I’ll start with some honesty. Just a couple of weeks ago, I had projected the American League East to look slightly different than today. The projections weren’t exactly earth-shattering, but it does go to show that just a few signings and trades can shift the balance, at least on paper. In the past two weeks, the teams that reside in the American League East have been busy, performing some minor renovations in the form of noteworthy additions.
Originally, and like many, I saw the rejuvenated New York Yankees claiming the division by a comfortable margin over the Red Sox, who up to that point, had done little to keep pace after the Yanks wrangled the National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton away from the poisonous Miami Marlins. However, one power bat later (J.D. Martinez) and Sox practically evened up the race. The Blue Jays had added some formidable depth, to which and I pegged them for a slight turnaround (despite the Josh Donaldson mini-saga). At the bottom, the Orioles (who had done nothing to address their rotation woes) and Rays (who overachieved last season) would be jockeying for last place.
How about now?
Only a few transactions later, and things are shaping up a little differently than the outline in the paragraph above.
As mentioned, the Red Sox FINALLY got around to realizing Martinez’s value and inked him to a 5-year, $110 million dollar deal. All he did last season was post a ridiculous line of .303, 45 HR, 104 RBI, 1.066 OPS in only 119 games, while playing between both the American League and National League. As that translates to a 4.1 WAR, it’s reasonable to assume that he’ll make up that differential in a division that will essentially boil down to the two free-spending power players.
While the Blue Jays stayed relatively quiet in the past couple of weeks, the Orioles and Rays both made moves that are sure to shape their paths to complete opposite directions. The O’s addressed the skepticism of their starting rotation by signing Andrew Cashner and bringing back Chris Tillman on a friendly one-year deal. The experience of that duo certainly appears more favorable on paper than that of the potential instability of the trio they had lined up. With their lineup still largely intact, I have no reason to think they won’t slug their way to an improved win total in 2018.
Oh, the Rays. This group just sold off parts like they’re about to leave town (which, they should). In December, they traded longtime alum Evan Longoria to San Francisco. They let both Alex Cobb (15 wins) and Logan Morrison (38 home runs) walk out the door. Last week, they dealt Jake Odorizzi to Minnesota and Steven Souza Jr. (30 home runs) to Arizona and replaced him with 32-year old Carlos Gomez. Next? Corey Dickerson, whose .282 average led the team, was banished off Pittsburgh for pennies on the dollar. I mean, it’s remarkable how closely the Rays are following the blueprint to become the Marlins of the AL. I mean, Just apply for relocation already! With this uninspired franchise’s transition “organizational suicide” over the past few weeks, it will be surprising to see them claw to win even 65 games in 2018. Sorry folks, but C.J. Cron (acquired this past week) isn’t exactly here to save your team.
Here are my Projected Standings (including each team’s win differential from the 2017 season) for the American League East division:
|2. Red Sox||94-68||+1|
|3. Blue Jays||84-78||+8|
1. New York Yankees
Although they finished two games short wining the division last season, the New York Yankees enjoyed a small coming out party, winning 91 games (their most since 2012) and ultimately losing 4-3 in the ALCS to the eventual World Series Champion Houston Astros. To support the ongoing cause, all Brian Cashman did was invite Stanton and his 59 bombs into the cozy confines of Yankees Stadium, a true “hitters” park, where he could threaten 60-70 home runs with that kind of potent lineup protection (and one that already boasts the league’s second leading home run hitter in Aaron Judge). On the flip side, baseball history tells us that with power, comes strikeouts. Tons of them. Is it possible the Yankees have too much power? I mean, is that question even irrational?
Here’s the thing though. The Yankees aren’t just a power team. The bullpen, led by Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances and David Robertson at the back end, is still one of the best in the business. The rotation, featuring Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Severino and a full season from Sonny Gray, combined with the eternal optimism that 37-year old C.C. Sabathia has a final push in him, is ultimately in good enough shape to compete instantly. They were actually pretty formidable last year. And if the arms aren’t up to snuff or get completely ravaged by injuries, we all know that New York Yankees wield one of the biggest sticks at the trade deadline, if necessary. Cashman and his guys in the front office won’t let their plans get derailed this season.
