AL Preview: Tribe Locked Door, but Red Sox Hold the Key

Red Sox IndiansThere is something about the City of Cleveland and overcoming or blowing 3-1 series deficits. In 2007, the Indians were one win away from advancing to the World Series before losing the final 3 games to eventual World Champion Boston Red Sox. In 2016, the Cavaliers overcame a 3-1 series deficit to rally and defeat the defending NBA Champions Golden St. Warriors. That is what the City of Cleveland was settling down from when the 2016 MLB postseason started.

The Indians surprised everyone with the easy way they dismissed the Red Sox in the ALDS, who had finished the regular season with 100 more runs scored than the 2nd most team in the AL. Next up the Indians did away with the Blue Jays in 5 games, holding them to just 8 runs in the ALCS. The final obstacle was the Cubs, who are the only team that had a longer current streak of World Series futility than the Indians 68-year drought. When they defeated the Cubs 7-2 in Game 4 at Wrigley Field, Cleveland had won 10 of 12 postseason games posting a team ERA of 1.68 with 5 shutouts. They were sitting one game away from giving the City of Cleveland another championship in 2016, after going over 50 years without one. However, they were unable to close the deal, as the Cubs completed the historic comeback, while giving MLB fans a classic Game 7.

As we enter the 2017 season, the Indians and their fans realize that all the success they achieved in the 2016 season – winning 94 games and coming within 1 win of a World Championship – occurred without Michael Brantley (missed all but 11 games in 2016 after posting a .876 OPS with 181 RBI and 162 runs scored in 293 games over the 2014-15 seasons).  I already mentioned that in the 2016 postseason, they Indians held opponents to a 1.68 ERA while posting 5 shutouts in their first 12 games. They did that without young pitching studs Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar (combined for 50 wins and 10.0 K per 9 over last 2 seasons), who both missed the 2016 postseason due to injury. Those two join postseason heroes Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin to round out one of the best rotations in baseball.

As good as their starting staff could be, their bullpen is even better. Manager Terry Francona has the luxury of having Cody Allen (32 Svs, 11.5 K per 9, 1.00 WHIP in 2016) in the closer role, while using Andrew Miller (0.55 WHIP in 26 games w/CLE in 2016) in “moment of truth” situations. Bryan Shaw, Dan Otero and Zach McAllister round out the bullpen.

The Indians offense should be even better than last season when they averaged 4.83 runs per game (2nd to only the Red Sox) as they have added Edwin Encarnacion in the offseason. Encarnacion (.912 OPS, 39 HR, 110 RBI averages over his last 5 seasons) adds to a lineup that already has budding stars Francisco Lindor (.794 OPS, 99 runs in 2016), Jose Ramirez (.825 OPS, team-high 46 2B in 2016) and Tyler Naquin (.886 OPS in 116 games in 2016), along with proven vets Jason Kipnis (.811 OPS, 23 HR in 2016) and Carlos Santana (.865 OPS and 34 HR in 2016).

The Indians should be heavy favorite in the AL Central, as the Tigers and Royals both have aging rosters with free-agents to be that should be part of fire sales for each team if they struggle during the first half of 2017. However, both have rosters filled with players with postseason success that can push Cleveland if things fall right for them. Both teams will be looking to grasp one more season of contention before rebuilding their rosters in the offseason.

For Kansas City, the quartet of Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar will become free agents next winter. For the Tigers, only J.D. Martinez is a free agent after 2017. Ian Kinsler has a club option for 2018, while Victor Martinez is a free agent after 2018 as well. With Miguel Cabrera, both Martinez’, Justin Upton and a rotation featuring Justin Verlander, Jordan Zimmerman and ROY Michael Fulmer, Detroit has the best chance of challenging the Indians if things break right.

In the AL East, the Red Sox finished an active offseason by trading for Chris Sale (averaged 14 wins, 10.0 K per 9 and 1.06 WHIP over last 5 seasons). Sale joins perhaps the majors best Top 3 with David Price (17 wins, 228 K) and 2016 AL CYA Winner Rick Porcello (22 wins, 1.00 WHIP). The big 3 might need to be put on hold for a while however, as Price’s elbow has the Red Sox concerned he might miss major time in 2017.

The Red Sox bullpen figures to be solid with the addition of setup man Tyler Thornburg (0.94 WHIP, 12.1 K per 9 in 2016), who should provide plenty of save opportunities for Craig Kimbrel (31 Svs, 14.1 K per 9 in 2016).

The only thing more scary than the Red Sox starting staff is their offense. Yes, they will miss David Ortiz who finished his career with perhaps the greatest final season in MLB history (team-leading 1.021 OPS, 38 HR, 127 RBI). However, with Mookie Betts (.897 OPS, 31 HR, 113 RBI), Jackie Bradley (.835 OPS, 26 HR, 87 RBI) and Xander Bogaerts (.802 OPS, 21 HR, 89 RBI) along with Baseball America’s #1 rated prospect Andrew Benintendi, the Red Sox figure to pick up right where they left off in 2016 when they led the majors in runs scored.

While the Orioles and Blue Jays figure to challenge the Sox, Boston should have enough to hold them off. Perhaps the team to raise the AL East flag will be the one who can win the most games against the Rays and Yankees.While the Yankees posses a scary amount of young talent moving forward, its unreasonable to expect them to develop quickly enough to make noise in 2017. However, with Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Aaron Judge and with Clint Frazier in the wings, the pinstripes focus now moves to developing the pitching depth that can help them become a major player for years to come.

In the AL West, the Houston Astros look to right the wrongs of 2016. After dominating the regular season for almost all of 2015 and coming within 5 outs of eliminating the eventual World Champion Kansas City Royals in the ALDS, the Astros missed the postseason last year.

