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Aug. 26, 2017 - Source: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images North America

Brett Borzelli

Renewing Hostilities: AL East Preview 2018

Will the Red Sox three-peat as division champs? Or will the Yankees overtake their archrivals to win the AL East for the first time since 2012? Brett Borzelli breaks it down.

It seems like more often than not, the American League East race comes down to Boston versus New York. Last year was no exception. The Yankees led the division for most of the first half of the season, but the Red Sox took over for good on August 1st. The Bronx Bombers nipped at their heels all the way until the final weekend, finishing only two games back and capturing the top Wild Card berth.

The archrivals made some roster changes during the offseason, as did the Orioles, Blue Jays, and Rays. Let’s take a look at what’s in store for the AL East in 2018.

Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays lost two of their top starting pitchers this winter. Jake Odorizzi was traded to the Twins, while Alex Cobb declined the qualifying offer he received and remains a free agent. Tampa also jettisoned four of its best offensive players in Steven Souza (4.2 WAR), Logan Morrison (3.6 WAR), Evan Longoria (3.6 WAR), and Corey Dickerson (2.7 WAR).

Rays’ starter Chris Archer called the moves “tough” and “perplexing” and said the team as a whole is now worse than before. No argument here. Tampa Bay’s farm system is renowned for continuously producing talented players, starting pitchers in particular, but the team seems to be stuck in perpetual rebuilding mode.

Center fielder Kevin Kiermaier (5.1 WAR) is the sole remaining player who contributed more than 2.0 WAR in 2017. Besides Archer (1.2 WAR), the Rays will rely on Jake Faria (1.4 WAR) and Blake Snell (1.0 WAR) to head up their rotation. They also have two-time Tommy John surgery recipient Nathan Eovaldi — who hasn’t pitched since 2016 — to fill out their announced four-man rotation. Top prospect Brent Honeywell recently underwent Tommy John surgery and is out for the year, so Matt Andriese (0.1 WAR) will likely be the fifth starter when they need one.

Before the Rays discarded six of their best players, FanGraphs had them projected to win the AL’s second Wild Card spot. The projections have since been downgraded to 78 wins. I don’t even see them winning that many. Tampa Bay could easily be headed to a 100-loss season.

Toronto Blue Jays

Last season, the only team in the division that scored fewer runs than Tampa (694) was Toronto (693). The Blue Jays offense relied on Josh Donaldson (4.8 WAR), Justin Smoak (3.2 WAR), and Kevin Pillar (2.8 WAR). Perennial All-Star and MVP candidate Jose Bautista posted a career-low -1.7 WAR and remains a free agent.

The Jays desperately need help in their lineup and inked Curtis Granderson and Kendrys Morales to that end. The question is, will they be enough to put the team back in the playoff picture?

Toronto also has issues surrounding its rotation. The Jays boast a pair of young guns in Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez to complement veterans, Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ. They also added journeyman Jaime Garcia to be their fifth starter.

The trio at the top of the rotation were a big reason the Blue Jays won the division in 2015 and a Wild Card the following year. Unfortunately, Stroman is currently injured and is doubtful for Opening Day. As well, there are questions at the bottom with Happ and Garcia.

Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles were eighth in the league in runs scored (743) and next-to-last in run differential (-98) last season. Their pitching was brutal. For 20 straight games in June, Orioles’ hurlers coughed up at least five runs. The club did little in the offseason to improve.

Baltimore inked starter Andrew Cashner to a two-year deal. He had a 4.61 FIP and 1.32 WHIP over 28 starts with the Rangers in 2017. Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, and Chris Tillman are the mainstays of the Orioles’ rotation, while 24-year-old Gabriel Ynoa is expected to step up as the fifth starter. FanGraphs projects three of these starters to post ERAs over five.

The O’s got off to a fast start last year, spending virtually all of April and part of May in first place. They finished 18 games out. With a tepid offense and a pitching staff that regularly serves up in-game batting practice, it’s hard to imagine them faring any better this time around. Stars Adam Jones, Manny Machado, and Zach Britton will all be free agents following the season, so Baltimore could be headed toward a trade-deadline sell-off.

Boston Red Sox

Despite winning the division, the Red Sox struggled mightily on offense last season. They finished 27th overall in home runs (last in the AL), tenth in runs scored (sixth in the AL), and 22nd in OPS (11th in the AL). They also finished 14th in the league in slugging average, fifth in on-base percentage, and ninth in batting average.

After barely edging out the Yankees to claim the East, the Sox suffered another disappointingly early playoff exit in the Division Series. Changes were needed, so Alex Cora was brought in to manage. Following a long courtship, the Red Sox also landed slugger J.D. Martinez (2.6 WAR) to be the centerpiece of their revamped lineup.

The Red Sox boast perennial Cy Young candidate Chris Sale at the top of their starting rotation. He has six straight top-six finishes in the voting and was runner-up last year. They also have former Cy Young winners David Price and Rick Porcello. That’s where the questions begin, though.

Porcello is coming off a dreadful 2017 campaign, while Price is looking to rebound from an injury that caused him to miss half of the season. The bottom of the rotation was expected to be filled out with some combination of Drew Pomeranz, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Steven Wright — all of whom are currently injured. Wright is also facing suspension over a domestic violence incident.

With a pitching staff in shambles and only a modest improvement made to a weak batting order, the Red Sox are ripe for being supplanted as division champs. Enter the New York Yankees.

New York Yankees

The Yankees had one of the most potent offenses in baseball last year. The Bombers led the majors with 241 home runs — only 15 teams in baseball history have hit more in a season. They also led the league in walks, were second in runs scored, third in on-base percentage and OPS, fourth in slugging average, and seventh in batting average. New York led the AL East in each of those categories.

After getting within one win of the World Series, the Yankees pulled off the biggest coup of the Hot Stove when they snatched NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton (7.6 WAR) from the tanking Miami Marlins. They also changed managers, bringing in the nemesis of Beantown, Aaron Boone.

New York had one of the top-performing rotations in the league last year. CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, Sonny Gray, Luis Severino, and Jordan Montgomery combined for 14.6 WAR. Compared to the rest of the division, that quintet is rock solid. It is also the strongest from top to bottom and comes with the fewest questions. In addition, the Yankees might possess the greatest bullpen ever assembled.

Last season, the Bombers had the second-best run differential (+198) in the majors. With the addition of Stanton, they could potentially put up historic numbers in 2018. Barring unexpected surprises, the Yankees should be the envy of the AL East this year.

Main Photo: Aug. 26, 2017 – Source: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images North America

Brett Borzelli writes about the New York Yankees on Pinstripe Alley and Baseknock MLB. He is a member of the IBWAA. You may peruse his Baseknock MLB articles by clicking here.

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