2017 American League Preview

Box scores – albeit Spring Training box scores – are officially  back, which makes it time for BBRT’s predictions for the coming season.  I’ll start with the American League.  You can see projected standings, won-lost records and award winners immediately below and go deeper into this long post for a review of each team, some “stat facts” and a couple of “players to watch” for each squad.  Remember these are just my own observations – like you, from the outside looking in. Like all prediction, their accuracy is up for debate.  Coming soon: A look at the National League.

PREDICTED STANDINGS

EAST

Boston Red Sox (93-69)

Toronto Blue Jays (89-73) – Wild Card

New York Yankees (83-79)

Baltimore Orioles (80-82)

Tampa Bay Rays (75-87)

CENTRAL

Cleveland Indians (97-65)

Detroit Tigers (83-79)

Kansas City Royals (81-81)

Chicago White Sox (70-92)

Minnesota Twins (65-95)

WEST

Houston Astros (92-70)

Texas Rangers (88-74) – Wild Card

Seattle Mariners (83-79)

Los Angeles Angels (75-89)

Oakland A’s (72-90)

LEAGUE CHAMPION – Boston Red Sox

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PREDICTED AWARD WINNERS

MVP

  1. Mookie Betts – Red Sox (RF) … Five-tool player (.318-31-113, with 26 steals and a Gold Glove in 2016) will lead Red Sox to the Division title (and be out from David Ortiz’ big shadow). At just 24, he’s the new Mike Trout – and just getting better. Besides, he’s 5’9” and named “Mookie” – gotta like that.
  1. Jose Altuve – Astros (2B) …. Another young dynamo who does it all (.338-24-96, 30 steals in 2016 and a 2015 Gold Glove), Altuve will be recognized as the sparkplug behind and Astros’ division title.
  1. Mike Trout – Angels (CF) … In first five full seasons never finished lower than second in MVP voting (won his second MVP award last season with a .315-29-100, 30 steal line). Angels’ overall performance may cost him ballots this season.

Other likely candidates: Josh Donaldson (Blue Jays); Francisco Lindor (Indians); Miguel Cabrera (Tiges).

CY YOUNG AWARD

  1. Chris Sale (Red Sox) … Could lead the AL in wins and strikeouts. Has notched 200+ whiffs and finished in the top five in CYA balloting in four straight seasons. Won 17 games with the White Sox last season, should do better with the Red Sox.
  1. Corey Kluber (Indians) … 2014 Cy Young winner should not be counted out. (Has fanned 741 batters over the past four seasons and won 18 games in 2016.
  1. Cole Hamels (Rangers) … A dark horse candidate, but went 15-5, 3.22 with 200 strikeouts in 2016. Since joining the Rangers mid-season 2015 is 22-6.

Other likely candidates: David Price (Red Sox); Rick Porcello (Red Sox); Justin Verlander (Tigers).

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

  1. Lucas Giolito – White Sox (RHP) … Considered one of – if not the – top pitching prospects in baseball, the 22-year-old (acquired from the Nationals in the Adam Eaton trade) already has five minor league seasonS under his belt – with a 25-15, 2.73 record and 397 strikeouts in 369 innings.
  2. Andrew Benintendi – Red Sox (LF) … Probably the pre-season consensus pick for ROY, the 22-year-old hit .312-20-107 in 151 minor league games (two seasons) and then .295-2-14 in 24 games after the Red Sox brought him up  lasta season.
  3. Jharel Cotton – A’s (RHP) … The 25-year-old righty (acquired by the A’s from the Dodgers in the Rich Hill/Josh Reddick trade) went 11-6, 4.31 at AAA before being called up to the A’s, where he went 2-0, 2.15 in five starts, fanning 23 batters in 29 1/3 innings. He showed good poise and a great changeup and a developing cutter to complement a 92-94 mph fastball.  Could surprise a lot of people.

Other likely candidates:  Yoan Moncada (White Sox); Michael Kopech (White Sox); Aaron Judge (Yankees).

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Now, for those in detail,  here’s a team-by-team rundown.  (Based on rosters as this post is written.)

EAST DIVISION

First Place – Boston Red Sox (93-69)

Mookie Betts photo

Mookie Betts will lead BoSox to AL East title. Photo by Dennis Heller

Despite the fact that the Red Sox scored the most runs in MLB last season (878), they secured their spot at the top of the East for 2017 when they acquired potential Cy Young Award winner Chris Sale (17-10, 3.34 for the White Sox). Sale will head a rotation that also includes last year’s AL CYA winner Rick Porcello (22-4, 3.15) and 2012 AL CYA winner lefty David Price (17-9, 3.99 for 2016). There are solid arms competing for the four and five spots – Eduardo Rodriguez, Drew Pomeranz and Steven Wright.

Red Sox Stat Fact

The Red Sox scored 878 runs last season – the most in MLB. Just as important, they outpaced the second-highest AL total (Toronto) by 101 runs.

While David Ortiz  and his .315-38-127 bat are gone from the offense, there is still plenty from a combination of young stars like MVP candidate RF Mookie Betts (.318-31-113, with 26 steals) and SS Xander Bogaerts (.294-21-89, with 13 steals) – and veterans like former AL MVP 2B Dustin Pedroia (.318-15-74) and 1B/DH Hanley Ramirez (.286-30-111). Rounding out the lineup are newcomer (free agent) 1B/DH Mitch Moreland (who popped 22 home runs for the Rangers last year); CF Jackie Bradley Jr. (.267-26-87); and potential Rookie of the Year Andrew Benintendi in LF.  Pablo Sandoval is back at 3B after shoulder surgery, with the Red Sox hoping he can return to his form of a couple years ago. Catching will be handled by a combination Sandy Leon (.310-7-35 as a rookie) and defensive wiz Christian Vazquez.

The only question mark seems to be the bullpen. Craig Kimbrel (2-6, 3.40, 31 saves) is one of the best closers in the business, but there are some other spots to sort out among newcomer Tyler Thornburg (8-5, 2.15, 13 saves with the Brewers); Joe Kelly; Matt Barnes and Robbie Ross.

A Couple of Players to Watch

RF Mookie Betts (.318-31-113, with 26 steals) was an All Star, Gold Glover, Silver Slugger and number-two finisher in last season’s AL MVP voting – all at age 24. He’ll be an MVP favorite this year.

LF Andrew Benintendi was called up in August and the 21-year-old hit .295, with two home runs and 14 RBI over 34 games.  He should be a leading Rookie of the Year Candidate.

Second Place – Toronto Blue Jays (89-73)

Josh Donaldson photo

Josh Donaldson, 2015 MVP, three-tiem All Star leads Toronto offense. Photo by Terry Foote

Okay, the Blue Jays lost Edwin Encarnacion and his 42 homers and 127 RBI, but there is still plenty of power left with returnees 3B Josh Donaldson (.284-37-99), SS Troy Tulowitzki (.254-24-79); RF Joey Bautista (.234-22-69 in 116 games, but capable of a 35-40 home run season) and new comer (DH) Kendrys Morales (.263-30-93 for the Royals).  The Blue Jays do have some lineup questions – LF and 1B in particular, where candidates include Justin Smoak, Steve Pearce, Melvin Upton, Jr., Ezequiel Carrera and prospect Dalton Pompey. Watch for platooning as this sorts itself out.

Ultimately, the Jays’ pitching (which boasted the AL’s lowest overall ERA – 3.78 – last season) is what will keep them in contention. The team’s starting rotation had the lowest ERA in the AL last season (3.64) – and most of it is back – led by right-hander Aaron Sanchez (15-2, 3.00) and southpaw J.A. Happ (20-4, 3.18). Marco Estrada (9-9, 3.48) and Marcus Stroman (9-10, 4.37) should hold down the three and four spots.  Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey is gone (free agency) and the Blue Jays would like Francisco Liriano (8-13, 4.60 with the Pirates and Jays) to deliver one of his trademark comeback seasons in the number-five spot.

