AL East Preview: Red Sox Clear Pack Leaders, But Most Of AL East Not Far Behind

Bryan Altman

Spring is slowing sweeping its way across the country, which can only mean one thing: baseball season. The boys of summer are back and, with Opening Day right around the corner, it’s time to dust off your glove and maybe catch up on some of the expectations for the 30 MLB teams this year. That’s where CBS Local Sports’ division preview series comes in. We’ll take you around the league giving you an overview of each team and their expectations heading into the year. 

Today, we’re diving head first into the AL East. While the New York Yankees have taken a respite from their winning ways over the last few seasons, that seems destined to end in 2017 as the club’s young stars appear ready carry the Bronx Bombers into another golden age of Yankee baseball.

“Hooray…” said nobody outside of the five boroughs.

Still, the Red Sox are poised to be the big dogs in the division after making the trade of the offseason, while the Blue Jays shouldn’t be too far behind after retaining much of their core this offseason.

Let’s take a closer look.

**Win totals courtesy of Bovada Sportsbook

[graphiq id=”9iZLS7MLCRf” title=”2016 Boston Red Sox” width=”600″ height=”957″ url=”https://w.graphiq.com/w/9iZLS7MLCRf” ]

Vegas 2017 Win Total: 92.5

The post-David “Big Papi” Ortiz era is shaping up to be a good one for the Boston Red Sox. Sure, Papi will be greatly missed by the Red Sox faithful — not to mention by his teammates, because it ain’t easy to replace 38 HRs, 127 RBIs a .401 OBP and a .620 SLG percentage — but Boston has all of the ingredients to win the AL East and then some.

Mitch Moreland is an adequate replacement (22 HR, 60 RBI, .233 AVG), but most of Papi’s value will be made up by players who were on the 2016 roster.

Among them will be Mookie Betts (31 HR, 113 RBI, .313 AVG, .897 OPS), who emerged last year as a young star for the Red Sox and should find himself in the MVP conversation yet again at the end of this season, which will be his third full one in MLB.

Another player responsible for filling Ortiz’s massive shoes will be rookie Andrew Benintendi, one of the game’s top prospects who the Red Sox have extremely high hopes for.

Hitting wise, the Red Sox are in great shape. Betts is all but a sure thing, Benintendi looks promising, and you more or less know what you’ll get from Dusin Pedroia, Hanley Ramirez and even Xander Bogaerts at this point (even though his power with 21 home runs in 2016 was a pleasant surprise).

At this point, anything the Red Sox can wring out of Pablo Sandoval’s 5-year, $95 million contract would be a plus.

Pitching wise, the Red Sox’s acquisition of Chris Sale might’ve weakened their farm system, but it puts this team in immediate position to win now. They’ll also need something close to a repeat performance of Rick Porcello’s Cy Young-winning campaign along with late-season/pre-2016 David Price as soon as he’s past his elbow issues to deal with the big bats in their division from Toronto, New York and even Baltimore.

Craig Kimbrel will open the season as the Sox’s closer, and even though his efficacy declined in 2016 slightly, he’s a reliable ninth-inning guy.

A tough division keeps them from the 100 win mark, but expect them to get close to it. Over 92.5 

Rotation: Rick Porcello, Chris Sale, Steven Wright, Drew Pomeranz, Eduardo Rodriguez, LHP

Lineup: (2B) Dustin Pedroia, (LF) Andrew Benintendi, (RF) Mookie Betts, (DH) Hanley Ramirez, (1B) Mitch Moreland, (SS) Xander Bogaerts, (CF) Jackie Bradley Jr., (3B) Pablo Sandoval, (C) Sandy Leon

[graphiq id=”5wMGUExaZ1P” title=”2016 Toronto Blue Jays” width=”600″ height=”979″ url=”https://w.graphiq.com/w/5wMGUExaZ1P” ]

Vegas 2017 Win Total: 84.5

Losing a player the caliber of Edwin Encarnacion would be a death blow for most teams, but the Blue Jays are one of the few squads around that might be able to withstand the loss and once again make a run into October.

The Blue Jays’ lineup still has plenty of power and prestige, with Jose Bautista, Troy Tulowitzki, Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin returning in 2017. Okay, Martin doesn’t quite compare with the other three, but early-season Russell Martin was a force, and the Blue Jays are likely going to attempt to keep Martin fresher than they did last year by interspersing more off days into his schedule.

Add to those names Kendrys Morales (30 HR, .795 OPS), utility infielder Steve Pearce and Melvin Upton Jr., who should be able to help carry some of the massive load shouldered by Encarnacion and you have a pretty solid 1-9 lineup.

(This is all assuming that health doesn’t become a factor as Bautista was injured much of last year and Donaldson has struggled with a nagging calf injury.)

Sure, it’s not as strong as last year’s, but last year hitting wasn’t the story in Toronto as it was in 2015 when the Blue Jays were unstoppable at the plate.

