We're three weeks from baseball season. Almost there, readers! This Saturday, you're going to have to settle for another division preview, though. After doing the entire National League over the past three weeks (if you missed them, they're further down on the blog), I flip over to the Junior Circuit American League, beginning today with a very competitive AL East.
1. Boston Red Sox -- 2015 Record: 78-84; Projection: 90-72
In the second half of the 2015 season, the Red Sox finally saw the production they were hoping for from their young players. From August 1 through the rest of the season, Boston went 32-26 and almost finished .500 even though they were 12 games under coming. An exciting breath of youth for Sox fans was seen at the end of last season, and this offseason, a new regime in the front office supplemented to their promising roster in hopes to make a playoff run.
Perhaps the most intriguing player for the Red Sox in 2016 is Mookie Betts, who looks to build off of a fantastic age-22 campaign. He hit for an .820 OPS (118 OPS+) in his first full season in the Majors, solidifying himself in Boston's outfield for years to come. Joining him in the 2016 lineup will be a good mix of up-and-comers as well as seasoned veterans, including designated hitter David Ortiz, who is planning on retiring after the season, his 20th.
In the pitching staff, the Red Sox get a huge boost with the additions of David Price via free agency and Craig Kimbrel in a trade. The rotation still has some questions, especially surrounding Rick Porcello and Clay Buchholz, but a true ace will definitely help this team, as Price is exactly what the Sox lacked in 2015. Kimbrel, on the other hand, will step in as closer and should be able to fix other woes Boston has had in years past.
David Price, Craig Kimbrel, and the young talents will lead the Red Sox to the 2016 AL East crown. Maybe even Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez will chip in too!
2. New York Yankees -- 2015 Record: 87-75; Projection: 88-74
The Yankees can win this division. They could've won the division last year too, but settled for a Wild Card spot. The Bronx Bombers lost the one-game playoff to Dallas Keuchel and the Houston Astros, ending their season abruptly. But a pair of offseason moves should help the Yanks make a run deep into the 2016 season as well, operating with the best bullpen in baseball.
Yankees relief pitching posted the third-highest FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) as a group in 2015, and then they went out and traded for Aroldis Chapman, the game's best relief pitcher, this offseason. However, Chapman will miss the season's first 30 games due to a suspension after a domestic violence incident that did not result in an arrest. Albeit the suspension, the Yankees still boast Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller in the back of the 'pen, and they should be more than capable of shutting down opposing lineups at the end of games.
The rotation is this team's only question, as just like in 2015, they do not have a true No. 1 starter. Masahiro Tanaka does appear at the top of their rotation, but he did not have an ace-like season last year. The Yankees do have one of my personal favorites, Nathan Eovaldi, in their rotation. His stuff is fantastic (100+ MPH fastball), and he had a 3.2 fWAR season in 2015.
As for the lineup, the Yankees are returning most of their veterans and add the likes of Starlin Castro. They will score runs. And lots of them. But will it be enough to win the American League East? I just don't see the team on top at the end of the year.
3. Toronto Blue Jays -- 2015 Record: 93-69; Projection: 86-76
The Blue Jays made the playoffs for the for the first time since 1993 in 2015, and they concluded their season with their fans wanting more, losing the American League Championship Series to the Kansas City Royals. Despite this, the Blue Jays proved that their offensive-minded team can win but only after they acquired David Price at the trade deadline were they able to run away with the division. The Blue Jays' record before July 31 was 53-51. Their record after July 31 was 40-18.
While this rapid improvement cannot all be credited to Price (they also got Troy Tulowitzki at the deadline, you know), he did provide something they lacked during the first part of the season: an anchor at the top of the rotation. Price is no longer in Toronto this season, and this means that someone else will have to step it up in order for the team to repeat their successes. It could be Marcus Stroman, who allowed just five earned runs in 27 innings after coming back from injury. But even if he does pitch well, the depth they have just isn't the same. Mark Buehrle is also gone. Besides Stroman, their pitching staff consists of: R.A. Dickey, Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ (new addition), and Aaron Sanchez. I'm not a fan.
However, there are no holes in this lineup. They've got AL MVP Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Tulowitzki, and Russell Martin all in one lineup. There's no way to pitch to this team, who scored 891 runs last season (5.5 R/G), the best in baseball by almost 130. There's no doubt in my mind that their offense will have issues in 2016, but the Blue Jays' downfall comes in the form of their rotation. And I'll let you in on a little secret: There aren't any David Prices that are likely to be available at this season's trade deadline.
4. Tampa Bay Rays -- 2015 Record: 80-82; Projection: 84-78
The 2015 Rays were average. They finished just two games under .500, scored 644 runs, and allowed 642 runs. Their season had its ups and downs, from leading the division by as many as a pair of games and being as far behind as 15 1/2. At the end, the Rays finished 13 out of the Blue Jays and missed the playoffs for the second straight season. This offseason, the club acquired Corey Dickerson from the Rockies for Jake McGee and brought in Logan Morrison and Brad Miller via Seattle.
If the Rays want to win in 2016, they'll need some bounce back seasons from Matt Moore and Drew Smyly, who each missed a good portion of the 2015 season due to injury. Moore is just three years removed from an All-Star season, and Smyly had a 3.24 ERA in 153 innings in 2014. Those two will fall behind the anchors in the Rays rotation: Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi, both of whom had stellar years. In the bullpen, the Rays lost McGee, a back-end reliever, to Colorado, but still retain Brad Boxberger and Alex Colome to shut down opposing lineups at the end of games.
As for their lineup, the Rays don't really have a big bat. Despite this, every player in their lineup has the ability to be productive. Even Evan Longoria, who led the team with 21 homers, posted a 110 OPS+ in 2015 (10% above league average). This could come back to bite the team, as they'll have to go up against some of the toughest lineups in baseball in their very division.
I still wouldn't rule out the possibility of the Rays making a wild run in the American League, but going into the season, they just appear to be a bit behind most of their fellow AL East members.
5. Baltimore Orioles -- 2015 Record: 81-81; Projection: 77-85
The Orioles are going to be haunted by their lack of pitching in 2016. Even last year, Orioles' starters posted the sixth-highest ERA in baseball. Now, they get Yovani Gallardo on a free agent deal but lose Wei-Yin Chen to the Marlins. The loss of Chen may not seem like a big deal, but to Baltimore, it could mean everything. He was their best starter, posting a 3.34 ERA in 31 outings.
The rest of their staff isn't deep. Ubaldo Jimenez, Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, and Kevin Gausman round out the O's rotation, with Tillman and Gonzalez posting ERAs above 4.90. Even Gallardo, who registered a 3.42 ERA last year and is supposed to help anchor the starters, is showing signs of age with diminished velocity and a relatively average FIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2015. As for the bullpen, the Orioles are set. Darren O'Day re-signed with the club this offseason, and Zach Britton was named an All-Star with a 1.92 ERA (2.01 FIP) last season. As for the innings between their starters and back-end relievers, there is a lot of unknown in Baltimore. Vance Worley, T.J. McFarland, and even Dylan Bundy could be used as middle relievers.
I don't have a problem with the Orioles' offense, and I may even prefer it to the Rays'. Chris Davis is back with the team, complementing Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, and two new additions, Mark Trumbo and Korean signee Hyun-soo Kim. Their offense will have to step it up to win high-scoring games if they want to beat their projection this season. And even if this does occur, the Orioles may still only have the third- or fourth-best offense in the AL East. This could be a rough year for O's fans.
Next up: AL Central