Ours not to reason why, ours is but to do and die...
Tampa Bay Rays (2016: 68-94)
Tropic Of Longoriacorn
Ugh. Besides dramatic effect, this is why I left this division until the very end.
Because the Rays were bad in 2016. Except, they weren't really that bad. Not as bad as their record suggests. Indeed, their entire season was essentially undone by one spectacularly awful 29 game stretch: from June 16th to July 18th the Rays won only four times. Yep, that's a 4-25 record folks, and if you're wondering no the Blue Jays did not have the fortune of facing Tampa during that plunge.
So what does it all mean for 2017? Well, avoiding a .137 winning percentage for a month of your season would be a positive step. Chris Archer is a safe bet to bounce back from a difficult 2016 (9-19, 4.02) and behind him in the rotation are some interesting names. Jake Odorizzi is a mighty good pitcher with improving durability, Blake Snell is a big lefty with dazzling minor league numbers and a solid major league debut (6-8, 3.54) aside from walking too many guys (5.2/9), Matt Andriese looks to finally take a rotation spot and run with it after being a swingman his first two seasons, and then there's Alex Cobb and his funky as hell delivery, once again back from injury and looking to get his career back on track. If healthy, starting pitching will be a strength of this ballclub.
But will the offense be a strength? It surprisingly was in 2016, with okay-to-solid seasons from newcomers Logan Morrison, Corey Dickerson, Steve Pearce (obviously elsewhere now) and the very unexpected 30 homer season of infielder Brad Miller. They've lost second baseman and Blue Jay killer Logan Forsythe, while shortstop Matt Duffy and Colby Rasmus are injured to start the year, so the depth of this lineup will be tested. Interestingly, the Rays have seemingly abandoned glovework for improved bats in recent years, besides the defensive wizardry of Kevin Kiermaier of course. This will be a better Tampa team in 2017 (again, just avoid that 4-25 stretch) but they'll need some of those starting pitchers like Andriese, Snell and Cobb to provide lots of great innings if they wanna be in the thick of a playoff race. That's no certainty, so...
Prediction -- 76-86, 5th AL East
Baltimore Orioles (2016: 89-73)
The Buck Stops Here
This is an especially tough division to preview because there aren't any teams that are certain to be awful, or even bad. You can make a realistic case for any of the five teams winning the division in 2017. The weakest case, however, may very well belong to the Baltimore Orioles. They don't have the strong starting pitching of Tampa or Toronto, the dynamic prospects of the Yankees or the insane deep superstar lineup of the Red Sox. One thing they do really, really well though is hit home runs. As a team they've hit more than 200 of them in five straight seasons, leading the American League three times in that span. The Orioles formula to win ballgames is really slug a bunch of dingers early, get modest starting pitching and then let that lockdown bullpen shut the door. And it has worked well for Buck Showalter during this run.
So why be skeptical about their chances? Well first, the starting pitching looks especially thin for 2017. It's a turn of #2/3 starters at best anyhow, and beyond Kevin Gausman and Chris Tillman (who is injured currently) there are some serious questions. One time hotshot Dylan Bundy is penciled in for a spot, coming off an encouraging 10-6, 4.02 campaign where he split 109.2 innings between starting and relief. Thing is, Bundy hadn't pitched that many innings in a season since 2012 in the minors, and the results this spring (7.36 ERA, 9 strikeouts in 17 innings) raise a few eyebrows. Rounding out the last two spots are Wade Miley and Ubaldo Jimenez, which I don't think needs further explanation. Beyond them are AAA fodder guys like Tyler Wilson, Mike Wright and Logan Verrett.
My second cause for skepticism is basically that Zach Britton simply can not be as good as he was last year. Britton is a top five reliever in baseball without a doubt, but allowing only 4 earned runs again for an entire season? Unquestionably unlikely.
It's easy to see the Orioles rotation being just good enough to keep the team hanging around the race, or it's easy to see the home runs raining down so much that it bails out the terrible starting pitching, winning enough 9-8 slugfests to keep them in the race. I think this starting rotation could be a flaming mess though, especially with Tillman's health being such a huge question.
Prediction -- 81-81, 4th AL East
New York Yankees (2016: 84-78)
Babies In The Bronx
Of all the American League East teams, the Yankees may well have the greatest level of variance. Maybe you can picture a guy like Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury or Chase Headley rediscovering some of that previous ability and being a huge free addition to this club. Maybe not playing the outfield everyday agrees with Matt Holliday so much that he mashes 35 bombs in that bandbox they call a major league park, maybe Chris Carter does the same thing. Maybe Gary Sanchez is the next Mike Piazza, Greg Bird the next Jason Giambi or Aaron Judge the next... um... Rob Deer?
