And now the final division preview, just in time for Opening Day. If you missed them, here are the first five:
Now, wrapping things up with the AL East.
The Projected Standings
|Team||Wins||Losses||Division||Wild Card||World Series|
The only division in baseball where all five teams have a legitimate shot at winning; the projected spread between first and last place in the AL East is smaller than the gap between first and second place in the NL East. The forecasts have a favorite, but this division is wide open, and nearly any order of finish could be reasonable. On to the teams themselves.
Boston Red Sox
Maybe the Giants and Red Sox have some kind of weird co-deal with the devil, with San Francisco getting the even years and the Red Sox getting the odds? Boston is projected to go worst-to-first for the second consecutive opportunity, as the projections buy into the offensive makeover and a solid bullpen making up for a mediocre rotation. The team’s depth of position players has Rusney Castillo starting the year in the minors, and while that won’t help them on the field in April, the many backup plans the team have in place should keep them from playing too many scrubs this season. While the pre-season focus is usually on a team’s ceiling, avoiding a low floor can often be just as important, and the Red Sox have one of the highest position player floors in baseball.
This team’s fate is likely to be decided on the mound, however. Boston’s front office has made a bet that you don’t need an ace to win in the regular season, especially if you have solid mid-rotation starters from front-to-back. I think they’re right, and while having a dominant starter is important for the postseason, I don’t think you really need one in April, so long as the rest of your roster is strong enough to compensate. Come August, if the Sox are contenders, I’d speculate that Rick Porcello won’t be the team’s #1 starter heading into the stretch-run, but they’ll take their team figuring out what they have before they commit to paying the market price for a #1 starter.
This Red Sox team still isn’t quite a finished product, and I wouldn’t bet on this roster to do that well in October, but Boston has six months to realign things for the postseason tournament, and the current batch of players should be strong enough to keep them in the race for a playoff berth while they figure out what they have.
Toronto Blue Jays
The early winter’s most active team — only later overtaken by A.J. Preller after an apparent overdose of Red Bull — the Blue Jays are another classic stars-and-scrubs team that will likely go as far as their role players can take them. The top-end of the roster is tremendous, with Josh Donaldson joining Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion in a line-up may cause many lefties to come down with flu-like symptoms the night before their starts. The Jays have stacked some very strong hitters together, but despite the star power, their line-up also features Justin Smoak, Dalton Pompey, and Devon Travis. These guys all project as slightly-above replacement, so while they aren’t complete black holes, the bottom of Toronto’s order isn’t as strong as you’d expect based on the guys at the top.
And then there’s the pitching. Without Marcus Stroman, the rotation is now leaning very heavily on young hurlers Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez, both of whom may struggle to throw strikes consistently in the majors. Toss in 20-year-olds Roberto Osuna and Miguel Castro in the bullpen, and this pitching staff is one enormous bet on stuff over experience. The projections look at these four young hurlers and see a bunch of guys who are probably not ready for the roles they are being asked to fill, but the reality is that if the forecasts are right about these kids, they probably won’t stay in these roles for very long; the upside here is that the Blue Jays are projected to win 83 games despite getting very little from two rotation spots and nothing from two bullpen spots.
If any of the kids are more big-league ready than the projections think, the Jays aren’t far behind the Red Sox, and even if the kids do struggle, it seems likely that Toronto won’t wait too terribly long to swap them out for big league upgrades. This is a team built to win now taking a gamble on some young guys, but they aren’t committed to these gambles for the entire season, and if they don’t work early, they’ll try something else. That’s why I think the forecasts are probably a win or two light here, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Toronto in the playoffs when the season ends. But to get there, they’re probably going to have to have been right about at least one or two of these youngsters.
New York Yankees
I think I’ll take the under here. This .500ish forecast includes a +3 WAR performance from Masahiro Tanaka, who is already publicly stating that he’s expecting to throw in the high-80s this year. Maybe Tanaka will be one of the first guys to figure out how to pitch through an elbow problem successfully, but I don’t think he’ll throw 150 innings for New York this year, and I don’t think he’ll be as good as the projections think when he is on the mound. And if you take him out of the picture for an extended period of time, this rotation does not look good enough to make up for a pretty mediocre offense.
