2016 MLB Season Preview: American League East

Spring is in the air here at Place to Be Nation and that means it’s baseball season once again!

Over the course of Opening Week, we’ll be bringing you our divisional season previews, with the American League handled by myself, and the National League examined by Chris Jordan. Each day will bring a new division, alternating AL and NL, East-to-West.

Also, if you haven’t already, be sure to check the always-excellent Sports Evolution podcast, most recently an MLB preview with Scott, myself, Cowboy Sr. and Dr. G!

That all said, let’s begin our 2016 tour with the American League East.

As always, teams are listed in predicted order of finish.

The American League East was all kinds of unpredictable last season. The division champions (Toronto) made the October dance for the first time since 1993, while a heavy preseason favorite (Boston) ended up last for the third time in four years. This season, it should even more of coin flip, as the Red Sox made headline-grabbing moves while the Blue Jays remain strong, as do the New York Yankees and cases can be made for the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles to take home some hardware as well.

Joey Bats and the bat-flip heard 'round the world look to move deeper in the playoffs in 2016.
Joey Bats and the bat-flip heard ’round the world look to move deeper in the playoffs in 2016.

Toronto Blue Jays (2015 record: 93-69, 1st in AL East)

Manager: John Gibbons

Projected Opening Day Lineup:

CF Kevin Pillar

SS Troy Tulowitzki

3B Josh Donaldson

RF Jose Bautista

DH Edwin Encarnacion

1B Chris Colabello/Justin Smoak

C Russell Martin

LF Michael Saunders

2B Ryan Goins/Devon Travis (Note: Travis will start the season on the DL; Goins will start until Travis is off.)

Rotation:

Marcus Stroman

R.A. Dickey

Marco Estrada

J.A. Happ

Aaron Sanchez

Bullpen:

CL: Drew Storen

Roberto Osuna

Brett Cecil

Jesse Chavez

The 2015 version of the Toronto Blue Jays is a lot like Rusty Griswold in National Lampoon’s Vegas Vacation. In the film, Rusty nets himself a fake ID and proceeds to hit it big while the Griswolds take in Vegas (with hilarious results! Oh, my sides!). He befriends some *ahem* businessmen while masquerading as Nick Papageorgio. In the end, Rusty makes out with a decent wad of cash, four luxury cars, and stories he can tell his grandkids … after he morphs into Ed Helms, apparently.

Anyway, the Jays played 2015 on a similar run. They took the opportunity to acquire third baseman Josh Donaldson and catcher Russell Martin last offseason, and then added starter David Price and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki in mid-season deals. And, just like Rusty hit in big after his fateful encounter with a street hustler/phony ID salesman, the Jays won big from then on, tabbing a 40-17 (.702) record after August 1, helping the team capture its first playoff appearance since 1993.

Donaldson was the big fish for erstwhile GM Alex Anthopoulos, hitting .297/.371/.568 with 41 doubles, 41 home runs, and 123 RBIs en route to the AL MVP award. Martin was also exceptional for his home country Jays, as he smacked 23 home runs while providing his always-solid defense, and leadership, helping the Toronto staff finish fifth in the AL with a 3.80 ERA. While it is quite likely that both Donaldson and Martin will regress at the plate, they will continue to be among the best in MLB at their respective positions.

Despite only spending half a season north of the border, Price still compiled 2.4 bWAR for the Jays, going 9-1 with a 2.30 ERA in 11 starts. He provided an excellent boost to a rotation that was being propped up by the surprise of Marco Estrada (13-8, 3.13), the grizzled veterans R.A. Dickey (11-11, 3.91) and Mark Buehrle (15-8, 3.81) and something called “Drew Hutchison” (13-5, 5.57). Most of that rotation returns in tact, save for Price, who signed with Boston, and Buehrle, who retired.

