Opening Day is the unofficial first day of spring for many people. With every new season come new predictions. It’s part of the fun of baseball. Every team is tied for first place at 0-0, and every fan base has those die-hards who think, “This is our year!”
In the American League East, many have picked the Yankees and Red Sox to battle it out for division supremacy. Both teams added some thump in the offseason looking for that knockout blow, but as we all know, good pitching beats good hitting.
With that in mind, the Orioles added some arms to improve upon the league’s worst starting staff from a year ago. Will it be enough to keep pace with the “Beasts of the East” while also staving off the Blue Jays and Rays?
How will the AL East shake out in 2018? Will the Yankees and Red Sox prove everybody right, or will another team swoop down and take the division crown out from under their noses? Without further ado, I give you my American League East predictions.
New York Yankees (94-68)
I saw a publication pick the Yankees to win 105 games in 2018. While they are good, they won’t be that good. The offense led the Majors in home runs and was second in runs scored in 2017. All they did to improve upon that was trade for National League MVP and MLB Home Run Champion, Giancarlo Stanton. The combination of Stanton to Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and DiDi Gregorius could be lethal and will certainly help the Yanks make a run towards a division crown.
First baseman and postseason hero, Greg Bird, will begin the year on the disabled list–again–with a broken bone spur in his right ankle that will keep him sidelined for 6-8 weeks, making that Neil Walker signing look better and better for the Bronx Bombers.
On the pitching side of things, the Yankees return their shiny new toy acquired at the trade deadline last season, Sonny Gray, to a rotation that will be led by Luis Severino and his 2.98 ERA from a year ago. C.C. Sabathia returns for one more season looking to ride off into the sunset with one last championship run in New York. He certainly has experienced a career renaissance the last two seasons after it looked like his best days were far in the rearview the previous three years.
Then there’s Masahiro Tanaka, who has somehow managed to avoid Tommy John surgery despite having a partially torn UCL in his pitching elbow since 2014. Tanaka exercised his option this offseason, making him arguably the most expensive middle-of-the-rotation starter in the Majors ($22.3MM each of the next three seasons).
In the bullpen, the Yankees have three legitimate closers pitching at the back end in David Robertson, Dellin Betances, and Aroldis Chapman. If they have a lead after six innings, there’s a good chance the game is over.
With a solid rotation, a ridiculous lineup, and an awe-inspiring bullpen, the Yankees are the team to beat in the AL East and may very well get over that hump that left them a game shy of playing in the World Series in 2017.
GulfBird Sports/Craig Landefeld
Baltimore Orioles (89-73)
I’m going to take a lot of flak for this, and perhaps rightfully so. The Orioles finished in last place in the AL East in 2017 with a 75-87 record, low-lighted by a September swoon that saw the club lose 19 of its final 23 games. In fact, after being a season-high 12-games above .500 on May 10 (22-10), the Orioles would play .408 baseball the rest of the way (53-77).
Add to that the fact that Zach Britton, Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Brad Brach, Buck Showalter, and Dan Duquette all have expiring contracts, and it certainly would be difficult to ascertain any feasible scenario in which I could conceivably pick the Orioles to improve by 14 wins and make a postseason appearance. But that’s exactly what I’ve done, as I believe the impending breakup of the team will lead to a coming together to make one final run towards the team’s first world championship in 35 years (though they will ultimately fall short in October).
Machado and Jonathan Schoop will form one of baseball’s deadliest middle-infields, rivaling that of Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve in Houston. Machado is primed for an MVP-caliber season in his walk-year as he is looking to secure what might be the game’s first $400MM contract next offseason. Schoop, on the other hand, is coming off his breakout season that saw him eclipse 30 HR and 100 RBI en route to a 12th place finish in MVP voting…on a last place team. The two players are best friends and push each other in a friendly competition to out-do each other on a daily basis.
That friendly competition will make for some fun and exciting baseball in 2018, and that’s before I even mention Adam Jones who, like clockwork, posts a stat-line right around .280/25/80 year after year.
Tim Beckham, acquired in a trade with the Rays at the deadline, had a solid spring and proved that he could handle the hot corner. Nobody expects him to perform as he did last August, but if he can find a healthy medium between his final two months, the Orioles and their fans alike will be pleased.
The biggest weakness of the Orioles in 2017 was their starting rotation. They were the worst unit in all of MLB and in the history of the franchise (5.70 ERA). If you believe in addition by subtraction, then the Orioles became an 80-win team the moment the contracts of Ubaldo Jimenez, Wade Miley, and Jeremy Hellickson came off the books. There is simply no way anybody not named Chris Tillman could have performed worse than that trio in 2017.
