2016 MLB Preview: AL East

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The American League East is the division that will always have the most eyes on it regardless of if they have five good teams or only one.

Every year the east seems to put on a tough race with more teams at or around .500 than most other divisions.

Regardless of the performance of teams, the East will always have the focus and the pressure from the media.

It is the east coast bias that has been in sports since sports began and expanded throughout the continent.

Every league in North America began on the east coast with teams forming where the biggest populations were.

When sports began becoming something more than just a hobby leagues looked for more areas to expand.

Every league is now a coast to coast one with teams from the Atlantic to the Pacific and most places in between.

The problem for so many western teams is that when the leagues began and the focus increased all of the biggest media outlets formed around the big teams.

There are more media outlets covering sports on the east coast than anywhere else.

That is largely because the population on the east coast is still bigger than the west coast and so there are more fans on that side of the continent.

As a result, these media outlets tend to talk about the east coast teams more than any other and show more games from the east coast than from the west coast.baseball-sidebar

The AL East was a large part of this coverage and is a symptom of this coverage their dominance in baseball came when sports became serious business.

Battles between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox were constantly highlighted throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

Their fan bases grew every year because they received the most coverage and with two of the biggest and most passionate fan bases they quickly became the face of baseball.

With that came the AL East and thanks largely to the Yankees the East became the division where champions were made.

It seemed like every year the AL East champion was favoured to win the World Series and during the 1990s, the Yankees did just that taking multiple championships.

That attitude about the East has continued until now where the thought is still that the East produces the best teams because it is the toughest division.

That is not entirely the case but the East is still a division where a fight between at least the top two teams is almost guaranteed.

That thought is why the league and most media focus more on the AL East than anywhere else but it isn’t always a bad thing.

After all, more often than not the AL East provides an exciting race that produces, at least, an exciting team.

Last year the Toronto Blue Jays won that race at the end of the season against the Yankees who took a wild card spot.

It wasn’t as big of a battle as in the past but there were still three teams at .500 or above and one more team only two games out of .500.

This year the battle might only increase as the Red Sox could be back to join the Jays and Yankees along with the Orioles who hope to bounce back.

Regardless it seems like the east is once again in for a battle like they have been for so many years which works well with the baseball world watching them as another season gets underway.

Whether only two teams show up or more the fact is that the east is going to be talked about and going to be tough as it is every year.

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The Orioles were getting used to being one of the best teams in the league before they found themselves with a .500 record last year. In 2014, they were a series away from getting to the Championship but then fell back to mediocrity last season. Like many teams in the East, the Orioles are a team that looks to their offence to lead the team. They were third in the league in home runs last season and this year they had a clear focus on remaining near the top of that list. They were able to keep Chris Davis despite the massive demand for his services and that is a great thing for Orioles fans. Davis is the main cog in this offence as his ability to hit home runs always gives them a chance to put up runs. Another returnee in Matt Wieters earned his contract and will help to make up a very good power trio. The newest member of that trio is Mark Trumbo who was signed in the off-season and will bring yet another power bat to the team. They will hit a lot of home runs this year but that has rarely been the problem as they need to get men on base to make those home runs more impactful. They will need to increase the ways that they score if they want to compete with the best in the league, which could be a theme in the division. On the pitching front, the Orioles are not the strongest team as they struggle to keep their starters in games. The loss of Wei-Yin Chen hurts but the addition of Yovani Gallardo helps to, at least, keep the group from getting any worse. Meanwhile, Ubaldo Jimenez continues to try to find what made him one of the best in the league as he has been inconsistent. None of these pitchers has been anything special as they can certainly win games but there isn’t one pitcher that really strikes fear into the hearts of opposing batters. That fact leads to a lot of pressure on the bullpen but that doesn’t matter to the Orioles who have a good group. Zach Britton, Darren O’Day, and Brian Matusz are one of the best trios in the league and they can shut down offences late in games. The issue could be over-use though as the rotation could falter and cause the O’s to go to the well too often. They are a team that will win games but it won’t be enough in a division full of deeper teams as they will miss the postseason for another year.

