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From 1996-2009, the New York Yankees were at the top of the mountain in Major League Baseball. The Yankees won five World Series Championships which was more than any other club over that stretch. And when it was all said and done, the Yankees had 27 World Series Titles which is more than any other MLB club. But since then the Yankees have a taken a step back which includes missing the playoffs in three of the last four years. However in the early stage of the 2017 MLB season, the Yanks are showing that they are once again a force to be reckoned with.

Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge

The Yankees record of 21-11 is good enough to lead most divisions in Major League Baseball, but not the American League East as they are 1.5-games behind the Baltimore Orioles for the top spot and they have the second best winning percentage in baseball. After beginning the season with a record of 1-4, New York has gone on to win seven of their last nine series which included sweeps of the Tampa Bay Rays, St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Red Sox, and Chicago Cubs. The sweep of the Cubs put the rest of MLB on notice in regards to the Yankees as the Cubbies are the defending World Series Champions, and this occurred at their home ballpark of Wrigley Field. And although that it is only May, the folks in New York City are beginning to envision seeing this team make it to October.

Brian Cashman

At the request of Yankees owners Hank and Hal Steinbrenner, team general manager Brian Cashman has not been as active in free agency over the past few winters as New York has begun to focus on trading veteran players for prospects, while developing them in their system along with the ones whom they drafted.

We’ve begun to see these youngsters take flight for the Yankees and it began late last season with the emergence of catcher Gary Sanchez. Last year in just 53 games, Sanchez batted .299 with 20 home runs and 42 runs batted in to finish second in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. This season injuries have limited Sanchez to just 11 games, but he is expected to once again be a force to be reckoned with. Outfielder Aaron Judge made his Major League Baseball debut last year as he was only able to bat .179 in 27 games. However this season Judge has also been the jury and execution for New York as his 13 home runs lead the American League and he is a solid candidate to be named A.L. MVP.

The Yankees also have a surplus of talent in their minor league system that could soon be ready to help the big club. Pitcher Ben Heller outfielder Clint Frazier were a part of the Yankees compensation that they received for sending relief pitcher Andrew Miller to the Cleveland Indians last year. And like Sanchez and Judge, Frazier and Heller have the potential to be future building blocks for the Yankees. But aside from the youngsters, the Yankees are getting solid contributions from the veterans in their lineup.

Jacoby Ellsbury

After the Yankees signed outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury from the rival Red Sox, they have not gotten their money’s worth. Ellsbury helped Boston win the World Series in 2013, and he cashed in when he joined the Yanks to the tune of $153 million over seven years immediately following that. Ellsbury was supposed to be a table setter for the Yankees, but his first three years in New York saw him have a batting average of only .265, with an on-base percentage of .328. And this was on the heels of Ellsbury swiping 52 bases in 2013 which led the American League.

However this season Ellsbury is batting .280 to go along with an on-base percentage of .368 which is his best while wearing Yankee pinstripes and he has been a spark for them in their lineup.

Last year the Yankees acquired second baseman Starlin Castro from the Cubs. Castro enjoyed a solid first season with the Yankees as he batted .270 with 21 homers and 70 runs batted in. But here in 2017, Castro is off to a blazing start as his .351 batting average is second in the American League and his presence at the plate has given New York more depth.

Overall the offense of the Yankees is fierce as they are leading the American League in home runs (52), runs (182), and on-base percentage (.356). Cashman has put together a solid offense together, and even though that he wasn’t very active in free agency, he did make a key signing in picking up veteran outfielder Matt Holliday.

Holliday has always been a solid player which has seen him be a seven-time All-Star, while also helping the St. Louis Cardinals win the World Series in 2011. Holliday is 37-years of age, but he is off to a solid start at the plate as he is batting .286 with 6 home runs and 19 runs batted in. I expect Yankees manager Joe Girardi to give Holliday some time at designated hitter throughout the season in order to keep him fresh as having a veteran like him in the lineup as much as possible will be very beneficial to the club.

Coming into the 2017 Major League Baseball season I expected the Yankees pitching to be either feast of famine, and so far they have feasted. The Yankees team earned run average of 3.56 is third in the American League as they are receiving solid starting pitching.

Starting pitcher Michael Pineda has been the ultimate wild card for the Yankees throughout his career with them. But with Pineda scheduled to become a free agent at the end of this season, he has been dialed in on the mound. Pineda is 3-2 this season with an earned run average of 3.27, while striking out 50 batters. The same can be said for starting pitcher Luis Severino who is 2-2 this season with an earned run average of 3.40. This past Sunday, Severino got a no-decision against the Cubs, but he was still able to limit their potent lineup to just a single run over seven innings, while striking out nine batters.

At 36-yeas of age, veteran starting pitcher CC Sabathia might not be in the running to win the American League’s Cy Young Award like he was earlier in his career, but he knows how to pitch. Sabathia is 2-2 this season with an earned run average of 5.77. And whatever that Sabathia can’t do when he takes the mound every fifth day for the Yanks, he can pass on his knowledge of the game to the youngsters.

Arm issues along with Major League Baseball hitters getting adjusted to starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka have meant that he has had to change his approach on the mound. Tanaka does have 5 victories so far this season, be he has benefited from the strong Yankees lineup as he is sporting an earned run average of 4.31.

