American League East Preview

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2018 was the year of the Red Sox.  Boston absolutely ran the table from start to finish, starting the season 17-2, winning 108 regular season games (the most since the 2001 Mariners), and going 11-3 against the Yankees, Astros and Dodgers in the postseason en route to a fourth World Series in the last fifteen years. Led by AL MVP Mookie Betts, offseason acquisition JD Martinez, and a dominant rotation headlined by Chris Sale, the Red Sox left no doubt they were the best team in baseball last year. However, 2019 represents a new hope for all MLB teams, especially the division rival Yankees and Rays. Last year was mostly a two horse race with the Rays a close third, and this year looks like it will be more of the same. With the Orioles in full rebuild mode and the Blue Jays a distant fourth last year, the AL East will once again come down to the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays. Have the Yankees and Rays done enough to overtake the reigning World Champs, or will the Sox dominate the league once again and spoil New England fans even further?

PECOTA Projections:

Yankees 97-65

Red Sox 90-72

Rays 85-77

Blue Jays 76-86

Orioles 57-105

Yankees

Key Players: Aaron Judge, Luis Severino, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, Miguel Andújar

Offseason Acquisitions: James Paxton, Adam Ottavino, JA Happ, Zack Britton, DJ LeMahieu, Troy Tulowitzki

Offseason Losses: David Robertson, Sonny Gray, Andrew McCutchen, Lance Lynn

Players to Watch: Gary Sanchez, Troy Tulowitzki

According to PECOTA projections, the New York Yankees will finally get the monkey off their back and win the division for the first time since 2012 (seriously, they haven’t won the division since 2012…) After the Baby Bombers’ surprising 2017 postseason run to Game 7 of the ALCS and a 100-win 2018 season plagued by injuries to Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez, the reloaded Yankees finally look ready to take the next step and contend for their 28th World Series Championship. The 2018 Yankees are a sabermetrician’s dream: flamethrowing pitchers and a lineup that crushes homeruns from the leadoff spot to the nine hole. GM Brian Cashman turned their bullpen strength into an absolute weapon this offseason, resigning Zack (with a K now) Britton and inking hometown kid and Berkley Carroll alum Adam Ottavino to three year deals. It was said last year and it will be said again, but this bullpen could be one of the greatest ever assembled. The table below shows the xFIP, K% and GB% for their top five bullpen arms:

With Adam Ottavino replacing David Robertson and a full-season of groundball machine Zack Britton, the Yankees bullpen has a chance to smash the bullpen fWAR record of 9.7…that they set last year.

Speaking of smashing, how about that Yankees lineup? The Bronx Bombers hit 267 homeruns last year en route to an MLB record, and Aaron Judge has already stated the 2019 team will shatter that record again. It is hard not to believe him. Judge and Sanchez missed significant time with injury last year, and Giancarlo Stanton had some ups and downs in his first year in the Bronx. The first base slot produced virtually no offense until the trade for country strong Luke Voit (14 HRs in 39 games), who seems primed to win the starting job over Greg Bird out of Spring Training. Baby Bombers Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andújar look to build on strong rookie campaigns and $70MM man Aaron Hicks aims to continue his breakout and prove he was worth the extension. Judge, Stanton, Andújar and Hicks posted 149, 127, 128 and 127 wRC+ respectively in 2018 and, along with a healthy and resurgent Gary Sanchez, could lead the team to another record breaking year on offense. A key player to watch for the first half of the year is Troy Tulowitzki, as he fills in for Didi Gregorius while he recovers from Tommy John surgery. If Tulowitzki can stay healthy (big if despite him looking solid in camp so far), he could further lengthen the lineup in Sir Didi’s stead and bridge the gap until his return.

While the bullpen and big bats carried the team last year, the Achilles heel of the team was starting pitching. Yankees brass publicly stated their #1 goal in the offseason was to upgrade this group after their ALDS loss to the Red Sox. The Yanks landed James Paxton in a blockbuster deal with the Mariners early in the offseason and resigned JA Happ to a 2 year/$34MM deal with a mutual option for a third year. They dealt unbelievably bad at home Sonny Gray to the Reds and brought CC Sabathia back for one last ride as the fifth starter. Although their starting pitching depth is already being tested with newly extended Luis Severino suffering from rotator cuff inflammation, the Yankees will be tough to beat if they can improve the performance of the starting pitching staff.

Prediction: Yankees bring another Ticker Tape parade back to New York after their 28th World Series victory

Red Sox

Key Players: J.D. Martinez, Mookie Betts, Chris Sale, David Price, Xander Bogaerts

Offseason Acquisitions: Nathan Eovaldi, Steve Pearce

Offseason Losses: Craig Kimbrel, Joe Kelly, Ian Kinsler

Players to Watch: Andrew Benintendi, Matt Barnes

As the old adage goes, “what goes up must come down.” It seems impossible the Red Sox will be able to repeat their magical 108-win season in 2019. PECOTA projects the Sox to win 90 games and host the one game Wild Card at Fenway Park. However, Boston returns its entire lineup (led the league with 876 runs), and resigned Nathan Eovaldi to a 4 year/$68MM deal to round out a starting rotation that includes Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello and Eduardo Rodriguez. Boston can easily surprise on the upside of the PECOTA projections, especially if they continue to play the same well-rounded baseball they put on display last year.

