Welcome to the first edition of The Comeback’s MLB preview series. Over the next two weeks, we’ll ask our writers to banter by email about a given division, then publish the results here.
Today, Alex Putterman and Matt Clapp preview the American League East, with an assist from Liam McGuire.
Alex Putterman: I think everyone would say that the Red Sox are the favorites in the AL East this year—and maybe in the American League. Even without David Ortiz, they’ve got a stacked lineup, and Price-Sale-Porcello at the top of their rotation is almost unfair. Matt, do the Sox have a weakness? Is there any way they DON’T run away with this division?
Matt Clapp: Yeah, there really don’t appear to be any notable holes for the Red Sox. But if we have to nitpick, there are causes for concern with the rotation (even though it will likely end up being one of the very best in baseball!).
David Price already had a visit with Dr. James Andrews and company to have his elbow looked at, and while it appears he’s at least avoided Tommy John Surgery, he’s still expected to start the season on the DL. So, immediately, that’s (a least) several fewer starts he’s making. And on Sunday, Drew Pomeranz left his start with left triceps soreness. Hopefully that’s nothing, but it’s at least concerning.
Then there’s Rick Porcello. He won the 2016 AL Cy Young and was a 5-WAR pitcher, just a year removed from a 4.92 ERA. I think he’s now better than he was in 2015, but I’m not ready to predict he’ll be an ace-level pitcher again. Of course, he doesn’t have to be an ace on this team.
Even if a couple of these things were to go south, the Red Sox should have too much talent to not win the division. Papi will be a big loss, but the lineup still figures to be a juggernaut. And the Sox should more than make up for any offensive dip with the additions of Chris Sale (a top-10 starter in MLB) and Tyler Thornburg (a top-15 reliever in MLB last year). Boston appears to be a level up on everyone else in the AL East, and is arguably the best team, on paper, in the AL.
AP: What’s so scary about the Red Sox is that not only are they one of the two best teams in the AL on paper going into 2017, but also their core is super young. Mookie Betts is 24. So is Xander Bogaerts. Jackie Bradley Jr. is 26. Sale is 27. Porcello is 28. And, oh by the way, they’ve got maybe the best prospect in baseball in 22-year-old Andrew Benintendi, plus a loaded farm system behind him. Dave Dombrowski has traded half a dozen top Sox prospects for veterans, but this organization is still loaded with youth. Any success the Red Sox have in the next half decade owes largely to the player development machine set up by the deposed Ben Cherington.
So given that we agree the Red Sox are heavy, heavy favorites in this division, the question becomes: Who can we expect to take second place?
MC: And that’s a great question! One that I can’t answer with any sort of confidence right now, as all four of the other teams look pretty mediocre on paper. FanGraphs’ projections have them all in the 81-86 win range, which seems about right. I could see any of these teams winning a wild card spot and could just as easily see any of them winning under 80 games.
But if I had to pick a second-place team right now, I’d go with the Blue Jays. Even with the loss of Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto should still have a top 5-10 group of position players in baseball, and their starting pitchers should be good enough to win with that lineup. Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman provide a very intriguing 1-2 in the rotation. If those two young pitchers keep getting better (of course, it would be tough for Sanchez to top his 2016 AL-leading ERA), Toronto could push 90-win territory.
AP: I’m also leaning toward the Blue Jays to finish second, though I agree it could go pretty much any direction. Toronto seems to have a wider range of possible outcomes than any other team in this division. Their lineup is full of veterans (Tulowitzki, Bautista, Martin) who could be All-Stars or replacement-level players and a rotation led by young starters (Sanchez and Stroman) who could keep improving or stall out. It’s easy to imagine 90 wins or 90 losses.
While we’re on the subject of the Blue Jays, let’s loop in our colleague and resident Canadian Liam McGuire. Liam, where do you see Toronto winding up?
Liam McGuire: I’d say best-case scenario is second place with not much divide from Boston. But after back-to-back playoff ALCS appearances, I’m not confident enough to pencil them in the same spot in 2017.
Edwin Encarnacion was a powerhouse in the middle of the lineup, and I’m not sure Kendry Morales can replicate his production. Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, and Jose Bautista will solve any offense issues, but it’s not ridiculous to assume they’ll take a step back given their ages.
Plus, can an MLB team trust two of Justin Smoak, Ezequiel Carrera or Melvin Upton Jr. to patrol two spots in the lineup? Even with so much firepower, it’s a concern. First base is a big hole for Toronto. Hopefully, Steve Pearce can step up, but that’s a big question mark.
The one thing I’m not worried about is the rotation. 1-5, the club’s locked in with pitchers, who at the very least, should be competent. The progress of Marcus Stroman will impact their chances at catching Boston—it would be great to see a big year from him.
The bullpen is still a hodgepodge beyond Roberto Osuna. But signing Joe Smith and lefty J.P. Howell should take some pressure off specialists like Aaron Loup and even Joe Biagini. Depth is a concern, but Mark Shapiro and Russ Atkins did a decent job bringing in plenty of vets to compete.
Toronto could make the playoffs. But, in a jumbled AL East, it’s not a given.
AP: One thing to look out for with Toronto is rotation depth. Yes they have a solid top five, in Stroman, Sanchez, Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ and Francisco Liriano, but after that the cupboard is bare.