Prior to trading relief pitchers Miller and Aroldis Chapman last year, the Yankees had the best bullpen in baseball. But after the trade that sent Miller to the Indians, along with the deal which sent Chapman to the Cubs, New York’s bullpen struggled as relief pitcher Dellin Betances was unable to shoulder the load. However with the Yankees bringing Chapman back in free agency, he is once again locking down the ninth inning as Betances is setting things up for him in the eighth. Chapman already has 7 saves this season, while Betances has 6 holds, and this combo will be vital in order for the Yankees to keep doing damage this season.

The Yankees are going to continue to hit this season as they have one of the best lineups in baseball. However it will come down to pitching in order for the Yankees to get back to the postseason. During the off-season Cashman avoided the temptation of giving up prospects to obtain the services of starting pitcher Chris Sale from the Chicago White Sox as he eventually was traded to the Red Sox. But regardless of whether or not that the Yankees current starting rotation which has had issues in recent years as far as staying healthy and pitching deep into games will be able to hold up, New York is going to need another frontline starter in order to be legitimate contenders for the World Series.

The American League East will once again be fierce as the Yankees are currently battling for the top spot in the division with the Orioles, while the Red Sox are laying in the weeds. The Rays might not have a playoff caliber team on paper, but they always play their divisional foes tough. And although that the Toronto Blue Jays have gotten off to a slow start, they are not out of the mix, while they can also play spoiler.

Coming into this Major League Baseball season, all of the talk in the Big Apple was focused on the New York Mets who have the sizzle, but through nearly six weeks it has been the Yankees who’ve been taking care of business. And although that the youngsters such as Judge and Sanchez are still wet behind the ears, it hasn’t prevented them from becoming household names in New York City as 2017 is setting up to be a very promising year for them and their teammates with the Yankees.

Source: Baseball-reference.com

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2017 American League East Projections

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X-Boston Red Sox 96-66

After a pair of last place finishes in the American League East in 2014 and 2015, the Boston Red Sox were able to bounce back in 2016. The Red Sox would win 93 games en route to claiming the A.L. East Title. The Sox appeared ready to make another a run at the World Series Title until they ran into the Cleveland Indians in the postseason. The Indians would sweep the Red Sox in the American League Divisional Series which meant that the career of designated hitter David Ortiz was over. In 14 years with the Red Sox, Oritz hit 483 home runs, while also being a catalyst for three World Series Championship teams. And now as the Red Sox are preparing for life without “Big Papi”, they are hoping not to take a huge step backwards.

Dave Dombrowski

Since Dave Dombrowski became the Red Sox president of baseball operations in August 2015, he hasn’t been afraid of making trade. And after Dombrowski’s wheeling and dealing put the Red Sox back into the postseason last October, he didn’t waste anytime this off-season when he acquired starting pitcher Chris Sale from the Chicago White Sox.

Last year the Red Sox starting rotation produced the American League’s Cy Young Award winner in starting pitcher Rick Porcello who won 22 games in the regular season, along with starting pitcher David Price who won 17 contests. But behind Porcello and Price, Boston’s starting rotation was thin and it showed up in their playoff loss to the Indians. Acquiring Sale gives the Sox more depth in their starting rotation as he’ll more than likely be their ace, while it will push both Porcello and Price down in the pitching order.

Chris Sale

Each of the last five Major League Baseball seasons have seen Sale be on the American League’s All-Star team, while he has struck out at least 200 batters in each of the last four years. Sale hurled 6 complete games last year with his quirky delivery for a left-handed pitcher as the ball is released from his 6’6″ frame keeps opposing batters on their toes. And I don’t see Sale being intimidated by playing under the microscope in Boston.

If you watched the Red Sox play in 2017, you know that their bullpen was shaky at times. Dombrowski hopes that he was able to sure up the middle relief when he acquired relief pitcher Tyler Thornburg from the Milwaukee Brewers. In 67 games for the Brewers last season, Thornburg posted a 2.15 earned run average, while striking out 90 batters, and saving 13 games. If Thornburg is on his game, the Red Sox eighth inning issues could be a thing of the past, while he could also be an alternative in the ninth inning as well.

Craig Kimbrel

Last year relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel struggled at times as he posted a career-high 3.40 earned run average. What hurt Kimbrel more than anything else was that he walked 30 batters last season which came back to hurt him at times. Kimbrel was still able to save 31 games for the Red Sox, but he’ll need to be closer to the player that led the National League in saves each year from 2011-2014 as a member of the Atlanta Braves.

Even without Big Papi no longer being around, the Red Sox once again have one of the more proficient offenses in the American League. The Red Sox led the A.L. in runs scored last year with 878 as the next closest team was the Indians with 777, while their team batting average of .282, and on-base percentage of .348 also led the way.

Mookie Betts

Outfielder Mookie Betts is coming off of a breakout season as he batted .318 with 31 home runs, 113 runs batted in, and 42 doubles. Betts finished second in the American League MVP voting and the case could be made that he should have won it. However with Betts possessing the blend of speed and precision, he should once again be in the mix to win the award as he’ll be a coup for anyone that picks him up in fantasy baseball.

Outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. wasn’t that far behind Betts as far as being a breakout player for the Red Sox either. Bradley is coming off of a career-high in home runs with 26. Bradley had an on-base percentage of .349, however he was only able to steal 9 bases which is alarming with his speed. And I see the speed of Bradley being an aspect that Red Sox manager John Farrell will look to utilize more this season.

