As is the case with every other division in baseball this season, there is a clear frontrunner in the A.L. East and then the rest of the pack.
Fresh off of a 93-69 season in which the BoSox outscored their opponents by a whopping 184 runs, the Red Sox boast the most complete team in the division. Even without “Big Papi” in the middle of the order, Boston boasts a very threatening lineup, although there are certainly question marks towards the bottom of the order. Pablo Sandoval is expected to play the bulk of third base this season, and it's entirely conceivable that he gets things together this season, but it's more likely that he ends up with an OPS in the low 700s. With Mitch Moreland and Sandy Leon rounding out the bottom of the order, the Red Sox lineup doesn't quite pack the same punch as a season ago, although it is still a very potent lineup. With Brock Holt, Chris Young, and Christian Vazquez also rounding out the 40-man roster, Boston has some depth as well.
The Red Sox heart of the order is just flat out scary. Andrew Benintendi is a prime candidate for breakout player of the year, as most projection systems have him in the .800 OPS range this season. Followed by Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Hanley Ramirez, and Jackie Bradley in the order, Boston has no shortage of dangerous bats. This is also a team that won't strike out a whole lot, making them a nightmare for opposing pitchers.
With all of that being said, Boston's strength is at the top end of the rotation. David Price is dealing with some inflammation in his elbow, but even if he has to start the season on the DL, the Red Sox should be just fine. Chris Sale is the Cy Young favorite in the American League, while Rick Porcello is coming off of a season that saw him spin a 3.15 ERA. Porcello is likely to see some regression this season, but he is still a very solid pitcher overall. With Drew Pomeranz, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Steven Wright also available to pitch as starters, the Red Sox rotation is outstanding. The one concern would be the amount of left-handed pitchers in their rotation, which doesn't exactly favor them in a ballpark that is friendly to right-handed batters. Even so, the swinging strike rates for the lefties in this rotation are through the roof, and they should be able to mitigate damage, even at Fenway.
Boston's bullpen features one of the league's best closers in Craig Kimbrel, and boasts Joe Kelly, Tyler Thornburg, and Carson Smith in setup roles. Kelly's fastball is a major asset and while he's never been able to put it all together, he projects to have a pretty solid year at the back-end of that pen. Simply put, this is a team with very few holes, and they are certainly the favorites to represent the A.L. East in the playoffs.
After Boston, it's really anyone's guess as to how the East plays out, although we do believe that the Blue Jays are the second best team in the division by a small margin. While people seem to focus in on the absence of Edwin Encarnacion in the Jays lineup, the Jays still have some potent hitters in their lineup, and one of the deepest rotations in the Majors.
A lineup that consists of Devon Travis, Troy Tulowitzki, Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Kendrys Morales, and Russell Martin atop the order is nothing to scoff at, but similarly to the Red Sox, the bottom of the Jays' order leaves much to be desired. A platoon of Justin Smoak and Steve Pearce at first base is serviceable, but neither are the type of first baseman bats that you'd be looking for in the American League. Kevin Pillar is a stud on defense in centre field, but his inability to draw walks limits his offensive output. Another platoon in the outfield will see Zeke Carrera and Melvin Upton Jr. split time, and frankly, it would surprise us if either finishes the season with an OPS of .700 or more. The Jays simply do not possess the extremely dangerous lineup that they once had.
If the Jays want to challenge Boston in the East, they'll need another great season out of their rotation. There will likely be some regression from the likes of Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, and Marco Estrada, but Marcus Stroman and Francisco Liriano should balance that out with better seasons than they had a year ago. It will be key for Toronto's starters to work deep into games because Roberto Osuna is the only elite arm that the Jays have in their bullpen.
We view the Yankees as the next best team in the division, but there are so many question marks with New York this season. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury are getting worse and worse each year, and aside from Gary Sanchez, Matt Holliday, and Greg Bird in the middle of New York's lineup, there are a lot of easy outs littered throughout the order.
The same question marks apply to the rotation as well. Masahiro Tanaka is Masahiro Tanaka, but aside from that, the Yankees will be relying on productive innings out of Michael Pineda, C.C. Sabathia, and Luis Severino. Pineda is an analytics darling, but he hasn't been able to put things together for two seasons now, so it's very difficult to project what kind of level he'll pitch at this season. Severino could potentially piece it all together, and if there's one guy that could surprise here, we think that it's him. There really isn't much depth in this rotation though, with the likes of Bryan Mitchell, Adam Warren, and Chad Green also being candidates for starting roles at some point in the season.
The unquestionable strength of this Yankees team is their ability to hold leads late in the game. With the combo of Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman at the back end of the bullpen, it's pretty much lights out for opposing teams if they're trailing heading into the eighth inning. Aside from those two though, there are some limitations with the Yankees middle relief as well. New York is very likely going to hover around the .500 mark for most of this season, but with so many players with such a large range of projections on this roster, no result would surprise us with the Yanks.
The Orioles are likely due for a setback this season, but to be fair, they've been consistently outperforming their projections for a long while now. Despite an 89-73 record a year ago, Baltimore only outscored opponents by 29 total runs, indicating that they were probably luckier than good. The heart of Baltimore's lineup is potent, with three OPS beasts in Manny Machado, Chris Davis, and Mark Trumbo, and also a very underrated outfield bat in Seth Smith. The bottom of the order; however, is simply bad.
And speaking of bad, that's probably the nicest adjective we can use to describe the Orioles rotation. It's likely that Kevin Gausman is the only O's starter to finish with a sub-four ERA this season, and even that maybe be a stretch. Chris Tillman put together a solid 2016 season, and while we don't expect him to regress back to his 4.99 ERA of 2015, we do expect him some regression. With the likes of low to mid four ERA guys in Dylan Bundy, Wade Miley, and Ubaldo Jimenez rounding out the rotation, it's difficult to imagine this team competing for a playoff spot, although Bundy could potentially be in for a surprise season.
Zach Britton, Mychal Givens, and Darren O'Day are a stellar trio to have at the back end of a bullpen, and that should allow the O's to pull out some additional wins, but getting to the bullpen with leads could prove to be a major problem for this group. All in all, the Orioles are a team with many weaknesses, and it would take a lot of things to go right to get this team back into the postseason.
The Rays round out the A.L. East, and they seem to be the exact opposite of the Orioles. Tampa Bay boasts an excellent pitching staff, led by their ace, Chris Archer, who is likely in for a major rebound this season. With the likes of Jake Odorizzi, Alex Cobb, Matt Andriese, and Blake Snell rounding out the rotation, Tampa Bay's staff will give them a great chance to compete night in and night out. Jose De Leon is also waiting in the wings in case one of the members of the Rays' staff goes down at any point in the season.
The problem for Tampa is that their lineup is simply a dumpster fire. When Brad Miller could potentially be hitting cleanup, there is a void of talent in your order, and that's the case with the Rays this year. We've identified Miller as a surprise player this season, but that's more due to the fact that there really isn't anyone else on the roster that could potentially be in for a big season. Tampa averaged just 4.15 runs per game a season ago, and while that number is likely to increase (there is nowhere to go but up), the Rays undoubtedly sport one of the worst offenses in baseball. The Rays could potentially be a surprise in the American League if they get some decent production out of this lineup, but it's just hard to envision that being the case when there isn't a hitter in the lineup that is likely to sniff an .800 OPS this season.