All posts by 500LevelFan

The Week That Was: Week 3

Every Monday during the 2017 season, 500 Level Fan will take a look back at the week that was, giving readers a snapshot of all things Blue Jays, including three top stories and the Blue Jay player of the week.

This is what happened in week 3.

Week 3: April 17 – April 23

Record: 3 – 3

Season-to-date: 5 – 13

AL East: 5th,  7.5 games behind Baltimore

Wild Card: 5.5 games behind Boston

  1. Progress

For the first time in 2017 the Jays finished a week with fewer than five losses.  After back-to-back 1-5 weeks to start the year, Toronto split six games against the Red Sox and the Angels to push its winning percentage above the .200 mark.  It certainly wasn’t pretty, but there were some signs of encouragement.  For the first time all season the Jays showed some fight, twice coming from behind in the 8th inning to win on Friday and Sunday.  They also battled back on Thursday with a 9th inning HR by Kendrys Morales off of Craig Kimbrel to force extra innings against Boston.  Jose Bautista finally hit his first HR of the season on Friday, Devon Travis broke out yesterday, and Russell Martin pushed his batting average to .149.  Obviously there is still a lot of work to be done but at least we are finally seeing some steps in the right direction.

  1. Bullpen Woes Continue

While the team as a whole is making forward progress, the same can’t be said of the bullpen.  The Jays have already used 13 different relievers and most of them have looked really, really bad.  As a unit, Toronto’s ‘pen ranks 10th in the AL with a 4.40 ERA.  and 10th with a 1.32 WHIP.  They have walked 26 batters (fifth most in the AL), and converted only 3 of 7 save opportunities.  Most concerning is that Roberto Osuna hasn’t looked right and Jason Grilli has looked awful with a 7.11 ERA.  Thank goodness for Joe Biagini (0.69 ERA in 13 IP), Danny Barnes (2 baserunners allowed in 3.2 IP), and Joe Smith (12 K in 7.2 IP).  Hopefully their success will rub off on the rest of the guys.

  1. The Stro Show

Much was expected from Marcus Stroman this year, especially after his dominating performance in the World Baseball Classic.  After a solid start to the season, Stroman was absolutely crushed by Boston on Tuesday night ,surrendering 11 hits and 6 runs in less than 5 innings.  It left many wondering if that start would cause an early season regression for the streaky pitcher.  Well Stroman answered his doubters in a huge way on Sunday by throwing his second complete game of the season against the Angels.  He needed only 99 pitches to get 27 outs, allowing only 7 hits and a walk.  He was also able to keep his composure despite a couple of egregious decisions by home plate umpire Ramon De Jesus.  Stro’s performance has been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise disappointing start for the Blue Jays.

Player of the Week

Kevin Pillar, CF

He extended his hitting streak to 11 games after a huge week: 10 for 27, 3 2B, 4 R, 2 HR, 3 RBI, 2 SB, .370 / .393 / .704 / 1.097

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

AAA – Buffalo: 11 – 4, 1st place

AA – New Hampshire: 7 – 9, 5th place, 3 GB

A+ – Dunedin: First Half: 9 – 9, 4th place, 3 GB

A – Lansing: First Half: 9 -8, T-2nd place, 1 GB

A (Short Season) – Vancouver: season not started

The Look Ahead

Pitchers get to hit!

April 24 at LA Angels

April 25 – 27 at St. Louis

April 28 – 30 vs. Tampa Bay

The Week That Was: Week 2

Every Monday during the 2017 season, 500 Level Fan will take a look back at the week that was, giving readers a snapshot of all things Blue Jays, including three top stories and the Blue Jay player of the week.

This is what happened in week 2.

Week 2: April 10 – April 16

Record: 1 – 5

Season-to-date: 2 – 10

AL East: 5th,  6.5 games behind Baltimore

Wild Card: 5 games behind Minnesota/Boston

  1. Nightmare

The Toronto Blue Jays are currently the worst team in baseball.  It is still early.  There are still 150 games to play.  But nothing about this early season performance is inspiring hope for the near future.  Many baseball pundits pegged the Jays as contenders this year as long as they stayed relatively healthy and the veteran hitters returned to form.  So far….no dice.  You want health?  Well, the closer has already been on the DL.   Last week, the team MVP and last year’s ERA champ were placed on the DL, before J.A. Happ – a 20-game winner in ’16 – left his start with an injury.  How about those vets?  Well, Russell Martin is hitting .097, Bautista has a .446 OPS with 15 strikeouts, Tulowitzki has a sub-.300 OBP, and newcomer Steve Pearce is hitting .156.  With little to no depth and a tough schedule ahead, there is a very real chance that things get worse before they get better.

