Major League Baseball 2017 Preview: American League East

“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.” — Voice of the Turtle (Song of Solomon 2:12)

Welcome back to spring and welcome back to baseball season, all you wonderful people out there in Place to Be Nation! As is my tradition (and you should make it yours too) I kick off our MLB Previews with the season-opening words of the late, great Detroit Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell.

This year, we’re taking a bit of a different approach to the previews at PTB, keeping things a bit trimmer. Instead of position-by-position analysis, Fellow PTB baseball guy Chris Jordan and I will check in on the important questions facing each team, some vital players, and our general thoughts on each of the MLB 30. 

Questions? Comments? Cell phone plan suggestions? Hit me up on Twitter @Teaching_Tigers or Chris Jordan @retromovienerd. It’s always great to talk baseball, so let’s do it!

Onward, my friends.

— JDB, Sports Editor for P2B

Teams are listed in predicted order of finish.

Boston Red Sox

2016 Record: 93-69, 1st in AL East

Big Questions: 1. How much will the presence of David Ortiz be missed, both in the lineup and in the clubhouse?

2. Can David Price and his elbow be counted on to contribute?

3. Will a slimmed-down Panda Sandoval bounce back and be a factor?

Synopsis: The Red Sox winning the division hinges on the strength of the starting rotation. Rick Porcello is the reigning Cy Young winner in the AL, in a hotly contested vote that saw him just beat out Detroit’s Justin Verlander, much to the chagrin of Kate Upton. The Sox traded some solid farmhands to the Chicago White Sox to land Chris Sale, who is a perennial Cy Young contender himself.

Price had elbow issues crop up in training camp and will start the season on the DL, but he and the Sox and are telling everyone that surgery will not be needed. He is the key figure in the rotation, and if healthy, he needs to bounce back to his old self.

Of course, the offense won’t look the same without Big Papi, so expect the Sox to rely less on power and improve their situational hitting. The young guys like Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, and Xander Bogaerts are now expected to lead this team into another World Series.

Most Important Player(s): 1. Price. Although he starts off on the disabled list, a healthy Price makes this one of the best rotations in all of MLB.

2. Sandoval. He has lost weight–and hopefully regained his confidence–because otherwise there is a huge gap at third base if he falters.

3. Craig Kimbrel. If he isn’t lights out in 2017, there are going to be some messy late-innings for this team.

2017 Predicted Finish: 1st place

The ongoing status of David Price’s left elbow will be a major concern on Yawkey Way all year.

Toronto Blue Jays

2016 Record: 89-73, tied for 2nd in AL East.

Big Questions: 1. How much will the loss of Edwin Encarnacion hurt the offense?

2. Is Kendrys Morales a suitable replacement for “Double-E”?

3. Can Aaron Sanchez and JA Happ repeat their 2016 performance?

Synopsis: For the second year in a row, the Blue Jays were knocked out of the playoffs in the ALCS, this time falling to Cleveland in five games. With several key players moving into the free agent market, Jays fans found themselves nervously warming by the Hot Stove, wondering which direction their team was headed: Full speed ahead, as has been the case the last few seasons, or rebuilding mode.

Gone are starter R.A. Dickey, reliever Brett Cecil, outfielder Michael Saunders, and first baseman/DH Encarnacion, which was the biggest loss for the Jays. Enter utility player Steve Pearce and 1B/DH Morales, who have the tall task of plugging the gap left by Encarnacion’s departure.

However, also returning to Toronto, mainly due to not getting the deal he expected to get on the free agent market, is right fielder Jose Bautista. He hopes to stay healthy in 2017 and re-establish his value so he can find that multi-year deal that will take him into retirement. Key to another postseason run are the arms of AL ERA champ Sanchez, 20-game winner Happ and World Baseball Classic MVP Marcus Stroman.

Most Important Player(s): 1. Troy Tulowitzki. One of the clubhouse leaders for this team. He needs a full season of health and production, as his stick has fallen rapidly the last several seasons.

2. Sanchez. A breakout 2016 needs to be followed up by an ace-level 2017. Removing the innings limitations that were imposed last season will only help his confidence going forward.

3. Morales. A lot of expectations are placed on him based on who he is replacing. A slow start, or a prolonged slump, and this lineup will look less imposing to opposing pitchers.

2017 Predicted Finish: 2nd place

With some offensive question marks, the bat of Troy Tulowitzki becomes even more important to the Jays’ chances.

New York Yankees

2016 Record: 84-78, 4th in AL East

Big Questions: 1. Can the Yankees youngsters develop into the core the team expects from them?

2. Can the starting rotation stay healthy for a full season?

Synopsis: In 2016, the Yankees said goodbye to veterans Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira and said hello to the likes of Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge*. There is an impending youth movement in the Bronx, as GM Brian Cashman made some very shrewd maneuvers to acquire some much needed young blood for an ailing farm system. This may pay off dividends sooner than expected.

*Ed. note — Holy @#$!, Aaron Judge looks like Richard Kiel! Check it:

I mean, it’s uncanny!

