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Beyond the Box Score 2018 MLB previews: AL East

Is this the year the Yankees return to dominance?

Left to right: Aaron Judge (Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports), Chris Sale (Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports), Manny Machado (Patrick McDermott-USA TODAY Sports), Marcus Stroman (Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports), Chris Archer (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Our long, winter nightmare is over. Baseball is back! To get ready for the 2018 MLB season, we at Beyond the Box Score are previewing all 30 teams, looking at the moves they’ve made since last year, the player (or players) who could make a big difference this year, and reflecting on their overall outlook. We’ll roll out previews for each division over the next two days (AL on Tuesday, NL on Wednesday). Enjoy, and welcome back!

New York Yankees

2017 record: 91-71, second in AL East

PECOTA 2018 projection: 97-65, first in AL East

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 95-67, first in AL East

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: first in AL East (18/18)

MLB: Spring Training-Atlanta Braves at New York Yankees
RIP AL East pitchers.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Traded IF Jose Devers, RHP Jorge Guzman, and IF Starlin Castro to the Marlins in exchange for RF Giancarlo Stanton.
  • Re-signed LHP CC Sabathia to a one-year, $10 million contract.
  • Signed 2B Neil Walker to a one-year, $4 million contract.
  • Traded RHP Taylor Widener and IF Nick Solak in a three-team deal with the Rays and Diamondbacks, in exchange for 2B Brandon Drury.

After coming within one win of the World Series last year, the Yankees didn’t stand pat this offseason. Their biggest move was acquiring Stanton — one of the game’s best sluggers — from the Marlins in one of the most interesting sweepstakes of the offseason. Using the rights given to him in his contract, Stanton rejected trades to both the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants before agreeing to go to New York in one of the two biggest stories (alongside Shohei Ohtani) of the winter.

Stanton, who has long had some of the best raw power in the game, finally stayed healthy for an entire season in 2017. The results were incredible. He slashed .281/.376/.631, resulting in a 1.007 OPS, the highest mark of his career. Stanton also led baseball with 59 home runs and 132 RBIs. While he only finished tied for third in fWAR, that was more than enough to convince voters that he was worthy of the National League MVP award. Stanton now goes to a ballpark in the Bronx that is among MLB’s most friendly for right-handed hitters; another 50-homer season does not seem beyond the realm of possibility.

While Stanton does deserve the bulk of this section, we shouldn’t forget that the Yankees also acquired two infielders in Drury and Walker. Working both of them in, alongside top prospect Gleyber Torres, will be tough. Torres is starting the season in Triple-A, so Drury and Walker will be able to play third and second, respectively, without him. Walker has been one of the most consistent second basemen in the league, averaging 2.7 fWAR over the last eight seasons; Drury broke out as a defensive gem in Arizona last year.

Trend to watch: The home runs

Can this entire preview be me swooning over the Stanton-Aaron Judge combination in the Yankees’ lineup?

Here’s the thing, though: It’s more than just Stanton and Judge. Barring injuries, the Yankees should have three batters — Judge, Stanton, and Gary Sanchez — hit 30 or more homers in 2018. And Didi Gregorius, Aaron Hicks, Greg Bird, and Brett Gardner could fall in the 20 to 30 range.

On the whole, the Yankees have a decent shot of breaking the Major League record for most home runs by a team in a season. The current record is held by the 1997 Seattle Mariners, who accumulated a total of 264 homers. The 2017 Yankees had 241 home runs, and with the addition of Stanton, there is a very good chance they surpass the 21-year-old record by those Mariners.

For what it’s worth, the 1997 Mariners went 90-72, finished first in the AL West, and lost the ALDS to the Orioles in four games. The Yankees certainly hope their homer-hitting lineup will have a different fate than that team, but there’s a reason baseball consists of both offense and defense.

2018 outlook

As I alluded to in the previous section, the Yankees will need more than just their hitters to carry them if they want to win the AL East this year. The Red Sox still pose formidable competition; the Blue Jays, Orioles, and Rays likely do not. It’ll be a two-horse race for the division, and if the Yankees want to win it, they will need their rotation to pitch to their top potential.

