With spring in the air, baseball season has rolled around once again. America’s pastime experienced one of its craziest seasons in 2016, as the long-suffering Chicago Cubs topped the almost-as-long-suffering Cleveland Indians in a series that went seven games (and then some) and kept fans on their seats the entire time. With the Cubs returning their core, the Indians getting back injured stars, and contenders like the Boston Red Sox and Washington Nationals adding major pieces, this year should be another wild ride. SST is previewing the American League here, with the National League coming next week.

American League East

Projected Standings

  1. Boston Red Sox
  2. Toronto Blue Jays
  3. New York Yankees
  4. Baltimore Orioles
  5. Tampa Bay Rays

The defending division champions, the Red Sox have one of the most dominant offenses in league history even with the departure of DH David Ortiz. OF Mookie Betts established himself as an MVP candidate last year after batting .310, hitting 31 homers and driving in 113 runs. Additionally, Boston pulled off the trade of the offseason by dealing former #1 prospect 2B/3B Yoan Moncada, fireballing prospect SP Michael Kopech, and more to the rebuilding White Sox for the best pitcher in the AL, Chris Sale. A five-time All-Star, Sale joins Cy Young winners Rick Porcello and David Price in one of the league’s best pitching staffs. The rotation goes five-deep, as Steven Wright and Drew Pomeranz both earned All-Star honors last season. The Red Sox have assembled a dangerous top-to-bottom squad, and anything less than a World Series berth would be a failure.

The Toronto Blue Jays rode their power-heavy lineup to a runner-up finish in the AL last season, and are following a similar mold this year. Former MVP 3B Josh Donaldson leads a mashing group of SS Troy Tulowitzki, OF Jose Bautista, and C Russell Martin, while OF Kevin Pillar is a defensive monster. However, the loss of 2016 RBI king DH Edwin Encarnacion to the Tribe will hurt, even with the addition of Kendrys Morales. Age is the Jays’ Achilles heel, as only 2B Devon Travis and Pillar will be under 30 by the season’s end. The rotation boasted the best ERA in baseball last year (3.64) and is a mix of young talent (Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez) and dependable veterans (Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, Francisco Liriano). Toronto should make the playoffs again this year, though time is ticking for the Blue Jays.

The Bronx Bombers are still in rebuilding mode, but they are close to ushering in the next era of Yankee dominance. The Yanks were a surprise in 2016, as they went 84-78 and were in playoff contention despite dealing stars OF Carlos Beltran, RP Andrew Miller, and RP Aroldis Chapman. The flame-throwing Cuban has returned to New York, and leads a strong bullpen that also features Dellin Betances. The Yankees will be giving the prospects from their top-ranked farm system opportunities to prove themselves, making them a team to watch down the stretch this year, with C Gary Sanchez already a star. The rotation is the team’s weakness, as the trio of Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, and CC Sabathia is inconsistent at best. The Yanks will be a threat this year, but are a year and some pitchers away from contending.

The O’s exceeded expectations in 2016, earning a wild-card berth behind DH Mark Trumbo’s league-leading 47 dingers. Long-time C Matt Wieters is gone, but Welington Castillo should be an adequate replacement. Perennial MVP candidate 3B Manny Machado is still improving, and OF Adam Jones is a dependable all-around player. The Orioles will look for improvements from Korean import OF Hyun-Soo Kim in his second season in the MLB as well. The pitching staff needs help, though there is still hope that Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy will emerge into the aces they were thought to become. All-Star closer Zach Britton is lights-out, letting up just four earned runs in 67 innings in 2016 on his way to a league-leading 47 saves. If the rotation holds up and the power rate is steady, the Orioles should be back in the postseason.

The Rays are a long way from their Moneyball-esque late 2000s-early 2010s teams that were one of the best in the league, though Tampa was able to sign defensive wizard OF Kevin Kiermaier to an extension. However, aside from 3B Evan Longoria there is little offense occurring at the Trop. OF Colby Rasmus, 2B Brad Miller, and 1B Logan Morrison are all solid veterans, but they aren’t more than that. The rotation is in better shape, with Chris Archer established as an ace. Blake Snell is a promising prospect, and Alex Cobb has been a strong starter when healthy. RP Alex Colome proved he was a capable closer in 2016, but will need to improve. Stuck in a tough division, the Rays won’t emerge from the cellar of the AL East.

American League Central

  1. Cleveland Indians
  2. Detroit Tigers
  3. Kansas City Royals
  4. Minnesota Twins
  5. Chicago White Sox

The defending AL champions should have an easy ride back to October, with the AL Central looking especially weak. The Indians have a well-rounded lineup spearheaded by 5-tool SS Francisco Lindor and bring back injured OF Michael Brantley. 34-homer DH Mike Napoli left, but the Tribe were able to pick up 42-homer DH Edwin Encarnacion. Starters Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar return from injury, which should help to decrease the load on Corey Kluber, who had a Herculean effort in pitching games 1, 4, and 7 in the World Series. RP Andrew Miller was untouchable down the stretch last year, and closer Cody Allen is reliable at the end of games. The Indians are hungry to end the now-longest championship drought in sports, and they have a good shot to do so.

The Tigers have played second fiddle recently in a division they once dominated, as the Royals and now the Indians have surpassed them. Former Triple Crown Winner 1B Miguel Cabrera has shown no signs of slowing down, making his 7th straight All-Star Game in 2016. Getting a full season out of OF J.D. Martinez will be crucial to the Tigers’ success, as he brings valuable on-base ability. The top of the rotation is Detroit’s strength, as 2016 Cy Young runner-up Justin Verlander and 2016 AL Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer is one of the best duos in the game. There are question marks behind them, however, as Anibal Sanchez and Jordan Zimmerman haven’t played up to their hefty contracts. The Tigers could contend for the playoffs but more than 87 wins would be a surprise.