Missing the postseason last year made the Astros very active in the offseason to secure a postseason berth in 2017. Houston brought in Brian McCann and Josh Reddick, along with bringing back Carlos Beltran, whose half season with the Astros in 2004 earned him a major free agent deal with the New York Mets.

In 2017 the Astros will get a full season out of Alex Bregman (8 HR, 34 RBI in 49 games) being added to an already strong core of Carlos Correa (.811 OPS, 20 HR, 96 RBI) Jose Altuve (3 straight 200-hit seasons, leading the majors in each of the last 3 seasons) George Springer (.815 OPS, team-high 116 runs) and Evan Gattis (32 HR in 477 AB). The Astros lineup could be the best in baseball.

Despite the prospects of having an explosive lineup, the Astros pitching staff is what will keep them from running away with the division. After winning the Cy Young Award in 2015 with 20 wins, Dallas Keuchel struggled, going 9-12 with a 4.56 ERA last season. Collin McHugh (team high 13 wins), Mike Fiers (11-8, 4.48 ERA) and Doug Fister (12-13, 4.64 ERA) all have shown promise, but each posted a WHIP of at least 1.35 in 2016.

In the bullpen, the Astros have many arms that can get outs and throw hard. Ken Giles (15 Svs, 14.0 K per 9) will start the season as the closer, but Will Harris (12 Svs, 1.05 WHIP) and Luke Gregerson (15 Svs, 0.97 WHIP) also can close if necessary and each recorded at least 12 saves in 2016.

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The Texas Rangers provide the division with perhaps the best 1-2 punch in the starting rotation with Yu Darvish (7-5, 1.12 WHIP in just 17 starts) and Cole Hamels (15 wins, 200 K), providing that Darvish can stay healthy. The rest of their rotation is shaky with Martin Perez and AJ Griffin with a cast of thousands filling in the #5 spot.

Despite having issues with their bullpen all season long (finished with 6th highest bullpen ERA in the majors at 4.40), the Rangers 41 wins were the most in MLB. They were also dominant in one-run games, going 36-11. That type of oxymoron cannot be counted on again in 2017, but with Sam Dyson (38 Svs) and Matt Bush (0.94 WHIP) the Rangers do have some live arms to rely on in late innings.

The Rangers lineup should be fine, led by youngsters Rougned Odor (33 HR, 88 RBI), Nomar Mazara (20 HR, 64 RBI) and Jurickson Profar. Trade deadline acquisition Jonathan Lucroy (.885 OPS after coming over from Milwaukee), will now enjoy a full season in Texas and his ability to frame pitchers for the Rangers staff will prevent innings from extending. Offseason free agent Mike Napoli (34 HR, 101 RBI) returns to Texas for the third time and should be an upgrade over Mitch Moreland. Finally, there is ol’ faithful Adrian Beltre, who quietly has gone on to have a remarkable career. If he stays healthy, Beltre should become the 6th player in MLB history to record 3,000 hits (58 away) and 500 HR (55 away) before he retires.

In Seattle, the Mariners have tried just about everything to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2001. Richie Sexson, Adrian Beltre, Jose Guillen, Erik Bedard, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz are all big name free agents the Mariners have brought over in the last 10+ seasons. However, Seattle has finished last or next to last in the AL West 9 times since 2004.

Since taking over as GM in 2015, Jerry DiPoto has revamped the Mariners roster which now includes many young promising players. The change resulted in Seattle having the best run differential in the AL West last season (+61). SS Jean Segura was acquired from Arizona in the offseason (.867 OPS, led NL with 203 hits in 2016) and will should provide a major upgrade to an offense that already includes Cano (.882 OPS, 39 HR, 103 RBI), Cruz (.915 OPS, 43 HR, 105 RBI) and Kyle Seager (.859 OPS, 30 HR, 99 RBI).

If the Mariners are going to take the next step, they need production from a group of youngsters led by Mitch Haniger and Dan Vogelbach. Offseason acquisition Jarrod Dyson should provide the speed and defense the Mariners need to control the outfield.

Felix Hernandez (11-8, 3.82 ERA in just 25 starts) Hisashi Iwakuma (led team w/16 wins) should provide the consistency needed at the top of the rotation, assuming Hernandez stays healthy. He’s not the same pitcher he was 2-3 years ago, but at 31 there should still be some gas left in the tank. Drew Smyly leads the back end of the rotation that includes James Paxton and Yovani Gallardo.

Edwin Diaz will get the call as the early season closer for Seattle, while Steve Cishek recovers from offseason hip surgery.

The Angels might have the best player in baseball right now, but AL MVP Mike Trout (.991 OPS, 29 HR, 100 RBI)  is only one person and the Angels should continue their trend of losing seasons that started after posting 98 wins in 2014.

After having a revival that saw them reach the postseason 3 straight years from 2012-14, the Oakland A’s are compiling another group of young, talented players led by Khris Davis (40 HR, 102 RBI), Marcus Semien (27 HR), Ryon Healy (.861 OPS in 72 games) Franklin Barreto and Matt Chapman.

Sonny Gray should have a much better 2017 after struggling most of last season (5.69 ERA in 22 starts). He leads a young staff that is counting on the promise of Sean Manaea and Jharel Cotton. Their bullpen should be a major strength with the return of Sean Doolittle, offseason acquisition Santiago Casilla and Ryan Madson.

Final Predictions:

AL Cy Young Award: Marcus Stroman

AL MVP: Mookie Betts

AL Rookie of the Year: Jharel Cotton

AL East Champ: Boston Red Sox (95-67)

AL Central Champ: Cleveland Indians (98-64)

AL West Champ: Houston Astros (92-70)

AL Wild Card: Seattle Mariners (91-71) & Detroit Tigers (89-73)

AL Champion: Cleveland Indians

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