A few quick notes before we get into it: The delayed season has thrown a wrench into everyone’s plans, and there is still some uncertainty surrounding how some aspects of the game will be put in place. So, for simplicity’s sake, I will be going forward with this preview assuming the following stipulations are in place:
- Rosters will be 29 players, up from 26
- If a player is currently injured with an expected return date, I will count them toward the Opening Day roster if they are expected to return before the new Opening Day. For this, I’m going to say June 18. While I’m not confident this date is realistic, it’s 12 weeks from the original start date, and for the sake of the article, I have to draw the line somewhere.
- The tables may be larger than the actual number of players the team will carry. This is due in part to the expanded rosters and yet-to-be-made roster decisions.
2019 Record: 54-108 (.333 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
- Additions: José Iglesias, Kohl Stewart, Tommy Milone, Wade LeBlanc
- Subtractions: Jonathan Villar
|2||Trey Mancini (INJ)||RF||R|
|Dwight Smith Jr.||OF||L|
The Orioles came in as the 22nd-rated team with 729 runs scored last year, and collectively hit .246/.310/.415 with a .308 wOBA and an 88 wRC+, putting them comfortably near the bottom of the barrel. Most notably, Jonathan Villar was shipped down to Miami in December. Villar was one of the more productive hitters on the team and boasted a 24 HR/40 SB season in 2019. His dynamic bat atop the lineup will be sorely missed. Baltimore will now look to Trey Mancini to anchor the lineup, as the 27-year-old is coming off a career-best 132 wRC+ 2019. Mancini is also currently on the shelf after having a malignant tumor removed from his colon. It is unclear how long Mancini will be out of commission, and I hope for the best for his health.
Hanser Alberto, Renato Núñez, and Anthony Santander will round out the top of the lineup. Alberto can hit for average, Núñez has some pop, and Santander can do a little bit of both. They all grade out as similarly average overall hitters (Alberto with a 96 wRC+, Núñez with a 99 wRC+, and Santander at 97). More interestingly, the team will also get a full(ish) season of Austin Hays, who is coming off an impressive, albeit small sample of a debut last year in which he hit .309 with 4 HR and 2 SB in only 21 games. Chris Davis turned in a productive spring, but it’s hard to count on him for anything these days. José Iglesias figures to get the lion’s share of playing time at shortstop, and while he is still considered a plus fielder (7.0 DRS, 5.9 UZR in 2019), he is very much a below-average hitter (84 wRC+).
Rio Ruiz and his .219 lifetime batting average had himself a productive spring and has a tenuous grasp on the 3B job for now, unless Dilson Herrera can find a way to usurp him. He may also find himself out of a job if Ryan Mountcastle forces his way into the majors. Mountcastle had a productive 2019 in AAA (.312 AVG, .871 OPS, and 25 HR in 127 games) and Brandon Hyde has said they are “moving him around” the field in an effort to get his bat in the lineup. Chance Sisco and Pedro Severino will split time behind the dish, and neither is an incredibly attractive option. Sisco has not yet delivered on his former top-prospect status, and Severino is simply an average hitter. Both are, at this point, only keeping the seat warm for Adley Rutschman, last year’s top overall pick and currently a Top 5 prospect in the game.
After sporting a league-worst 5.59 ERA in 2019, there’s nowhere to go but up for the O’s rotation. Will that happen? Ehhhh.
Despite his ugly second half, ace-by-default John Means enjoyed a pretty productive 2019, sporting a 3.60 ERA atop the Orioles’ rotation. Below the surface, however, Means’ numbers leave a lot to be desired. The strikeout numbers(7.03 K/9, 19% K rate) are a bit ugly, and the homers (1.34 HR/9) ain’t pretty either. Alex Cobb has been a disaster in two seasons, sporting a 4.90 ERA in 28 starts in 2018 before suffering a lumbar strain in 2019 after only three starts and missed the entire season. Asher Wojciechowski expects to hold down the No. 3 spot after coming back over from Cleveland with his dominant slider last summer, but so far has basically just looked like Means with more strikeouts and home runs. The No. 4 and 5 spots are expected to be filled by some combination of retreads Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone. Kohl Stewart and David Hess will make some starts as back-fill as well. I expect this rotation will be spending a lot of time in the cellar.
Relief is where I think the Orioles can show some strength. Or at the very least, some trade candidates. Mychal Givens, despite a rocky 2019, is still far and away their best option for the 9th inning. Top set-up option Richard Bleier won’t strike anyone out (4.88 K.9), but limits walks and has historically been an effective reliever. Former first rounder Hunter Harvey and the hard-throwing Miguel Castro have had mixed results, but have enough raw talent to develop into solid middle innings options. The rest of this relief crew will feature some combination of Paul Fry, Shawn Armstrong, Tanner Scott, Dillon Tate, and Cody Carroll. While it certainly isn’t the deepest pen in the league, the O’s have some good late game options. We’ll see if they’ll parlay this into deadline trade chips to hopefully bring back some young talent for their seemingly perpetual rebuild.