Along with Betts and Bradley, the Red Sox have another talented young outfielder in Andrew Benintendi as Boston could have their own version of “The Killer B’s”. The Red Sox made Benintendi the seventh overall selection of the 2015 Major League Baseball Draft and it hasn’t taken him that long to make an impact on the big club. Last season in just 34 games, Benintendi batted .295 as he was able collect 31 hits, while also displaying tremendous range defensively in the outfield. And if Benintendi is able to build off of his strong showing last year, his name will definitely be in the mix as far as American League Rookie of the Year candidates.

Aside from Betts, Bradley, and Benintendi, the Red Sox have plenty of depth in their outfield with Chris Young and Brock Holt as Farrell has a good problem on his hands.

Dustin Pedroia

Now that Ortiz has retired, you can expect second baseman Dustin Pedroia to become more of a leader than he already is. Since Pedroia made his debut with Boston in 2006, he has been a scrappy player that everyone has respected. Pedroia is a lifetime .301 hitter, and it would not surprise me to see him get at least 40 doubles this season as he has been known to spray the baseball off of the Green Monster at Fenway Park.

Shortstop Xander Bogaerts is a star in making as he is fresh off of his first All-Star Game appearance. Bogaerts has the potential to hit more than .300 this season, while belting 25 homers, and it doesn’t hurt that he can flash the leather in the field. Like Bradley, Benintendi, and Betts, I expect the Red Sox utilize the speed of Bogaerts on the bases this season as Boston could be a deadly hit and run team.

As the Red Sox decided to do away with the experiment of having Hanley Ramirez play left field, he had a stellar campaign in 2016. After hitting just .249, with 19 homers and 53 runs batted in for 2015, Ramirez bounced back in a big way last season to hit .286 with 30 home runs, while driving in 111 runs. Ramirez worked on his craft to be a solid first baseman for the Red Sox, and it didn’t hurt him being around Ortiz. However with Ortiz now retired, and with Ramirez’s propensity to play when he wants to, it’ll be interesting to see what version of him that Boston will see this season.

Ramirez will split time at first base and being the designated hitter with Boston’s newest acquisition Mitch Moreland as the two of them will attempt to replace some of the contributions by Ortiz. In seven years with the Rangers, Moreland hit 110 home runs, including 45 over the last two seasons. But only time will tell how Moreland will be able to fare under the microscope in Boston.

Then there is the case of third baseman Pablo Sandoval. After Sandoval helped the San Francisco Giants win three World Series Championships, he hit free agency following the conclusion of the 2014 Major League Baseball season. The Red Sox scooped up Sandoval to the tune of $90 million over five years, but he has been far from living up to his end of things.

In two seasons with the Red Sox, Sandoval has only played in 129 games, while only batting .242 with 10 home runs and 47 runs batted in. Sandoval was limited to just three games last season due to shoulder surgery. Sandoval’s playing weight has always been an issue, but he showed up to spring training this year in arguably the best shape of his career as he looks to put his struggles with the Red Sox behind him.

As always the American League East will be tough to navigate. But if the Red Sox are able to manage within the division, while taking care of their business with everyone else, they should be able to reach the postseason for a second consecutive year.

Y-New York Yankees 88-74

Three of the last four years have seen the New York Yankees fail to reach the postseason, but things could be ready to change in the Bronx. The Yankees have taken a back seat in the American League East to the Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, and Baltimore Orioles as they’ve been in the process of trying to get from under some of their huge player contracts. The Yankees bid farewell to aging veterans in designated hitter Alex Rodriguez and first baseman Mark Teixeira who both retired, while they traded catcher Brian McCann to the Houston Astros. Trades last year of relief pitchers Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman to the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs respectively netted the Yanks some prospects for the future as they are hopeful to be able to contend with them for years to come.

Gary Sanchez

The emergence of catcher Gary Sanchez made it easy Yankees general manager Brian Cashman to part with McCann. In 53 games last year for the Yankees, Sanchez became an overnight sensation in the Big Apple as he batted .299 with 20 homers and 42 runs batted in. The Yankees brass sees Sanchez as the real deal and not the next Kevin Maas, but it will be interesting to see what he can do as New York’s everyday catcher, while the fans and media alike expect him to build off of what he was able to do in 2016.

The Yankees drafted outfielder Aaron Judge in 2013 and he has worked his way through their minor-league system. Judge has tremendous power as he can hit the baseball onto the Major Deagan Expressway. But for all of Judge’s power he has to work on his plate discipline. Judge struck out 42 times in just 95 plate appearances last year as he was only able to sport a batting average of .179. But the ceiling is still high for Judge who won’t turn 25-years of age until next month and he is a big part of the Yankees future plans.

First baseman Greg Bird showed flashes for the Yankees as he split time with Teixeira in 2015. Bird was expected to have a bigger role for the Yankees in 2016, but he suffered a torn labrum which put him on the shelf for the entire campaign. Now Bird is back and after hitting 11 homers in just 41 games for the Yanks, he is a guy that has the potential to go yard at least 25 times this season.

But aside from the youngsters, the Yankees have some veteran players that have some pop in their bats as well. Last year as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers, first baseman Chris Carter led the National League in home runs with 41. At the plate it is either feast or famine for Carter as he has a career batting average of just .218 which is a good indication as to why it only took the Yankees $3.5 million to sign him. But make no mistake about that Carter is able to make contact with the baseball, it goes very far as if nothing else the combination of himself, Judge, and Sanchez will always put on a show in batting practice. Carter will be primarily used a designated hitter as this Yankees team will more than likely live and die by the three-run homer.