  1. Situational Blues

The Jays are struggling to score runs, and one of the biggest contributors is their continual failure to come through in certain situations.  The most glaring example is with a runner on 3rd and less than 2 outs.  In these circumstances a batter doesn’t need a HR or a double to drive the run home.  In most cases, a fly ball to the outfield will suffice, and many times the opposing team is willing to concede a run on a ground ball to the middle infield.  Yet the Blue Jays constantly fail to drive that runner home.  In fact, they are the worst team in the American League at doing so….by far.  Blue Jay batters have come to the plate 22 times with a runner on 3rd and less than 2 outs, and that run has scored only 8 times, for a 36.4% success rate.  The AL average is 60.6%, the next worst team (Minnesota) is scoring that runner 42.9% of the time, and the Yankees are getting that runner home 91.7% of the time.  Toronto’s main problem?  They have struck out in 31.8% of their plate appearances compared to an AL average of 20%, led by Bautista’s 3 K’s in 5 chances.  Are Blue Jay hitters trying to do too much, maybe swinging for the fences when a lazy fly would do?  Sure seems like it….

  1. Silver Lining

It’s hard to find a silver lining in a 2-10 start with some of the top players on the roster on the DL, but here’s something the Jays and the fan base can look at for encouragement.  This has been a bad start, but the magnitude is likely exaggerated because it’s early in the schedule.  If this stretch happened later in the season the impact would be muted.  Last year, for instance, the Jays went 3-9 with a -32 run differential in September, and while it still caused concern, the fact that they were already 19 games over .500 softened the blow.  No team is immune from these stretches.  Even the mighty Cubs went 1-9 with a -32 differential last year between June 30 and July 9 and they overcame that and won the World Series.  One look at the standings can also assure Jays fans that they’re not alone.  Preseason favourites Cleveland, Seattle, Texas, St. Louis, and San Francisco are all under .500 and in last place or second last place in their divisions.  While things don’t look good, it’s certainly not over yet.

Player of the Week

Marco Estrada, P

Nice rebound for Estrada after a rough first week: 1 start, 7 IP, 0.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 8 K

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

AAA – Buffalo: 7 – 3, 1st place

AA – New Hampshire: 5 – 4, T-2nd place, 1 GB

A+ – Dunedin: First Half: 6 – 5, T-3rd place, 2 GB

A – Lansing: First Half: 6 -40, T-2nd place, 1 GB

A (Short Season) – Vancouver: season not started

The Look Ahead

It doesn’t get any easier

April 18 – 20 vs. Boston

April 21 – 24 at LA Angels

So What Happens Now?

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: solid preseason favourite gets off to tough start, fans panic.

If it sounds familiar it’s because it should.  Every year, in every sport, at least one of the supposed contenders seems to hit the skids immediately.  Last season, preseason darlings Houston, Arizona, and the Mets combined for a 9-19 start, with each club sitting in last place in mid-April.  In 2015 the same thing happened to the Yankees, National, Pirates, and Giants, as they combined for a 12-25 record.

The only difference this season is that it’s the Blue Jays who are stinking up the league.  At 1-7 they are off to the worst start in franchise history.  But this is a team that isn’t far removed from having solid World Series odds by bookmakers, and being a trendy playoff pick by sports sites.  So what happened?

The easy answer is that the team is simply not hitting.  And that’s true.  The Jays are dead last in the AL in runs scored with only 23 in 8 games.  They sit dead last with a .190 average, second last with a .272 OBP, and dead last with a .276 slugging percentage.  A team that seemingly lives and dies with the long ball has hit only 4 HR so far, or less than the Orioles hit in the first two innings alone last night.  Toronto is averaging just over 6 hits per game, and has only tallied 15 extra base hits all season.  They also have 0 stolen bases and are hitting a dismal .143 with runners in scoring position.

In short, the bats are cold.  Ice cold.

But trust me: things aren’t as bad as they seem.  It struck me yesterday how unlucky the team has been.  We have seen Tulo hit ropes that find gloves.  We have seen Morales crush line drives that are knocked down by diving infielders.  Bautista has hit the ball very hard only to have it travel directly at an outfielder.  Meanwhile we watched Ray and Brewer hitters find holes with little dribblers, and hit flares that just drop in.  In fact, an inch or two here and there and it’s not inconceivable that the Jays could be 7-1 instead of 1-7.

The data backs this up as well.  According Fangraphs, the Jays are in the middle of the pack in both line drive percentage (9th at 19.9%) and hard hit ball percentage (8th at 30.5%).  They also rank in the middle of the pack in both strikeout and walk percentage.  This tells us that aren’t striking out a ton, still reaching base, and aren’t simply hitting weak ground balls and pop-ups.   In fact, the two teams with profiles most similar to Toronto’s are the A’s and Yankees, each of whom are .500 or better.  This simply isn’t the profile of a 1-7 squad.

There’s always the possibility that every single one of Toronto’s veterans (Bautista, Tulowitzki, Morales, Martin, Pearce) have started to suddenly and sharply decline at exactly the same time.  But more likely is that players are battling both bad luck and bad starts.  With track records like these guys have, it should only be a matter of time until balls start finding holes.

And as a Jays fan if it makes you feel any better, they are asking the same questions in Boston, Cleveland, Kansas City, Seattle, Texas, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, where those preseason contenders are a combined 21-38.

Look, with 4.9% of the schedule played, Jays have played the equivalent of 0.79 games of an NFL schedule and 4 games of an NHL schedule.  Nobody wrote off the Falcons or Cowboys when they started 0-1, or the Ducks (0-3-1) or Flames (1-2-1) for their slow starts.

