The Yankees are playing well, but the wild card race is closer than it appears

Trout, Buxton and Machado (Getty Images)
Trout, Buxton and Machado (Getty Images)

For the past month, the focus for the Yankees has been on the AL East race. And rightly so, as they started July up a half game and are now just two back in the loss column. The division is still very much up for grabs.

But lost in the shuffle has been how the Bombers haven’t separated themselves rest of the pack in the AL Wild Card race. After play on Monday, the Yankees are up just three games on the Minnesota Twins, current holders of the second wild card spot. Just 1.5 games behind the Twins stand the Los Angeles Angels, four back in the loss column of the Yankees.

And despite the loss on Monday, the Baltimore Orioles are just 1.5 back of a playoff spot. The Texas Rangers are tied with them despite selling at the deadline. Further back are the Seattle Mariners and Kansas City Royals, both within three games of the Twins and six in the loss column of the Yankees.

By taking 3 of 4 from Boston, the Yankees kept themselves in the division race and added some much-needed distance between them and the Twinkies. Yet we’re just a few days removed from the Twins being just a game back of the Yankees and the Angels and Orioles each had impressive second halves to stay in the race.

Sure, four games up in the loss column on a playoff spot is comfortable for the time being, but there are enough teams in striking distance to cause some uneasiness.

The Twins have an easy schedule for the last four weeks of the season, playing just six games against teams above .500. Three of those are at Yankee Stadium in two weeks. They also have seven against the last-place Detroit Tigers and two with the San Diego Padres. The Twins made up ground in part from playing an easy schedule, but it’s not as if their remaining competition is about to deter them.

The O’s, meanwhile, have 12 games left against current AL playoff teams while the Angels play a bunch with the Astros, Indians, Rangers and Mariners. The Rangers have three with the Yankees and then play in the AL West of the rest of the way. Each of these teams will be tested, but they’ll also have opportunities to move up, especially if the Yankees continue to play .500 ball.

While there are clear opportunities for the teams chasing the Yankees, there’s obviously no need to panic yet. Baltimore, Minnesota and Texas can use upcoming series against the Yankees to catch up, but the Yankees can create further distance with wins. Even splitting those contests is a win with time running out.

Despite lackluster pitching staffs, the Orioles and Angels have shown the ability to win games with their bats in the last month and each has added firepower (Tim Beckham and Justin Upton, respectively) since the All-Star break. The Rangers have shown resilience even with Adrian Beltre out and Yu Darvish dealt at the deadline.

What should keep Yankees fans sane is the talent gap in the Bombers’ favor. The Yankees have the best rotation and bullpen of any remaining WC contenders and likely have the best offense, too. None of these teams have a backend that can rival David Robertson and Dellin Betances, or a top four of Severino-Gray-Tanaka-Sabathia.

The Twins’ defense is impressive, particularly with Byron Buxton in centerfield every day and they boast strong young talent with Buxton, Miguel Sano and Jose Berrios. Berrios may be the one pitcher the Yankees least want to see in the Wild Card Game if it comes to that. However, their bullpen is highly beatable, as is the backend of their rotation. They even dealt their closer to the Nationals on July 31.

The Orioles and Angels have high-end talent in their everyday lineup (read: Manny Machado and Mike Trout, among others) to get hot, but, again, their pitching holds them back. The Yankees’ Labor Day comeback against Dylan Bundy and co. was a supreme example of this. Beyond the top contenders, the Mariners have the best lineup of any remaining WC hopeful, but they’ve used 39 pitchers and counting during a season full of injuries and disappointment from their pitching staff.

Beyond simply the high-end talent, the Yankees also have the most depth, even after Aaron Hicks‘ injury. It’s the same depth that can win them the division and make them a legitimate World Series contender if they make the postseason.

But they have to make the postseason first and after going 17-16 in their last 33, that’s no sure thing. So when you’re scoreboard watching over the next couple weeks, make sure to not just look at the Red Sox, but also the wild card contenders. They may be closer than they appear.

Saturday Links: Jeter, Postseason Schedule, Players Weekend

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

The Yankees and Red Sox continue their three-game weekend series with the middle game later today. It’s a 4pm ET start. Here are some links and notes to check out until game time.

Jeter agrees to purchase the Marlins (again)

A few weeks after his agreement to purchase the Marlins with Jeb Bush fell through, Derek Jeter has another deal in place to buy the team, reports Barry Jackson. Jeter teamed up with rich dude Bruce Sherman and several other minority investors (including Michael Jordan) to buy the team. The sale price is $1.2 billion — that’s the second most ever paid for an MLB franchise, behind the $2 billion the Dodgers sold for a few years back — and Jeter is kicking in $25M.

Jackson says Sherman will be the “control person” while Jeter will run the business and baseball sides of the organization, so he’s going to have a lot of responsibility. The sale is not yet final — two other potential Marlins sales have already fallen through this year, so this isn’t a formality — but Jeter and Sherman do have all the money in place and everything else is order. Now MLB needs to give their approval and the other 29 owners have to vote. That’s going to happen at the quarterly owners meetings in October, apparently.