Along with Carter, Cashman also signed veteran outfielder Matt Holliday this off-season. For Holliday’s 13-year Major League Baseball career he has averaged 27 home runs and 105 runs batted in per season, while sporting a .303 batting average. At the age of 37, it will be difficult for the Yankees to expect Holliday to put up numbers at the plate like he did earlier in his career. However a veteran such as Holliday who was able to win a World Series Championship with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011 will be vital for a young Yankees team.

However aside from the optimism that the Yankees have for their youngsters, there are some question marks on this roster. As the seasons go by outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury is becoming less productive. When the Yankees brought Ellsbury on board in 2014, they were hopeful to get the player that led the American League in stolen bases in 2013 with 52 for the Boston Red Sox as he helped them win the World Series. But that has not been the case for Ellsbury’s time with the Yankees as he’s been oft-injured, while not being the lead-off hitter that they expected. In three seasons with the Yankees, Ellsbury’s batting average is 33 points lower than he was with the Red Sox. And if Ellsbury gets off to slow start this season, expect the fans in the Bronx to let him have it.

Outfielder Brett Gardner is as scrappy as they come, and although that his skills are beginning to diminish, the Yankees will find a spot on this team for one of the fan favorites. In the infield the Yankees will miss the contributions of Teixeira who was a five-time Gold Glove winner. The Yankees still have solid defenders in third baseman Chase Headley and shortstop Didi Gregorious. Second baseman Starlin Castro had a solid first season with the Yankees after he was acquired from the Chicago Cubs, and he hit a career-high in home runs with 21, while he cut down on the errors defensively as he only had 12 last year.

And overall the offense will have to carry the Yankees as they won’t be able to consistently rely on their pitching staff. As a team the Yankees team earned run average of 4.16 was seventh in the American League. But manager Joe Girardi had to lean heavily on his bullpen due to the fact that his starting pitchers don’t have the ability to go deep into games.

Last season the Yankees had 70 quality starts which was tenth in the American League, while no starting pitcher was able to throw a complete game. Girardi relies heavily on his bullpen which has seen them wear down as the season progresses.

All signs point to 2017 being the last year that starting pitcher CC Sabathia will be with the Yankees. Sabathia was instrumental in helping the Yanks win the World Series in 2009, but age and injury have caught up to him. Sabathia is 36-years of age and the Yankees would be fortunate to squeeze 12 victories, along with 150 innings out of him this season.

Masahiro Tanaka

Starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka was the only Yankees pitcher to win more than 9 games last season. Tanaka has been with the Yankees for three years and he has yet to reach the 200-inning mark in a single season as he has been bothered by elbow issues in the past. However if Tanaka is able to remain healthy, 15 victories could be in the cards for him this time around.

Starting pitcher Michael Pineda has been extremely up and down during his time with the Yankees as you never know what to expect from him on an inning-to-inning basis as he could look like a Cy Young Award winner in one breath, and a career minor-leaguer in another. However since Pineda is set to become a free agent following this season, the possibility looms that he’ll be able to get his act together for the entire year.

And as the Yankees must once again rely on their bullpen, they made the right move to bring Chapman back to the Bronx. Chapman saved 20 games for the Yankees last season after he was acquired from the Cincinnati Reds. But when the Yankees were ready to wave the white flag, they traded Chapman to the Chicago Cubs. Chapman came up big for the Cubs as they won the World Series, however when he hit free agency his asking price was too high for them.

Aroldis Chapman

It took $86 million over the next five years for the Yankees to lure Chapman to the Bronx, but he should be well worth the investment as he’s a dependable flamethrower that can consistently get the job done in the ninth inning.

A big reason why the Yankees brought Chapman back was because they weren’t sold on relief pitcher Dellin Betances being their closer. Betances has been primarily used as a setup man. But when the Yankees traded both Chapman and Miller last season, Betances was thrust into the role as the team’s closer. Betances’ earned run average more than doubled last season from the previous one as it was at 3.08. This was due to the fact that the Yankees over used him since they don’t have starters who can consistently go deep into games.

The situation was compounded this off-season when Betances went to arbitration and as he was seeking $5 million, the Yanks were only willing to give him $3 million. The battle was played out in the media with Yankees team president Randy Levine being critical of Betances’ agent Jim Murray whom he criticized for attempting to have his client compensated like a closer. But either way it would be prudent of Girardi to find a way to better manage Betances’ appearances this season in order to keep him fresh.

As usual the American League East should be one of the toughest divisions in Major League Baseball. And if the Yankees are able to get enough pitching, the season could end with them once again headed for the playoffs.

Y-Toronto Blue Jays 88-74

The last two years saw the Toronto Blue play a very exciting brand of baseball. The Blue Jays had a lineup that was full of sluggers who were always more than eager to launch homers high and deep into the Toronto sky. This brand of baseball led to the Blue Jays winning the American League East in 2015 for the first time since 1993 and it would also lead to another postseason appearance last October. But things would change for the Blue Jays towards the end of the 2015 Major League Baseball season when general manager Alex Anthopoulos declined a five-year contract extension as the result of a power struggle between he and the recently hired Mark Shapiro who was now the team’s president of baseball operations. Shapiro’s philosophy is different from that of Anthopoulos, and when the Blue Jays take the field to begin the 2017 MLB season, they are definitely going to have a different look.

