The Red Sox will enter spring training as the favorites to win the American League East, but it may not be a cakewalk, even with Chris Sale heading Boston’s elite starting rotation.
Nobody knows this better than Dave Dombrowski, who put together an elite staff in Detroit — Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Rick Porcello, and Doug Fister. While the Tigers had success and even reached the World Series, they didn’t win it all. So the Red Sox will face similar scrutiny.
It would appear the AL East may be a three-team race. Don’t be surprised if the Yankees enter the mix as they try to incorporate more youth from a farm system that is now among the best in baseball.
We’re leaving out Tampa Bay, but pitching always makes the Rays competitive. You can see frustration growing with leader Evan Longoria, who was very unhappy about the trade of second baseman Logan Forsythe to the Dodgers for top pitching prospect Jose De Leon. Forsythe was one of the top players on the Rays, well respected. Red Sox manager John Farrell has commented on how good of a player Forsythe is, so that’s one nemesis out of the division.
Here’s a look at each team in the AL East:
Boston — Certainly the favorite by adding Sale, giving the Red Sox a pretty formidable rotation troika with David Price and Porcello. While this should be a slam dunk, we have to see how Sale adapts to the market, whether Porcello can repeat his Cy Young season or come close to it, and whether Price returns to prominence after a very good but not elite season. The other thing to watch here is closer Craig Kimbrel. He had meltdowns late in the season. Was this a result of pennant pressure, was he still favoring his surgically repaired knee, or was it simply a fluke? The Red Sox bolstered their late-inning relief corps by trading for Tyler Thornburg, who had great credentials in Milwaukee. But again, that was Milwaukee. This is prime time. And the Red Sox lineup? Terrific last season, but we all know the void that David Ortiz has left. The Sox will count on Mitch Moreland, a lefthanded hitter who can drive the ball to left-center. And everyone is holding their breath that Pablo Sandoval will reemerge as the player he was in San Francisco. The Sox are prohibitive division favorites, but they have question marks.
Toronto — The Blue Jays didn’t replace Edwin Encarnacion, though they did sign switch-hitting DH Kendrys Morales early in the free agent process. His power could increase at Rogers Centre. Toronto re-signed Jose Bautista, who will be motivated after an off year. A Justin Smoak/Steve Pearce combo at first base may work, but like with the Red Sox, Toronto’s lineup won’t be as formidable as last year. The rotation is a different story — an excellent 1 through 5: Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada, and Francisco Liriano. One problem: lack of depth (Gavin Floyd and Joe Biagini) beyond the top five. The bullpen could be troublesome. The Jays lost Joaquin Benoit and Brett Cecil, two very effective relievers, to free agency. They are relying a lot on closer Roberto Osuna and setup man Jason Grilli. And they hope Biagini will take to a late-inning role. We’re guessing that the Jays add a quality reliever before camp opens.
Baltimore — Dan Duquette does a terrific job showing patience in his team-building. He got a bargain in re-signing Mark Trumbo to a three-year, $37 million deal. The Orioles’ lineup remains potent, and it’s likely that righthanded power-hitting first baseman/DH Trey Mancini will become a factor. They added Seth Smith, a really good player, to play right field, and Welington Castillo should add pop at catcher. Duquette may add a lefthanded bat. His rotation has to get better. Young pitchers Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy appear ready to approach elite status. Chris Tillman still heads the rotation, while Wade Miley and Ubaldo Jimenez are capable of good stretches. The bullpen remains top-notch with saves leader Zach Britton, Darren O’Day, and Brad Brach forming a formidable back three.
New York — Is there any reason the Yankees can’t contend and rebuild at the same time? No. The rotation pretty much stayed the same with Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, CC Sabathia, Adam Warren, and Luis Severino. The Yankees are hoping Severino emerges as a potential ace, but there may be more growing pains ahead. The Yankees have rebuilt the bullpen they tore apart to gain prospects last season. They re-signed Aroldis Chapman to anchor the back end behind Dellin Betances and Tyler Clippard. The big lineup question is how rookie right fielder Aaron Judge adjusts to the big leagues. Greg Bird returns at first base after missing all of last season with an injury. And of course, sensational catcher Gary Sanchez will likely find challenges in his second season as the league adjusts to him.
