Opening Day 2017: American League

Few people would have picked the Cleveland Indians to come within one game of winning the World Series in 2016. This year, Cleveland is among the favorites, but there’s plenty of other American League ball clubs who are well equipped to challenge them. Here is Part II of my MLB Opening Day Outlook, plus one player from each team who is either destined to have a huge season or whose performance will be critical to his team’s success.

For “Opening Day 2017: National League”, click here.

AL EAST

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

The Orioles will once again boast one of the most powerful lineups in baseball, but they also went through another offseason where they passed on improving their mediocre starting pitching. There are some good arms in the rotation and the bullpen remains elite, but a shortage of trusted starters could become this team’s undoing.

Player to watch: Baltimore chose to bring back reigning MLB home run king Mark Trumbo on a three-year deal. That deal will be a boon for the Orioles if he can replicate his production from a year ago, but Trumbo also has a history of inconsistency from year to year.

BOSTON RED SOX

For the first time since 2002, the Reds Sox will enter a season without David Ortiz. Luckily, they still have plenty of offense to fill the void, led by MVP candidate Mookie Betts. The acquisition of Chris Sale also adds another ace to an already strong pitching staff, making Boston one of the most talented teams in the AL.

Player to watch: David Price may have escaped Tommy John surgery, but the left-hander will still begin the season on the DL. Although he performed adequately last year, the Sox need for him to perform better to justify his contract. If he does, Boston will possess one of the most imposing pitching staffs they’ve had in quite some time.

NEW YORK YANKEES

Unlike the Yankees’ teams of old, this year’s roster is filled with younger players who could form the next core of great talent. Although the future is bright, the starting lineup isn’t strong enough in 2017 to overcome a severe lack of pitching depth. For what it’s worth, the Yankees did hit have a better record and hit more home runs than any other team in Spring Training.

Player to watch: Gary Sanchez has already emerged as a fan favorite, and will get a chance to prove his rise to stardom is legitimate in his first full season. It’s not hard to imagine Sanchez taking the crown as baseball’s best hitting catcher by season’s end.

TAMPA BAY RAYS

The Rays had an interesting offseason, signing veterans like Colby Rasmus and Wilson Ramos on short-term deals but also trading away one of their best players in Logan Forsythe. The Rays just don’t appear to have enough tools to compete in a tough division, but they will certainly try to. If it doesn’t work out, they can deal some of their more established players at the trade deadline.

Player to watch: Chris Archer struggled in 2016, so if the Rays want any chance of keeping pace in the tough American League, they need their ace to get back to form. There’s no reason to think he can’t do it.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

Toronto made a mistake in not bringing back Edwin Encarnacion, but at least they were able to retain Jose Bautista. Even without Encarnacion, Toronto’s offense is still good enough to carry the team at times. Much less heralded is their pitching, which may be the best in the American League. If the starters can build upon their success from a year ago, that will be the real key to reclaiming the AL East crown. The Red Sox have been labeled as the odds-on favorite to win the division, but the Blue Jays have a far better shot than they’re given credit for.

Players to watch: Bautista has something to prove after a down year and he’s the type of player that will make the most of it. He is still an incredibly disciplined and powerful hitter, so don’t be surprised if he surpasses 35 home runs again. Also, Marcus Stroman is a big game pitcher and will have a huge bounce back year.

AL CENTRAL

CHICAGO WHITE SOX

After trading two of its best players from a team that lost 84 games a year ago, Chicago will be tough to watch in 2017. More trades should come too, as the White Sox are undergoing a full teardown. As tough as it can be, it’s the right decision, as the team was going nowhere with the core they had in place. Instead, the White Sox have stockpiled a collection of talented prospects in hopes of a quick turnaround.

Player to watch: One of those prospects, Yoan Moncada, has higher upside than just about anyone in baseball. The speedster, who was acquired in the Chris Sale trade, will likely be called up to the White Sox sometime during the summer. That will give White Sox fans a look into what the future could hold, along with a lengthy list of other potential impact call-ups.

CLEVELAND INDIANS

Cleveland may have been a surprise World Series team last year, but a repeat would hardly be stunning. When Cleveland reached the Fall Classic, they did it without two of their top three starting pitchers in the postseason and without Michael Brantley for nearly the entire season. With those players returning, plus the addition of slugger Edwin Encarnacion, this isn’t only the best team in the AL, but maybe the best in all of baseball.

Player to watch: How well Brantley will play is still a huge question mark, but if he perform anywhere close to the level he was at before his injuries, Cleveland will be adding one of the most underrated, dynamic players in the game to an already great lineup.

DETROIT TIGERS

While it was thought that the Tigers might slash payroll, they chose to keep mostly all or their regular players, but didn’t add anybody of note either. Detroit certainly boasts one of the strongest lineups in baseball, but there aren’t many reliable pitchers in the rotation beyond Justin Verlander and Michael Fulmer. The bullpen has been a concern for years, and many of Detroit’s best players throughout the roster are getting on in years. The Tigers certainly have the capability to make a playoff run, but the window could be closing.

Player to watch: Miguel Cabrera is too obvious of a pick, but he truly is a joy to watch hit. Even at age 33, Cabrera still finished third in the AL in OPS+ (157), fifth in on base percentage (.393), and second in slugging (.563). With no signs of slowing down, the four-time batting champion will once again be the focal point of Detroit’s offense.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS

The 2015 World Champions fell short of the postseason last year, but they are ready to make another run at the AL Central. With a nearly unprecedented number of notable free agents-to-be, the Royals could have done a full fire sale, but GM Dayton Moore knows that the current roster is too good not to try for another run. Instead, Moore sold high on some veterans, kept others, and added depth around the roster. The Royals have a decent team, but a Wild Card berth may be their best chance with powerhouse Cleveland in the division.

