom of the lineup who can get on base and provide a little speed. With an overwhelming amount of power and youth, complimented by some contact hitting, the Rays have a bright future in the coming years after they gain some experience in the Majors for their prospects.
Pitching: The Rays’ pitching staff is led by one of the leagues best… Chris Archer. While his numbers dipped in 2016, he looks to bounce back this year. Given some run support, Archer can be a dominant force that contends for the Cy Young Award. Behind him it gets a little questionable. Jake Odorozzi, Alex Cobb, and Blake Snell have shown flashes of brilliance, but more often than not they are average pitchers that go 6 innings and give up 3 or 4 runs per game. Matt Andriese rounds out the rotation as an unproven starter. He’ll look to make his mark this year as he was primarily used in the bullpen in 2015 and 2016. If he continues to play at a high clip with the extra work load, it can really boost this pitching staff. Despite these shortcomings, if the starters can keep the game close into the 7th and 8th innings, Shawn Tolleson, Brad Boxberger, and Alex Colome have shutdown mentality. Well in their 20s, the young arms have plenty of fire to perform. The problem will be trying to keep their emotions in check during close games and not allowing small errors like walks and singles affect their approach.
2017 Goals: Tampa Bay’s main goal should be to get playing time for its youth. It’s clear that they have invested in their future, and it’s years like these in which they need to remind themselves of the long-term expectations. No matter how things go this year, I don’t expect any drastic changes to the lineup or any big acquisitions. The Rays have talent, but in 2017, all they need to do is surpass what they did in 2016 as they look ahead.
My Expectations: I fully expect the Rays to win more than 68 games. They will continue to move forward and stay the course. GM Matt Silverman is a young executive who will learn with his team. It’s reasonable to expect Tampa Bay to continue to rebuild over the coming years before expectations of the postseason become more realistic. It’s also important to remember that they are a part of the most competitive division in the MLB, and it won’t be easy to make their way to the top. So for now, they should be content with simply improving from years past and preparing for the future.
New York Yankees (2016: 84-78, 4th Place)
Lineup: The Yankees have only missed the postseason 3 times since 1995. While that’s impressive, all three times were in the past 4 years. The greatest franchise in baseball history knew it was time to make some changes. At the trade deadline and throughout the offseason, the Yankees revamped their lineup. Already with the best farm system in the league, additions of 6 top prospects, including Clint Frazier, Gleyber Torres, and Justus Sheffield, will make the Yankees a force in the next few years. As for 2017, the major league roster will not differ much from 2016. A veteran outfield with Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury look to contribute at the top of the batting order with their speed and allow the powerful infielders to accumulate RBIs. Star middle-infielders Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorious have a perfect balance of power and quickness, and will continue to contend for Gold Gloves on defense. Meanwhile, Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge look to build off explosive breakout performances last year. New York brings a little bit of everything to their organization in 2017. The question will be, can the extraordinary balance (while young) translate to wins? Or will the Yankees have to ride out another not-quite-good-enough year?
Pitching: New York’s pitching is among the most talented in baseball. An inspired rotation is anchored by a lockdown bullpen. Starters Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, and Luis Severino are the clear standouts. With a few years under their belts, together they can improve upon the already-impressive ERAs they posted last season. Best of all, by reacquiring the league’s best closer, Aroldis Chapman, the bullpen is nearly unstoppable. Tyler Clippard is a cool-headed veteran and Dellin Betances is a perfect set up man, pitching more innings than any reliever in the past 3 years. If the Yankees have the lead late, it’ll be lights out after the 7th inning stretch. Any team should fear this pitching staff. More balance of youth and leadership is sure to lead to success far beyond 2017. Trouble will come if the teams that New York frequently plays get accustomed to the staff’s pitching style. When they play their divisional rivals 18 times in a season, it’s easy for opposing hitters to catch on to the Yankees’ repertoire.
2017 Goals: The Yankees always want to make the playoffs. That’s why it was so surprising when they were sellers at the trade deadline in 2016. Surprisingly, they still continued to pull out wins and finished above .500, narrowly missing the postseason despite trading away the best parts of their bullpen for prospects. GM Brian Cashman appears to be a genius for not only acquiring these future All-stars, but remaining competitive right now. New York wants to kick-start the new era of the Yankees with a playoff appearance followed by the assumed, repeated success of the brand.
