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The AL East Won’t Be About The Yankees-Red Sox Rivalry This Year

In honor of the 2017 Major League Baseball season, which starts April 2, FiveThirtyEight is assembling some of our favorite baseball writers to chat about what’s ahead. Today, we focus on the American League East with Sports Illustrated senior baseball editor Emma Span and baseball writer Dan Szymborski. The transcript below has been edited.

1 Boston Red Sox 87 91 84 93 88.8
2 Toronto Blue Jays 81 86 83 85 83.8
3 Tampa Bay Rays 85 83 80 79 81.8
4 New York Yankees 82 81 78 84 81.3
5 Baltimore Orioles 74 81 78 80 78.3
How forecasters view the AL East

Based on projected wins or over/under win totals. Data gathered on March 27, 2017.

Sources: Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs, Clay Davenport, Las Vegas Review-Journal

neil: Hey folks! Welcome to the chat.

emmaspan: Who’s ready to be wrong about some baseball? I know I am!

neil: Let’s be wrong in order of the table above, starting with the Red Sox …


emmaspan: Well, I’m guessing this is one we all agree on. The Red Sox have to be everyone’s clear favorite, right?

dszymborski: I’d like to be contrary, but I don’t see the “in” here. The Red Sox have the best roster in the division.

neil: Yep, they were a team that finally unleashed their potential with 93 wins in 2016. And they might be even better in 2017, considering:

  1. They undershot their Pythagorean expectation by 5 wins.
  2. They also had bad cluster luck.
  3. They went out and added Chris Sale.

dszymborski: It’s hard to quibble. Sale’s terrific, even though I’m constantly annoyed by his ability to eat 6,000 calories a day and retain his Gumby physique.

emmaspan: David Price’s elbow is maybe the only obvious concern, because when you hear about a pitcher and elbow pain, it’s almost never better than you think it will be. But I think that even if he did get injured, they’d still be the best team in the East.

neil: Yeah, what do we make of Price’s 2016 anyway? He had his worst ERA since 2009, but his peripherals were mostly OK. If he stays healthy, does that HR rate regress?

emmaspan: Yeah, I’m a David Price fan, and I think he wasn’t as bad last year as people thought. Not as good as anyone was hoping for, obviously, but it’s not like he collapsed completely. But again, any time the words “elbow” and “Dr. James Andrews” come up about any pitcher …

neil: Not good.

dszymborski: Typhoid Jimmy.

emmaspan: The Angel of UCL Death.

neil: If there’s one area where Boston might regress, do you think it’s that starters Rick Porcello and Steven Wright might be due for a correction? (Both had career years in 2016.) Or am I looking for weaknesses where there are none?

dszymborski: Porcello is funny. My projection system, ZiPS, thought his contract extension was bang-on and I doubted it, so my PC locked me out of all my programs.

neil: And then taunted you like Newman in Jurassic Park.

dszymborski: The thing about Porcello is, even though he’s obviously not a baseline Cy Young winner, his peripherals in Detroit were excellent through most of his time there. 2016 was closer to his real level of ability when he doesn’t have the Tigers infield behind him.

emmaspan: I don’t think Porcello will be a Cy Young contender again, but they don’t need him to be the ace now that Sale is there. They just need him to be solid.

neil: OK, so then we have to talk about that world-beating offense from last year, which scored 12 percent more runs per game than any other AL team. They’re losing Big Papi, but is that enough reason to think they won’t go crazy again?

dszymborski: Losing Ortiz’s 2016 production is a pretty big deal. Now, they’d likely have lost a lot of that even if he returned, but you can’t lose 600 PAs of an OPS over 1.000, bring in Mitch Moreland and expect there to be no consequences.

Top prospect Andrew Benintendi helps, but there aren’t a lot of players on the offense you expect to do better than they did in 2016. They’ll still be an excellent offense, of course — I just don’t see them with a 100-run lead on the rest of the league.

emmaspan: Agree that they’ll feel the loss — Ortiz had the best final season of all time. But they should still be good. That outfield is so talented and so young, it’s nuts.

dszymborski: I hope their choreographed dances become more and more complex.

neil: It seems likely that Boston will become the East’s first repeat winner since 2012. But how do they stop what happened against Cleveland in the playoffs from thwarting them again? (For what it’s worth, they’re still behind the Indians in terms of AL pennant odds, according to both Vegas and FanGraphs.)

dszymborski: Boring answer: Just win the games.

emmaspan: They’re set up as well as anyone to beat the Indians, but I don’t know that there’s anything you can do to have better luck in a seven-game series. Just make sure you get there and hope for the best.

neil: OK. Now let’s shift focus to the Blue Jays, who seem like a team in a weird place. They had the oldest team in MLB in 2016, and they lost the ALCS in back-to-back seasons — do they have a chance to finally get over the hump this year, or is this window closing fast?

dszymborski: Window’s closing, but I don’t think this is the year it shuts. Departed DH Edwin Encarnacion was good, but just how good he was can be overstated a bit.

neil: But he was better than, say, Kendrys Morales, right?