Blue Jays Stat Fact 

The Blue Jays 22 blown saves and 4.11 bullpen ERA last season were both the fourth-worst in the AL.  Blue Jays starters, however, logged the AL’s lowest ERA (3.64). 

Roberto Osuna is only 22-years-old, but he’s a proven closer (4-3, 2.68, 36 saves).  With Brett Cecil and Joaquin Benoit gone (free agency), the Jays may look to Jason Grilli (7-6. 4.12) and 2016 Rule 5 pickup Joe Biagini (4-3. 3.06) to play key roles in getting to the ninth inning.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Joey Bautista is coming off an injury-interrupted season (.234-22-69 in 116 games). The Blue Jays need him to bounce back to his 35-home run, 100-RBI form. Bautista is 36-years-old – in his 14th MLB season – so he bears watching.

After 101 games at the MLB level in 2016 (and 163 games over the past two seasons), Devon Travis is probably beyond the “prospect” stage.  The 26-year-old 2B, however, could be an emerging star – a .317 hitter in five minor league seasons, Travis hit .300-11-50 in 101 games for the Blue Jays last season.  Keep an eye on him, he looks like the real deal.

Third Place – New York Yankees (83-79)

Aroldis chapman photo

Aroldis Chapman returns to fire up the Yankee bullpen. Photo by Keith Allison

Lots of folks slotted the Orioles in third place, but BBRT likes the Yankees’ off-season additions – fire baller Aroldis Chapman (MLB’s hardest thrower), Chris Carter (last season’s NL home run champ) and veteran OF/1B Matt Holliday (.246-20-62 in 110 games for the Cardinals last season). BBRT also likes the Yankees’ balance of rising youngsters like catcher Gary Sanchez (.299-20-42 in just 53 games in 2016), 1B Greg Bird (.261-11-31 in 46 games after putting up solid power numbers at AA and AAA) and OF prospect Aaron Judge – playing alongside proven veterans like Holliday, CF Jacob Ellsbury (.263-9-56, with 20 steals, in an off-year) and LF Brett Gardner (.261-7-41, with 16 stolen bases).  There is also plenty of offensive support from 2B Starlin Castro (.270-21-70) and SS Didi Gregorius (.276-20-70, with seven steals).

The bullpen – led by Chapman (4-1, 1.55 ERA, with 36 saves and 90 strikeouts in 58 innings for the Yankees and Cubs), Dellin Betances (3.08, with 12 saves and 126 strikeouts in 73 innings) and Tyler Clippard (3.57 ERA and 72 whiffs in 63 innings for the Diamondbacks and Yankees) should be one of the best.

Yankee Stat Fact

Masahiro Tanaka just  missed the 200-innings pitched mark last season (199 2/3 IP). If he had reached 200, he would have been the first Yankee pitcher to reach that figure since 2013 (when both C.C. Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda topped 200 innings).

The starting rotation (Masahiro Tanaka, C.C. Sabathia, Michael Pineda and more) poses a range questions related to age, injury and performance. Tanaka will again lead the staff, after a 14-3, 3.07 record in 2016. If his past elbow issues are truly behind him, 2017 could be a career year for the 28-year-old.  C.C. Sabathia, at 36-years-old, is starting to show signs of wearing down (even beyond the knee brace). He’ll likely be the only southpaw in the rotation and the Yankees need more than last season’s 9-12, 3.91 record.  Michael Pineda absolutely has to improve on last season’s 6-12, 4.82.  He’s shown the potential to be better, but it’s no given. Leading candidates for the final two spots include Chad Green (204, 4.73); Luis Severino 3-8, 5.83); Luis Cessa (4-4, 4.35).

I think the Yankees will surprise a few people in 2017, but finish just shy of a Wild Card sport.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Catcher Gary Sanchez (24-years-old) stormed the American League late last season – and went .299-20-42 in just 53 games. He’s a .275 hitter with 99 home runs in seven minor league seasons.  What will 2017 hold – stardom or regression?

1B prospect Greg Bird (24-years-old) hit .261-11-31 in 46 games after a 2015 call up. He missed the entire 2016 season after shoulder surgery, but is back to earn the starting role at 1B.  The Yanks need him to replace Mark Teixeira.

Fourth Place – Baltimore Orioles (80-82)

Mark Trumbo Orioles photo

Mark Trumbo, the AL HR leader is back for the Orioles. Photo by Keith Allison

If you can bully your way into the playoff, the Orioles could be back in a Wild Card spot in 2017.   No team hit more home runs than the Birds last season (253), but they still finished seventh in the AL in runs scored.  The re-signing of AL home run leader Mark Trumbo (.256-47-108) to serve as primary DH (he can also handle some OF) was key to the Orioles’ chance to compete 2017. Also bringing power to this long ball-dependent offense are 1B Chris Davis (.221-38-84, with 219 strikeouts in 566) at bats; 3B Manny Machado (.29-37-96 and a two-time Gold Glover); CF Adam Jones (.265-29-83 and a four-time Gold Glover); and 2B Jonathon Schoop (.267-25-82).  Veteran SS J.J. Hardy, at 34-years-old, may be losing a step, but the three-time gold Glover is steady in the field and still has some pop in his bat.  Behind the plate, free-agent signee Wellington Castilllo (.264-14-68 for Arizona) appears to be the Orioles’ choice at backstop. What this line-up has in power, however, it lacks in “table-setting” and speed on the bases.

Orioles Stat Fact

The Orioles’ 19 stolen bases were the fewest by any team last season. No other team stole less than 35. Joey Rickard led the team with four stolen bases.

The Orioles’ rotation had the third-worst ERA in the AL last season (4.72), although Camden Yards contributed to that figure.  Still, the Birds have not done much to improve.  The number-one slot in the rotation belongs to Chris Tillman (16-6, 3.71.) Kevin Gausman (9-12, 3.61) and Dylan Bundy (10-6, 4.02) seem set at two and three. At the end of the rotation, it looks like Ubaldo Jimenez and Wade Miley will be back, although there could be competition from the likes of Tyler Wilson or Mike Wright. Notably, all four of the hurlers mentioned for the four and five spots had ERAs over 5.00 in 2016.

The Birds do have one of the best bullpens in baseball, with closer Zach Britton (2-1, 0.54 ERA) saving 47 games in 47 opportunities. He’s backed by Darren O’Day (3-1, 3.77); Brad Brach (10-4, 2.05); Mychal Givens (8-2, 3.13); and Donnie Hart (0-0, 0.49). This group looks to get plenty of work in 2017.

The real question is whether power, solid defense and a great bullpen can compensate for a suspect starting rotation, too many empty swings and a lack of speed.  BBRT’s guess is no.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Southpaw closer Zach Britton is a saves machine (47 saves in 47 opportunities), who posted a 0.54 ERA in 67 innings pitched (74 strikeouts) last season. Over the past three seasons (all with the O’s), he’s notched 120 saves and a 1.38 ERA in 209 innings pitched. It’s worth the price of admission to watch him work.  Britton has now recorded 49 consecutive saves (in save opportunity situations). Eric Gagne holds the record at a whopping 84.

Given the Orioles’ starting pitching issues, you might want to keep an eye on Corey Sedlock – the Orioles’ 2016 first-round draft pick. The 21-year-old, 6’ 3”, 200-pound right hander was the Big Ten Pitcher of the year in 2016 and notched a 3.00 ERA in nine starts at Class A Aberdeen. He’s reported to have a four-pitch repertoire, topped by a four-seam fastball that reaches the mid-90s.  While Sedlock is likely to open the season in the minors, he has the potential to move up the ladder quickly.

Fifth Place – Tampa Bay Rays (75-87)

It looks like another difficult year for the Rays, who have to compete in the tough AL East. Still, the potential of their starting rotation makes them a sleeper pick to move up in the standings.  The key word, however, is potential.