2017 postseason schedule announced

It’s getting to be that time of year. Earlier this week MLB announced the 2017 postseason schedule, and since the Yankees are in the race this year, this information is pretty damn relevant. Much better than being on the outside looking in like three of the last four years. Here is the full postseason schedule and here are the dates potentially relevant to the Yankees:

  • AL Wild Card Game: Tuesday, October 3rd
  • ALDS (both of ’em): Thursday, October 5th through Wednesday, October 11th
  • ALCS: Friday, October 13th through Saturday, October 21st
  • World Series: Tuesday, October 24th through Wednesday, November 1st

The regular season ends Sunday, October 1st, so there’s only one off-day between the end of the regular season and the AL Wild Card Game this year. That could cause some headaches for teams trying to line up their ace for that winner-take-all game. The NL has two off-days between the end of the regular season and the Wild Card Game this year.

Also, homefield advantage in the World Series is no longer decided by the All-Star Game. That’s good. I hated that. (Even though the AL won this year.) Now homefield advantage will go to the pennant-winner with the best regular season record. That’s how it should be, I think.

MLB releases Players Weekend jerseys

A few weeks ago MLB announced that, later this month, the first (annual?) Players Weekend will be held from August 25th to the 27th. The Yankees will be home playing the Mariners that weekend. Teams will wear unique uniforms (hats, jerseys, socks, etc.) and the players will be allowed to wear nicknames on the backs of their jerseys. It’s pretty awesome. Here are the Yankees:

yankees-jerseys

This is so great. All-Starlin! A-A-Ron! Head and Toe! Aaron Judge told Erik Boland he was originally planning to put “AJ” or “Judge” on his jersey, but Todd Frazier talked him into All Rise, so here we are. Love Judge, but he could use a little more personality. Maybe pimp a homer every once in a while. (Looking at you too, Brett Gardner. “Gardner” on the jersey? Really?)

Anyway, as someone who may or may not have already purchased KRAKEN 24 and SIR DIDI 18 shirts, I love this whole Players Weekend idea. It’s fun. Baseball’s supposed to be fun. I couldn’t be any more tired of hearing about tradition and the way things have always been. Give me Players Weekend, The Judge’s Chambers, Clint Frazier‘s bright red hair, finger points into the dugout, give me all of it.

Yankees have not pursued Granderson

According to Joel Sherman, the Yankees have not pursued Curtis Granderson this month. He cleared trade waivers last week. The Yankees did try to acquire Jay Bruce from the Mets a few days ago, though that didn’t work out because the Mets wanted full salary relief. Granderson, like Bruce, is a left-handed power hitter, but he can only play the outfield. Bruce has some first base experience.

Granderson, 36, is in the final season of his four-year, $60M contract. He’s making $15M this year and it stands to reason the Mets will look to unload his salary at some point. Granderson is hitting .221/.327/.452 (105 wRC+) with 16 home runs overall this season, but since May 1st, he’s put up a .261/.384/.548 (143 wRC+) batting line with 15 of those 16 homers. The Yankees have an opening at designated hitter and could really use another lefty power bat, which Granderson would provide. Doesn’t sound like it’s going to happen though.

It looks like Luis Torrens just may stick with the Padres

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

A 21-year-old catcher with just 198 plate appearances in above short-season ball, should logically not make it through an entire season on a major league roster. It just doesn’t happen.

But with Luis Torrens and the 2017 San Diego Padres, it’s time to throw logic to the wind: The Yankees really might lose a solid catching prospect for nothing but $100K and a practically useless roster spot.

Surprisingly taken with the second pick of the Rule 5 draft by the Reds, Torrens was quickly dealt to the Padres. The Padres still have the top three picks from December’s Rule 5 draft on their 25-man roster and seem committed to keeping all three of Torrens, pitcher Miguel Diaz and utility man Allen Cordoba. Diaz is the oldest of the three at a whopping 22 years old, so keeping all three players is a lot of why the Padres have the youngest roster in baseball.

Just a few days past his 21st birthday, Torrens was the most puzzling pick of the three. Diaz is a hard throwing reliever with quality stuff. Cordoba, despite a lack of experience in the minors, brings potential at the plate and versatility in the field. You can work with that on a squad not built to compete this year, let alone the next few years.

Torrens? He’s a catcher. He missed all of 2015 with injury. He’s a quality player behind the plate but his bat is nowhere near big league ready. You have to be more than willing to accept a well below replacement level player on your roster to keep a 21-year-old inexperienced backstop on your roster all season in order to keep him.

But the Padres have the right situation in order to pull this off. Torrens is one of three catchers, playing behind starter Austin Hedges and backup Hector Sanchez. It was four before two-way player Christian Bethancourt was sent to Triple-A. The Friars are a team committed to losing, or at least not committed to winning in 2017, so they can accept having what is essentially a dead roster spot.

The question then becomes: Is it worth losing this roster spot and a full year of development just to get Torrens into your system? He already lost his entire age-19 season to injury and now he loses his age-21 season to, well, inactivity. He’s played just nine games thus far, gone into the field in just eight and started just three. He’s played all nine innings just once and is just 1 for 13 with a walk at the plate. Torrens will, for all intents and purposes, lose two years of at-bats and experience before he’s even gotten a full season of at-bats above Low-A. In reality, he hasn’t even had a full season AT Low-A because he’s only played 49 games there.