If the Blue Jays are still sporting a sub-.200 winning percentage in mid-May, then we can worry.

But on April 13th?

Forget about it.

The Week That Was: Week 1

Every Monday during the 2017 season, 500 Level Fan will take a look back at the week that was, giving readers a snapshot of all things Blue Jays, including three top stories and the Blue Jay player of the week.

This is what happened in week 1.

Week 1: April 3 – April 9

Record: 1 – 5

Season-to-date: 1 – 5

AL East: 5th,  3.5 games behind Baltimore

Wild Card: 2.5 games behind Detroit/Boston/Houston

  1. Rough Start

Oh boy.  That is NOT how we drew it up.  The 2017 MLB season kicked off last week with the Jays dropping five of six to sink to dead last in the AL East.  The 1-5 start was the club’s worst since 2004, a season in which the Jays lost 94 games.  Absolutely nothing went right for Toronto, on either side of the ball.  The pitching staff as a whole surrendered 7 HR.  The starting rotation posted a 4.83 ERA.  The bullpen was tagged with three losses, including one via bases loaded walk.  The hitters only managed a .201 average and .576 OPS, while striking out 50 times.  They only hit .150 with RISP, failing to come up with key hits several times.  But if there is a silver lining it’s this: for as bad as the Blue Jays played, they had a chance to win four of the five games they lost, and are a couple of breaks away from being 5-1.  Bottom line – this is a good team.  Don’t panic.

  1. Bullpen Woes

It seems like every single season the Toronto Blue Jays are in a constant battle to improve their bullpen.  Players shuffle in and out with hopes of creating an airtight relief corps to make late-inning leads automatic.  More often than not, the ‘pen seems to scuffle.  Sadly, after six games 2017 is no exception.  Already thin due to the DL stint of Osuna, Toronto’s RP were battered around last week.  Grilli surrendered a walkoff HR to Trumbo on Opening Day.  Tepera and Howell failed to hold a 7-6 lead on Friday, before Casey Lawrence walked in the winning run in extra innings on Saturday.  All eight of Toronto’s relievers surrendered at least one run during the season’s opening week.  It’s still early, but these signs are worrying.

  1. Where’s the O?

It’s not only the relievers who are struggling: Blue Jay batters have been nowhere in sight.  Russell Martin, a notorious slow starter, is off to yet another slow start, going 0 for 14 to start the year.  Devon Travis is 3 for 23, Tulo is 3 for 24, Morales is 5 for 24, and Bautista is a mere 3 for 22.  Combined, that makes five of Toronto’s key offensive cogs 14 for 107.  Josh Donaldson has picked up right where he left off and Kevin Pillar is off to a nice start, but when the third highest OPS on the team belongs to Justin Smoak, things aren’t right.  Let’s just chalk this off to opening week jitters.

Player of the Week

Josh Donaldson, 3B

Great start for the perennial MVP candidate: 8 for 23, 1 2B, 2 HR, 5 R, 3 RBI, .348 / .444 / .652 / 1.097

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

AAA – Buffalo: 3 – 0, T-1st place

AA – New Hampshire: 1 – 2, T-4th place, 2 GB

A+ – Dunedin: First Half: 2 – 2, T-2nd place, 1 GB

A – Lansing: First Half: 4 – 0, 1st place

A (Short Season) – Vancouver: season not started

The Look Ahead

The Home Opener, plus a chance at revenge against the O’s

April 11 – 12 vs. Milwaukee

April 13 – 16 vs. Baltimore

Relax Kids

 

“Relax, kid.  We got 162 of these games to go.” – Jake Taylor

It’s not often that I get to open a post with a quote from Jake Taylor.  For those who aren’t aware, those words were spoken by Taylor, a grizzled veteran on the Cleveland Indians, to rookie pitcher Rick Vaughn minutes before Opening Day in 1989.  Vaughn, sitting near his locker,  was visibly nervous before being reminded: it’s a long season.

Of course, neither of those players are real, that quote being from Major League the greatest baseball movie of all time.  But that doesn’t change the fact that the words are 100% accurate., and that today seems like a very opportune time to state them.

Social media is a great and very useful thing, but it also has the ability to rile people and start mass panic.  Case-in-point the hours immediately following Mark Trumbo’s walkoff HR that gave Baltimore an Opening Day victory over the Blue Jays.  Suddenly, any excitement that was generated from the return of the Jays and having baseball back after a long winter was gone.

Instead?  How about:

  • The Jays can’t hit with runners-in-scoring position just like last year.  This will be an issue all season long.
  • After seeing Edwin’s performance with Cleveland and Bautista’s performance it’s clear that Toronto re-signed the wrong free agent.  Bautista’s days of being an elite slugger are gone.
  • Russell Martin still strikes out way too much and looks past his prime.
  • Tulo is on the decline.
  • Grilli is too old and is not a viable late-inning relief option.  With Osuna on the DL the bullpen is screwed.
  • It’s clear that Donaldson is hurt.
  • Releasing Upton was the worst move Atkins could have made, leaving the team without an OF replacement and no speed on the bench.