The Yankees acquired Sonny Gray from the Oakland Athletics at last year’s trade deadline. While Gray has not developed into the No. 1, top-tier starting pitcher many thought he would be, he certainly helps their cause. The 28-year-old was worth 2.8 fWAR last year after posting a 3.55 ERA and 3.90 FIP in 162 13 innings. Gray needs to be solid for the New York rotation to stay afloat.

With that said, I would not be effectively writing about the Yankees if I did not mention Luis Severino, who did break out into the top-tier starter that many thought Gray would. His 5.7 fWAR ranked fourth among all pitchers, and his phenomenal season led him to finish third in the AL Cy Young award voting. It’s impossible to know whether Severino will be able to repeat his performance, but his fantastic skill set should keep him among the best starting pitchers in the league in 2018.

On the whole, we know the Yankees have a great lineup and a great bullpen (seriously, it’s stupid good). If their starting pitching can hold up behind Severino, then the Yankees should be in a great position to win the division this year.

Devan Fink

Boston Red Sox

2017 record: 93-69, first in AL East

PECOTA 2018 projection: 88-74, second in AL East

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 93-69, second in AL East

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: second in AL East (18/18)

MLB: Houston Astros at Boston Red Sox
The Killer B’s are back at it.
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Signed manager Alex Cora to a three-year contract.
  • Signed OF/DH J.D. Martinez to a five-year, $110 million contract.
  • Signed 1B Mitch Moreland to a two-year, $13 million contract.
  • Signed IF Eduardo Nunez to a one-year, $6 million contract.
  • Signed C Christian Vazquez to a three-year, $13.55 million extension.

Being buzz-sawed by the eventual World Champion Astros in the LDS stirred up significant dust in Boston, ultimately leading to the firing of manager John Farrell. Despite winning the 2013 World Series and making the playoffs in 2016 and 2017, Farrell was the casualty of two consecutive ALDS sweeps (first by the Indians then the Astros).

First-time manager Alex Cora replaces Farrell coming into the 2018 season, and is already bringing a fresh innovative perspective, per former Boston beat writer Tim Britton. The bilingual Cora is dynamic, analytical, and young. He can connect with players from diverse backgrounds hopefully getting the most out of a team that is still filled with young-ish players.

The biggest acquisition on the field is Martinez, who will serve as the primary designated hitter. It may have taken a while to reach a deal, but ultimately, it all came together in February. Since the retirement of David Ortiz after the 2016 season, there has been a major power void in Boston’s lineup (more on this in a bit) and the Sox hope Martinez’s power to all fields provides the middle-of-the-lineup thump that is so desperately needed.

Although Martinez is the only significant on-field acquisition for the Red Sox this offseason, the return of a supposedly healthy David Price will also be a welcome addition, as well as the first full year of Rafael Devers.

Boston won 93 games in 2017 despite its expensive de facto No. 2 starter being sidelined for a good portion of the year. Last season, Price pitched only 74 ⅔ innings, posted his worst walk rate since 2010, and generated fewer wins above replacement since 2009 (the year he was promoted to the show in late May). Devers played just 58 games as a rookie, and he’ll be another key piece for the 2018 squad.

Trend to watch: Home runs and slugging percentage

Last season, we heard rumors of juiced balls and homer-happy stitching as MLB crushed the aggregate home run record, collectively smashing more long balls than we even saw during the storied steroid era.

Except that didn’t carry over to Boston.

Last year, the Red Sox mustered a mere 165 home runs, which was dead last in the American League. Mookie Betts, the extra-base-hitting machine, managed 24 dingers (compared to 46 doubles), which led the team. It was a far cry from the perennial 30+ homers Boston saw from Big Papi.