The ideal scenario for the Yankees would have been to have a 21-year-old Torrens in Single-A Tampa this season with the possibility of a promotion to Double-A Trenton if he took a major step forward. Will Torrens have to go all the way back to Single-A next year to restart his development? Can it truly be worth it to stash him on the roster for the year with the possibility that he won’t be really ready for the big leagues until 2020?

These questions would stop a lot of teams from stashing Torrens for a year. However, there is one benefit for Torrens: Big league coaching. Torrens gets a full year of top level coaching on his swing and a chance to work with MLB pitchers (if you can classify the Padres staff as such). That could be a big plus. Imagine if the Yankees were in the Padres’ position and could offer a young catcher a full year of coaching from Tony Pena, a catching guru.

And surely Torrens is relishing the opportunity to be in the big leagues. He was staring up at a Yankees system with Gary Sanchez as the presumed catcher of the future. Now he has an opportunity to be the guy in a new organization with the sacrifice of much-needed playing time. Plus MLB travel, nice hotels and the bright lights of the big leagues. It’s good work if you can get it.

Still, it’s tough to watch him lose this year of development. They don’t check IDs behind the plate, but it could be a serious setback to Torrens’ eventual hopes of becoming a viable everyday player. Furthermore, the Padres have a 24-year-old catcher starting for them right now in hopes of him being the future solution. Maybe this works out with Torrens pushing Hedges aside in a few years, but now it looks like the Yankees are losing a solid, young catching prospect while the Padres stash him on the bench for a season. And it all may be for nothing.

Early Returns on Some Former Yankees

(Jason Miller/Getty)
(Jason Miller/Getty)

One of the most frequently asked questions early in the season revolves around former Yankees. There is some measure of comfort to be had from seeing an ex-Yankee struggle in another team’s uniform, while there is an equally bothersome annoyance when those players perform well. We want to know that the Yankees made the right decision in either trading the player or letting him walk; or, at the very least, that they received back more than they sent away. The pratfalls of small sample sizes are well-known, but it is never too early to check-in on these players.

For today’s post, I’m going with any players that have been moved since the Yankees waved the white flag last season. If you would like to see any players added to this list going forward, let us know in the comments.

Johnny Barbato, Pirates – 3.2 IP, 2 H, 2 BB, 1 K, 2.45 ERA, 4.11 FIP

The Yankees dealt Barbato to the Pirates two weeks ago, and received … basically nothing in return. This came on the heels of him being designated for assignment to make room for Jordan Montgomery, and there are still plenty of shuttle arms sitting at Triple-A, so it wasn’t surprising to see him moved.

Carlos Beltran, Astros – .250/.287/.354, 10 R, 2 HR, 8 RBI, 0 SB, 81 wRC+ (101 PA)

Beltran has spent most of his time at designated hitter this season, which is unquestionably his best position nowadays. He has made five starts in left, though, as a means to get Evan Gattis’ bat into the lineup at DH. The Astros will live with his defense in left, though, as that means that they have one of the the best hitting lineups in baseball for that particular game.

Ben Gamel, Mariners – .227/.346/.409, 4 R, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 0 SB, 120 wRC+ (27 PA)

An injury to Mitch Haniger opened the door for Gamel to play everyday, and he has made the most of it thus far. Haniger isn’t slated to return until the end of the month, so this is probably the best opportunity that Gamel has had to demonstrate his worth at the big league level to date.

Nick Goody, Indians – 9.0 IP, 2 H, 3 BB, 9 K, 0.00 ERA, 2.34 FIP

Terry Francona has utilized Goody as a right-handed specialist this year, and it has worked wonders thus far. He was particularly good on Sunday, when he entered the game with the bases loaded and nobody out, and escaped the inning without allowing a run by picking up a swinging strikeout and inducing a double play.

Brian McCann, Astros – .278/.369/.417, 10 R, 3 HR, 13 RBI, 0 SB, 122 wRC+ (84 PA)

The Astros are making a serious effort to keep McCann healthy and rested, as the 33-year-old catcher has already sat for six games (though, having Gattis’ bat on the bench helps that decision along), and started at DH once. He has rewarded them with a strong start to the season, which includes a dramatically sliced strikeout rate (from 20.1% last year to 12.5% this year) and an improved walk rate (up 2.8 percentage points).

Andrew Miller, Indians – 11.2 IP, 7 H, 4 BB, 16 K, 0.00 ERA, 1.55 FIP

Miller was dominant throughout his second-half with the Indians last season, including a magnificent 2016 postseason (1.40 ERA and 41.1 K% in 19.1 IP). He has continued his brilliance in 2017, as Francona continues to utilize him as a ‘bullpen ace’ instead of a traditional closer. It’s difficult to quibble with the return (Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield, and more), but I miss Miller more than anyone else on this list – and it isn’t particularly close.

Ivan Nova, Pirates – 36.0 IP, 26 H, 1 BB, 22 K, 1.50 ERA, 2.69 FIP

Nova has walked 4 batters in 100.2 IP with the Pirates. Over that time, 247 pitchers have thrown at least 30 IP, and only Roberto Osuna and Dan Otero have walked fewer batters at three apiece. Those two have combined to throw 67.2 IP in that stretch. Among pitchers with 80 IP or more, only Carlos Carrasco is within 10 walks of Nova (he has walked 13 batters in 86.1 IP).

