USA Today came out with its projected final standings for 2017 last week, which naturally demanded a team-by-team assessment of these lines. Chad Stewart and Jim Turvey decided to do just this, deciding whether they would allocate their (imaginary) funds into the over or the under for each team. This is Part I of the series, in which they look at the American League East.
Boston Red Sox: 94 wins
Jim Turvey: I’ll take the over. Coming from a Yankee fan this one hurts, but man, just look at that roster. On the offensive side of things, the Sawks’ one-through-five hitters are absolutely terrifying. Dustin Pedroia had a vintage year in 2016, hitting for his second-best batting average of his career and sporting an OPS+ of 116. After Pedroia (at least according to Roster Resource, we won’t know for sure until the season starts) comes the number one prospect in all of baseball, Andrew Benintendi, who showed he was more than capable in his 34-game debut in 2016 (.295/.359/.476 for an OPS+ of 117). I don’t think I have to explain how good (and still full of potential) Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts are. Then it’s Hanley Ramirez, who joined Dustin Pedroia at whatever fountain of youth the two found before 2016, as Ramirez was another Sock who looked to be in his prime despite an age starting with “3.” After Ramirez there is a slight drop, as the Sox no longer have the big bat of Big Papi in the middle of the order, but the bottom of the lineup is still better than what most teams can claim.
With the addition of Chris Sale, the Sox shored up an already strong rotation with a bona fide ace. Since his move to the rotation in 2012, only three pitchers in baseball have totaled more fWAR than Sale. One of those pitchers will join him in the rotation – David Price. Price is the guy I really like to have a stud year. Many a pitcher has struggled in his first year in Boston (we’ll see if Sale can avoid that trap), but Price really wasn’t that bad. His peripherals (3.52 xFIP, 8.92 K/9) were nearly on par with seasons past. The team’s number three pitcher is last year’s AL Cy Young winner (Rick Porcello). Yeah, that’s what we’re working with here.
If there is one possible way to imagine the Sox falling short of their 94 projected wins, I think the path would be through the bullpen. Craig Kimbrel is simply not the pitcher he was three or four years ago with Atlanta. Kimbrel’s xFIP was a full run higher in 2016 than it had been in any season in his career previously, and given the drop in his ground ball rate and jump in his walk rate, that was no coincidence. Beyond Kimbrel there are a few decent arms (Tyler Thornburg and Fernando Abad most notably), but this is the Sox’s one weakness. That being said, they’ll most certainly go out and get a bullpen arm if they need to at the trade deadline. This team is stacked.
What’re your thoughts, Chad?
Chad Stewart: I think I’ll go under for Boston, but only ever so slightly. I still think they win the AL East and that they are the second-best team in the AL behind Cleveland, but I think it’ll be tough for them to win more than 94 games in such a competitive division. I think they settle in just beneath that, around 92 or 93. Chris Sale was obviously a huge acquisition for them and gives them one of the top, if not the top, rotations in baseball. I mean, seriously, they have three pitchers who could conceivably finish in the top-3 in Cy Young Award voting next year. But replacing David Ortiz with Mitch Moreland isn’t ideal, and they should score considerably fewer runs than last year. However, Andrew Benintendi appears to be the real deal and will definitely help offset the loss of Ortiz to a degree. And while I did like the acquisition of Tyler Thornburg, I am also not sold on their bullpen. But as long as Betts, Bradley, and Bogaerts are together, the Red Sox will be a force to be reckoned with.
Toronto Blue Jays: 87 wins
JT: I’ll take the under with this one. It’s amazing what losing Encarnacion can do to the lineup. What used to look like a bullet-proof group of guys suddenly looks a lot more human, especially if Jose Bautista is as washed as he looked at times in 2016. Josh Donaldson is obviously going to bring it night-in and night-out, but I have my doubts as to whether Russell Martin will continue to drink out of the fountain of youth, and whether he gave Melvin Upton the directions to get there, as well. There are a few bats to like with Devon Travis and Kevin Pillar, but the depth isn’t there in case of injuries, I think this offense will be a lot less potent than in years past.
