-- The Boston Red Sox were the AL East's top team in 2016, and after adding Chris Sale this offseason, they should be the favorites again in 2017. Can the Toronto Blue Jays or Baltimore Orioles keep pace, or will the New York Yankees move back into contention behind some of their young talent? What has to happen for the Tampa Bay Rays to get back in the mix in the division?
There are still a huge number of free agents available, but let's look at the AL East and where each team stands right now in its hunt for the 2017 postseason (teams are listed in the order they finished in last season's AL East standings).
2016: 93-69, 184 run differential, lost to Indians in American League Division Series
2017 projected record from FanGraphs: 93-69
Key moves so far: Acquired P Chris Sale from White Sox for 3B Yoan Moncada and three minor leaguers; acquired P Tyler Thornburg from Brewers for IF Travis Shaw and two minor leaguers; signed 1B Mitch Moreland; Traded? Clay Buchholz?to the Phillies; lost FA Ps Brad Ziegler, Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa.
The Red Sox scored 101 more runs than any other AL team in 2016 -- and now they've added Sale to a rotation that already features Cy Young winner Rick Porcello and David Price, who led the majors in games started and innings pitched and won 17 games and yet was labeled a disappointment by many. Eduardo Rodriguez is a breakout candidate after returning from a stint in the minors with a tweak in his mechanics. He posted a 3.24 ERA over his final 14 starts while holding batters to a .210 average. Even accounting for some ball-in-play regression from Porcello, that's a formidable foursome, with the top three guys having been durable over their careers, and you still have Drew Pomeranz?and? Steven Wright backing up.
No David Ortiz to build the offense around? Maybe not a problem. FanGraphs projects the Red Sox as the highest-scoring team in the majors. That makes sense given the young core of MVP runner-up Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr., plus a full season from Andrew Benintendi. Still, there are some potential concerns here: The drop-off from Ortiz to Moreland is huge, Bogaerts and Bradley both dropped off noticeably in the second half, and the Red Sox enjoyed good health in 2016, with seven regulars playing 145-plus games. Still, a lot would have to go wrong for Boston not to have a high-powered attack.
There's a reason Dave Dombrowski paid the price to get Sale: This is a team in its prime and they'll head into the season as the overwhelming favorite in the AL East. They'll have the financial means to add in-season repairs if needed. They should make back-to-back postseason trips for the first time since 2007-2009.
Key player: The trades of Moncada and Shaw opens up third base for Pablo Sandoval. The Red Sox were last in the majors with a .305 wOBA from third base in 2016 -- although that was still better than what Sandoval gave the Red Sox in 2015 (.292).
2016: 89-73, 93 run differential, lost to Indians in American League Championship Series
2017 projected record from FanGraphs: 82-80
The departure of Encarnacion and the likely departure of Jose Bautista paints the Blue Jays in a tight corner. They're going to have to need a dominant rotation to carry the team to the postseason. That was the case in 2016, when the Jays posted a 3.64 rotation ERA -- nearly half a run better than the Indians' second-best 4.08 mark. The FanGraphs projection sees the Jays as only a middle-of-the-road run prevention team, but there's reason to believe that underestimates the Toronto staff.
Let's start with Aaron Sanchez, the 2016 AL ERA leader. He outperformed his FIP -- 3.00 ERA versus 3.55 FIP -- but that's because his hard sinker generates a lot of weak ground balls instead of strikeouts (projection systems like more strikeouts). Considering Sanchez just completed his first season in the rotation and is still refining his command, there's reason to believe he's a legitimate ace. At this point, Marco Estrada is a proven BABIP-limiter with his ability to induce pop-ups and fly balls. Marcus Stroman actually underperformed his FIP -- 4.37 ERA compared to 3.71 -- so he's a good bet to improve. Will J.A. Happ go 20-4 with a 3.18 ERA again? Probably not, although he was better in the second half. I like his chances to post another sub-4.00 ERA. Francisco Liriano is the No. 5 starter, which makes him one of the better fifth starters in the league.
The offense is less of a guarantee as they look to replace 88 home runs from Encarnacion, Bautista and Michael Saunders. But let's not assume all three of those guys are gone for good -- or that Toronto won't sign another first baseman or corner outfielder. Morales will come close to replacing Encarnacion's production and it's not like Bautista was an MVP candidate last year (.234/.366/.452). In fact, getting him out of right field could be a net positive with a better defender out there. Devon Travis, who hit .300/.332/.454, is ready to mature into a middle-of-the-order bat. Oh, and Josh Donaldson should be an MVP candidate again.
Key player: Troy Tulowitzki has to remain healthy and productive. The Jays will happily take the 131 games and 24 home runs from 2016, although 145 games and 30 home runs will help solidify the lineup.
2016: 89-73, 29 run differential, lost AL wild-card game
2017 projected record from FanGraphs: 76-86
Key moves so far: Signed FA C Welington Castillo; lost FA 1B/OF Steve Pearce.