Does that about cover everything?

At this point in my life, after years of running this blog and of following fans on Twitter, I shouldn’t be surprised.  Yet somehow I continue to be.  Within hours the Toronto Blue Jays went from a solid contender to winning the AL East to a team that looks finished in the eyes of many.  Not in the eyes of everybody, but in a staggeringly high number of people.

Relax.  Seriously – there are 161 more games to go.  The season is 0.62% complete.  By my best guesses, even the very best team in baseball will lose at least 55-60 games this year.  Even the very best teams in the game will lose a game they probably should have won, or lose a few games in a row.  No team is immune.  Baseball is a marathon.

Do you know who else lost on Opening Day?  The Cubs.  The Giants.  The Yankees.  The Rangers.  The Mariners.  Each of those teams is expected to challenge for a postseason spot as well.

I feel like a broken record pointing this out year after year, but it bears repeating: it’s one game.  The Jays will be fine.

And if you won’t take my word for it, at least listen to Jake.

25 Blue Jay Predictions for 2017

Opening Day is here, and with that it’s time to post the final prediction column of the year.  In past  Blue Jays prediction columns, I have gone all in on guys like Eric Thames, Colby Rasmus, and Colt Hynes.  Oops, oops, and oops!

So who will be my darling this year?

Here are 25 predictions about Toronto’s upcoming season.  Enjoy!

1. Jose Bautista enjoys a huge bounce-back season, posting an OPS over .950.

2. Kendrys Morales puts up better power numbers in Toronto than Edwin Encarnacion does in Cleveland.

3. Josh Donaldson finished in the top-3 of AL MVP voting.

4. Marcus Stroman proves that his performance in the WBC was no fluke by leading the AL in wins.

5. One of Joe Smith and J.P. Howell has a tremendous season, leading the Jays in IP for relievers.  The other does not and is off the team by the end of July.

6. All five of Toronto’s starters make at least 25 starts.

7. Kevin Pillar hits over .290.

8. Steve Pearce, Kendrys Morales, Justin Smoak, Jose Bautista, and Ryan Goins each make multiple starts at 1B before…..

9. ……Toronto acquires a more permanent solution at the trade deadline.

10. Zeke steals 25+ bases.

11. The Blue Jays post a winning record against every member of the AL East.

12. Saltalamacchia keeps Russell Martin fresh by making over 50 starts behind the plate.

13. The extra rest allows for Martin to have a more productive season, keeping his OPS closer to .800.

14. One Blue Jay joins Carlos Delgado by hitting 4 HR in a single game.

15. Marco Estrada finally does what he has come close to doing on multiple occasions – throw a no-hitter.

16. The longest hitting streak by a Toronto batter will exceed 25 games.

17. The longest scoreless inning streak by a Toronto pitcher will exceed 25 innings.

18. Rowdy Tellez has at least 20 AB this season.

19. On May 8, Edwin makes his Toronto return.  He will be greeted by a 3-minute standing ovation and promptly go deep in his first AB.

20. But the Jays get a bit of revenge on Cleveland and win the season series.

21. Tulowitzki avoids the DL and puts up his best season as a member of the Jays.

22. Toronto scores 10 or more runs in a game 15 times in 2017.

23.  At least five RP from outside the organization make an appearance.

24. Dalton Pompey makes a meaningful contribution out of the LF spot in September.

25. The Jays stay neck-and-neck with Boston all season long before sneaking past them in the season’s final week to win the East.

2017 MLB Predictions

Over the past week and a half, 500 Level Fan has posted a preview of each of MLB’s six divisions.  Now it’s time to up the ante.  No more “previewing”.  It’s now time to “predict”.

As always, my predictions should not be wagered upon by anybody, because they will likely all be wrong.

The 500 Level Fan predictions will be split over two columns.  The first covers MLB predictions, including final standings, playoff results, award winners, and some miscellaneous categories.  The second will focus on the Blue Jays, with some individual and team predictions.

So sit back, read on, try not to laugh, and get ready to comment.

American League Predictions

East

1. Toronto

2. Boston

3. Baltimore

4. New York

5. Tampa Bay

Thoughts: Morales adequately replaces EE, Bautista has a huge bounce back season, and the rotation repeats its 2016 dominance…..Red Sox might have a better team on paper, but the injury to Price hurts, Porcello drops back to Earth, and Sale’s transition to the AL East is rough…..Exact same Baltimore team as last year, one that is heavily reliant on the bullpen.  That rarely works out well two years in a row.…..New York is a year away from true contention, but this year will lay the groundwork for the future…..The Rays’ offense just can’t pick up the great arms, which will force at least one starter to be dealt away before the deadline.

Central

1. Cleveland

2. Detroit

3. Kansas City

4. Minnesota

5. Chicago

Thoughts: Edwin keeps the offense going, but having Salazar and Carrasco back for a full season is the difference maker for Cleveland…..Last chance for the Tigers.  The aging core remains competitive, falling just short…..It’s time for the Royals to dismantle the core, and a rough start will have them selling in July…..Things can’t get any worse than last year for the Twins.  The young players finally show they belong in the big leagues…..Jose Quintana will be traded soon.  The biggest question in Chicago is when do Frazier, Cabrera, and Abreu go?