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If there is one theme to this team it is the wild inconsistency that has become commonplace over the last few years. They went from missing the playoffs in 2011 and 2012 to winning the World Series in 2013 and back to missing the postseason in the last two years. It is extremely tough to figure out what the Red Sox are going to do from year to year as they are often players in free agency and have a few great young stars. The last two years it seemed like they were caught in between rebuilding and competing and at any point in time they can be contenders. This year they made a splash in free agency that has everyone wondering if they could be true contenders again. Their biggest move was signing David Price to anchor their starting rotation which he is certain to do for the first few years of his contract. Price is a true ace in the MLB and he will join Clay Buchholz as a very good top two pitchers, at least, when Buchholz is on. The rest of the rotation is good but not great although the inclusion of Price should make everyone a little better as the pressure of being the guy is gone from everyone. The bullpen wasn’t great last year but signing Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith should give them a boost. Smith is coming off of a very good season in Seattle while Kimbrel has been one of the best relievers in the game. Those additions to the bullpen and rotation make this team immediately better but the question is whether it will be enough. On the other side of the ball, the Red Sox made little changes but that is mainly because the talent is there. The last two years have been tough for the team on offence but that is largely due to off seasons from great players. They will look to David Ortiz for the big power in the line-up and he is sure to give everything he has in what he announced as his last year in the MLB. Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts have proven that their label as the future of the team was warranted after two great years bringing speed and the ability to drive in runs to the line-up. The Red Sox will look to get better seasons from Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, and Dustin Pedroia as typical seasons from all three change this offence. The Red Sox are a better team and they will be in the hunt for the playoffs but they might need to settle for a wild card berth.

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The Yankees are a strange team in that they seem to constantly come into the season relying on ageing veterans and yet continue to compete. In 2015, it seemed like the team wasn’t going to be a top team throughout the season they lost a number of key players to injury putting the year in even more doubt than before. Yet despite all that was working against them, they remained in the division hunt and brought the fight to the end of the season falling just short of taking the title. Their biggest off-season move came in the bullpen when they landed the closer that everyone wanted in Aroldis Chapman. He is one of the hardest throwers in baseball as his fastball reaches 100 mph regularly and that speed blows batters away. Despite his off-season issues, domestic violence charges were dropped due to a lack of evidence, he seems to be ready to take over a spot once held by the greatest closer in the history of the game. The rest of the bullpen is just as good with Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances finishing out what could be one of the best trios in the league this year. That could come in handy with a rotation that is full of big questions which will determine how successful they are. Masahiro Tanaka has turned out to be the pitcher everyone thought he could be but he will enter the season with a partially torn UCL that could put him on the DL at any moment. Luis Severino has plenty of upside at only 22 but he is young and young pitchers are notoriously inconsistent. Then there is CC Sabathia who spent the end of last year in rehab and needs to find his way back to the dominant pitcher he used to be. The rotation can be a dominant one but everyone needs to step up which might be impossible for some. On offence, the Yankees will once again rely on a mainly veteran group that has had issues staying on the field. Jacoby Ellsbury, Mark Teixeira, and Brian McCann have all missed significant time in recent years. Meanwhile as good as Alex Rodriguez was in his return season he is not getting any younger while Carlos Beltran is in the same position. The offence is much like the pitching staff as they can be good enough to compete but a few injuries, which is pretty likely, might sink them. The Yankees are overall a good team but they just have too many spots where something bad can happen as they will compete for the division but will fall short of a postseason spot.