Credit to the Orioles for not resting on their laurels. While Tillman is back on a make-good pillow contract, the team didn’t stop there as they landed Andrew Cashner (3.88 career ERA) and Alex Cobb (3.50 career ERA). If Dylan Bundy continues in his progression, and Kevin Gausman pitches like the number on his back (#34 in honor of the late Roy Halladay), this rotation could be formidable. Granted, if wishes and buts were candies and nuts we’d all have a Merry Christmas, but this team is primed to contend with this staff in 2018.
Backing this rotation is a bullpen that is at-or-near the top of the league every season. Sure, Britton will miss at least the first two months of the season, but Darren O’Day, Brad Brach, and Mychal Givens are as dependable as they come, and Richard Bleier was a welcomed lefty addition last year while posting a 1.99 ERA.
Miguel Castro is returning to his long relief role that was a bright spot in an otherwise dim 2017 season for the Orioles, and though Rule V picks Nestor Cortes, Jr. and Pedro Araujo are big unknowns for the club, Josh Edgin and Joely Rodriguez, who each had monumental springs, are waiting in the minors for their opportunity.
The biggest question marks for the Birds however, comes in the form of two players: Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo. Between the two of them, they led the majors in home runs three times in a four-year stretch, mashing at least 47 bombs each time. In 2017, the duo combined for just 49 home runs and struck out a collective 344 times (which was actually down from their 389 K’s in 2016, but I digress).
If Trumbo and Davis perform to their 2017 standards, it could be a long year in Birdland. But if they perform to the levels that got them their big contracts, this offense could rival any offense in the game today.
It’s true that the Orioles season rides on a lot of “ifs” at the moment. And surely not every player is going to have a career year or bounce back season. Some players will take a step forward, some backward, and some will stay the same. The schedule through the season’s first two months is absolutely brutal. But I go back to the fact the Orioles were a game out of a playoff spot in the beginning of September with the worst pitching staff in all of baseball. They have improved that staff by leaps and bounds heading into 2018, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned covering this team over the last five years, it’s that we should never count them out. So I won’t.
Boston Red Sox (88-74)
The Red Sox are the two-time defending division champions and return basically the same team in 2018, with one huge addition. They signed slugger J.D. Martinez (45 HR, 104 RBI in 119 games) to add to a lineup that hit an AL-low 168 HR in 2017. His addition will only help the likes of Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Hanley Ramirez.
Dustin Pedroia will begin the year on the DL following knee surgery, and while there is no definitive date for his return, it is likely he will see the field before the break. A healthy veteran of Pedroia’s stature will certainly aid the Red Sox down the stretch.
The offense will not be the problem for Boston. They were sixth in runs last season despite the low HR totals and added Martinez to the mix. And though Martinez has only ever played more than 123 games in a season one time in his seven year career, this offense will be improved by his presence. The downfall of this team could reside on the pitcher’s mound.
On paper, the Red Sox rotation is a who’s who of starting pitchers. Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello. Between them they have two Cy Young awards, and in Sale’s case, six-straight top-6 finishes for the award. But this game isn’t played on paper. Sale will be dominant. There is no doubt about that. You can write it in ink, etch it stone, whatever you want. He always has been. Beyond Sale is a rotation that has no definitive answers.
Price was one of the best pitchers in baseball for a long time. There’s a reason he makes $30MM/yr. The operative word there is “was.” The fact is, Price hasn’t been the same pitcher since signing that contract. He got lit up in his first season with Boston, a solid stretch in July and August his only saving grace in an otherwise mediocre season. In his second season with the ball club, he missed three months due to two separate stints on the DL, and was a non-factor in two relief appearances in October.
Porcello came out of left field in 2016 to lead the league in wins en route to an AL Cy Young award and then, in true Porcello fashion, pitched to a 4.65 ERA in 2017 while leading the league in losses. Earlier, I referred to Masahiro Tanaka as the most expensive middle-of-the-rotation pitcher in baseball. Ladies and gentleman, I give you option 1b.
Eduardo Rodriguez has the talent and the potential to be great, but his time to figure it out is running out. He is beginning his fourth season with the Red Sox and his 4.19 ERA in 2017 was the best of his career. Rodriguez needs to prove that he can produce if he wants to be considered a factor in the Red Sox rotation.