West

1. Houston

2. Seattle

3. Texas

4. Los Angeles

5. Oakland

Thoughts: The Astros added some big names, and those additions will help them avoid the terrible start that doomed them last year.  They are just too talented to finish second…..Pencil me in as a Mariners believer.  They won’t challenge for the division but will hold off the rest of the AL to secure a Wild Card…..Just can’t see Texas making its way back to October.  I don’t trust any of the starters to stay healthy…..Another year, another hollow, playoff-less MVP season for Mike Trout…..Oakland, as always, is a mystery.  Would anybody be surprised if they lost 100 or won 100?

Wildcards

Mariners and Red Sox

Stat Leaders

HR – Chris Davis, BAL

RBI – Miguel Cabrera, DET

Average – Jose Altuve, HOU

SB – Jarrod Dyson, SEA

Wins – Marcus Stroman, TOR

ERA – Corey Kluber, CLE

K – Chris Archer, TB

Sv – Zach Britton, BAL

Awards & Miscellany

MVP – Mike Trout, LAA

Cy Young – Corey Kluber, CLE

Rookie – Andrew Benintendi, BOS

Manager – John Gibbons, TOR

Bounceback Player – Jose Bautista, TOR

Most Disappointing Player – David Price, BOS

First Major Player Traded – Lorenzo Cain, KC

National League Predictions

East

1. Washington

2. NY Mets

3. Miami

4. Atlanta

5. Philadelphia

Thoughts: Expect Harper to have a huge rebound season, Scherzer and Roark to continue to dominate, and Trea Turner to develop into a star…..If the New York’s starters can ever stay healthy this team would dominate.  But until we see anything from Matt Harvey I think the Wild Card is the best bet…..Miami is a confusing team, seemingly always good enough to contend but never quite putting it all together.  Nothing changes this year…..New stadium + promising rookies + dependable veterans = a step in the right direction for the Braves…..Unfortunately, expect a step back from the Phillies.

Central

1. Chicago

2. Pittsburgh

3. St. Louis

4. Milwaukee

5. Cincinnati

Thoughts: The Cubs are the defending champs and still have a scary looking team.  Nobody can touch them in the division…..I expect a huge comeback season from McCutchen, with the Pirates making a late charge for the playoffs…..The loss of Alex Reyes hurts St. Louis, and despite adding Fowler they don’t quite have enough to reach October…..Very intrigued with the Brewers roster, especially Eric Thames, but this season might be more about where Ryan Braun ends up…..Cincinnati could be the worst team in baseball.  Poor Joey Votto.

West

1. Los Angeles

2. Colorado

3. San Francisco

4. Arizona

5. San Diego

Thoughts: The Dodgers were destroyed by injury in 2016 and still nearly knocked off the Cubs in the NLCS.  Expect more of the same in 2017 (without the injuries)…..I have a feeling about the Rockies.  They finally have pitching to at least keep up with their mashers, and will surprise many…..The Giants are on their way down.  Not even Bumgarner and Posey can save them…..Arizona is a mess…..San Diego is a bigger mess.

Wildcards

Mets and Pirates

Stat Leaders

HR – Nolan Arenado, COL

RBI – Nolan Arenaco, COL

Average – Joey Votto, CIN

SB – Billy Hamilton, CIN

Wins – Clayton Kershaw, LAD

ERA – Noah Syndergaard, NYM

K – Clayton Kershaw, LAD

Sv – Kenley Jansen, LAD

Awards

MVP – Bryce Harper, WAS

Cy Young – Clayton Kershaw, LAD

Rookie – Dansby Swanson, ATL

Manager – Dave Roberts, LAD

Bounceback Player – Andrew McCutchen, PIT

Most Disappointing Player – Mark Melancon, SF

First Major Player Traded – Ryan Braun, MIL

Playoffs

American League

Wildcard Round – Red Sox over Mariners

ALDS – Indians over Red Sox, Jays over Astros

ALCS – Jays over Indians

National League

Wild Card Round – Pirates over Mets

NLDS – Cubs over Pirates, Dodgers over Nationals

NLCS – Dodgers over Cubs

World Series

They still have a great rotation, a great offense, and hey – this is a Jays blog.  Let’s play homers and pick the Jays over the Dodgers in 6.

2017 Division Previews – American League East

Welcome to the final edition of 500 Level Fan’s divisional preview series.  As usual, we saved the best for last – the AL East.

Defending Champion

Boston Red Sox

Past Five Champions

2016 – Boston

2015 – Toronto

2014 – Baltimore

2013 – Boston

2012 – New York

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 94.8

Best Player

Mookie Betts, Boston Red Sox

It’s hard to pick against any of the other superstars in this division (Donaldson, Machado, etc.) but Betts really came into his own last season.  As a 23-year old, Betts finished second in AL MVP voting, was named an All-Star, and won both a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger.  He finished in the top-10 in the AL in WAR (9.6), AVG (.318), SLG (.534), OPS (.897), R (122), 2B (42), 3B (5), RBI (113), and SB (26).  He was also one of baseball’s best fielders with a +32 DRS.  After David Ortiz’s retirement the Red Sox still have Dustin Pedroia linking them to the glory years, but it’s clear that  Boston is now Betts’ team.