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The Rays were once the constant overachieving underdog and they made their way with rosters that weren’t necessarily full of great talent. They built from the ground up and made due with less until young prospects became great players. Where they succeed in this strategy more than anywhere else is in their pitching staff as they seem to have an endless supply of great arms. The Rays have seen David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, and James Shields all come through the system and moved on to other teams. The latest in that line is Chris Archer who had his best season in 2015 and truly proved that he can be an ace. He will lead a rotation that includes other homegrown pitchers like Matt Moore and Drew Smyly who can both be great but have had injury issues that have hurt their development. The rotation might get a boost mid-season as well with Alex Cobb hoping to return from off-season surgery. That rotation is a boost for a team full of great arms including their bullpen where their late relief led by Alex Colome and Xavier Cedeno but the question will be at closer where Brad Boxberger had great save numbers but a terrible ERA. If he can figure it out the bullpen has someone for every role that they need only added to a deep stable of arms. Whereas the Rays continue to develop great pitcher they have struggled on the other side usually not seeing enough early enough from young batters and seeing them walk away before their potential can be reached. As a result, they have very few players that play every day in the line-up instead looking to produce runs with matchups. Expect the line-up to change almost daily The heart of the line-up though is Evan Longoria who has been the power in the line-up for years but has recently fallen off in production. He certainly still has everything he needs to be the focus of the offence but he needs to get back if he wants to stay an everyday player alongside Logan Forsythe and Desmond Jennings. The Rays use a very cerebral approach to batting and although it can work there is no substitute for having those batters that can change a game with any swing of the bat, which every East team has. The Rays are not a terrible team but they are not well-rounded enough to compete in the division and although their pitching will give teams fits they will remain near the bottom of the division and miss the postseason.

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The Blue Jays are back, or at least, they were in one of the best stories of the season last year as the Jays broke a 20-year postseason drought and brought an entire city out of their seats. That excitement seemed to be short lived though when Alex Anthopoulos walked away from the team in what seemed like a difference of opinion on how to run the team between him and new president Mark Shapiro. The Jays were moving on and Shapiro brought in own man, Ross Atkins, from Cleveland to try to build the farm system while keeping the momentum going. He had little work to do with the offence as the Jays held the best offence in baseball and every big player was under contract for 2016. The old guards of Toronto baseball, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are entering contract years giving them plenty of motivation to continue hitting the ball out of the park. Anthopoulos’ additions will also remain as Troy Tulowitzki enters his first full year at shortstop, Russell Martin looks to increase his offence production to go along with his great defensive ability, and Josh Donaldson tries to keep pace with his MVP season last year. Meanwhile, everyone will be watching to see if Michael Saunders and Devon Travis can make this offence even more dangerous while returning from injury. The offence is far from a work in progress but the same cannot be said for the pitching staff. Shapiro and Atkins didn’t offer David Price a contract letting the ace walk away to division rivals in Boston. That means that 24-year old Marcus Stroman will take over as the top pitcher and although he seems ready he has yet to play a full season in the majors. The rest of the staff is made up of guys that can be great but have seen inconsistent over the years like RA Dickey, J.A. Happ, and Marco Estrada who is coming off of his best major league season. In the bullpen, the big addition of the year, Drew Storen, will compete with Roberto Osuna who is very young but was surprisingly solid in big games for the team. They might make up a great late inning pairing but the rest of the bullpen is a bit of a question as pitchers like Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar have seen periods of inconsistency. The Jays’ season will all come down to pitching but for the regular season, their offence will once again carry them to the division title although they may falter in the postseason where their pitching will be exposed.

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Prediction:
The battle is going to be a good one and is just as unpredictable as any other year as any number of teams could find their stride. In the end, though the Jays look like the most talented team with changes and uncertainty through most parts of every other team. The Jays are not a pitching powerhouse but with an offence as good as they have it is hard to bet against them at least for this year. The Red Sox are an improved team and in their constant pattern, they will find another good season just behind the Jays with a wild card spot. The Yankees will be right in the fight was well but their ageing roster will finally catch up to them as they fall just short of a postseason spot. The Orioles and the Rays will try not to be the worst team and although they have some good spots the Orioles will fall to the better pitching staff that will get the Rays more wins in an ultra-competitive AL East.

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