As chaotic as last Spring Training was for the Orioles, the only real drama to come out of this Grapefruit season for the Birds was Chris Tillman‘s ailing shoulder. And despite the loss of Tillman, the lack of drama is probably a good thing considering how much work the Orioles have cut out for themselves in 2017.
The Orioles take on the Blue Jays to start the season, looking for redemption after losing a heart-breaking 11-inning Wild Card game to Toronto to end the 2016 season. With Boston looking to run away with the division, both the Orioles and the Blue Jays need to get off to a quick start as both clubs have at least 16 games within the division in the season’s first month.
With that in mind, it’s time to preview and predict the 2017 American League East. Will the division send three teams to the playoffs again? Will the Yankees youth movement prove they are ahead of the curve? Will Tampa Bay’s rotation return to their former glory? And will Boston live up the expectations and win their second straight division crown?
This year, I’ve decided to use my AL East Positional Rankings series to help me predict the AL East. Here are links to all those articles, in case you missed them:
Each top spot at a given position gets 5 points, second is 4, third is 3, and so on. The final tallies are as follows:
Boston Red Sox – 47 points (3.92 AVG)
Baltimore Orioles – 41 points (3.42)
Toronto Blue Jays – 34 points (2.83)
New York Yankees – 34 points (2.83)
Tampa Bay Rays – 23 points (1.92)
Boston Red Sox (95-67)
The Red Sox made arguably the biggest splash of the offseason, sending four top prospects, including the MiLB Player of the Year Yoan Moncada, to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for lefty ace Chris Sale. Sale joins a rotation that features 2016 Cy Young award winner Rick Porcello, 2012 Cy Young award winner David Price, and All-Star Steven Wright. Though Price will begin the season on the disabled list, the Sox rotation should still be strong with Eduardo Rodriguez and Drew Pomeranz picking up the slack.
Offensively, the lineup lost David Ortiz to retirement this offseason. A lot of pundits seem to think that will be a difficult blow, but I tend to disagree. A lineup that features Mookie Betts, Hanley Ramirez, Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Andrew Benintendi should have plenty of fire power. Oh, and then there’s Pablo Sandoval, who reported to spring training in shape and then went out and hit .338 with 12 XBH and an MLB-leading 20 RBI in 65 spring at-bats.
The only weakness that this team might have is in the bullpen, where they lost Brad Ziegler, Koji Uehara, and Junichi Tazawa. They will also be without Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg for a period as they will both begin the year on the disabled list. However, they still have Craig Kimbrel and Fernando Abad, and besides, when your starters are routinely going 7+ innings, it gives you a little more wiggle room in the bullpen.
Sorry Orioles fans, the Red Sox are my pick to represent the American League in the World Series.
Baltimore Orioles (90-72)
Adam Jones is healthy and fresh off the World Baseball Classic, where he was dubbed “Captain America” as the United States won the tournament for the first time. Jones’ leadership was on full display throughout the tournament, collecting clutch hit after clutch hit and making “The Catch” the rob his Orioles teammate, Manny Machado, of a home run. Jones is primed for a big year.
Speaking of Machado, the slick-fielding third baseman is coming off a season in which he set career highs in AVG, HR, and RBI. One of the pre-season favorites for the AL MVP, Machado will lead an offense that hit 253 HR in 2016 and returns Mark Trumbo, last season’s MLB leader in HR.
Aside from the display of power the Orioles put on a nightly basis, a main reason for the team’s sustained success over the last five seasons is the bullpen, which led all of baseball in 2016 with a 3.40 ERA and a save percentage of 79.41%. The fearless leader of that bullpen is none other than Zach Britton, who was a perfect 47/47 in save opportunities last year while posting a MLB-record 0.54 ERA.
However–and there’s always a however–the Orioles starting rotation leaves much to be desired. As good as the bullpen has been is as bad as the rotation has been. Tillman is expected to miss the season’s first month as he will begin the year on the disabled list with a shoulder injury, allowing Kevin Gausman to make the Opening Day start for the first time in his career. After Gausman, it’s Dylan Bundy, who has never thrown more than 109.2 IP, which he did last season. And then there’s Ubaldo Jimenez, who never has the same delivery, and Wade Miley, whose ERA has gone up each of the last four seasons, topping out at a robust 5.37 last season.
Still, despite the rotational shortcomings, this team has something you can’t quantify: chemistry. Led by Buck Showalter, I’m picking the Orioles to host the AL Wild Card game in 2017.
Toronto Blue Jays (87-75)
So if Toronto pitched that well, and hit that well, why didn’t they win the division? Granted, they did make it to the ALCS for the second consecutive season, but wouldn’t it be accurate to say that a team that was ranked that highly offensively, pitched that well, and also had the fifth best fielding percentage in the AL, underachieved? You can blame John Gibbons for that, as he is possibly the worst manager in all of baseball.
The Blue Jays, despite their managerial shortcomings, are still a very good team. But they have lost Encarnacion to the Cleveland Indians, Jose Bautista appears to be on the decline, and Troy Tulowitzki posted to worst statistical season of his career in 2016. The team is old, and while they will still be competitive in 2017, they will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
New York Yankees (83-79)
There’s no doubt the Yankees are filled to the brim with potential. Gone are the days of albatross contracts for over the hill stars like Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and yes, even Derek Jeter. The Yankees have a nice mix of young and old veteran talent infused with even younger, raw talent. Aaron Judge, Greg Bird, and Gary Sanchez are the future of the Bronx Bombers, to go along with Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro, while aging vets Brett Gardner, Matt Holliday, and Jacoby Ellsbury round out the rest of the lineup.
On the pitching staff, they have Masahiro Tanaka, who owns 39 wins and a 3.12 ERA over three seasons, and C.C. Sabathia, who had a career renaissance in 2016. In the bullpen, all you need to know are the names Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman, perhaps the most formidable 1-2 punch at the back end of any bullpen.
Yet, despite all the talent, the Yankees don’t have much else behind Tanaka and Sabathia, and the young position players are still too green to not experience growing pains throughout a long season. Joe Girardi is one of the best four or five managers in the game, and his team will play hard for him. They’ll remain competitive, but it won’t amount to October baseball in 2017. Keep an eye out, though. This team is going to be very good, very soon.
Tampa Bay Rays (78-84)
Last season, the Rays rotation took a step backwards as Matt Moore, Drew Smyly, and Chris Archer all underperformed compared to their career numbers. While the offense came out of nowhere to hit 216 HR, fourth best in the AL, it wasn’t enough to overcome the downtick from the rotation.
The bullpen is still a major concern for the Rays, despite the emergence of Alex Colome as an elite closer. Yet, if the starting rotation can return to form and do what they’ve done in years past, and if the offense can turn the power into runs (14th with 672 runs despite 216 HR), the Rays have the chance to surprise some people. That said, they won’t make the playoffs, and seem destined to be a cellar dweller yet again.
No matter what happens in 2017, each team has its merits, and this division could and should be among the most competitive in all of baseball yet again. Here’s a to an awesome, crazy, exciting, and thrilling 2017 season.