Youngster Marcus Stroman (25 this May) is the nominal ace, having returned late in 2015 from a spring ACL injury. Stroman was a boon to the Jays’ late-season push, going 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA in four starts. He’ll front the rotation this season, with Dickey and Estrada behind him, followed by some combination of free-agent signee J.A. Happ (11-8, 3.61 between Seattle and Pittsburgh in 2015), Hutchison, and potential relief ace Aaron Sanchez*.

*Note: Sanchez will, in fact, be the Jays’ fifth starter.

If Sanchez doesn’t stick in the rotation for Toronto, then he’ll head up a bullpen that wound up posting a 3.50 ERA, good for fifth in the AL. Last year’s closer, Roberto Osuna could eventually start too, but he’ll probably be the main setup in front of new closer Drew Storen. Brett Cecil returns as the first lefty out of the pen, while the pen should round out with some combination of former starters Jesse Chavez and Gavin Floyd. Overall, it’s a strong unit if everyone’s healthy. Coupled with a strong defense, and Martin’s excellent game behind the plate, the Jays should be near the top of most pitching categories again.

The offense is top-shelf variety too, with sluggers Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and Donaldson forming a great middle of the order. Tulowitzki should help on defense too, while his offense is due for a boost as he recovers from his post-trade funk and settles in as a Jay. Center field Kevin Pillar played outstanding defense and added enough sock (31 doubles, 12 homers) to be another strong two-way player.

The Jays also got good production out of a first base platoon of Justin Smoak and Chris Colabello, as well as their second base timeshare/injury plan for Devon Travis and Ryan Goins. While it’s likely those arrangements will probably not be as efficient this year, a full season of left fielder Michael Saunders could help ease any drop-offs.

All-in-all, the Jays should return an excellent club again this year. While it’s difficult to crown them the new kings of the East, it’s not too hard to envision them winning another trip to the big dance.

Now if they could just find Wayne Netwon …

Prediction: A solid defense, a deep offense, and a solid-if-unspectacular staff make the Jays the front-runners for their second straight postseason berth. AL East Champions.

An ace lefty and Dunkin' Donuts ... it's a winning combination! (Or at least Sox fans hope so!)
An ace lefty and Dunkin’ Donuts … it’s a winning combination! (Or at least Sox fans hope so!)

Boston Red Sox (2015 record: 78-84, 5th in AL East)

Manager: John Farrell

Projected Opening Day Lineup:

CF Mookie Betts

2B Dustin Pedroia

DH David Ortiz

1B Hanley Ramirez

SS Xander Bogaerts

3B Pablo Sandoval

CF Jackie Bradley, Jr.

LF Rusney Castillo

C Blake Swihart

Rotation:

David Price

Clay Buchholz

Rick Porcello

Joe Kelly

Steven Wright (Note: Eduardo Rodriguez will start the season on the DL.)

Bullpen:

CL: Craig Kimbrel

Carson Smith (Note: will begin season on DL)

Koji Uehara

Robbie Ross, Jr.

Junichi Tazawa

Tommy Layne

The Boston Red Sox have finished last in the AL East three times in the last four seasons, and they will enter the 2016 season looking to put a stop to that downward momentum.

Last offseason, the Sox attempted to address their offensive shortcomings with free-agent signings of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, as well as trading for rotation additions Rick Porcello and Wade Miley. The idea was a rotation filled with mid-tier talent would be acceptable due to an above-average offense. But like most things in life, it was better in theory than in practice.

The Sox were excellent on offense in 2015*, that held true, but the pitching and defense were so poor that the team was sunk by midseason and was not really seen as a legitimate contender, finishing 15 games out of first place.

*Despite Sandoval and Ramirez both ranking as two of the worst overall everyday players in MLB.

The Sox do have reasons for optimism, starting at the top with President Dave Dombrowski, late of the Detroit Tigers. Dombrowski excels at leading big-budget clubs, cultivating strong business relationships in order to procure talent at top dollar. He’s a schmoozer, a slick-talker, a wheeler-and-dealer. To that effect, he should be an excellent fit for Boston, as they try to make the next few years as successful as their 2003 – 2009 run (six playoff appearances, two World Championships).