Chris Archer Tampa Bay Rays photo

Chris Archer, a dark horse Cy Young candidate, will lead the Rays’ pitching staff. Photo by rrescot

Righty Chris Archer (28-years-old) leads the staff and has “ace” stuff – fanning 233 in 201 1/3 innings.  However, gopher balls (30 on the season, seventh highest in the AL) and a lack of run support relegated him to a 9-19, 4.02 season. Still, Archer’s 3.25 ERA after the All Star break offers promise for 2017. Likely to join Archer in the rotation are 26-year-old Jake Ordozzi (10-6, 3.69); 29-year-old Alex Cobb (coming back from an injury, but a 10-game winner in 2014); 24-year-old Blake Snell (6-8, 3.54); and 27-year-old Mark Andriese (8-8, 4.37).  Waiting in the wings is prospect Jose De Leon, acquired from the Dodgers in the Logan Forsythe trade. De Leon went 7-1, 2.61 for the Dodgers’ Triple A club (Oklahoma City) last season.

The bullpen is led by closer Alex Colome (2-4, 1.91, with 37 saves in 40 opportunities). The bullpen cast should include Brad Boxberger (4-3, 4.81 – the AL saves leader with 41 in 2015, but coming off an injury-derailed 2016); Xavier Cedeno (3-4, 3.70); and Erasmo Ramirez (7-11, 3.77).

Rays Stat Fact

Tampa Bay has finished last in attendance for five consecutive seasons.

Tampa Bay scored the second fewest runs in the AL last season – and gave up a chunk off offense (Logan Forsythe – .264 with 20 home runs) to acquire top pitching prospect De Leon. The offense – what there is – will again be led by right-handed hitter 3B Evan Longoria (.273-36-98); left-handed batter 1B/DH Brad Miller (.243-30-81); and switch-hitting OF/DH Corey Dickerson (.245-24-70). In the OF, CF Kevin Kiermaier put up a line of  .246-12-37, with 21 steals in 105 games, and is one of the best defensive CF in the game.  He likely will be flanked by newcomer Colby Rasmus (.206-15-54 in 107 games for the Astros) and Steven Souza Jr. (.247-17-49). Matt Duffy, who hit .276 after coming over from San Francisco in the Matt Moore trade, should be back at short, but the Rays do have a lot of options in the infield – Duffy can play 3B/2B/SS; Norm Franklin can fill in at 1B/2B/3B; and even Brad Miller has played every position expect pitcher and catcher in the major leagues (four seasons). Catcher is a question mark. The Rays did sign Wilson Ramos (.307-22-80 for the Nationals), who is coming off a career year – but also coming off knee surgery and opening the season on the Disabled List.

Overall, the East is just too tough, and the offense too scarce, for the Rays to escape the cellar.

A Couple of Players to Watch

As 3B Evan Longoria goes, so goes the Rays’ offense.  Last season, Longoria led the team in batting average (.273); home runs (36), RBI (98), runs scored (81) and base hits (173).  The Rays have to see similar results from Longoria to have any chance of moving up in the standings.  2016, however, was Longoria’s strongest season since his last All Star year (2010).

RHP Jose De Leon – acquired from the Dodgers in the Logan Forsythe trade – brings another young (24-years-old) gun into the Rays’ pitching stable. In four minor league seasons, De Leon is 23-13, 3.35, with 446 strikeouts in 330 2/3 innings. Last season, at Triple A, he was 7-1, 2.61. He earned a call up to the Dodgers (2-0, 6.35.) De Leon will likely start the season at AAA, but could move up quickly – giving the Rays’ some trading options (a young starting pitcher for a bat or two). Stay tuned.

CENTRAL DIVISION

Cleveland Indians  (97-65)

Corey Kluber photo

Corey Kluber heads a stellar mound staff. Photo by apardavila

The Cleveland Indians are heavy favorites to retain their Central Division title – and may very well return to the World Series (only the Red Sox starting rotation seems to stand in their way). Think about it. The Indians made it to the World Series despite losing two members of the starting rotation in September, as well as their top bat – Michael Brantley – for nearly all of the season.

The Indians expected dominance all starts with pitching.  Cleveland had the AL’s second-lowest ERA last season (and second-best among starters as well as relievers) and topped the AL in strikeouts. Not only are the Indians bringing this stellar pitching staff back, they’ve added free-agent signee Edwin Encarnacion (.263-42-127 for the Blue Jays) to an offense that scored the AL’s second-most runs in 2016.

Let’s look at the pitching first. The rotation starts with 2014 CYA winner Corey Kluber (18-9, 3.14 with 227 strikeouts in 2016). He’s followed by Carlos Carrasco (11-8, 3.32); Danny Salazar (11-6, 3.87); Trevor Bauer (12-8, 4.26); and Josh Tomlin (13-9, 4.40). This is a solid rotation (although with the addition of Chris Sale, the Red Sox have the edge).

The bullpen is headed by closer Cody Allen (3-5, 32 saves, 2.51 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 68 innings); Andrew Miller (10-1, 12 saves, 1.45 ERA and 123 strikeouts in 74 1/3 innings); and Bryan Shaw (2-5, 3.24 and 60 whiffs in 66 2/3 innings). The final three innings should belong to the Indians with this trio.  Having Miller for the whole season – he came over from the Yankees at the end of July – will make the Indian’s pen even more effective.

Indians Stat Fact

Cleveland’s home record of 53-28 tied the Rangers for the best in the AL. They were, however, only two games over .500 on the road (41-39).

The Indians’ lineup, with Encarnacion now in the middle, looks strong – particularly if Brantley is ready to resume left field duties. You’ve got 2B Jason Kipnis (.275-23-82, with 15 steals) and young and improving (already a star) shortstop Francisco Lindor (.301-15-78, with 19 steals) at the top. In the middle you have Encarnacion and Carlos Santana (.259-34-87), likely to share 1B/DH and LF Brantley. Even the bottom of the lineup shows some pop with 3B Jose Ramirez (.312-11-76, 22 steals – entering his fifth MLB season at age 24); RF Lonnie Chisenhall (.286-8-57); and CF Tyler Naquin (.296-14-43 in 116 games). Catching could be a question mark. Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez both missed significant time due to injury last season.

Ultimately, the Indians are the class of the Central. .

A Couple of Players to Watch

SS Francisco Lindor, just 23 and entering his third MLB season, may very well be the best player on this roster. Last season, he was an All Star, a Gold Glover and put up a .301-15-78 line, with 19 steals.  This season, he’s likely to be a 30-30 (HR/SB) player and be the catalyst for the Cleveland offense.

I would also keep an eye on CF Tyler Naquin – entering just his second MLB season (at age 25). Naquin, a .287 hitter in five minor league seasons, hit .296, with 14 home runs and 43 RBI in 116 games for the Indians last season.  Right now, it looks like he’ll platoon with Abraham Almonte in center, but Naquin could win the full-time spot. (Besides, he’s on my fantasy squad.)

Detroit Tigers – Second Place (83-79)

Miguel Cabrera photo

Miguel Cabrera – hard to argue with a former MVP and Triple Crown winner in the middle of your lineup. Photo by Keith Allison

The Tigers finished eight games off the pace in the AL Central (behind Cleveland and out of the playoffs for the second straight season). The team is in a process of rebuilding with young players like SPs Mike Fulmer and Daniel Norris and OF JaCoby Jones – but they still have enough solid veterans to remain competitive (and hold on to second place) while these players develop.

The middle of the Tiger batting order belongs to veterans 1B/DH Miguel Cabrera (.316-38-108),  DH/1B Victor Martinez (.289-27-86) and RF J.D. Martinez (.307-22-68). The key plate-setters at the top will be 2B Ian Kinsler (.288-28-83, with 14 steals) and LF Justin Upton (.246-31-87). Keep in mind, Cabrera is 33-years-old; Victor Martinez is 38; and Kinsler is 34.  The Tigers can ill afford an off-season from any of these veterans.  The remainder of the infield consists of Jose Eglesias at SS (.255-4-32) and Nick Costellanos at 3B (.285-18-58).  Costellanos seems to be finding his stroke (career highs in home runs and batting average lasts season), but needs to cut down on the strikeouts.  CF looks like a battle between JaCoby Jones, Matt Mahtook and possibly Tyler Collins (who could slot in better as a versatile fourth outfielder). Overall, OF defense could be an issue again in 2016. The Fielding Bible rated the Tigers garden the second worst defenders in MLB last season.  At catcher, James McCann and his plus-arm should hold sway, but he needs to improve on his .221-12-48 stat line. .

