2017 AL East Preview - Baby Bombers, Big Bats in Baltimore, and Boston Betting the Barn
With Spring Training in full swing, it’s getting time to get back into baseball mode. This is part of a season primer series, that’ll take you through what to watch for over the course of the season.
In recent memory, the AL East has widely been known as the toughest division in baseball. The Yankees and Red Sox have been at the top for so long, that it’s hard to remember a time where one of those two teams didn’t dominate the division. Enter the Orioles and Blue Jays the last couple of years, and it really gets fun.
Last season, three members of the AL East made it to the playoffs, with the Red Sox winning the division, and the Jays and O’s battling it out in the Wild Card game, a thrilling extra inning affair up in Toronto. The Yankees weren’t far off, but weren’t in it long enough to contend. The Rays had a tough season, and are rebuilding, but have a good young group to look out for once they get all their gears turning. This year, things can get really interesting, especially if Boston comes out of the gate slow.
Coming into this season: The O’s were knocked out of the playoffs last season by a 3 run bomb by Toronto’s Edwin Encarnacion, when manager Buck Showalter inexplicably left elite closer Zach Britton in the bullpen. Not much has changed over the course of the off-season. The team is still big on the long ball, leading the majors in home runs last season by a wide margin. The questions remain of if they can really get over the hump and be big time contenders.
Storyline to watch: Manny Machado’s contract situation. Machado is not long for free agency, and the Orioles are not a big spending team. It took a while for Chris Davis to sign a long term deal, which leads us to believe that if Machado, a much younger and more talented player at a more premium position, hits the open market, he won’t last long until teams start handing him blank checks. He has 2 years left under team control, but if the O’s start to flounder, they might make a panic move.
X-Factor: Mark Trumbo. Yes, he’s a DH. He led the MLB in home runs, but also was in the top 10 in strikeouts. His power is certainly real, but if he regresses, it opens up a vulnerable position where teams can play around with pitching or not to Chris Davis, who led the league in strikeouts for the second season in a row. Trumbo has a very important spot in that lineup, and if he starts to falter, it could start a big domino effect.
Bold prediction: They lean on the big fly and an underrated pitching staff, and coast to a second place finish and wild card berth.
Boston Red Sox
Coming into this season: The Sawx were the only team to have a higher batting average than the offensively minded Colorado Rockies, in a season where they ran away with the division. Mookie Betts broke out big time, and got MVP consideration. Jackie Bradley Jr. also had a very good season.
The lineup got contributions from everyone, and had a historically good offense to carry a mostly mediocre pitching staff. Oh, and there was that Ortiz fella. They made a humongous splash in the off-season, landing Chris Sale from the White Sox, which might turn them into super-contenders for the World Series.
Storyline to watch: Can the offense continue to surge without Papi? Well, that’s a very big question, considering David Ortiz’s numbers, even at 40, were very very good. It’s never easy taking the biggest bat out of a lineup, but the Sox do have a lot of players that can carry the load. Well, maybe not individually winning the admiration of the entire New England region and the ire of most of New York (myself included, no shame), but those are shoes very few can fill.
X-Factor: Chris Sale and David Price. Well, duh, these are the top 2 guys in their rotation now. But both come with minor question marks. Price struggled early in his Sox career, not getting his ERA under 4 until late August.
Chris Sale is coming into a new environment with much more scrutiny, and a very unfavorable environment to lefty pitching with that big ol’ wall in left field at Fenway Park. Especially without the offensive stalwart David Ortiz outhitting all the pitching mistakes, these two guys have to be good to keep Boston going strong.
Bold prediction: They cruise to the AL East title with relative ease, but Sale struggles early in the season.
New York Yankees
Coming into this season: Gary Sanchez, Gary Sanchez, by the beard of Zeus Gary Sanchez OK I’ll stop.The Baby Bombers have started to make their way into their pinstripes last season, and with the retirements of Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, as well as the departures of Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann, this team got decades younger over the course of the last few months.