On the offensive side, Boston’s lineup is as deep as it gets. Manager Alex Cora has stated that Andrew Benintendi will predominantly hit leadoff this year, and I believe he has a chance to truly breakout and become another young superstar on this team. Benintendi upped his wOBA and wRC+ from his strong rookie season (.357 and 122 respectively last year) and despite four fewer homers, hit 15 more doubles in his second full year. I see more of those doubles turning into homeruns this year and Benny joining the 30-30 club with 120 runs out of the leadoff spot for the Sox.

All those runs shouldn’t be too hard to score considering he will have Mookie Betts and JD Martinez hitting behind him. The two combined for an astounding 16.3 fWAR last season and were the most formidable hitters in the AL for much of the season. JD Martinez proved his breakout season in Detroit and Arizona in 2017 was no fluke and Sox fans can rejoice in two more years of Mookie Betts before he hits Free Agency after the 2020 season. If these big bats, along with strong hitting shortstop Xander Bogaerts (also knighted in his home country of Aruba, people forget), can put together a similar season, look for the Red Sox to lead the bigs in runs scored for a second straight season.

To complement the lineup that loves to do damage, the Sox starting rotation features two former Cy Young winners…both not named Chris Sale. The two lefties in Sale and David Price (2.31 and 3.95 xFIP respectively in 2018) will lead the charge again and look to eat up as many innings as possible. Rick Porcello is one of the best #3 pitchers in the league and Sox faithful fell in love with deadline acquisition Nathan Eovaldi after his performance in the postseason, especially his six inning relief appearance in their one World Series loss. When your #4 starter can chuck 100MPH cheese with a 95MPH cutter and an absolute hammer, that is pretty unfair.

The starting rotation is going to need to eat up innings as the one weakness of the reigning World Champs is the bullpen. In the postseason last year their weak bullpen was every opponents’ only hope and they managed to hang on by the skin of their teeth, especially in the ALDS. To make matters worse, the Sox lost setup man Joe Kelly to the Dodgers in Free Agency and closer Craig Kimbrel, despite still being on the market (that’s another story), seems unlikely to return to Beantown. This leaves Matt Barnes as the de facto closer at the moment, and the bullpen’s Spring Training stats are in no way making the Fenway faithful any more optimistic.

Tweet from Jason Mastrodonato

It’s still Spring Training so it should be taken with a grain of salt, but that is bad. For the Sox to have any chance to repeat as World Champs, several arms in the backend are going to need to step up and provide meaningful high leverage innings. The bats and the starting staff will do the job. Can the bullpen hold its own when it matters again?

Prediction: Alex Bregman gets his wish as his Astros knock off the Red Sox in a fierce ALDS matchup

Rays

Key Players: Blake Snell, Joey Wendle, Tommy Pham

Offseason Acquisitions: Charlie Morton, Mike Zunino

Offseason Losses: Mallex Smith, Sergio Romo, Jake Bauers

Players to Watch: Wander Franco, Brendan McKay

After four years with 80 wins or less, the Rays broke through last year and reached the 90-win plateau led by Cy Young winner Blake Snell and the now famous opener strategy implemented by Kevin Cash. Yet with three 100+ win teams in the American League and the A’s finishing strong with 97 wins, the Rays still fell 7 games behind the last Wild Card spot. After trading face of the franchise Evan Longoria before the 2018 season, the Rays went into the year without a true star on the team. However, Blake Snell had a breakout season capped off by a Cy Young win, the second in Rays history in addition to David Price’s win in 2012. Snell will need to lead the rotation again with the help of FA acquisition Charlie Morton (2 year/$30MM) to keep the Rays in the hunt for their first playoff appearance since 2013.

Blake SnellxFIPK%BB%
20174.5621.810.8
20183.1631.69.1

Snell always had promise, but he put it all together in 2018, mostly due to a shift in pitch mix (and a bit of luck). His strikeout percentage increased by almost 50% as he relied more heavily on his sharp curveball down in the zone, making his fastball even more effective.

This shift in pitch mix increased his whiff rate and led to the spike in strikeouts. Combined with better command and a lower walk rate, Snell dazzled all year on the way to his Cy Young victory. Although his performance will be difficult to repeat thanks to an absurd 88% Left on Base rate, Snell is now firmly established as one of the top pitchers in the league.