Tigers Stat Fact

Handling Cleveland may be the key to the Tigers’ season. They finished eight games behind the Indians a year ago – and went 4-14 against the Tribe.

The rotation starts with Justin Verlander, who was revitalized in 2016 (16-9, 3.04 with a league-leading 254 strikeouts in 227 2/3 innings – his best totals in since 2012).  The question is: At 34-years-old, and with nearly 2,500 innings on his right arm, can he do it again?  From Verlander, the rotation goes to Michael Fulmer (11-7, 3.06 as a rookie); Jordan Zimmerman (a disappointment last season at 9-7, 4.87); southpaw Daniel Norris (4-2, 3.38 in 13 starts – with lots of upside); and Matt Boyd (6-5, 4.53). In the wings are past starters Anibel Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey. Key for the Tigers will be Verlander’s ability to match last year’s performance (at age 34), Zimmerman’s ability to bounce back from last season’s injury issues (neck) and the development of Norris.  Very simply, there are some questions here. Still, this group put up the fourth-best ERA among AL starting rotations in 2016, so they should be able to get the job done.

Francisco Rodriguez (at 35-years-old) returns as the Tigers’ closer – after a 3-4, 3.24, 44-save record in 2016.  Among the key relievers getting the ball to Rodriguez, expect Bruce Rondon (5-2, 2.97 in 37 games) and Alex Wilson (4-0, 2.96 in 62 games).

Despite some aging in the lineup and question marks in the rotation, the Tiger appear to have enough to hold onto second place, but not enough to catch the Indians.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Miguel Cabrera is a hitting machine, a former Triple Crown winner and two-time MVP, who shows little sign of slowing down in the batter’s box after 14 MLB seasons (four batting titles, two HR crowns). It will be interesting to see if Cabrera, who will turn 34 in April, shows any signs of wear and tear. I’m betting he rakes again.

Michael Fulmer was the AL Rookie of the Year in 2016, after going 11-7, 3.06 in 26 starts. However, there are some questions to be answered. Fulmer went 9-2, 2.11 in 13 first half starts – and then 2-5, 3.94 in 13 starts after the break.

Kansas City Royals – Third Place (81-81)

Danny Duffy photo

Danny Duffy – new staff ace? Photo by KellyK

The Royals were MLB’s darlings in 2014 and 2015, with two World Series appearances and one Championship. Then, last season, they slipped to third place, .500 and 13 ½ games behind the Indians. The Royals look to be a .500 club again in 2016 – despite the tragic loss of key starter Yordano Ventura in an off-season accident. The fact is, pitching and defense will still be strengths for Kansas City – which scored the third-fewest runs in 2016 and lost DH Kendrys Morales’ 30 home runs and 93 RBI to free agency.

The rotation will be led by southpaw Danny Duffy, who didn’t make his first start until May 15 last year, and ended up 12-3, 3.51 with 188 strikeouts in 179 2/3 innings. The number-two spot (replacing Ventura) will likely go to free-agent signee veteran Jason Hammel (15-10, 3.83 for the Cubs last season).  Ian Kennedy will also be in the rotation, after going 11-11, 3.68 for the Royals a year ago. Competitors for the final spots are Jason Vargas (coming back from Tommy John surgery, but an 11-game winner in 2014); Six-foot-ten-inch Chris Young (who had off-season surgery after a 3-9, 6.19 season); free-agent signee Travis Wood (4-0, 2.95 in 75 relief appearances for the Cubs last year, but a starter as recently as 2014); hard-throwing Matt Strahm (2-2, 1.23 in 21 games in relief for the Royals); and Nate Karns (6-2, 5.15). Solid top of the rotation, somepretty good competition for the back end.

Royals Stat Fact

Kansas City finished at .500 a year ago, despite being outscored by 37 runs (712-675) and out-homered by 59 (206-147).

The bullpen has some question marks, particularly with closer Wade Davis (who did spend some time on the DL last season, but still logged 27 saves) gone to the Cubs (in the Jorge Soler trade),  Kevin Herrera will spend the full season as closer (2-6, 2.75, 12 saves and 86 strikeouts in 72 innings last season). He appears ready for that role, but that creates some issues in getting the ball to the ninth (Herrera’s previous role). Right now, it looks like Jaokim Soria; Brian Flynn; and whoever loses out in the battle for starting spots (Woods, Strahm, Young, free-agent Mark Minor).

They keys to the offense belong to 1B Eric Hosmer (.266-25-105 – and a three-time Gold Glover); CF Lorenzo Cain (.287-9-56, with 14 steals in 103 games): and possibly newcomer RF/DH Jorge Soler (.238-12-31 in 86 games for the Cubs). A couple of veterans should fill the top of the order: SS Alcides Escobar (.261-7-55, with 17 steals, who played in all 162 games a year ago – and was a 2015 Gold Glover) and 3B Mike Moustakas (.240-7-13 in 27 games in 2016), an All Star in 2015.  LF belongs to Alex Gordon, a four-time Gold Glover coming off a subpar offensive season.  Salvador Perez is one of the best catchers in the game (four consecutive Gold Gloves), as well as an offensive threat (.247-22-64). He should again slot in somewhere near the middle of the lineup. Second base may be up for grabs with Whit Merrifield, Raul Mondesi and Christian Colon in the mix – none played more than 81 games in 2016. Merrifield had the best season in 2016 (.283-2-29, eight steals in 81 games as a rookie), but the Royals reportedly still have high hopes for Mondesi. At DH, the Royals will be hard pressed to replace (free agent) Kendrys Morales’ 30 home runs and 93 RBI.  It looks like a revolving door with the competitors including Brandon Moss (.225-28-67), Soler (if he doesn’t earn a full-time outfield slot); Merrifield (if he doesn’t hold off Mondesi at 2B); Cheslor Cuthbert (.274-12-46); and Paul Orlando (.302-5-43, with 14 steals – and competition for Soler for the third OF spot).

Middle of the road pitching and a lack of offense hurt the Royals a year ago and, with the loss of DH Kendrys Morales and closer Wade Davis, they seem to have taken a step backward.  They look like a .500 club again.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Salvador Perez is simply the best defensive catcher in the AL – four seasons as the Royals’ full-time backstop and four Gold Gloves (last season he led the AL, tossing out 48 percent of potential base stealers).  He’s also turned into a solid offensive player (.247-22-64 last season). A pleasure to watch behind (and at) the plate.

LF Alex Gordon is a four-time Gold Glover who has fought through injuries (groin and wrist) over the past two seasons. In 2016, he hit just .220-17-40 in 128 games. In his last season of at least 150 games played, he hit .266-19-74 with 12 steals. The Royals need a return to those kinds of offensive numbers

Chicago White Sox – Fourth Place 70-92

dAVID ROBERTSON WHITE SOX photo

David Robertson will take the ninth inning for the ChiSox.Photo by Keith Allison

The White Sox are rebuilding – and doing it in a hurry.  They added some top prospects (at the cost of Chris Sale and Adam Eaton) over the past couple of years and the 2017 team has enough “potential” to be interesting, but not enough proven talent. The veterans may have to “hold the fort” a bit longer.

The middle of the lineup will feature 31-year-old 3B Todd Frazier (who hit 40 homers and drove in 98 runs, but put up only a .225 average) and 30-year-old 1B Jose Abreu (.293-25-100, who has driven in 100+ runs in each of his three MLB seasons). Other likely veterans in the lineup include 2B Brett Lawrie (.248-12-36); LF Melky Cabrera (.296-14-86).  Youth will be served at the top of the lineup with CF Charlie Tilson (a 24-year-old rookie), who hit .282 in 100 games at Triple A last season (but also suffered a foot injury early in Spring Training) and 23-year-old SS Tim Anderson, who hit .283-9-30 in 99 games as a rookie (but needs to cut down on his strikeouts – 117 K’s versus only 13 walks last season). Avisail Garcis is the likely starter in RF, but has still hasn’t lived up to his power potential (.245-12-51 in 120 games). DH is up for grabs – although Abreu and Garcia may spend some time there.  Prospect Matt Davidson (who has shown some power in the minors) may get a look and utility man Tony Saladino ( .282-8-38, 11 steals in 93 games) should see time around the infield and perhaps at DH. Omar Narvarez and Kevin Smith are the (inexperienced) options at catcher.

