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2017 American League Preview — Playoff Predictions, Team Profiles & More

2017 American League season preview
Rich Gagnon, Jason Miller, Elsa (Getty Images)

In 2016 the Cleveland Indians came within one game of their first World Series title since 1948. And in 2017 the Tribe look to be even stronger, with the signing of slugging first baseman Edwin Encarnacion and the returns from injury of All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley and starting pitchers Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar — all of whom missed the entire postseason and big chunks of the regular season.

In another case of the rich getting richer, defending American League East champions the Boston Red Sox added perennial All-Star Chris Sale to a rotation already featuring Cy Young-winner Rick Porcello and David Price. Boston, like Cleveland, is a consensus favorite to repeat as division champions. The Red Sox’ young core of position players (shortstop Xander Bogaerts, outfielders Mookie Betts and Andrew Benitendi) should mix well with their veteran pitching staff. Boston is within reach of their first pennant since 2013, as long as injuries (like what’s holding up David Price’s season till May) don’t derail them.

It’s out west where things get a lot trickier to predict. The Houston Astros are the trendy pick, having added several new pieces to a team that won 84 games last season. The Seattle Mariners have also revamped their roster to build around a dynamic middle of the lineup, while defending A.L. West champs the Texas Rangers may struggle to repeat last season’s 95-win total. They were only a plus-8 in run differential, which fancy sabermetric math says would normally lead a team to just 82 wins — which is to say that the Rangers got a bit lucky last year, going an astonishing 36–11 in one-run games. That kind of record in close games is not something teams can often repeat, so the Rangers may be in for a bit of regression this year, leaving the whole division wide open.

Let’s take a closer look at all how all three divisions in the Junior Circuit stack up as 2017’s Opening Day beckons…

American League East

2016 Final Standings:

  1. Boston Red Sox (93–69)
  2. Baltimore Orioles (89–73)
  3. Toronto Blue Jays (89–73)
  4. New York Yankees (84–78)
  5. Tampa Bay Rays (68–94)

Outside of the Red Sox being favorites, the rest of the A.L. East is pretty murky. The Rays probably won’t be quite as bad again (they had a lot of bad luck last year), while the Orioles probably won’t be quite as good again (they had a lot of good luck last year). The Rays still don’t have enough talent to for a reasonable shot at the playoffs, though every once in a while, they surprise everyone (see their 2008 A.L. pennant). The Orioles have a stacked lineup that could set home-run records — and they’ll have to if they want to make up for a woeful starting rotation that may set home-run records too, just of the “home runs allowed” variety.

The Blue Jays lost their No. 3 hitter, Encarnacion, but found a cheaper replacement in Kendrys Morales. Their lineup is still fearsome, and they have the deepest starting rotation in the division, led by World Baseball Classic MVP Marcus Stroman. This team could topple the BoSox, but if their aging bats decline faster than expected, they could also be fighting to stay out of the cellar.

And then there are the Yankees — who knows what’ll happen in the Bronx this year? A bunch of young players — the so-called “Baby Bombers” like last season’s breakout rookie catcher Gary Sanchez — will get a chance to prove whether they belong on a major-league roster. But the real question is the pitching staff. Outside of ace Masahiro Tanaka and relievers Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances, every other member of the staff is a major question mark. Winning the division is probably out of reach, but the Yankees could still make some noise.

Predicted Order of Finish:

  1. Red Sox
  2. Blue Jays
  3. Yankees
  4. Orioles
  5. Rays

American League Central

2016 Final Standings:

  1. Cleveland Indians (94–67)
  2. Detroit Tigers (86–75)
  3. Kansas City Royals (81–81)
  4. Chicago White Sox (78–84)
  5. Minnesota Twins (59–103)

The Indians will be extremely tough for any other team to catch, but if any team can, it’s the Tigers. Miguel Cabrera and Ian Kinsler anchor the lineup, and a rejuvenated Justin Verlander and Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer head the rotation. Detroit won 86 last year, which might be enough to sneak in as a Wild Card this year, but this is an aging team that may not have many chances left to win it all, something beloved owner Mike Ilitch wanted desperately before he passed away in February. Perhaps the Tigers can come together and raise their game in his honor — if they do, the Indians better watch out.

The Royals took a steep fall from World Series champs in 2015 to a .500 team last year. Sure, injuries played a part in it, but much of the regression was due to players simply not playing as well as they had. Eric Hosmer and Alex Gordon, for example, went from World Series heroes to below average. If enough of them can rediscover prior form, and stay off the DL, the Royals will have a shot at contending. But another near-.500 finish seems more likely.