I think the best case scenario for the Orioles is a bit fluid. While not coming in last is an improvement, another very high draft pick would be helpful to this still ongoing rebuild. What I think the Orioles need instead is productive seasons from the likes of Mancini (assuming he is healthy) and Givens, who can become trade chips at the deadline. Both Mancini and Givens simply won’t be around when the O’s are ready to compete, so cashing in on them for higher-end minor league talent would be wise. This team is more than likely finishing fifth in the division again anyway, so getting the most out of the good players they do have would be best.
Can it get worse than 54 wins? It sure can! Just ask the Tigers. A complete nightmare scenario for the O’s would only start off with winning an inconsequential amount of games. Injuries or down years from Mancini, Givens, and even other bullpen pieces like Castro and Bleier could have disastrous results. Austin Hays’ pleasant 2019 cup of coffee could end up being a mirage. Adley Rutschman’s development could stall. The possibilities are endless for the Orioles to somehow get even worse.
Storylines to Follow
Obviously the development and arrival of Rutschman is the big one here. The O’s top prospect is one of the higher end talents in the game and they’ll have to be careful with him. It’s not every year you get a prospect who has comps to Joe Mauer (Matt Wieters’ “Mauer With Power” pipe dream be damned). Aside from Rutschman, the O’s will definitely be hoping to get a solid campaign out of Austin Hays, who could very well be another piece to build the future around.
It’s no secret — the Orioles are a flat-out bad team. They are in the depths of a rebuild, and the current roster is very lean with talent. Even with the imminent Rutschman call up, this team is still several years away from seriously competing in a very tough division. GM Mike Elias will have to be very cautious if and when he decides to deal the few chips he has left to ensure the maximum return of future talent.
Toronto Blue Jays
2019 Record: 67-95 (.414 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
- Additions: Hyun-Jin Ryu, Chase Anderson, Tanner Roark, Shun Yamaguchi, Travis Shaw
- Subtractions: Justin Smoak, Clay Buchholz, Nick Kingham
|3||Lourdes Gurriel Jr.||LF||R|
|4||Vlad Guerrero Jr.||3B||R|
Toronto’s offense didn’t fare much better than Baltimore’s did in 2019, scoring 726 runs with a .236/.305/.428 stat line. Where the Jays differ from the O’s, though, is that things are looking a lot brighter for 2020 and beyond. As the season progressed, Toronto promoted their trio of prized offensive prospects and sons-of-former-major leaguers in Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, and Vlad Guerrero Jr. Both Bichette and Biggio have plus on-base skills with speed to complement. Following those two will be the underrated Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and the intimidating power bat of Vladito. With these four anchoring the top of the lineup, Toronto is in a good position to build around them.
For the time being, the Jays will deploy a combination of Travis Shaw and Rowdy Tellez at first base, while Tellez will get a lot of looks at DH as well, since he is a veritable butcher with the glove. Tellez is a prototypical flawed masher, striking out a ton but possessing an ability to punish mistakes. Shaw, on the other hand, is looking to rebound from a capital-A abysmal 2019 after hitting 30+ HR in the previous two seasons. In 86 games in 2019, Shaw’s K% jumped 14.6% on his way to hitting .157 with a pitiful .561 OPS, getting demoted to AAA twice. It has been reported the team was initially after Mike Moustakas before he eventually took a better offer from Cincinnati. Shaw also may see time at 3B if the “moving Vlad to 1B” narrative gains any traction. Brandon Drury figures to be the main utility infielder, as he can handle third, second, or first base if need be.
In the outfield along with Gurriel Jr., Toronto has both Teoscar Hernandez and Randal Grichuk to man center field. Both Hernandez and Grichuk are a bit one-dimensional, as neither will hit for average or get on base at impressive clips, but can crush what they do manage to get a hold of at the plate. Grichuk will also spend time in right if Derek Fisher continues to sputter at the major league level. Fisher was a fairly well-regarded prospect while he was in Houston, but has failed to show he can handle big league pitching. In 152 games, Fisher has hit a paltry .161/.279/.369. He has, however, provided us with one of the more unique defensive blunders of 2019.
Behind the plate, Danny Jansen will get the lion’s share of playing time. Jansen was a popular sleeper pick in fantasy circles last year, but so far has only managed to be below-average in the box. To his credit, he has received a lot of praise for both his defensive and pitch framing abilities, which will help his case to stay in the lineup if his bat continues to lag. Reese McGuire figures to be the backup catcher provided he isn’t incarcerated following his arrest in February for exposing himself.