Tampa Bay — The Rays are certainly unpredictable in their moves, surprising baseball with the Forsythe trade. They’ve always been offensively challenged, and they will likely look to add a bat, possibly offering pitcher Jake Odorizzi. The Rays could certainly use an upgrade at second base, where Nick Franklin is expected to start. They could move Brad Miller from first base to second, and find a first baseman elsewhere. Alex Colome and Brad Boxberger remain the back-end relievers, but the Rays have to find in-house pieces to fill out the pen. The Rays also signed former Texas closer Shawn Tolleson, who will be in the mix along with Danny Farquhar.
Arroyo could land in a familiar place
All signs are pointing to Bronson Arroyo signing with the Reds, his home for eight seasons before he suffered elbow and shoulder problems in 2014 with Arizona. He hasn’t pitched in the majors since, but Arroyo declared himself ready.
“I’ve been throwing every day. I’m as good as I’m ever going to be,” said Arroyo, who didn’t miss a start from 2004-13. “I’m 100 percent good enough to throw an inning or two. I don’t know if I can throw six or seven innings every four days. That’s what I’m going to find out.”
If he ends up with Cincinnati, Arroyo will be around coaches and personnel who know him and know that he doesn’t have to throw in the mid-90s to get people out.
Arroyo was a solid fifth starter on Boston’s historic team in 2004, and then was traded to the Reds in 2006, becoming one of the most durable starters in baseball.
The National League, and the Reds in particular, suited Arroyo. He loved playing for Dusty Baker and his pitching coach was current Reds manager Bryan Price, so it makes sense that Arroyo would want to return to the Reds, who are in a transition period and could use a back-end starter.
“It would be hard for me to go somewhere where I’m competing with some 25-year-old guy hitting 95 on the radar gun,” Arroyo said. “I’ve always been able to get people out doing it the way I do it. And so I need to be somewhere where the people evaluating me understand that.”
Arroyo, who turns 40 on Feb. 24, understands his comeback could be considered a long shot. He said that it doesn’t feel like he hasn’t pitched in a major league game since 2014, when he made a few starts knowing he needed Tommy John surgery before shutting things down.
Apropos of nothing
1. Dave Trembley presides over what might be the best farm system in baseball with the Braves. With the deals John Hart and John Coppolella have made, the Braves are envied around the league.
“I know a lot of organizations have to prop up their prospects, but the Braves don’t have to do that,” said Trembley, the former Orioles manager. “These kids are legitimate, talented kids who should eventually get to the big leagues and be top players in the league.”
Obviously, Dansby Swanson remains atop the list and he should be manning shortstop as the Braves open their new ballpark in suburban Atlanta this spring. But Trembley feels infielder Ozzie Albies, lefthander Sean Newcomb, and outfielder Dustin Peterson aren’t far from the majors.
“We try to challenge our kids,” Trembley said. “But we’re going to make the right decisions on whether they’re ready for the majors. And we’ll assess that as an organization with the input of our managers and coaches.”
2. Michael Cuddyer and Andy MacPhail have been elected to the Twins Hall of Fame.
3. Wish I was in college again so I could apply for this internship with the Baseball Hall of Fame, which “offers meaningful, hands-on training in numerous professional careers, with many former interns still working at the Hall of Fame and throughout MLB. If you’re interested in spending the summer in Cooperstown as an intern, apply at baseballhall.org by January 31.”
4. A feasibility study conducted on the McCoy Stadium site revealed that it wouldn’t be worth renovating the stadium since it would cost around $68 million, while a new stadium built on the same site would cost $78 million. The team, owned by a group led by Larry Lucchino, is looking into other sites, including the old Apex Department store site in Pawtucket, off Route 95. It’ll be tough to see McCoy Stadium go if that’s what they decide. Such a fun place.
5. While it’s true that adding Rusney Castillo and/or Allen Craig to the major league roster would add to the luxury tax, what will the Red Sox do if these guys are red-hot at Pawtucket and they need an outfielder and/or first baseman? Leave them there? If that’s their intention, they might as well release both of them right now.
