2018 is shaping up to be a unique year in the American League. Teams that were recently postseason contenders appear to be taking steps backwards. The race for the 1st overall draft pick next June could be more contested than the race for a playoff spot. While this may be concerning to fans of competitive baseball, fans of the Blue Jays should be thrilled at the potential vacuum in the AL Wild Card race.
The Orioles haven’t gotten any better and will be without closer Zach Britton to start the season. The Rays traded Evan Longoria and speculation is that a starting pitcher will be next. The Rangers will field a decent lineup with a pitching staff held together by surgical tape and hope. The Mariners have been extremely busy but on paper haven’t moved the needle enough. The Royals, Tigers and White Sox are all rebuilding and the Athletics are, well, still the Athletics.
The Jays’ road to a Wild Card spot looks surprisingly straight forward. Don’t mistake that to mean it’s going to be easy – winning baseball games never is. But the gap between the haves and have nots is sizeable, and there are a lot more teams in that latter group. This is to the Blue Jays’ advantage.
For my money, the Yankees are the team to beat in the AL East. They might even be the team to beat in the entire league. It’s possible the Blue Jays fair well head-to-head against them this season. After all, they did win 10 of 19 in 2017. But unless Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge get abducted by aliens, the chance of the Jays actually winning the division is slim to none.
As for the Red Sox, the common thinking is that they’ll be neck and neck in the division race. But maybe there’s a scenario in which they’re closer to the Blue Jays in the standings than they are to the Yankees. The projections right now don’t agree with this, but I’ll make the argument in spite of that.
First, let’s look at the FanGraphs AL projections.
|Fangraphs Projected AL Standings, 2018|
|Source: http://www.fangraphs.com/depthcharts.aspx?position=Standings as of February 6th
RDiff = Run differential
* Division winners ^ Wild Card winners
The reason I think the Yankees can outperform their projections is the bullpen. Loading up on elite relievers to dominate in high leverage situations helped propel the Kansas City Royals to two World Series berths, despite their lukewarm projections those years. And the Yankees are in line to have one of the most ridiculous bullpens ever.
Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Dellin Betances and Chad Green could all be closers on other teams. Behind them are Adam Warren (2.35 ERA and 3.02 FIP last year) and Chasen Shreve (3.77 ERA and 11.5 K/9 last season). That’s the Yankees bullpen. It’s not fair, and they’re going to be the difference in a lot of close games this year.
The acquisition of Sonny Gray and the emergence of Jordan Montgomery help offset the injury risks with Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia in the rotation.
Each of the teams likely to be involved in the postseason race after the Yankees, Indians and Astros has a weakness. The Blue Jays’ biggest question marks are the veterans staying healthy and starting pitching depth. But there is enough upside on the roster to make life difficult for their rivals. And in my estimation, the number of rivals might only be two: The Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels.
The Angels Improved, Sort Of
The Angels announced their intent to compete early in the offseason, re-signing Justin Upton. Then they had Shohei Ohtani fall into their lap, which was the impetus to keep making improvements. Ian Kinsler and Zack Cozart followed, via trade and free agency respectively. Those were two significant additions considering there were replacement level starters pencilled in at second and third base. Combine Kinsler’s projected 2.4 WAR and Cozart’s projected 3.3 WAR and that’s like adding a superstar to a team.
The lineup’s in good shape, and the addition of Ohtani means the below-replacement level Albert Pujols could see more time on the bench. But where Ohtani will make the biggest impact is in a rotation that has performed horribly over the past two seasons. Their starter’s 11.6 WAR ranks last in the AL since 2016. Their 1749 total innings ranks 3rd fewest and 94 wins are 2nd lowest. The biggest problem has been the health, or lack thereof, of their most talented pitchers.
This is the Angels’ weakness, and it’s a big one.
But just ask the Baltimore Orioles if a team can overcome a bad starting rotation. A strong bullpen and powerful offence have carried teams before and it’s what the Angels are probably hoping for in 2018. To wit:
#Angels appear to be top Wild Card competition for #BlueJays. Just a reminder, # of starts made by current rotations, past 2 years:
— Blue Jays Beat (@bluejaysbeat) January 12, 2018
Garrett Richards can be an ace if he’s healthy, but that’s been a big “if” in the past. Tyler Skaggs is projected by Steamer to pitch 154 innings, something he hasn’t done in a calendar year since 2011. Ohtani is projected to start 24 games, which would tie his 5-year career high in the Japanese League from 2014. Shoemaker is the only starter who has pitched a full season, but it took him two years to do so. That’s hardly ideal, and he is projected to pitch just 120 innings due to forearm surgery for a nerve issue.
Of course the Angels could, and should, sign one of the top free agents like Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish. But as of today they haven’t.
If that starting five can’t cut it for 162 games, the Angels’ depth leaves a lot to be desired. J.C. Ramirez suffered an elbow injury and his status is still unclear. Alex Meyer is out after shoulder surgery. Nick Tropeano missed all of last year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Parker Bridwell emerged in 2017 with a 3.64 ERA in 21 games (20 of which were starts) but his 5.07 xFIP and 5.4 K/9 indicate that his results were a mirage. Beyond that, they’d be poaching from a weak collection of minor league pitchers.
All in all, the Angels’ rotation is one big, wonky elbow ligament. And it could be their undoing if no further additions are made.