The Jays made some decisive moves on the rotation front during the offseason, most notable signing former Dodger Hyun-Jin Ryu to a four-year deal. Ryu enjoyed a career year in 2019, cutting his BB/9 to 1.2 and posted a sparkly 2.32 ERA in 182.2 IP. The most important thing to glean from his 2019, though, is honestly the innings, as Ryu has struggled to stay healthy in his MLB career. But is 2019 indicative of the future, or is it the outlier? Ryu will be 33 when the season commences, with over 2,000 IP of mileage on his arm between the KBO and the MLB.
Chase Anderson was also brought in from a trade with Milwaukee. Anderson is very much a league-average starter, but he’s a fairly affordable innings-eater for a depleted rotation. He even has a $9.5M team option for 2021 if he impresses. Couple that with the prospect cost of Chad Spanberger that it took to acquire him, and Anderson is a good get for the Jays. Boring, but good for a team in Toronto’s position. They also signed Tanner Roark to a two-year/$24M deal to help anchor the rotation. Much like Anderson, Roark is an average arm who can help soak up innings. Both Anderson and Roark (along with the returning Matt Shoemaker) are very much keeping seats warm for future prospects.
Speaking of prospects, the Jays jettisoned both Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez during the 2019 season to help with their “reload.” Sanchez got them back the aforementioned Fisher from Houston, while Stroman brought back a pair of prospects in Simeon Woods Richardson and Anthony Kay. Woods Richardson is still only 19 and in High-A ball, but has a ton of upside to be a top-of-the rotation arm. Kay’s ceiling seems a bit lower, but he’s MLB-ready after making a brief appearance last season.
But the real prize we’re all waiting for is Nate Pearson. The 6-foot-6 Pearson possesses three plus pitches and premier velocity. He is currently #8 on MLB’s Top 100 prospects list, and has all the makings of a future frontline starter. As giddy as we all are to see Pearson break onto the scene, the Jays will be careful with their valuable arm. More than likely, there will be no need to rush Pearson to the big leagues unless the Jays are pushing for a playoff spot, and even then, rushing the development of an elite prospect is a risky game to play.
If you were looking for an unexciting bullpen, you’ve come to the right place. Aside from free agent to-be Ken Giles, not many of these relievers are projected for success. Both Bass and Dolis have split their careers between the MLB and Japan, and neither has enjoyed any extended success playing stateside. Dolis will also most likely start the season on the IL following an appendectomy. Gaviglio and Romano have some nice strikeout upside, but both issue a lot of free passes. Pannone split 2019 between the bigs and Triple-A as a bit of a utility pitcher — he operated as an opener, in short relief, and as a traditional starter. Former top prospect A.J. Cole has apparently impressed so far in Spring Training as a non-roster invitee and will look to lock down the long-relief role over Wilmer Font.
One intriguing part of this otherwise dull relief corps is the arrival of Shun Yamaguchi. The Jays inked the Japanese star to an insanely cheap two-year/$6M deal after he posted a career year for the Yomiuri Giants. There has been a lot of talk in camp of Yamaguchi slotting into the fifth-starter spot, but his main competitor Trent Thornton has also made a strong case for the rotation. If Yamaguchi loses out on the rotation spot, the Jays can deploy him in a setup role, which would greatly increase the late innings for this team. If the Jays find themselves to be sellers at the deadline yet again, Giles would very likely be on the move due to his impending free agency. This could open the door for Yamaguchi to serve as the team’s interim closer and possibly a very inexpensive late-innings option for 2021.
Storylines to Follow
Right now, the far-and-away most exciting part of this team is its young lineup. Bichette, Biggio, Guerrero Jr, and Gurriel Jr. are all incredibly exciting players who could be leading this team for years to come. It is definitely one of the more exciting groups of young players on one team I’ve had the privilege of watching over the years. Their continued development will be crucial for the Jays to claw their way back into contention.
On the pitching side, following Ryu’s adjustment to Toronto will be interesting. If he continues to pitch like he did in 2019, the rotation will have a steady force at the helm. If he falters or misses a large chunk of time, the hodgepodge group of Shoemaker, Anderson, Roark and company won’t put the Jays in a lot of positive game positions. If this is the case and the Jays are no doubt sellers, it would make too much sense to trade closer Ken Giles to help augment their younger talent.
Yamaguchi’s transition to the MLB will also be intriguing, as he is an unknown quantity and could factor into either the rotation or the bullpen at some point. And last but certainly not least, the continued development of Nate Pearson is on everyone’s minds and his debut could come as early as this year if everything breaks right.
The Jays are still very much a work in progress, but they sure are exciting. With an infield that could be one of the best offensive groups in the league and some interesting pitching prospects, the Jays are on the cusp of returning to the playoff picture. With only about $64M in committed payroll after 2020, the Jays are in a good position to keep spending on free agents in order to supplement their homegrown core. The Jays are on the rise, and their arrival may be sooner than we think.