Guess what? The FanGraphs projection system doesn't like the Orioles. That's an annual ritual, but the Orioles have made the playoffs in three of the past five seasons; and guess which AL team has won the most games over those five seasons? Yep. So Baltimore's path to the playoff is simple: Forget the computers and stay the course.
That course starts with a bullpen that, thanks to Zach Britton, meant the Orioles were 75-0 when leading after eight innings and 69-2 when leading after seven. But they were also 14-4 when tied through seven innings, so they need more clutch work from Brad Brach and Mychal Givens, who went a combined 18-6. Of course, depending on reliever win-loss records is an admittedly dubious path to contention, so the Orioles will need better work from the rotation. That FanGraphs projection? It sees the Orioles with the second-worst run prevention in the AL, primarily because it sees a bad rotation. Here's what can happen, however: (1) Kevin Gausman (3.61 ERA) and Chris Tillman (3.77) offer more of the same, maybe Gausman improves a bit; (2) Dylan Bundy proves to be a solid No. 3; (3) Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo and Wade Miley do better than their 2016 combined 5.56 ERA over 59 starts. In fact, the Orioles won 89 despite having five different starters make 11 or more starts with ERAs over 5.00. Yes, a legit ace would be nice, but just getting average production from the back of the rotation would be huge.
The Orioles pounded 253 home runs in 2016 and they can do it again! They can still re-sign Mark Trumbo, but in order to improve the majors' worst outfield defense, I'd make him the full-time DH, and maybe bring in Michael Saunders to play right field. Heck, Chris Davis didn't even have one of his good years, batting .221/.332/.459 with 38 home runs. Maybe he, Trumbo and Manny Machado can become the first trio of teammates to reach 40 home runs since the 1997 Rockies, with Machado taking home MVP honors as the Orioles surprise everyone and win the East.
Key player: One of the starters? The new catcher, Castillo? Trumbo, if he returns? Sometimes the key guy is the obvious guy: Zach Britton. Just be perfect again in the ninth inning, Zach.
2016: 84-78, minus-22 run differential
2017 projected record from FanGraphs: 83-79
The Yankees haven't won a playoff game or won 90 games since 2012. They've been outscored in three of the past four seasons, although they've kept their streak of consecutive winning seasons alive at 24. Their offense finished just 12th in the AL in runs. So how do they get back to pinstriped glory?
Gary Sanchez?winning MVP honors in 2017 when he hits .299 with 45 home runs and throws out 45 percent of attempted basestealers is a good start. There's Masahiro Tanaka, who quietly posted a 3.07 ERA over 31 starts. He wins the Cy Young Award after going 21-5 with a 2.64 ERA. Michael Pineda, who led AL starters in K's per nine in 2016, finally avoids the bad stuff to go with those strikeouts and finishes 18-7 with a 3.22 ERA. CC Sabathia, solid in 2016, is even better with a 3.47 ERA. Chapman locks down the ninth inning. Dellin Betances locks down the eighth. Luis Severino locks down the seventh. Holliday turns out to be one of the best free-agent signings, hitting 22 home runs with a .375 OBP. Greg Bird hits 25 home runs and posts a .350 OBP, a huge upgrade over Mark Teixeira (the Yankees were 29th in the majors in wOBA at first base). Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius combine for 41 home runs again, but also a .330 OBP instead of .302.
Don't say we didn't warn you.
Key player: Aaron Judge. Yankees right fielders were 27th in wOBA and hit just .244/.307/.396. Judge was overmatched in his big league trial with 42 K's in 95 plate appearances, so if he's not ready, the Yankees will need a backup plan, maybe Tyler Austin, who slugged .637 at Scranton.
2016: 68-94, -41 run differential
2017 projected record from FanGraphs: 82-80
Key moves so far: Signed FA C Wilson Ramos.
Note that projection: There's some talent here that suggests the Rays could be the surprise team of 2017. So far the Rays have resisted trading Chris Archer and that's a good thing because he quietly figured things out after his first-half struggles. He had a 3.25 ERA in the second half, holding batters to a .215 average while improving his first-half SO/BB ratio from 2.71 to 5.42. He should be a Cy Young contender once again. Blake Snell flashed big-time stuff as a rookie and just need to cut down on the walks. Drew Smyly is capable of much better results than a 4.88 ERA.
One key is simply improving in one-run games. They were 13-27 in 2016, which followed a 2-13 record in extra-inning games in 2015. Another key: Get more runners on base in front of the home run hitters. The Rays mashed a franchise-record 216 home runs -- 49 more than 2015, yet they scored just 28 more runs as they also posted a franchise-worst .307 OBP. From 2008 to 2014, the Rays ranked between first and fourth every season in walks drawn. They need to get back focusing on OBP and perhaps swinging a little less from the heels.
Key player: Matt Duffy takes over at shortstop, with Brad Miller taking over at first base. Duffy had a .762 OPS with the Giants in 2015, but fell off to .668 last season. He'll be a defensive upgrade over Miller, while Miller, if he can repeat his 30-homer season, will be an offensive upgrade over Logan Morrison.