Enter Martinez, who smashed 29 taters in only 62 games with the Diamondbacks last season. For the Red Sox to keep pace with the Yankees, Astros, and other AL elites, the club has to generate more power and capitalize on having men on base via the long ball, and increased slugging percentages. Last season, Boston’s 168 home runs paled in comparison to the Yankees’ 241...and the Yankees added Giancarlo Stanton!

Power is the name of the game for the 2018 Red Sox. The .407 slugging percentage last year was below the AL average of .429, and eons behind the Astros’ .478. Walks and singles are nice, but Boston has to do better driving men in via extra-base hits, particularly in this age of significant power and the fly-ball revolution.

2018 outlook

If a perennial contender could possibly be overlooked, the Red Sox have to fit that bill. The Yankees generated a ton of press this offseason, carrying the momentum of a nail-biting ALCS Game Seven into this season’s projections, but Boston is largely the same team as last year, with two major components positioned to succeed (JDM and Price).

The 2017 team bested New York by two games, so the burden was on the Yankees to move ahead of Boston. They tried mightily, and it may pay off, but the question remains: Does the home run threat of Martinez and a reinvigorated Price keep Boston ahead of New York?

Most pundits would agree the AL East is going to be a race to the finish, and with the other three teams in the division projected for a combined record of 231-255, one of the two teams at the top may differentiate themselves by thrashing those at the bottom. That’s something that did not happen last season, as both New York and Boston were 33-24 against the other three AL East teams.

Overall, Boston is well-positioned to make the playoffs again. A healthy Price sliding into the two-slot in the rotation will make a huge difference, and Alex Cora should get the most out of the younger players. Whether they can get past the likes of the Astros may be another story entirely, but in a short series, with a healthy Chris Sale and David Price, plus some thump in the lineup, this could be the year Boston breaks through for another AL pennant.

Steven Martano

Toronto Blue Jays

2017 record: 76-86, fourth in AL East

PECOTA 2018 projection: 79-83, fourth in AL East

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 86-76, third in AL East

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: third in AL East (14/18)

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays
This could be Donaldson’s last hurrah in the 6.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Traded RHP Conner Greene and RHP Dominic Leone to the Cardinals in exchange for OF Randal Grichuk.
  • Traded OF J.B. Woodman to the Cardinals in exchange for SS Aledmys Díaz.
  • Traded RHP Jared Carkuff and OF Edward Olivares to the Padres in exchange for IF Yangervis Solarte.
  • Traded a PTBNL or cash to the Pirates in exchange for IF Gift Ngoepe.
  • Signed LHP Jaime Garcia to a one-year, $10 million contract.
  • Signed RHP Seung-hwan Oh to a one-year, $2 million contract.
  • Signed OF Curtis Granderson to a one-year, $5 million contract.

For a team hoping to win a Wild Card spot, this offseason was solid, if unspectacular. In 2017, the Jays were dead last in the AL in runs scored. Jose Bautista might go down as an all-time great Blue Jay, but in 2017 he posted career-worst numbers across the board, hitting .203/.306/.366 for an 80 wRC+. Additionally, due to injuries to Troy Tulowitzki and Devon Travis, Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney made their way to the plate a staggering 821 times combined, posting respective wRC+s of 69 and 58.

To address these needs, the front office raised the floor at some of these positions instead of trading high-end prospects for a big-name player (or spending money in an offseason where most owners pretended they’d run out of cash). Trading for Solarte, Diaz, and Ngoepe provides the team with insurance for Tulo and Travis, while at the same time adding players who are almost certain to post better offensive numbers than Goins or Barney.

Toronto also made a pair of outfield acquisitions. Grichuk offers defense and has shown serious power, which could play well at Rogers Center. Just by subtracting Bautista and adding a league-average player in Grichuk, the Jays have improved their defense and added another player with multiple years of control. He’s not without flaws — his career OBP is .297 — but the club probably feels there’s more to his ceiling, as they traded an inconsistent-yet-intriguing prospect and a solid bullpen piece for him.

