2015 American League East Preview

B6g0NNJCUAASndx“For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”

— Song of Soloman 2:11-12

Season-opening quote by Detroit Tigers’ broadcasting legend Ernie Harwell

To start, I’m so glad baseball’s back. The absence of the game only makes the long, cold winters in my home state of Michigan that much more bitter, windblown, and insufferable. With that in mind, it seems only right that I borrow a phrase from my favorite holiday movie in celebration of the beginning of a new baseball season being upon us all.

“It’s that wonderful time of year again, when every team has a chance, and the optimism of baseball fans across the land is at its zenith.”

On Opening Day, all is right with the world.

With that said, Place to be Nation readers, let’s move on to the first installment of the PTBN’s 2015 MLB Season Preview. If you haven’t listened to the excellently fun podcast, go ahead and do that before, during, or after, your reading of these installments. We’ll be rolling out the American League East first, with the AL Central and West after, and then the National League in the same order.

Teams are listed in predicted order of finish. Awards and playoff predictions will be part of the last division preview, the NL West.

Enough of that, let’s get to it!

The American League East may be the ultimate example of baseball parity.

It could be a fascinating, five-team pennant race all year long, where each and every intra-division game is a war and each move (or non-move) during those games in microscoped and analyzed to their utmost.

Or it could be a total trainwreck where no team excels, every beats the mess out of each other, injuries collapse hopes, panic sets in, and the division winner barely makes it out alive.

Either way, it should be a great ride no matter which wagon you’ve hitched up to.

Adam Jones hopes to have more to celebrate with the Orioles in 2015.
Adam Jones hopes to have more to celebrate with the Orioles in 2015.

Baltimore Orioles

What’s old is new again. And what’s new is old in Baltimore this year.

Yes, the Orioles lost AL home run champ Nelson Cruz and longtime right fielder Nick Markakis.

But the offseason for the O’s was built around the idea that they’ll still compete. Not because of new faces, but a return to form by several familiar ones instead.

Catcher Matt Wieters missed most of last year with Tommy John elbow surgery, and while he’s dealing with some soreness this spring, a bounce-back is expected as the 28-year-old is entering his free agent season, and will likely do whatever he can to stay on the field, put up big numbers, and get himself a strong contract for 2016 and beyond.

If he falters, backup Caleb Joseph did prove himself a solid Plan B, but it’s clear that the O’s let Cruz and Markakis walk in part due to their confidence in Wieters.

Third baseman Manny Machado is also a comeback for the O’s after knee injuries limited him to just 82 games. The 20-year-old led the AL in doubles (51) in 2013 and with a clean bill of health, and a healthy dose of maturity*, Machado should be ready to resume his climb to the top of the list of third baseman in the junior circuit.

*Maturity, unlike statistics, or health, cannot be predicted. This is just assuming that, during his knee rehab, Machado had some time to consider his past hot-headedness, and learned from those missteps.

First baseman Chris Davis will look to regain some of his 2013 form as well, having struggled to a dismal .197 batting average last year. And, of course, the power dipped along with the average, as Davis fell from a Major League-best 53 homers to 26 last year. While there’s no doubt Davis has big-time power, it remains to be seen if he can make consistent enough use of it to be trusted as the top bat in Baltimore’s lineup, or if he’s just a complementary piece. The loss of Cruz means he needs to be the former, not the latter.

The rest of the O’s lineup looks pretty solid, if unremarkable. Second baseman Jonathan Schoop has some legit power and is steady enough defensively to form a solid up-the-middle defense along with shortstop J.J. Hardy.

Hardy will be a key cog to watch in 2015, as his power dropped off significantly. After three straight years of 20+ for the O’s, Hardy failed to reach double digits in that category for the first time since an injury-shortened 2010 with the Minnesota Twins.