White Sox Stat Fact

The Sox 4.10 starters’ ERA was right in the middle of the AL (seventh) – with Chris Sale.  Take Sale out of the equation and that ERA jumps to 4.33 (twelfth). Sale had six of the White Sox seven complete games.  The current likely rotation had one complete game among them in 2016.  #BigShoesToFill.

Southpaw Jose Quintana takes over from Sale as the ace of the staff – he was 13-12, 3.20 last season and has the stuff for a number-one or number–two starter.  Still he has reached ten wins only once in five seasons.  The number-two spot will go to another lefty, Carlos Rodon (9-10. 4.04, but on the upswing – he was 7-3, 3.45 with 77 strikeouts in 73 innings over the second half).  At just 24-years-old, he should improve in his third MLB season.  After these two southpaws, however, things get a little rocky. The back of the rotation looks like 35-year-old James Shields (who had been a steady winner through 2015, but last season finished 6-19, 5.85); Miguel Gonzalez (5-8, 3.73); and free-agent signee Derek Holland (7-9, 4.95 with the Rangers), looking for a rebound after three injury-hampered seasons with the Rangers. Holland went 38-21 in 31 starts in 2011-12-13, but 13-12 in 35 starts in 2014-15-16.

David Robertson is back at closer after a 5-3, 3.47, 37-save season. He does need to improve on his walk rate.  In 2016, he walked 32 batters (75 strikeouts) in 62 1/3 innings – and his save percentage was 22nd among pitchers with at least ten saves.   Getting the ball to Robertson are Nate Jones with a high-90s fastball and a .2.29 ERA in 71 appearances (80 strikeouts in 70 2/3 innings); Dave Jennings (2.08 in 64 appearances); and Zach Putnam (2.30 in 25 appearances).  Mike Ynoa (24-years-old), who looked good in his rookie season (1-0, 3.00, 30 strikeouts in 30 innings) could also see more work this season. If Robertson can harness his control, this is a solid pen.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Okay, the White Sox are rebuilding, so keep an eye on a couple of recent “prospect” additions – acquired in the Sale and Eaton Trades.

Yoan Moncada, acquired from the Red Sox in the Chris Sale trade, is considered one of the top prospects in baseball.  He can play 2B and 3B and last season hit .294-16-62, with 45 steals in the minors. He’s just 21-years-old, but if the White Sox flounder early, he could be in the lineup sooner rather than later.

RHP Lucas Giolito (22-years-old), acquired from the Nationals in the Eaton trade, is a starter whose fastball has hit triple digits. He moved from A to Double A to Triple A last season – and even got a look-see at the major league level. In five minor league season, he is 25-15, 2.73, with 397 strikeouts in 369 innings. He may need a little more seasoning, but again, if the White Sox find themselves out of the race early, Giolito could see a major league mound before September.

Minnesota Twins – Fifth Place (65-95)

Only the Diamondbacks had a worse team ERA than the Twins in 2016 (5.09 to 5.08). Further, the Twins had the worst ERA among starters (5.39) and fifth worst out of the pen (4.63), as well as the third-worst save percentage (saves versus saver opportunities) at 57 percent.  They didn’t do much in the offseason to address these issues – other than signing free-agent catcher Jason Castro (an acknowledged accomplished pitch framer).  So, despite the fact that the Twins have a group of potentially exciting young position players, the team seems destined for another last-place finish,.

It all starts with pitching and, in Minnesota, that means Ervin Santana (7-11, 3.38 in 30 starts). Santana will likely be followed in the rotation by Hector Santiago (13-10, 4.48 for the Angels and Twins, but 3-6, 5.05 with Minnesota) and Phil Hughes (1-7, 5.68 in just 12 games – fractured knee). The Twins need Santiago to pitch more like he did for the Angels (10-4, 4.24) and for Hughes to comeback from the knee injury and off-season surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome. (Hughes was a 16-game winner for the Twins in 2014).  There’s likely to be competition for the final two spots, with candidates including: Kirk Gibson, Jose Berrios and Tyler Duffy – all with ERA’s north of 5.00 last season. A couple of outside possibilities for the rotation are starter-turned-reliever Trevor May and Twins’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year Stephen Gonsalves.

The bullpen also has question marks, but should be improved. It now appears Brandon Kintzler (0-2, 3.15. 17 saves in 20 opportunities) will be back at closer, as Glen Perkins (who saved 102 games for the Twins from 2013-15) works his way back from shoulder surgery.  The Twins added veteran Matt Bellisle (1.76 ERA in 40 games for the Nationals last season), and he should strengthen the pen. Ryan Pressley (3.70 with 67 whiffs in 75 1/3 innings) also should be assured of a role.  Michael Tonkin, J.T. Chargois, Taylor Rogers and newcomer Craig Breslow will be competing for spots.

Twins Stat Fact

Defense-Defense-Defense.  Twins pitchers gave up the most hits (1,617), earned runs (814), home runs (221) and the highest opponents’ batting average (.283) in the AL in 2016.  The defense behind them didn’t fare much better – leading the AL in errors (120) and unearned runs allowed (75). Pretty good insight into why the Twins finished with the AL’s worst record (59-103).

The Twins lineup has a bit more to offer – and looks to be on the upswing (pun intended).  The power comes from leadoff hitter 2B Brian Dozier (.268-42-99, with 18 steals); 23-year-old 3B Miguel Sano (.236-25-66 and a likely 40-HR candidate down the road); 24-year-old LF Max Kepler (.235-17-63 in 113) games; and likely DH Kennys Vargas .(230-10-20 in 47 games). The Twins like 23-yeaer-old Jorge Polanco at SS (.282 in 69 games), but he is a work in progress on defense. Joining Kepler in the outfield is CF Byron Buxton, who seems like he’s been a prospect forever, but is still only 23-years-old. Eddie Rosario (.269-10-32 in 92 games) or 2016 surprise Robbie Grossman (.280-11-37 in 99 games) should fill the final OF spot. Buxton, an elite defender, has had trouble adjusting to major league pitching (.224-10-38), but showed improvement at the end of 2016. 1B/DH Joe Mauer, a three-time batting champion, will be back at 1B (and some DH), but it’s been awhile since he’s shown the kind of offense you want out of a 1B/DH. (Mauer has a .308 career average, but has hit .277-.265-.261 over the past three seasons.) Newcomer Jason Castro, an accomplished pitch framer brought in to aid the pitching staff, will handle the catching.  Don’t expect a lot of offense, Castro was .210-11-32 in 113 games last season.  Still as Sano, Buxton, Polanco and Kepler mature, this offense should put runs on the board.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Twins’ 2B Brian Dozier hit 42 home runs last season, and an AL record 40 as a second baseman (two came as a DH). He finished as .268-42-99, with 19 steals.  Prior to last season, Dozier’s highest HR total was 28. However, he has increased his home run total every season since his 2012 MLB debut.  It will be interesting to see if the 42-HR season was an aberration, or if Dozier will continue as a major (30+ HR) power threat.  Also of interest, the Twins shopped Dozier in the off-season.  If things go badly, will they attempt to move him again before the trade deadline?