With GM and secret ninja Brian Cashman making trades to bolster what’s now a top 3 farm system in baseball (and subsequently signing one of the guys he traded away, Aroldis Chapman), the fruits of his labor are finally coming into bloom. They were by no means contenders, with a weak pitching staff outside of Masahiro Tanaka, but boy did they become fun to watch when the Kraken (Sanchez) was released.
Storyline to watch: Gary Sanchez. Duh. Ok, I’m sorry to those readers who are trying to wade through my pro-Yankees bias, but how could you not get excited after watching this kid play last year? But it’s really difficult to keep up at that pace. Yes, it was epic, but 53 games is a small sample size, especially in baseball. Let’s see how he follows up his burst onto the scene.
X-Factor: Greg Bird. Another Baby Bomber, this one at first base. He missed all of last season with a torn shoulder labrum, but in the previous season, showed big promise stepping in for an injured Mark Teixeira. Having a good first baseman is key in having a solid defense, as well as an extra power bat in the lineup. If he can return to the form he showed in his rookie months, he can really help this offense out, as well as keep the defense together behind a shaky pitching staff.
Bold prediction: The Baby Bombers take over the town, but they finish well off the pace of the division.
Tampa Bay Rays
Coming into this season: They had a great young pitching staff, led by Chris Archer, and made some sneaky good moves in the 2015 off-season, and were primed for a resurgence. However, Archer struggled, Drew Smyly got hit around, and they traded Matt Moore away.
They did have some bright spots, such as young pitcher Blake Snell, closer Alex Colome, and of course the face of the franchise Evan Longoria, but otherwise, the going was rough for the Rays. The pitching never quite took off, and the offense couldn’t score much. They were in last place most of the year, never coming close to contention.
Storyline to watch: Kevin Kiermaier’s bat. He’s got one of the best gloves in baseball, but if he could just get his hitting together, he’d be a big time star in the league in a market that really needs something to get them going again. Even if he doesn’t improve on hitting, just watching him patrol center field at the Trop is a real joy.
X-Factor: Brad Miller. This guy hit 30 homers last year. Did you know that? Well, he’s the second baseman now for these Rays, after Logan Forsythe was traded to the Dodgers. He was one of the main sources of power on a team that struggled with hitting.
If he repeats that performance, and that’s a pretty big if, he can really help a team that has historically depended on pitching and defense for success. Otherwise, it’ll fall to guys like Steven Souza, Corey Dickerson, or the newly acquired Amish-beard Colby Rasmus (look it up, it’s hilarious) to carry the offense. That doesn’t scream confidence to me.
Bold prediction: Cellar dwellers, but Blake Snell breaks out as a stud pitcher.
Toronto Blue Jays
Coming into this season: Their offense was prolific in 2015, but 2016 seemed like it wasn’t quite as good as it was meant to be. Yes, they made it to the ALCS, but it was on the strength of their pitching, oddly enough. JA Happ emerged as a weapon, Aaron Sanchez and Marco Estrada had very good seasons, and the bullpen was solid for the most part.
Over the winter, however, a big portion of their offense walked away, with Edwin Encarnacion headed to Cleveland. They also almost lost heart and soul Jose Bautista, but he came back with his tail between his legs after no one wanted to sign him. This is a make or break season for the Blue Jays.
Storyline to watch: Can the starting rotation replicate the success they had last season? Aaron Sanchez and JA Happ had remarkable seasons each, combining for 35 wins and both having ERA’s at or near 3. The only change in the rotation is welcoming in Francisco Liriano for a departing RA Dickey. But it’s really tough, especially in this offensively driven division, to have a great year pitching. Look for Happ and Sanchez try and prove that last year was not an aberration.
X-Factor: Justin Smoak. With Edwin gone, someone’s gotta step up and protect Josh Donaldson and company. The Jays signed Kendrys Morales, but one has to think that Smoak needs to have more of an impact at the dish.
If he reaches more of his potential that he had when he came up with Seattle, the Jays will have much more success in protecting their pitchers and star hitters.
Bold prediction: Jose Bautista becomes a laughingstock in the league, gets punched in the face by someone not named Rougned Odor, and the Jays finish middle of the pack.
What do you think?