Boston Red Sox
2019 Record: 84-78 (.519 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
- Additions: Alex Verdugo, Jonathan Lucroy, Collin McHugh, Kevin Pillar, Jose Peraza
- Subtractions: Mookie Betts, David Price, Rick Porcello, Brock Holt, Steve Pearce
|7||Jackie Bradley Jr||CF||L|
If the Sox lineup looks a little different, it’s probably because they have parted ways with Mookie Betts prior to his free agency. Betts was traded, then not traded, then traded again to the Dodgers in a deal that was broken down and rebuilt a couple times over the course of several days. It wasn’t all for naught, as the deal did net them a solid outfielder under team control in Alex Verdugo, and an intriguing infielder in Jeter Downs, who instantly became the depleted farm’s #2 prospect.
The 2019 Red Sox offense was quite good, collectively hitting .269/.340/.466 and were fourth overall with 901 runs scored on the year. The duo of Bogaerts (141 wRC+) and JD Martinez (139 wRC+) led the pack, combining for 69 HR and elite on-base ability. Rafael Devers also broke out at the plate, hitting .311/.361/.555 with 32 HR. At only 23 years old, Devers is currently looking like the future of that lineup, along with the 27-year-old Bogaerts. The Sox will also be hoping for a bounce-back season from left fielder Andrew Benintendi, who across the board underperformed compared to his so-far successful career. His strikeouts jumped (22.8% compared to 16% in 2018) and his stolen bases dropped a little more than half (10 in 2019, down from 21 in 2018). If Benintendi can recapture his 2016-2018 level of play, he could easily be in contention to lead the league in runs batting in front of the trio of Bogaerts, Devers, and Martinez.
With the left side of the infield set in stone, the Sox can get a little flexible with matchups on the right side. Mitch Moreland is back for his fourth season in Boston, and will serve in a platoon role at first base, most likely coupling with the righty Michael Chavis. Both have been adequate bats so far for the Sox, the only difference being Moreland is at at the tail end of his career, while Chavis is just getting started. Chavis had a promising first half in 2019, hitting .263 with 15 HR, but cratered a bit after July, as his average dropped to .221 and only managing three homers. Chavis will also see time at second base when the Red Sox are up against a RHP. Against lefties, Chavis will man first base and new addition Jose Peraza will handle the keystone. Peraza has shown plus speed on the bases in his career with the Dodgers and Reds, but has yet to show he can get on base enough for it to matter. He will, however, play most of 2020 at still only 26 years old, and still has potential to deliver on. Peraza was a low-risk and affordable move for the Sox to make, as the career of once-stalwart second baseman Dustin Pedroia remains in jeopardy.
In the outfield, Benintendi will hold down the patrol underneath the Green Monster and Jackie Bradley Jr. will continue to man center. In right field, the Red Sox will most likely deploy the newly-acquired Kevin Pillar as long as JD Martinez is DH-ing that day. Pillar is back in the AL East after his brief stint in San Francisco, and while his batting average and OBP have never been anything impressive, he has posted double-digit steals and homers in the past three seasons. Pillar could be another Peraza-like signing for the Sox with little risk attached. Pillar will also have to compete with fellow newcomer Alex Verdugo once he returns from the stress fracture he suffered in his back.
Behind the plate, Christian Vázquez expects to see most of the playing time. Vázquez’s bat took a step forward in 2019, hitting .276/.320/.477 with 23 HR in 138 games. Should Vázquez falter, both Kevin Plawecki and Jonathan Lucroy could see time behind the plate. Lucroy, once one of the top offensive catchers in the league, has reportedly looked much better in camp than he did while bouncing around between Texas, Colorado, Oakland, and L.A. Much like Peraza and Pillar, the Lucroy signing could end up paying dividends for the Sox.
Obviously, without Mookie going forward, the Sox are a very different and less threatening team. But that is not to say that they are without some very intimidating hitters: This lineup will still give a lot of opposing pitchers headaches in 2020.
While the Sox lineup might still be fierce, the starting rotation is much less so. At least, for now. David Price was shipped to L.A. along with Mookie Betts, and Chris Sale won’t see any action following his Tommy John surgery. Without Sale, Eduardo Rodriguez will helm the top spot of the rotation. E-Rod has posted several straight seasons of good to great strikeout rates while keeping free passes at about average levels. He has also been consistently reducing his HR/9 each season since 2016.
Eovaldi is a bit more of an enigma. After coming over from Tampa in 2018, Eovaldi dominated for the Sox on the way to their championship. The team rewarded him with a four-year/$68M contract, and so far Eovaldi has returned that favor with a 5.99 ERA in only 67.2 IP, because he once again showed his propensity for winding up on the IL. Nasty Nate spent three months on the IL in 2019 after loose bodies were found in his elbow in April. During spring training, Eovaldi had looked sharp, and he’ll need to continue to do so as the Sox will count on him as their #2 SP for the time being.