Blake Parker, Angels – 12.1 IP, 9 H, 4 BB, 21 K, 2.19 ERA, 0.58 FIP

Parker is currently second among relievers in WAR, tied with Kenley Jansen and Chris Devenski. It’s only May 3, and it’s obviously unsustainable – but it’s intriguing nonetheless. Angels fans are already discussing how good Parker was before injuries set-in in 2014 (he had a 143 ERA+ and 10.7 K/9 in 46.1 IP in 2013), and he was better with the Yankees than his final numbers indicate, thanks to a 0.1 IP, 4 ER affair on September 23.

James Pazos, Mariners – 12.0 IP, 10 H, 6 BB, 14 K, 3.00 ERA, 2.42 FIP

The Yankees viewed Pazos as a lefty specialist, and understandably so as he’s strictly a fastball/slider guy. The Mariners have used him as a traditional middle reliever, though, and the results of been quite good so far. It is worth noting that righties are hitting .290 against Pazos, so a correction may be forthcoming.

Anthony Swarzak, White Sox – 13.1 IP, 3 H, 1 BB, 15 K, 0.00 ERA, 0.98 FIP

Would it be wrong to give the Yankees some semblance of credit for Goody, Parker, Pazos, and Swarzak all pitching so well in 2017? After all, they were members of the team’s Scranton/Wilkes-Barre shuttle last year; that may be a bit unfair, considering that they have been far better away from the pinstripes. Swarzak is also one of three former Yankees (Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson are the others) pitching quite well out of the White Sox bullpen this year.

Luis Torrens, Padres – .083/.154/.083, 0 R, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 0 SB, -28 wRC+ (13 PA)

The 21-year-old Torrens was selected by the Padres in the Rule 5 Draft, and the expectation was that he’d be returned to the Yankees by the end of Spring Training. After all, he had played exactly zero games above Single-A, and there was no indication that he would be ready to play at the highest-level. That didn’t happen, though, and Torrens is riding the Padres bench as the team’s third-string catcher. Whether this helps or hurts his development is an interesting question, as Torrens was (or is) a solid catching prospect.

Kirby Yates, Padres – 2.1 IP, 3 H, 1 BB, 1 K, 7.71 ERA, 14.59 FIP

The Padres are Yates’ second organization of the young season, as he was waived by the Angels after just one appearance. In defense of the Angels, it was an awful appearance – he allowed a two-run home run to Kevin Pillar (which plated an inherited runner) and a solo shot to Justin Smoak, with two additional Blue Jays taking him to the warning track.

How to handle Chris Sale’s dominance of the Yankees

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

On Thursday, the Yankees get their first crack at Boston Red Sox ace Chris Sale. However, there’s a fair amount of familiarity between Sale and the Yankees.

If you’re not familiar with the numbers, they’re gaudy, to say the least. In 53 1/3 innings against the Yankees, Sale has surrendered just 32 hits, 12 walks and 4 HBPs while striking out 61 batters and allowing just 13 runs (seven earned). That’s good for a 1.17 ERA and a WHIP of .820. Sale has the lowest ERA of any pitcher in MLB history with at least 50 innings against the Yankees (h/t to Katie).

Unfortunately for the Yankees and their fans, Sale is going to be tacking on a lot more innings to that total over the next three years. With team options, the Red Sox have Sale under contract through 2019 and there’s nothing saying they couldn’t bring him back on a longer contract when that’s up. We’re talking about a pitcher with five All-Star appearances in the five seasons he’s been a starter, and he hasn’t finished lower than sixth in the Cy Young voting. That’s a keeper.

So what does this mean for the Yankees? What can the Bombers do to counteract the way-too-early favorite for AL Cy Young? Here are a few things to know about facing Sale.

1. Lefties are practically useless against him: Sale is a beast but especially vs. lefties. He’s given up 114 home runs in his career and just eight were hit by left-handed batters. While RHBs have a .228/.283/.370 line against him, lefties are far worse at .202/.258/.268. No power and no average.

In his seven starts against the Yankees, Sale has faced few lefties. The Yankees started three against him in 2012 and in the six starts since, haven’t started more than two. Typically, it’s been the lefties you don’t take out of the lineup, the Robinson Canos of the world. You have to try and load up on the platoon advantage to neutralize Sale because his size and motion are so difficult to pick up for a LHB.

This is why you acquire Chris Carter and Matt Holliday. Not just for Sale of course. For any tough lefty. Sale, David Price, etc. Having a veteran with some savvy in the middle of the order can counteract Sale … as much as you truly can counteract Sale. When Sale took the mound vs. NYY last May, it led to a distinctive lineup with Aaron Hicks leading off, Brett Gardner batting seventh and no Jacoby Ellsbury. Sale threw a complete game, but the point still stands. Maximize your potential by platooning like crazy. You may see a lineup that goes something like this.