Boston will rely on a couple of key offseason acquisitions to turn things around for 2016, hoping that added arms and the blossoming of prized young talent can bring another title to Beantown.

First, the team’s big offseason deals were indeed just that: BIG. Financially speaking, the team rolled out the red carpet with a 7-year, $217-million contract for left-handed starter David Price. In terms of farm system depth, the Sox moved four prospects to the San Diego Padres for closer Craig Kimbrel. They also shipped out Miley to Seattle for setup arm Carson Smith, who should help stabilize the corps in front of Kimbrel.

Those three deals represent Dombrowski at his best — a card shark who never gambles. Sure, he takes risks, like any GM worth a damn will, but DD deals in the surest of things: money talks, prospects don’t win right now, and there are always more prospects to move. Ok, so that last point is shaky; the prospect well in Detroit ran so dry, it’s what got Dombrowski fired, but that’s been his M.O. since he started out making deals involving future Hall of Famers.

Moving on the field, Price should give the rotation the ace it lacked in 2015, allowing the team to more properly slot Buchholz, Porcello, Rodriguez, and Kelly down in the pecking order. The rest of the rotation looks good on paper, but a lot was made of that last season, and only Rodriguez delivered, as Buchholz and Kelly were injured and Porcello saw way too many of the grounders he induced get through a leaky defense.

Supporting those starters with a solid bullpen will be important, as Buchholz now has more injuries than promise, and Kelly looks like he may as well. Kimbrel closing things out is a good start, as the righty is still the best in the game, despite a slightly down year in San Diego (career-worst 2.58 ERA, career-low 59.1 innings pitched, career-low 87 strikeouts, and career-high six home runs allowed). Look, he’s still excellent, but maybe, at age 27, Kimbrel is starting the downside of his remarkable career. Boston will still be fine with that. The trade for Smith to set up Kimbrel could also help, as fellow setup arms Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara have concerns. Smith, however, is in his second full season in the bigs, so a slump wouldn’t be out of the question and could make the Sox bullpen a weakness rather than a strength.

The Boston defense still looks iffy from here, at least in the infield, with former shortstop/left fielder/train wreck Hanley Ramirez taking his *ahem* “glove” over to first base, where the team will look to minimize the damage give Ramirez a chance to focus less on defense and more on offense. Ramirez did start well at the plate last year, before a defense-related shoulder injury slowed him down. His defense at first should not cause him as many issues, but it could have a wider effect on the rest of the Boston infield.

At second base, the team is still counting on 32-year-old Dustin Pedroia, who produced well enough in a limited 2015 sample of 93 games. He should be solid, if healthy, but the aging curve on second basemen in their 30s, particularly one with a slight build, is not kind. There’s good news on Pedroia’s double-play partner, though, as 23-year-old Xander Bogaerts emerged as a star, hitting a team-best .320 with 196 hits. Another strong year from Bogaerts goes a long way toward replacing any diminished returns on Ramirez, Pedroia, and third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who continues to confound. Big Panda slashed a putrid .245/.292/.366 last season, raising questions about his focus, dedication, and conditioning all over again. With able replacements in Travis Shaw, Brock Holt, and Deven Marrero, don’t look for Boston to have as much patience with the Panda this year.

The outfield for Boston looks pretty good, but there are still a lot of questions. Can 23-year-old Mookie Betts post another 6.0 bWAR season? Can Jackie Bradley, Jr. build on his .267/.352/.539 second half? Will Rusney Castillo deliver on the potential that netted him $72.5 million just a few years ago? If two out of three work out, the Sox have the depth in Shaw, Holt, and offseason add Chris Young to keep the outfield a real strength for Boston.