Byung-ho Park represents a significant investment for the Twins –  $12.85 million to the Korean Baseball Organization’s (KBO) Nexen Heroes for the right to negotiate with Park and another $12 million in the form of a four-year contract with the 1B/DH. Park, who hit .324 with 105 home runs and 270 RBI over his last two seasons in Korea (2014-2015), hit just .191 with 12 homers and 24 RBI in 62 games for the Twins. He didn’t fare much better at Triple A (.224-10-19 in 31 games). Park cleared Waivers and was moved from the 40-man MLB roster in the off-season. Twins’ fans will be watching to see if Park adjusts and the investment pays off – or if it goes the way of the Tsuyoshi Nashik signing (from Nippon Professional Baseball) in 2010.

WEST DIVISION

First Place – Houston Astros (92-70)

Jose altuve photo

Jose Altuve – Astros’ spark plug. Photo by roy.luck

What the Astro lacked last season, as they finished in third place, was a veteran presence to show the way for their youthful lineup.  They went out and got it with the signing of free-agent veteran DH Carlos Beltran (.295-29-98 for the Rangers and Yankees) and the trade of two minor league pitchers to the Yankees for catcher Brian McCann (.242-20-58). Their presence in the middle of the lineup and leadership in the dugout should keep the young Astros on course for a first-place finished

There is a lot to like about this lineup – from the top down. OF George Springer and 2B sparkplug Jose Altuve will top the order.  Springer (.261-29-92, nine steals) appears to be moving to center to make room for newcomer Josh Reddick (.281-10-53 in 115 games) in right.  (The Astros have plenty of outfield options with Springer, Reddick, Norichika Aoki and Jake Marisnick.)  Altuve is a potential MVP who does it all. Last season, he won his second batting title (.338) and chipped in 24 home runs, 96 RBI, 108 runs scored and 30 stolen bases.  The 5’6” dynamo makes this team go.  And there is plenty more. Carlos Correa – just 22-years-old – is one of today’s most exciting young shortstops (.274-20-96, with 13 steals) and may man the cleanup spot. 3B Alex Bregman (23-years-old) got off to a slow start (he had only one hit in his first 34 MLB at bats), but came on strong (hitting .311 the rest of the way and finishing at .264-8-34). Behind the plate, you have McCann, as well as veteran Evan Gattis (.251-32-72) – who could spell each other, as well as take a turn at DH. At first base, the Astros will look to Yulieski Gurriel – who defected from Cuba in February of 2016 – and signed with the Astros in July. Gurriel hit .262-3-15 in 36 games (3B/1B/LF) for Houston. (He had a .335 average over 15 seasons in Cuba and Japan).   In short, this lineup is stacked with solid hitters – and a combination of youth and experience.  They are going to score some runs.

Astros’ Stat Fact

In 2016, the Astros starting rotation’s ERA went from 2015’s 3.71 (second best in the AL) to 4.37 (eighth best). They need to turn that back around.

When it come to the starting rotation, the Astros are looking for significant rebounds up and down the staff.  It starts with southpaw Dallas Keuche,l who fell to 9-12, 4.25 in 2016 – after a 20-8, 2.48 Cy Young Award season in 2015.  Keuchel did have shoulder issues last season, and bears watching. Two and three in the rotation should go to 23-year-old Lance McCullers (a respectable 6-5, 3.22 – but coming off  shoulder and elbow issues that limited him to 14 starts); and Collin McHugh (13-10, 4.34 – after 19-7, 3.89 in 2015). The back of the rotation looks to be drawn from among Mike Fiers (11-8, 4.48), veteran Charlie Morton (coming off a hamstring injury – and surgery – that limited his 2016 season to four starts for the Phillies) , Brad Peacock and Joe Musgrove.  There are questions in this group – particularly related to durability.  The dark horse may be Musgrove.  The big (6’5”, 265-pound) righty is only 24-years-old and was 4-4, 4.06 in his rookie season – after going 7-4, 2.74 in two 2016 minor league stops.

The bullpen got off to a rocky start in 2016, but righted itself when Ken Giles moved into the closer role (2-5, 4.11 with 15 saves and 102 strikeouts in 65 2/3 innings). Over the second half, Giles was 1-2, 3.77 with 14 saves and 52 whiffs in just 28 2/3 innings. Giles displaced Luke Gregerson at closer (4-3, 3.28 with 15 saves).  Gregerson should be a key set-up man.  Also in the pen are the bat-missing arms of Will Harris, James Hoyt, and Tony Sipp.  Plenty of live arms.

The Astros have a potent offense, solid defense (third-fewest errors and most defensive runs saved in the AL), some new veteran leadership and a solid bullpen.  The only question mark is the starting rotation, but if a couple of the key starters can bounce back, they should end up atop the AL West.

A Couple of  Players to watch

Second baseman Jose Altuve is THE player to watch on the Astros.  Just 5’6” and 165-pounds, he is the sparkplug that ignites the Astros’ offense. At 26-years-old and starting his sixth full season in the major leagues, Altuve is already a four-time All Star, Gold Glove Winner, two-time batting champion, three-time AL leader in hits (641 base hits over the past three seasons), two-time AL stolen base leader (124 steals over the past three seasons) – and he’s added power to his game (24 home runs in 2016). 

BBRT will give you two members of the pitching staff to watch.  First, Dallas Keuchel – to see if the assumed staff “ace” and 2015 Cy Young award winner can come back from shoulder issues and a 9-12, 4.55 season in 2016. The other is 24-year-old RHP Joe Musgrove, who started 2016 at Double A and ended up going 4-4 4.06 for the Astros (ten starts).  He has a minor league record of 28-11, 2.83, with 320 strikeouts in 337 1/3 innings. One more year of experience – and a full year at the MLB level – could make him a difference-maker for the Astros.

Second Place – Texas Rangers (88-74)

Adrian Beltre photo

Adrian Beltre continuing to build a Hall of Fame resume. Photo by Keith Allison

The Rangers basically won their division by going 15-4 against the rival Astros. BBRT doesn’t see that happening again – particularly since the Astros have added some veteran leadership in the off-season.

Thee Rangers scored the fourth-most runs in the AL last season, but they are going to miss the bats of Carlos Beltran, Ian Desmond and Mitch Moreland (all lost to free agency). The Rangers did work to shore things up a bit, signing free-agent Mike Napoli earlier this month.  Napoli went .239-34-101 for Cleveland last season and will slot into 1B (replacing Moreland). The home run and RBI totals were career highs for Napoli – 35-years-old and going into his twelfth MLB campaign. The Ranger’ lineup will again key off of 3B Adrian Beltre and he’s got plenty of credentials.  In 2016, Beltre not only put up a .300-32-104 season, he also picked up his fifth Gold Glove. The five-time Gold Glover and  four-time All Star is a stud in the middle of the lineup, but he will turn 38-years-old in April and did suffer a calf injury this spring.  He has to hold off father time if the Rangers are to compete. Joining Beltre and Napoli in providing power will be 23-year-old 2B Rougned Odor (.271-33-88); veteran catcher Jonathan Lucroy (.292-24-81); and 21-year-old LF Nomar Mazara (.266-20-64 in his rookie campaign).  Odor and Lucroy should be steady source of power, but Mazara cooled off after a strong start (hitting just .229 after August 1). Along with Mazara (who may see time at both corner OF spots), we’ll likely see Carlos Gomez in CF (.284-8-24 in 33 games for the Rangers, but only .210-5-29 in 85 games with the Astros).  Gomez is a career .257 hitter and is likely to finish in that range. Competing for time in the OF and at DH are Shin-Soo Choo (coming off an injury-marred season), Jurickson Profar  (.239-5-20 – and also available to fill in in the infield); Ryan Rau (.258-8-22  in 99 games and also available at 1B); and perhaps Delino DeShields (.209-7-13 in 74 games). The Rangers would prefer to move Choo’s glove (and bat) to DH, so we may see a Profar, Gomez, Mazara garden on a regular basis.  Finally, there is shortstop Elvis Andrus, coming off a career year (.302-8-69, with 24 steals). The Rangers should score runs again, but there are concerns.  Can Beltre and Napoli repeat their 2016 performances? Which Carlos Gomez will show up? Will Choo bounce back from injury?   Ultimately, the Rangers should have a solid lineup, just less stable than the rival Astros.