For nearly eight years, first baseman/designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion captivated baseball fans in Toronto with his power hitting ability and trademark of “walking the bird” each time that he went yard. Encarnacion’s 239 home runs while wearing a Blue Jays uniform are the third most in franchise history and he still had plenty in the tank which was evident by his 42 homers and 127 runs batted in last season. But Shapiro decided to let Encarnacion walk in free agency as he landed with the Cleveland Indians after both sides agreed on a three-year deal that is worth $60 million.

Along with Encarnacion, outfielder Michael Saunders who hit 24 homers last season for the Jays left Toronto as well in free agency as signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. And it seemed that outfielder Jose Bautista was headed for the same fate as Encarnacion and Saunders until he and the Blue Jays came to an agreement on a one-year deal for $18 million late in the free agency period.

Like Encarnacion, Bautista is one of best power hitters in Blue Jays franchise history. Bautista’s 265 career home runs are the second most in franchise history which has also seen him lead the American League in home runs on two separate occasions. However Bautista has done this while always having Encarnacion protecting him. And with Encarnacion now in Cleveland, along with the fact that Bautista is 36-years of age, it’s less of a guarantee that “Joey Bats” will enjoy another vintage year at the plate.

The departure of Saunders means that Melvin Upton Jr. will become an everyday player in Toronto’s outfield. The Jays acquired Upton from the San Diego Padres, and in 57 games with Toronto, he batted .196, while hitting 4 home runs. Throughout Upton’s career he has always been a guy who has been known for his potential, but overall he has failed to live up to it, and I believe that the Blue Jays are set to find that out firsthand.

And whereas that the Blue Jays lost Encarnacion in free agency, Shapiro picked up designated hitter Kendrys Morales. Morales was a valuable bat in the middle of the Kansas City Royals lineup when they won the World Series in 2015, and he should be able to fit in with the Jays as he is coming off of the second 30-homer campaign of his Major League Baseball career.

Josh Donaldson

After being named as the American League MVP in 2015, third baseman Josh Donaldson was right back in the mix last year. Donaldson is one of the best at the hot corner in baseball with his glove and bat alike. In two seasons with Toronto, Donaldson has hit 78 home runs, and he should be in the running to once again hit at least 35. Like Donaldson, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki was an addition to the Blue Jays in 2015 as they became a playoff contender. Tulowitzki is not the same player that he was during his time with the Colorado Rockies, but the Jays still need him to remain healthy as he is a player that still has the potential to go yard at least 20 times.

The Blue Jays pitching staff was overshadowed by the team’s potent lineup, but this unit led the American League in team earned run average last season at 3.78. Starting pitcher J.A. Happ became the first Blue Jays pitcher since Roy Halladay in 2008 to win 20 games. In Aaron Sanchez’s first year as a full-time starter for Toronto, he was able to win 15 games. Marcus Stroman was the only Jays starting pitcher to reach the 200-inning plateau last season, but he must become more consistent as he has the potential to win 15-18 games; however he must not only work on getting ahead of batters, but also putting them away.

Veteran starting pitcher Francisco Liriano was picked up from the Pittsburgh Pirates and he has a wealth of experience to pass on to the youngsters in Toronto’s rotation. Liriano is a two-time American League Comeback Player of the Year winner and his ability to work the corners as a left-handed pitcher should be valuable against the power lineups that the A.L. East has.

Blue Jays manager John Gibbons has two dependable relief pitchers to close out games in Roberto Osuna and Jason Grilli. Osuna has saved 56 games over the last two seasons for Toronto, while Grilli can be either a setup man or a closer which gives Toronto some much needed depth late in contests.

The Blue Jays pitching staff has the benefit of working with catcher Russell Martin who is one of the best in the business behind the plate. Martin knows how to call a game, while he can frame pitches like now other. And the cherry on top is that Martin is a solid contributor as each of his two seasons with the Blue Jays has seen him hit at least 20 home runs.

As previously mentioned the American League East will more than likely once again be the toughest division in baseball. The Blue Jays should hold their own as it will just be a matter of how long that it will take them to gel.

Baltimore Orioles 85-77

The 2016 Major League Baseball season saw the Baltimore Orioles possess one of the best teams in Major League Baseball, but they played in the league’s toughest division. The American League East saw four of their teams in contention for the postseason with three teams getting there. The Orioles were one of those A.L. East teams that were able to reach the postseason, but since they were unable to win the division, they had to begin the playoffs in the Wild Card Game. And as the O’s went back and forth with the Toronto Blue Jays, they were ultimately done in by their bullpen in extra innings. It was a bitter ending to a solid season for the Orioles, but as a new season is to begin, along with the fact that manager Buck Showalter is once again leading the way in Baltimore, this squad will once again be a tough out.

The Orioles have allowed some quality sluggers such as designated hitter Nelson Cruz to leave in free agency over the past few years, but they continue to fins a way to trudge along. Third baseman Manny Machado is one of the treasures of Major League Baseball. Machado continues to improve at the hot corner with his glove as well as hit bat. Machado’s numbers at the plate have increased in each of his five years with the O’s. And after Machado batted .294 with 37 home runs and 96 runs batted in last season, he will once again be in the running to win the American League MVP Award.

