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February 21st, 2017

2017 AL East Division Preview: Red Sox Should Dominate as Yankees Rebuild

Trey Daubert @treydaubert
2017 AL East Division Preview

Can the Boston Red Sox repeat as AL East Division Champions in 2017? Check out the 2017 AL East Preview below (John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe)

The American League East might be the most competitive division in baseball heading into 2017. Three teams made the postseason from the AL East in 2016 (Red Sox, Blue Jays, Orioles). They were also the only division in baseball to have 4 teams have a winning record with the Yankees being the 4th. The Tampa Bay Rays also figure to be more competitive heading into 2017 as they made a few nice moves this offseason. What should we expect from the AL East in 2017?

2017 AL East Division Preview

 

1st Place: Boston Red Sox

2017 AL East Division Preview

The Red Sox have a new face of the franchise. His name is Mookie Betts (Jim Davis Boston Globe)

The Red Sox are my pick to win the AL East in 2017 after they did so in 2016. Boston won 93 games a year ago and are in position probably exceed that win total this year. Boston won’t be able to replace David Ortiz but they had an excellent offseason. Frankly, if Boston doesn’t win the division in 2017 it will be because of John Farrell who is one of the worst managers in baseball. Without further ado let’s preview the Red Sox.

Starting Rotation:

You could make the argument that the Red Sox have the best rotation in baseball. They have 3 of the top 10 starters in the game. Rick Porcello is expected to start opening day for Boston after winning 22 games and the Cy Young last season. New acquisition Chris Sale has Red Sox fans excited as he has been one of the best starters in the game the past 5 years. Sale won 17 games to go with a 3.34 ERA on a bad White Sox team but could really take off in Boston benefitting from an explosive offense and much better defensive supporting cast (The White Sox were one of the worst defensive teams in 2016). I haven’t even mentioned David Price who led the MLB with 230 innings pitched in 2016. The backend of the rotation has a chance to be excellent as well considering Drew Pomeranz and Steven Wright were All-Stars in 2016 and Eduardo Rodriguez has shown flashes on brilliance as a former top prospect and seems like a candidate to have a breakout season. One of those 3 will be kicked to the pen or fill in as the 6th starter.

Bullpen:

Boston’s pen also has a chance to be quite special. Craig Kimbrell is one of the best closers in baseball, that’s obvious. The new 8th inning man will be Tyler Thornburg who was acquired from Brewers during the Winter Meetings. Thornburg had a 2.15 ERA in 2016 with Milwaukee to go along with a high strikeout rate (12.1 per 9 innings). Matt Barnes, Joe Kelly, and Robbie Ross will make up the rest of the key relievers the Sox will count on during the late stretches of games. The Red Sox will also get a mid-season addition of Carson Smith in May or June who is recovering from Tommy John surgery. Smith, for those who don’t know, is also a stud who tossed a 2.31 ERA for Seattle in 2015.

2017 AL East Division Preview

Boston Red Sox 2017 Depth Chart (MLB)

Infielders:

Boston has incredible catcher depth. Sandy Leon came out of nowhere last year to hit .310 and post incredible defensive numbers too. After being a career minor leaguer for much of his career, it’s safe to say we don’t know what to expect from Leon. Just in case he was a fluke Boston also has Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart. Vazquez has often times been referenced as the 4th Molina brother showing incredible defensive prowess. Swihart, a former top prospect, is quite the opposite as he swings a tough bat but his defense lags behind.

As we go around the diamond, Mitch Moreland was brought on to play first base. Moreland, the 2016 gold glove winner, should improve the defense tremendously as it allows Hanley Ramirez to transition to DH. Ramirez will also play first base against lefties as Moreland struggles to hit left-handed pitching. Chris Young will serve as the DH on those days (.329 average against lefties). Second base will be manned by Dustin Pedroia who is still one of the games best at the position. Xander Bogaerts will hone in at shortstop as he has the chance to become one of the best to ever do it at the position as he will enter the season at only 24. Finally, we have Pablo Sandoval at third base who everyone is hoping can make a comeback after a rough 2 year stretch to his Red Sox tenure. If the Panda can get back to his San Francisco days, there is no question this is one of the best infields in baseball. In case he doesn’t, Brock Holt will serve as the primary reserve who resembles a modern day Ben Zobrist who can play every single position in the field. Holt did make the All-Star team in 2015 which is a dangerous weapon to have off the bench. Overall this group is also tremendous defensively as well.

