By Ryan Mayer
Opening Day is right around the corner. As the calendar gets ready to turn to April, we prepare for another spring/summer full of the thrills of the diamond. With spring training games starting to wind down and teams heading back to their hometowns to get the season started, it’s time for some previews of how we project each division to play out. Follow along with us throughout the week as we go around the horn.
2015 Division Winner- Toronto Blue Jays
Projected Order Of Finish
1) Boston Red Sox
2) Toronto Blue Jays
3) New York Yankees
4) Tampa Bay Rays
5) Baltimore Orioles
Boston Red Sox- The Sox clearly disappointed compared to expectations last season following their splashy free agent signings of Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez. Neither player performed well in their first season in Beantown, and it’s been a rough start to the spring for the Kung Fu Panda. The good news for the Sox is, new GM Dave Dombrowski was aggressive this off season in filling holes and there’s a couple of promising young stars poised for a breakout season.
Let’s start with the rotation, where the biggest off season signing came in the form of 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner David Price. A $217 million dollar price tag means that Price is the clear ace of the staff, laden with high expectations. Price has proven more than capable of ace status in his career, the lone question that remains is can he get over that playoff hump? Behind Price, Clay Bucholz is a solid number two option, while the Sox will hope for bounce back years from Rick Porcello and Joe Kelly in the 3-4 spots. Eduardo Rodriguez will likely start the year on the DL which is concerning, but once he gets healthy, he’s a huge asset to the rotation in Year 2.
The bullpen got markedly better by the acquisitions of closer Craig Kimbrel and righty Carson Smith, though Smith joins Rodriguez in the starting the season on the DL boat. Those two will help bolster a bullpen that was not great last season.
Offensively, Boston will be looking for big years out of SS Xander Bogaerts and OF Mookie Betts who both seemed to really figure it out last season. Sandoval and Ramirez are penciled in to be starters at the moment, but Travis Shaw is waiting in the wings to take advantage of whoever gets off to a slow start.
Toronto Blue Jays- The Jays went all in at last year’s deadline and it earned them their first division title in 23 years. Since then, they lost David Price to the division rival Red Sox in free agency, and replaced GM Alex Anthopoulous after he left to join the Dodgers front office. However, much of the core of the division winning team is back and they’ll certainly be in contention for the division once again.
Despite losing Price, Toronto isn’t completely bereft of an ace as Marcus Stroman will now be expected to step into that role. Stroman missed much of the year with a torn ACL in 2015, but made a miraculous comeback and was dominant in his starts at both the end of the regular season and playoffs. Behind him, the rotation has some question marks. Can R.A. Dickey continue to be effective? Which version of J.A. Happ will show up? They did add closer Drew Storen from the Nationals which should lock down the 9th inning now that he’s back in his preferred role.
Offensively, this team is going to mash once again. Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Troy Tulowitzki is a terrifying 2-3-4-5 for opposing pitchers.
New York Yankees- The Yankees made some moves this off season to attempt to address the holes on the team, but did so without spending money in free agency. For the first time I can recall, the Bombers didn’t go out an splurge on a splashy free agent signing. However, GM Brian Cashman did a very nice job of plucking the still young Starlin Castro from the Cubs to shore up the 2B spot and adding flamethrower Aroldis Chapman to a bullpen that already features Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances.
In addition, the rotation is looking better and better with each spring start. Masahiro Tanaka headlines the group that features young stud Luis Severino, possible breakout candidate Michael Pineda, and hard-throwing righty Nathan Eovaldi. CC Sabathia isn’t the pitcher he once was, hasn’t been in awhile, but the other four in this group has to have Yanks’ fans feeling good.
The problem, is an aging line-up. Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez both had great seasons last year, but at 35 and 40 respectively, you can’t expect that same kind of output. Chase Headley’s been underwhelming at third, Jacoby Ellsbury can’t stay healthy, and relying on Carlos Beltran in right field is a scary proposition. Unfortunately, Greg Bird is out for the year with a shoulder injury which hurts, especially if one of the old heads gets injured. Aaron Judge lies on the horizon, but a .224/.308/.373 slash line at AAA Scranton/Wilkes Barre seems to signal he needs a bit more seasoning.
Tampa Bay Rays- The Rays continue to be the kings of outperforming their preseason expectations so I won’t be surprised at all if they make me look like a fool come August. Tampa added outfielder Corey Dickerson via trade, and boasts one of the game’s brightest young starters in Chris Archer.
Outside of Archer, the rotation is filled with intriguing young arms in Jake Odorizzi, Drew Smyly, Erasmo Ramirez, and Matt Moore. There’s also top prospect Blake Snell waiting in the wings and the possibility of getting Alex Cobb back from Tommy John surgery mid-season. That’s a nice problem to have in terms of having six arms for four spots.
The bullpen has the opposite issue. Closer Brad Boxberger will likely start the season on the DL while he recovers from off season abdominal surgery. Alex Colome should be able to hold down the fort for him, but the rest of the bullpen isn’t exactly littered with successful arms.
The offense is full of question marks. What will Corey Dickerson bring now that he’s no longer in Coors Field? Can Desmond Jennings stay healthy? Is Evan Longoria fully in the decline phase of his career? What will they get out of Brad Miller at shortstop? The answers to these questions will define the Rays’ season.
Baltimore Orioles- The Orioles line-up will certainly do their fair share of mashing after bringing back Chris Davis and adding the likes of Mark Trumbo and Pedro Alvarez. The bullpen will continue to be shutdown with Darren O’Day and Zach Britton at the back end. However, the O’s find themselves with a notable lack of big-time arms in the rotation.
They added Yovani Gallardo from the free agent market this off season, and he’ll help bolster the unit. But, Ubaldo Jimenez, Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez aren’t exactly scaring some of the other big hitting line-ups in this division.
The line-up on the other hand, is the type of group that pitchers have nightmares about. Any guy that steps into the box is capable of turning a mistake pitch into a long home run. The problem is getting on-base. In today’s day and age of highly valuing on-base percentage, it’s interesting to see a team construct a line-up that focuses more on bombing the ball all over the park while largely ignoring taking walks or hitting for average.
Buck Showalter always seems to get the most out of his guys, but in this competitive division, it’s hard to see the O’s coming out on top.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.