Of course, no preview of the Red Sox would be complete without a bit on David Ortiz, the lovable, fat, jolly, foul-mouthed DH, who will retire at the end of the season. Ortiz is all things to all people and should be celebrated as such. Ok, maybe not. But he is really good at hitting baseballs and should be quite motivated to put up one more solid season.

Prediction: The addition of Price helps the rotation feel more like a “rotation” and less like a bunch of number threes crammed into a phone booth. Kimbrel and Smith give the bullpen some depth. Dombrowski deals from within the deep system to plug holes. Travis Shaw and Brock Holt are godsends after some combination of Castillo, Ramirez, and Sandoval flop. Betts and Bogaerts are both Top 10 MVP finishes. Second-place AL East.

New York Yankees (2015 record: 87-75, 2nd in AL East, 1st AL Wild Card)

Manager: Joe Girardi

Can A-Rod and the Bombers coax another contender out of an aging core?
Can A-Rod and the Bombers coax another contender out of an aging core?

Projected Opening Day Lineup:

CF Jacoby Ellsbury

LF Brett Gardner

1B Mark Teixeira

DH Alex Rodriguez

RF Carlos Beltran

C Brian McCann

3B Chase Headley

2B Starlin Castro

SS Didi Gregorius

Rotation:

Masahiro Tanaka

Michael Pineda

Nathan Eovaldi

CC Sabathia

Luis Severino

Bullpen:

CL: Aroldis Chapman (Note: during Chapman’s 30-game suspension, Miller will get most of the saves.)

Andrew Miller

Dellin Betances

Chasen Shreve

Ivan Nova

Last offseason, most pundits pointed to staying healthy as the best-case scenario for the New York Yankees, and as luck (and the trainers) would have it, that was the essential result for the Bronx Bombers in 2015. Despite an average position player age of 31.7 years old, the Yanks wound up winning the second AL Wild Card spot, where they were stopped by the Houston Astros. All things considered, the 2015 season has to be considered a success.

New York is bringing back the same crew with just a couple of additions, with Starlin Castro taking over second base and Aroldis Chapman solidifying the back end of the bullpen. Other than that, the Yankees did nothing else, failing to sign any free agents for the first time since the process came to be in 1975. Give a tip of the cap to GM Brian Cashman for pulling off such a unique feat in Gotham.

Overall, if the Yankees wish to contend again in 2016, they will need to be sure everyone eats their Wheaties all around the field. The offense is another year older and thus it will be harder to keep everyone healthy. Catcher Brian McCann is at age 32 and will probably sit a few extra turns this year. The backstop started 135 games last year, but with the need to reduce his workload as McCann climbs the age vs. production ladder, look for prospect Austin Romine to get a third of the starts behind the dish.

First baseman Mark Teixeira was the Yanks’ top position player last year in terms of bWAR, tallying 3.9 to just edge Dellin Betances’ 3.7 (more on him later). With understudy Greg Bird out for the season, it becomes imperative that Tex repeat his 2016 performance, but in more than 111 games. Castro, who came over from the Chicago Cubs for swingman Adam Warren, looked good at the plate and in the field after shifting over from shortstop to second late last year. He’ll probably never be a superstar, but Castro is still only 25 years old and if he can replicate his second half (.295/.319/.464) the Yanks should be pleased. Shortstop Didi Gregorius did a fine job replacing Andy Stankewicz Mike Gallego Spike Owen er, Derek Jeter. He provided steady defense (a first for Yankees’ fans under 20!) and hit well enough to keep his glove in there nearly every day (second on the team with 155 games played). The only guy to play in more games (156) was third baseman Chase Headley, who was alright in his first full year in pinstripes (.259/.324/.369). He’ll never be the RBI champ he was with San Diego that one time (seriously, it happened), but Headley fits with the rest of the Yanks’ uninspiring, but steady crew of infielders.