In left field, the Blue Jays found a platoon partner for Steve Pearce in Granderson. The 37-year-old veteran will primarily split time with Pearce and might even DH or play right field from time to time. His addition gives the team another low-risk high-reward player on a short-term deal.

Lastly, there’s Garcia, who’s in line to slot into the rotation, and Oh, who should strengthen the middle of the bullpen with Leone gone. Pitching wasn’t really the Jays’ problem last year — they were 11th in the majors in fWAR from their pitching staff — but as with the position players, a little more depth can’t hurt.

Position to watch: The pitching staff

The Red Sox have Chris Sale and David Price, but the Blue Jays might have the best 1-5 rotation in the AL East. Toward the end of last season, the team re-signed Marco Estrada for 2018, then added Garcia as its fifth starter. Aaron Sanchez looks to have shaken off his blister problems, and Marcus Stroman and JA Happ round out the rotation.

Unlike last year, Toronto has legitimate depth in starting pitching: Joe Biagini, Ryan Borucki and Taylor Guerrieri — instead of career journeymen — are the next men up. (The depth in Triple-A Buffalo did take a bit of hit when Thomas Pannone was suspended for 80 games for use of a banned substance.)

The bullpen looks strong despite losing Leone. Behind Osuna and Ryan Tepera — who himself had a breakout last year — the Jays have added Oh, along with veterans Tyler Clippard and John Axford on minor-league deals. While all three of these pitchers are coming off down years, they’ve looked sharp in spring training (make of that what you want), and they should be okay fill-in options if the bullpen is depleted.

2018 outlook

For the Blue Jays, 2018 is a year where they’ve made enough acquisitions to tread water and vie for the second Wild Card spot, while simultaneously hoping that the farm system continues to get stronger and the next wave of prospects makes it to the MLB roster and helps the club contend as soon as 2019 or 2020.

It looks like the front office has made significant additions this year without taking on salary and has positioned the team to compete. For what it’s worth, every Blue Jays fan has already conceded the division to the Yankees. FanGraphs has the Jays winning 86 games, which seems about right, if they can avoid injuries (and if Josh Donaldson decides to have an encore performance in his walk year).

Azam Farooqui

Tampa Bay Rays

2017 record: 80-82, third in AL East

PECOTA 2018 projection: 83-79, third in AL East

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 78-84, fifth in AL East

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: fourth in AL East (8/18)

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays
Yes, he’s still a Ray. (For now.)
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Let 1B/DH Logan Morrison (Twins), 1B Lucas Duda (Royals), RHP Alex Cobb (Orioles), RHP Steve Cishek (Cubs) leave in free agency.
  • Traded 3B Evan Longoria to the Giants in exchange for OF Denard Span, 3B Christian Arroyo, LHP Matt Krook, and RHP Stephen Woods.
  • Traded RF Steven Souza in a three-team deal with the Yankees and Diamondbacks in exchange for 2B Nick Solak, LHP Anthony Banda, and two PTBNLs.
  • Traded OF/DH Corey Dickerson to the Pirates in exchange for IF Tristan Gray, RHP Daniel Hudson, and cash.
  • Traded RHP Jake Odorizzi to the Twins in exchange for IF Jermaine Palacios.
  • Traded IF Luis Rengifo to the Angels in exchange for 1B C.J. Cron.
  • Signed OF Carlos Gómez to a one-year, $4 million contract.
  • Re-signed RHP Sergio Romo to a one-year, $2.5 million contract.
  • Released LHP Dan Jennings.

This offseason was an interesting one for the Rays, to say the least. They bid adieu to their decade-long Face of the Franchise, but Longo was far from the only casualty. Of the Rays’ top seven players by fWAR in 2017, five — Souza (3.7), Morrison (3.3), Dickerson (2.6), Longoria (2.5), and Cobb (2.4) — will no longer be wearing the Columbia Blue of Tampa Bay in 2018. (And it’s five of the top six if you prefer rWAR.)

Despite this exodus, a lot of smart baseball minds are actually high on Tampa heading into 2018 — or at least they aren’t convinced the Rays got any worse.