6. Jim Decker points out that when the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, 2007, and 2013, they had a former Brewster Whitecaps player from the Cape Cod League on the team — Mike Myers in ’04, Bobby Kielty in ’07, and David Ross in ’13. Decker points out that newly acquired setup man Tyler Thornburg is also an ex-Whitecap.
Updates on nine
1. Yoan Moncada, 2B, White Sox — The White Sox are 100 percent committed to keeping Moncada at second base, according to a team source. Moncada was shifted to third base late last season by the Red Sox, and when they recalled him in late August, they wanted him to start there the remainder of the season. But Moncada was shaky at third and overmatched at the plate. The No. 1 prospect in baseball will hone his second base skills at Triple A Columbus to start the season. The White Sox feel Moncada will be with the big league team as early as the All-Star break.
2. Matt Wieters, C, free agent — Wieters is surprisingly still available in free agency. The Orioles did not re-sign Wieters because they felt his catching skills had diminished and he wasn’t quite the same after Tommy John surgery in 2014. One major league source said that Wieters’s initial contract demand was three years, and nobody has shown a commitment to that length. The Braves were a potential landing spot, but no longer after they signed Kurt Suzuki. The Blue Jays showed interest, but they opted for Jarrod Saltalamacchia. The Astros remain a possibility, as do the Rays, who won’t have Wilson Ramos available until June or July.
3. Chris Carter, 1B/DH, free agent — Carter remains a free agent after hitting 41 home runs last season. The Marlins and Rays have checked on him, but there’s nothing doing at the moment. The Royals thought about it, but would prefer a lefthanded bat.
4. Jason Hammel, RHP, free agent — Hammel won 15 games with the Cubs last season and remains a free agent. The Royals have renewed interest after the tragic death of Yordano Ventura. The Royals are also looking at other options, such as Doug Fister, who may come cheaper. Kansas City may also inquire about the Rays’ Jake Odorizzi and Alex Cobb.
5. Adam Lind, DH/1B, free agent — Lind is going to be an add-on for a team in need of a lefthanded hitter who can hit righties. Lind is below average as a first baseman and certainly as an outfielder, but his lefthanded bat may fit a team such as Cleveland or Baltimore.
6. Joe Blanton, RHP, free agent — At the beginning of free agency, Blanton’s name popped up often as a middle reliever/setup man. The market seemed to pass him by, but a few teams have come knocking in the last couple of weeks. Blanton has shown to be valuable given his multi-inning capability. He’s probably better suited for the NL.
7. Jake Peavy, RHP, free agent — There hasn’t been much action on Peavy, who’s considered a tack-on starter at this stage of his career, but there has been some talk about Peavy reuniting with the Padres, with whom he began his career. Peavy had a terrible season in 2016 with a 5-9 record and 5.54 ERA, and the Giants demoted him to the bullpen. Peavy, 35, does add a leadership quality and would definitely need to stay in the NL.
8. David Robertson, RHP, White Sox — Robertson is more than available, but the White Sox want a good haul for him. At worst, the White Sox believe Robertson will have a lot of value at the trade deadline, or if a team’s closer goes down. The White Sox and Blue Jays have had discussions this offseason, and the Yankees have at least thought about it, but New York is unwilling to give up the quality prospects the White Sox want. At some point, Robertson will be in greater demand.
9. Rob Leary, scout, Diamondbacks — The former Red Sox coach and Marlins bench coach was hired by Arizona as a major league scout. Leary is one of the best catching instructors in baseball and should do well helping Mike Hazen’s staff find talent at the toughest position to scout.
From the Bill Chuck files — “There have only been 24 occasions in which a batter hit 40-plus HRs but did not drive in 100 runs, and three players (Chris Carter, Brian Dozier, and Todd Frazier) did it 2016, the second most ever only to 2015, when Nelson Cruz, Carlos Gonzalez, Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, and Albert Pujols did it.” . . . Also, “Since 2014, nine players have hit over 100 home runs, but just three had more RBIs than strikeouts: Edwin Encarnacion (115 HRs, 336 RBIs, 318 Ks), David Ortiz (110 HRs, 339 RBIs, 276 Ks), and Nolan Arenado (101 HRs, 324 RBIs, 271 Ks).”