1. Aaron Hicks, CF
2. Chase Headley, 3B
3. Matt Holliday, DH
4. Starlin Castro, 2B
5. Aaron Judge, RF
6. Chris Carter, 1B
7. Brett Gardner, LF
8. Austin Romine, C
9. Ronald Torreyes, SS

You have to sit one of Gardner or Ellsbury for Hicks here and moving the one lefty outfielder down the card makes sense, too. Last season’s lineup shows Joe Girardi is willing to do just that. He’s done some interesting things like put Yangervis Solarte in the five-hole as well. The lineups this season with Ellsbury batting fourth and so on have looked pretty peculiar, so Thursday’s lineup may just blend in.

2. Headley is key to hitting Sale: Headley has been much maligned at times during his stint in pinstripes, but boy can he hit Sale. He has the third highest OPS off Sale of any batter with at least 10 plate appearances. In 14 PAs vs. the 6-foot-5 southpaw, Headley is 5-for-13 with two home runs, a double and a walk.

Sale even helped Headley get back to being himself last season. After a horrible April and early May, Headley got his second extra-base hit of 2016 off Sale with this home run.

Girardi has put Headley near the top of the lineup card with Sale on the mound, both in 2015 and 2016. His first homer off Sale came back in 2014 during an interleague series between the White Sox and Padres.

The point being, Headley is really important here. I’m not sure I expected to be saying that, but here we are. Headley has similar numbers off the person I would say is Sale’s most logical current comparable, Madison Bumgarner. He has three home runs and 10 hits in 36 at-bats off Mad Bum. Go figure.

Only three other Yankees have multiple hits off Sale: Carter, Castro and Hicks. Hicks is 4-for-12 with a double, Carter is 2-for-13 with a double and a homer, and Castro is 2-for-11. Unsurprisingly, Carter has struck out seven times vs. Sale. Ellsbury and Gardner are a combined 1-for-16 with two walks, a hit-by-pitch and nine strikeouts. Welp.

3. Time for the Baby Bombers: I’m unsure if the Yankees were trying to be cruel last May, but they had Gary Sanchez make his first MLB start as the DH facing Sale. You will no doubt be shocked to learn he went 0-for-4 with a strikeout.

However, this is where having a few young, dynamic, right-handed bats comes in handy. Sanchez may be hurt right now, but he’ll get more opportunities off Sale during the next few seasons. Sanchez, Judge and even Clint Frazier or Gleyber Torres can give the Yankees an element few teams have vs. Sale: An all-righty top of the lineup that can withstand him. They’ll surely have some troubles off him like Sanchez last May, but they’re NYY’s best shot. These guys will get plenty familiar with Sale over the next few years.

As for Greg Bird, it makes sense to bench him for Carter in terms of trying to win that day’s game. However, starting Bird vs. Sale would be interesting for the long-term. Giving him some at-bats against him now could give Bird a chance against him in future meetings, plus Bird has hit lefties well in his early MLB career.

4. If he wasn’t on the Red Sox/facing the Yankees, Sale would be a lot of fun to watch: Sale’s mesmerizing. His herky-jerky motion is not something you’d teach any kid and that may be part of what makes it so effective. It’s different and it’s been nearly impossible to hit. He’s a consistent Cy Young contender for a reason and despite a motion many in baseball would label a concern, he’s remained pretty healthy, making at least 29 starts in four of the last five seasons.

And he’s quite simply fun to watch. He strikes out guys with ease, averaging 227 strikeouts a year since he moved into the rotation. How many pitchers do you see make hitters look like this?

sale-strikeout-gif

Or make Sanchez look like this?

sale-strikeout-sanchez

The Yankees are going to have to contend with Sale for a while and we may as well enjoy the ride. Pedro Martinez had some dazzling performances against the Yankees in the late 90s/early 2000s and beating him was a joyous occasion. It’d be nice to have a pitcher-against-the-Yankees rivalry like that going again and Sale is a prime candidate to make that happen. And even when he inevitably adds a win or two to his record vs. the Bombers, you’ll still be able to see one of the best of this generation take the mound.

The Rest of MLB [2017 Season Review]

Trade both to Yankees pls. (Presswire)
Trade to Yankees pls. (Presswire)

Our annual season preview series comes to an end today, and on Sunday, the 2017 regular season will begin. The Yankees and Rays kick off the new campaign Sunday afternoon. It’ll be Chris Archer vs. Masahiro Tanaka. Every other team will be watching as they wait to play their first game of the year. The Yankees and Rays will be the only show in town for a few hours.

So, to wrap up our season preview, it’s time to take a jaunt through the rest of the baseball world. Yesterday we looked at the other four AL East teams, the teams the Yankees will compete with most of the season. Now let’s look at the remaining five divisions and 25 teams left in baseball. Come with me, won’t you?

NL East

Best Team: The Nationals, probably.
Worst Team: The Phillies.
Most Fun Team: The Marlins.

I hesitate to say the window is closing for the Nationals and Mets, but they both very clearly need to win right now and not focus on two or three years down the line. Bryce Harper will be a free agent in two years (yay!) and others like Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Anthony Rendon are in their primes. Same story with the Mets. Their rotation is starting to get expensive — all but Noah Syndergaard had some kind of arm surgery within the last year too — and offensive cornerstones like Yoenis Cespedes and Neil Walker won’t perform like this forever. The time is now for these two clubs.