As a team the Orioles led the American League in homers last season with 253 and the long ball will once again be en vogue at Camden Yards. After outfielder/first baseman Mark Trumbo led the the A.L. in homers last season with 47, there was a huge possibility that he would leave Baltimore in free agency like other sluggers have recently. However there weren’t any teams that were willing to break the bank for Trumbo’s services which resulted in him returning to the Orioles. It’s not a guarantee that Trumbo will once again be the top power hitter in the A.L., but he should benefit from being in a solid O’s lineup.

Chris Davis

First baseman Chris Davis has led the American League in strikeouts, but the caveat to that is his power. The past five years have seen Davis belt 197 home runs and “Crush” should continue to climb up Baltimore’s all-time home runs list. For nearly a decade outfielder Adam Jones has been the face of the Orioles franchise. Jones is a three-time Gold Glove Award winner as he has plenty of range in center field, while he continues to provide Baltimore with a consistent bat at the plate being that you can always count on him to hit at least 25 homers.

Second baseman Jonathan Schoop is quickly becoming one of the better second baseman in the American League. Schoop hit a career-high 25 home runs last season, but he needs to work on his plate discipline. Schoop struck out 137 times last season, while he was only able to draw 21 walks. And if Schoop can cut down on the strikeouts, while drawing more walks and picking up his batting average, he could be in line for his first All-Star Game appearance this summer.

It will be up to veteran catchers Welington Castillo and Caleb Joseph to replace the contributions of Matt Wieters behind the plate as he joined the Washington Nationals. And the combination of Castillo and Joseph will have their hands full with an Orioles pitching staff that is far from stellar.

The Orioles team earned run average of 4.22 was tenth in the American League, while their 69 quality starts were 11th. And aside from starting pitcher Chris Tillman who won 16 games last season, there isn’t a ton of optimism for this rotation in Baltimore.

Zach Britton

However Showalter will have to rely on his rock solid bullpen that features relief pitchers Zach Britton, Brad Brach, and Mychal Givens. Britton led the American League in saves last season with 47, while he posted an earned run average of just 0.54. It’ll be hard for Britton to top his performance from last season. But Showalter will once again lean on him.

24 of Baltimore’s first 27 games will come against the American League East. And although that I don’t anticipate anyone running away with the division, it will still be important for Baltimore to get off to a solid start.

Tampa Bay Rays 68-94

After the Tampa Bay Rays were a thorn in the side of the baseball world for seven years, it is safe to say that the thrill is gone. Each of the last three Major League Baseball seasons have seen the Rays finish with a losing record with the bottom officially falling out in 2016 as they lost 94 games for the first time since 2007. And by the way that things are shaping up in Tampa, it won’t be getting better anytime soon.

Matthew Silverman

Matthew Silverman is in his fourth year as the Rays president of baseball operations and he needs to get into gear as far as redeveloping Tampa’s minor-league system which was the backbone of their success from 2008-2013.

One of the positives for the Rays heading into the 2017 Major League Baseball season is that they still have third baseman Evan Longoria. Longoria is hands down the best player in the franchise history of the Rays and he is coming off one of his best seasons as he hit a career-high 36 home runs. Longoria is 31-years of age, and with the Rays not expected to contend for a playoff spot this year, will he be trade bait?

But if the Rays decide to keep Longoria, he would be a part of a lineup that had plenty of pop in 2016. The Rays hit 216 home runs which was fourth in the American League, and they had four players hit at least 20 homers. But whereas the Rays know a thing or two about going yard, many were of the solo variety as they were 14th in the A.L. in runs scored. The Rays need a table setter in their lineup who could be outfielder Desmond Jennings who has only appeared in 93 games over the last two years, while utility man Brad Miller will look to make it consecutive years where he hits 30 home runs.

The pitching staff of the Rays is looking to bounce back; especially starting pitcher Chris Archer whose 19 losses were the worst in American League. However Archer does have electric stuff, but he appeared to be over pitching at times last year due to the fact that there wasn’t a ton of talent around him. And if Archer is able to put it all together, winning 15 games isn’t out of the question for him this season.

Relief pitcher Alex Colome saved 37 games last year in his first season as a closer, but he flew under the radar since the Rays were not a good team. But being that Colome was able to strike out 71 batters in just 56.2 innings pitched, the other teams in the American League will need to pay closer attention to him this time around.

Archer, Colome, and the rest of the Rays pitching staff should benefit from the team signing veteran catcher Wilson Ramos. Ramos was in the midst of having the best season of his career last year as a member of the Washington Nationals until he suffered a torn ACL. Ramos is expected to be healthy by July and he should be able to provide the Rays a veteran backstop to work with this pitching staff.

For Rays manager Kevin Cash, his team doesn’t have the talent or financial stability that their rivals in the American League East have. And thus Tampa Bay needs to get back to what made them which is to scrap and claw for 162 games.

X-Division Winner

Y-Wild Card Berth

Source: Baseball-reference.com

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2016 MLB Winter Meetings Recap

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Starting pitcher Chris Sale could be the missing link to get the Boston Red Sox back to the World Series.

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What To Watch For In The 2016 World Series

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This Fall Classic will definitely come down to the bullpens.

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What To Watch For In The 2016 NLCS

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One way of the other, there will be a long World Series drought that will be coming to an end once the National League Championship Series concludes.

