It could be another good year in Baltimore.
I’m not one for picking the Orioles to do well; for one, it goes against my ingrained instincts as a fan from the early part of this century, but as an analyst there’s a specific sort of team I like — lots of balanced bats who do everything well, a couple great utility/veteran types, and a rotation with dominance at the top that can shorten up in postseason play. That’s part of why I’ve swooned over the recent iterations of the Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals, and part of why I’ve been extremely skeptical of the current Baltimore Orioles — a team defined by unbalanced bats that sell out for power at the expense of on-base percentage and a rotation of merely average to above-average that get significant help from their defense.
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This season, though, I’m cautiously optimistic that the Orioles will be in the mix for the division up until the last day of the season, though I’m not confident they’ll win it outright — mainly because none of the other teams in the division have that sort of balanced approach and dominating top of the rotation on paper, though one or two teams could have themselves a season.
Let’s start at the presumptive bottom and work our way upwards.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays will finish in last this season barring a collapse by one of the other teams in the division — something that’s entirely possible, given how precariously balanced most of the other teams in the East are. But going into the season, the second-best hitter in the Rays’ projected starting lineup is either James Loney — a guy who signed on in Tampa as yet another scrapheap one-year-wonder 1B acquisition whose empty near-.300 average over the past two years represents a major success for him — or Kevin Kiermaier, a “breakout” RF prospect from last season who hit well, but not outstandingly, over 364 PA and who MLB teams now have a book on. The ace of the staff is Alex Cobb, and the presumptive number two is either Drew Smyly — riding high on a small post-trade sample size after coming over from Detroit — or the solid, but unspectacular, Chris Archer. Matt Moore waits in the wings, rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and due back sometime this season; the rest of the presumptive rotation is filled out by the underwhelming Jake Odorizzi (a toss-in from the Royals in the Myers/Shields trade) and the untested Alex Colome, who has fewer than 40 major league innings.
Gone are David Price, Ben Zobrist, Yunel Escobar, Wil Myers and Matt Joyce; the biggest replacement acquisition this offseason was Asdrubal Cabrera, signed on the cheap to a one-year deal and likely to be flipped at the deadline, as the player-to-be-named-later in the Myers to SD trade is almost certainly prospect SS Trea Turner. The Rays are in a full rebuild with a young core, and could be a threat again as early as next season with good development and savvy moves — but this isn’t their season.
Boston Red Sox
Lots of writers have loved the Red Sox offseason. All I’ve seen from them is the signing over an overweight third baseman with very suspect, overrated defense (Pablo Sandoval); the signing of a perfectly acceptable bat-first third baseman being asked to play left field for the first time in his career in Fenway (Hanley Ramirez); the signing of a Cuban centerfielder being asked to start Opening Day who might as well be a black box (Rusney Castillo); and the massive over-hyping of a young, undersized second baseman who is playing right field because he had a good second half last season and there’s nowhere else to put him (Mookie Betts). Oh, and the acquisition of a rotation full of gritty #4 starters who rely on good defense behind them to put up shiny ERAs, instead of spending the money necessary to land legitimate aces in free agency.
I have long been skeptical of the Orioles’ rotation sustaining success, even with a great defense behind them; a rotation of Clay Buchholz, Wade Miley, Joe Kelly, Rick Porcello and Justin Masterson with a grand total of one plus defensive player (Dustin Pedroia) behind him? If I were a Red Sox fan I’d be utterly terrified. The Red Sox are conducting a grand experiment to see what will happen if they just decide they’re not going to pay for pitching. I suspect the answer will be “fourth place.”
Toronto Blue Jays
Beyond their bizarre fixation on Orioles’ Vice President of Baseball Operations Dan Duquette, the Jays have had an extremely solid offseason. I always worry I overrate this club — partially because they’re aggressive in the market and make moves on paper that should work; partially because they’re not the Yankees, Red Sox, or Rays. The biggest problem with the Jays is their age; they’ve had huge problems staying healthy the past couple years, and six members of their starting nine are over thirty years old. Two others, recent additions Michael Saunders and Josh Donaldson, are 28 and 29 respectively.
