There are no truly bad teams in the American League East right now. The Rays, the Orioles, and the Yankees all fall somewhere between OK and decent; New York, heaven help us, even has the temerity to load up a farm system. The Blue Jays are pretty good, even if their pitching is a little suspect, and the Red Sox could be a juggernaut if its players' health holds up and the lethal offense does what it does.
After a decade-plus of coverage centered on the Beantown-Gotham axis, the old tropes are all worn out. This year, the AL East is up for grabs, and all five teams are reaching for the prize.
Remember way back in the summer of 2004, when it was kind of fun to root for the Red Sox? They had a 20-something GM in Theo Epstein, a near-century of futility to overcome, and a bunch of long-haired, carefree idiots on the big-league roster. Those days are long gone. The Sox have won three titles since then, and new boss Dave Dombrowski is a big spender with a taste for another championship (or ten). These Sox are fun to hate. They're also a damn good baseball team.
The marquee acquisition of the winter was Chris Sale, imported proximately from the White Sox and distally from whatever corner of Big-League Hitter Hell also spawned Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, the only pitcher even somewhat comparable to Sale in the modern era. When he's on, Sale isn't just unhittable. He's downright scary—six and a half feet of lanky bone and sinew careening through the air at tremendous speed, and all conspiring to hurl a rather solid sphere of leather and string 60 feet and six inches through the air to home plate, and towards you.
Anyway. He's pitching for the Red Sox now, where he'll join former Cy Young winners David Price and Rick Porcello in a rotation that's among the very best in baseball. The back end, where people named Drew Pomeranz and Steven Wright lurk in relative anonymity, keeps this crew from clearly besting the Dodgers' five, but it's a close competition. The bullpen, however, is middling, aside from Craig Kimbrel and Tyler Thornburg, so the Sox will likely aim for deep outings from their top three.
Mookie Betts and other Sox sluggers look ready for a second straight season of heavy hitting. Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Pitching isn't even the Sox's forte. After scoring 5.42 runs per game in 2016—the best mark in baseball by quite a lot—Boston's hitters look ready to match or better their performance this year. Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Dustin Pedroia, and Jackie Bradley Jr. are the stars, but there's talent top to bottom here, with discipline and power at nearly every position (catcher, first base, and third base being the possible exceptions). This lineup is strong enough to carry even bad pitching to a successful season. Instead, it'll play behind some of the best. Watch out.
The Blue Jays have a pretty good lineup, too, even if it's likely lost some of its thump. Josh Donaldson, a true student of hitting and one of the two or three top hitters in the game when he's healthy (which, granted, is not a sure thing), will lead a crop of Toronto sluggers trying to bring a title back to Canada for the first time since 1993. All things considered, they have a decent shot at it—but the pitching will have to hold together, and the offense will have to hold par.
That's a riskier bet than you might think. Edwin Encarnacion and Michael Saunders, two key offensive contributors from last season, departed via free agency. Saunders' replacement, Steve Pearce, formerly of Baltimore, is close to a match, but Kendrys Morales is a big step down from Encarnacion. That's not to say Morales is bad (he's not), just that Encarnacion is very good.
The pitching has a great deal of promise—Aaron Sanchez, Marco Estrada, and Marcus Stroman are all young guns with something to prove—but not a lot of surety. The bullpen, meanwhile, remains dicey at best, even if it does feature the formidable talents of Roberto Osuna. This is a team with a lot of talent but also a lot of potential downside via injury or underperformance. They could challenge the Sox if everything breaks right, or they could be quite bad indeed. Split the difference, and project them a little over .500.
The Yankees have always been smart and rich. They're still smart and rich, and now they have a farm system, too—one of the game's very best. Sure, the current big-league roster doesn't stand too much of a chance of challenging the Sox or the Jays at the top of the division this year (although it's not out of the realm of possibility), but the glittering collection of young talent yet to arrive at Yankee Stadium has the Bombers coming on fast and strong. It's been a quiet few years in the Bronx, but that run of relative restraint is swiftly drawing to a close.
Torres and the rest of the Yanks' youngsters give fans plenty of reason to hope. Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
The crown jewel of the system is brilliant young shortstop Gleyber Torres, acquired from the Cubs midseason in exchange for closer Aroldis Chapman (who the Yankees promptly re-signed as a free agent this winter), but there's talent everywhere you look down on the farm. Clint Frazier, a former first-round pick of the Indians, has tremendous bat speed and a sensational shock of red hair. Justus Sheffield, James Kaprielian, and Albert Abreu lead the pitchers. And we haven't even discussed 2016 breakouts Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, or Greg Bird.
Those three will leave camp with the big-league Yankees and join veterans Matt Holliday, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, and Chase Headley in trying to get New York out to a hot start right away. If they manage that, this team could easily swing a big deadline acquisition or two out of its surplus prospect depth and, bolstered by a few midseason call-ups, make a run at the division or a wild-card spot by season's end. And that's just in 2017. This time next year, the Yankees might be ready to reclaim the top of the division for the foreseeable future.
Here are the three best things about the Orioles, in my personal, infallible opinion: Camden Yards, Manny Machado, and Adam Jones, in that order. The rest of the Charm City roster? Meh. It's not that they're a particularly bad bunch, and their brand of free-swinging, big-power baseball has produced 93, 85, 96, 81, and 89 wins in each of the past five seasons. It's just that not much has changed here, and that's boring. As if to make this point, the Birds' biggest free-agent acquisition of the off-season was Chris Davis, who has played first base for them for the past six seasons.
Machado will lead the offense for baseball's only orange team; a sensational defender and even better hitter, he might finally win that MVP award he's been threatening to nab the past few seasons. Jones, although aging, remains a pretty good baseball player, as well as a class act. And Chris Davis? Well, Davis hits the shit out of baseballs, and that's not going to stop in 2017.
The Orioles are going to hit for power. The Orioles aren't going to get on base very much, and they won't steal too many bases either. The Orioles will put their pitchers through development hell. That's what the Orioles do. It works, sort of, and they don't plan to change any time soon. This is probably a .500-ish team. Returning Davis kept it from falling further, but beyond that, Baltimore basically punted on the winter.
Camden Yards, though... that's a beautiful ballpark in the summer.
A decade ago, the Rays leaped clean out of the tank and into baseball's elite, stunning the league with a 97-win 2008 season and a World Series appearance. They followed it up with a number of very good seasons and very good teams. Then, just as it seemed as if they might renew their core for a second window of contention, Andrew Friedman bolted for the Dodgers, Joe Maddon left for the Cubs, and the Rays were left holding the shitty end of the stick.
When you're searching for direction. Photo by Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
This year's edition is still trying to work out what life post-Friedman looks like, and the results aren't all that clear. Puzzlingly, the team decided to trade Drew Smyly to Seattle in exchange for an underwhelming return, while holding on to an aging Evan Longoria and starters Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi. A full rebuild would make sense; so would a last-ditch run at contention, but a partial sale doesn't push the needle either way.
Longoria is still powerful; Kevin Kiermaier provides extraordinary outfield defense; and the rotation, fronted by Archer and Odorizzi, is perfectly respectable with quite a bit of upside. Barring a total collapse in the pitching staff, Tampa will probably hover around .500 this year. It won't be a disaster, even if it probably won't be especially good, but the medium-to-long-term future looks rather murky for the Rays.
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