Outfielders:

2017 AL East Division Preview

Win, Dance, Repeat. Boston has MLB’s best outfield trio (Raj Mehta-USA Today)

Win, Dance, Repeat; That’s the Red Sox outfield mantra. Boston has the best outfield trio in baseball and it’s not even close. Starting from left to right, Andrew Benintendi enters the upcoming season as the consensus number one prospect in baseball. Benintendi, 22, is going to be a terrific player. In 34 games with Boston last year he hit .295 with a .359 OBP including a .333 average during postseason play. In centerfield, you have Jackie Bradley Jr. who probably has the best outfield arm in the game. Bradley posted a 1.6 defensive WAR and recorded a 29 game hit streak a year ago. Bradley, 27, continues to improve offensively every year too slashing .267 with 26 homers last year. The infamous Mookie Betts will man Boston’s right field who otherwise would play center for the 29 other teams if it wasn’t for Jackie Bradley’s prodigious defense. Betts, 24, led baseball with 32 defensive runs saved in 2016 which was 10 more than anyone else regardless of position. Betts was also robbed of the American League MVP for obvious reasons as it’s scary to think that could put a chip on his shoulder in 2017. Chris Young will serve as the 4th outfielder who was previously mentioned as a lefty specialist.

Prospects Who Can Have Major League Impact In 2017:

Beyond Benintendi, Boston has 2 more elite prospects but neither will likely reach the majors in 2017 (Rafael Devers & Jason Groome). First Base prospect Sam Travis will reach the majors at some point this year and has a pretty bright future. Travis missed most of the last season due to a torn ACL but could really hit for a high average in the big leagues. Travis was a former collegiate teammate of Kyle Schwarber. After that Travis Lankins and Brian Johnson could appear if the Sox need pitching depth. 3rd base prospect Bobby Dalbec is a sleeper to watch as a 4th round draft pick last year ripped a .386 average in A ball last year and could climb through the system fairly quick.

2nd Place: Toronto Blue Jays

2017 AL East Division Preview

2015 AL MVP winner Josh Donaldson leads a strong Blue Jays team headed into 2017 (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/CP)

I think the Blue Jays can compete for the division title and at worst case win a wild card spot in 2017. After winning 89 games last year, you feel like the Jays can win approximately the same number of games. Despite a terrible offseason that saw Edwin Encarnacion walk out the door and having a mediocre manager John Gibbons, this team is still really talented. Here’s what Toronto will be working with in 2017.

Starting Rotation:

The Blue Jays starting rotation is excellent. You could make the argument that this group is even better than Boston’s starting 5. Aaron Sanchez is expected to get the ball on opening day after a fabulous 2016 season. Sanchez led the AL in ERA last year with a 3.00. He could improve upon a 15-2 season after being on an innings limit last year. Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ follow in the rotation who are also studs. Happ won 20 games to go along with a 3.18 ERA in 2016. Estrada wasn’t far behind with a 3.48 ERA. Both pitchers don’t beat you with velocity but have devastating change-ups. Estrada’s, in particular, is nicknamed the bugs bunny changeup because it just vanishes at the plate. Marcus Stroman is in the 4th spot who is one of the bright young pitchers in the game. Finally, there is Francisco Liriano in the 5th spot who can either be electrifying or awful.

Bullpen:

Roberto Osuna is a lights out closer. He struck out 10 batters per 9 innings a year ago. Joe Biagini and Jason Grilli fill out the setup man role. Biagini, a rule 5 pick in 2016, made the All-Star team a year ago. Grilli is also a former closer who pitched really well for Toronto last year. The Blue Jays also have some mystic coming into this year signing a pair of side armers Joe Smith and J.P. Howell. Aaron Loup and Gavin Floyd will fill out the left-handed specialist role.

