Spring training is in full swing, the World Baseball Classic is underway, and Opening Day for the 2017 MLB season is right around the corner. As teams look ahead to baseball games that count in the standings, we give a rundown of some of the biggest American League storylines of the spring.
Boston’s Pennant Hopes Boosted by New Big 3
The Red Sox are the clear favorite to repeat as AL East champions, and are very capable of winning the pennant. Though the club must replace recently retired slugger David Ortiz, the Red Sox boast a lineup that features plenty of firepower. Mookie Betts, Hanley Ramirez and Dustin Pedroia form a terrific core, while Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. are coming off breakout seasons at the plate. However, much of the optimism surrounding Boston in spring training is centered on its starting rotation.
Rick Porcello is the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner, though he’s not the most well-known starter on the roster. That honor would go to either David Price, a former Cy Young recipient himself, or newcomer Chris Sale, a top-six finisher in the AL Cy Young voting in each of the last five years and the biggest acquisition any team made during the offseason. Together, the trio is arguably the best in the majors. But will Boston’s new Big 3 be enough to take the Red Sox to the World Series?
It may not have to be. After all, the other members of the starting staff include 2016 All-Stars Drew Pomeranz and Steven Wright, as well as 24-year-old lefty Eduardo Rodriguez, who has posted a 4.25 ERA in 41 big league starts. However, if we look closer, there is reason to be concerned about Boston’s pitching depth.
First of all, Pomeranz and Wright both dealt with injuries in the second half of last season. Worst of all, Price is likely going to begin the 2017 season on the disabled list after being shut down with elbow soreness. Fortunately, it doesn’t appear that Price’s injury is serious or will require the dreaded Tommy John surgery, which had been a fear that required the 31-year-old lefty to undergo an MRI last week.
Given the injury questions surrounding the group, depth could be an issue for the Red Sox this season. Should Price’s elbow develop into an ongoing problem, or if the back end of the rotation doesn’t get the job done, the Red Sox could target yet another frontline starter. Among the names to watch on the trade front is Sonny Gray, Jose Quintana, Zack Greinke or Chris Archer.
Potential World Series Hangover in Cleveland
Having lost to the Chicago Cubs in an thrilling, 10-inning Game 7 of the World Series, the Cleveland Indians are now the owners of the longest world championship drought in baseball. Will the Indians react to their loss in the Fall Classic like the Kansas City Royals, who turned a series loss in 2014 to a championship in ‘15 – or will the club be a one-year wonder?
Cleveland has a talented roster, headlined by rising superstar Francisco Lindor. With Lindor at shortstop, Carlos Santana at first, Jason Kipnis at second and 2016 breakout performer Jose Ramirez at third, the Indians’ infield is one of the best in the game. And now they welcome newcomer DH/first baseman Edwin Encarnacion, the biggest free agent addition any franchise made over the winter.
There’s also hope All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley will be healthy enough to provide a boost, and Roberto Perez’s two home runs in the World Series help provide momentum for a catching duo (along with Yan Gomes) that was the worst in the AL offensively a season ago. The pitching staff remains strong with 2014 AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber at the front, and Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer behind him. The bullpen is just as feared with 2016 ALCS MVP Andrew Miller and closer Cody Allen doing the heavy lifting. Don’t’ forget about two-time World Series-winning manager Terry Francona either.
Long story short, with no visible weaknesses, there will be no excuse should Cleveland fail to meet expectations.
Astros are the Team to Beat in the AL West
Boston and Cleveland are the favorites, and the Texas Rangers are the two-time defending AL West champions. However, there’s a lot of optimism that Houston can make it to the Fall Classic for the first time since 2005.
Like Cleveland, there is no weak spot in the Houston lineup and the group is led by a star middle infield combination. Jose Altuve is a surefire hit machine and Carlos Correa is well on his way to becoming a superstar. The Astros also have a strong outfield with George Springer and Josh Reddick as the regulars and the combination of new additions Nori Aoki and Carlos Beltran to man the other corner. Beltran also will get his share of at-bat as the DH, as will the catching duo Brian McCann and Evan Gattis, two of the AL’s biggest bats behind the plate.
The pitching staff is the key. Houston’s biggest weakness is the depth of its starting rotation behind Dallas Keuchel, who is coming off of a forgettable 2016 season, and Collin McHugh. Lance McCullers has the stuff to become a star, but the team may try to improve on the back end of the rotation, which currently consists of Charlie Morton and Mike Fiers, with Joe Musgrove and Brad Peacock as other options. Like the Red Sox, the Astros may be looking for a starter via trade, and Quintana has consistently been mentioned as a potential target.
Baby Bombers Have Yankees Headed in the Right Direction
It’s a new era for baseball in the Bronx, as the plan to turn over an old roster is in full swing. Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira retired, and McCann and Beltran are now Astros. That group has made way for a talented crop of youngsters, headlined by Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird and Aaron Judge.
Sanchez will handle the catching duties following a breakout 2016 performance that included 20 home runs in 55 games. Judge hit just .179/.263/.345 in 27 games, but has light tower power that gives him the inside track to start in right field. Bird missed all of 2016, but the first baseman has gotten off to a great start in spring training, connecting on three homes runs in his first 13 Grapefruit League at bats. The young trio, as well as a core of returning veterans such as Didi Gregorius, Starlin Castro and Jacoby Ellsbury, plus the additions of new DH Matt Holliday and slugger Chris Carter, who hit a combined 61 home runs last season, will offer intrigue to at least begin the 2017 campaign.
Things will get even more interesting when outfielder Clint Frazier (acquired from Cleveland in the Andrew Miller trade), and highly regarded shortstop Gleyber Torres (the key piece in the Aroldis Chapman deal last year) arrive, perhaps as early as this summer.
Can the Royals Make One More Postseason Push?
After making it to the World Series in 2014 and winning it all in ‘15, last season was a disappointment for Kansas City. The Royals slumped to 81-81, which put them 13.5 games behind Cleveland in the AL Central.
Things got much worse over the winter as electric 25-year-old pitcher Yordano Ventura was killed in a car accident in his native Dominican Republic. The Royals signed a pair of former Cubs (Jason Hammel, Travis Wood) in free agency, but there will be no way to fill the hole left by such a tragic loss.
There are a lot of new faces around Royals camp this spring. The club traded All-Star closer Wade Davis for slugging outfielder Jorge Soler and speedy outfielder Jarrod Dyson for pitcher Nate Karns over the offseason. Fellow newcomers Brandon Moss and Peter O’Brien could also become regular contributors alongside franchise cornerstones Salvador Perez and Alex Gordon. However, several key members of Kansas City’s championship core – Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar – are expected to become free agents at the end of the season.
In such a period of transition, the season is likely to go one of two ways in Kansas City: Either the Royals get off to a hot start and enter the summer with an opportunity to win the division, thereby increasing the pressure to make a needed trade or two to make a playoff push, or KC struggles out of the gate, and becomes a seller at the trade deadline. The former would be a tip of the cap to a fan base that suffered through decades of futility before finally tasting huge success for a few years. The latter would signal the beginning of another painful rebuild.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.