With the power aside, the lineup is also plenty deep with Gary Sanchez, Didi Gregorius, Brett Gardner, Greg Bird, Aaron Hicks and the ghost of Jacoby Ellsbury, should he appear during the season. On top of that, if the team gets anything significant in ’18 from highly touted prospects Ronald Torreyes (2B), Miguel Andujar (3B) and Clint Frazier (OF), it would seem to be gravy. Two of them are expected to be named starters out of Spring Training, so they’ll get plenty of opportunity to perform while embedded in a powerful everyday lineup. The order is so deep, they even allowed Russell Wilson come
annoy hang out with the guys.
The bottom line is that The Bronx Bombers took a major step forward in 2017, acquired the NL MVP in the offseason and set themselves up to rule the American League East once again, with the Red Sox as their only realistic barrier to climbing that mountain. All signs point to new manager Aaron Boone enjoying his large inheritance.
2. Boston Red Sox
Because of the Yankees unexpected degree of success, it doesn’t quite feel like the Red Sox actually captured the division crown last year. I mean, their pitching was excellent, but their hitting was sub-par in comparison to typical “Sox” standards and their work in the field left a lot to be desired. Yet, they managed a 93-win campaign and lost in the ALDS for the second year in a row.
Fast forward to 2018 and they’ll be fielding virtually the same roster as a season ago, with the exception of… J.D. Martinez. Even with plenty of pop, rookie manager Alex Cora has to be hoping for bounce back seasons from a couple of their regulars in Jackie Bradley Jr. and Hanley Ramirez, who both had down seasons. He could also use some good health for Dustin Pedroia, who isn’t exactly aging gracefully. On the plus side, Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers look completely legit, and are now fused as mainstays in the starting order. Overall, don’t expect a carbon copy of 2017’s mediocre offensive numbers, as this team is still groomed to score runs at a ferocious pace. The only thing missing might be this guy.
Over on the pitching side, I’ll smack you with some mind-boggling bordering on disturbing, David Price “expense” math. Read at your own risk:
2017 salary: $30 million
Cost per start made (11): $2.72 million
Cost per inning pitched (74): $401,768
Cost per pitch thrown (1253): $23,943
You get the idea. David Price makes a ludicrous amount of money. And for the Red Sox to avoid regretting this albatross of a contract almost immediately, Price needs to stay on that hill. It’s not that the ’17 staff wasn’t fine without him for two thirds of the season, but what a disastrous chunk of the payroll that could turn out to be. Of course, some of us knew that at the time he signed the dotted line.
Chris Sale will lead the way, followed by Price, Rick Porcello, Drew Pomeranz and likely knuckleballer Steven Wright. Eduardo Rodriguez, who got plenty of work last season, will lurk as a viable injury replacement or occasional spot starter. The Sox pen might once again collectively feature the hardest throwing unit in the league. As a bunch of flamethrowers, between Craig Kimbrel, Heath Hembree, Matt Barnes and Joe Kelly, they average about 95 mph on their fastballs, with Kimbrel and Kelly able to reach triple digits on the regular. The latter innings will again be a strength for the team.
It’s fully expected that the Red Sox will trade haymakers with the Yankees the entire length of the season while contending for the division title. It will not be surprise to anyone (yes, even outside of Boston) to see the Red Sox repeat as AL East champs.
3. Toronto Blue Jays
There’s no question, that after two straight playoff appearances (which preceded going 21 years without one), the Blue Jays were largely a disappointment last season, ravaged with injuries and stumbling to a 76-86 record. With the focus of the new “Shapiro & Atkins” regime being place more on depth and injury insurance over landing a big name, none of their offseason moves jump off the page at you.
On the transaction front, I would be remiss not to acknowledge the one glaring omission in the lineup this season that’s been pivotal for nearly a decade. Jose Bautista, certainly one of the all-time Blue Jays, was finally let go by the team (his option was not picked up) after posting one of the most abysmal statistical baseball seasons in quite some time. Comprehensively, it was a phenomenal run for one of baseball’s great rags-to-riches stories, and one filled with drama and consistent big-number production season after season. Lest Blue Jays fandom forget the legend of Joey Bats.
Toronto did acquire Randall Grichuk from the Cardinals and signed Curtis Granderson (only slightly less aged than Jose) to fill in the outfield gaps. However, both guys fit the Jays unsuccessful “power or nothing” blueprint of recent years, which could prove to be a slight issue. Because of the injuries felt in the infield last season (with resulted in over 800 plate appearances between Darwin Barney and Ryan Goins), the team also brought in depth in the form of Aledmys Diaz and Yangervis Solarte. If Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki and the exciting but frail Devon Travis go down again, the team is better prepared with quality utility infield guys.