Honourable Mention: Josh Donaldson, Blue Jays; Manny Machado, Orioles

Best Pitcher

Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox

David Price is the bigger name and Rick Porcello is the Cy Young winner but when Boston acquired Chris Sale in the offseason he instantly became the division’s top pitcher.  2016 marked the 5th straight season that Sale finished in the top-6 in Cy voting.  his average season over that time frame?  How does 14-9, 3.04 ERA, 203 IP, 227 K, and a 1.06 WHIP sound?  Last season Sale publicly stated that he was interested in trading strikeouts for longevity, and the deal worked: his K numbers dipped from 275 to 233, but his IP increased from 208 to 226.  It will be interesting to see if his usual dominance carries over to the AL East.

Honourable Mention: David Price, Red Sox; Aaron Sanchez, Blue Jays

Three Storylines For 2017

1. Boston Arms

There’s no denying that the Red Sox are loaded offensively.  Even with the retirement of David Ortiz, Boston still boasts Pedroia, Betts, Bogaerts, Benintendi, Bradley Jr, and Hanley Ramirez.  On paper they also boast one of baseball’s best pitching staffs, led by David Price, Rick Porcello, Chris Sale, Drew Pomeranz, Craig Kimbrel and Tyler Thornburg.  But quite often what’s on paper doesn’t translate to the field.  Despite his 17-9 record, Price posted his worst ERA since his rookie season and will now miss time with elbow soreness.  After six straight middling seasons Porcello came out of nowhere last year and is a serious regression candidate.  Sale has never faced the AL East for an entire season, something that derailed Kimbrel and Pomeranz last year.  And Thornburg is already dealing with shoulder soreness himself.  The last time Boston was the consensus favourite to win the division they finished dead last.  The pitching will determine if they can avoid that fate this time around.

2. Blue Jays Post Edwin

After 22-years in the baseball wilderness, the Blue Jays reached the ALCS in back-to-back seasons, yet enter 2017 with a hostile and angry fan base.  That’s what happens when you let icon and fan-favourite Edwin Encarnacion walk away.  Unfortunately the anger over the EE bungling (no matter which side you’re on) overshadowed what might have been a pretty good offseason by Shapiro and Atkins.  New acquisition Kendrys Morales will never replace Edwin in the hearts of fans, but he should do an adequate job in the batters box.  He’s actually younger than EE and hit 30 HR in a pitchers park last season.  Add a few sneaky good pickups in Steve Pearce, Joe Smith, and J.P Howell, plus a full season from Francisco Liriano and Jason Grilli and the Jays seem to be in good shape.  There are still holes in LF and 1B, but with baseball’s best rotation and a highly motivated Jose Bautista returning, Toronto should contend.

3. Brand New  Yankees

The Yankees did something in 2016 that hadn’t been seen in decades – they sold.  After dominating the league for 20 years with their unlimited resources, the Yanks engaged in some fiscal prudence in an effort to make the team younger and better at the same time.  New York enters 2017 without Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, and Andrew Miller, but with a fully stocked farm system.  Many of those youngsters will be a part of the big league team, including Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, and Aaron Judge.  However, the turnover is not fully complete.  Players like Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and CC Sabathia remain, and just to prove that you can never take the big spender out of the Bronx, they threw money at Matt Holliday and Aroldis Chapman.  The result is a team that might be either on its way down or its way up, something an entire generation of Yankees fans is unaccustomed to seeing.

Interesting Stat

Though many didn’t like the signing, Toronto’s new DH Kendrys Morales has a great shot of replacing most, if not all, of Edwin Encarnacion’s offensive production.  Unfortunately, his presence in the lineup comes with a caveat: he can’t play defense.  While EE was able to rake while playing 1B – thus enabling Toronto to use the DH as a rotating spot – Morales will DH almost exclusively.  That means unless Pearce or Bautista can play first, Justin Smoak will likely be an everyday player.  Last season there were 137 players in the AL with 300+ plate appearances.  Of that group, Smoak finished the year ranked 132 in WAR at -0.4.  Of the players behind him, two are now retired (Teixeira and Prince Fielder), and the other three enter 2017 either unsigned or as fringe MLB-ers (Dioner Navarro, Billy Burns, Eduardo Escobar).  That means that Toronot, a team expecting to contend in the AL East, will likely be using the worst regular in baseball as its everyday first baseman.  That…..is not good.

Who Should Win

Boston

Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column at the end of March

2017 Division Previews – American League Central

Welcome to part five of 500 Level Fan’s season preview series. Today’s focus is on the AL Central.