I think the Yankees top four position players — Jacoby Ellsbury, Chase Headley, Brett Gardner, and Brian McCann — are probably underrated, and they’re all solid pieces who can easily play on a contender. But you don’t really want any of these guys to be your best position player, and there’s a huge gap between these guys and whoever you think is the fifth best everyday player on the Yankees. Maybe Carlos Beltran has a big comeback year. Maybe Didi Gregorius figures out how to hit lefties and becomes a star at shortstop. Maybe A-Rod hits 40 home runs and becomes a media darling. Anything is possible — okay, not that last one — but these are long-shots at best, and assuming several of these bets fail, there isn’t enough at the top of the roster to carry the Yankees, especially without Tanaka.
If Nathan Eovaldi takes a huge step forward while Michael Pineda and Ivan Nova prove healthy, a Wild Card run isn’t out of the question. But this team is a far stretch from the days of the Yankees having star players around the diamond; you have to squint to even find one, really, and there aren’t enough above-average role players to make up for the lack of a true franchise player anywhere on the field.
Tampa Bay Rays
In a world where Alex Cobb and Drew Smyly can both give the Rays 200 innings, I’d find the Rays case as a Wild Card contender pretty interesting. At that point, they’d have one of the strongest pitching-and-defense combinations in baseball, and maybe just enough hitting to be the 2015 version of the Kansas City Royals. But Cobb and Smyly are both starting the year on the disabled list, which will force the team to try to win low-scoring games with Nate Karns and Erasmo Ramirez on the mound. That’s a tougher sell, and unless the team’s magical pitcher-fixing abilities are about to turn Jake Odorizzi into an #1 starter, the April version of the Rays could actually be pretty terrible.
And if the hole becomes sizable enough early in the season, then a team in the Rays position will have to start thinking about selling, which likely starts shipping all the good relievers out of town and leads to a second half where the team is simply evaluating talent rather than trying to win. That’s the danger of starting slowly for a team that can’t afford to wait too long to make their in-season buy/sell decisions, and losing Cobb and Smyly early in the year make it more likely that the team ends up as sellers, pushing them down below their pre-season win total from the forecasts.
That isn’t the only way this season goes, of course. Smyly and Cobb could come back at 100%, the outfield defense could be amazing enough to make even inferior pitchers look great, and perhaps the numerous job-shares end up being more effective than one would expect based on the individual parts. There is a chance for this team to put it together and make a run this year, even while the Rays mostly look towards the future.
But that would require the team to turn a lot of lemons into lemonade. And as a wise man once said, if you don’t also have sugar, your lemonade is going to suck.
The Orioles have spent the last few years making the pre-season projections look silly. They’ve even made the in-season models look dumb, as those of us who have believe in the predictive power of things like BaseRuns keep pronouncing that regression is coming, only it never really has. Despite all kinds of statistical markers downplaying their strengths, the Orioles have won 274 games over the last three years, fourth most in baseball.
So I understand completely if Orioles fans don’t particularly care that the algorithms still don’t buy in, and are projecting yet another sub-.500 season. I imagine these tools have little credibility in Baltimore at the moment, and that won’t change until the Orioles actually play like the projections expect one of these years. And it is possible that the models are broken and the Orioles are the franchise who have figured out how to exploit those holes. But it’s also possible that it’s just been how baseball works, and the Orioles outstanding 2012-2014 run might not be the sign of a team that has a sustainable ability to beat the forecasts.
As with the last few years, the Orioles are again betting that their defense and Buck Showalter’s magnificent bullpen usage can make up for a weak starting rotation, and that they’ll be able to get enough offense out of undervalued pieces like Travis Snider and Alejandro De Aza to compensate for the bats that left via free agency. If Chris Davis has a big rebound season — he doesn’t even have to be the 2013 version to be quite valuable — and the O’s can get J.J. Hardy and Matt Wieters on the field for most of the season, the Orioles certainly have a chance to make another run.
But they’re going to need Buck Showalter’s magic to actually be a thing. If they win 90 games again with this roster, it will likely be time to admit that the Orioles have something figured out.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.