After Rodriguez and Eovaldi, this staff starts to get a bit dicey. Martin Perez was brought in on a one-year deal and expects to hold down the #3 spot. Perez has never possessed elite strikeout (5.80 career K/9) or walk (3.27 career BB/9) rates, and hasn’t turned in an ERA south of 4.00 since 2013. Perez was meant to be a back-end starter for this squad, but with Sale out he’ll be holding down the No. 3 spot for the time being. The 29-year-old Ryan Weber had a strong spring training and has expressed his willingness to either maintain a starting role or act as an opener for the team, should they decide to roll with bullpen days when possible. Darwinzon Hernandez could theoretically fill a starting role, but his command or lack thereof is much better suited for the bullpen. Collin McHugh could be a suitable reinforcement for the depleted rotation, but he is still recovering from a flexor injury. For what it’s worth, manager Ron Roenicke has said McHugh could pitch as a starter or in relief.
Workman enjoyed his best season since transitioning to the bullpen full time in 2017. He upped his strikeouts from 22.2% to 36.4% and drastically reduced homers at a 0.13 HR/9 rate. Matt Barnes and Josh Taylor will operate as the primary set-up men. Much like Workman, Barnes posted career high strikeouts in 2019 at a 38.6% clip, but also issued career-high walks at a 13.3% rate. Taylor showed a bit more control after his May debut for the Sox, keeping his walks at only 8.3%.
Heath Hembree was electric before going down with an elbow injury in June. When he returned, he was far from the pitcher he was prior to the IL stint and admitted he was pitching through some pain before ultimately returning to the IL. If he is healthy, both he and Darwinzon Hernandez will be competent middle innings options. Hernandez is very much like Workman and Barnes, as he offers elite strikeout potential (38.8%) but has yet to keep the walks in check (17.7%). Brewer, Brice, Walden, and possibly a returning Ryan Brasier will round out the pen until McHugh returns to the bump, provided he isn’t starting.
Storylines to Follow
Devers is scheduled to hit arbitration next year, and he could be in for a big payday if he builds on his successful 2019. The Red Sox are currently set to reset their luxury tax penalties and may explore a possible extension for Devers to buy out his arbitration. With he and Bogaerts locked up on the left side of the infield, the Sox will have a nice one-two punch in their lineup to build around.
What will happen with Chris Sale? Sale has shown health trouble the last couple of seasons, and is currently locked up through 2024 with a vesting option for 2025. Coupled with half of Price’s remaining salary they are still on the hook for, the Sox are looking at a ton of dead money in their rotation. Have I mentioned they also owe the constantly-hurt Eovaldi $17M each year through 2022? Luckily, the Sox have roughly $55M coming off their books next season. It will be very interesting to view how they approach their payroll after their luxury tax is reset.
Tampa Bay Rays
2019 Record: 96-66 (.593 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
- Additions: Hunter Renfroe, Manuel Margot, Jose Martinez, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, Randy Arozarena
- Subtractions: Tommy Pham, Travis d’Arnaud, Avisail Garcia, Jesus Aguilar, Emilio Pagan
|4||Ji Man Choi||1B||L|
The Rays were fairly active this winter, shipping off outfielder Tommy Pham in exchange for Hunter Renfroe and legitimate prospect Xavier Edwards back in early December. Ten days later, they signed Yoshitomo Tsutsugo to a two-year/$12M deal as well. The Rays then acquired both Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena in exchange for pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore, before trading with San Diego again — this time swapping reliever Emilio Pagan and Logan Driscoll for Manuel Margot. Got all that?
In what seems to be an eternal practice, the Rays have a very flexible lineup that manager Kevin Cash can deploy a few different ways for matchup purposes. Subsequently, it makes it a little tough to predict how the lineup will shake out on a day to day basis. Brandon Lowe will handle the majority of second-base duties after his impressive 2019. He certainly strikes out a lot (34.6% last season) but still managed a .270/.336/.514 line with 17 homers in 82 games. He will most likely lead off against RHP, but Cash will probably roll with other options against lefties given Lowe’s splits. Austin Meadows broke out in a huge way in 2019, establishing himself as Tampa’s best bat. His BB% jumped from 5.2% in 2018 to 9.1% last season, and his .922 OPS ranks among some of the best in the game. He even threw in 12 steals for good measure. Expect him to bat somewhere in the top third of the order, as he spent 120 games last season in the 1-2-3 holes. The Rays have apparently initiated extension talks with Meadows, and they would be wise to lock down their best player for years to come.
Third baseman and personal favorite Yandy Diaz was also a pleasant surprise for the Rays last year. He hits the ball with authority, sporting a 44.8% hard-hit rate and a 91.7 mph average exit velocity. The problem for Diaz, though, is that he tends to smack the ball right into the ground. His average launch angle of only 5.7 degrees is going to lead to a lot of ground balls. He could really unlock some elite production if he fixes that launch angle. Newcomer Yoshi Tsutsugo will also factor in at third base. Tsutsugo has spent the last 10 years with the Yokohama Bay Stars in the NPB, compiling a .382 career OBP and 163 HR over the last five seasons there.