Very quietly, last year was a bad year for the Phillies and their rebuild. Maikel Franco didn’t take the next step. Aaron Nola hurt his elbow and didn’t pitch after late-July. Top prospects J.P. Crawford and Nick Williams struggled in the minors. Yikes. They want to get things back on track this year. The Braves are getting closer to contending, and for the time being, they’re picking up low coast veterans. As for the Marlins, their rotation is really shaky, but their position player core is fun as hell (Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton, Dee Gordon, etc.) and their bullpen can really bring it. They’re high on the watchability scale.

AL Central

Best Team: The Indians.
Worst Team: White Sox over the Twins. Or would that be under?
Most Fun Team: Indians again.

The window is closing for the Tigers and Royals — Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Alcides Escobar will all be free agents after the season — while the White Sox and Twins are in the middle of deep rebuilds. The Indians went to the World Series last year and pushed the best team in baseball to extra innings in Game Seven despite not having their best all-around hitter (Michael Brantley) and two of their three best starters (Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar) in the postseason. Impressive despite the disappointing finish.

The Indians are again a World Series contender this year and I think they got better over the winter. Edwin Encarnacion is better than Mike Napoli, they’ll have full seasons of Andrew Miller and Brandon Guyer, and youngsters like Francisco Lindor, Tyler Naquin, and Salazar still have another level or two in their games. This team is really fun to watch too. Miller’s awesome, Lindor is a joy, and others like Jose Ramirez and Encarnacion are a blast. (I can say that now that the Yankees won’t see Encarnacion every other week.) The Indians play with a lot of energy and that makes them really exciting.

NL Central

Best Team: The Cubs, pretty easily too.
Worst Team: The Reds by a mile. Goodness.
Most Fun Team: The Cubs have a slight edge over the dinger happy Brewers.

The Cubs are annoyingly great and young too, so they’re going to continue to be great for the foreseeable future. However! I’m curious to see how things shake out with their pitching staff. Jake Arrieta will be a free agent after the season, and even if they re-sign him, he’ll be 32 next March. Hard to think there are many more ace-caliber years remaining. Jon Lester is 33 and will probably enter his late-career Sabathia phase at some point. John Lackey is 38. Is Kyle Hendricks really going to pitch this well going forward? The Cubbies will have to totally remake their rotation in the near future. Fortunately for them, they’re set on the position player side.

Did you realize the Pirates went from 98 wins in 2015 to 78 wins in 2016? True story. Only the awful Twins had a larger drop in win total from 2015 to 2016. Pittsburgh hasn’t done enough to capitalize on the Andrew McCutchen era. When they signed him long-term, the idea was being a bonafide World Series contender from 2016-18. Now they’re looking to trade him away. Eek. I mean, look at their rotation depth chart:

pirates-rotation-depth-chart

Egads. Gerrit Cole is great, and both Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow have a ton of upside, but is that a championship caliber rotation? I don’t think so. I’m not even sure that’s a playoff caliber rotation. The Yankees have a crummy rotation too, but at least they’ll admit they’re rebuilding transitioning. The Pirates front office has spent too much time planning for the future. Success is fleeting in baseball and you have to do what you can to maximize your opportunity when it arrives. That’s why the Indians signed Encarnacion. The Pirates have done no such thing.

AL West

Best Team: The Astros.
Worst Team: The A’s. Definitely the A’s.
Most Fun Team: The A’s.

Nice work by the Astros adding Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and Josh Reddick over the winter. They have some great young talent (Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer) but needed to fill in the roster around them, and they did it with some high-quality veterans. Now they just have to hope their rotation comes together. Dallas Keuchel won the Cy Young in 2015 then had a 4.55 ERA (3.87 FIP) in 2016. A shoulder injury ended his season in August. Lance McCullers can’t stay healthy, and others like Mike Fiers and Charlie Morton are meh. Just … meh.

Last season the Rangers had to be the worst 95-win team this century. They won 95 games with a +8 run differential. +8! They beat up on some bad AL West teams during the regular season, then got depantsed by the Blue Jays in the ALDS for the second straight year. Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish are a great one-two punch, and Adrian Beltre is still awesome, but when push comes to shove, this team folds. I’m guessing the Mariners finish second in the AL West this year, not Texas. The Angels don’t have much to offer fans other than Mike Trout. The A’s are really bad, but at least their teams are fun and the Oakland Coliseum fans are raucous. Win or lose, the fans are into it.

NL West

Best Team: The Dodgers
Worst Team: The Padres. Wow are they bad.
Most Fun Team: The Rockies.

Is this the year the Dodgers get over the hump? Last season they set a dubious record by failing to reach the World Series in their tenth consecutive trip to the postseason. Even when he was with the Rays, Andrew Friedman seemed averse to going all-in and making that big move that could put his team over the top. The 2010 Rays were set to lose Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford, and Rafael Soriano to free agency after the season, and their big trade deadline pickup was … Chad Qualls. Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, and Justin Turner are in their primes. Maybe time for a little more urgency?

