Welcome to the final edition of 500 Level Fan’s divisional preview series. As usual, we saved the best for last – the AL East.
Toronto Blue Jays
Past Five Champions
2015 – Toronto
2014 – Baltimore
2013 – Boston
2012 – New York
2011 – New York
Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 95.6
Josh Donaldson, Blue Jays
It was Donaldson’s first season as a member of the AL East, and I think you can say that he nailed it. He finished in the top-5 in the American League in WAR (8.8), SLG (.568), OPS (.939), Runs (122), Doubles (41), HR (41), and RBI (123), en route to winning the AL MVP award and a Silver Slugger. Donaldson also played exceptional defense at 3B, and teamed up with Jose Bautista and the rest of the Blue Jays lineup to form one of baseball’s most intimidating forces. With the bulk of the Blue Jays returning for 2016, more of the same is expected from Mr. Donaldson in the year ahead.
Honourable Mention: Jose Bautista, Blue Jays; Manny Machado, Orioles
David Price, Red Sox
Price was the biggest free agent available on the market and Boston wasted little time in snapping him up. 2015 was another dominant year in his career, especially so in the second half when he arrived in Toronto and helped the Blue Jays end their 22-year playoff drought. All-in he finished the year with an 18-5 record, a league leading 2.45 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 9.2 K/9 ratio, and a 161 ERA+. He was named to his fifth AL All-Star team, finished second in Cy Young voting, and 9th in MVP voting. However, he once again struggled in the playoffs, something that Red Sox fans hope he has a chance to rectify in 2016.
Honourable Mention: Chris Archer, Rays; Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees
Three Storylines For 2016
1. The David Price Factor
On July 30th last year, the Blue Jays were 52-51, 6 games back of New York. Then they acquired David Price, and finished the season on a 41-18 tear to win the division. Boston, mired in a miserable season that saw them finish dead last, watched with envy as Price went 9-1 with a 2.30 ERA and 87 K in 74.1 IP as a Blue Jay. Then they made a bet – a very, very large bet – that Price can replicate that success in a Red Sox uniform. Boston will essentially be paying Price $1-million per start for the next seven years as they attempt to reclaim a spot on top of the baseball world. On the surface it seems like a good bet. The Red Sox had the third worst starting rotation in the AL in 2015 (4.39 ERA) and Price has been consistently dominant for six straight years. Plus they weakened a division rival in the process. But a turnaround will be easier said than done. This is a team that finished in last place in 2012, 2014, and 2015, doesn’t have much behind Price in the rotation, and still has some very toxic players in the lineup (hello Hanley and Pablo). Can 32 starts from Price really be enough?
2. The Stro Show
There’s no denying that losing Price is a key below to Toronto’s rotation. But the loss is mitigated by the return of Marcus Stroman for a full season. Stroman was pegged as Toronto’s Opening Day starter and staff ace for the 2015 season, with expectations of 180-200 innings. He only threw 27, which in itself was a minor miracle considering the major knee injury he suffered in March. But this year he is fully healthy, and he is also stronger from his revamped offseason conditioning, and wiser – both from the experience gained pitching in the playoffs, and from the time he spent learning from Price. Spring stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but Stroman’s 1.98 ERA and 0.73 WHIP in 13.2 IP are highly encouraging. Would Toronto be better off with Price in the rotation? Absolutely. But gaining a full year of Stroman means the drop won’t be as far as many think.
3. Arms Race
This seems funny to say when the AL East features the best offense on Earth in Toronto, and a host of huge sluggers young and old (Chris Davis, Adam Jones, David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, A-Rod, Mark Teixeira, Evan Longoria), but the division is suddenly turning into an arms race. Take a look around and some of the game’s top pitchers – both starters and relievers – reside in the East:
Baltimore – Darren O’Day, Zach Britton
Boston – David Price, Carson Smith, Craig Kimbrel
New York – Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Severino, Delin Betances, Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman
Tampa Bay – Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, Jake Odorizzi
Toronto – Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Drew Storen, Roberto Osuna
Don’t get me wrong – it will likely come down to the bats to decide a winner, but it’s interesting how the dynamics are starting to evolve.
Aside from the Price signing, the Yankees made the biggest winter splash by acquiring lights-out closer Aroldis Chapman from Cincinnati. That gives New York one of baseball’s best end-game bullpens with Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Delin Betances – maybe even surpassing KC. As amazing and fearful as that makes New York from the 7th inning on, the real question is this: does it actually make them better? The surprising answer might be no. With Chapman pitching the 9th, that moves Miller to the 8th and Betances to the 7th (replacing the departed Justin Wilson), with a mix of other players in line for the 6th. But New York was already amazing when leading after six innings last season, posting a record of 66-3 (.957 winning percentage), meaning that the addition of Chapman might only reasonably be expected to add 3 wins. Further, if they are going to rely on the starters to only pitch five innings, that means the ‘pen will be asked to throw about 650 innings, 70 more than the most worked bullpen tossed in 2015. Yes the bullpen is now off-the-charts, but it didn’t really need fixing in the first place.
Who Should Win
Who Will Win
Find out in my season prediction column in early April.