We are 32 days away from the beginning of the 2017 MLB season, which means it's time to start getting serious. Every Wednesday until the beginning of the season, I'll be previewing a division and making predictions. This week: The American League East.
Remember that decade-long stretch in the aughts when the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees were flip-flopping between first and second in the AL East, and the other three teams just sort of shuffled around at the bottom of the division? Boston and New York haven't finished 1-2 in this division since 2009, and since then, every team has won the division at least once. It's as close as the AL East has ever come to parity.
And that era, one suspects, is about to be over. It might not end this year: The Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays might have enough juice left at the end of their competitive windows to keep the Yankees down one more time. But the Yankees, with their stacked farm system, are building a potential monster, and the Red Sox have as much young talent as any team in the game, enough that they can trade away the best prospect in the sport for Chris Sale and not make that much of a dent. The past seven years have been an anomaly in the AL East: This division should belong to the Red Sox and the Yankees, and after this season, it'll return to its natural form. (It might even do so this season.) That gives everybody else one more shot. In 2017, they best not miss.
AL East predicted order of finish
5. Tampa Bay Rays, 76-86
Evan Longoria grew a beard this offseason. It's a perfectly fine beard, but it's still weird seeing Evan Longoria with a beard.
Longoria has been a bit surlier than usual this offseason, mostly because the Rays traded his good pal Logan Forsythe, saying, "I can't say we got much better losing him." Longoria went on to say that he thinks the Rays are improved, but it's worth remembering that the only reason Longoria has been around so long -- he's the best player in Rays history by a wide margin; second place is, uh, Ben Zobrist maybe? -- is because he's signed to such a ridiculously team-friendly deal that it would be malpractice to send him anywhere. That extension he signed in 2012 is under market value and ties him to the team through 2023; he'll be 38 when he has any freedom again. For a franchise that has had three losing seasons in a row, that has to be a little worrisome.
Particularly because it does sort of look like the Rays have missed a window here. (The Orioles are the team that jumped through that window, not them.) The Rays' tricks to stay competitive won't work as well when the Yankees and Red Sox are using those same tricks and throwing around $200 million payrolls, and it's undeniable that until the stadium issue is resolved (which is probably never), this team is going to be in a bit of stasis. Longoria is stuck with the Rays, and will surely wave goodbye to many more friends in the next seven seasons.
This year's team has some potential, particularly in the rotation, which could be the best in the division. But the Rays' margin error is so thin that they need everything to fall exactly right to have any hope to compete. The scary thing is that this division is going to get much tougher in the next five years than it was in the past three … during which they ended up in either fourth or fifth place. You think Longoria looks grizzled now? Wait until it's 2021, he's 36 years old and he just finished his eighth consecutive postseason-free season. Because that's what's going to happen.
4. Baltimore Orioles, 78-84
Observers and sabermetric sorts have been waiting for the Orioles to collapse for so long now that it has become its own sort of joke: You half expect Buck Showalter to have a cardboard cutout in the clubhouse named "PECOTA" that he peels one piece of clothing off with every Orioles victory. This is still the team that has won the most games in the AL over the past five years. That's an awfully long time for something to be a fluke.
That said, it's difficult for any team to sustain success over a five-year span, particularly one with so many natural disadvantages, namely in its rotation. If Yovani Gallardo is your solution, your problems were so vast in the first place that it's sort of cute you're even trying. The number of bank shots the Orioles need for their rotation to be even halfway decent -- Dylan Bundy finally becomes the ace they've always imagined! Chris Tillman is a 200-inning stud! Wade Miley gets everything in line! -- is particularly imposing because of that lineup, and that division: The slightest mistake punishes you doubly.
The addition of Seth Smith -- an OBP guy for a team that desperately needs one of those -- is helpful, but this lineup is still boom-or-bust. The way this team won games last season, through defense, bullpen and a bunch of solo homers, is exciting to watch but difficult to sustain. Can Brad Brach, Darren O'Day and Zach Britton all be as dominant as they were last year? What happens if they're not? The Orioles shouldn't collapse, but you can also see them in a shady spot come the Trade Deadline, hanging around the AL Wild Card race but not in a particular position of strength.