The Giants are going to be good again because they’re always good, though I can’t believe they’re going into the season with a Mac Williamson/Jarrett Parker platoon in left field. My guess is they’ll be looking for outfield help by May. The Diamondbacks have to figure out why their pitchers keep going backwards. Patrick Corbin, Shelby Miller, Archie Bradley, and even Zack Greinke are not close to what they were two or three years ago. The Padres? They’ve ripped that team apart for rebuilding purposes. Their depth chart:

padres-depth-chart

Worst of all? Almost all of their top prospects are teenagers signed as international free agents last summer, so there’s not much immediate help coming. At least there are plenty of other things to do in San Diego. Seriously, if not for the great Tony Gwynn, the Padres would be the most nondescript franchise in American sports.

The Rockies were going to be my sleeper postseason team pick before they got hammered with injuries in Spring Training. David Dahl (rib), Ian Desmond (hand), and Tom Murphy (forearm) are all going to miss several weeks. Also, Chad Bettis is out indefinitely as he undergoes treatment for testicular cancer. Hoping for the best there. The Rockies have a lot of young talent, including the best collection of young starters in franchise history (Jon Gray, Tyler Anderson, German Marquez, Jeff Hoffman), and Coors Field ensures plenty of runs are scored. If you like offense, the Rockies are must see television.

The Rest of the AL East [2017 Season Preview]

There has been an interesting bit of parity in the AL East this decade, as every team has won the division crown in the last seven years. The Red Sox appear to be the standard-bearer, with both ZiPS and PECOTA projecting them to repeat as division champs – but both also have at least four of the five teams sitting at .500 or better, and at least one team winning a Wild Card slot. While the smart money may be on the Red Sox, this division should be among the most competitive (and exciting) in the game once again.

(Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports)
(Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports)

Baltimore Orioles

2016 Record: 89-73

Notable Additions: Welington Castillo, Seth Smith

Notable Subtractions: Yovani Gallardo, Steve Pearce, Matt Wieters

Buck Showalter’s team is something of a perennial overachiever at this point, beating projection systems and milking middling talents for all their worth. They’ve made the playoffs in three of the last five years, and consistency within the organization may have something to do with that.

The 2016 Orioles were the epitome of a station-to-station team last year, finishing first in home runs by a comfortable margin (their 253 home runs were 28 ahead of the second-place Cardinals) and dead last with just 19 steals (16 fewer than the 29th place team, which happens to be those same Cardinals – it must be a bird thing). That doesn’t figure to change in 2017, as the team’s powerful core remains intact, and new additions Welington Castillo and Seth Smith combined for two stolen base attempts between the 2015 and 2016 seasons. The offense will once again be headlined by Future Yankee Manny Machado, Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo, and Adam Jones; it may be worth noting that Jones is coming off of his worst season since his rookie year, and will turn 32 this summer.

Possible Opening Day Lineup:

  1. Hyun Soo Kim, LF
  2. Manny Machado, 3B
  3. Chris Davis, 1B
  4. Mark Trumbo, DH
  5. Seth Smith, RF
  6. Adam Jones, F
  7. Jonathan Schoop, 2B
  8. Welington Castillo, C
  9. J.J. Hardy, SS

The Orioles pitching staff was surprisingly average last year (98 ERA-, 99 FIP-, 102 xFIP-), but much of that owes to the team’s extraordinary bullpen. Zach Britton and his 0.54 ERA led the way, but Brad Brach (2.05 ERA) and Mychal Givens (3.13 ERA) were great, as well, as the unit combined for a 79 ERA- (21% above-league-average). The rotation was mostly a mess, though, with only Kevin Gausman and Chris Tillman posting ERAs under 4.50. There is some potential there, with former top prospect Dylan Bundy finally getting healthy and showing promise, but the bullpen will likely carry a heavy load once more.

Possible Rotation:

  1. Kevin Gausman
  2. Chris Tillman (currently injured)
  3. Dylan Bundy
  4. Wade Miley
  5. Ubaldo Jimenez
  6. Mike Wright

Closer: Zach Britton

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Boston Red Sox

2016 Record: 93-69

Notable Additions: Mitch Moreland, Chris Sale, Tyler Thornburg

Notable Subtractions: Clay Buchholz, Yoan Moncada, David Ortiz, Travis Shaw, Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehara, Brad Ziegler

David Ortiz made his Red Sox debut fourteen years ago, in the team’s second game of the 2003 season. He started at first base and batted fifth, going 0-for-6 with 2 BB in a 16-inning affair against the then-Devil Rays. The rest is, and I apologize for the cliche, history. This year represents the beginning of a new era for the Red Sox, if not the division as a whole, and they still appear to be the team to beat, thanks to a strong farm system and a blockbuster deal.

The new face of the franchise might just be Mookie Betts, whose energy and big smile are reminiscent of Ortiz. Or it could be top prospect Andrew Benintendi, who looked right at home in 34 games in the Majors last year. Or it could be shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who just keeps getting better. Or it could simply be old standby Dustin Pedroia, who rebounded nicely from an injury plagued 2015. There’s no shortage of talent on offense, is what I’m getting at here – especially if the slimmed down Pablo Sandoval has figured things out.

