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What Could Derail the AL Favorites?

Earlier in the offseason, I examined the growing gulf between MLB’s elite and the middle class. Perennial superpowers like the Dodgers and Cubs did nothing that would indicate they would slip from their perches, and other strong teams like the Indians, Red Sox, and Nationals moved forcefully to add impact talent. This has resulted, as Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs recently noted, in a MLB-landscape that is unusually top-heavy, with a clear favorite in each division that will profile as difficult to dethrone.

Yet if we’ve learned anything from the presidential election, the Super Bowl a few weeks ago, or even the finale of the 89th Academy Awards this past Sunday night, it’s that just because the probabilistic models say something is unlikely doesn’t mean it’s impossible. In fact, with six division favorites (per FanGraphs projections, those are the Red Sox, Indians, Astros, Nationals, Cubs, and Dodgers), it is more than likely that at least one favored team will slip up and miss the playoffs.

Each member of the league’s upper-echelon could prove to be vulnerable. All have weaknesses that could be borne out over the course of a rigorous 162-game season. So let’s turn our attention to those weaknesses, and ask the question: if the favorites are to fall, what is it that will cause their demise?

Boston Red Sox

Potential downfall: The corner infield

The Red Sox appeared to have some trouble with starting pitching depth last year, when injury and ineffectiveness down the stretch from Drew Pomeranz, Steven Wright, and Eduardo Rodriguez forced the Red Sox to start Clay Bucholz in an elimination playoff game. But a valid way to address rotation depth is to simply add one of the best starters in baseball. With Chris Sale in the fold, the Red Sox now run three-deep with pitchers who have either won the AL Cy Young award or are liable to win it at any moment.

With a bullpen that is anchored by the declining but still solid Craig Kimbrel, new addition Tyler Thornburg, and possibly a healthy Carson Smith, the relief unit doesn’t profile as a weakness either. So if we’re digging for vulnerabilities, we just might have to look at Boston’s most recent free agent additions to their batting lineup.

A couple winters ago, the Red Sox committed nearly $200 million combined to bring in Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. Ramirez has been inconsistent in Boston, slugging capably last season but struggling mightily in the field and with getting on base in 2015.  Sandoval hardly played last year, which, based on his disastrous debut season in Boston in 2015, was actually a huge upgrade. Those two are slated to take the bulk of the corner infield/DH duties, along with newcomer Mitch Moreland, a 31-year-old first baseman who posted an 87 OPS+ last season.

After trading corner infielder Travis Shaw in the offseason and losing David Ortiz to retirement, the Red Sox have a lot riding on Sandoval, Ramirez, and Moreland. The three combine for a projected 3.1 fWAR per FanGraphs, but if Sandoval and Moreland don’t improve on their recent play, the actual number could be much lower. Getting replacement level production from the corner infield slots could drag Boston down a few wins, and out of the top spot in the AL East.

Otherwise, it’s difficult to envision many other glaring weaknesses popping up. Boston’s middle infield is rock-solid, its outfield star-studded, its pitching staff reinforced. If there are any areas that could drag them down, they are the hot and cold corners.

Cleveland Indians

Potential downfall: Pitching health

FanGraphs depth chart projections peg Cleveland as the best team in the American League. They project for close to average or better production from every position. Their starting rotation is electric, possibly the best in baseball. They have the fearsome duo of Andrew Miller and Cody Allen closing out games. They’re probably the most well-rounded team in the junior circuit.

If we’re going to find weaknesses on this team, we will probably be picking nits. However, there is one factor that could drag down Cleveland this year: the health of their pitchers. The rosy projections that expect the Indians to rack up a win total in the mid-90’s rely on the pitching staff to staying fairly healthy. The Indians themselves can tell you that is anything but a certainty.

Just last September, Cleveland beat writer Paul Hoynes declared the team dead after it suffered crushing injuries to Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazaar, the team’s excellent #2 and #3 starters. Of course, Cleveland defied all odds in reaching the World Series anyway, but a similar scenario in which multiple pitchers get hurt is certainly possible again this year, and would threaten to derail a talented team.

FanGraphs projections call for 198 innings from Carrasco, who threw 146 innings last year and has averaged about 130 across the past five years. The projections forecast Salazar for 170 innings, after he threw 137 last year and has averaged about 120 innings a year throughout his young career. It would not be a surprise for them to fail to reach those projections. This is without mentioning Miller, who is projected for 65 innings coming off a season in which he tossed a career-high 101 relief innings, between the regular season and playoffs.

Ace Corey Kluber is among the most workmanlike players in the game and has thrown at least 215 innings the past three seasons. He isn’t likely to be felled by injury, but the Indians, as a team that relies a bit more on its pitching staff than its lineup, could be more vulnerable to the havoc wreaked by pitching injuries than most. They’ve shown that they can overcome such injuries. But they’ve also shown that such injuries can throw a major monkey-wrench in any team’s season, and Cleveland will have to hope that major maladies don’t pop up again in 2017.

Houston Astros

Potential downfall: Starting Pitching

The Astros were among the busiest teams of the winter, adding talent in the form of Carlos Beltran, Josh Reddick, and Brian McCann, among others. Even before the additions, the Astros were likely to contend for the AL West title, thanks to a lineup that already featured the likes of Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, and George Springer.

But while Houston did add major reinforcements to an already strong position player core, they mostly neglected the pitching staff, with Charlie Morton the lone notable addition. Morton, 33, has been modestly effective at best in his career, the bulk of which has been spent in pitching-friendly environment of the Pittsburgh organization.

Which means the Astros have a lot riding on the guys at the front of the rotation. There, Houston needs a bounce back from Dallas Keuchel, who won the AL Cy Young in 2015 but posted an 87 ERA+ in 168 innings last year. Keuchel’s velocity declined, while his walk and strikeout rates each went in the wrong direction.

Second starter Collin McHugh has been fairly durable the past two seasons, but has an ERA+ below 100 over that span. Lance McCullers has as much potential as anyone on Houston’s staff, but tossed just 80 innings in 2016. Mike Fiers has quietly been solid throughout his career, but is coming off a career-worst season in which he posted an 88 ERA+.

FanGraphs projections expect the Astros’ rotation to hold together just fine, pegging the group for the 8th most fWAR in the majors. With every member of the rotation other than McCullers on the wrong side of 30, and with Fiers, McHugh, Morton, and Keuchel all coming off down years, however, a top-8 projection feels optimistic. The bulk of the Astros’ rotation has been trending in the wrong direction in recent years, which could make them prime rebound candidates. It could also signal that most of Houston’s staff is simply declining.

The Astros still contended for the playoffs last year in spite of a lackluster rotation, and their further additions this offseason mean they can probably survive another year of middling pitching. But the AL West looks fairly formidable this season, with defending division champs Texas solid as ever, and the Mariners having aggressively reshaped themselves into Wild Card contenders. A slip-up from the rotation could leave the Astros fighting it out with the rest of the division throughout the season.

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Jake Devin fell in love with the game of baseball as a child, watching the Yankees of the late nineties and early aughts dominate the league. The Yankees don't dominate anymore, but Jake's passion for the game is as strong as ever, with exciting new ways to view and analyze the game popping up seemingly all the time. Jake recently graduated from Binghamton University where he completed a degree in mathematics and economics, as well as a four-year track and field career.

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