Or maybe it's not their time yet. Sanchez can't possibly be as good as he was for a third of a season last year, Bird is coming off a serious injury that cost an entire season, and Judge doesn't make nearly as much contact as Deer did (ouch). Holliday is still injury prone, Carter strikes out almost as much as Judge, and banking on a star season from Ellsbury or Headley at this point is kind of like hoping Jose Bautista's arm comes back. It could, but it's best to work around what you've got.
The Yankees pitching is a curious situation as well. Masahiro Tanaka continues to pitch great with half an elbow, C.C Sabathia rose from the dead to actually provide good innings in 2016 (he's 35 though), but beyond that you're hoping the big arms of Michael Pineda and Luis Severino can both put it together at the same time. The bullpen is frightening on paper with Chapman and Betances at the back, but getting the ball to them could be a big challenge. Tyler Clippard and Adam Warren were quite effective in limited action last year, and if that continues then the Yankees pen will indeed be a strength.
This is where that variance kicks in. For the Yankees to contend this year, those young players (Sanchez, Bird, Severino, Judge) are gonna have to do a lot of the heavy lifting. It could happen, it could collapse spectacularly. Every young ballplayer develops at their own pace, if they develop at all. They could win 90 games, they could lose 90. So, I'll take the fence. The comfortable, I-told-ya-so fence.
Prediction -- 82-80, 3rd AL East
Toronto Blue Jays (2016: 89-73)
A Call To Arms
I feel like there's so much that's been said about the chances of our team this summer that almost anything I could say would be just regurgitation of what someone else has already written or spoken about. So I'm gonna change up my format here, and just make some basic declarations. Some are obvious facts, others perhaps wild predictions.
-- If the Blue Jays starting rotation picks up its excellent slack from last season and is reasonably healthy, this team is gonna be in a playoff race come September.
-- Francisco Liriano will lead the team in strikeouts.
-- Russell Martin will be batting 8th by July. The bat is fading fast (stop trying to pull everything Russ, for the love of god) but his glove will cover the spread.
-- Kendrys Morales can flat out hit, and that isn't just a Buck And Tabbyism.
-- A majority of left-field at bats will be taken by somebody not yet in the organization.
-- Josh Donaldson plays for the Blue Jays. This gives us a chance.
-- Joe Biagini will save more games than Jason Grilli (which is hopefully very few between them! #GetHealthyRoberto)
-- Aaron Sanchez won't be quite as good, but Marcus Stroman being better will make up for it.
-- People don't talk enough about how good defensively this team is, particularly up the middle. I know people do talk about it, just not enough.
-- Rowdy Tellez will make his major league debut before September. Conner Greene will in September, out of the pen.
-- Ryan Goins will actually play an inning at first base, and we'll all lose our minds
So... yeah. This is a good team but an old team. If a veteran or two start to slip off the age cliff even further, there will be problems since there isn't anything in the way of young, major league ready depth kicking around. Some players will surprise, some will disappoint, but overall I think they've got at least one year left of exciting summer baseball. It's such a tough division that I'm not confident saying anything really, but I have to so here goes.
Prediction -- 91-71, 2nd AL East *Wildcard
Boston Red Sox (2016: 93-69)
Killer B's Of Beantown
Last year I laughed about how many bad contracts the Red Sox have, and still do! They're paying Rusney Castillo almost 50 million more bucks over the next four years to not be on their 40 man roster, Allen Craig gets 11 million this year for the same thing, and they also get to pay Pablo Sandoval almost 60 million more to see if he can be at least an average player at third base. I laughed and laughed and laughed this time last year...
Yeah well... the thing about the Red Sox is that they have an embarrassing amount of young, cheap, star talent, at least position player-wise. Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr, and now Andrew Benintendi. It's really quite... annoying. Factor in also how they traded for one of the best left-handed starters in baseball in Chris Sale, without giving up any of those young controllable stars on their major league roster, and you pretty much wanna just bury your head in a pillow while they march off to another World Series.
Except! No. This team may look like a juggernaut on paper but they're not indestructible. Losing David Price until at least May thins out the top of their rotation, as does losing new addition Tyler Thornburg do so to the bullpen. David Ortiz is gone (a loss as much spiritual as it is production wise, and Ortiz's 2016 was bonkers), Sandy Leon has never been as remotely good anywhere as he was in 2016, and the bullpen beyond Craig Kimbrel looks like a tender spot, especially with Thornburg out for a while. If the Red Sox start out hot in spite of all this, well then yeah they'll run away with this thing once everyone comes back healthy. I think they'll win the division anyway, but if they stumble for a while because of injuries/whatever, we'll have ourselves a race. Everything went right for them in 2016, that rarely happens two years straight.
Prediction -- 94-68, AL East Crown
And that's it, that's all everyone. Hope you enjoyed reading these twice as much as I enjoyed writing them. Now lets get these games underway so I can see how hilariously wrong I was... gotta love baseball.