After a couple of astonishing offensive seasons, the Jays sputtered last year, ranking in the bottom fifth of the league in most hitting categories (yet 10th in home runs). True to form, the team was either feast or famine, relying far too much on the home run ball and too leaving too many runners on base. Their inability to manufacture runs was the ultimate downfall (again). Unfortunately, the outlook for 2018 doesn’t appear to be much different, as the team still lacks speed and solid contact hitting, at least until their much-hyped crew of prospects arrive on the scene. Donaldson is the straw that stirs the Jays offensive drink, so as long as he plays 95% of the season, he’ll resume his perennial MVP candidate status (and he’s in a contract season). Justin Smoak’s All-Star year (.270, 85 R, 38 HR, 90 RBI) was one of the more pleasant surprises in the entire league. Tulowitzki and Russell Martin are clearly now on the downside of their careers, but IF they stay healthy, they might be able to produce something other than just “leadership skills.” Kevin Pillar, though dynamic in center field on practically a nightly basis, is very limited offensively.
Pitching is where this team has a chance to go from “respectable” to “dangerous.” The staff that was arguably the best in the league in 2016, fell short in 2017, largely due to injuries to Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ and to a lesser degree, Marco Estrada, who pitched through nagging injuries all season. If Sanchez can get past his blister issues, Happ can return anywhere close to his 20-win form and Estrada rediscovers his nasty changeup (and apparently stops tipping his pitches), they’ll be able to hold their own again. The flashy Marcus Stroman, coming off a punishing arbitration loss (a combined $700K over two years), will serve as the staff anchor once again and claims he’s highly motivated by the outcome of his case (however, this newfound shoulder issue is a tad concerning). New addition and veteran lefty Jaime Garcia is expected to occupy the fifth spot in the rotation over Joe Biagini, who would then revert back to the bullpen, which is the team’s glaring weakness. Roberto Osuna should still be a dominant force in the 9th inning, despite blowing an un-Osuna-like 10 saves last season. Ryan Tepera was a pleasant surprise last year and the inking of Seung Hwan Oh could prove to be some great value (if the ’16 version shows up, rather than the ’17 version).
I would categorize the Blue Jays chances in 2018 as “hopeful.” On paper, they just don’t stack up against the Yankees or Red Sox within the division and are banking on several major pieces to be healthy and to compete as former versions of their peak selves. That recipe might keep them in contention for a wild card spot, but the division appears out of reach this year.
4. Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles had put together a mediocre season before the final month of the season, when the wheels came completely off to the tune of an 8-22 record over their final 30 games, ushering them to a last place finish in the AL East. Their starting pitching loomed as that ugly barrier to any sustained success over the season. Basically, the plan was to mash and try not to GET MASHED. It didn’t work.
So I will give the Orioles some credit, as they’ve recently attempted to address that big, hittable elephant in the room: The starting rotation. And while it’s possible that the arms they brought in (Cashner, Tillman) have seen their peak days, they could still provide some hope through experience and likely upgrades over what was in store. Tillman has already spent several seasons among some juggernauts in the AL East, and with a slight measure of success. The O’s hope he’ll leave last season’s 7.80 ERA somewhere back in Florida and find his way back to previous seasons. Cashner is a bit far removed from his breakout 2013 and 2014 seasons, but he can’t possibly be worse than what the team had on the hill last year. The team also added Colby Rasmus, who’ll get a shot in Spring Training to make the team as the final outfield starter or to provide some bench depth.
Speaking of depth, there isn’t much on this roster. Though, with good health on their side, the O’s powerful lineup will remain intact. The power quintuplet of Machado, Schoop, Jones, Davis and Trumbo will welcome a sixth member to the group in ’17 breakout guy Trey Mancini (.293, 24 HR, 78 RBI, .826 OPS), as he’ll now reside in the everyday lineup. One of the interesting stories to watch leading up to Opening Day is superstar Machado moving back to his natural position of shortstop. Depending on how that plays scenario plays out, Tim Beckham’s role in the starting lineup could be subject to change. The O’s should surpass their ranking of 16th in runs scored last season, particularly if they implement even a tiny portion of small ball into their offense, to compliment all of that raw power (ranked 5th in home runs).