Manning the outfield for the Bombers will be 31-year-old Brett Gardner in left, 31-year-old Jacoby Ellsbury in center, and 38-year-old Carlos Beltran in right. Bench bats Dustin Ackley and Aaron Hicks should be plenty of playing time in the grass, as the combined age (100 years old!) of the Yankee outfield means plenty of rest will be required for this trio. Beltran, on most teams, would be a fine DH candidate, but that spot is taken by the 39-year-old Alex Rodriguez, who rebounded from his 2015 suspension to post one of the team’s best offensive lines (131 OPS+ second to Teixeira, team-best 33 home runs, second to McCann with 86 RBIs).

While the lineup qualifies for several AARP subscriptions (HA! Old people jokes!), the starting staff is the weak link for the Yanks in 2016. If everyone is healthy, it should be a solid unit that is more than capable of working the requisite six or so innings before turning the game over to the bullpen monster trio of Chapman, Betances, and Andrew Miller. However, the rotation is held together with duct tape, pipe cleaner, and some old modeling glue I found.

Number one starter Masahiro Tanaka pitched well last year, his second in the States, but his right elbow will be a constant concern. It limited the import to just 24 starts, and a dip in his strikeout rate, and a rise in his home run rate (1.0/9 in 2015; 1.5/9 in 2016). On the plus side, his WHIP dropped a bit and he did manage a good walk rate. Heading into this age 27 season, Tanaka doesn’t appear poised for any sort of breakout, but the Yankees will just be happy if he avoids a breakdown.

Nathan Eovaldi and Michael Pineda round out the next two spots. Both of them are hard throwers, but managed middling K-rates last year (8.7 for Big Mike; 7.1 for Big Nate). There’s nothing special here, but again, the Yanks don’t need special. They need health and innings — both guys started 27 games last season, second on the team behind CC Sabathia. While the 34-year-old Sabathia limped to a 6-10 record with a 4.73 ERA, he struggled with off-field issues and the whole baseball world is rooting for his rebound to health. The fifth spot will go to either 28-year-old Ivan Nova or 21-year-old Luis Severino, with the loser likely filling the swingman role vacated when Warren was shipped to the Cubbies.

The paramount view for the Yankees is just to get their starters through six innings. To his great credit, Cashman recognized that his rotation was a weakness, but instead of doling out another overpay for a starter when he already has six of them, Cashman went to the bullpen. Last year, he added Miller despite already having Betances ready to close in the follow-up to Mariano Rivera. The two shared duties well, with Miller notching 36 sames and Betances getting nine. The two combined for 145 ⅔ innings last year, with a 1.73 ERA and 231 strikeouts.

This year, Cashman went out and nabbed flamethrower Aroldis Chapman after the former Reds closer saw teams scared off by an offseason domestic incident that netted him a 30-game suspension. Cashman saw past that and recognized Chapman as an undervalued asset which could help the team win. So, he traded four warm bodies to the Reds and built what is likely the best bullpen for the 2016 season. Think Kansas City’s 2015 trio, but on steroids better. (Whew, that was a close one!)

Should the Yankees maintain their health this year, the future looks pretty bright, as several larger contracts (Tex, Beltran, Chapman, Nova) coming off the books after this year. All told, New York is looking at a payroll decrease from $221 million to $131 million. With a few solid prospects coming up to plug holes (Severino, Bird, Aaron Judge chiefly), the Yanks could resume spending in a 2017 reload.

This year, though, it’s all about getting through the gunfight with the bullets presently in the chamber.

Prediction: The deep bullpen should keep games close and ease the burden on the starters. While Warren’s versatility will be missed, Nova or Severino should fit that role well enough when needed. The offense needs some health and a little luck, but it’s still deep. Just not enough this time. Third place.

chrisarcher

Tampa Bay Rays (2015 record: 80-82, 4th in AL East)

Manager: Kevin Cash

Projected Opening Day Lineup:

2B Logan Forsythe

CF Kevin Kiermaier

3B Evan Longoria

RF Corey Dickerson

1B Steve Pearce/James Loney

LF Desmond Jennings

DH Logan Morrison

C Curt Casali/Hank Conger

SS Brad Miller

Rotation:

Chris Archer

Jake Odorizzi

Drew Smyly

Matt Moore

Erasmo Ramirez

Bullpen:

CL: Brad Boxberger (Note: Boxberger will miss a few weeks to open the season; saves could go to any of the names below.)