2017 AL East Division Preview

Toronto Blue Jays 2017 Depth Chart (MLB)

Infielders:

Kendrys Morales will be the new DH this year. After a down year in 2016, there is some hope he can find his swing in the Rogers Center. He did hit 41 homers in 2015 and can really slash when he is in a groove. The downside to Morales is he is like a slug on the base path. Justin Smoak is expected to get a bulk of the first base at-bats. That, however, could be a problem after he hit just .217 a year ago so there will be a platoon plan in place. Devon Travis looks like he could have a bright future hitting .300 in limited at bats a year ago and playing solid defense. We all know how smooth of a defender Troy Tulowitzki can be at shortstop. He has also added a nice power stroke since coming to the Blue Jays hitting 24 bombs last year. To round it out AL MVP Josh Donaldson will hone 3rd base. Donaldson is the team’s best player posting a 7.2 WAR in 2016. Toronto has really nice depth as well across the board with Steve Pearce who can play everywhere in the infield and outfield. Ryan Goins is also a nice defender to have in late innings situations.

Outfielders:

The Blue Jays lost Michael Saunders and didn’t really replace him. A platoon pairing of Ezequiel Carrera and Melvin Upton will start the season. Neither player will likely hit above .250 but will have to do for now. Gold glove winner Kevin Pillar will play everyday centerfield. Pillar posted a 2.6 defensive WAR and above average offensive numbers for the position. Jose Bautista will get most of the right field at bats but could see some time at first base and DH. Joey Bats showed some signs of decline in 2016 hitting just .234 and 22 homers but should bounce back this year. Former top prospect Dalton Pompey could also get a shot as well who can really fly on the base path.

Prospects Who Can Have Major League Impact In 2017:

I’m not sure any of the Blue Jays top prospects will have any major league impact in 2017. Most of their elite prospects are either in A ball or getting ready to transition into AA. Vladimir Guerrero JR. has a chance to be every bit as good and as his dad and a superstar 3rd baseman but is only 17.

3rd Place: Baltimore Orioles

2017 AL East Division Preview

The amazing Manny Machado is looking to lead the Orioles to another playoff birth in 2017 (David Golebiewski – FOX Sports)

The O’s made the playoffs on the heels of an 89 win season in 2016. Buck Showalter has proven he can win with less and always seems to have his team in contention. Baltimore wasn’t overly aggressive this offseason yet did enough to tinker with the roster that could be enough for postseason play again in 2017. What should we expect from the Orioles in 2017?

Starting Rotation:

The top 3 starters in the Orioles rotation will either make or break their season. Chris Tillman, 28, will get the start on opening day. Last year Tillman was excellent tossing a 3.77 ERA but the year prior he was awful throwing a 4.99 ERA. Which Tillman will we see in 2017? The funny thing is his strikeout, walk, and home run allowed numbers aren’t that different from 2015 to 2016. Former top prospect Kevin Gausman really put things together a year ago throwing a 3.61 ERA. The same can be said for Dylan Bundy who tosses a 4.02 ERA. The question is can those young guns continue to improve or will they take a step back? Lackluster starters fill out the rotation with Wade Miley and Ubaldo Jimenez. Miley’s ERA of 6.17 and Jimenez ERA of 5.44 make the argument of whether those guys still belong on the 25 man roster. Logan Verrett and Tyler Wilson will fill in as depth.

Bullpen:

The Orioles pen is very deep and dynamic. Closer Zach Britton is unhittable. Over 67 innings Britton gave up just 7 runs all season. His sinker is down right filthy and caused him to only give up 1 homer all season. That’s absurd! Setup man Brad Brach was an All-Star a year ago with his 2.05 ERA. Side armer Darren O’Day brings a mystic to the bullpen and strikes out 11 guys per 9 innings with his deceptive release. Vidal Nuno, Mychal Givens, and Donnie Hart are also terrific and could be 8th inning guys for a number of other teams around the league. When it comes to pure depth, Baltimore has the best in the division.