On a staff filled with former aces, it should say something that Drew Pomeranz is probably the most consistent starter behind Sale. Don’t get me wrong, all of these guys have the potential to be great. But potential is just that until it is realized and sustained.
In the bullpen, the Red Sox are solid, but not spectacular. Craig Kimbrel is a star, but after him, it’s not great. Heath Hembree and Matt Barnes are capable relievers, and Joe Kelly is coming off a strong 2017 season. The x-factor here is Carson Smith.
When healthy, Smith is one of the top relievers in the game. The problem is, he hasn’t been healthy since joining the Red Sox, accruing just 9.1 IP in two seasons. If Smith can stay healthy, it could go a long way towards a third straight division title.
*Note* Part of my ranking this team this low is because of the manager. Boston players have a history of blaming the manager for their problems (see: Terry Francona, Bobby Valentine, and John Farrell). Alex Cora is in his first year as a manager, which doesn’t bode well, in my opinion. If this team struggles early, the wheels could come off.
Toronto Blue Jays (78-84)
Troy Tulowitzki is hurt. Again. Jose Bautista is gone, replaced by another 37-year-old outfielder with declining stats in Curtis Granderson. Though one hell of a human being and teammate, Granderson leaves a lot to be desired on the field at this point in his career. Russell Martin is still a solid backstop, but his best offensive days are behind him. Maybe the new man-bun can revive his dying bat. Kevin Pillar is a defensive standout, and while his bat won’t hurt you, it certainly won’t help you either. This offense is basically relying on Josh Donaldson in the final year of his contract, and the hopes that Justin Smoak’s breakout 2017 season wasn’t just a mirage on the path to ineptitude.
The starting rotation let the team down in 2017. After posting a 3.64 ERA as a unit in 2016, Toronto returned basically the same staff in 2017 hoping to build upon two straight ALCS appearances. That staff pitched to a 4.57 ERA. Marco Estrada’s ERA rose from 3.48 to 4.98. Francisco Liriano watched his ERA balloon from 2.92 after being traded to the Jays in 2016, to 5.88 before the Jays mercifully traded him to Houston at the deadline last season. Aaron Sanchez, the breakout star from 2016, made just eight starts last season as he dealt with blister issues all year. J.A. Happ and Marcus Stroman enjoyed successful individual seasons in 2017, but the disappearing act put on by the rest of the rotation spelled doom for Toronto. The Blue Jays are hoping the addition of Jaime Garcia will help bolster a rotation badly in need of a few bounce back campaigns.
In the bullpen, Joe Biagini returns to a relief role the suited him well prior to his placement in the starting rotation last year. Ryan Tepera and Aaron Loup are looking to build on their solid 2017 seasons, and Roberto Osuna, though established as one of the game’s better closers, is looking to make his 10 blown saves from last year a distant memory. The bullpen, as a whole, is okay, but the less they have to pitch, the better. The rotation can go a long way in making sure that happens.
Tampa Bay Rays (72-90)
Jake Odorizzi, Evan Longoria, and Corey Dickerson are gone, traded away in the offseason as the Rays apparently saw the writing on the wall. Logan Morrison and his 38 home runs left as a free agent and signed with the Minnesota Twins. Third baseman Matt Duffy missed all of 2017 and played in just 91 games the year before. Denard Span and Carlos Gomez were brought in to help the Rays try to be competitive, but both players are shells of their former selves.
Kevin Kiermaier got that big six-year, $53MM contract prior to last season and then played in just 98 games. In fact, Kiermaier has played in 108 games or fewer in three of his four full seasons with the Rays.
The starting rotation is Tampa’s only hope. Jake Faria was a nice surprise in 2017 (3.43 ERA in 16 G/14 starts). Blake Snell was good in his first full season, and as one of the game’s top young pitching prospects, should only get better. Chris Archer is widely regarded as an ace, but he hasn’t pitched like one in three years. Still, this team is better with him on it. Nathan Eovaldi is simply a strong number four pitcher. He’ll never be an ace, but he competes and gives his ball club a chance to win.
The bullpen is filled with has-beens and never-weres, though Alex Colome is a star in the closer’s role. The bottom line is that instead of try to reload and keep pace, like the Orioles did, and to a lesser extent, the Jays, Tampa Bay packed it in back in the cold winter months.
Some of the older veteran players may get their competitive juices flowing for a period of time in the first half and keep the team relevant, but at season’s end, the team’s record will indicate a franchise that gave up in 2018 before it even started.
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