Danny Farquhar

Alex Colome

Xavier Cedeno

Ryan Webb

Steven Geltz

Tampa Bay may be the most improved team from last season to this season.

Bold? Sure, considering the team made what could be considered two “significant” moves during the winter. These minor adjustments (compared to more active teams) could pay huge dividends as the Rays look to contend this year. First, the team helped kick off the offseason with a six-player deal with the Seattle Mariners, sending starting pitcher Nate Karns and two others to the M’s for first baseman/outfielder/DH Logan Morrison, infielder Brad Miller, and reliever Danny Farquhar. Each of those new Rays should help the Rays maximize their roster depth to create a variety of lineup options.

The second major Tampa deal was smaller, but similarly creating depth upon depth, as the Rays moved fireballing bullpen arm Jake McGee to the Colorado Rockies for outfielder Corey Dickerson, whose first name is McKenzie (the poor bastard). Actually, Dickerson’s left-handed power should help the Tampa lineup, as he bashed 24 home runs in 2014, and then added 10 homers in just 65 games last year. The biggest question for McKenzie Corey Dickerson (I mean, come on, really? What were his parents thinking?!?!) is staying healthy. He missed most of 2015 with plantar fasciitis, a foot ailment that wrecked even the mighty Albert Pujols a few years ago. If healthy, Dickerson should be part of a strong outfield/DH alignment with holdovers Desmond Jennings, Morrison, Steven Pearce, Brandon Guyer, Steven Souza, and Gold Glover winner Kevin Kiermaier, who is the only surefire starter of this group.

First baseman James Loney should see his playing time reduced a little in a possible platoon with Pearce. The lefty-swinging Loney hits about 40 points better against righties (.296 vs. .254) while righty Pearce pounds southpaws (.400 SLG vs. right-handers, .481 vs. left-handers). At second base, Logan Forsythe established himself as a starter after a few years of bench duty in San Diego and the 28-year-old hit .281/.359/.444 with 17 homers for the Rays. He’ll most likely lead off for Tampa this year. His double-play partner will be either Miller or Tim Beckham, a No. 1 overall pick (2008) who popped nine homers in 82 games last year (albeit with a .222/.274/.429 slash line). If Beckham wins out at short, look for Miller to take on a Ben Zobrist-style utility role.

Third baseman Evan Longoria remains the leader of this team on and off the field (although Kiermaier’s spectacular defense and Chris Archer’s excellent season provide good competition).  Longoria played his usual solid third base, with 21 home runs and 73 RBIs to lead the team. At 29, his prime is drawing to a close, but expect a few more strong years before that happens.

Catching duties for Tampa will be split between Hank Conger, a reputably excellent pitch-framer who never hits, and Curt Casali, a power bat who might also have enough defense to relegate Conger to a backup. (Also, this author has seen Casali play for both the Detroit Tigers and Rays’ minor-league Midwest League affiliates. Name-dropping? Perhaps. Yes, I just “name-dropped” Curt F’n Casali … Sigh.)

While the Rays try to figure out if lineup platoons are the new market inefficiency (read: “new ‘Moneyball’”), the real strength of the team is their pitching staff. Side note: I get the Joe Maddon love, but people, for real, let’s respect the skills of Rays’ pitching coach Jim Hickey. This year, Hickey will oversee one of the most talented rotations in the game, starting at the top with ace Chris Archer, who posted a 12-13 record to go with a *ahem* “sterling” 252 strikeouts in 212 innings with a 3.23 ERA and a 2.90 FIP. Most of Archer’s numbers last year (7.7 H/9, 0.8 HR/9, 2.8 BB/9) were in line with his previous seasons, the increased innings and pumped-up strikeouts signal a star turn for the 26-year-old.

