In honor of the 2016 Major League Baseball season, which starts Sunday, FiveThirtyEight is assembling some of our favorite baseball writers to chat about the year to come. Today, we focus on the American League East with Sports Illustrated senior editor Emma Span and ESPN analyst Dan Szymborski. The transcript below has been edited.
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): All right — the AL East is perennially one of the most competitive divisions in baseball, but the balance of power has shifted a bit away from the classic Yankees-Red Sox rivalry in recent years. Do we think that will persist this year with Toronto winning again, or do we have reason to think New York and especially Boston will return to their former glories?
dszymborski: Well, both teams have a plausible case to contention, though either could come off the rails very quickly. I think it’s truer than ever that there are no great AL East teams or even any great AL teams, period.
emmaspan: I’d agree with Dan that the AL East is pretty wide open. It wouldn’t shock me to see any of these teams squeak into a wild-card spot. And I believe SI’s preseason predictions for the AL East last year ended up being an exact inversion of the final standings. So everyone should definitely listen to me.
dszymborski: The nice thing about the “all teams are plausible!” prediction is that people end up having to be less specific in their anger at me by the time the season ends.
emmaspan: I think Boston will be pretty good this year, although to be fair, I also thought that last year, and, well. But I think the race is likelier to be between the Red Sox and the Blue Jays than the Yankees. All three of those teams have a lot of question marks in their rotations, but I think the Sox and Jays have lineups that can cover for a lot of that, and I’m not sure I’d say the same for New York.
Toronto Blue Jays
neil: Well, let’s talk about the team that won the division last year, the Blue Jays. They were arguably the best team in baseball last season (sorry, Royals), but neither FanGraphs nor Baseball Prospectus’s projections think they’re the frontrunners this season. What do we think? Was last year their peak, or can they be as good this time around?
emmaspan: The Blue Jays are my pick to win the division this year. Like last year, their lineup should be terrifying, but their rotation is less steady than you’d like. They’ll miss David Price. But when you can outscore everyone on the planet like that, it makes up for a lot.
dszymborski: I think they come back to earth a bit. Not a lot went wrong last year. They’ll score a ton of runs, but there’s certainly some downside risk there. Though they’re still competitive, like the rest of the AL East.
emmaspan: Even assuming that Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion won’t all have 40-HR seasons like last year, they can still bludgeon a lot of pitchers. They should also have a full year of Marcus Stroman, which could be huge (though I do worry a little about putting so much pressure on a kid who only had five starts last year).
I covered the Blue Jays in the playoffs last year, including that crazy ALDS Game 5, and it was something else. I actually might be overestimating them a little because of how insane that moment was.
neil: It was an incredible moment. But at that stage of the season, they’d also been buoyed by deadline pickups (in addition to actually playing to their run differential). Do they need to go out and get pieces again?
emmaspan: I think they need a pitcher. Though there probably won’t be another David Price lying around.
dszymborski: And even if there was, trading for a second David Price is tough.
emmaspan: Yes. And their new GM has expressed reluctance to make those huge moves, which I know has some Jays fans worried.
dszymborski: Yeah, say that the Nats are terrible and Stephen Strasburg is available. That’s all well and good, but it will be harder for the Jays to come up with another trade package in 2016.
emmaspan: But one other thing in their favor — their offense was that good without Troy Tulowitzki hitting very well. He’ll help their defense regardless, but if he can return to even kinda his usual form, that’s huge. Even if you don’t get another ace at the deadline, even just a solid mid-rotation guy can be enough when you score 18 runs per game. (Slight exaggeration.)
neil: Only slight.
emmaspan: They also could use another reliable bullpen arm or two, I think. That might be easier to come by.
dszymborski: But they have the mid-rotation guys. It’s the ace-type that you can confidently start six times in the playoffs they don’t have.
emmaspan: I think Stroman can be that guy, though they’ll want to watch his innings this year.
dszymborski: It’s a lot to put on a guy who just came back from one injury.
emmaspan: Also, I personally am ready for the R.A. Dickey renaissance. Is it likely? OK, no. But it would be wonderful and you never fucking know with knuckleballers. (Please feel free to edit out my profanity — I get very worked up about knuckleballs.)
neil: Profanity is fine, but only in the context of knuckleball pitchers.
dszymborski: Dickey hasn’t been disappointing even, just not super inspiring: a slightly above-average pitcher that never misses a start. He’s also only 41 — he can be around for another decade or so.
emmaspan: Right, but I vividly remember his Cy Young season for the Mets. That was crazy fun.
dszymborski: That mid-year stretch when nobody scored on him ever!
emmaspan: And he had a few great starts last year, too, if I recall correctly. It’s still in there, somewhere, maybe!
dszymborski: 2.80 second-half ERA!
emmaspan: There you go. In my mind the AL Cy Young is already sewn up. Everyone else can go home.
neil: You said it, Emma — you never (fucking) know with guys like that. But barring some kind of Dickey renaissance, the Jays’ only really question mark is the rotation, it seems. Emma said she’s picking Toronto as favorites; what say ye, Dan?
dszymborski: Slightly picking Red Sox. But again, this is a year in which I can just project everybody to have a fun time.
emmaspan: Red Sox were a close second for me. We pretty much agree, which means this is probably the Rays’ year.