The reason is twofold: 1) The Rays were able to make a lot of transactions on the fringe; and 2) they have an amazing collection of talent that is collectively ready for its callup (or darn close to it). Take a look at the projections:

2018 “Replacement Rays”

Player 2017 fWAR 2018 Team 2018 Projected fWAR Replacement 2018 Projected fWAR
Player 2017 fWAR 2018 Team 2018 Projected fWAR Replacement 2018 Projected fWAR
Chris Archer 4.6 Rays 4.8 N/A 4.8
Steven Souza 3.7 Diamondbacks 1.2 Carlos Gomez 1.4
Logan Morrison 3.3 Twins 1.4 C.J. Cron/Brad Miller 1.4
Kevin Kiermaier 3.0 Rays 4.1 N/A 4.1
Corey Dickerson 2.6 Pirates 1.3 Denard Span/Mallex Smith 0.8
Evan Longoria 2.5 Giants 2.8 Matt Duffy 1.5
Alex Cobb 2.4 Orioles 2.4 Blake Snell 2.9
Total 18 16.9

All that turnover, and it equates to basically one less projected win. Now, that’s a bit tricky because we’re counting platoons on one side and not the other, but the point remains: While the Rays made a lot of change in name, the bottom line didn’t end up moving that much. That goes a long way to explain the cavernous gap between the expectations of the general public (the two tanking teams in Florida are the scourge of baseball) and the projection systems.

Speaking of those projection systems, most have the Rays as a borderline playoff team in the American League — news that I’m sure is legitimately surprising to those who don’t keep quite as close a tab on the Rays. The team has just as much talent as it did last year, when it won 80 games; if the things that went wrong in 2017 go right in 2018, a few extra victories could put Tampa Bay back in the postseason.

Experiment to watch: The four-man rotation

This is arguably the most interesting plot point for the 2018 season. The Rays will roll with Chris Archer, Blake Snell, Jacob Faria, and Nathan Eovaldi, and then fill in with bullpen days when the schedule demands it. It’s an extremely Baseball Progressive Idea, one that immediately launched a million “The Rays are back to being the Moneyball forefathers we used to know and love” takes around the internet when it was announced.

The move also triggered several other teams to announce immediately after that they would be using modified versions of the Rays plan. It was like when the teacher asks if any of the boys in class like Mean Girls and it’s silent for a minute, but then Tommy P. says Yeah I kinda like that movie, and then suddenly two or three others immediately chime in with their agreement, and suddenly every guy is admitting he loves not just Mean Girls but all romcoms.

If this plan goes well for the Rays, it may only be a matter of time before the league as a whole is following suit. And the Rays can claim to be the Tommy P. of Major League Baseball.

If it goes awry? Well, Kevin Cash could lose his job; the front office could come under even more pressure; the franchise — one about which there are constantly relocation rumors swirling — could start to hear those rumors get even louder; and the sun could collapse in on itself. No pressure, guys.

2018 outlook

The Rays seem like one of the more volatile and difficult to predict teams for 2018 for several reasons. First, there’s no telling whether they are done making moves. While we’ve already seen that their offseason moves didn’t really hurt the team, that clause could get a big “YET” added to it if Tampa Bay move either Archer or Kevin Kiermaier, the two best players from last year who have stayed put. There aren’t many rumors on that front right now, but if the team gets off to a slow start, the buzz could begin in earnest. Those are two guys for whom it would be nearly impossible to get equal returning value in terms of the 2018 season.

There’s also the question of whether the front office decides to slowplay its minor league talent, which is seemingly ready to roll. The decision was made a little bit easier (but in a bad way) on the pitching front when Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon both went down with arm injuries. However, there are plenty of names — Willy Adames, Jake Bauers, and Christian Arroyo among them — that represent the future of the organization who could make 2018 debuts and help immediately.

At the end of the day, despite all the craziness of this offseason, this team will probably be better than you expect. The Rays will struggle to compete with the big dogs of the AL East, they’ll try a couple of really cool Baseball Experiments during the season, and they’ll likely finish right around .500.