Jake Odorizzi follows Archer in the rotation after posting a 9-9 record with a nice 3.35 ERA. If he takes another step forward in 2016, the trade that brought him to Tampa Bay will soon see former Rays outfielder Wil Myers as the least important piece of that deal. Staggering to think, isn’t it?

The rest of Tampa’s rotation will consist of lefties Matt Moore, a full year removed from Tommy John surgery, Drew Smyly, hopefully over his shoulder maladies, former Mariner Erasmo Ramirez, and sometime in mid-season, erstwhile ace Alex Cobb, himself a TJ alum on the comeback trail. The depth and youth of that rotation, combined with a good bullpen headed by closer Brad Boxberger, should keep the Rays in the thick of the AL East for the bulk of the season. They likely won’t hit some of the win totals tossed out there by projection systems, but they should hang around the division crown most of the year.

Prediction: Tampa gets a nice boost from a return to form from Moore and Smyly, while Cobb is so-so upon his midseason return. Archer maintains his ace status, while Odorizzi takes the leap Archer did in 2015. The best starting staff in the AL can’t quite overcome the financial advantages of the rest of the East, however. The best fourth-place team in baseball.

chrisdavis

Baltimore Orioles (2015 record: 81-81, 3rd in AL East)

Manager: Buck Showalter

Projected Opening Day Lineup:

LF Hyun-soo Kim  (Note: Kim will start the year in the minors; he’s listed here primarily as an offseason transaction.)

3B Manny Machado

CF Adam Jones

1B Chris Davis

C Matt Wieters

DH Pedro Alvarez

RF Mark Trumbo

2B Jonathan Schoop

SS J.J. Hardy

Rotation:

Yovani Gallardo

Ubaldo Jimenez

Chris Tillman

Miguel Gonzalez

Kevin Gausman (Note: will begin season on DL)

Bullpen:

CL: Zach Britton

Darren O’Day

Brad Brach

Mychal Givens

Dylan Bundy

Vance Worley

Baltimore was busy this offseason, but how much the Birds improved is an open question. The team spent big to, in many ways, maintain status quo. The team should be in the thick of the AL East race, though, due mostly to a lot of heavy hitters up and down the Baltimore nine. The team that finished middle-of-the-pack in most major AL offensive categories (7th in runs scored, 8th in OPS, 10th in batting average) returns most of its 2015 squad, but the O’s have doubled-down on the home runs a year after finishing third in the junior circuit with 217 pillow-trippers*.

*Just trying that one out. Too cutesy?

The Orioles went into the offseason faced with the prospect of losing several key cogs, including their starting catcher (Matt Wieters), first baseman (Chris Davis), and finally seeing their window of contention close should both of those good (and popular) bats depart. So, the team bet against itself a bit, offering Wieters a qualifying offer that the injury-prone backstop accepted, becoming just the second player in MLB history (and second this offseason) to do so, earning him a 1-year, $15.8 million “pillow contract” — far, far, far better than Wieters could’ve gotten on the open market as 29-year-old catcher coming off Tommy John surgery in 2014 and a pedestrian 2015 line of .267/.319/.422 in just 75 games.

Bringing Wieters back gives the team a solid catching situation, as backup Caleb Joseph swatted 11 home runs in 100 games last year, despite poor overall numbers (.234/.299/.394). Having a backup with that sort of pop is rare, and it should serve the O’s well on the days Wieters needs a rest.