Ji-Man Choi and Jose Martinez will almost certainly platoon at first base given their splits. Martinez can also play outfield if needed, something I see Cash doing frequently to keep his bat in the lineup. Martinez didn’t really have a place to play in St. Louis, and I can see him flourishing getting regular at-bats between 1B, OF, and DH.
Kevin Kiermaier will continue to patrol center field. Kiermaier’s calling card is his glove, as his rate stats are pretty pedestrian — .249/.306/.416 for his career, but he has managed to average 12 HR and 15 steals over the last 3 years. Tsutsugo could see time in left field, but it will be handled mainly by Hunter Renfroe. Renfroe fits the mold of a one-dimensional slugger. To his credit, his walk rate has increased in each of his three seasons and was slightly above average last year at 9.3%. However, his K% also sat at a career high 31.2% in 2019, and he hit for a career low .216 average. Still, averaging just over 28 homers per year in your first three big league seasons is pretty impressive. I’m interested to see if his power can be amplified a bit in the smaller AL East ballparks.
Behind the plate, Travis d’Arnaud has jumped ship to Atlanta, so Mike Zunino will be back in the starting role. Zunino has a reputation for good defense, but his bat has never developed following his rushed development in Seattle. The catcher has posted strikeout percentages north of 33% in six straight seasons, and has never really made up for it with impressive power, topping 20 HR in only three of those seasons.
2018 AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell had a rocky 2019. Battling injuries including a fractured toe and loose bodies in his elbow, Snell turned in a 4.29 ERA across 107 IP, the highest single-season mark of his career. Snell did, however, post his highest K/9 at 12.36. Given his strong peripherals, I don’t expect Snell to perform as badly as he did in 2019. I’ll chalk that one up to the injuries.
Charlie Morton has been cruising right along in his career renaissance, and even at age 36 he appears to still be getting better. Since 2015, his K% has risen and his ERA has fallen, and in 2019 that amounted to a K rate of 30.4% and a 3.05 ERA — both career bests. He also pitched 194.2 innings, the most for him since 2011. Morton’s reinvention now counts him among the elite as he will look to further defy Father Time in 2020.
Coming over in the Chris Archer highway robbery deal in 2018, Tyler Glasnow flashed some huge potential before going down with a forearm strain this past May. In 12 starts, Glasnow was rolling a 1.78 ERA and his best walk and strikeout rates to date. It was a small sample size of only 60.2 innings, and Glasnow’s history of walk problems and recent injury concerns have left a lot of Rays fans cautious to get too excited about him just yet.
Both Ryan Yarbrough and Yonny Chirinos are solid arms who can handle regular starting duties or opening if the Rays continue with their bullpen days strategy. I’m much more intrigued to see how these two will hold up with both Brent Honeywell Jr. and Brendan McKay on the cusp of the majors. Honeywell has suffered both a fractured elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery, so his debut has been delayed. McKay has been touted as a two-way player, but due to injuries the team has decided to focus on his pitching development. McKay is currently Tampa’s No. 2 prospect and possesses great command of his four pitches. With these two waiting in the wings, the Rays’ rotation could be among the league’s elite at season’s end.
While the Rays have multiple late inning options, Nick Anderson appears to be in line for closing duties. The 29-year-old Anderson came over from the Marlins at the 2019 trade deadline and posted an excellent K/9 (15.23) and BB/9 (2.49) with a bonkers 35.5% CSW in his rookie year. Next in line is the duo of Castillo and Alvarado, who, outside of the now-traded Emilio Pagan, handled the majority of save situations last year. Castillo held down the role for the most part, while Alvarado spent major time on the IL with oblique and elbow injuries.
Chaz Roe and his ridiculous slider will headline middle inning duty along with Colin Poche and Oliver Drake. Poche has been effective, but his need for a second reliable pitch may become an issue if he is not harnessing his fastball effectively. Drake will be featured quite heavily as well, and like the other members of this relief group, can rack up strikeouts throughout the year. Jalen Beeks, the prospect netted in the Eovaldi trade with Boston, figures to serve as a long reliever and spot starter. Beeks is a bit less intriguing than the other relief options here, as he won’t generate the strikeouts his colleagues do (7.61 career K/9), but he can still be a reliable innings sponge for Tampa Bay.
Storylines to Follow
As if the Rays needed any more influx of young talent, they also have the consensus top prospect in baseball in Wander Franco. The switch-hitting 19-year-old has torched professional pitching across multiple levels and has yet to have a weak spot identified in his game. Although a 2020 debut is probably out of the question for Franco, his continued development will be without a doubt a great situation to monitor. With only the paltry competition of Willy Adames standing in his way at shortstop, Franco could easily take the starting job in 2021 and run away with it.