Jim Turvey

Baltimore Orioles

2017 record: 75-87, fifth in AL East

PECOTA 2018 projection: 71-91, fifth in AL East

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 78-84, fourth in AL East

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: fifth in AL East (9/18)

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Baltimore Orioles
It’s definitely Manny’s last hurrah in Charm City.
Michael Owens-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Let C Welington Castillo, LHP Wade Miley, and RHP Jeremy Hellickson leave as free agents.
  • Signed RHP Alex Cobb to a four-year, $57 million contract.
  • Signed RHP Chris Tillman to a one-year, $3 million contract.
  • Signed RHP Andrew Cashner to a two-year, $16 million contract.
  • Signed OF Colby Rasmus and IF Danny Valencia to minor-league contracts.

The Orioles rotation had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad 2017 (look at these numbers if you dare), and for most of the offseason, it seemed like the team wasn’t devoted to fixing it. Ubaldo Jimenez and Wade Miley were gone, but who was going to replace them?

Recently, though, Dan Duquette has made a few minor moves, bringing in Cobb, Cashner, and Tillman to shore up the starting staff. Cobb will require some seasoning, since he didn’t pitch for pretty much all of the offseason. When he gets going, he should be at least an average pitcher — even without the spacious Tropicana outfield behind him, his ground-balling ways will keep his ERA respectable.

Tillman and Cashner… well, they’ll probably suck. The former was hardly a big-leaguer last year, and the latter had a stupid lucky season that earned him about $15 million more than he deserved. Still, warm bodies are better than nothing (or Ubaldo. Anyone but Ubaldo.).

On the other side of the ball, the club is mostly standing pat, despite its position players’ hardship last year. Valencia is nothing more than a bench player, and Rasmus will likely be platooned in a corner outfield spot; the Orioles will go to war with the hitters they have, not the hitters they might want. If Austin Hays lives up to the hype, and Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis live up to their salaries, maybe it’ll turn out fine, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Players to watch: Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy

The aforementioned trio of acquisitions are pretty much known quantities — Cobb is a steady mid-rotation arm (when healthy), and Tillman and Cashner are flotsam. They’re the Nos. 3-5 starters, and for the O’s, the season will likely hinge on those top two arms.

Gausman had a disastrous start to the 2017 season — through his first 14 starts, he posted a 6.49 ERA and 5.61 FIP. Then he decided to phase out his breaking ball, and he turned a corner, with a 3.61 ERA and 3.81 FIP over his final 20 outings. Most starters need three legitimate pitches to work deep into games, which is why Gausman’s been working on his breaking ball. If he can get the feel for that pitch again, he might get even better.

Bundy’s season was somewhat similar: He was inconsistent through the first four months of the year (20 starts, 4.53 ERA, 5.03 FIP), but he locked down in August and September (eight starts, 3.58 ERA, 2.84 FIP). Oddly enough, Bundy’s recipe for success was the exact opposite — he relied more on his breaking ball (a slider/cutter hybrid) as the season went on. This is only the second year he’s been throwing the slider/cutter, so he might start to master it as he becomes more familiar with it.

2018 outlook

Every year, it seems like Baltimore’s fate rests on its starters, and 2018 looks to be no different. Even with their new acquisitions, FanGraphs projects the Orioles rotation to earn 9.2 fWAR, good for 27th in the majors. (To reiterate: Tillman and Cashner? Not good.) As fans who watched the 20-game five-run streak can tell you, it’s hard to win when you have to dig out of an early hole.

Baltimore does have a solid group of position players, which FanGraphs predicts will earn 19.3 fWAR this season (14th in MLB). And the bullpen — 3.8 projected fWAR, 11th in the majors — looks to be as dependable as ever. That won’t be enough for them to keep up in the AL East, though. Maybe Bundy and Gausman can realize their upside, but the likelier outcome is another year of mediocrity as Dan Duquette puts off rebuilding.

Ryan Romano