Know Your Enemy: Breaking Down the AL East Competition
With pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training camps this week, what better time to take a look at how the rest of the division handled their offseason this winter, and what the enemy — all four of them — look like heading into 2017?
In 2016, the Orioles finished 89-73, four games behind the Red Sox and in a virtual dead heat with the Blue Jays, against whom they battled in the Wild Card game. New York was five games behind that pace, with the Rays in a distant fifth place, 25 games behind the pace, 16 games behind fourth place and 21 games behind Toronto and Baltimore.
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It was an active offseason in the East, with the Yankees kicking things off a bit early with a quick retooling around the Trade Deadline. They went ahead and reacquired the closer they dealt, and powered up around a roster that’ll be young but possibly a force in the near future. Boston grabbed another left-handed ace, the Blue Jays shuffled some things around and the Rays are, well, the Rays. They always seem to find a way when you count them out.
So let’s take look at the enemy, and see what the O’s are up against in an effort to not only repeat 2016, but maybe steal a division flag:
- The Team: Toronto Blue Jays
- The Additions: Kendrys Morales, Lourdes Gourriel, Steve Pearce, Brett Oberholtzer, T.J. House, Jason Grilli (re-sign), Jose Bautista (re-sign), Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Lucas Harrell, J.P. Howell, Jose Tabata
- The Subtractions: Edwin Encarnacion, Brett Cecil, Michael Saunders, R.A. Dickey, Jesse Chavez
- The Breakdown: Nobody has forgotten about the team that broke the collective hearts of Orioles fans last year, so nothing would be sweeter than seeing the Jays falter, or better yet, be bounced at the hands of the O’s this time around. It appears the Jays may have miscalculated the DH-type market, paying $11 million per year for Morales for three years when Encarnacion — a much better hitter — signed for a reasonable sum of $20 million (average annual value). The rest of the offseason is filling needs and some intriguing fliers. Gourriel’s progression will be interesting, though he’s not expected to be the same type of impact player as his brother, Lourdes. Howell is an interesting and budget-friendly replacement for Cecil, who scored a huge deal from the Cardinals. Don’t sleep on House, who was fantastic in Cleveland when he was healthy. In 2014, he fanned 7.1 batters per nine, walked just 1.9 and posted a groundball rate in excess of 60 percent. That’ll play just about anywhere. The faces may have changed — though not as much since they got deals done with Bautista and Grilli — but the results shouldn’t be too terribly different.
- Are They Better than 2016: It’s hard to unequivocally say they’ll be better, but they shouldn’t be markedly worse. They should get better production from Marcus Stroman and should be able to replace that which is lost from Dickey leaving, and the bullpen should still be solid. If they took a step back, it shouldn’t be a huge one. All in all, it feels like they have an offseason similar to the Orioles, though maybe with a few more moving pieces. It won’t get casual fans charged up, but it was by no means a disaster, either.
- Are They a Contender This Year: Yes, it sure seems like it.
- The Team: Boston Red Sox
- The Additions: Tyler Thornburg, Mitch Moreland, Chris Sale, Josh Rutledge, Matt Dominguez, Kyle Kendrick
- The Subtractions: Travis Shaw, David Ortiz, Clay Buchholz, Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech, Luis Alexander Basabe, Victor Diaz, Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehara
- The Breakdown: There were a lot of moving parts this offseason with the Red Sox, including notably the move of Buchholz to Philadelphia and the retirement of Ortiz. Those two were institutions in Boston — for better or worse — and as a result two of the more tenured Red Sox will be doing other things this season. Acquiring Moreland seemed strange on the surface — he didn’t really stand out among other options at the position and signed early — but the Sox appear to be prioritizing defense over there after seeing what Hanley Ramirez could, or rather could not, do at two different corners the last two seasons. We’re burying the lede here, though, as a rotation fronted by Rick Porcello, David Price and Sale has potential to be one of the best in not just the division, but the entire league. Add to that an emerging Steven Wright, what remains of Drew Pomeranz and the ever-intriguing Eduardo Rodriguez, and this team addressed one of its biggest weaknesses from just over a year ago. Don’t sleep on the bullpen either, as Craig Kimbrel has a lot to prove, while Thornburg and Joe Kelly have potential to be really, really good in setup roles. Here’s the skinny: The Red Sox have an amazing young outfield, potential for a solid rotation and bullpen, an odd but intriguing infield and burgeoning cult hero Sandy Leon holding on to a tenuous spot over a couple of youngsters. In a weird American League, that should be enough to win a division crown and maybe get to the World Series.