Chris Davis was also a big beneficiary of the O’s running their own table, as the first-time free agent bagged a 7-year, $161-million dollar deal with $42 million of that deferred. (Hey! Someone to replace Bobby Bonilla in all those “He’s still getting paid?!?!” jokes!) Davis certainly earned a hefty payday with his .262/.361/.562 line to go with a league-high 47 circuit clouts* this year. The Birds will regret this deal for the one-dimensional 30-year-old Davis, but it won’t be this year, and the O’s are doing everything they can to prop that window of contention open. As long as the window stays open, you’ve got a chance, given the unprecedented unpredictability of MLB’s 10-team mad dash known as October.

*Old-timey reference for bombs, taters, long balls, jacks, round-trippers, dingers, dings, dongs, ding-dongs, gopher balls, souvenirs, shots, blasts, pokes, homers, upper-deckers, touch-em-allers, moon-shots, bases-clearing clouts, no-doubters, lasers, laser beams, big flies, wallops, high-riser, skyscrapers, missiles, chaz-wazzers, cheeky monkeys, whirling durvishes, and so many more.

While Davis was the big re-sign and third base wunderkind Alex Wright Manny Machado us a delight on both sides of the ball, there’s probably no one more critical to the O’s infield unit than shortstop J.J. Hardy, who struggled through injuries last year to post a putrid .219/.253/.311 line last year. While he did play 114 games, Hardy’s injuries prevented him from bringing any sort of defensive value either, a must for any worthwhile shortstop. Machado did prove himself an able fill-in, but the kid can’t play the hot corner and short at the same time, so a healthy Hardy is imperative. Ditto for second baseman Jonathan Schopp, as the O’s lack any capable replacements for the talented 23-year-old who socked 15 homers in just 86 games.

The Birds’ outfield will feature Adam Jones in center, while a roving combination (pending platoon, defense, and local antacid supply) of “outfielder” Mark Trumbo, Korean import Hyun-soo Kim, Nolan Reimold, the currently injured Jimmy Paredes, and a host of non-roster dross. It could get real ugly out there. Given that most metrics don’t even view Jones too kindly on defense.

At DH, the Birds added former Pittsburgh slugger Pedro Alvarez, who should be a good fit on this defensively-challenged nightmare squad. The former first-round pick could hit 40 homers in cozy Camden Yards, but I won’t be surprised if he somehow commits the first-ever defensive error recorded by a designated hitter.

Baltimore should hit plenty of bombs, but it’s still a pretty one-dimensional offense, lacking any significant on-base threats or major speed. Expect a lot of solo shots providing most of the O’s offensive support in 2016.

The rotation for manager Buck Showalter is shaky, and the offseason loss of Wei-Yen Chen was off-set by the addition of Yovani Gallardo. While not an ace, the Gallardo signing does keep the O’s starting five adequate. Yep, adequate. Sweet, sweet adequacy. There is some minor potential for more than that, though, if Chris Tillman rebounds from an ugly year and Kevin Gausman fulfills his promise. Add middle-of-the-roaders Ubaldo Jimenez and Miguel Gonzalez and you’ve got a serviceable, competent, just-okay rotation. No Cy Youngs, but no real duds either.

The bullpen should shine again this year, with closer Zach Britton supported by stud setup in Darren O’Day and more-than-able arms in Brad Brach and Brian Matusz. Add in the intriguing arms of Mychal Givens and Dylan Bundy and Baltimore’s end-of-game crew looks potentially frightening. How many leads the feast-or-famine offense and the adequate (there’s that word again!) starting staff can get to them will be the real question.

Prediction: The team leads the Majors in home runs, and the bullpen is good, but the rotation and leaky defense doom the Birds to fifth place. The only sub-.500 team in the division.

Tomorrow we will examine the National League East. Until then, take care, PTB Nation!

Author: Joel Barnhart

A big-time baseball nerd, Joel is currently teaching English as a Second Language in San Antonio, Texas. In addition to his MLB passion, he enjoys good whiskey, good music, good movies, and good friends. He is currently engaged in an ongoing 12-year online debate over the merits of bubble wrap.