I’m also excited to see what the Rays can do with all their new faces. Their roster turnover is huge going into this season, and manager Kevin Cash could easily field a unique and above-average roster everyday if he so chose. The adaptability of the Rays to different situations is what makes them a strong team, and I am quite interested to see how they make their roster decisions day-to-day.
New York Yankees
2019 Record: 103-59 (.636 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
- Additions: Gerrit Cole, Chris Iannetta, Chad Bettis
- Subtractions: Didi Gregorius, Dellin Betances, CC Sabathia, Edwin Encarnacion, Austin Romine, Cameron Maybin, Jacoby Ellsbury
Prior to the delay of the season, this roster was shaping up very differently. Injuries galore once again befell the Bombers, as James Paxton, Luis Severino, Giancarlo Stanton, and Aaron Judge all suffered various degrees of damage. We’ll get to the pitching side of things, so for now let’s focus on the bats.
Stanton’s strained calf didn’t seem serious, but after last year’s parade of cryptic injuries, it was highly in doubt Giancarlo would be ready for the start of the season. Then it was revealed Judge was nursing a chest/shoulder injury and would miss time as well. Turned out, Judge had suffered a fractured rib and a pneumothorax, or collapsed lung. Not ideal. But with Opening Day now at some distant point in the future, both Judge and Stanton could very realistically be playing in Game 1.
If healthy, Judge will man right field and Stanton will split time between left field and DH. Given Stanton’s recent propensity for injuries, the team has rolled out a couple of different left fielders, including 2019 breakout Mike Tauchman and, more interestingly, Miguel Andujar. Tauchman was one of many to step up in 2019 amidst the Yankees IL bloodbath, sporting a .364 wOBA and a .865 OPS in 87 games. He can also play center field if need be. That may be a requirement as the 36-year-old Brett Gardner is expected to be the main center fielder while Aaron Hicks recovers from Tommy John surgery. Gardner had a nice 2019, setting a career high in homers (28) and OPS (.829), but at his age, a sharp sudden decline would not be surprising. Andujar made his outfield debut in spring training, mostly in an effort to keep his bat in the lineup following Gio Urshela running off with the third base job. Assuming Gio remains the everyday 3B, Andujar will move around between left field and DH.
Speaking of Urshela, he was another one of the Yankees “next man up” success stories. After three unremarkable seasons between Cleveland and Toronto, Urshela exploded with a .314/.355/.534 line with 21 homers in 132 games. For now, he is penciled in as the starting third baseman, but if 2019 is a mirage, the team could be looking for other solutions. At shortstop, the Yankees will look to their young star Gleyber Torres to hold down the position after Gregorius’ departure. Torres is one of the best young shortstops in the game and the Yankees will depend on him to anchor the middle of the lineup. Second base and leadoff duties now fall to DJ LeMahieu, whose excellent 2019 (.327/.375/.518) placed him fourth in AL MVP voting.
First base will be a bit less clear for New York. Luke Voit was electric after coming over from St. Louis in 2018, but his 2019 was marred by injury. He appears to be back to 100% now, but faces some resistance from Mike Ford to win the job. Ford impressed in his 50 games played, and at the very least will provide stiff competition for Voit. Miguel Andujar’s name also came up in the first base discussion, but the team has seemed to scrap that plan for now.
On the bench, the biggest benefactor of expanded rosters is enigmatic outfielder Clint Frazier. Frazier has struggled to stay healthy and the team has been apprehensive to give him playing time, bouncing him to Triple-A multiple times since acquiring him. He will compete with Tauchman for the fourth outfielder job, but may wind up on the bench as an extra body. Tyler Wade figures to be the main utility infielder given his ability to play shortstop and second base effectively. Thairo Estrada will also get some looks in the infield. Neither Wade’s or Estrada’s bat are anything special, but can be solid backup options.
With the departure of longtime backup Austin Romine, Kyle Higashioka will get the bulk of backup work. Given that he is out of options, it looks like the Yanks will keep him as the main backup and some combination of Erik Kratz and Chris Iannetta will be next in line should starter Gary Sanchez hit the IL again. Sanchez is a supremely talented hitter, but health has not been on his side, as he has managed to average just under 106 games played over the last 3 seasons.
Arguably the biggest signing of the offseason, Gerrit Cole signed a massive nine-year/$324M contract with the team who originally tried to draft him back in 2008. Cole is one of, if not the best, pitcher in the game right now, and his presence atop the Yankee rotation will be a stabilizing force. After missing out on Patrick Corbin a year earlier, it was imperative the Yankees shore up their rotation.
And it’s quite a good thing they did, in retrospect. It didn’t take long for the injuries to begin. James Paxton needed back surgery, and Luis Severino needed Tommy John. Paxton is currently ahead of schedule and should be good to go given the late start, but another lost year for Luis Severino is critical. Severino looked like one of the games best young starters in 2018, but now after two straight seasons on the shelf, it’s in question whether or not he’ll ever reach those elite levels again.