Boston Red Sox
neil: You guys sound high on the Red Sox, despite the last-place finish a year ago. How much of that is the offseason additions (David Price, Craig Kimbrel, etc.) and how much is simply the guys who had down seasons a year ago bouncing back in some way, shape or form?
dszymborski: I’m slightly higher on them than the Yankees. I actually picked them as very slight division favorites, but a lot can still go wrong.
emmaspan: The latter, for me — the Red Sox played much better the second half of last year than the first. It looked like things were starting to come together. And any time you can add a durable (so far) ace like Price, it’s a big boost.
dszymborski: Hard to go wrong signing David Price!
emmaspan: I don’t think Hanley Ramirez or Pablo Sandoval will necessarily return to form, but if they can just be decent, there’s still a lot to like in that lineup.
dszymborski: Ramirez at least seems to have more buy-in about playing first base. I urged people not to overrate how good he’d be in left field, but I didn’t see that disaster coming. I’m less optimistic on Sandoval. It was such a strange pair of signings. Third base was the logical reason to sign either Hanley or Sandoval going into last winter, but then they signed both.
emmaspan: I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic about Sandoval, either, but last year was his worst ever and he’s still only 29, so I don’t think a return to (at least) mediocrity is out of the question. But yeah, those were strange moves even at the time. Personally, I will miss the sheer adventure of Hanley in left. A real adrenaline rush.
dszymborski: I think the GM change is good for the Red Sox not just because of any managerial issue, just because it’s easier to walk away from various Sandoval/Ramirez experiments if they go poorly. Dave Dombrowski has nothing personally invested in Sandoval’s contract working out.
emmaspan: That “if” is very generous of you.
dszymborski: I’m a sunny optimist.
neil: Yeah, I wanted to ask about the regime change there — Dombrowski is demonstrably one of the best GMs in baseball, but what is he going to do to succeed where Ben Cherington failed? And what do we make of that story where John Henry backed away from sabermetrics a bit as a guiding strategy?
emmaspan: We’ll obviously have to see how it plays out, but I think the John Henry quotes got a little overblown — I think what he was saying is that they want to use a good mixture of analytics and scouting, which at this point is hardly controversial. Or shouldn’t be.
dszymborski: Yeah. His comments also came at a slow time in the news cycle, so they got blown up a bit. Though Ruben Amaro and their “secret analytics” was highly entertaining for a few days.
emmaspan: One of the most fun aspects of SI’s baseball season preview every year is we talk to a bunch of scouts, anonymously, about every team. They have some really fascinating (and funny) insights that you don’t get from even the best statistical analysis — but, of course, they also are spectacularly wrong sometimes. The Red Sox obviously did very well by sabermetrics and I don’t see them tossing it over the side. Almost all the best teams in baseball right now are teams that have done a good job balancing those perspectives.
dszymborski: It used to be you had a serious divide between teams using data well and teams that don’t. That’s so much not the case these days.
emmaspan: One thing to watch with Dombrowski is how much freedom he gets from ownership. That was an issue with Cherington, apparently, at several key points in his tenure.
dszymborski: Yeah, he never really had the political capital that Theo Epstein did.
emmaspan: You can be the best GM in the world, but if the owners insist that you hire Bobby Valentine, well …
neil: Fair enough. So if Red Sox fans had any reason to panic, it should be more about maybe, say, the back end of that rotation than any grand shift in organization direction.
emmaspan: Yes, although ownership meddling is something to be wary of in that and other areas.
dszymborski: As organizations have more complex management structures and ownership groups continue to get more involved, I think chalking moves up to a specific GM isn’t as useful as it once was.