LM: You’re telling me Mike Bolsinger isn’t a viable fall-back rotation option? HOW DARE YOU.
AP: Yes, I am very much telling you that.
Speaking of teams with copious question marks, I want to talk about the Yankees. This team could be great in a few years when Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier hit their primes and the front office splurges on some free agents, but right now the roster is kind of a mess. On the position-player side, it’s a bizarre combination of past-peak veterans like Matt Holliday, Chase Headley, Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury and not-there-yet youngsters. And the starting rotation features Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda, all of whom carry injury risk, followed by to-be-determined question marks. A great bullpen can only get you so far if your starters only last five innings an outing.
For several years I’ve been saying the Yankees are due for the type of 90-loss season that every franchise suffers from time to time, and so far it hasn’t happened, but this team seems to have real disaster potential. There just aren’t many guys in the meat of their careers. On the other hand, it’s very possible that Torres and Frazier come up midseason and lead a youth infusion alongside Sanchez and Bird, while some of the old guys gain a second wind and the Yankees compete for a playoff spot.
Matt, which scenario do you think is more likely for the Yankees: postseason contender or 90-loss mess?
MC: Well, if the question is a 90-loss season or contending for the postseason, I’d say the latter. Right now, the Yankees seem like a .500-ish team, so I’d currently put them at like 81-81. And it’s *possible* the second Wild Card is only in the 85-win range.
If Sanchez keeps being a monster, Bird hits 25 homers, Tanaka and Pineda can combine for 8 WAR in the rotation, and all of their old guys produce as realistically hoped… it’s feasible that they could get into that 85+ win range.
Should that be expected? No.
And while Gleyber Torres (especially) and Clint Frazier are very good prospects, they’re probably at least a year away from being real contributors. Additionally, the Yankees are (for once) committed to the rebuild, and Brian Cashman is unlikely to make a big splash at the trade deadline to get better and will instead hold onto their prospects. They’re in the rare position of rebuilding while also possibly contending, but they aren’t going to sacrifice the future for a run at 2017.
So, in all likelihood the Yankees are mediocre but potentially a little bit better or a little bit worse. I think there’s enough talent to not be full-on bad, but I agree that the talent doesn’t appear to be there for them to be all that good either.
AP: Since you brought up the FanGraphs projections, let’s end by talking about a pair of teams that seem to drive the projection systems batty.
Almost every year, the various projections seem remarkably pessimistic about the Baltimore Orioles and remarkably optimistic about the Tampa Bay Rays, and yet the Orioles have been a consistent playoff contender and the Rays have spent a whole lot of time in the AL East basement. Right now, if you asked average baseball fans who will be better in 2017 between Baltimore and Tampa, just about all of them would say the Orioles. And yet FanGraphs has both teams pegged for 82 wins.
Are you more in line with the common wisdom that the Orioles are a contender and the Rays are a bottom-dweller, or do you agree with the projections that see these teams as comparably average?
MC: What’s funny is the Baseball Prospectus projections have it lopsided… for the opposite reason than you’d expect. They have the Rays winning 84 games (second in the AL East) and the Orioles winning 74 (last place by six games).
At the moment, I think the Orioles and Rays right there with the Yankees as very average and in the .500 range.
The Orioles won 89 games last year, and I just don’t see how that’s possible again. Maybe Dylan Bundy throws over 110 innings for the first time in pro ball and turns into the star everyone knows he can be. Maybe Kevin Gausman makes the jump from really good pitcher to ace; his stuff is certainly top-notch.
But is Mark Trumbo going to hit 47 freakin’ dingers again (after never hitting more than 34)? Highly unlikely. Is Zach Britton going to have repeat pretty much the best season ever for a reliever? Manny Machado may be one of the five best position players in baseball and may keep getting better, but it’s unreasonable to expect him to be worth more than the 6.5 WAR he was last year.
So the Orioles seem like a classic case of regression.
As for the Rays, they will at least be better than last year—since it would be hard not to be—but I doubt they’re quite ready to contend.
Wilson Ramos was a great addition, but he may not even be able to catch until the summer as he recovers from a torn ACL. Like always, they have impressive depth in the rotation, and Chris Archer should be much better than last year. I also think Jose De Leon—acquired from the Dodgers for Logan Forsythe—could quickly develop into a mid-rotation starter.
But, I have a hard time seeing where the Rays get some extra wins to be anything more than mediocre. And if they’re several games back in July, I could definitely see them dealing one or two of Archer, Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi, and Alex Colome, which would of course only hurt their 2017 win total.
AP: I agree with you on Orioles regression. As for the Rays, we’ve been hearing about their young starting pitching for years, and it hasn’t quite come together. Maybe this will be the year, but I’m not holding my breath.
All right, let’s make some predictions. I need a predicted order of finish for the AL East, plus a Player of the Year, Pitcher of the Year and under-the-radar player to watch for the division. Who ya got?
MC: Can I have the bottom three teams tied? I guess if I have to…
1. Red Sox
2. Blue Jays
Player of the Year: Josh Donaldson
Pitcher of the Year: Chris Sale
Under-the-Radar Player to Watch: Dylan Bundy
AP: And here are mine:
1. Red Sox
2. Blue Jays
Player of the Year: Manny Machado
Pitcher of the Year: David Price
Under-the-Radar: Devon Travis