Pitching became the key for a Blue Jays team that nearly won 90 games and their starting rotation is back in 2017 in full force, and then some. Aaron Sanchez, World Baseball Classic hero Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ and Pirates’ former ace Francisco Liriano lead arguably the best starting rotation in the American League.

The biggest key for Toronto’s pitching will be J.P. Howell and Joe Smith’s ability to mitigate the drop-off expected after the Blue Jays lost set-up men Joaquin Benoit and Brett Cecil this offseason. Jason Grilli will likely assume primary setup duty, but those two need to pick up where Benoit and Cecil left off (both has sub-1.00 ERAs in 2016).

Getting the ball into the sure hands of Roberto Osuna will be key.

If the Blue Jays can do that, get the same production from their staff, and stay healthy in the middle of their lineup, they’ll cruise past their 84.5-game win projection. Personally, I think they’ll be neck-and-neck with the Red Sox until the very end and snag the AL East crown when it’s all said and done. Over 84.5

Rotation: Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, Francisco Liriano

Lineup: (2B) Devon Travis, (SS) Troy Tulowitzki, (3B) Josh Donaldson, (OF) Jose Bautista, (DH) Kendrys Morales, (C) Russell Martin, (1B) Justin Smoak, (OF) Kevin Pillar, (OF) Ezequiel Carrera

[graphiq id=”izSqe6joQ4J” title=”2016 New York Yankees” width=”600″ height=”957″ url=”https://w.graphiq.com/w/izSqe6joQ4J” ]

Vegas 2017 Win Total: 82.5

The Yankees are poised to be one of the most interesting teams in baseball in 2017 and it’s not because they’ve lapped up every free agent on the market. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The Yankees are young and getting younger by the year, and their youngsters are ready to take center stage in 2017 and introduce themselves to the baseball world.

Some, like Gary Sanchez, who played in just 53 games in 2016 but made enough of an impact to actually receive MVP votes (with a line of 20 HR, 42 RBI, .299 AVG and 1.032 OPS, how could he not?), have gotten a jump start on making themselves household names.

The Yankees are also hoping for big things from Greg Bird, another young potential star who shone brightly in 2015, but was lost to injury for all of 2016. He’ll be looking to pick up where he left off and spur the Yankees on to a playoff run.

Just like Brett Gardner, we’ll be watching Bird closely in 2017.

While the team’s success will ultimately depend largely on Sanchez, Bird, Aaron Judge’s development (though Aaron Hicks may get the start in right) and Starlin Castro, veterans like Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury and Chase Headley remain and are joined by former Cardinals slugger Matt Holliday.

Those big names should help push the youngsters along this year.

All things considered, the Yankees boast a deep lineup for a “rebuilding” team, especially if they can get production from their vets.

The area of worry for the Yanks in 2017 is on the mound though. It’s on the rubber that they have Masahiro Tanaka, and not much else going for them.

Michael Pineda has been mediocre at best the last two years (18-22, 4.60 ERA) and has been prone to letting up the long ball (27 HRs allowed last year, 22nd most among all starters).

CC Sabathia put together a surprisingly solid season last year considering his prior three campaigns, but he isn’t getting any younger and could prove to be a major liability as a No. 2 starter.

Behind them, it’s up to Luis Severino — who’s showed promise but is unpolished — Luis Cessa, Bryan Mitchell, Chad Green and Jordan Montgomery, all of whom are under the age of 25 and have less than that number of starts between them.

Not ideal.

Signing Aroldis Chapman shores up the ninth inning, but getting there with a lead could be a struggle most days for the Yankees’ starters.

Their rotation, combined with youth that might not be quite as ripe as many hope they’ll be in 2017, will lead to a less impressive year than many are hoping for from the Yanks. They’ll be competitive, entertaining, and on the right track, but ultimately, not ready to compete with the Red Sox and Blue Jays in the AL East. Under 82.5

Lineup: (LF) Brett Gardner, (CF) Jacoby Ellsbury, (C) Gary Sanchez, (DH) Matt Holliday, (1B) Greg Bird, (2B) Starlin Castro, (3B) Chase Headley, (RF) Aaron Hicks/Aaron Judge, (SS) Didi Gregorius**

**Likely to return in May from injury.

Rotation: Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, TBD, TBD

[graphiq id=”4QcuJQ7NpBz” title=”2016 Baltimore Orioles” width=”600″ height=”957″ url=”https://w.graphiq.com/w/4QcuJQ7NpBz” ]

Vegas 2017 Win Total: 80.5

“Crush” Chris Davis — along with the help of a few friends — has turned Camden Yards and whichever ballpark the Orioles happen to be visiting into Crush City.

The Orioles’ bats came alive early in 2016 and didn’t die down until they made their last out in their one-game playoff against the Toronto Blue Jays (obviously their two runs in a 5-2 loss came off of a home run).