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2016 MLB Trade Candidates

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Sonny Gray-Starting Pitcher-Oakland Athletics

I would be extremely surprised to see starting pitcher Sonny Gray finish the 2016 Major League Baseball in an Oakland Athletics uniform. Gray was a first-round pick of the Athletics in 2011, and he has gone on to post a career record of 36-26 to go along with an earned run average of 3.18. The A’s currently find themselves with a record of 29-41 as they are 16 games behind the Texas Rangers for first place in the American League West which finds them in the basement of the division. Oakland is one of the smallest media markets in MLB and Athletics general manager Billy Beane is never one to shy away from making a trade that will restock the team’s minor league system.

Although that Gray is only 26-years of age, he is not scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent until 2020 which means that parting with him would give Beane the opportunity to load up on prospects.

Jay Bruce-Outfielder-Cincinnati Reds

With the Cincinnati Reds well on their way to a second consecutive 90-loss season, it is time for the team’s president of baseball operations Walt Jocketty to finish the fire sale that he began over the winter.

Jay Bruce has been a lifer with the Reds as he was the team’s first-round pick in 2005 which was the prelude to him finishing in the top five of the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2008. Bruce is a three-time N.L. All-Star who would provide depth to any potential team that he is traded to, while he is also under contract through next season as he wouldn’t be a rental.

Rich Hill-Starting Pitcher-Oakland Athletics

Rich Hill is a 12-year Major League Baseball veteran that is on pace for the best season of his career. In 11 starts for the Oakland Athletics this year, Hill is 8-3 with an earned run average of 2.25 and 74 strikeouts. The A’s are Hill’s seventh MLB club, and there is a very good possibility that his bags will be packed soon as he is playing for a last place team, but more importantly he is a left-handed pitcher which is something that is always coveted at trade time. Hill only signed a one-year with the Athletics in the off-season which means that a trade for him wouldn’t see Oakland net that much in return as he would merely be a rental. Hill is currently on the disabled list with a groin injury; however as soon as he is healthy, expect the trade rumors around him to heat up.

Andrew Miller-Relief Pitcher-New York Yankees

With a record of 35-36, the New York Yankees will soon need to decide if they want to make a push for their 18th playoff appearance in the last 21 years, or do they want to become sellers before Major League Baseball’s trade deadline. And if the Yankees do decide to become sellers, relief pitcher Andrew Miller will draw a ton of interest.

Last year in Miller’s first season with the Yankees, he saved 36 games for the team. But this year Miller has been used in more of a setup role to relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman, however he has still be extremely effect with his earned run average of 1.21. At 6’7″, Miller has an intimidating presence on the mound, while his delivery as a left-handed pitcher can throw opposing batters off of their game.

Miller’s ability to be a setup guy and a closer, along with the fact that he’s under contract through 2018 would net the Yankees something in a trade, but I doubt that Miller would get shipped out of New York since the team relies on their bullpen more than other clubs.

Ryan Madson-Relief Pitcher-Oakland Athletics

After being out of baseball for three years, relief pitcher Ryan Madson was able to rediscover his groove last year in helping the Kansas City Royals win the World Series. With the Royals, Madson was primarily used as a setup man to closer Wade Davis. But when Madson signed with the Oakland Athletics over the off-season, he went back to being a closer.

Madson hasn’t had that many chances to close games this year for the Athletics as he only has 13 saves, but throughout his Major League Baseball career he has shown the ability to be both a closer and a setup man which increases his value on the trade market. And with the A’s out of playoff contention, along with the fact that Madson is under contract through 2018, there should be contenders that will be lining up to take him.

Alex Colome-Relief Pitcher-Tampa Bay Rays

Alex Colome

Relief pitcher Alex Colome is in his fourth season with the Tampa Bay Rays, and after spending his first three seasons between the starting rotation and middle relief, he is now getting his crack at closing out games for the team. Colome is making the most out of his opportunity with the Rays as he is a perfect 19-for-19 in save chances this year. And as players in the Rays organization know that they won’t be there for the long haul, Colome is simply auditioning for his next big league employer.

Ryan Braun-Outfielder-Milwaukee Brewers

For all of the performance-enhancing drugs issues that have clouded the Major League Baseball career of Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, he is still managing to put up solid numbers. Braun finds himself in the midst of one of his best all around years at the plate as he is batting .319 with 12 home runs and 38 runs batted in. The Brewers currently have a record of 31-40 which finds them way out of contention in the National League, and Braun could provide a contending team with a quality bat coming down the stretch.

Aroldis Chapman-Relief Pitcher-New York Yankees

There a flamethrowers and then there is New York Yankees relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman. After defecting from his native Cuba in 2009, Chapman signed with the Cincinnati Reds. And in six years with the Reds, Chapman saved 146 games. Over the off-season Chapman was traded to the New York Yankees where he has saved 13 games in 14 opportunities. Chapman can regularly hit 100 mph on the radar gun as his fastball at times is unhittable.

Chapman is in the last year of his contract, and with the Yankees currently possessing a losing record, it would be prudent for them to move him.

Yunel Escobaer-Third Baseman-Los Angeles Angels

After defecting from Cuba in 2004, third baseman Yunel Escobar found his way to Major League Baseball. Escobar was drafted by the Braves in 2005 and he has been a career journeyman. Escobar is currently playing for his fifth MLB team as he is a member of the Los Angeles Angels. Escobar is currently batting .309 with 17 doubles, while he can also provide a contending team with a quality glove at third base.