Possible Opening Day Lineup:

  1. Dustin Pedroia, SS
  2. Andrew Benintendi, LF
  3. Mookie Betts, RF
  4. Handley Ramirez, DH
  5. Xander Bogaerts, SS
  6. Jackie Bradley Jr., CF
  7. Pablo Sandoval, 3B
  8. Mitch Moreland, 1B
  9. Sandy Leon, C

Rick Porcello had a brilliant 2016, and won a Cy Young for his efforts … and he just might be the third-best starting pitcher on this team, depending upon how well David Price’s rehab goes. Said rehab is the largest concern with the team right now, even though they do have a bit more depth than usual in the rotation. Price isn’t the only pitcher slated to open the season on the DL, either, as new set-up man Tyler Thornburg deals with shoulder and back soreness.

Possible Rotation:

  1. Rick Porcello
  2. David Price (currently injured)
  3. Chris Sale
  4. Drew Pomeranz
  5. Eduardo Rodriguez
  6. Steven Wright

Closer: Craig Kimbrel

(Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)
(Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

Tampa Bay Rays

2016 Record: 68-94

Notable Additions: Jose De Leon, Wilson Ramos, Colby Rasmus, Mallex Smith

Notable Subtractions: Logan Forsythe, Drew Smyly

A bit over a week ago, the Rays signed two-time Gold Glove winner Kevin Kiermaier to a six-year contract extension worth a minimum of $53.5 MM. It was met with praise by the analytical community as a whole, due to his elite defense in center field and solid offensive production, and he’s still a few weeks shy of his 27th birthday. It seems that the team’s shrewd maneuvering with contracts of this nature did not leave with Andrew Friedman.

The Rays offense was a bit better on a rate basis than you probably remember last year, placing 12th in the Majors in wRC+. They still finished 24th in runs scored, but that may not have been reflective of the group as a whole. That may not mean a whole lot for 2017, though, as several of their best hitters (Steve Pearce and Brandon Guyer at the deadline, Logan Forsythe a few weeks ago) were traded away. Evan Longoria is still here though, the aforementioned Kiermaier managed 12 HR and 21 SB in just 105 games last year, and Brad Miller broke out in a big way; this won’t be a great group by any means, but there’s more than enough to build a competent lineup – particularly when Wilson Ramos and Colby Rasmus return from the DL. Their Opening Day lineup is in flux, so your guess is as good as mine as to who they’ll trot out there.

Possible Opening Day Lineup:

  1. Corey Dickerson, DH
  2. Kevin Kiermaier, CF
  3. Evan Longoria, 3B
  4. Brad Miller, 2B
  5. Logan Morrison, 1B
  6. Steven Souza, RF
  7. Tim Beckham, SS
  8. Mallex Smith, LF
  9. Derek Norris, C

The Rays stand to open 2017 with one of the youngest rotations in baseball, with all five of their projected starters clocking in at between 24 and 29-years-old on Opening Day. Alex Cobb is battling lingering back soreness now, and if he were to miss the start of the season that average age would dip even further, as the 28-year-old Chris Archer would become the old man of the group. And, despite injuries and inconsistency, this unit has a great deal of potential from top to bottom, and that’s with top prospect Jose De Leon opening the season in the minors. The worst in the AL bullpen is another story entirely, though Alex Colome was terrific as the closer last year.

Possible Rotation:

  1. Chris Archer
  2. Jake Odorizzi
  3. Alex Cobb
  4. Blake Snell
  5. Matt Andriese

Closer: Alex Colome

(Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)
(Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

Toronto Blue Jays

2016 Record: 89-73

Notable Additions: J.P. Howell, Kendrys Morales, Steve Pearce, Joe Smith

Notable Subtractions: Joaquin Benoit, Brett Cecil, R.A. Dickey, Edwin Encarnacion, Michael Saunders

On November 11, 2016, the Blue Jays signed Kendrys Morales to a 3-year, $33 MM contract, seemingly moving away from at least one of Jose Bautista or Edwin Encarnacion. A bit less than two months later, the Indians made that decision for them, signing Encarnacion to a 3-year, $60 MM deal (with a $25 MM team option for 2020). The difference in those deals isn’t insignificant, but their haste to lock-up an inferior 1B/DH has placed their offense under the microscope in the short term.

The offense remains in relatively good shape nevertheless. 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson is a formidable presence in the middle of the lineup, a Steve Pearce/Justin Smoak platoon at first will maximize the production from the position, and the declining duo of Bautista and Troy Tulowitzki is still more than adequate. The lineup is top-heavy, but it stands to be decent in every slot.

Possible Opening Day Lineup:

  1. Devon Travis, 2B
  2. Troy Tulowitzki, SS
  3. Josh Donaldson, 3B
  4. Jose Bautista, RF
  5. Kendrys Morales, DH
  6. Russell Martin, C
  7. Justin Smoak, 1B
  8. Kevin Pillar, CF
  9. Ezequiel Carrera, LF

The Blue Jays had a strong starting rotation last season, and that will be mostly intact in 2017 – R.A. Dickey will be replaced by Francisco Liriano, who was acquired by the team last summer. It will be difficult to replicate the health factor, as they had five pitchers make between 29 and 32 starts, but they have had that sort of luck a couple of years running. The rotation is backed-up by a mediocre bullpen, though off-season additions J.P. Howell and Joe Smith both come with strong track records.

Possible Rotation:

  1. Marco Estrada
  2. Aaron Sanchez
  3. Marcus Stroman
  4. J.A. Happ
  5. Francisco Liriano

Closer: Roberto Osuna