Baltimore’s outfield looks suspect after center fielder Adam Jones, who provides good power (29 homers) with awful plate discipline (19 walks in 682 plate appearances) and defense that gets some of the most mixed reviews on Earth (three straight Gold Gloves, with bad metrics). Beyond Jones, it’s Alejandro De Aza in left, newly-acquired Travis Snider in right, and a mix of Delmon Young, Steve Pearce, and Jimmy Parades filling in and/or playing DH.

It is, shall we say, not a strength.

But Batlimore’s starting rotation is not a strong point either and yet the team still managed a league-best 96 wins in 2104. The starting five remains unchanged from the group that ended 2014, with a whole bunch of middle-of-the-road “young veterans” filling it out: Chris Tillman, Bud Norris, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Kevin Gausman.

Of that group, Gausman and Tillman seem to still be ascending, while the other three have likely piqued and will be looking to maintain their 2014 levels.

If they can do that, they’ll turn over their leads to a very good bullpen, one that finished third in the AL (and sixth in MLB) with a 3.10 ERA in 507 ⅔ innings. While bullpens are a largely unpredictable bunch, the collection of arms Baltimore has should be a plus in 2015, because the roles are clearly defined, with former starting prospect Zach Britton finally figuring out his electric stuff in the closer’s role, along with right Tommy Hunter and lefty Brian Matusz doing the same in setup roles. Darren O’Day, Brad Brach, Wesley Wright, and failed 2014 big-money ticket Ubaldo Jimenez round the rest of the ‘pen, which will benefit from the guidance of perennial Manager of the Year candidate Buck Showalter.

Prediction: 92-70, first place

Despite new faces, the Red Sox will look to Big Papi for a strong 2015.
Despite new faces, the Red Sox will look to Big Papi for a strong 2015.

Boston Red Sox

If you’ve ever purchased a lottery ticket, then you understand how most fans feel after their favorite team lands a big name free agent, or nets a huge season from an under-the-rader talent.

If you’ve ever purchased your lottery tickets by the gross, then you should understand the Boston Red Sox’ approach to the 2015 season.

The Sox, looking to pull off the worst-to-first-to-worst-to-first trick, reloaded their offense with two big additions in third baseman Pablo Sandoval and shortstop-turned-left fielder Hanley Ramirez. They also revamped their rotation, adding Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, and Justin Masterson with two trades and a free-agent deal.

The offense will still revolve around David Ortiz, while first baseman Mike Napoli and second baseman Dustin Pedroia return as well. Both of them slumped last year, and while rebounds for both would be a welcome sight at Fenway, it seems that age and its associated wear and tear is catching up to them, especially Pedroia, who posted the lowest full-season batting line of his career at .278/.337/.376.

Sandoval’s coming off another excellent postseason run with the World Champion San Francisco Giants, but it remains to be seen if he can bring any October mojo to Beantown. Sandoval has always had issues with staying in shape, and while he plays a decent hot corner, his bat is what landed him the 5-year, $95-million deal with the Sox.

It’s unlikely “Big Panda” lives up to that dollar figure, producing most of his value during its first couple of years. The deal would likely be an albatross for most franchise during its waning years, but Boston is one of a handful of MLB teams that can afford to overpay over the long-term for a short-term gain. Bottom line: Sandoval will either find Boston a perfect fit and help the Sox turnaround, or he’ll struggle immediately and become Public Enemy No. 1.

The same can be said for prodigal son Hanley Ramirez, who signed a 4-year, $88-million dollar pact to return to the franchise that drafted him out of the Dominican Republic at the age of 16.

Now 31-years-old, Ramirez is being asked to play left field for the Sox, an intriguing switch if he can handle it. However, as with Sandoval, Ramirez was not signed for his defense. His bat is what earns him his keep. Ramirez hit .283/.369/.448 last year as the shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers. If he can replicate that in a full season — health is not a selling point for Hanley — the Red Sox won’t care if he plays left field like a graceful gazelle or a stampeding elephant.

Along with the big ticket items, Boston is also betting on a few less expensive pickups this year, with center fielder Mookie Betts entering his first full year. Betts impressed in 52 games for Boston last year, hitting .291/.368/.444 and he’s continued to tear it up this spring. He’ll likely be the table-setter, along with Pedroia, for some order of Ortiz, Napoli, Ramirez, and Sandoval.