2017 AL East Division Preview

Baltimore Orioles 2017 Depth Chart (MLB)

Infielders:

Matt Wieters is out and has been swapped out with Wellington Castillo. The former Diamondbacks backstop is probably an upgrade offensively. His backup will be Caleb Joseph who didn’t record an RBI in 141 plate appearances in 2016…..Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo, and Trey Mancini will all play some form of DH, 1st base and right field. All 3 guys also have the same mantra. Big time power, low on base percentage, high strikeout rate. It’s amazing how tall this team is as Jonathan Schoop is the shortest regular starter and he is 6’1. Schoop, 25, has improved each year slugging 25 homers from 2nd base. J.J. Hardy mans shortstop and is still an elite defender but lacks offense. The O’s superstar is Manny Machado. The 24-year-old 3rd basemen almost resembles the young Mariners version of Alex Rodriguez. Machado could be the MVP this year. Ryan Flaherty will serve as the reserve off the pine.

Outfielders:

Hyun Soo Kim, Adam Jones, and Seth Smith will start from left to right. Kim surprisingly was super productive coming over from Korea hitting .302 last year. The downside was he was a -1.6 defensive WAR player. Jones isn’t the guy he was 5 years ago but is still a very solid option in center. Smith comes over from the Mariners and can really torch right-handed pitching when he is in a groove. Former rule 5 pick Joey Rickard will also get some playing time.

Prospects Who Can Have Major League Impact In 2017:

The short answer is none. The O’s frankly do not have a very good farm system. Former elite prospect Hunter Harvey could make his way to the majors eventually but hasn’t pitched since 2013 because of injury. Previously mentioned Trey Mancini will probably be on the roster as a platoon option. The Orioles top prospect is catcher Chance Sisco but he is likely a year away.

4th Place: New York Yankees

2017 AL East Division Preview

Bird is the word in New York. 1st baseman Greg Bird is part of the new youth movement for the Yankees (Jim Mcisaac Getty Images)

The Yankees had an eerie offseason this year as they somehow try to rebuild and contend at the same time. Whether that strategy is feasible remains to be seen. On paper, they realistically have one of the worst rosters in baseball but manager Joe Girardi always finds a way to win more games than his teams should. Given the bright lights in New York, let’s see if the Yankees can hang on to some of those young guns and continue to look forward to the future. As for 2017, let’s preview the Yankees.

Starting Rotation:

The Yanks are led by Masahiro Tanaka. The Japanese right-hander can opt out of his deal next year and will likely do so if he can repeat on a dominating 2016. Old man C.C. Sabathia is probably on his last leg but quietly pitched pretty well a year ago. If he can repeat upon his 3.91 ERA from last year, that could go a long way in helping New York compete this year. On the other side of the coin, New York needs a big improvement from Michael Pineda who wasn’t productive last year. New York’s top 3 starters seem to be safe but the final two appear to be up for grabs during spring training. That group consists of Luis Severino, Chad Green, Adam Warren, Bryan Mitchell, and Luis Cessa.

Bullpen:

Sure it doesn’t look as great as last year without Andrew Miller but this group is still very scary. New York gave $86 million to Aroldis Chapmanthis offseason to be their closer again. Setup man Dellin Betances would probably close for 25 other teams and is dangerous. One thing that could be concerning, however, is the recent arbitration scandal where the team president bad mouthed him for no reason. No one knows if this will be a distraction or not. Tyler Clippard is no ordinary 7th inning man either. The Yanks also have the rare luxury of having two good lefties out of the pen in Tommy Layne and Chasen Shreve.

2017 AL East Division Preview

New York Yankees 2017 Depth Chart (MLB)

Infielders:

Much of the Yankees season looks like it will be a lot of trial and error. That is not the case with catcher Gary Sanchez who put on a show at the end of last year. Sanchez popped 20 homers in just 53 games. First base and DH look like they will be revolving doors for NY. Matt Holiday and Chris Carter were brought over this season to fill that role. They also have a combo of young guys in Greg Bird and Tyler Austin to play that role as well. The Yanks offense wasn’t great last year (22nd runs scored) hopefully, the new first base combo can be an upgrade over Mark Teixeira and A-Rod. The middle of the infield does look pretty strong with Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius. Both players hit in the .270, 20 homer range last year. The downside to Castro is he does have his bad fielding moments that need to be corrected. Chase Headley finishes the infield off at 3rd. After a really horrible start to his 2016 season, Headley ended up hitting .253. Rob Refsnyder will also play a number of the infield positions off the bench.

