Opening Day is less than a month away. That means it’s time to dig into our annual division-by-division MLB standings projections.
We’ll start with the American League East. The Boston Red Sox are the overwhelming favorites and the Tampa Bay Rays are a sure bet to finish in the cellar. In the middle, though, it’s kind of a toss up.
Here’s how I see the AL East playing out in 2017:
1. Boston Red Sox (96-66)
If you’re not pegging Boston as the clear AL East favorite this year, you’re simply trying too hard to be different. In case you forgot, they snagged ace Chris Sale in free agency. The rotation after him is prettttay prettttay good, too. Sox fans will have their fingers crossed all season hoping David Price’s elbow doesn’t explode. If he’s healthy, he’ll be a damn good No. 2 arm. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that the reigning AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello is in the mix. The one negative that does need to be pointed out is depth could be an issue if the injury bug comes along.
Offensively, what’s not to like? Well, I suppose you could point out the glaring absence of David Ortiz. But if there’s one lineup in baseball that won’t miss a beat after losing a guy like Ortiz, it’s this one. Mookie Betts is poised for another MVP-caliber season. Andrew Benintendi is shaping up to be everything Red Sox fans hoped he’d be and then some. Dustin Pedroia is Dustin Pedroia. Hanley Ramirez is slated to DH which means he’s slated to focus on raking. All signs point to another monster output from this group.
Then there’s the bullpen. Are there question marks? Of course there are. Craig Kimbrel is coming off the worst season of his career and newly acquired Tyler Thornburg has had a rough spring thus far. Then there’s Carson Smith, who might be dead at this point for all we know. But if we’re going purely on potential here (and that’s really all you can go on when it’s March) then the Red Sox by far have the least amount of weaknesses all around in the division. Thus, they’re the favorites in AL East and arguably in all of MLB.
2. Toronto Blue Jays (89-73) 7 GB
Losing Edwin Encarnacion hurts, but it’s far from a fatal blow for Toronto. The offense is still in pretty goshdarn good shape. Expect a bounce-back campaign for Jose Bautista after his brutal offseason. Josh Donaldson per usual should be in the MVP conversation come October. One guy in particular to keep a close eye on is second baseman Devon Travis. Injuries have held Travis back so far in his young career, but if he finally stays healthy he’s set for a breakout season.
The Blue Jays rotation might be the most under-appreciated in baseball. Aaron Sanchez was stellar in 2016 and is an under-the-radar Cy Young candidate for 2017. Marco Estrada was a rock-solid No. 2 and pretty impressive in his three postseason starts. J.A. Happ was 20-4 with a 3.18 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. Marcus Stroman (who was supposed to be their ace) had the worst season of all Jays starters and should be much better this time around. Toronto’s fifth starter is Francisco Liriano, who is FAR better than average fifth starter talent. That’s a rotation that should keep them in plenty of games.
If the Blue Jays have one weakness, it’s their bullpen. Losing Brett Cecil and Joaquin Benoit isn’t ideal, especially when you finished 2016 ranked 22nd in bullpen ERA. The starting rotation should be good enough to take some stress off the relievers, but a bad bullpen will cost you more often than not.
3. New York Yankees (88-74) 8 GB
The Yankees very well could be a serious competitor in 2017. Expectations were as low as ever for the Bronx Bombers in 2016, yet they somehow still managed to finish with 84 wins. There’s no doubting they’re a better team entering this season, so things could get interesting. It starts with Gary Sanchez, who might his 6,000 home runs by the trade deadline. He’s not the only feared prospect they have, though. Greg Bird is finally healthy and set to contribute as well. As if that’s not enough power in the middle of the lineup, the Yankees acquired 2016’s co-NL home run champ Chris Carter and veteran Matt Holliday. There will be plenty of souvenirs hit into the Yankee Stadium stands.
You can count on the offense to get the job done. However, you can’t say the same for the Yankees rotation. Masahiro Tanaka is a legitimate ace, but you can’t rely on anyone after him. Their No. 2 guy is Michael Pineda whose ERA was pushing 5 last season. That’s never a good sign. Regardless, as bad as the Yankees rotation was last season they still won a fair share of ballgames. You just can’t count these guys out.
As for the bullpen, Aroldis Chapman is back in pinstripes to slam the door shut in the 9th. Dellin Betances will be there too after his messy arbitration hearing. Not a bad one-two punch at the end of bullpen, but the middle relief is where there are some question marks. They’re going to have their work cut out for them if this rotation can’t figure it out.
4. Baltimore Orioles (82-80) 14 GB
The Orioles are definitely the most difficult team to get a grasp on before each season. They won 89 games in 2016 which is much, much more than I (and most people, I think) expected. That being said, I’m going to make the likely mistake of calling it a fluke season. I just don’t see them duplicating that success with such a “meh” starting rotation.
While I expect the rotation to be the cause of Baltimore’s 2017 demise, the offense will again be the reason for any success they do have. The O’s brought back Mark Trumbo, acquired Seth Smith from Seattle, and still have studs Manny Machado, Chris Davis, and Adam Jones. They led the majors with 253 homers last year and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they topped the charts again this season.
The bullpen again should be great with Zach Britton and Darren O’Day holding down the fort. We shouldn’t expect the same kind of historic season out of Britton, but he’ll again be the bright spot of this pitching staff. Unfortunately, it won’t be enough to make Baltimore contenders for the second-consecutive year.
5. Tampa Bay Rays (72-90) 24 GB
The Rays are pretty much the unanimous pick to finish last in the AL East this season. It’s interesting, because there’s definitely some talent on the roster. Evan Longoria’s a certified stud and actually coming off his best season in a while. Chris Archer had a tough 2016 but was brilliant not too long ago. Kevin Kiermaier is a world-class centerfielder. Alex Colome is a top-notch closer. They just couldn’t put it all together a year ago, and with how good the other teams in the division are again in 2017 it’s again not looking too promising for poor Tampa.
They didn’t do enough to significantly improve this season. Bringing in Colby Rasmus and Wilson Ramos might help the offense out a bit, but those aren’t guys who are suddenly going to bring you from 68 wins to 80-something wins. Alex Cobb is probably the biggest X-factor as he returns for a full season after recovering from Tommy John surgery. If he goes back to being the guy he was pre-Tommy John, maybe the Rays won’t be so hopeless after all.
But that’s a big maybe.