Kansas City is no longer the team to beat in the AL, and they could be on the verge of a fire sale. The Royals traded RP Wade Davis to Chicago for promising OF Jorge Soler, who didn’t live up to lofty expectations in his short time in Chi-Town. Soler could be an x-factor for the Royals, who get steady production from the veteran core of OF Alex Gordon, OF Lorenzo Cain, C Salvador Perez, and 1B Eric Hosmer. The team was hit hard when SP Yordano Ventura was tragically killed in a car accident in his native Dominican Republic. The top pitcher on the staff is now Danny Duffy, who is a solid starter but no “Ace”. The rotation is filled with declining veterans; familiar names like Ian Kennedy, Jason Hammel and Jason Vargas. The bullpen, once the best unit of the World Series teams, has fallen by the wayside. If the Royals are struggling midseason, expect an overhaul at the trade deadline.

Minnesota finally has the chance to escape the basement of the AL Central after the White Sox decided to focus on the future. The Twins’ long-awaited prospects 3B Miguel Sano, OF Byron Buxton and SP Jose Berrios are expected to be on the Opening Day roster, though they have been underwhelming in their short big league careers. All-Star 2B Brian Dozier is coming off a season in which he had career bests in batting average (.268) and home runs (42). 1B Joe Mauer is far from his MVP-winning days, but remains a serviceable player. The pitching staff is a mess, with SP Ervin Santana their only dependable starter. Minnesota has a lot of work to do, but this season may not be all bad.

The White Sox said goodbye to their two best players and all hopes of reaching the playoffs this offseason, sending SP Chris Sale to the Red Sox and OF Adam Eaton to the Nationals. Their haul was substantial, as they brought in top prospects 2B/3B Yoan Moncada, SP Michael Kopech, SP Lucas Giolito, SP Reynaldo Lopez and more. However, only Moncada and Giolito are expected to get significant big-league playing time this year. The White Sox roster is essentially depleted, and veteran stars 1B Jose Abreu, 3B Todd Frazier and SP Jose Quintana could be shopped at the trade deadline. The White Sox will rebuild in 2017, so don’t expect much if you are a fan of the South Siders.

American League West

  1. Houston Astros
  2. Seattle Mariners
  3. Texas Rangers
  4. Los Angeles Angels
  5. Oakland A’s

The Astros disappointed in 2016 after emerging as a serious contender in 2015, but are poised for a strong rebound. Houston’s lineup is balanced and would be tough to handle in a postseason series. Diminutive 2B Jose Altuve is a batting average monster and one of the toughest outs in all of baseball, and young SS Carlos Correa could join him in the MVP conversation. Fellow rising stars 3B Alex Bregman and OF George Springer are flanked by veterans C Brian McCann, OF Nori Aoki, and OF Josh Reddick to round out a dangerous lineup. However, this team can’t succeed if 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel doesn’t return to form as the rotation behind him is unspectacular. Rumor has it Houston is converting SP Mike Fiers into a long reliever, which would give the bullpen a boost. If the Astros can nab a strong starting pitcher at the deadline to complement Keuchel, this team can contend for the pennant.

The Mariners have made moves in yet another effort to get themselves over the hump, bringing in speedsters SS Jean Segura and OF Jarrod Dyson and veteran hurlers Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo. 2B Robinson Cano is always in MVP talks, while 3B Kyle Seager has quietly been a consistent .270 and 25-homer guy. While some are touting Seattle as a team to beat this year, they have a number of holes, especially at first base and right field. Felix “The King” Hernandez is the ace of the staff, and the rest of the rotation is reliable. The bullpen is an unknown quantity, and could expose them as pretenders in crunch time. Seattle should earn a wild card berth this season, but doing more is unlikely.

Texas had the best record in the AL last year, but picking them to make the playoffs is difficult considering they largely got lucky in 2016. The Rangers had a 36-11 record in games decided by one run and had a run differential of a team that would have most likely won 82 games. With a veteran-dependent roster, regression is likely even with the additions of C Jonathan Lucroy and 1B Mike Napoli as well as the development of prospects 2B/SS Jurickson Profar and 1B/OF Joey Gallo. Starting pitchers Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish have ace potential, but the rest of the staff is a question mark. There are only four starters listed on Texas’ depth chart at the moment, and RP Matt Bush, the #1 pick in 2004 who didn’t make his MLB debut until last year due to a jail sentence, is listed as the primary set-up man. Texas has the lineup to play October baseball this year, but their pitching issues will hold them back.

Poor Mike Trout. The man has finished either 1st or 2nd in MVP voting in each season of his career (with the exception of his 40-game rookie year in 2011), but his generational talent is wasted on an abomination of an Angels team. The Angels worked themselves into a financial hole with the contracts of OF Josh Hamilton and DH Albert Pujols that is still costing them today, even with Hamilton on the Rangers. With the possible exception of OF Kole Calhoun, every position player on the team is mediocre. The rotation is bare after the oft-injured ace Garrett Richards, who has a 3.58 career ERA but has led the majors in wild pitches twice. In a competitive division, the Angels will fail to reach 80 wins and relevancy.

Moneyball hasn’t been working out too well for the A’s, as opponents have normalized the use of analytics when assembling a roster. Unfortunately for Oakland, those teams have significantly more financial resources. OF Khris Davis found a surprising well of power in 2016, mashing 47 homers and driving in 102 runs. OF Rajai Davis was brought in, which could give the team an element of speed. Without ace Sonny Gray, this rotation is terrible. The former All-Star’s status for the beginning of the season is in question due to injury, though he spent most of last season on the DL or getting rocked by opposing hitters. Oakland is a disaster, and anything above last place should be considered a success.

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