Tanaka is entering the last year of his first MLB contract, and he saw his strikeouts drop off in 2019. The 31-year-old and his calling-card splitter is basically an average MLB starter at this point. But given the Yankees injury history, they’ll gladly take that every five days. J.A. Happ was brought back following the 2018 season, but saw his ERA jump to 4.91 and his K% dropped by nearly 6%. If nothing else, he can effectively eat innings in the back end of the rotation.
Jordan Montgomery figures to lock into the No. 5 spot with Paxton’s return. Montgomery is coming off Tommy John surgery and made a brief cameo at the end of 2019. Deivi Garcia, Michael King, and Clarke Schmidt will also be making their cases for a starting gig at some point. Garcia and Schmidt are among the upper echelon of Yankee prospects, while King projects somewhere between the rotation and the bullpen. Both Jonathan Loaisiga and Luis Cessa can’t be counted out as starting pitcher options either, but the team has started to use them in relief more often.
The name we may be forgetting is Domingo German, who looked like he was coming into his own as well last year. However, German was suspended 81 games for violating the league’s domestic violence policy. Including the 18 games he missed in 2019 during the investigation, German will be suspended for 63 games in 2020. Given the possibly shortened season, it would behoove the Yankees to not count on German for anything in 2020.
The Yankees re-signed Chapman to a three-year deal in the offseason, and he is expected to once again be entrenched in the closer’s role. Chapman’s velocity isn’t what it used to be, but he can still sit in the high 90s and rack up Ks. With Dellin Betances’ move across town, Zack Britton and Adam Ottavino will be the main set-up options. Britton’s strikeouts leave something to be desired, but he did sport an elite 77.2% GB rate last season. Ottavino, on the other hand, will rely much more on the punch-out.
Tommy Kahnle and Chad Green will both look to keep their positive momentum going, as Kahnle rebounded nicely after a disastrous 2018 and Green bounced back from a terrible first half in 2019. Green also saw 15 starts in 2019 as an opener, so look for him to continue to be the reliever of choice to start games if the team continues the strategy. Jonathan Holder will round out the middle relief options. He’s shown some flashes of effectiveness between multiple shuttle rides to Triple-A, but has yet to show consistent reliability.
Heller is coming off Tommy John surgery and will start the year in Triple-A, and Tyler Lyons was brought back on a minor-league deal. The Yankees had Lyons on their postseason roster last year, so they must like him to some degree. Jonathan Loaisiga, aka Johnny Lasagna, and Luis Cessa figure to be the main long-man options. Both Cessa and Loaisiga have been tried as starters with less than desirable results. I imagine the team will try to keep them stretched out as much as possible for bullpen days and spot starts.
Storylines to Follow
The Yankees were willing to throw $36M per year on the table for Cole, and they expect him to continue to be his dominant self. Will he? This was a monumental financial investment for the team, and further injuries have only made Cole more crucial to the team’s success. If this team wants to deliver on its World Series aspirations, Cole needs to anchor that rotation.
On the offensive side, what will the Yankees do with Aaron Judge? Since his powerhouse 2017, talks of an extension are always afoot. However, Judge’s situation is complicated to say the least. He will be 28 going into this season, and isn’t set to hit free agency until 2023. When healthy, Judge is one of the most fearsome hitters in the league, but therein lies the problem. In his three full seasons, Judge has averaged just 123 games per year, and his large muscular frame can lead to premature breakdown. I’m sure Judge would accept an extension at this point, but would the Yankees invest that kind of money on a risk as big as Judge? Or is that money spent better elsewhere, like Gleyber Torres and Gary Sanchez? Can they afford to keep them all? The Yankees’ core is enviable, but they aren’t going to get any cheaper, and they’ll need to blaze a clear path to ensure their window stays open as long as possible.
So, how will this division shake out? You have two clear contenders in the Yankees and Rays, two teams in transition in the Red Sox and Blue Jays, and one in the labors of a rebuild in the Orioles. Without knowing for sure the number of games that will be played, I’ll give my reluctant predictions sans record, keeping just Win%:
The top of the division looks mostly the same, having the 1-2 spots belong to the Yankees and Rays, but projecting the win total for each decreases a bit. My somewhat-bold prediction is the Jays leapfrogging Boston in the standings. While this may be a bit rosy for Toronto, I think they are poised to make some noise in 2020 with their strong young lineup. With Sale on the shelf for Boston, their rotation is a mess and I think will cost them quite a few games. They will still hit a ton, but not enough to keep them above the .500 mark. As for the Orioles: What can you say? Their best hitter currently has things much more important than baseball to worry about, and their pitching inspires little confidence. I think it’s going to be another year in the division cellar for Baltimore.
Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by J.R. Caines (@JRCainesDesign on Twitter and @caines_design on Instagram)