The rest of the lineup will be filled out by shortstop Xander Bogaerts, catcher Ryan Hanigan, and right fielder Shane Victorino. The bench should provide some good depth if Allen Craig and Daniel Nava can come back from terrible 2014 performances. Brock Holt should be a true utility player for the Sox, showing up just about anywhere on the field when someone needs a day off.

It’s a solid lineup that GM Ben Cherington has constructed, but the pitching staff is where we’ll find out if Cherington’s gambling pays off.

The Sox overhauled their rotation after losing out on former ace Jon Lester. They brought in right hander Rick Porcello, moving mercurial outfielder Yoenis Cespedes to Detroit; added lefty Wade Miley in a prospect-dumping deal with Arizona; and then signed former Sox prospect Justin Masterson to a 1-year “make-good” contract.

Rounding out Boston’s rotation will be Joe Kelly, acquired mid-season, along with Craig, in a trade with St. Louis, and injury-prone “ace” Clay Buchholz.

While Buchholz certainly can pitch like a true No. 1, he is often inconsistent or injured. The 29-year-old has never thrown more than 189 innings in a season, so it remains to be seen if he can lead a pitching staff with any sustained success.

Porcello, coming off the best year of his career at age 26, could be the ace by default if Buchholz is not healthy. Or he could be the ace on merit too. The sinkerballer should benefit from a strong infield defense after several years of pitching with one of the game’s worst infields — if not the worst — in Detroit. A strong follow-up on last year’s 15 wins, 3.43 ERA, and 204 innings would go a long way in establishing Porcello’s value when he hits the free agent market in November.

Miley, who looks like everyone’s stoner friend from high school, is 28 and coming off his second straight 200-inning season for Arizona. Like Porcello, Miley relies more on location and getting grounders than he does on strikeouts, so a move to the more experienced, sharper infield defense of Fenway should help him out. However, Miley’s lackluster secondary numbers (86 ERA+, 3.98 FIP, 1.40 WHIP) last season shouldn’t.

Kelly and Masterson are much like Wiley in that they will likely need to rely on improved defense, luck and change of scenery to enjoy better seasons. If they do, Boston could boast one of the better, more interesting rotations in the game. If not, it’ll be another long year in Boston.

The bullpen remains largely unchanged, as Boston will go with soon-to-be 40-year-old Koji Uehara* at closer, backed by the largely pedestrian group of Edward Mujica, Craig Breslow, Anthony Vavaro, Alexi Ogundo, and Robbie Ross. It’s a pretty “meh” group and if the rotation springs any leaks, there’s not a lot of ability to plug those holes effectively.

*Who is hurt and may not make the Opening Day roster. Pitchers that age getting hurt? …. Oh, boy.

The Boston Red Sox had an eventful, intriguing, always-in-the-headlines offseason. They were connected to every major name or trade out there this winter. In the end, they made some big purchases to fit some needs  and reset in others with trades.

In the end, it’s all just lottery tickets, though.

Prediction: 85 – 77, second place

The new Jays' catcher, Russell Martin could significantly impact the club at the plate and behind it, too.
The new Jays’ catcher, Russell Martin could significantly impact the club at the plate and behind it, too.

Toronto Blue Jays

For the past few years, Toronto has been a popular pick in this division, only to disappoint each time.

This year, the reasoning behind the Blue Jays’ pundit push in the division seems to be directly related to the overall, wide-open nature of the division, as well as the acquisitions of third baseman Josh Donaldson and catcher Russell Martin.

Donaldson, who came over from Oakland in a Thanksgiving Day trade for third baseman Brett Lawrie and a couple of pitchers, should help lengthen the Jays’ lineup behind outfielder Jose Bautista and designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion. With the improvements on offense and defense that Donaldson should bring, as well as the addition of Martin, and outfielder Michael Saunders, the Blue Jays should have a good chance of improving on last year’s offense, which was fourth in MLB with 4.46 runs per game.