Last season’s pitching breakdown displayed like two different teams. The bullpen was, and still is, excellent. Arguably the team’s biggest strength. The rotation is a work in progress. The performances of Ubaldo Jimenez, Wade Miley and Jeremy Hellickson last season left a lot to be desired. The two mainstays, Kevin Gausman (has shown flashes) and Bundy (was their best starting pitcher last year) will lead the rotation, followed now by some veterans. The door is wide open for one of Miguel Castro, Gabriel Ynoa or Mike Wright to nab the final spot. While Zach Britton is still the man (upon returning from injury), Brad Brach was very effective in his absence last year and will step in to close games to being the season. Mychal Givens, Darren O’Day and Donnie Hart are all reliable arms and somehow, Richard Bleier managed to post the bullpen’s best ERA (1.99) despite striking out only 26 batters in 63.1 innings. The O’s pen is just fine.
We know that the Orioles will have those high scoring games where they simply out-slug teams. That strategy will work some of the time. Whether their starting rotation holds up will be the true measurement of where in the wild card race they end up. They won’t contend for the division, but they could be one of the many teams that sneaks close to a wild card berth.
5. Tampa Bay Rays
WARNING: If you oppose tanking, turn away immediately. The Tampa Bay Rays have activated and are implementing “Operation Tankapalooza.” This Rays squad, the one that managed to pull out 80 wins last year, with a roster primarily full of unknowns, will look MUCH different going into the 2018 season. And I mean “different” in the negative sense of the word.
Here, check this out: This is a list of the Rays Top 10 players last season, according to their overall WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and the team they’ll be playing for to start the 2018 season:
Chris Archer (4.3): Rays*
Steven Souza Jr (3.7): Diamondbacks
Logan Morrison (3.3): Twins
Kevin Kiermaier (3.0): Rays*
Corey Dickerson (2.6): Pirates
Evan Longoria (2.5): Giants
Alex Cobb (2.4): Free Agent
Blake Snell (1.9): Rays*
Tim Beckham (1.6): Orioles
Colby Rasmus (1.1): Orioles
* For now.
All of this, with Archer and Kiermaier both claiming they have not asked for trades. But clearly, that doesn’t mean they won’t get dealt before Opening Day rolls around. But hold up! The team did bring in C.J. Cron, Carlos Gomez and Sergio Romo! Yes, really.
For a team that already ranked 25th in runs scored in 2017, things are certainly not looking upward this season. Gone are the guys highlighted above and replaced with the likes of Denard Span, Gomez and Cron, while more playing time will be dealt to Mallex Smith and Matthew Duffy. Regular infielders Brad Miller and Adeiny Hechavarria are already battling spring training injuries with their availability for Opening Day questionable. And let’s face it, Wilson Ramos, arguably the team’s best pure hitter, and Kiermaier, aren’t saving this team. It’s really a mess.
The pitching, which has forever been the team’s strong suit, is much more suspect than in years past. Chris Archer is the undeniable ace with incredible strikeout numbers, while Blake Snell (5-7, 4.04 ERA) and Jacob Faria (5-4, 3.43 ERA, 1.18 WHIP) turned in solid seasons. They’ll be relied upon to increase their workload and performance right away. The back end of the rotation will likely feature the inconsistent Nathan Eovaldi and Matt Andriese. Not exactly the young talent that the organization is used to sending out to the hill. Alex Cobb had another fine season in ’17, but the team decided not to bring him back, because, well… of course they didn’t. Alex Colome, who somehow amassed 47 saves out of the 80 total Tampa wins, stands out as the lone star in a very average bullpen. If Colome nears that saves total again in 2018, I’ll eat a large piece of Tupperware.
Much like the state of the franchise itself, the 2018 Tampa Bay Rays are destined to crumble, with the realistic chance of losing 100+ ballgames. Aside from Chris Archer and Evan Longoria of the past, this team lacks a true superstar in any sense. It’s hard for a fan base to have faith in a franchise when they don’t have a true “face” to represent them. And then, they go and sell off almost all of their quality players from seasons past. In 2018, with the AL East being truly a “power” division, especially in terms of home runs and slugging percentages, the defenseless Rays are going to bullied around.