MLB on Sling: Cleveland, Boston Again the Cream of the AL Crop

Fresh off their first American League Championship in 19 years, the Indians landed the biggest name on the free agent market in hopes of taking the final step. Standing in their way will be a retooled Red Sox rotation, whoever rises out of the swamp that is the AL West, and a couple of also-rans. But it won’t be easy, because it never is. The Indians and the Sox made the two biggest off-season acquisitions, further distancing themselves from the rest of the pack, but changing little between the two of them, meaning that for the second season in a row, these two appear poised to meet in the playoffs, with the winner representing the AL in the World Series.

AL East

It’s the dawn of a new era for the Boston Red Sox, who head into their first season without David Ortiz since 2002. Ortiz went out posting arguably the greatest final season of any player in the history of the game, but the Sox got swept by the Indians in the ALDS. For 2017, GM Dave Dombrowski has essentially replaced Ortiz’s bat with that of free agent 1B Mitch Moreland, who, according to WAR, has been worth fewer wins in his 7-year career than Ortiz was worth last year.

But while Moreland takes Ortiz’s spot in the lineup, newly acquired ace Chris Sale will replace Ortiz’s production, just from the other side of the ledger. Sale will lead a staff on which the reigning AL Cy Young, Rick Porcello, will be the #3 starter, making it among the most fearsome in the bigs. And the lineup, even without Papi, should again lead the Major in runs scored, thanks to a scary good, scary young core of Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr, and 2017 RoY hopeful Andrew Benintendi.

AL Central

After coming so tantalizingly close to their first championship in more than six decades, the Cleveland Indians are back to take another crack at it. When the Red Sox traded for Sale, it appeared that Boston had become the team to beat in the AL, but the Indians countered a month later, tipping the scales by signing free agent bopper Edwin Encarnacion. Encarnacion, who’s averaged 39 homers and a 146 OPS+ over the previous five seasons, joins Jason Kipnis, Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez to give Cleveland a great infield, one that more than makes up for a suspect outfield.

The outfield added depth with Austin Jackson, but the Indians are once again hoping against hope that Michael Brantley will one day be healthy. The real story of the Indians, however, is the pitching, lead by ace Corey Kluber. If Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar can all stay healthy-ish, these guys could be a beast. And having Andrew Miller come out of the pen for a full year will be a huge boon. Oh, and if Trevor Bauer, “one of the most scientific baseball players in MLB,” could avoid launching a drone strike against himself in the midst of the playoffs, that’d be a big help, too.

AL West

Somebody has to win this division, right? It’s, like, a rule. The Rangers took the West last year with an AL-best 95 wins, but were probably the worst team ever to take their division by 9 games, as they outscored opponents by just 8 runs total. Somehow the Rangers managed to go 36-11 in one-run games, for a .766 winning percentage that ranks as the best in MLB history. That won’t happen again. If they play .500 ball in such games this year, and there’s every reason to believe they will, given the lack of a top-flight bullpen, then they’re suddenly down to 83 wins. The Astros can easily top that, thanks to the best double-play combination in baseball. Hit machine Jose Altuve and superstar Carlos Correa form the backbone of the Astros offense and defense, despite being just a combined 49 years old. With Dallas Kuechel and Lance McCullers at full strength, they’ve got a nice top of the rotation, and a solid bullpen despite the absence of a proven closer.

Wild Card

The Seattle Mariners have three big bats in Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager and Nelson Cruz. They’ve boosted their outfield defense with addition of Jarrod Dyson, and gotten a huge upgrade at short, where Jean Segura takes over. Of course, Segura’s only a huge upgrade if 2016 wasn’t a fluke, and judging by his .353 BABIP from last year, it may well have been – we’ll see. The key, as always, will be whether King Felix can right the ship, James Paxton can finally start more than 20 games, and newly acquired Yovani Gallardo can get the magic back.

There’s just too much starting pitching to count the Blue Jays out – Marcus Stroman, JA Happ, Aaron Sanchez, and Marco Estrada are all back, and joined by Francisco Liriano, who replaces RA Dickey. The lineup has taken some hits, however, with the losses of Edwin Encarnacion and Michael Saunders, but Kendrys Morales should help stanch the bleeding, and Ezequiel Carrera should – well, he probably won’t be around for long.

Dark Horse

Despite being in the midst of a slow, years-long rebuild, the Yankees have maintained a streak of 24 seasons above .500, though they’ve made the playoffs just once in the last four years. But this could be the year a new corps of young Yankees rises to return the Bombers to October. Catcher Gary Sanchez last season launched 20 dingers and posted a 1.023 OPS in 229 plate appearances, while throwing out 41% of would-be thieves; Gleyber Torres, the 20-year-old shortstop they picked up from Chicago in the Aroldis Chapman trade, has been tearing up spring training; Greg Bird returns from a lost year tending to a torn labrum to take over at 1B, and hopes to prove that 2015 was no fluke; and Aaron Judge looks like the second coming of Greg Luzinski. The rotation is shaky, though Masahiro Tanaka is a legitimate ace and CC Sabathia seems to have gotten much, if not all of his mojo back. What will Michael Pineda, Luis Severino and Chad Green bring to the table? Who knows? Between Dellin Betances, Tyler Clippard and the return of Chapman, the bullpen is in good shape.

Playoff Prediction

Wild Card: Blue Jays beat Mariners
ALDS: Indians beat Blue Jays, Red Sox beat Astros
ALCS: Indians beat Red Sox
World Series: Indians beat Dodgers

Monday, April 2

New York Yankees (Tanaka 0-0, 0.00) vs Tampa Bay Rays (Archer 0-0, 0.00)
1pm ET on ESPN

San Francisco Giants (Bumgarner 0-0, 0.00) vs Arizona Diamondbacks (Greinke 0-0, 0.00)
4pm ET on ESPN2

Chicago Cubs (Lester 0-0, 0.00) vs St Louis Cardinals (Martinez 0-0, 0.00)
8:30pm ET on ESPN

Tuesday, April 3

Atlanta Braves (Teheran 0-0, 0.00) vs New York Mets (Syndergaard 0-0, 0.00)
1pm ET on ESPN

San Diego Padres (Chacin 0-0, 0.00) vs Los Angeles Dodgers (Kershaw 0-0, 0.00)
4pm ET on ESPN

Cleveland Indians (Kluber 0-0, 0.00) vs Texas Rangers (Darvish 0-0, 0.00)
7pm ET on ESPN

Los Angeles Angels (tbd) vs Oakland A’s (Gravemen 0-0, 0.00)
10pm ET on ESPN2

Sunday, April 9

Miami Marlins (Volquez 0-0, 0.00) vs New York Mets (tk)
8pm ET on ESPN

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All stats courtesy ESPN and Baseball Reference.