My Expectations: It’s fair to expect these goals will come to fruition. Constantly containing the highest payroll in the MLB, the Yankees are the epitome of MLB prowess. While New York has “suffered” through a couple down years, I believe the dominance of the 1990s and 2000s will return sooner rather than later. However, just how soon is yet to be seen. The balance of Yankee talent is almost incomprehensible. Following this business model, it seems Cashman’s Yankees can accomplish anything they set out to do. As for making the playoffs this year, I believe New York is missing a true star to hang their hats on. With so much balance, there is no true player to depend on. Unless they can make one more blockbuster deal at the trade deadline in July, I believe they could fall just short of the postseason in 2017. Normally I don’t recommend too many lineup changes, but Cashman has proven his brilliance in this field. Regardless, make no mistake, they will be a force to be reckoned with in October come 2018.
Toronto Blue Jays (2016: 89-73 T-2nd Place)
Lineup: Toronto has the oldest team in the MLB averaging 28.6 years per player. But with age comes valuable experience. The Jays were locked in a season-long battle with the Orioles for a playoff spot, and in the end they tied. After outlasting them in the Wild Card round, the Blue Jays made it to the ALCS before being ousted by the Cleveland Indians. That same team returns for 2017… except for one person. Cleanup man Edwin Encarnacion was not re-signed, and instead Toronto picked up former Kansas City Royal Kendrys Morales. While a downgrade, it saves the Blue Jays a huge chunk of change, and the disparity in talent is not that great. Morales may not have the firepower Encarnacion has, but he can hold his own in the middle of the lineup. Regardless, the Blue Jays had one of the best offenses in the league last year, and will continue to score in 2017. They are led by perennial MVP candidate Josh Donaldson and power-hitter Jose Bautista. Also, defensive stars Kevin Pillar and Troy Tulowitzki are sure to spark the Blue Jays as they try to make it back to the playoffs and avenge their exit in the Conference Championship.
Pitching: One of the more intriguing storylines last year was how the entire Toronto pitching staff appeared to hit their stride all at once. Without a firm ace, all 5 starters had to step up and pitch valuable innings. J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez even finished in the top 10 in Cy Young voting last year. Together, the Blue Jays’ 3.78 ERA was best in the American League. I’m truly blown-away by that fact as none of the starters are household names. You’d be hard-pressed to find people outside of Canada that are familiar with the talent of Happ and Sanchez, not to mention other starters of equal value, Marco Estrada and Marcus Stroman. These men will hope to continue to defy explanation as they go for the divisional title in 2017. The issue will be the lack of support from the bullpen. Apart from Roberto Osuna pitching the 9th, the Jays don’t have anyone to rely on. The starting rotation will have a lot of pressure to avoid slumping and getting the ball to their trusted closer.
2017 Goals: The Blue Jays will tell you their goal is to get back to the ALCS and go on to win the World Series. Realistically, I don’t think they’ll be the same team they were last year. While they have a dominant offense and an inexplicably good pitching staff, I’m not convinced they can win like they did in 2016. I think the Jays should be content at setting their goals a little lower; I’d be impressed if they even made the playoffs.
My Expectations: I know I’m contradicting myself, and here’s why. I was a believer in Toronto last season. They had a stacked lineup from top to bottom, and no matter how many runs the pitchers gave up, they were still dangerous at the plate. In 2017, while still dangerous, losing their key #4 hitter, Encarnacion, for Morales is a step down. That said, it was a smart decision to let Encarnacion walk as a free agent because the Jays couldn’t afford his asking price. Morales is a great value, but he just isn’t the same caliber as their former cleanup man. Also, last year the pitching was great, but in the end the perfect storm only resulted in a Wild Card berth. With my expectation of a couple pitchers to slump (or at least not perform at the level they did last season) I would be prepared for Toronto to take a small step back rather than forward. But hey, they’ve surprised us before.
Baltimore Orioles (2016: 89-73 T-2nd Place)
Lineup: The key to the Orioles’ success in recent years has been their dominance at the plate. They play a similar game to the Blue Jays, and it’s fitting they tied at the end of 2016. Both teams can threaten double-digit runs any day, but Baltimore fails to secure large margins of victory due to inconsistent pitching. But who needs pitching when over half their starting lineup hits 25+ home runs each? Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis lead the team with a combined 145 home runs over the past two seasons. Along with that astronomical number, Manny Machado and Adam Jones are no slouches at the plate either. Regulars at the All Star Game, their ability to routinely get on base helps boost the Orioles’ .443 slugging percentage to 2nd best in the AL. With the variety of skill sets all over the lineup, opposing pitchers don’t relish the chance to play Baltimore.