The Red Sox Really Need J.D. Martinez
Boston’s lineup was surprisingly poor in 2017, posting a 92 wRC+ (3rd lowest in AL) and a .407 slugging percentage (2nd lowest). Lack of power was clearly an issue, as evidenced by an AL-worst .149 isolated power mark. So the Martinez rumours make a lot of sense.
If they can’t land Martinez they’ll surely need Mookie Betts to return to his MVP-caliber level and 21 year old Rafael Devers to do what he did in 58 games over a full season. And how will a 34 year old Hanley Ramirez perform after shoulder surgery?
Their bullpen is anchored by one of the best in the game, Craig Kimbrel. Matt Barnes and Joe Kelly are good options behind Kimbrel but Heath Hembree, Carson Smith and Brian Johnson might not be enough to form a dominant pen. The group’s -0.38 difference between ERA and FIP was the second largest gap in the AL last year and it’s possible some regression is in store.
The Red Sox are hoping that David Price isn’t the most expensive relief pitcher in history. His 4.45 xFIP and 3.0 BB/9 as a starter last year were very out of character for him but arm injuries do have consequences.
Rick Porcello has been the definition of a workhorse. But his ballpark & league-adjusted 107 FIP- last year was the worst since his 2009 rookie season. His 38.3% hard hit rate was, by far, a career high. A normally-excellent curveball was hammered last year to a .478 SLG and 123 wRC+. His secondary pitches took a step back. The metrics showed they had less break and consequently hitters were able to do more against them.
Steven Wright and Eduardo Rodriguez are coming off knee surgeries. Drew Pomeranz saw a pretty significant velocity drop near the end of last season that must be somewhat concerning. After those six, they’ve got Roenis Elias, Hector Velazquez, Justin Haley and William Cuevas with major league service time at AAA, according to Roster Resource.
Much has been made of the Blue Jays’ lack of starting depth, but a closer look reveals that the Red Sox may have issues of their own.
The Mariners and Twins Still Need Improvements
Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto hasn’t been shy about making additions, which include Dee Gordon this offseason and Mike Leake last August. These moves won’t move the needle enough though. More should be done to compensate for a suddenly old looking Felix Hernandez and a gradually older looking Robinson Cano.
The pressure will be on Canadian native James Paxton to continue pitching like an ace. Closer Edwin Diaz had a concerning late season swoon that saw him lose the zone. Both pitchers are key pieces of a staff without many other big names.
The Twins, meanwhile, feel like a team primed for regression. Perhaps that’s not entirely fair. But they did play more like an 81 win team than an 85 win team last year. Miguel Sano has denied an allegation of sexual assault by a local photographer but may still face suspension. Commissioner Rob Manfred has handed down bans to other players in similar situations. (It’s worth noting that the aforementioned Steven Wright of the Red Sox is facing a domestic violence allegation of his own. Although reports are that it will be dismissed.) And while the on-field results pale in comparison to the off-field realities of such serious allegations, losing Sano for a lengthy period of time would probably affect the Twins’ record.
There’s Fernando Rodney, who was signed this winter with an agreement to be the closer. But he has a penchant for making save opportunities needlessly eventful and will be 41 years old (There have been only three pitchers 41 and older in the last 10 seasons to save more than 20 games). They may be relying on newly signed Addison Reed to finish games, curiously acquired after Rodney was promised the closer’s gig. This storyline is fraught with potential drama, and will be one to watch as the season unfolds.
Can Ervin Santana continue beating his FIP by almost 1.2 runs? Likely not, as his .245 average on balls in play from 2017 is probably due for regression. That would leave youngster Jose Berrios with the responsibility of becoming the team’s ace, which he is capable of doing. But that horrific 2016 debut didn’t seem as distant when his in-zone contact and hard hit rates took a dive in 2017’s second half.
Joe Mauer will be 35 years old and has seen his power completely dry up. While he may be destined for Cooperstown one day he’s no longer a good run producer. Eddie Rosario‘s emergence last year makes that easier to stomach, but if Sano misses a good chunk of time due to suspension, the Twins lineup will lack some bite. Byron Buxton, Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco have offensive upside but are unlikely to match other AL teams’ middle-of-the-order bats.
The game isn’t played on paper, they say. The 2017 Twins are proof of that. But in early February there is no game, so paper will have to suffice. I’m not arrogant enough to think the preceding exercise trumps the refined, mathematical projection systems. They’re probably right that the Red Sox are great, the Angels are really good, and the Jays are just pretty good. But projection systems come with an accepted margin of error and it’s not unheard of for a team to over- or under-perform by several wins.
For better or worse, the Blue Jays will live or die with the performance of veterans like Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki, Kendrys Morales, Justin Smoak, Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ. While age is not on their side, they have proven to be good players in the past. Some as recently as last year.
The San Francisco Giants also demonstrated that teams still believe in older players. They parted with prospects from an already-weak farm system to acquire 31-year old Andrew McCutchen and 32-year old Evan Longoria to anchor their lineup. Whether Ross Atkins wants to or not, he has similarly aged players as key components of his own lineup. The fact that he’s been active this offseason in adding major league caliber players, suggests to me that he’s confident in the core, and still believes in their upside.
That may not come as welcomed news to Jays fans who wish for a rebuild. But there’s enough here to make one more postseason push, especially with former MVP Josh Donaldson on the roster. And with only two teams potentially standing in their way of a Wild Card spot this year, the road to October baseball may not be this accessible again for a while.
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