The Yankees may not have made the postseason in 2016, but they had a respectable finish in a tight division. The main reason for this was manager Joe Girardi. With near-daily controversy surrounding A-Rod, Girardi kept his team focused on the field and, as a result, the Yanks remained competitive all season, even with the midseason unloading of Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman, and Carlos Beltran.

Another reason for the decent finish was the late-season performance of rookie catcher Gary Sanchez. Although he didn’t debut until August, his performance landed him second place in the voting for AL Rookie of the Year. Sanchez has the eyes of the baseball world on him in 2017, looking for a full season repeat performance.

Most Important Player(s): 1. Sanchez. He is expected to have a repeat performance of 2016 and do it for a full season.

2. Greg Bird. After missing all of 2016, Bird needs a full season of health and production in order to fill the gap left by the retired Teixeira.

3. Masahiro Tanaka. He needs to continue to shrug off the questions about his durability and have an injury-free 2017. This rotation needs an ace.

2017 Predicted Finish: 3rd place

Mega-rookie Gary Sanchez is one of the pillars of the new, young Yankees.

Baltimore Orioles:

2016 Record: 89-73, tied for 2nd in AL East

Synopsis: The O’s season came crashing to a halt with a heartbreaking, extra-inning AL Wild Card loss to the Blue Jays, as manager Buck Showalter failed to use lights-out closer Zach Britton, because he was waiting for a lead that never materialized.

Honestly, most people never thought the O’s would even see the postseason, but that’s what Buck Showalter does: He gets the most out of what he has. This offseason, the Orioles didn’t make many splashes, opting to spend conservatively to fill in some gaps. So most of the same team is returning in 2017 and that spells trouble for opposing pitchers and the fans in the bleacher seats. Heads up out there, because MORE LONG BALL IS coming!*

Ed. Note: Do chicks still dig that? Or have they moved on to unemployed Sports Editors who spend way too much time on season previews?

However, the O’s starting pitching was not substantially improved in the offseason. Chris Tillman is the nominal ace but he is a No. 3 guy on most other contenders. With the state of the rotation, one can expect a lot of high-scoring games early, with the bullpen tightening things up late. It will be the starting pitching that will keep the Orioles out of the playoffs in 2017, though. If they end up staying relevant late in the season, though, it’s due to Showalter’s in-game strategy, as he is one of the best in the game.

Most Important Player(s): 1. Welington Castillo. With the departure of one-time super-prospect Matt Wieters to Washington (‘Member Wieters Facts? ‘Member?), Castillo has some big shoes to fill. With all the power in this lineup, he will be relied on more for his defense and guiding this rough pitching staff.

2. Dylan Bundy. Someone needs to step up and pitch like an ace for this team. Tillman is really a midtier option, and Bundy’s potential is still high at just 24.

3. Manny Machado. He is a potential MVP candidate every season. There are times when lack of maturity has gotten the better of him, but the Orioles need him to stay focused on the field since he is capable of carrying the team on his back for long stretches of the season.

2017 Predicted Finish: 4th place

Between dazzling defense and outstanding offense, Manny Machado is an Alliterative All-Star, and one the best players in the game today.

Tampa Bay Rays:

2016 Record: 68-94, 5th in AL East

Big Questions: 1. Is Evan Longoria long for Tampa Bay?

2. Can their young and talented starters stay healthy?

3. Will anyone come out to see them play?*

*Ed. Note: No. Never. They play in a stink-burger stadium that’s super-hard to get to. They will never draw fans. Ever. Until they can move. Which they won’t do until they draw enough fans to afford a new park. Are you starting to see the problem here?

Synopsis: Tropicana Field is the worst ballpark in MLB. No question. No doubt.

It is dingy and dank, there are obstructions hanging from the roof, the artificial turf is horrible to play on and look at, and the team that takes the field in 2017 will not be good.

Oh, there are some bright spots, but overall, there is no reason to think that the Tampa Bay Rays will be anything but last in attendance* once again. It really is a shame too, because baseball is a beautiful sport and everyone should partake if they have a local team to enjoy. Some of the bright spots on this team include a young-and-hungry starting rotation, Kevin Kiermaier‘s defense in center field, an improving farm system,  and of course…third baseman and franchise face Longoria.

*Ed. Note: The Dodgers (3.7 million) nearly TRIPLED Tampa’s attendance (1.28 million). Just…well, this.

Most Important Player(s): 1. Alex Cobb. Returning from a 2016 that saw him make only five starts, Cobb has the stuff to back up Archer as the No. 2 man in the rotation.

2. Longoria. The team leader. He has been critical of ownership in the past, as well as critical of the fans who don’t come watch him play. He is the glue that holds this thing together. What would happen if he was dealt to another team?

3. Chris Archer. A 9-19 win-loss record sounds bad. Really bad. It really wasn’t that bad and Archer is out to prove it this coming season.

2017 Predicted Finish: 5th in AL East, and (BONUS prediction!) last in MLB in attendance.

Is “Longo” long gone from Tampa this season?

Check back tomorrow for our look at the American League West, with the National League on deck on the way to Opening Day!