- Are They Better than 2016: Yeah, the acquisition of Sale alone makes them better this year. There’s a non-zero chance it hurts them in the future — in the event Moncada becomes a superstar or one of the pitchers takes off — but this is the kind of prospects-for-studs trade teams should make. Kind of like when the Red Sox made guys like Henry Owens and Blake Swihart off limits in a potential Cole Hamels deal. The Moreland move was a bit odd, but getting Hanley off the field can’t hurt.
- Are They a Contender This Year: Yes, they’re perhaps the best-constructed team in the entire American League.
- The Team: Tampa Bay Rays
- The Additions: John Lamb, Jose De Leon, Wilson Ramos, Colby Rasmus, Mallex Smith, Shawn Tolleson, Logan Morrison (re-sign), Rickie Weeks, Nathan Eovaldi
- The Subtractions: Logan Forsythe, Steve Pearce, Drew Smyly, Enny Romero
- The Breakdown: This was the quintessential Rays offseason. One trade of a vested veteran? Check. Losing a fairly good player in free agency? Check. A bunch of interesting moves in free agency with the short game in mind? Check. The Rays had one of the more intriguing offseasons, coming from out of nowhere to sign Ramos while adding some solid talent in Rasmus — a prime buy-low, flip later-type guy — as well as taking on the role of the “team who’ll employ Eovaldi while he rehabs.” The Rays don’t have much to lose coming off a 94-loss season, but each of these moves puts the thought in the back of one’s mind that “Hey, these Rays might not be that bad!” Keys to this season will be getting Chris Archer back on track, the continued health of Matt Duffy and Alex Cobb and how the team parcels out playing time behind the plate as Ramos recovers from knee surgery. Luke Maile and Curt Casali offer almost nothing offensively, but should be sturdy defensive backstops while Ramos recovers.
- Are They Better than 2016: Yes. Not only did they make enough interesting moves, but the pitching staff should be better by sheer progression of young pitchers and the *knock on wood* health of guys like Cobb. There’s a lot of youth and interesting talent on the pitching staff, and the offense won’t be half bad either. We wouldn’t call them contenders quite yet, but this is a team on the upswing.
- Are They a Contender This Year: No; not yet anyway. The pitching staff is interesting, though. If Kevin Cash can tap into his inner Maddon, though, they could make things interesting down the stretch.
- The Team: New York Yankees
- The Additions: Matt Holliday, Aroldis Chapman, Ji-Man Choi, Donovan Solano, Chris Carter
- The Subtractions: Brian McCann, Mark Teixeira, Billy Butler, Nathan Eovaldi
- The Breakdown: It was a fairly nondescript offseason for the Yankees, who handed out a big contract to bring back Chapman but otherwise played the market fairly low-key. Holliday is decently interesting — though perhaps a bit high at $13 million — but that’s excellently hedged and countered by the bargain signing of Carter for a meager $3 million. This is clearly going to be a team in transition, but will have an intriguing rotation mix behind Masahiro Tanaka with guys like Chad Green, Adam Warren and Luis Cessa all in the mix as potentially worthwhile arms. The back of the bullpen should be very good and the offense has potential to be decent, based largely on how well Gary Sanchez fares in his second go-round against his AL East foes. There’s a lot of young upside in Sanchez, Greg Bird and Aaron Judge, and a number of young players could force their way into the plans sooner rather than later, especially on the offensive side like Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres. The Yankees will probably take a step back in 2017, but should be a force in the near future.
- Are They Better than 2016: It’s not impossible for them to come close to the 84-win pace from last season, but it probably wouldn’t be the smart money to expect them to repeat that. It’s definitely a team on the upswing, though they’ll need to figure out long-term plans in the rotation — especially since Tanaka can opt out after the season.
- Are They a Contender This Year: Probably not, but it all hinges on the development of their young talent.