This is the first story in a brand-new Fourth String Sports series previewing the 2017 MLB season ahead of Opening Day on April 2nd. There will be 7 articles in total, 1 on each MLB division and one on fantasy baseball In this preview: the extremely competitive AL East.
#1 The Boston Red Sox
The Al East is one of the most competitive divisions this year, with all 5 teams within 10 projected wins of each other (according to fivethirtyeight’s aggregate of forecasts). Even still, the Boston Red Sox should feel very confident going into this season. 2012 Cy Young winner David Price should be back to full form, although elbow injuries almost never bode well for pitchers. Mookie Betts was second in the AL in batting average (.318) and runs (122), winning the Golden Glove and Silver Slugger awards. Young Left Fielder Andrew Benintendi is still eligible for Rookie of the Year honors, and if he continues the .476 slugging percentage (and his ridiculous .778 in 9 postseason at-bats) he’ll be the clear favorite. The Red Sox have also acquired Pitcher Chris Sale (3.00 career ERA) from the White Sox, who will likely improve his ERA with a better defense surrounding him. Although making up for the loss of David Ortiz’s offensive production will be tough, Boston looks ready to hit the ground running this season.
The Red Sox open in Fenway against the Pirates on April 2nd.
#2 The Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays finished only four games behind the Red Sox in 2016 (tied with the Orioles), but will have to deal with the loss of 3B Edwin Encarnacion to the Indians and the decline of Jose Bautista. 1B Kendrys Morales, who the Blue Jays picked up from Kansas City, will likely take Encarnacion’s spot in the batting lineup, but his inconsistent hitting and injury risks should worry Toronto fans. Bautista is 36 years old, and his batting average and on-base percentage have been declining since 2014. ESPN only gave Bautista 1 win above replacement (WAR) last year, a number that saw a precipitous drop from 5.1 WAR in 2015. In the bullpen, Aaron Sanchez is looking to repeat the 15-win 3.0 ERA performance that propelled him into Cy Young discussion while Marco Estrada wants to continue improving from the 9 wins, 3.4 WAR, and 3.48 ERA performance he put up last year.
The Blue Jays open in Baltimore on April 3rd, and have their first home game on April 11th against the Brewers.
#3 The Tampa Bay Rays
The Tampa Bay Rays had a disappointing 68-94 season last year, finishing 16 games back of the Yankees and dead last in the AL East. So it’s a little strange to see them with about 81 projected wins in fivethirtyeight’s aggregate of forecasts, especially considering they dramatically under-performed their projected 77 wins for 2016. Predictions seem very much willing to toss out the 2016 season as a fluke (the Rays were 2-13 in extra innings and 13-27 in one-run games last year) and believes that their bullpen will continue to improve. Starting Pitcher Chris Archer was supposed to be a breakout star last year but ended up a mediocre 9-19 with a 4.02 ERA while no Rays starting pitcher had an ERA below Blake Snell’s 3.54. Their pitching staff is young, with Snell himself only 23, so they should improve this year, but that shouldn’t stop their offensive woes. Aside from Designated Hitter Steve Pearce, no Ray hit above Evan Longoria’s .273 batting average last year, and the Rays had the 7th least runs scored in the MLB. Most likely, the Rays will under-perform expectations and be stuck in mediocrity unless they are able to fix their offense.
The Rays play the Yankees in their home opener on April 2nd.
#4 The New York Yankees
Derek Jeter is gone, Alex Rodriguez just turned 40, and CC Sabathia is still pitching at 35. An era is coming to a close, and the New York Yankees are not looking the same coming into this season. Yankees fans can still find some things to look forward to though. Sabathia can still pitch, as he had 9 wins, a 3.79 ERA, and 3.0 WAR last year while Japanese Pitcher Masahiro Tanaka had 13 wins and a 3.07 ERA last year. Left Fielder Brett Gardner also had a good year in 2016, with a team-leading 80 runs, while Starlin Castro lead the team with a .270 batting average, 156 hits, and 70 RBIs. In the end, the Yankees are projected to go almost exactly .500 in the 2017 season, although with the payroll and history of the Yankees you can be sure they won’t be average for long.
The Yankees play their first game against Tampa Bay on April 2nd and have their home opener in Yankee Stadium against the Rays on April 10th
#5 The Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles went 89-73 last year, 3rd in the AL East, before losing to the Blue Jays in an extra-innings Wild Card game. So why are they suddenly predicted to be last in their division? First of all, it’s worth noting that only 10 projected wins separates the Red Sox from the Orioles, and that the Red Sox projected win total (88.8) is less than the 89 games the Orioles won last year. The main doubt comes from the Orioles abysmal bullpen rotation: no Starting Pitcher except Chris Tillman had a positive winrate, and 4 starters had ERAs larger than 5. Ubaldo Jimenez saw some marked improvement, with a second-half ERA of only 2.82, but he still finished the season with a 5.44 ERA. On offense, Manny Machado killed it with 105 runs and 96 RBI, but the stellar effort the Orioles offense puts in often is squandered by their pitching and defense. If the Orioles can improve their bullpen, they have a shot at more than just a Wild Card exit this year.
The Orioles play their home opener against the Blue Jays on April 3rd.
The Fourth String team