Martin, who came over from Pittsburgh as a free agent, should help on both ends of the ball, too, adding offensive punch and solid catching chops. It will be interesting to see if Martin can guide the Jays’ rotation — which includes veterans R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle and youngsters Aaron Sanchez and Drew Hutchison — to a better performance than last season’s 4.00 ERA, which was eighth in the league*.

*The spring training loss of Marcus Stroman does ding this group a bit, as many expected him to take a leap into the top shelf of AL starters this year. At least he’ll use his time off well.

But no matter what the rotation does or does not do, the bullpen is where improvement could prove the difference between the Jays playing in October or disappointing yet again. The ‘pen put up a 4.09 ERA last year in 484 ⅓ innings, good for 12th in the league. With 2014 closer Casey Janssen joining the Nationals, former starting prospect Brett Cecil is in line to take over ninth-inning duties. The lefty is well-suited for relief work, as his 76 strikeouts in 53 ⅓ innings attest.

Martin and Donaldson, along with Jose Reyes, Bautista, and Encarnacion, will need to remain healthy and productive, since the rest of the Toronto lineup will rely on inexperience, youth, or sub-par options. Center field options Dalton Pompey and Kevin Pillar fit the first two criteria, as does second baseman Devon Travis, while first baseman Justin Smoak fits the second. Enough production from the top portion of the lineup, and one or two weak spots won’t matter though.

The bottom line with the Blue Jays is just that: if everyone’s healthy and performs to their potential, this is a World Series contender. But it’s baseball, and baseball doesn’t play by those rules. Baseball is as much about luck as it is about talent. The Jays have the talent, but probably not enough luck. Disappointment, yet again.

Prediction: 83-79, third place

A lot is riding on the health of Masahiro Tanaka and the other Yankee starters.
A lot is riding on the health of Masahiro Tanaka and the other Yankee starters.

New York Yankees

In what is, perhaps, the most “toss-a-coin-because-we-don’t-know” division in baseball this season, the New York Yankees represent that WTF mantra to the fullest.

In fact, on the MLB preview podcast, I had the Bronx Bombers as the worst team in the division. Here, I’ve got them fourth, but the reality is that they could finish first, last, or anywhere in between.

What it will ultimately hinge on for the Yankees, like so many other teams, is their starting rotation.

However, New York’s rotation has the true talent to take this team into the playoffs. It also could send the Bombers to their worst season since the strike-shortened 1995, when the team won 79 games. (The Yankees actually finished in first place that year thanks to the 144-game schedule; 79 wins projects to 89 wins in a full, 162-game season.)

The last time the Yanks finished under .500? 1992.

Could New York end up with a .500 record for the first time in 23 years?

It’s quite possible, given the shakiness of their rotation and all of the hope the team is putting it in its aging offensive core.

The starting five of Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, and oh, let’s say … Adam Warren (at least until Chris Capuano’s healthy) should be pretty solid. But Tanaka’s one twinge away from Tommy John surgery (quite literally), while who knows if the slimmed-down, 34-year-old Sabathia has anything left. Pineda could be an ace, but it remains to be seen if the 26-year-old can put it all together. Eovaldi can throw in the triple digits, he limits walks (43 in 199 ⅓ innings), and doesn’t give up homers (0.6 HR/9). But he’s around the plate a bit too much, giving up an NL-leading 223 hits last year. How the 25-year-old manages the shift to the AL could be a huge factor in the Yanks’ season.

The bullpen should be very good, with free-agent Andrew Miller joining hard-throwing Dellin Betances to form a great 1-2 punch, much like John Wetteland and Mariano Rivera in the mid 90s. The only wrinkle here is who closes. Both have the stuff to do it, but Miller’s getting paid like a closer, so he’s probably the guy.