Player to watch: The Royals added a former top prospect in Jorge Soler in exchange for Wade Davis this winter. If Soler finally reaches his great potential, Kansas City will have a nice, controllable power bat to put in the middle of their lineup for years to come.

MINNESOTA TWINS

After narrowly missing the playoffs in 2015, it all fell apart for Minnesota last season. The Twins lost 103 games, which was nine more than any other team in baseball. There were very few contributions from veteran players outside of Brian Dozier, and many of the young Twins who stood out as rookies the previous season struggled. This year’s Twins will probably find themselves near the bottom of the standings yet again, but it will be encouraging if players like Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Max Kepler, and Jose Berrios can make big strides in their development. On a side note, the decision to outright Byung-Ho Park off the 40-man roster and subsequently keep him in the minors after a scorching hot spring makes little sense at all for a team like the Twins that has little chance to compete.

Player to watch: All of the aforementioned players (Buxton, Sano, Kepler, and Berrios) are expected to play a big role for Minnesota going forward and are all immensely talented in their own right. This is the perfect year to give them a long leash and see what they can do in a full season.

AL WEST

HOUSTON ASTROS

The biggest question surrounding the Astros is if their pitching will be able to support their explosive offense. Can Dallas Keuchel bounce back to where he was prior to 2016? How big of a factor will pitchers like Collin McHugh and Lance McCullers be? Offense should be no problem as Houston has a nice blend of enviable young talent and power-hitting veterans. The Astros spent big on offense, but didn’t add much pitching outside of Charlie Morton, who barely pitched last year.

Player to watch: Carlos Correa has already been unbelievable in his first two years, but he’s still just 22 and not even close to hitting his ceiling yet. That puts him among the early favorites for AL MVP.

LOS ANGELES ANGELS

The Angels chose to prioritize defense this offseason, so we’ll see if that helps to change their fortunes. Still, there isn’t a whole lot of productivity in their lineup outside of Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, and their starting rotation is one of weaker ones in the AL.

Player to watch: With Huston Street sidelined for the start of the season, Bedrosian will step into the Halos’ closer role. Bedrosian broke out in a big way in 2016, striking out an impressive 51 batters in 40.1 innings with a miniscule 1.12 ERA. If he can repeat that performance, it will alleviate some of the pressure off of a shaky starting rotation.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS

Oakland isn’t expected to compete in 2017, but the team did get some nice results last year from rookie starting pitchers Jharel Cotton and Sean Manaea. Sonny Gray is still dealing with injuries after a lost season, but he was one of the AL’s best starters from 2014-2015. Pitching could be a strength for this team, but they probably won’t have enough offense to support it.

Player to watch: Outfielder Khris Davis hit 42 home runs in 2016 and represents a bright spot for Oakland’s offense. His power outburst dates back to 2015, when he hit 21 homers after the All-Star break, giving him 63 in the last year and a half.

SEATTLE MARINERS

The Mariners currently have the longest playoff drought in baseball, but it again feels like this could be the year. Seattle had an extremely active offseason, even if the majority of their moves came from smaller trades. You may not find a better trio of hitters than Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager in all of baseball, and the pitching has the potential to be very good, especially if Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma can stay healthy. Without a clear front-runner in the AL West, this division could be for the Mariners’ taking.

Player to watch: The Mariners parted with a talented pitcher in Taijuan Walker to acquire Jean Segura, who had a quietly excellent season. The shortstop hit .319 with Arizona, while also belting 20 home runs and stealing 33 bases. Seattle has a lot invested in Segura, so his performance could be a major deciding factor for whether or not Seattle finally reaches the postseason.

TEXAS RANGERS

The Rangers may be the team most likely to regress in 2017. Despite winning an AL best 95 games, the Rangers amazingly gave up four more runs than they scored, resulting from a combination of both great luck and elite late-game pitching. That’s not entirely sustainable, so to make the playoffs again, Texas will need to play better than they did last year, which may be a tall task. There isn’t much to count on in the rotation beyond Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish and while Texas added some solid position players to fill their many roster vacancies, their lack of a bigger acquisition is a little puzzling.

Player to watch: Adrian Beltre is within reach of multiple milestones this season, including 3,000 hits, 450 home runs, 600 doubles, 1,500 runs, and 1,600 RBI. Only Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, and Carl Yastrzemski have accomplished this.

 

AL Division Winners: Blue Jays, Indians, Mariners

AL Wild Card: Red Sox, Astros

The American League is slightly more wide-open than the National League in terms of teams that have a realistic chance at the playoffs. The best bet to win their division is Cleveland, since they are so good on paper, and because the AL Central could be the weakest division.

The AL East should come down to the wire, but I gave the edge to Toronto based on the strength of their starting pitching, which is also why I have the Orioles narrowly missing the postseason.

Seattle’s offense is so exceptional that 2017 is as good a year as any for them to snap their postseason drought, especially if the Rangers take a step back. However, the Astros will give the Mariners a run for the money in terms of whose offense is better. The Tigers and Royals should at least be in the Wild Card race as well if things go right.

The 2016 World Series featured two teams that hadn’t won in a combined 176 years. If that proves anything, it’s to expect the unexpected when it comes to baseball.

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