New York Yankees
neil: All right, let’s move on to the Yankees. According to the numbers, at least, they might be the most underrated team in baseball — which I never thought I’d actually hear a Yankee team described as.
dszymborski: One surprising — and positive — thing about New York is just how young its good pitching is. I do this thing called “contribution age,” in which I weight a team’s age by its projected WAR, and the Yankees actually have the second-youngest pitching staff based on where they’re getting the value from (slightly behind the Mets).
emmaspan: Do you think those young guys are ready, Dan? Luis Severino did look really strong last year, but small sample size and all that.
dszymborski: Oh, I’m frightened by the downside, but a lot of the contributions that they’re going to get will need to be from those young/youngish guys. I’m bullish on Severino especially, simply because he’s one of the few starters that actually has his arm completely intact.
emmaspan: Speaking of which, I worry about Michael Pineda staying healthy. I mean, also every other pitcher in the league, but Pineda has a long list of injury issues.
neil: Masahiro Tanaka, too, has his own injury history as well.
emmaspan: A good chunk of the Yankees’ season probably hangs on Tanaka’s elbow, which is pretty precarious. And I think at CC Sabathia‘s age, it’s unlikely he’ll get back to his top form, which is too bad, because he was enormously fun to watch.
dszymborski: He was one of the great hopes for the next 300-game winner for a while, too. Watching his ZiPS career projection for wins come down year after year is very depressing. It peaked at 274 five years ago. Now it’s down to 231.
emmaspan: Aw, CC. At least it sounds like he’s in a good place off the field and that’s great.
neil: But is it fair to say the Yankees will probably once again be somewhere between OK and pretty decent on both the runs scored and allowed fronts? That was their formula last season, but it fell short of what are always the ravenous expectations in the Bronx.
dszymborski: That seems about right. It’s an old risky team that can still patch together enough of a run to remain solid.
emmaspan: That’s what I think. Their lineup is still overly reliant on old (by baseball standards) players but they shored it up a bit this offseason. I think it’ll be serviceable, and like the last few years, probably enough to put them in contention for a wild card. Money can’t buy you a championship, but it can keep you from totally sucking.
dszymborski: I find using “old” a more loaded term these days, given how quickly baseball is running out of players that are older than I am.
emmaspan: You should love the Yankees, then, Dan. Speaking of old, I thought for sure A-Rod would be cooked last year, but he was one of their best players. Is there any way he manages that again?
dszymborski: I think he could. The question before last year was whether, after injuries and missing a year, he’d be able to do it at all. That he did it once should make us slightly more optimistic.
neil: A-Rod’s regression potential, though, is another limiting factor for that lineup that probably keeps them more “OK” than “great.”
dszymborski: Some of the issues in the offense would look less urgent if not for the Greg Bird injury.
emmaspan: Yeah, not a great idea to go in without a good Mark Teixeira backup plan.
neil: And what do we make of this bullpen Death Star they’ve built when Aroldis Chapman returns from suspension?
emmaspan: It could make up for some of those rotation question marks — you don’t need to rely on length from that group of starters. For me, it would be more fun to watch if their buy-low on Chapman while he was under investigation for domestic violence hadn’t been so discouraging. But yes, from a pure baseball perspective, it’ll still be a spectacle.
One of the more impressive aspects of the Yankees’ recent history is that for all their issues, they’ve done a good job replacing Mariano Rivera, which is a tall order. None of these guys are Mo, don’t get me wrong, but the bullpen hasn’t really been one of their problems.
Tampa Bay Rays
neil: Maybe the real wild card in this division (not literally the AL Wild Card, just the figure of speech — although maybe the literal Wild Card, too) is the Tampa Bay Rays. PECOTA is picking them to win the division, on the strength of a really outlier-ish fielding performance. What do you think? Are the Rays back?
dszymborski: Yeah, ZiPS had the opposite: Rays at 80-82.
neil: I think most other sources were more in line with ZiPS. Vegas pegged them with an over/under of 78 wins.
emmaspan: I don’t think the Rays are back quite yet, but they’re better, and if a few things went right for them, the Wild Card is pretty realistic. I do think they’ll have good defense (Kevin Kiermaier by himself is basically a good defense), and potentially a strong rotation.
dszymborski: Yeah, it could happen for sure. They’re a non-terrible team in a wide-open division.
emmaspan: I just don’t see them hitting enough. But a few surprise performances and a couple of trades and who knows?
dszymborski: You’re really seeing some of the effects of their recent drafts not bearing fruit yet. Only a single drafted Ray since David Price in 2007 has five WAR in the majors: Kiermaier.
emmaspan: I’m pretty fascinated to see if Kiermaier’s insane defensive stats hold up. I mean, he’s obviously an excellent, excellent centerfielder — but worth five wins on defense alone?
dszymborski: There’s gotta be some regression on that. Defensive stats are just so volatile. But even at +15, he’s a valuable player.
emmaspan: Yeah, generally you take a single season of defensive stats with large grains of salt. That said, you watch him field, and he really is awesome. Obligatory plug — check out last week’s issue of SI for more on Kiermaier and his crazy centerfielding.
