The once fearsome while also fiercely competitive American League East does not seem to be as strong this new baseball season. Whereas Toronto, New York, Baltimore, Boston and even Tampa Bay have been consistently fielding good teams over the years, only one team, the Red Sox, look like championship material today.
In 2012, Boston won 69 games and finished fifth in the East, The next year they were very good, winning 97 games and going to the World Series. Then came two more consecutive fifth place finishes that brought on a change of management until suddenly last year, there they were again, threatening to win it all in the last season of Big Papi. It now looks as though a foundation for continued success has been built even though David Ortiz will not be around to lead the way. That foundation includes three very good young outfielders, a budding superstar shortstop, some veteran leadership and, of course, some reliable pitching.
The big off season acquisition was left handed hurler Chris Sale, mainstay of the Chicago White Sox in recent years who was 17-10 last season for a pretty bad team. He was traded to the Reds from the Whites for another touted superstar to be, Yoan Moncada. What that means for Boston’s infield is that Moncada will not be groomed as the next third baseman and that heretofore portly and injury prone Pablo Sandoval will be given one last chance to realize the potential that he showed in his San Francisco years. Xander Bogaerts will be 25 in October and he took a giant step in realizing his potential in 2016 with improved fielding at shortstop and a .294 batting average, 89 runs batted in, and 13 stolen bases. Veteran leader Dustin Pedroia is still going strong at 33. He is a gold glove defender who hits the ball hard and often and runs well. Mitch Moreland is the new fancy fielding first baseman after he hit a modest .233 for the Texas Rangers with a smattering of power. Sandy Leon hit well in 78 games at catcher last season and Christian Vasquez is his capable backup.
That strong outfield corps consists of Andrew Benintendi, a rookie last year, in left, Jackie Bradley Jr., currently on the disabled list with a sprained knee and reminiscent of the great Jackie Jensen in center field, and fleet, strong armed, power hitting Mookie Betts in right. Chris Young is still around to spot each of them. It may once have been considered a bad idea to use lefty pitchers at Fenway Park but the Red Sox will defy that with, not only Sale, but also David Price when he gets healthy,Eduardo Rodriguez, and Drew Pomeranz as starters as well as Fernando Abad, Robby Scott, and Robbie Ross Jr. in the bullpen. Rick Porcello may never win another Cy Young award but he’s a good righty starter and knuckle baller Steven Wright is too. At designated sitter, Hanley Ramirez, who had a good comeback year at the plate in ’16, should inherit most of Ortiz’ appearances.
The New York Yankees always get most of the media attention and this spring it mainly featured oohs and ahhs about how new and youthful they were getting now that part time first baseman Mark Teixeira and full time jerk Alex Rodriguez have retired. It’s partly true now that Greg Bird will play first and Aaron Judge right field and Gary Sanchez will catch. They will join youthful Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro in what becomes a pretty solid lineup with veterans Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Chase Headley. However, new designated sitter Matt Holliday is now 36 and not useful on defense anymore and his offensive numbers last year in St. Louis were mediocre. The old man of the pitching staff, C.C. Sabathia, had a bit of a rebirth last season but cannot be called a workhorse at this point. The pitching staff is close to being good though, with Aroldis Chapman around to thrill lovers of the radar gun. Masahiro Tanaka (14-4, 3.07) is solid, Michael Pineda a bit spotty, and Luis Severino a work in progress. Beyond Chapman the bullpen is good, with Dellin Betances, Tommy Layne, Adam Warren, and well traveled Tyler Clippard. With the avoidance of injuries the Yankees may contend. They have added Chris Carter to perhaps take advantage of the easy to reach seats at home.
Going into the 2016 season the Toronto Blue Jays looked like the best team in the division, but then certain things happened. Even though their yard is a good place for hitters, Troy Tulowitzki never came close to matching his Colorado output, but he did play frequently and is still a good shortstop. Jose Bautista, now 36 years old, was limited to 116 games and hit .234 with 22 homers and 69 RBI, though he did receive 87 bases on balls. Russell Martin, now 34, was still a fine catcher but his offense did not flourish. Still, the Jays tied the Orioles with 89 wins and had good things happen like J.A. Happ. The lefty won 20 against 4 losses with a 3.18 ERA, darned good for that park. They lost 1B/DH Edwin Encarnacion and knuckler R.A. Dickey to free agency after the season, however, and gaining Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce will probably not make up for that. Josh Donaldson is still all-bad ass at third base and Kevin Pillar is a jewel in center field. Devon Travis has become their latest good second baseman and they have depth with Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney available to help out. The youngster Roberto Osuna has been a find for the bullpen. This team, however, does not strike fear like it did not so long ago.
Baltimore’s manager caught holy hell for the way the Orioles lost that wild card game to Toronto, but Buck Showalter has won me over as a keen baseball mind since he burst on the scene looking uptight. Stellar defense and power are still the mode of operation in the city The Wire made infamous. Wellington Castillo is not apt to make Baltimore fans happy that Matt Wieters is gone, but otherwise the Orioles are strong up the middle with Adam Jones in center field, Jonathan Schoop at second, and J.J. Hardy at short. Chris Davis is also very good at first and his on base percentage and power make up for his .221 batting average. However, Mark Trumbo should stick to offense as DH and Hyun Soo Kim and Seth Smith in the corner outfield spots are also not noted for their glove work so Joey Rickard should get a lot of work when his sprained finger heals. Manny Machado combines Brooks Robinson defense and Frank Robinson offense at third base. The pitching is all fairly ordinary until you get to Zach Britton in the bullpen but let’s not harp on that.
It’s not like the glory days when Joe Maddon was around, but the Tampa Bay Rays are once again the best team that no one knows. You have to feel sorry for Rays fans, Almost always they have a fun team with young talent but they still have to watch their team play in that building that should be offered to Donald Trump so he can lock up all of us who disagree with him. The team has bad luck too. They signed a fine catcher in Wilson Ramos, but only after he had ripped up his right knee last September. Now they have to hope that he’ll be fine some day, but it won’t be this year. They have a great center fielder in Kevin Kiermaier but he was limited to 105 games last season. They traded for a great third baseman who also plays shortstop in Matt Duffy but he has been shelved with heel problems almost ever since. Steven Souza Jr. is a very good right fielder but he also has missed a lot of games. Mallex Smith is an exciting new addition to the outfield who can gallop and he stole 16 bases and hit .238 in 72 games with Atlanta last season. They do have good luck in coming up with good pitchers but again, that yard! It’s hard to hit there. Alex Colome is good out of the pen and Chris Archer, Blake Snell, and Jake Odorizzi are the basis of a good starting corps. Maybe some day they will play outdoors on grass with bricks for a background instead of a playing surface. I’m rooting for that and for them but I don’t have much hope.