In addition to Snell, the Rays were led on offense by rookie Joey Wendle (3.7 fWAR) and deadline acquisition Tommy Pham (4.0 fWAR). Pham had 2.6 WAR in 39 games after he was acquired by the Rays with an OPS+ of 194. Despite his statement bashing Tampa Bay fans, they will need to rely on Pham to continue his production from the end of last year and anchor the middle of lineup. Wendle is projected to regress slightly in his sophomore year (age 29 season), so the Rays will have to find some offensive production from other players.

One of those other players could be Mike Zunino, the former #3 pick that the Rays acquired from the Mariners in the offseason for Mallex Smith. Zunino could be a perfect candidate for a change of scene turnaround, as he had a wRC+ of 84 last season and has never lived up to the hype coming out of Florida. Yet he is a projected 2 WAR player in 2019 and looks to contribute to the Rays offense. On the pitching side, Free Agent acquisition Charlie Morton (2.8 pWAR) slots in nicely behind Blake Snell and gives the Rays another solid starting pitcher that goes more than one inning. Which brings up the customary discussion when talking about the Rays, the opener strategy. The Rays may have potentially revolutionized the game, having a reliever face the top of the order and passing on to a long reliever or starter to face the order once or twice. The Rays bullpen had a 5.8 WAR last season and will likely continue to implement the opener strategy as they had incredible success. The real question is if other teams will jump on the trend this year.

Additionally, the Rays have excelled in player development over the past decade, and their farm system today suggests it has continued. Two players to watch in the next few years are #1 prospect and MLB #13 overall prospect Wander Franco and two-way player and #29 prospect Brendan McKay. Franco, a shortstop, played in rookie ball last year and had a 159 wRC+ in 61 games. He is estimated to make his big league debut in 2021, but could serve as a young stud in the middle of the infield for the Rays of the future. McKay has been brought up as a two-way player since he was drafted fourth overall out of Louisville, and had a 2.88 xFIP and 109 wRC+ in A+ last year.

Prediction: After a strong first half, the Rays falter a bit and come up short in the AL Wild Card race

Blue Jays

Key Players: Kevin Pillar, Justin Smoak, Randal Grichuk

Offseason Acquisitions: Clay Buchholz, Matt Shoemaker, David Phelps, Freddy Galvis

Offseason Losses: Aledyms Diaz, Russell Martin, Marco Estrada

Players to Watch: Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., Bo Bichette

The Blue Jays lost in the ALCS in both 2015 and 2016, yet have fallen back down in the AL East and seem to be firmly locked in the fourth place slot behind the Yankees, Red Sox (in either order) and the Rays. The Blue Jays are led by Kevin Pillar (2 fWAR), Justin Smoak (1.7 fWAR) and Randal Grichuk (2.1 fWAR). Pillar had an 89 wRC+ but is a defensive stud and Smoak and Grichuk had wRC+ of 121 and 115 respectively.

The Blue Jays upgraded their starting rotation, signing Clay Buccholz, Matt Shoemaker and David Phelps as free agents. They are projected 1.8 WAR in 2019. While the team does not seem to have a shot to compete this year, the most exciting part of this team is the future…and it should come pretty soon. The Jays have #1 overall prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. waiting in the wings, and he will be called up after he recovers from an oblique injury. Vlad Jr. is everything he has been hyped up to be, and is projected 4.3 WAR as a rookie this year. He should be a clear favorite to win AL Rookie of the Year and is going to be a legitimate stud for the Jays. They also have #11 overall prospect Bo Bichette, who had a 120 wRC+ and 32 SB last year in AA. Bichette is not as close to the bigs as Vlad Jr., but he is another young and exciting player that gives Jays fans hope for the next few years.

Prediction: Vlad Jr. hits 30HRs, wins ROY, and the Jays surprise on the upside and get to .500

Orioles

Key Players: Chris Davis, Jonathan Villar, Dylan Bundy

Offseason Acquisitions: Brandon Hyde and the front office

Offseason Losses: Adam Jones

Players to Watch: Yusniel Diaz (Machado deal), Ryan Mountcastle

Not really much to say here. The Orioles were historically bad last year, going 47-115. That bad. They traded away Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop, Kevin Gausman, Zack Britton, and anyone else that had any type of baseball talent. They let Adam Jones walk in free agency. It is going to be very bad again. The biggest offseason acquisitions for the team are incoming manager Brandon Hyde and the new front office. This group is tasked with fully rebuilding the O’s and implementing data driven strategy and player development. The O’s are stuck with Chris Davis and his horrible contract and -3.1 WAR, but look for Jonathan Villar and Dylan Bundy to contribute.

The Orioles top two prospects are Yusniel Diaz (acquired from the Dodgers in the Machado trade) and Ryan Mountcastle. Both played in AA last year and had a 134 wRC+ and 121 wRC+. The Orioles will not contend for years, and the biggest success they can have this year would be to start the turnaround of the culture of the team.

Prediction: A strong 5th place finish in the East, but break over 50 wins

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