As far as run suppression goes, their rotation looks like a group of ticking time bombs to me. Aaron Sanchez is one of the guys who will be in every preseason fantasy baseball article, as he made a massive leap in innings pitched last year. Marco Estrada might just be a BABIP wizard, but we all thought that about Matt Cain as well until the clock struck midnight and he turned into a pumpkin. I do like Marcus Stroman, but he’s not going to be enough. The bullpen also leaves a lot to be desired, as outside of Roberto Osuna (and I’m not even sure he’s a 100 percent guarantee), there are a lot more questions than answers. I see these guys dropping off big time, maybe even below .500.
Am I just burdened by my hate of a divisional rival?
CS: I’m also taking the under here, but I’m not as down on them. The negative impact of losing Encarnacion is undeniable. But I think Kendrys Morales will be good enough, and a bounceback season from Jose Bautista in addition to a complete one from Devon Travis will definitely help mitigate the loss, not to mention to continued excellence of Josh Donaldson. With a few exceptions, the team as a whole is very old. Donaldson, Bautista, Martin, Tulowitzki, J.A. Happ, and Marco Estrada are all at least 31 years old, so it wouldn’t be all that surprising if they saw their production decline or if any of them suffered a serious injury. And like you mentioned, there isn’t much depth there to be able to sustain something like that.
However, their rotation did have the best ERA and second-best FIP in the AL last year and with an unrestricted Aaron Sanchez, Toronto’s rotation could get even better this year. They also had a very good defense, finishing fifth in DRS and fourth in UZR. So while they may not have the same dynamic offense we saw a couple of years ago, I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom for this team. I see them in the thick of the Wild Card race.
Baltimore Orioles: 84 wins
JT: Year after year, the O’s are one of the most interesting teams in the preseason. The projection systems hate them, but they always seem to end up smack dab in the middle of the postseason picture. I’m taking the over. Call it Buck Showalter Magic, or the Orioles feeling like they need to prove their critics wrong every season, but I’m buying in. The over under seems a bit high at 84, but in the words of Paul Simon, “Who am I to disagree?”
Offensively, I think Jonathan Schoop will take a big step forward this year, and could be in the discussion for an All-Star bid. His infield mate Manny Machado will almost certainly be at the Midsummer Classic, and his ceiling is as high as anyone (non-Trout) in baseball. I also have a massive baseball crush on Hyun Soo Kim.
The rotation looks about as pretty as the thought of a female John Malkovich, but there’s some definite upside with Chris Tillman, Kevin Gausman, and Dylan Bundy holding down three of the five spots. The best part of this rotation is they don’t have to do too much. Zach Britton (he of the million offseason jokes about his usage or lack thereof) and company had the best bullpen ERA in the American League last season and that was no fluke. Brad Brach and Darren O’Day are beasts, and Showalter (usually….) knows how to get the best out of them.
What about Chad, you believe in the magic of Showalter, or the precision of projections?
CS: I don’t know if I believe in the magic of Showalter, but I do believe in the Orioles. Therefore, I’m taking the over as well. They’re basically returning the same team as last year, and I think the sneaky acquisitions of Seth Smith and Wellington Castillo will provide at least a modest boost, as they are both great fits for Camden Yards. Manny Machado is probably one of the ten best players in the game, and he’s only getting better. Both Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo will hit 30+ homers. From Schoop to Kim to Adam Jones, they just have such a great core of position players that it’s hard to imagine them not playing meaningful baseball in September.
Oh, and that bullpen? Yeah, it’s built for the postseason. Britton, Brach, O’Day, and Michael Givens are all fantastic. It really is a shame we didn’t get to see them fully utilized last October…
Their rotation still leaves much to be desired, but the relievers and position players are too good to ignore. In 2017, the Orioles will be battling for a postseason spot once again.