Outfielders:

The trial and error theme continues for the Yanks in the outfield. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury are both locked in at left and center. Both guys are also similar in the fact that their speed has eroded in recent years causing them to not be nearly as dangerous. In Ellsbury’s case, he forgot how to hit in general with his .263 average in 2016 compared to .321 during his prime in Boston. Right field will be the one to watch. Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, and Mason Williams will battle it out. Judge is one of New York’s heralded prospects but will already be 25 by opening day so it looks like now or never for the 6’7″ slugger. Judge disappointed hitting just .179 in 84 at-bats last year. Hicks similarly can’t hit either but does have a nice outfield arm.

Prospects Who Can Have Major League Impact In 2017:

Keith Law of ESPN has 6 Yankees in his top 100. Judge is the only one is will likely get consistent playing time. Shortstop Gleyber Torres is their top prospect but he is likely a year or two away. Guys like Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield, and Miguel Andujar all will likely start the year at AAA and could find their way in the majors shortly.

5th Place: Tampa Bay Rays

2017 AL East Division Preview

Can Chris Archer help the Rays contend in 2017 or will he be possibly moved at the trade deadline? (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Baseball is an unfair game. Tampa Bay falls victim to this as a small market team with a tiny payroll. Tampa did some nice things this winter that suggest they could climb back into the playoff race this year. The Rays did win 80 games in 2015 and have a solid young core. You can realistically talk yourself into an 80 win season for the Rays in 2017. Former catcher and incumbent manager Kevin Cash has these guys on the right track so what can we expect from the Rays in 2017?

Starting Rotation:

A common theme here is the Rays are loaded with a young talent lauded rosters. It’s just a matter of time before these guys become elite. Chris Archer leads the group. He lost 19 games a year ago but somehow was 2nd in the AL in strikeouts (251). Archer’s power slider fools hitters with ease and should rebound nicely. Jake Odorizzi is also a dependable #2 option. He had a 3.69 ERA in 2016. Alex Cobb slides in next who is finally healthy recovering from TJ surgery. Blake Snell and Jose De Leon are the 4th and 5th starters who are regarded as well regarded prospects. For much of this group, the Rays will likely consider dealing them at the deadline to recoup more young prospects. Matt Andriese will be the 6th man in case of an injury.

Bullpen:

Tampa’s pen is very underrated. Closer Alex Colome was the Rays lone All-Star last year and tossed a 1.91 ERA in 2016. Brad Boxberger and new signee Shawn Tolleson are nice setup men. Erasmo Ramirez also pitched well for the Rays a year ago and has the ability to start as well. Again if the Rays fall out of the race, a number of teams will be bidding for these arms.

2017 AL East Division Preview

Tampa Bay Rays 2017 Depth Chart (MLB)

Infielders:

The biggest addition to the Rays will be Wilson Ramos who went on a tear for the Nationals but ended the season with a torn ACL. It’s probably why they were able to snag him for cheap as the catcher will probably miss two months of the start of the season. Outside of dealing Logan Forsythe, the Rays infield will look the exact same from the end of the prior year. Corey Dickerson will serve as the DH who is a high strikeout guy but has some power. Brad Miller will hold down first base with Logan Morrison getting some time as well. Miller can also play 2nd base too and surprisingly hit 30 home runs a year ago. Matt Duffy will start at third with perennial All-Star Evan Longoria at 3rd. Longoria slashed a .273 average to go with 31 homers in 2016. Nick Franklin and former 1st overall draft pick Tim Beckham will serve as depth.

Outfielders:

Former Astro Colby Rasmus is the new addition in left field. Rasmus is coming off a bad year that included a .206 average but could turn in around in 2017. Kevin Kiermaier is a darling of the analytics who is considered a defensive wizard and 2015 gold glove winner. Kiermaier posted a 5.4 WAR in 2015 and 4.0 WAR in 2016 despite never hitting over .263 in either season. Steven Souza rounds out the group in right. Former Braves talented prospect Mallex Smith will likely start the year as the 4th outfielder with a chance to start eventually. Smith was traded for productive starter Drew Smyly this offseason.

Prospects Who Can Have Major League Impact In 2017:

Tampa doesn’t have a great farm system to speak for. De Leon as previously mentioned will fill a rotation spot. Casey Gillaspie could get the call up from AAA to start at 1st relatively soon. The others top guys probably are years away.

 

 

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