AL East prediction: Sale-led Sox punch back-to-back division tickets

The top of the American League East has been a revolving door, with each of its five teams claiming at least one title over the past decade, and only the New York Yankees of 2011 and 2012 doing so in consecutive seasons.

That doesn’t disqualify the 2016 division champ Boston Red Sox from contention in 2017, though. Even the retirement of perennial All-Star David Ortiz, and departure of Baseball America’s No. 2 overall prospect Yoan Moncada did little to stifle Red Sox’s hopes for a repeat performance.

Why? The trade of Mondcada netted Boston yet another ace in Chris Sale, giving them three, also a vastly improved batch of young talent is on the verge of exploding one year after putting the division, and league, on notice.

After seeing the top four teams in the division bunched within nine games of the top spot a season ago, things will only tighten up further. And in a battle of baseball’s brawn, one fewer win for “Beantown” will be enough to punch a ticket the AL’s divisional round.

Joining Sale at the head of Boston’s poisonous snake of a starting staff are Cy Young Award winners David Price (2012) and Rick Porcello (2016) and All-Star knuckleballer Steven Wright. And it’s all backed up by five-time All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel.

Swinging in support of that star-studded staff is an offense riddled with organic, farm-raised star power, namely: Mookie BettsXander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley and Dustin Pedroia — a quartet of All-Stars. Sprinkle in Mitch Moreland and Hanley Ramirez, along with the potential of top-20 prospect Andrew Benintendi and a rebound season from two-time All-Star Pablo Sandoval, and you’ve got the makings of an explosive offense.

Boston will not be without challenge at the top. In fact, any of the top four teams in the division could overthrow the reigning king.

Topping that competition will likely be either the Toronto Blue Jays or Baltimore Orioles — or both, as they faced each other in last season’s wild card game. Both teams feature powerful offenses, but neither can match the Red Sox pitching staff for pitching staff.

Each made one significant off-season move in hopes of bolstering chances. Problem is, they both may have made the teams worse.

In the great white north, the Blue Jays bid farewell to Edwin Encarnacion (Cleveland), who led the team in home runs (42) and RBIs (127), replacing him with Kendrys Morales, who slugged 30 homers knocking in 93 with the Kansas City Royals. The Orioles made a similar decision, moving on from Matt Wieters (.256/.318/.421 career slash), replacing him with Welington Castillo (.255/.318/.416).

While Baltimore’s offense is certainly taking less of a hit, it is Toronto’s that comes out on top. An offense that finished 2016 fifth in the AL with 759 runs and third in on-base percentage (.330).

With strengths so evenly matched, it is the teams’ weakness that will be the deciding factor. In the area of pitching, both teams both stand-out closers, and solid middle-of-the-rotation pitching, but the Blue Jays have something Baltimore does not — a bonafide ace. As was the case for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, Marcus Stroman — who finished the tourney with an MVP trophy — is the tipping element for the No. 2 spot in the AL East — and back-up king should disaster strike Fenway Park.

Still attempting to dig out of the hole left with the retirement of Derek Jeter, the Yankees are a team caught between contender and re-builder.

With veterans like Jacoby Ellsbury, Chase Headley and Matt Holliday New York seems like it should be in the mix, but relying heavily on the flashes shown Greg Bird and Gary Sanchez — who combined for 31 home runs and 73 RBIs in 99 games last season — will be their undoing.

The fact is, backing up that sort of rookie campaign is incredibly unlikely.

The Bronx bullpen will certainly be reliable when it comes to holding leads. But an offense in need of an identity, a starting staff with more questions than answers — yet to see the emergence of a fifth starter, even — and the competition of baseball’s toughest division will leave the group with fewer chances than it would like.

Continuing its tradition as the AL East’s whipping boy, the Tampa Bay Rays will be looking for trade partners come July, perhaps looking to ditch Evan Longoria’s massive contract (though the front office has said this is of no interest). More likely on the move are guys like Derek Norris and Colby Rasmus.

As far as contending, though, the Rays will be contending with reaching the 70-win mark, which they were unable to do a year ago.

Final prediction

Despite collecting one fewer win than last season, the Red Sox claim their second consecutive title — riding pitching to the top of a division long dominated by offense. Jostling for wild card position, Stroman and Blue Jays claim the No. 2 spot and a home-field advantage in the one-game playoff over the Orioles, who fall back into a tie with the Yankees, though they finish within seven games of the top spot. The Rays once again play victim to a tight top of the division, falling even further into the cellar.

 


Kalama Hines is SFBay’s Oakland Athletics beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @HineSight_2020 on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of A’s baseball.