New York Yankees: 80 wins
JT: The Yankees seem like another team primed for the over. (Maybe it’s my east coast bias, but I do believe the AL East will be as deep as any division in baseball this year.) Similar to what we both just said, I trust Joe Girardi to pull every win possible out of this squad. Right now, the Yankees have a very un-Yankees look of just a solid but unspectacular player at every position. If you look at the FanGraphs depth charts for New York, no starter is projected for higher than 4.0 WAR or lower than 1.2. That includes the rotation and the lineup. That’s some impressive balance and given the recent signing of Chris Carter, along with their newfound organizational depth, there shouldn’t be any issue even if (when) some of the older guys (Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner et al.) pick up some nagging injuries.
There’s also the very possible situation in which the Yankees decide to Yankee it up and make a big move. Joey Votto stands out as a guy who would be a perfect fit for the Yankees organization, and would move this team (already fourth in the AL in FanGraphs projected WAR) into the tier of legitimate American League contender. Even if the Yanks don’t chase Votto (or won’t give up the prospects necessary), maybe they can make a move for Brian Dozier to upgrade their weakest starting position (Starlin Castro at second base). All things considered, I like the over.
CS: I will take the over for the Yankees, too. I’m excited to see what Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, and Aaron Judge can do with a full season. I also really liked the signing of Matt Holiday, though signing Carter did seem a little odd to me. However, he cost so little that you might as well just take the 30+ homer potential now and figure out a way to get him at-bats later. Their starting staff is filled with question marks, but a bullpen headed by Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman should be an asset even if there isn’t much depth beyond those two. This is pretty clearly a bit of a transition year for New York and thus, the season should be focused on getting all of their young guys playing time. But if all of those guys pan out, the Yankees could make the AL East even more interesting. I don’t expect them to be in the postseason hunt, but it’s also hard for me to imagine a Yankee team finishing under .500. Therefore, I think they spend most of the season on the periphery of the Wild Card chase, and finish a game or two over .500.
Tampa Bay Rays: 75 wins
JT: This is the team in the AL East (and maybe the whole of baseball) which I believe to have one of the greatest variances in their potential wins in 2017. Will Kevin Kiermaier stay healthy enough while also keeping up his elite-level defense? Will the LASIK eye surgery prove to be as magical for Wilson Ramos in year two as it was in year one? Does Willy Adames get a callup at any point? If so, does he make a difference?
How about the rotation? How does Alex Cobb look in his first full season back from Tommy John? Can Blake Snell harness his A+ stuff to get at least A- results? Will Chris Archer lose his mind if he’s saddled with another 19 losses? Can Matt Andriese achieve his ceiling of “most forgettably average pitcher in baseball”? The bullpen seems solid, with Alex Colome looking truly legitimate. But there’s just so many different ways I could see this season playing out. If there was ever a team to stay away from gambling on, this would be it. I guess I’ll take the under in the end, only because I can’t just keep taking the overs.
Chad, tell me you have more conviction in this pick than I do.
CS: Well, I wish I could tell you that I have more conviction in this pick than you, but I simply cannot. I’m not really sure what to think about this team. On one hand, I’m a big fan of their pitching staff. A rotation consisting of Archer, Cobb, Snell, Jake Odorizzi, and Jose De Leon carries serious upside. On the other, I’m unsure that they will be able to score enough runs. I thought the Ramos signing was the perfect low risk, high reward move for a team like Tampa Bay, and Colby Rasmus should help as well. But while Kiermaier plays truly awe-inspiring defense, his offense is anything but. That leaves the Rays banking on a 31-year-old Evan Longoria to carry the offense, which isn’t too inspiring of an endeavor. Of course, Brad Miller could hit 30 homers again, and Matt Duffy could return to his 2015 form. But I don’t necessarily think it’s fair to expect that from either. Still, I like Tampa Bay’s starting staff enough to take the over. I think the odds are that their win total at the end of the year is somewhere in the high 70s or low 80s, but if everything goes right, and those starters fulfill their potential, they could find themselves within reach of a postseason spot.
Check back next week for over/unders in the American League Central.Next post: 2017 Season Preview Series: Houston Astros
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