dszymborski: Sure. But it’s not like they’re losing Josh Donaldson. It’s maybe two wins.

emmaspan: It’s taking me a while to adjust to this new reality where 40 HRs aren’t as valuable as I’m used to thinking they are.

dszymborski: Watch the ball suddenly be dead this year.

emmaspan: I still think the Jays have an edge on the non-Boston AL East teams, but last year I thought they were World Series contenders and I’m not sure I see it this year. That said, their pitching was even better than I expected it to be.

dszymborski: They got nothing from the bench last year, and Troy Tulowitzki has some upside left. And there are reasons for optimism in their pitching. Not that they’re likely to win the AL East, but 85 to 88 wins or so is a real contender for a playoff spot.

neil: Let’s talk about that rotation … It still looks deep on paper, though they’ve also relied on the second-most innings pitched from starters of any team over the past 2 seasons.

emmaspan: I worry a little bit about Marcus Stroman’s jump to 200 innings last year.

dszymborski: I think expecting fewer innings from Stroman can be balanced somewhat by him pitching a bit better. And I’m cautiously optimistic about Francisco Liriano. He really dropped that walk rate going back to the AL last year, and that kind of thing tends to stabilize very quickly.

emmaspan: And Aaron Sanchez was legit in his first season as a full-time starter. Killer sinker, still just 24 years old.

neil: Toronto might need all of your collective optimism on the pitching front, because the offense doesn’t seem as high-octane as we might expect from the names on the lineup card. They finished 8th in the AL in OPS+ last year, and that was with Donaldson continuing to play at near-MVP levels.

emmaspan: I think Jose Bautista will be better this year, assuming he stays healthy. His injury last year cost him a TON of money.

neil: Bautista seems kind of emblematic of this whole lineup: “Gosh, I really hope this over-30 hitter can post huge numbers! Otherwise we might be in trouble.”

dszymborski: At least the idea isn’t that deluded. Bautista has a reasonable shot to hit better than he did last year. If that doesn’t happen, Toronto’s window could slam shut surprisingly quickly.

emmaspan: Thirty-year-old Donaldson was as good as ever last year, too. But I agree they’re not as deep as the Red Sox, plus they’re older, so there’s less room for error. And I don’t know what Tulo has left. But if he were to put up a vintage season, they’re a whole different team.

dszymborski: Yeah, if Joey Bats, Morales, Tulo, etc., don’t bounce back, the ceiling on this team comes down hard. Yet that same group is a source of upside that could make them surprise us and be a 94-win team or something.

neil: Let’s move on to the Rays, who are a surprising third in the projections. There’s probably reason for more optimism than last year’s 68-win record would suggest: They deserved 77 wins according to Pythagoras, and they had bad cluster luck, too. But they also have a history of underperforming these kinds of projections. Do we trust that last year was a fluky down year, or is Tampa Bay overrated by the numbers?

dszymborski: ZiPS is positive. They do have considerable upside on their team and some ready young pitching. PECOTA wasn’t wrong in liking the Rays last year — maybe just a year or two ahead of things.

emmaspan: For me, the rest of this division is pretty much a clump of mediocrity. I wouldn’t be surprised at any order of finish between the Rays, Yankees and O’s.

dszymborski: There’s no actual bad team in this division.

emmaspan: The Rays’ pitching should be good, but it would probably help to have more than two good hitters.

neil: Yeah, in that lineup they’ve got Kevin Kiermaier, Evan Longoria and … what else, exactly? Brad Miller? A bounce-back year from Matt Duffy?

dszymborski: They have real offensive problems at the traditional offense-heavy spots. That’s going to put a limit on just how many runs they can score. And to really hit their upside as a team, they’re going to have to at least have a good offense, because the pitching is unlikely to be able to carry the team that high singlehandedly.

emmaspan: That was a very nice way of saying “Logan Morrison is their first baseman,” Dan.

dszymborski: Morrison, Steven Souza, Corey Dickerson and Colby Rasmus are just an uninspiring group to have on the offensive side of the defensive spectrum.

neil: Maybe the bigger thing for the Rays is that the hallmarks of the Andrew Friedman/Joe Maddon era are eroding. They used to have MLB’s best defense; now it’s just average. And 2016 saw their fewest homegrown WAR since 2006. That’s tough when you also have the lowest payroll in MLB.

emmaspan: The scout Sports Illustrated talked to for its preview issue was extreeeeeemely down on Tampa: “The Rays are like a mini-Baltimore, but without the closer and their bullpen is dreadful.” “They’re going to have to pitch their brains out.” “Let’s put it this way — they’re counting on Colby Rasmus.”