Defending Champion

Cleveland Indians

Past Five Champions

2016 – Cleveland

2015 – Kansas City

2014 – Detroit

2013 – Detroit

2012 – Detroit

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 92.0

Best Player

Francisco Lindor, Cleveland Indians

Francisco Lindor only made his major league debut midway through the 2015 season but has already established himself as one of the top players in the game.  In his first full season in the big leagues, Lindor posted a .301 / .358 / .435 / .794 slash line with 15 HR, 78 RBI, 99 R, and 19 SB.  He is also an elite fielder with a +17 DRS metric that ranks him as the second best defensive shortstop in the AL.  And if that wasn’t enough, Lindor also proved that he has nerves of steel, refusing to wilt under the intense pressure of postseason baseball.  He posted a .310 / .355 / .466 / .820 slash line in leading Cleveland to within one run of the World Series title.  To top it all off?  He’s only 23.

Honourable Mention: Miguel Cabrera, Tigers; Edwin Encarnacion, Indians

Best Pitcher

Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers

Just when you thought he was finished, Verlander turned back the clock with an outstanding 2016.  After two straight down seasons, Verlander topped the AL with 254 strikeouts and a 1.00 WHIP while posting a 16-9 record and a 3.04 ERA.  He (arguably unjustly) finished second in Cy Young voting and even cracked the top-20 in MVP balloting.  The most impressive part of Verlander’s campaign was how he finished it.  At a time when many players on the wrong side of 30 were wearing down late in seasons, Verlander went the other way, posting an 8-3 record, 1.96 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, .180 opponent batting average, and 134 strikeouts in his final 16 starts from mid-July to early October.  He almost single-handedly kept an underperforming Tigers team in the playoff chase right down to the season’s final day.

Honourable Mention: Corey Kluber, Indians; Jose Quintana, White Sox

Three Storylines For 2017

1. Edwin Goes to Cleveland

The Cleveland Indians came within an eyelash of winning the city’s first World Series since 1948,.  Instead of sitting back and hoping the same core could take that one extra step, the Indians shocked the baseball world by signing the top available power hitting free agent.  After being linked to teams like Boston, New York, Houston, Texas, Colorado, and his previous team in Toronto, Encarnacion chose the Indians with a 3-year $60-million deal.  Edwin’s presence in the lineup will more than compensate for the loss of Mike Napoli to free agency and provides Cleveland with a true slugger, arguably baseball’s most consistent masher over the past five years.  Add to that a full season of bullpen ace Andrew Miller and the return of Michael Brantley, Danny Salazar, and Carlos Carrasco, and you have the clear favourite in the Central.

2. Talent Exodus

2017 could be a very interesting year in terms of who ends up leaving the division.  The White Sox have already started a rebuild by dealing Adam Eaton and Chris Sale, and releasing Brett Lawrie.  Closer David Robertson, starter Jose Quintana, and position players like Melky Cabrera and Todd Frazier (and maybe Jose Abreu?) could be next.  There is every reason to believe that Minnesota will send 42-HR second baseman Brian Dozier packing.  And with Cleveland the prohibitive front-runners, a slow start by either of Detroit or Kansas City might see those clubs start moving big name pieces.  It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Ian Kinsler, Justin Verlander, or even (gulp) Miguel Cabrera on the move.

3. Minnesota Kids

Banking a team’s future on prospects is a dangerous proposition: for every Mike Trout there is a Kevin Maas.  That is why the Minnesota Twins are so interesting this year.  The Twins are banking their future on not just one, but five highly rated prospects, each aged 23 or younger.  Outfielders Byron Buxton (2) and Max Kepler (30), infielder Jorge Polanco (99), and starting pitcher Jose Berrios (28) were each ranked in Baseball America’s top-100 prospect list in 2016, and third baseman Miguel Sano was #13 on the 2015 list.  All five are expected to be on the Opening Day roster and bear the responsibility of bringing the Twins back to respectability.  However, the early major league returns have not been great.  All four position players posted OPS totals of below .800 in 2016, Buxton and Sano struck out at alarming rates, and Berrios was an outright disaster on the mound (3-7, 8.02 ERA).  Minnesota will be preaching patience but if the quintet continues to struggle, both the near and long-term future will be bleak.

Interesting Stat

4.22.  That was Detroit’s bullpen ERA in 2016, 3rd worst in the AL.  Unfortunately for Tigers fans, that was nothing new.  The Tigers finished 14th in bullpen ERA in 2015, 13th in 2014, 12th in 2013, 10th in 2012, and 11th in 2011.  They haven’t finished in the single digits since 2010 and haven’t finished in the top half since 2006.  So what did Detroit do this offseason to improve their putrid pen?  Absolutely nothing.  But that might actually be a good thing.  Detroit has seemingly been making an effort to remake its ‘pen for years, employing a different setup man / closer combo each season since 2012.  By bringing back mostly the same group in mostly the same slots, maybe familiarity will lead to better results.  After all, it can’t get much worse.

Who Should Win

Cleveland

Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column at the end of March

2017 Division Previews – American League West

Welcome to part four of 500 Level Fan’s season preview series.  Today’s focus is on the AL West.