The White Sox held what the baseball world calls a fire sale this off-season, trading away multiple star players to restock what had been a fairly barren farm system. They Pale Hose weren’t much good in 2016 and will probably be a bit worse this year, considering they’ll be playing without their best pitcher, Chris Sale (traded to Boston), and their best position player, outfielder Adam Eaton (traded to Washington). And there could be more dealing on the way. If the ChiSox quickly fall out of contention (as expected), third baseman Todd Frazier, starter Jose Quintana and closer David Robertson could be shipped off to playoff contenders to further add to their burgeoning stockpile of top prospects. The future may be bright, but it’s still a few years away for the South Siders.

And then there are the Twins, who, like the White Sox, weren’t good last year, won’t be this year, but hope to make major improvements in the near future. They have one bona fide star, second baseman Brian Dozier, whose 42 homers last year nearly got him upgraded via trade to the Dodgers, but the deal fell through. Joe Mauer may still be the face of the franchise, but the future belongs to young potential stars like Byron Buxton and Max Kepler, both of whom had solid seasons even in limited playing time. Top starter Ervin Santana returns to lead a rotation that, well, stinks otherwise. Dozier may starting at the keystone in April, but it would be a shock if he’s still in Minnesota in August and September. This time around, Twins management needs to find the team some young pitching in return for the slugging second baseman.

Predicted Order of Finish:

  1. Indians
  2. Tigers
  3. Royals
  4. Twins
  5. White Sox

American League West

2017 Final Standings:

  1. Texas Rangers (95–67)
  2. Seattle Mariners (86–76)
  3. Houston Astros (84–78)
  4. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (74–88)
  5. Oakland Athletics (69–93)

To try to dethrone the Rangers, the Astros made several big moves this off-season, bringing in catcher Brian McCann from the Yankees and signing free-agent OF/DH Carlos Beltran to bolster an already potent lineup. The ‘stros tried hard to acquire Jose Quintana from the White Sox, but the deal stalled — don’t be surprised if talks resume sometime as the trade deadline approaches. This deal makes too much sense for both teams not to happen. Houston has a young core of high-quality talent in shortstop Carlos Correa, outfielder George Springer, second baseman Jose Altuve and third baseman Alex Bregman, who will now get a chance to play the full season. If the pitching staff recovers from a dismal 2016, plus the possible addition of Quintana come July, Houston should take the division — but that’s a big if.

Perhaps no team did more wheeling and dealing this off-season than the Mariners, bringing in Jarrod Dyson from the Royals to play left field, second baseman Jean Segura and right fielder Mitch Haniger from the Diamondbacks, first baseman Danny Valencia from the A’s, starters Yovani Gallardo from the Orioles and Drew Smyly from the Rays. That’s four out of nine new everyday starters, plus 40 percent of the rotation. Will it work? The M’s are desperate to return to the postseason, as they hold the longest playoff drought of any team (they last made it to October in 2001). The moves do make sense, and they support what was already a solid offensive core with Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager. If Felix Hernandez can bounce back to his dominant form and Hisashi Iwakuma continues his solid work, the Mariners will have built a deep, talented 25-man squad, certainly enough to end that 15-year vacation from the postseason.

The Angels have Mike Trout, the best player in the world, and whoever has Mike Trout will never be hopeless. But it is tough to see how they can leap-frog the Astros, Mariners and Rangers without a bit of luck. Okay, a lot of luck. Mostly from the pitching staff, which was horrendous this year. Management acquired Ricky Nolasco from the Twins, who had a below-average year in 2016 and that still would have made him the best pitcher on the Angels. It’s a shame, since Trout, Andrelton Simmons, Kole Calhoun and Albert Pujols comprise a high-quality core of position players. If the Angels’ starting staff could be even average, this team could sneak up on people.

The only team that really stands no chance at winning the division this year are the A’s. Sorry, Oakland fans, but it’s most likely gonna be another long season. Maybe not 100-losses bad, but if your team is hoping to reach fourth place, that doesn’t bode well. Oakland made no notable free-agent acquisitions or big-time trades, which means another 90-loss season could be at hand. General manager Billy Beane has had a talent in the past, though, of pulling off shockingly good seasons from what looks like meagerly talented rosters, so we suppose maybe there’s a very slight chance at contention. But probably not. You can always just pop in your Moneyball Blu-ray if you want to remember the good times.

Predicted Order of Finish:

  1. Mariners
  2. Astros
  3. Rangers
  4. Angels
  5. A’s

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

Division Champs: Red Sox, Indians, Mariners

Wild Card Game: Astros defeat Blue Jays

Division Series: Red Sox defeat Mariners, Indians defeat Astros

ALCS: Red Sox vs. Indians

American League 2016 Champions: Boston Red Sox

READ OUR NATIONAL LEAGUE PREVIEW

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