They Orioles hit 253 home runs in 2016 to lead MLB. The next closest team was the St. Louis Cardinals, who hit 225 home runs. Their total was also the highest by a single team since the Blue Jays hit 256 HRs in 2010.

While the home run ball is hardly a reliable scoring tactic, especially when October approaches, the Orioles seem as poised as any team in recent history has to replicate their success with it in 2017.

Six Orioles players (all returning, by the way), had at least 22 home runs in 2016, including Davis (38), Mark Trumbo (league-leading 47), Manny Machado (37), Adam Jones (29), Jonathan Schoop (25) and Pedro Alvarez (22, in just 109 games).

Yeah, this team can mash.

But, once again, they’ll be light in the pitching department, to say the very least.

Their rotation — the same one posted a combined 4.72 ERA in 2016 — will be without the services of ace Chris Tillman for at least the first week of the season, but likely a little bit longer.

26 year old Kevin Gausman has looked rock solid in spring training (13.2 IP, 18 SO, 1.98 ERA), so he could form a formidable one-two punch alongside Tillman once again, but the back end of this rotation is still brutal.

The O’s will need probable No. 3 starter Dylan Bundy to mature quickly in his second season if the Orioles hope to complement their bats with some solid pitching.

Taking into account the tenuousness of the home run ball and the uncertainty of the Orioles’ pitching, it’s hard to see Buck Showalter’s club above .500 when the season comes to a close. Under 80.5

Lineup: (LF) Hyun soo Kim, (CF) Adam Jones, (3B) Manny Machado, (1B) Chris Davis, (DH) Mark Trumbo, (RF) Seth Smith, (2B) Jonathan Schoop, (C) Welington Castillo, (SS) J.J. Hardy,

Rotation: Kevin Gausman, Chris Tillman, Dylan Bundy, Wade Miley, Chris Lee

[graphiq id=”hcI1StuDHed” title=”2016 Tampa Bay Rays” width=”600″ height=”578″ url=”https://w.graphiq.com/w/hcI1StuDHed” ]

Vegas 2017 Win Total: 77.5

Las Vegas is predicting a much-improved Rays team in 2017 and there’s reason for optimism in Tampa. Ultimately, some things need to break right for the Rays if they’re going to flirt with the .500 mark, but these things are all within the realm of possibility.

For example, they’ll need Colby Rasmus to rebound from a career-worst year in 2016 in which he batted .206 and had a .641 OPS after exceeding at least .735 in the category in each of his previous three years with Houston and Toronto. At just 30 years old, there’s no reason to think Rasmus can’t find his form and become a solid bat with plus-power, but that’s all assuming he rehabs well from offseason hip and abdomen surgery.

But hey, he shaved his face, so that’s a start.

Outside Rasmus’s return (likely end of April/early May), they’ll need newly-acquired catcher Wilson Ramos to return from injury to form, or will need Derrick Norris to have a comeback year in his stead.

And finally, on the “please please be ok when you get back from injury” front, is Matt Duffy. Duffy was acquired from San Francisco in the Matt Moore deal last season and should be a solid addition at shortstop once he fully recovers from heel surgery. The timetable is uncertain, but when Duffy is healthy, if he can find his 2015 form (149 games, .295 AVG, .762 OPS) when he received Rookie of the Year consideration, the Rays should be set at shortstop until prospect Willy Adames is ready to take a stab at the position in due time.
So yeah, that’s a whole lot of ifs for the Rays, but at least their rotation is poised to be pretty solid, at least at the top end.
Chris Archer leads the youth movement for the Rays with 27 year old Jake Odorizzi and 29 year old Alex Cobb, who could very well be moved at some point this years if all the ifs, ands, and buts don’t come to fruition and the Rays struggle early on.
The Rays have some questions in their bullpen (aside from the closer role, which Alex Colome has a stranglehold on), but a Brad Boxberger resurgence coupled with Xavier Cedeno continuing to pitch solidly in relief could provide the answers.
Overall, questions abound regarding the Rays and how they’ll handle players like Cobb should they find themselves sub-.500 much of the way. Still, if they can stay competitive in April/early May until Rasmus, Ramos and Duffy come back into the fold, they could surprise a lot of people and get out of the cellar of the AL East. I’m betting on quality players like Evan Longoria and Kevin Kiermaier to do their part to get this team started on the right foot and keep them competitive until the cavalry arrives. Over 77.5
Lineup: (DH) Corey Dickerson, (CF) Kevin Kiermaier, (3B) Evan Longoria, (2B) Brad Miller, (RF) Steven Souza, (C) Derek Norris, (SS) Tim Beckham, (1B) Logan Morrison, (LF) Mallex Smith

Rotation: Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Alex Cobb, Blake Snell, Matt Andriese

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