Pitching: As for pitching, the Orioles are firmly subpar. Ranking in the bottom half of the league in ERA, strikeouts, and BAA, Baltimore struggles to find strong pitchers to turn to. Kevin Gausman and Chris Tillman are the best of their starters while Dylan Bundy is trying to learn the ropes. Ubaldo Jimenez is an interesting case, as he was dominate when he was with the Colorado Rockies and Cleveland Indians for most of his career. However, since moving to pitch in Maryland, his numbers have taken a turn for the worse. His ERA has never fallen below 4.11 and he continues to be burned by the long ball. In fact, most of the Orioles struggle to avoid giving up home runs, surrendering at least 1 per game. While lacking in starting pitching, veteran manager Buck Showalter has one of the most experienced bullpens in the MLB. As evidenced by their playoff appearance last year, it’s clear they can go deep into extra innings and bail out poor starts. Also, closer Zach Britton is a huge weapon as he has only blown 8 saves in his entire career… not to mention he has been near the top of the leaderboard in total saves since becoming the closer in 2014. With this unbelievable save percentage, if the Orioles provide him the lead… it’s game over.
2017 Goals: The Orioles plan on making the playoffs and extending their run. Last year, Showalter’s questionable decision to keep Britton on the bench late in the Wild Card game may have cost his team their season in heartbreaking fashion. Re-signing their stars and effectively replacing long-time catcher Matt Weiters with Wellington Castillo this offseason gives Baltimore a good chance to avenge that lost opportunity. With a breakout pitching performance or timely trade to improve that weakness, the Orioles definitely have a chance to reach the ALDS for just the third time since 1997.
My Expectations: As one-sided as the Orioles were last season with astounding offense and ugly pitching, they still cranked out almost 90 wins. Hoping that the starting pitching can provide some more support for their bullpen, a playoff berth is attainable. Showalter is one of the best and most well-liked managers in the league; if anyone can continue to inspire the team… it’s him. Knowing that the Orioles want to return a winning culture to their organization, I expect them to make changes to their roster if things start to go south. The front office has been traditional and tentative to make moves in the past, but come the trade deadline in July, they should be ready to seek a huge deal to put the Orioles in World Series contention.
Boston Red Sox (2016: 93-69, 1st Place)
Lineup: The Red Sox are a force with the bat, leading the league in batting average, runs, hits, RBIs, slugging percentage, and OBP among others. Phew. How is it possible that Boston can be first in the MLB in nearly every batting category? Answer: A diverse young lineup that is stacked with talent, leadership, and they always have fun and love to play together as a team. MVP finalist Mookie Betts is accompanied by a contact machine in Jackie Bradley Jr. and rookie Andrew Benintendi in the outfield. Two proven All-star talents look to have an even bigger impact this year if it’s possible, and Benintendi is sure to make his mark on the MLB and be a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year. In the infield, shortstop Xander Bogaerts can flash the leather with beloved teammate Dustin Pedroia and a much lighter Pablo Sandoval at third. Before addressing the only glaring weakness in this lineup, take a moment to remember these names. All but Sandoval could easily hit over .300, and each have an amazing combination of speed and power. It’s easy to picture two or three of these superstars capturing Gold Gloves by the season’s end. Now, the DH spot is missing one of the greatest Red Sox players in history. Slugger David Ortiz hung up the cleats after last season, and left huge shoes to fill. I’m sorry, but there is no way Mitch Moreland is up to the task. He’ll play first base and Hanley Ramirez will probably be the DH because of his poor fielding ability, but regardless, the team takes an undeniable loss without Ortiz’s age-defying prowess.
Pitching: As if the Red Sox couldn’t get any better, the reigning Cy Young winner is only the third best pitcher in the rotation. An excellent offseason trade with the White Sox sent a couple of A+ prospects to Chicago in exchange for Chris Sale. Sale is arguably one of the best players in the league, but was unable to accumulate wins due to the lack of support from his old team. Now in Boston, his blazing fastball and excellent command will barrel through the AL East. And let’s not forget about one the best lefties to ever play, David Price. He never disappoints during the regular season, but the playoffs have been an entirely different story. The Red Sox will have to overcome Price’s October woes if they want to get over the hump and get back to the World Series.
2017 Goals: Speaking of World Series, I don’t think the people of Boston will be satisfied with anything less than a championship. Following the Patriots’ Super Bowl title, New England fans would love to see their team capture another crown. It’s clear the management is putting their faith in its team, as they traded the best prospect in the league for Sale. This show of support and confidence by the front office can motivate the Red Sox to the top.
My Expectations: Despite the loss of Ortiz, the growing potential and talent from the rest of the roster is astounding. Besides the holes at first base and catcher, the Sox have 7 potential franchise players all on one team. Stacked with All-stars and good defense, combined with shutdown pitching, the only team that can truly beat the Red Sox is themselves. With so much leadership and hunger to return to the Fall Classic, Boston is a legitimate title contender.