As the 2018 MLB season approaches, the resident baseball nerd here at FirstandMonday.com will be rolling out his pre-season previews, one division at a time. Today, we keep the ball rolling with the AL East. Can the Yankees live up to the expectations generated by their 2017 post-season run and their big off-season acquisition? Can the Red Sox keep up? Can anyone else even keep their head above the water? Let’s talk it through.
1. New York Yankees
2017 record: 91-71
We all know what happened here. Giancarlo Stanton is now in New York fresh off hitting 59 home runs in cavernous Marlins Park last season, and expectations for the Yankees are sky high. Behind Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Co. the Yankees already lead the majors in home runs in 2017, so adding Stanton to the fold was quite the coup. The primary concern in my mind is how Stanton will deal with the scrutiny the New York media heaps on a premier athlete and the pressure he puts on himself to repeat that 2017 performance. If he comes anywhere close, watch out, and even if he performs closer to career averages this line up should still lead MLB in home runs again.
Turning to the pitching side of the equation, the Yankees will return essentially the same starting five that they deployed last season on their way to an AL Wild Card birth. Young Dominican righty Luis Severino will lead the way, followed by vets Masahiro Tanaka, Sonny Gray and CC Sabathia, who returned for what could be his last go-round in a Yankees uniform. The pen is again anchored by big lefty Aroldis Chapman, who had a down year (by his lofty standards) in 2017, but his issues are hardly of paramount concern for the Yankees at this point. This should be one of the best teams in baseball.
Key player: SP Masahiro Tanaka – Coming off the best year of MLB career in 2016 (14-4, 3.07 ERA, 5.4 WAR), Tanaka had a down 2017 (13-12, 4.70 ERA, 1 WAR) and the Yankees need him to rebound in 2018 if they’re going to take the AL East crown from the Red Sox. The rotation around him is a good one, but it could be elite if Tanaka returns to 2017 form.
2018 projection: 101-61, AL East Champion, AL #2 seed
2. Boston Red Sox
2017 record: 93-69
Finally, after months of just presuming that Boston would be the landing spot, free agent outfielder/DH JD Martinez has signed with the Red Sox, and that makes this AL East race that much more interesting. Boston came into 2017 trying to replace the power lost when David Ortiz retired and failed to do so (they finished dead last in home runs in the AL last year), so Martinez will look to be a cure for that issue. JDMart will likely get most of his starts at DH while the outfield trio of Benintendi, Bradley and Betts will be one of the most all-around trios in the game. An overall offensive uptick should absolutely be in the cards.
The rotation is why I have this team in second place. Chris Sale is at the top, an unquestioned ace, but behind him lies a whole heaping helping of uncertainty. Can David Price remain anything remotely resembling healthy? Can Rick Porcello return to anything close to his 2016 form? Can Drew Pomeranz repeat his career year from 2017? What will Eduardo Rodriguez and Stephen Wright look like when they return from injury? The jury is still out on all of these things, and that’s a lot of uncertainty to unpack and come to a reasonable conclusion that enough things will fall the right way to ultimately keep the Yankees from taking the division.
Key player: SP David Price – Despite an impressive stint in the Sox bullpen in the playoffs, 2017 has to be considered a disappointment for one of the highest paid pitchers in the game. Price started just 11 games for Boston last season due to a myriad of health issues, and going into his age 32 season it’s hard to imagine that things aren’t about to start their slow decline now. If Boston is to compete for the AL East crown, Price needs to be a legitimate, reliable #2 starter behind Sale and he needs to log at least 25 starts for that to happen.
2018 projection: 96-66, AL Wild Card #1
3. Toronto Blue Jays
2017 record: 76-86
Let’s face it, the AL East is a two-team race this season. The Blue Jays had a sort of odd off-season, and they seem to be sort of floating without a specific aim. Are they competing? Are they going to rebuild? There are signs pointing in each direction, and that rarely leads to an ultimately competitive club. The rotation kicks off with one of the best young starters in the game in righty Marcus Strohman, and fellow youngster Aaron Sanchez and veteran lefty JA Happ will form a solid top three in the rotation, but the back end figures to consist of shaky vets Marco Estrada and Jaime Garcia. Not terrible, but not inspiring in this tough division. Young closer Roberto Osuna is tough at the back end of the bullpen though, so that’s both cool and good.