The singular, most massive decision for this franchise is coming: Can they sign Manny Machado long term? If they can't -- or maybe even if they can -- the throw-spackle-at-the-problem-trust-in-Buck-and-hang-on-for-dear-life strategy can only work for so long. A reckoning is coming. It has been quite a run for the Orioles, even if there hasn't been the postseason success to finish it off. This might be the last best chance they have for a while … which is particularly worrisome. Because this isn't the best chance.
3. Toronto Blue Jays, 81-81
Remember when the Jays looked like a superteam? When they brought in Troy Tulowitzki from Colorado and then traded for David Price in 2015, the skies opened up: That team was built for postseason glory. It sort of got that postseason glory in Jose Bautista's Majestic Bat Flip, but they never reached the World Series. The Royals got them in 2015 and the Indians got them last year. That's two consecutive AL Championship Series, an impressive achievement. But you have to wonder how long it'll be until they get that close again.
It was reasonable not to bring back Edwin Encarnacion, even though his deal with Cleveland turned out to be quite reasonable. But without him, this team is missing another big bat in the middle of the order and is looking sneakily old. An offense that once had one superstar after another in his prime now has Tulowitzki (fading and brittle), Josh Donaldson (still a star), Jose Bautista (back with the team because he had no other suitors) and Kendrys Morales (who was barely an above-average hitter, according to OPS-plus, last year).
The key last year was the rotation, but you're asking a lot for them to repeat that in 2017. Every pitcher in the rotation was his best self last year -- but you can't expect that again, nor can you expect them all to be healthy again. And there's precious little depth behind them.
The Blue Jays, like the Orioles, are sort of stuck in that middle ground of not realistically being able to start over, but not so fantastic that you can just floor it for this year either. If they take a big step backward after two straight ALCS appearances, it's going to lead to some serious questions heading into 2018. The Jays came so close the last two seasons. It might be as close as they get.
2. New York Yankees, 85-77
How were the Yankees 84-78 last year? Think about that: They were traders at the Deadline -- they were glorious traders at the Deadline, bringing in top-shelf talent for guys who were either going to leave anyway, or eager to come back -- and they ended up with a winning record anyway. They were in fact better after their trades. That bodes well. That means something even better is coming.
There are reasons to pump the brakes on all the young guys. Gary Sanchez can't possibly hit like he did the second half of last season for a full year without bursting into flames. Aaron Judge can hit a straightly thrown ball a long way but has trouble with all those pesky moving ones. Greg Bird has yet to do anything for a full season, or even half of one. Luis Severino doesn't look ready to be a full-season starter, though the Yankees are going to try to make him one anyway.
But there are even more young guys coming in after that, as early as this summer, and the Yankees have the depth and resources to have something firmly in place when they arrive. The additions of Matt Holliday and Chris Carter are handy little moves in the margins, cheap one-year production while everybody filters in. And that's sort of the Yankees' thing this year: competence everywhere, with massive growth potential from the young guys who will keep coming. And if the Yankees are hanging around at the Trade Deadline, they have the ability to make a deal without having to gut the system that's going to lead them into the next generation of stars.
This is the last season the Yankees will merely be hanging around the AL Wild Card race: This is a brewing monster, a looming tower, again. When you look at this division, three teams are trending down, and this team, the Yankees, are trending up. I'll bet on the upside. I'll bet on the Yankees figuring this out one more time, before they truly ascend in 2018 and beyond.
1. Boston Red Sox, 96-66
So this is the secret formula. Hire a prospect-obsessed talent hoarder like Ben Cherington, then fire him just in time to have someone like Dave Dombrowski -- who loves dealing more than anything else -- to bring in the big game. They may have overpaid for Chris Sale, but jeez, man, the Red Sox have Chris Sale now. They were already fantastic. Now they have Chris Sale. Who wouldn't want a Chris Sale?
The lineup is solid top-to-bottom and has players like Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley who could blossom into superstars this season. (If they haven't already, particularly in the case of Betts.) There's flexibility to bring in reinforcements, especially if they decide they want an upgrade at first base. And the returning AL Cy Young Award winner is the third starter.
The Red Sox have spectacular talent everywhere and the urgency to do whatever it takes to win in the first year post-Big Papi. They are as well-positioned as anyone in the game to win like crazy until all those young stars start getting real expensive and some big decisions have to be made. They are the Red Sox, and they are swarming right now. This team will be as outstanding as it will be fun to watch. And imagine heading into a series knowing you're facing this lineup and Sale/David Price/Rick Porcello. The rest of baseball should duck.
Next week: The National League Central.