I’m not as down on them as he was, but it’s tough for me to see them challenging Boston or Toronto.

neil: Is time running out for Chris Archer to deliver on his superstar potential? He was supposed to break out last year, but just ended up being average.

dszymborski: I think Archer has delivered in the past, even if he didn’t become a Cy Young candidate. Short of an arm issue or something, I’m optimistic on him.

emmaspan: Archer lost 19 games last year, but it’s like the old saying goes: You have to be a pretty good pitcher to lose 20 games.

dszymborski: Mike Maroth’s going to love this chat.

neil: So let’s talk about the Yankees next. It still feels odd to have them fourth in the pecking order, even though that’s where they finished last year. In fact, their 84 wins last year meant that 2016 was tied for the worst Yankees season since 1992 — and that was with 5 wins of Pythagorean luck tacked on.

dszymborski: They have more young players on offense than the Blue Jays, but there’s still that reliance on older players bouncing back from off years.

neil: And they’ve lost a number of veteran hitters from a team that already had the second-worst OPS+ in the AL. (On the other hand, hot-hitting young catcher Gary Sanchez will be in the lineup for a full season.)

dszymborski: I think the offense will be better than that, but they’re likely getting declines from outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner, and anything they get from Matt Holliday should be gravy.

emmaspan: I’ll say this: The Yankees were a younger, better, more interesting team by the end of last year than they were at the start of it. I think they’ll have some growing pains with some of these young players (I probably have them in a virtual tie for third with the Orioles), but they should be a lot more fun to watch than they have been in a while.

dszymborski: In the end, they’ll score a decent number of runs. The big downside is that rotation, which could come apart very easily.

emmaspan: CC Sabathia gave them 180 decent innings last year. Without him, I think it would have fallen apart.

neil: Yeah, the rotation held up reasonably well last season, but you can see the danger lurking.

Is this a year where the Yankees are close enough to contending that they can’t afford to experiment, or is it a bridge to the future (with that great farm system), where you just say, “Why not try things and see what happens?”

emmaspan: A lot has to go wrong in Boston for the Yankees to have a prayer at the division, but that second wild card makes it really hard to punt on even a mediocre season.

I think when the Yankees became sellers last year, though, it was an acknowledgment that they need to hit the reset button. (I mean, as much as the Yankees ever can.)

neil: It was telling that 2016 was the first time that the average age of the Yankees’ roster was under 30 since 1993 — and they’ll be even younger in 2017.

dszymborski: <deep breath …>

ZiPS and me have tended to be a few wins above the other analysts on the Orioles, but ZiPS is a little under most other projections on Baltimore this year, and I tend to agree with it. That pitching rotation can fall apart even quicker than the Yankees’. (This wasn’t the best offseason for the team to desperately need to add a starter.) And let’s not forget that the Orioles were only seventh in the AL in runs scored and it took 253 homers to get them there. Plus, there’s not really any help on the farm and their sources of upside are limited after Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy.

neil: Wow, Dan. You seem very keen to move on to the O’s!

dszymborski: I’m from Baltimore!

neil: Well, suffice to say that there’s a reason they’re projected in last place here. But doesn’t it always seem like they beat their projections?

dszymborski: Call me cautiously pessimistic this time around. I think the team is reaching the end of the run.

emmaspan: I seriously underestimated the O’s last year and I feel like I often have. So I want to pull a Costanza and say they’ll beat their projections. (En route to maybe a third-place finish, but still.)

neil: They feel like a tough team to figure out (as always). They weren’t bad last season, but they were kinda average in each phase of the game last year, aside from that lights-out bullpen.

dszymborski: These O’s feel a lot like the 1985-1986 teams did. If everything hangs together and they have no nasty surprises at the top of the rotation, they’ll survive. But they are extremely limited in their ability to address problems. They’re literally the one team in the division who can’t realistically add an elite player at the trade deadline.

Say the Giants have a down year and it looks like Johnny Cueto is opting out. How would the O’s outbid anyone for him?

neil: Yep, in terms of prospects to trade, they have the fourth-worst farm system, according to Baseball America.

dszymborski: If you can’t fix problems with a trade, and you can’t fix problems from within, and you can’t fix problems with a signing, how do you deal with the problems that can crop up? That gives them a significant downside.

emmaspan: Did Ubaldo Jimenez really have a good stretch last year, or did I just hallucinate that?

dszymborski: He was so good that he made Buck Showalter forget that Zach Britton existed

emmaspan: Jimenez’s second-half ERA was 2.82. I’m not putting money on him being able to repeat that, but if he’s even decent, that rotation looks a lot better.

dszymborski: But think about how bad someone has to be in the first half if a 2.82 ERA in the second half only brings their full-season ERA down to 5.44!

emmaspan: Last year’s inexplicable non-use of Britton aside (admittedly a big aside), at least Showalter is a smart manager whose skill with the bullpen and matchups regularly gets them a few extra wins a year.

dszymborski: They can win, but there’s a lot that can go wrong and not a lot that can go really right. The depressing thing is that I’m an O’s fan. This is the lowest I’ve been on the O’s in some years.

emmaspan: Save your depression for this chat two years from now, after Manny Machado has signed with the Yankees.

dszymborski: Can I do a different division that year?

CORRECTION (March 27, 10:30 p.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Aaron Sanchez throws a killer slider. He throws a killer sinker.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Emma Span is a senior editor at Sports Illustrated.

Dan Szymborski created the ZiPS projection system and writes for ESPN.