At the plate and in the field, the Yanks are hoping for a few miracles. They have to hope the aging lineup core of Brian McCann, Mark Teixeira, Stephen Drew, Alex Rodriguez, and Carlos Beltran can hold up and produce like they used to; while Jacoby Ellsbury can stay healthy, and Didi Gregorius isn’t crushed under the weight of replacing the legend that is Derek Jeter.*

*My best guess: Didi doesn’t make anything forget Jeter’s bat, but he’s a world better than the glove. The media focuses more on his offensive shortcomings, riding Didi out of town within two years or less.

Overall, this is a team betting heavily on old stars doing what they used to. Aging talent trying to recapture their glory. With good health all around, it could happen.

Probably won’t though.

Prediction: 82-80, fourth place

It could be long year for Evan Longoria and the Rays.
It could be long year for Evan Longoria and the Rays.

Tampa Bay Rays

While other teams in the division are dealing with minor roster changes, injury shakeups, and new free agents, the Tampa Bay Rays are facing what is easily their most difficult season since 2008, when the team made the leap from crappy expansion club to legit contender.

It began last July, when the Rays dealt longtime ace David Price to the Detroit Tigers in a three-way swap with Seattle for starter Drew Smyly and some prospects.

The slide gained momentum this offseason, when longtime General Manager/Executive Vice President Andrew Friedman left the club he’d built into something respectable to take a similar role with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Shortly after, manager Joe Maddon, who had nursed Friedman’s creation along the road to contention, bolted to sign a lucrative deal with the Chicago Cubs and take on a new set of challenges with baseball’s longest world title drought.

Last season, the seams started to pop on what Friedman and Maddon had built, as injuries and ineffectiveness had the Rays winning just 77 games, their lowest total since 2007, and just their third losing season with Maddon at the helm.

So the team unloaded Price in July, and then in the offseason they moved infielder Yunel Escobar, super-utility guy Ben Zobrist, and outfielder Matt Joyce, with only the signing of veteran middle infielder Asdrubal Cabrera on the other side of the ledger.

Tampa will look to steady the shop over the next few seasons with a brain trust led by GM/President of Baseball Operations Matt Silverman and first-year manager Kevin Cash.

Cash, a former MLB journeyman catcher, has big shoes to fill with Maddon’s departure, and he’s most likely not going to be the manager of the next Rays playoff team.

As for 2015, Tampa looks to a strong starting pitching staff as its best asset.

The rotation will be fronted by Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, and Smyly, with Jake Odorizzi and Alex Colome slotting in behind them. Cobb and Smyly are currently out with injuries, and if they miss significant time during the season, it will  only get worse for the Rays.

The bullpen is led by closer Jake McGee, who put up strong numbers after taking over the closer’s role from Grant Balfour last season. Balfour should be decent in a set-up role, while flamethrower Brad Boxberger is peering over McGee’s shoulder as the next in line for saves should McGee’s December elbow surgery slow him down.

The Rays’ offense took a couple of significant hits when Joyce and Zobrist were moved. Joyce brought back reliever Kevin Jepsen, who should see time pitching just in the seventh inning ahead of Boxberger and McGee. The extremely popular Zobrist, on the other hand, brought in John Jaso, who will probably DH most of the time, since his concussion history takes a heavy workload behind the plate out of the question. The two prospects Oakland sent to Tampa, infielder Daniel Robertson, and outfielder Boog Powell, both look to add depth to the Rays’ farm system.

Tampa will look to third baseman Evan Longoria to supply most of their offensive firepower, while his supporting cast will consist largely of guys that would probably be excellent part-timers or bench bats in most organizations.

While a few of the names have established value and/or potential this lineup doesn’t scare anyone:

How the Rays navigate the next couple of years will be a test. It will test Cash as a skipper, the patience of the fanbase (which doesn’t show up anyway, although TV ratings are usually fine), the strength of the farm system, and Silverman’s ability to keep it well-stocked.

Prediction: 74-88, fifth place

Up next in our spin around the Majors is the American League Central, where the Detroit Tigers look to prop their window of contention open while fending off hungry teams in Chicago, Cleveland, and Kansas City.