Southpaw Cole Hamels (15-5, 3.32).  is back at the top of the rotation, but needs to cut down on walks.  Yu Darvish (7-5, 3.14 in 17 starts after coming back from Tommy John surgery) could get back to his 2012-13-14 All Star form – if he stays healthy. Those two will be followed by lefty Martin Perez (10-11, 4.39), a solid innings eater and two likely drawn from among: free-agent signee Andrew Cashner; A.J. Griffin; and Tyson Ross (coming off thoracic outlet surgery). Ross was the Padres’ Opening Day starter in 2016 – the only game he pitched last season. Ross, however, was an All Star and 13-game winner as recently as 2015 and – if healthy – could boost the Rangers’ rotation.

Rangers Stat Fact

The Rangers were 36-11 in one-run ball games in 2016 (including 8-1 versus the rival Astros) – a modern-era MLB one-run game winning percentage of .766.

In the bullpen, Sam Dyson should return as the closer – after going 3-2, 2.43 with 38 saves a year ago. Dyson is not your typical “lights-out” closer (just 55 strikeouts in 70 1/3 innings).  He’s more of a groundball pitcher, but he gets the job done. Key arms behind Dyson include: Jeremy Jeffress; Matt Bush; Alex Claudio; and Tony Barnette – all with ERA’s under 3.00 last season.

Put it all together and the Rangers should be right on the Aatros’ heels in 2016. If Houston’s starting rotation falters, the Rangers could repeat as division champs.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Free-agent signee Tyson Ross – the San Diego Padres’ 2016 Opening Day starter – is coming off shoulder issues (pitched only on Opening Day last year). Ross, who will turn 30 in April – is a 2014 All Star and has a 3.64 ERA, with 633 strikeouts in 670 2/3 career innings.  If he’s back and healthy, he could put up solid numbers for the Rangers

No one means more to the Rangers’ squad than 3B Adrian Beltre – .300-32-104 in a resurgent 2016 campaign (he also picked up a Gold Glove). Beltre, however is 38, and is playing against father time.  He seems destined for the Hall of Fame (should pick up his 3,000th hit, 450th home run, 1,500th run scored, 1,600 the RBI and 120th stolen base thise season). BBRT will be watching his numbers in 2017.

Third Place – Seattle Mariners (83-79)

Edwin Diaz Mariners photo

Closer Edwin Diaz fanned more than 15 batters per nine innings for the Mariners. Photo by THE Laura Smith

Lots of new faces in Seattle this year, but the results will likely be pretty much the same as a year ago.

The rotation starts with Felix Hernandez (11-8, 3.82), who missed some time with a calf strain (had just 25 starts) and seems to be showing signs of wear (turning 31 in April and a veteran of 12 MLB seasons and more than 2,400 MLB innings). Last season saw Hernandez notch his fewest wins since 2008, highest ERA since 2006 and fewest innings pitched since his rookie campaign (2005). Still, he’s a six-time All Star and the Mariners are counting on a return to form. The number-two spot goes to Hihashi Iwakuma, a steady innings-eater who went 16-12, 4.12 – but will be 36 in April. Hard-throwing James Paxton showed signs of breaking out last season (6-7, 3.79 with 117 strikeouts in 121 innings), but made just 20 starts (bruised elbow).  A full year of Paxton would be a plus for Seattle. A couple of newcomers – Drew Smyly, acqujred in a trade with the Rays, and Yovani Gallordo, picked up in a trade with the Orioles, should round out the rotation. Smyly was 7-12, 4.88 in 30 starts with the Rays, while Gallardo was 6-8, 5.42 with the O’s. If either of those two falters in Spring Training, I’d bet on 28-year-old Cuban Ariel Miranda (5-2, 3.88 in ten starts) to take a spot.

Mariners’ Stat Fact

Seattle played a whopping 60 one-run games last season (30-30 record).  If they could have gone 33-27 in those contests, they would have been in the Wild Card picture.

Hard-throwing Edwin Diaz took over closer duties in July and finished 0-4, 2.79 with 18 saves.  Diaz looks to be the full-time closer. He fanned 88 batters in just 51 2/3 innings. Former closer Steve Cishek, coming off hip surgery could be the numer-one setup man (if healthy).  He was 4-6, 2.81 with 25 saves a year ago. Other key members of the pen are newcomer southpaw Mark Rzepczynski (great on a jersey); Nick Vincent; and youngster Dan Altavilla (considered to be a potential closer in waiting). Altavilla had a 0.73 ERA in 15 relief appearances for the Mariners last season, after going 7-3, 1.91, with 16 saves at Double A.  Overall, the Mariners pen looks solid.

The Mariners offense is powered by DH Nelson Cruz, 2B Robinson Cano and 3B Kyle Seager, and the numbers point to plenty of production. Cruz went .287-43-105 last season; Cano went .298-39-103; and Seager .278-30-99. However, the trio accounted for half of the Mariners’ 2017 home run output and 42 percent of the RBIs. They will look for some help from new leadoff  hitter (trade with the D-backs) SS Jean Segura (.319-20-64, with 33 steals) and 1B Danny Valencia (.287-17-51). Leonys Martin (.247-15-47, with 24 steals) appears set in CF and a spot near the top of the order.  However, Spring Training may see auditions for the other two spots among Jarrod Dyson (.278-1-25, with 30 steals for the Royals); prospect Ben Gamel (.308-6-51, with 19 steals at Triple A); and Mitch Haninger (.229-5-17 in 34 games with the D-backs).  At catcher, Mike Zunino should get most of the playing time, backed by newcomer veteran Carlos Ruiz.

The Mariners made a lot of moves in the off-season, but still face questions in the rotation and an offense that is too dependent on their big three. They have enough talent to finish above .500, but a playoff spot seems unlikely.

A Couple of Players to Watch

OF prospect Ben Gamel hit just .188 in 33 games at the MLB level (Yankees/Mariners), but hit .304, with 16 home runs, 155 RBI and 32 stolen bases at Triple A in 2015-16. Watch to see if Gamel to win a spot in the Mariner’ outfield.

Closer Edwin Diaz fanned 15.3 batters per nine inning last season, second only to the Yankees’ Dellin Betances (15.5).  Diaz and Betances, in fact, were the only pitches to fan more than15 batters per nine. (Aroldis Chapman was seventh at 14.)  Diaz is only 23-years-old, so this youngster bears watching.

Fourth Place – Los Angeles Angels (75-89)

Mike Trout photo

Mike Trout – Keeps putting smiles on the faces of Angels’ fans. Photo by Keith Allison

The Angels have been active in the free-agent market in the past – see Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson and Josh Hamilton – but played it fairly conservative this off-season. Unfortunately, that means it’s unlikely they will move up in the standings.

Still, there is star power in the Angels’ lineup – starting with a pair of future Hall of Famers: CF Mike Trout (.315-29-100, with 30 steals) – who is a perennial MVP candidate and (hard to believe) just 25-years-old – and 37-year-old DH Albert Pujols (.268-31-119), who should pole his 600th home run this season.  These two will likely hold down the three and four spots in the order. The question is, can Pujols, coming off foot surgery, deliver another solid year at age 37?  3B Yunel Escobar (.304-5-39 in 132 games will likely leadoff, but lacks the speed of a typical leadoff hitter (zero steals last season).  C.J. Cron at 1B (.278-16-69, despite missing 30+ games after being hit by a pitch, should provide some protection behind Pujols and Trout. Andrelton Simmons brings Gold Glove skills to the SS position, but his .281 average last year was a career high (career average .261),  He slots in somewhere near the  bottom of the lineup. Flanking Trout in the outfield expect to see newcomer free-agent Cameron Maybin (.315-4-43, 15 steals in 94 games for the Tigers) and Kole Calhoun (.271-18-75), who may be poised for a breakout year. All three offer solid defense. Free-agent Ben Revere, who joins the Angels after an off-year with the Nationals (.217 average versus a career .285 mark) may also see some time in the OF. Free-agent signee Danny Espinosa, who hit just .209 last season for the Nationals, seems slated for 2B, while newcomer Martin Maldanado and returnee Carlos Perez should share catching duties (all three offer more on defense than offense.)  A year ago, the Angels finished tenth in runs scored and there are still too many offensive holes in the lineup to improve.

