MLB 2015 Preview: American League East
Edwin Encarnacion at first base, where Ty Whetstone can almost stomach it.
Toronto made a big splash in the offseason by adding 3B Josh Donaldson (trade with Oakland) and C Russell Martin (free agent). Though the Jays are projected to win the division, some mitigating factors limit the greatness of these deals. Brett Lawrie (dealt to Oakland in the Donaldson trade) was not a black hole at third (1.7 fWAR in 2014/Steamer projection of 3.7 fWAR in 2015), but Donaldson is still a significant upgrade (5.6 projected fWAR by Steamer). Steamer projects 3.7 fWAR for Martin, but he is replacing Dioner Navarro, who posted a WAR of 2.0 last year. Nonetheless, Toronto could employ a first base/DH/catcher platoon that employs Edwin Encarnacion, Martin, Navarro, and Justin Smoak. Smoak is a relatively poor hitter for first base, and Encarnacion’s fielding at third base earned him the nickname E5 (error on the third baseman). A powerful offense will propel Toronto to a division crown.
Last year was an unmitigated disaster for Boston (71-91, last place AL East), but the offseason acquisitions of LF Hanley Ramirez and 3B Pablo Sandoval will help cure much of what ailed the Red Sox last year. The major question surrounding Boston is the starting rotation. It is neither very deep, nor particularly good at the top. Clay Buchholz is a solid “number two” type pitcher, but he is recovering from offseason knee surgery. Wade Miley and Rick Porcello were acquired in the offseason, but at their best, they fit the “solid number two” mold as well. Teams can succeed with these types of pitchers at the top of their rotation, but Boston lacks depth. Joe Kelly is a max +2 fWAR pitcher and Justin Masterson was a trainwreck last year. Ultimately the Red Sox will struggle more than the Jays to prevent runs and will pin their hopes on a Wild Card berth.
In the offseason, Tampa lost both their manager and GM to bigger markets as Joe Maddon is leading the Cubs and Andrew Friedman is running the Dodgers. The Rays smartly chose to give GM duties to Matthew Silverman, whose title changed from President to President of Baseball Operations. Expect business to continue as usual in Tampa. More than in the past, Tampa will rely on unheralded young players. OF Kevin Kiermaier seemed to come from nowhere last year to post an fWAR of 3.8. Yet there was nothing fluky about this, so expect him to continue to be a very good player. C Rene Rivera and OF Steven Souza were acquired in a deal that sent OF Wil Myers packing, and both figure to be average to above-average MLB players. The loss of the versatile Ben Zobrist (traded to Oakland) is a lot to overcome, but Tampa will fight for a Wild Card spot before ultimately falling just short.
Despite a fourth place projection in this division, the Yankees are not all that bad. Their biggest problem is the volatility in individual player projections. SP Michael Pineda was lights out last year (2.2 fWAR), but made only 13 starts because he was still working back from shoulder surgery. Masahiro Tanaka was dynamite coming over from Japan (3.2 fWAR), but made only 20 starts before being shelved with injury. SP CC Sabathia struggled with a degenerative condition in his right knee and was limited to just eight starts. It’s unlikely that these pitchers will miss so many starts in 2015, but it’s equally likely that they won’t be completely healthy. Add in the offseason acquisition of P Nathan Eovaldi (fWAR 3.0 last year) and the return of Alex Rodriguez from PED suspension, and the Yankees are certainly interesting. Given the age and history of this roster, however, the smart money is to bet on injuries to keep them from contending.
Baltimore does not project to be bad but does not project to be particularly good either. The biggest challenge for the O’s is getting solid contributions from two former stars. They have to fix SP Ubaldo Jimenez and that is not a good bet. Other than one-half of a season with Cleveland in 2013, he has been awful since the start of 2012. His decline in velocity is well documented (his average heater dropped 1.5 MPH from 2013 to 90.6 MPH last season and it’s down 5.4 MPH since 2009), and he has never truly figured out how to retire batters without blowing the ball past them. The other former star, 1B Chris Davis, broke out in 2013 to a 6.8 fWAR and belted 53 HR. Last year, he faltered to a 0.5 fWAR and was suspended for taking amphetamines that had a lapsed prescription. Davis should return to being an average player due in large part to his still above-average power, but Baltimore needs him to be an all-star player to compensate for the losses of OF/DH Nelson Cruz and OF Nick Markakis. There are simply too many questions, particularly surrounding these former stars–and not enough answers–to consider Baltimore for contention.
Photo by Keith Allison (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license)