Defending Champion

Texas Rangers

Past Five Champions

2016 – Texas

2015 – Texas

2014 – Los Angeles

2013 – Oakland

2012 – Oakland

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 94.2

Best Player

Mike Trout, LA Angels

Is an explanation even necessary?  Trout put up yet another unbelievable season in 2016.  He led the league in Runs (123), Walks (116), OBP (.441), OPS+ (171), and WAR (10.6), while winning his second MVP award.  In fact, the 10.6 WAR was tied for the 113th best single season mark in big league history, tied for the 40th best single mark since 1920, and tied for the 6th best season since 2000. And the scary thing is that he seems to be getting even better.  From 2015 to 2016 Trout reduced his number of strikeouts by 21, walked 24 more times, stole 19 more bases, and improved his defensive metrics.  About the only thing he didn’t do was drag his injury riddled team into the playoffs.  Just give him the 2017 MVP now.

Honourable Mention: Jose Altuve, Astros; Robinson Cano, Mariners

Best Pitcher

Cole Hamels, Texas Rangers

Last season was a real down y ear for pitching in the AL West.  Many of the division’s aces struggled, either with injury, underperformance, or decline.  Names like Darvish, Hernandez, Iwakuma, Gray, Keuchel, McCullers, and Shoemaker left a lot to be desired.  And then there was Cole Hamels who put up his typical All-Star worthy season.  It was another 200-inning, 200-strikeout, sub-3.50 ERA campaign for the lefty, who added a 15-5 record to the mix.  More importantly for the Rangers was the fact that he made all 32 starts, providing stability to a rotation that badly needed it.

Honourable Mention: Felix Hernandez, Mariners; Yu Darvish, Rangers

Three Storylines For 2017

1. Texas Threepeat?

In 2015 the Texas Rangers lost Yu Darvish for the season yet somehow won the AL West.  In 2016 they dealt with the sudden and abrupt retirement of Prince Fielder, a half-season from Darvish, a year-long injury saga with Josh Hamilton, and a middling +8 run differential to somehow outlast Houston and repeat.  All of which begs the following questions: what will go wrong in 2017 and how will they once again overcome?  IF they are to threepeat they will do so with a different roster.  Gone are Mitch Moreland, 2016 standout Ian Desmond, and trade deadline acquisition Carlos Beltran.  But fellow deadline pickup Jonathan Lucroy is back for a full season, Darvish is (presumably) healthy, and Texas brought back Mike Napoli to try and plug the DH hole.  The big questions are in the rotation.  Will Darvish stay healthy and will new signees Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner provide anything?  If so, the Rangers are set up well to once again lose to the Jays in the ALDS.

2. Houston Going for Broke

2016 was a mess for Houston.  A year after making the playoffs for the first time with their young core, a terrible start put the Astros in a hole they couldn’t dig themselves out of.  The team regressed to 84 wins and an October spent watching TV.  To rectify that, Astro management decided to go all-in on 2017.  They opened up their wallets and brought in Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, Josh Reddick, Nori Aoki, and Charlie Morton.  The absurdly talented core returns intact, with Altuve, Correa, Springer, and Bregman bolstering the lineup.  The season may hinge on an inconsistent rotation.  If 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel can return from shoulder surgery and find his form, this one scary, scary team.

3. Breaking Another Drought?

The Seattle Mariners are the current holders of a title that nobody wants: baseball’s longest playoff drought.  But if there is good news for the Mariners it’s that baseball has been in a habit of breaking droughts recently.  The Giants broke a 56-year World Series drought in 2010.  The Pirates broke a 21-year playoff drought in 2013.  The Royals broke a 29-year playoff drought in 2014.  The Blue Jays broke a 22-year playoff drought in 2015.  And of course the Cubs broke a 108-year World Series drought last season.  The Mariners haven’t reached October since 2001, but they sit poised to end that dark period in 2017.  Jerry Dipoto took his 86-win team that barely missed the playoffs and made a ton of moves to put them over the hump.  In are Jarrod Dyson, Yovani Gallardo, Carlos Ruiz, Jean Segura, Danny Valencia, and Drew Smyly.  Electric closer Edwin Diaz will handle the 9th inning for a full season, and with Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, and Robinson Cano all back, this is a team that could make some noise.

Interesting Stat

It’s hard to be blown away anymore by Mike Trout.  The guy is simply unreal.  But let’s try: In five full seasons (plus a 40-game stint in 2011) Trout has compiled a career WAR of 48.5, a total that places him 327th on MLB’s all time list.  To reiterate, Trout has played only five full major league seasons and doesn’t turn 26 until August, yet he already ranks in the top 2% of all players to ever play the game.  If his 2017 performance matches 2016, Trout will pass such notables as Sandy Koufax, Nellie Fox, Ralph Kiner, Dennis Martinez, Bernie Williams, Fred Lynn, Minnie Minoso, Kirby Puckett, Fred McGriff, Davit Ortiz, and Whitey Ford on the career list.  Projecting future performance is a fool’s game but Trout is on a historic pace, one that could conceivably see him cross the 100-WAR threshold by the time he hits his early 30’s.  For perspective, only 32 players in major league history have ever reached that mark, and Trout might get there still in his relative prime.  Incredible.

Who Should Win

Houston

Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column at the end of March.