Angels’ Stat Fact

The Angels had the AL’s fourth-worst ERA a year ago, gave up the league’s fifth-most home runs and struck out the fewest batters.

The rotation is filled with question marks.  Gone from last year’s rotation are Jered Weaver (free agency); Nick Tropeano (Tommy John surgery); and Andrew Heaney (Tommy John surgery).  At the top of the rotation is Garrett Richards – who seems to have avoided Tommy John surgery with stem-cell therapy (key word “seems”) – and went 1-3, 2.34 before being shut down last season (six starts). Richards was a 15-game winner (15-12, 3.65) in 2015, and the Angels are hoping for a healthy 2017.  Matt Shoemaker could deliver quality innings in the number-two slot (9-13, 3.88 last season, with a 3.75 ERA over four seasons). Shoemaker, however, suffered a small/minor skull fracture (Is there such a thing?) when hit by a line drive last September. He will be watched carefully in spring.  It’ll take Spring Training to sort out the remainder of the staff.  Among the leading candidates: Tyler Skaggs (3-4, 4.17), who recorded only ten starts last year, coming back from Tommy John surgery; veteran Rickey Nolasco (8-14, 4.42 for the Twins and Angels); free-agent Jesse Chavez (2-2, 4.43 in 62 relief appearances for the Blue Jays and Dodgers), who has bounced between starter and reliever; and a couple of prospects –  6’9” Alex Meyer (1-3, 6.75 with the Twins and Angels) and Brooks Pounders (2-1, 9.74 with the Royals, but 5-3, 3.14 at Triple A).  Starting pitching may be an issue in LA.

In the pen, it looks like a race between experienced closer Huston Street (at 33-years-old, coming off an injury-shortened season and knee surgery) and closer-in-waiting Cam Bedrosian (2-0, 1.12 in 45 games, with 51 strikeouts in 40 1/3 innings).  Either Street or Bedrosian could serve in a setup role, along with Andrew Baily (3-1, 5.36, but with a 2.38 ERA in 12 appearances after coming over from the Phillies). Other likely occupants of the Angels’ pen include Deolis Guerra (3-0, 3.21 in 44 games); Jose Alvarez (1-3, 3.45 in 64 games): Mike Morin (2-2, 4.37 in 60 games); and J.C, Ramirez (3-4, 4.35 in 70 games).  The bullpen could be a plus for the Halos.

When you look at the holes in the lineup and the questions in the starting rotation, its hard to see the Angels finishing ina top-three spot this season..

A Couple of Players to Watch

People will show up just to see Mike Trout – just 25-years-old and after five full seasons, he’s a: five-time All Star; two-time MVP (including last year); skilled CF; intimidating base runner (30 steals last year, a league-leading 49 in 2012); and a power threat (.306 career average, three seasons of 30 or more home runs). Worth the price of a ticket.

Matt Shoemaker has a solid fastball, good control and a split-finger out pitch. As a rookie, in 2014, he went 16-4, 3.04. He’s been up and down since, but seemed to right himself after a slow start in 2016 – before suffering a head injury (that required surgery) after being hit by a line drive. In the six starts before the injury, he went 4-2, 3.15.  It will be interesting to see how Shoemaker responds after that injury.  If he bounces back, he can make a significant impact on the Angel’s rotation.

Fifth Place – Oakland A’s (72-90)

Ryon Healy photo

Ryon Healy – Angels need his bat in the lineup. Photo by Keith Allison

Oakland scored the fewest runs in the AL last season – and gave up the second-most. They didn’t make enough changes in the off-season to make a big enough difference.

LF Khris Davis was the brightest bulb in the A’s lineup last season, delivering a .247-42-102 season. Unfortunately, the only other current “A” to reach 15 home runs was SS Marcus Semien (.238-27-75).  (Danny Valancia hit 17 dingers for the A’s, but was traded to the Mariners for prospect RHP Paul Blackburn.)  The A’s will look for offense from free-agent 3B Trevor Plouffe (.260-12-47 with Minnesota, but with two 20+ HR campaigns under his belt).  The Plouffe pickup likely will result in Ryon Healy moving over to 1B (he could also see time at 3B and DH). The A’s need the 25-year-old Healy’s bat in the lineup every day. Last season the 25-year-old went .305-13-37 for the A’s, after going .326-14-64 in two minor league stops. When Healy is not at 1B, look for Yonder Alonso (.253-7-56). The OF looks like Khris Davis in left, with free-agent signees Rajai Davis (.249-12-48, 43 steals) in center and Matt Joyce (.242- 13-42) in right.  Mark Canha, who missed most of last season due to a hip injury, may see time in RF as well. In his 2015 rookie season, Canha hit .254, with 16 home runs and 70 RBI.  Canha can also fill in at 1B and DH. Second base sees Jed Lowrie (.263-2-27) returning, but don’t be surprised if the A’s look for ways to squeeze more offense out of the position. Finally, Stephen Vogt should be the number-one catcher.  He hit .251 with decent power (14 home runs) last season.

Three spots seem assured in the A’s rotation, Sonny Gray, Kendall Graveman and Sean Manaea. Gray is the key pitcher.  The former first-round pick suffered through an injury-plagued 2016, going 5-11, 5.69 – as compared to 33-20, 2.88 over his first three seasons.  The A’s need Gray to return to form. Graveman went 10-11, 4.11 in 31 starts and was a steady presence in the rotation. Southpaw Seth Manaea went 7-9, 3.86 for the A’s and has a 16-9, 2.85 ERA record in three minor league seasons.  He may be ready to break out. Over his last six starts of 2016, Manaea went 34 1/3 innings, struck out 32 and gave up only four earned runs.  There’ll be lot of competition for the final two spots. Best bets appear to be Jharel Cotton (2-0, 2.15 in five starts after a September call up) and Andrew Triggs (1-1, 4.31). Others in the mix include Daniel Mengden, Raul Alcantara and Jesse Hahn.  Should be an interesting Spring Training. If things work out, the rotation could be considerably improved.

A’s Stat Facts

Statistics sometimes tell the story.  The A’s scored the fewest runs in the AL last season (653) – and gave up the second most (761) – for a negative 108-run differential (the AL’s second worst). In the AL, only the Twins had a more negative run differential at -167. In the NL, the largest negatives were the Phillies (-186); Reds (–138); Diamondbacks (-138); and Braves (-138). The Cubs, by the way, had the greatest positive run differential at +270. The Red Sox were second at +176,

Ryan Madson (6-7, 3.62, 30 saves) returns as closer – but needs to improve his strikeout rate (his lowest since 2006) and his save percentage (81.1 percent – 13th among the 16 AL pitchers with at least 15 saves). Ryan Dull should be anything but dull as a key setup man. Last season, he went 5-5, 2.42 in 70 appearances, with 73 whiffs in 74 1/3 innings. The A’s will also be counting on two  former closers: Sean Doolittle (2-3, 3.23 in 44 games) and Santiago Casilla (2-5, 3.57 in 62 appearances).  Liam Hendriks and John Axford are also in the picture.

A Couple of Players to Watch

RHP Jharel Cotton looked good after coming over from the Dodgers in the Josh Reddick/Rich Hill trade. He went 2-0, 2.15 in five starts, He was also 3-1, 2.82 at Triple A and 8-5, 4.90 at Double A. Could be a sleeper in the A’s rotation. Side note: At Triple A, in an August 9 game last season – Cotton’s Nashville Sounds versus the Round Rock Express – Cotton came within one out of a nine-inning perfect game. Cotton struck out 12 in the effort.

If he gets the call, watch for Matt Chapman. The 23-year-old infielder (3B) hit only .237 at two minor league stops last season, but delivered 36 home runs and 96 RBI.  If he can develop a bit more plate discipline (173 K’s last year), he could move up.

Coming Soon:  NL Preview

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