The line up however, has more questions to offer than answers to give. Josh Donaldson is playing for his next contract, so that’s a good thing. Troy Tulowitzki hasn’t been very good, or very healthy, since 2014 in Colorado and that’s a bad thing. Center fielder Kevin Pillar is one of the best defenders in the game is coming off his third straight season of both solid offensive and defensive production, which is a good thing, but Curtis Granderson is slated to be the starting left fielder, which is a bad thing. See what I mean with the questions?
Key player(s): 3B Josh Donaldson – Donaldson won the AL MVP in 2015 and was a contender again in 2016, but injuries slowed his production last season and, now at age 32, Donaldson will be playing for his first true free agent pay day. Winning the division is likely out of reach, but with a mammoth payday campaign from Donaldson, the Jays could plausibly find themselves in the AL Wild Card discussion.
2018 projection: 83-79
4. Tampa Bay Rays
2017 record: 80-82
The 2017-2018 off-season saw the Rays sort of floating out in the ocean. They didn’t tear down quite like their Florida baseball brothers the Marlins, but they didn’t do much to inspire fan confidence or excitement either. They lost two starters, Alex Cobb (free agency) and Jake Odorizzi (via an odd trade to the Twins), but Chris Archer is still around for… Some reason? So it’s unclear what exactly the Rays are trying to do here. Promising youngsters Blake Snell and Jake Faria will come in behind Archer, and reclamation project Nathan Eovaldi will be in the mix too. If Archer sticks around all season the rotation could be decent, but expect him to be a hot name at the trade deadline.
Longo is long gone, and that’s sad for Rays fans. Evan Longoria, the long time face of the club, was dealt to the Giants in the offseason and the infield is now currently comprised of a who’s who of… Other guys who play baseball. Kevin Kiermaier is a defensive wizard in center though, and an all-around solid baseball player, so that’s something. Somehow, inexplicably, Corey Dickerson wasn’t good enough for this team, but Denard Span was. The offense is gonna be rough.
Key player: SP Chris Archer – The Rays, who are… rebuilding? Likely won’t be contending for the playoffs this season, but staff ace Chris Archer could be on the move at the deadline. His traditional stats from 2017 don’t suggest anything special (10-12 record, 4.07 ERA, 1.2 WAR), but his FIP and xFIP (3.40, 3.35 respectively) suggest that he was victimized by a bad Rays D and was better than the numbers look. If he has a solid first half, he could be the biggest trade chip on the market at the deadline.
2018 projection: 76-86
5. Baltimore Orioles
2017 record: 75-87
That face you make when Kevin Gausman looks to be your opening day starter… Bleh. Okay, so Gausman was pretty decent in 2016, but he wasn’t quite as much in 2017, and when he’s your best, you’ve got problems. The Orioles are a club that may need to tear down and rebuild, but owner/still-living fossil Peter Angelos is trying to compete I guess. If the Orioles are to try and finish 2017 above the .500 mark, they’ll need strong a strong rebound by Gausman, as well as further progression from young righty Dylan Bundy. Gabriel Ynoa is an interesting arm that figures to get a lot of starts as well, but it’s hard to imagine the rotation being very good overall. Closer Zach Britton is going to start the season on the DL too, which doesn’t help matters.
Manny Machado, who will make the switch from 3B back to his native position of SS, is entering what is more than likely his final year with the Orioles. He’ll be one of the headliners of the 2018 free agent class, and he’s still just 24 years old. He got a little power-happy last season, but considering his age, he still has development left to be done and that’s a scary idea for opposing teams. Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo and Adam Jones are the other three offensive names that most will think of, but all three are sliding now into the down side of their careers. Jones is still a very good player, and could/should see himself dealt this season to a contender if he continues his good play.
Key player: SP Dylan Bundy – Machado is likely more important to the here and now, but at this time next year he’s going to be playing for someone else. For the Orioles to pull out of this current tailspin, it needs to start with the young guys in the rotation and Bundy is the best and brightest of the bunch.
2018 projection: 70-92