But Donaldson and Saunders are both excellent acquisitions for a veteran team willing to spend money — they fill massive holes left by the disappointing Brett Lawrie and the Chicago-bound Melky Cabrera, and both are upgrades: Donaldson is perhaps the best all-around third baseman in the American League replacing a defensive specialist with anger problems, and Saunders is a consistent bat that can play all three outfield positions. The biggest problem with the lineup remains up the middle; Maicer Izturis is an uninspiring second baseman at this point in his career, though he still plays good defense, and the current centerfield solution is 22-year-old prospect Dalton Pompey. The hope is that Pompey will be able to develop his game at the MLB level without having to worry about hitting right away, given the presence of guys like Jose Bautista, Encarnacion, and Donaldson on the roster.
Let’s not forget about the Jays’ signing of Russell Martin, either; he’s one of the league’s better catchers, though he is a bit on the older side now. He’s also very good at the defensive and framing side of the game, which will be important for a rotation that’s relying on youngsters Drew Hutchison, Marcus Stroman, and Aaron Sanchez to step up and become the new mainstays of a rotation that won’t have R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle much longer. I’m skeptical of all three of the young Toronto pitchers — Hutchison’s had two below-average years now at the MLB level, Stroman is absolutely tiny for a guy expected to handle a starting pitcher’s workload and Sanchez might be destined for the bullpen given his long history of command issues. If the two vets turn in great years and the kids are even just okay, the Jays’ pen has been quietly solid since Brett Cecil joined Aaron Loup and Chad Jenkins there on a full-time basis.
New York Yankees
No team in the East has a higher variance for 2015 than the New York Yankees, as their entire starting rotation — projected as C.C. Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, Chris Capuano and Nathan Eovaldi — pitched a total of 555.2 innings last season, most of those coming from Eovaldi’s 199.2 IP of 4.37 ERA ball for the Miami Marlins. All of these pitchers are supposed to be healthy, but Sabathia at the very least remains a massive question mark, and even if Pineda’s elbow and shoulder hold together it’s unclear whether he’ll be the great pitcher from his small sample size performance last year or return to the workmanlike performance he gave in Seattle. Ivan Nova is coming back from Tommy John surgery as well; who knows how he’ll do — he was inconsistent from year to year before having to go under the knife. James Shields would have been an excellent signing for this Yankees team; as it is, they have to hope everyone performs well enough that Capuano can return to a swingman role as soon as possible.
Alex Rodriguez will be back in the lineup, which might be a blessing for Yankees fans who have missed any sort of power output from their starting nine over the past two seasons. He should easily replace Garrett Jones, who up until A-Rod’s recent apology tour was the presumptive DH, and free him up to spot Carlos Beltran in RF and Mark Teixiera at 1B. At the very least, the Yankees should have one of the best infield defenses in the majors with Chase Headley, Didi Gregorius, Stephen Drew and Teixiera from left to right. Gregorius and Drew up the middle is an especially potent defensive combination — whether or not the Yankees have a better IF defense than the Orioles will come down to another Manny Machado knee injury rehab.
If Ellsbury, McCann, Gardner, Tex, Beltran and yes, A-Rod, hit like we’ve seen they can — and the pitchers stay healthy — the Yankees could be very dangerous in 2015. If the hitters show their age, Gregorius doesn’t develop, and a couple of the pitchers come back hurt or ineffective, they might challenge for last place.
In the end, I never bet against the Yankees. They’re infuriating like that, and though the rotation remains something of a coin flip, I think at least two of Tanaka, Nova, and Pineda will pitch very well for New York in 2015, with Eovaldi improving and the team possibly getting another starter at the deadline for a late season push. I’m picking the division to look like:
I would not be shocked by those top three teams finishing in any order, however — both New York and Toronto have a lot hinging on injuries, and both the Red Sox and Rays have intrinsic structural problems with their roster that I’m skeptical they’ll overcome.
But perhaps the arms in New York will falter, the bats will show their age, and Toronto will once again fail to translate a promising offseason into on-field success. I was skeptical of the Orioles each of the last three seasons. I’m glad to be proven wrong again.
Jonathan is a contributing writer for VICE Sports. His work has previously appeared in Sports on Earth, Baseball Prospectus, The Classical, and ESPN’s SweetSpot Network. Born in central Maryland, Bernhardt currently lives in the New York metropolitan area.