MLB 2016: American League East Preview

From left, Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman are the Yankees' big three out of the bullpen. Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Opening day is finally here. The Red Sox don’t start their season until Monday afternoon, but Major League Baseball officially begins Sunday afternoon at 1 pm.

The start of the season means that it is time for predictions.

First up, the American League East. The division does not appear to have any truly great or truly awful teams. Expect the division race to be suspenseful and remain largely unsettled until September.

First Place: New York Yankees (93-69)  Key additions: Starlin Castro (2b) Aaron Hicks (of) Aroldis Chapman (cl) 

The front office clearly understands that their team’s starting pitching might not be that good. The best way to remedy that deficiency? A loaded bullpen. That’s what the Yankees have this year. Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances are so dominant that the Yankees may be able to pull their starters after six innings, regardless of the what the scoreboard reads.

Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, Luis Severino and CC Sabathia comprise a starting five with a lot of potential. There’s no one the team can count on to be a durable, dependable starter. That’s why the bullpen’s strength is so critical to the team’s success.

The offense should be solid. Veterans Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, Mark Teixeira, Brett Gardner and Alex Rodriguez just need to remain somewhat healthy. There is a legitimate youth movement as well.

Aaron Hicks is a speedy fourth outfielder with a great glove and significant upside. Shortstop Didi Gregorius finished 2015 strong, and  Starlin Castro could still develop into a superstar caliber second baseman.

In a division that lacks a clear-cut elite team, this Yankees squad appears to be the most balanced, and potentially the best team in the AL East.

Second Place (AL wildcard) : Toronto Blue Jays (89-73)  Key additions: J.A. Happ (sp) Drew Storen (rp) Gavin Floyd (sp/rp) 

The list of additions isn’t that long, were there a list of departures it wouldn’t be that long either. It would however contain one name that makes a huge difference. David Price.

Toronto acquired Price last July and he promptly helped to lead them to an AL East crown and advance all the way to the ALCS.

Price signed a seven-year, $217 million free agent contract with the Boston Red Sox, and the Jays rotation can’t be expected to be as good as the 2015 battery was.

The AL East might not have any elite teams, but it doesn’t have any truly awful ones.

The lineup features reigning AL MVP Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki. It should score more than enough runs for the Jays to be competitive. It might not be quite as lethal as the 2015 version. Donaldson seems more likely to take a step back than to maintain or improve upon his 2015 production.

Bautista and Encarnacion are both a year older.

Hard-throwing Marcus Stroman replaces Price atop the rotation. He’s going to be very good, but Toronto won’t be good enough to repeat as division champs. The Jays will be back in the playoffs as a wild card team.

Third Place: Tampa Bay Rays (85-77)  Key additions: Logan Morrison (1B) Brad Miller (ss) Corey Dickerson (of/dh) Hank Conger (c)

The Rays don’t have the balance that the Yankees have. What the Rays do have is what they seem to always have. Starting pitching, and a fair amount of it.

Chris Archer should compete for the AL Cy Young award. Matt Moore, Drew Smyly, and Jake Odorizzi round-out a first four as good as almost anyone in the league. That fifth starter spot has a lot of potential as well.

Alex Cobb should return this summer. Erasmo Ramirez flashed potential last year, and Blake Snell is the latest in a long line of elite Rays starting pitching prospects.

Tampa will have to navigate the first few months of the season without injured closer Brad Boxburger. Manager Kevin Cash did an admirable job of handling the pen last year, odds are he can find guys to close through April and into May.

The offense is by no means lethal. It does figure to be better than it has been in recent years. Evan Longoria is due to bounce back from a few subpar seasons. Logan Morrison is an upgrade (at the plate) from last year’s starting first baseman James Loney.

Perhaps this is the season that Desmond Jennings finally fulfills some of his lofty promise? Tampa is hoping that Corey Dickerson can hit away from the friendly confines of Coors Field.

The Rays will be good, not World Series caliber good, but good enough to compete in the division. Expect them to be in the hunt through the end of the regular season.

Fourth Place: Boston Red Sox (82-80) Key additions: David Price (sp) Craig Kimbrel (cl)  Carson Smith (rp) Chris Young (of) 

Good news. This isn’t last place. Bad news. This isn’t the playoffs either.

After back-to-back last place finishes, the Boston Red Sox added an ace starting pitcher in David Price and an All-Star caliber closer in Craig Kimbrel.

The two acquisitions solve the team’s most glaring deficiencies, but they don’t solve enough of the team’s weaknesses.

Price is great, but he’s only one of five starting pitchers, and the team’s other four options are big question marks.

Craig Kimbrel fixes the ninth inning, but can 41-year-old Koji Uehara effectively navigate the eighth? Carson Smith was acquired to add needed depth the bullpen. Smith looked fatigued late last season and he’s going to start this season on the disabled list.

Will Eduardo Rodriguez get healthy? Can Clay Buchholz stay healthy? Joe Kelly and Steven Wright allow too many baserunners, Rick Porcello has looked awful.

The Red Sox offense will almost certainly be improved. David Ortiz seems like the kind of guy who will have a memorable final season. Dustin Pedroia is allegedly healthy. Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts could both blossom into superstars.

Hanley Ramirez can’t possibly be worse than he was last year, and Jackie Bradley Jr finished 2015 strong and continued to mash the ball this spring.

As good as that sounds, the pitching just has too many question marks and while fourth place could still mean over .500, it definitely won’t get the Red Sox into the playoffs.

Fifth Place: Baltimore Orioles (75-87) Key additions: Mark Trumbo (rf/dh) Pedro Alvarez (dh) Joey Rickard (of) Hyun Soo Kim (of) Yovani Gallardo (sp) 

The 2015 Baltimore Orioles scored a lot of runs, but subpar starting pitching relegated them to a third place finish and an 81-81 record.

With that in mind the Orioles spent the offseason adding…offense?

It doesn’t really make sense, but that’s what happened. Baltimore re-signed free agent and reigning  AL home run king Chris Davis. They also added Mark Trumbo and Pedro Alvarez, two players who could see their power numbers spike at Camden Yards.

Now about that pitching? The Orioles did sign free agent starter Yovani Gallardo, but that just doesn’t feel like it will be enough.

Gallardo joins Ubaldo Jimenez, Chris Tillman and Mike Wright. Kevin Gausman has the potential to be a dominant starting pitcher, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy, and he’s already starting this season on the disabled list.

Zach Britton and Darren O’Day anchor a solid bullpen, but the issue with the Orioles is starting pitching. There’s simply not enough of it, and that’s going to cost the team as the season drags on.

 

 

 

 

About the Author

Ben Shapiro
Red Sox columnist for ESPN New Hampshire. Originally from Western Massachusetts, I currently live in New York City with my wife and dog. I've previously written for Huffington Post, Bleacher Report and MassLive.com

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