dszymborski: I prefer “centerfieldery.” Sounds better after “feats of.”
emmaspan: You’re right. Let’s go with “crazy feats of centerfieldery.” I won’t tell the SI copy desk if you don’t.
neil: But it sounds like you both are somewhat skeptical of that +56 fielding runs above average PECOTA is spitting out for Tampa. Do they have much of a plausible path to the division crown if that doesn’t end up happening? Looking at the rest of their roster, it doesn’t seem like there’s enough else there.
dszymborski: To establish +56 as a baseline, you gotta do it longer. (It’s like projecting Bonds in his 73-homer season. Even though he did hit 73, you probably shouldn’t have projected it beforehand.) And without that +56, it’s tougher for the Rays. But remember, I don’t see them being quite that good defensively and still think there’s a path — just not the most likely one.
emmaspan: Right. I don’t think it’s likely but, again, it wouldn’t be shocking. Chris Archer is awesome. Matt Moore’s looked great. I think Drew Smyly can be good. Combine a really good rotation with very good fielding — even if it isn’t +56 fielding runs above average — and stranger things have happened.
neil: In fairness, I should also say their catchers — specifically, Hank Conger and René Rivera — are really good framers. So some of that is being factored into PECOTA.
emmaspan: Evan Longoria going back to his star levels would go a long way towards helping. I don’t know how likely that is. And even if it did, I still think they need a couple bats. But I don’t think they’re far away from contending.
dszymborski: No, just need some things to go right. Like when you don’t want to do your homework and there’s a 40 percent chance of snow in the forecast.
neil: You guys have just told me why any of the Jays, Red Sox, Yankees or Rays could win this division without anything too crazy happening. Does it stand to reason that Baltimore, who won this division as recently as two years ago, also fits that description?
dszymborski: Pretty much. Although there’s something depressing about the fact that the Os had to increase their payroll to $150 million just to essentially maintain last year’s roster. (Which went 81-81.)
emmaspan: They would surprise me the most of any AL East team, but even for them I would say they still have a shot. They’re gonna clobber a ton of home runs. That pitching, though.
neil: The rotation looks especially shaky.
dszymborski: It’s essentially four soft-tossing righties and Kevin Gausman, who they spent all of last year trying to use in the most awkward way imaginable.
emmaspan: We did a big article on Jake Arrieta this week. Between what he said about his time in Baltimore and what the scout we talked to said about Gausman, yikes. Developing pitching prospects is risky for any team, but the Orioles desperately need to break this pattern.
dszymborski: I think the Os lead the league in home runs, go 81-81, and the organization can’t quite figure out why.
emmaspan: Their path to success is similar to last year’s Jays: out-slug all comers. But, again, for the Jays that involved picking up one of the best pitchers in baseball at the deadline, and that’s a tall order.
dszymborski: Baltimore’s closer to a rebuild than any of the other AL East teams, I think. The farm’s dried up, they can’t increase payroll any more, and Manny Machado’s only got three years to free agency now.
emmaspan: I feel awful for Orioles fans if the team doesn’t extend Machado and he goes elsewhere. Oof.
dszymborski: I’m from Baltimore! I’m slowly coming to terms that he’s signing somewhere else for $300 million.
emmaspan: I do think they have kind of a secret weapon in Buck Showalter, who can win you a few extra one-run games. And Yovani Gallardo should be pretty solid. It’s not an inspiring signing, but it’s something.
dszymborski: Despite the doom and gloom, they do have a playoff scenario. It’s just that they’re going to have to face some tough questions quicker than the others.
emmaspan: Your 2015 Baltimore Orioles: “Well, It’s Something.”
neil: Better or worse than “Why Not?”
dszymborski: I know the whole “Why Not?” song. I had the 1989 team video on VHS. It also included a Mickey Tettleton version of “I Love Mickey.”
emmaspan: Oh my gosh. I changed my mind: Orioles are going all the way this year.
neil: So, to recap: slight edge to the Jays, but maybe the Red Sox, Yankees or even the Rays … And the Orioles will either finish last or recapture the spirit of ’89 in song and performance.
emmaspan: That about sums it up on my end.
dszymborski: Seems like a reasonable wrapup. And hi, Nate. I see you typing.
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Thanks, Dan and Emma!
emmaspan: Hi Nate! [waves]
natesilver: Was gonna say that we really need to work on an oral history of the 1991 Detroit Tigers: Tettleton + Fielder + Deer + Incaviglia = AWESOME.
neil: Save it for the AL Central chat, Nate. :)
emmaspan: And don’t give me any ideas you don’t want me to steal.
Ben Lindbergh joins the Hot Takedown podcast to preview the 2016 MLB season.