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2016 American League East Projections

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X-Toronto Blue Jays 88-74 (3)

Excitement returned to the Toronto Blue Jays in 2015 as they won the American League East in route to their first trip to the postseason since 1993 and in the process, they captivated the entire nation of Canada. The Blue Jays are eager to get back to it as they fell two wins short of winning the AL Pennant and they are hopeful that it won’t take another 22 years to get back to postseason baseball. In a surprise move, Alex Anthopoulos stepped down as the Blue Jays general manager after he was the architect of the team’s turnaround. It’s not known whether or not that the arrival as Mark Shapiro as the Jays new president of baseball operations last summer led to the departure of Anthopolous in Toronto, but Ross Atkins will be the team’s new general manager in 2016.

If you’re a fan of offensive baseball, and more importantly the long ball, then you might want to pull up a chair when the Blue Jays are at bat. The Blue Jays led the American League in most major offensive categories last year and you can expect more of the same in 2016. Led the reigning AL MVP in third baseman Josh Donaldson, the Blue Jays have four players returning to their lineup that hit at least 20 home runs. It is truly pick your poison with the Jays lineup as they are the modern “Murderers Row” with Donaldson, designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion, outfielder Jose Bautista, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, and catcher Russell Martin. And with all of that power in the Jays lineup, it will be imperative for players such as outfielder Kevin Pillar to get on base ahead of the big bats in the Blue Jays batting order.

Last season the Blue Jays team earned run average was fifth in the American League at 3.80, but they also lost two starting pitchers from last year’s squad. Last July, the Jays acquired starting pitcher David Price from the Detroit Tigers and he was a horse from Toronto down the stretch of the regular season. Price went 9-1 with a 2.30 earned run average in 11 starts for the Jays. But Price decided to join the Boston Red Sox in free agency. Starting pitcher Mark Buehrle led the Jays in wins last season with 15, but after 16 Major League Baseball seasons, he elected to retire. For Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, he is hopeful that his younger starting pitchers in Drew Hutchinson, Marco Estrada, and Marcus Stroman will be able to take over the reigns as far as being at the top of rotation. 2015 saw relief pitcher Roberto Osuna save 20 games for the Blue Jays, and if he is able to flirt with closing at least 30 games for Toronto this year, it should signal good things north of the border.

The majority of the Blue Jays schedule in April will be against the American League East, and a strong start could put them in the catbird’s seat real early.

Y-Boston Red Sox 88-75 (5)*

With the exception of winning the World Series Championship in 2013, the past four years have been a struggle for the Boston Red Sox. In three out of the last four years, the Red Sox have finished in the basement of the American League East. The Red Sox have struggled over the past few years as they’ve appeared to be a team without a plan due to the fact that they want to first go for the youth movement until they decide to go crazy as far as spending in free agency. Things began to change for the Red Sox last year when former Detroit Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski became the team’s new president of baseball operations. Dombrowski’s arrival signaled the end of Ben Cherington as the Red Sox general manager as he was replaced by Mike Hazen. But make no mistake about it that Dombrowski is the man that will be calling the shots.

John Farrell

On the field the Red Sox are happy to have manager John Farrell back. Last year Farrell was diagnosed with lymphoma and he underwent treatment as he missed the last two months of the Major League Baseball season.

Farrell, Dombrowski, and the Red Sox have set out to repair the Red Sox pitching staff that’s team earned run average of 4.31 was 14th in the American League last year. The Red Sox also allowed opposing hitters to have a .264 batting average along with a .327 on-base percentage which were each the third highest in the AL.

Since 2008, starting pitcher David Price has been a thorn in the side of the Red Sox. That year Price made his Major League Baseball debut as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays and he helped to prevent the Red Sox from repeating as World Series Champions with Tampa’s big victory over Boston in the American League Championship Series. Along with the Rays, Price has pitched for the Detroit Tigers, and Toronto Blue Jays as the 6’6″ left-hander can keep hitters off balance. Price won the American League Cy Young Award in 2012 along with being a five-time AL All-Star. And once Price became an unrestricted free agent over the winter, the Red Sox were fed up with him terrorizing them as they signed him to a seven-year, $217 million contract. But we’ll have to wait and see if the Red Sox gave up too much to get Price.

Aside from Price, the Red Sox acquired relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel from the San Diego Padres. In the last five years, Kimbrel has saved 252 games and he’s looking to avoid a second consecutive slow start to the season as he introduces his fiery fastball to the American League.

Hanley Ramirez

There has been some reshuffling to the Red Sox lineup as the Hanley Ramirez experiment in left field is done. Ramirez will be playing first base for Boston, but you never know if he is a player that will be focused for the full 162-game regular season. The Red Sox are hopeful that third baseman Pablo Sandoval will be more comfortable during his second year in Boston, but the conditioning that plagued his time with the San Francisco Giants could be a factor once again; although he did arrive at spring training in better shape this year. The Red Sox do have stalwarts in their lineup with shortstop Xander Bogaerts and second baseman Dustin Pedroia. But make no mistake about that the heart and soul of this Red Sox team is designated hitter David Ortiz.

Ortiz has announced that 2016 will be his last Major League Baseball season and the team hopes to rally around him as he has meant so much to the organization for more than a decade.

The Red Sox will possess one of the fastest outfields in Major League Baseball with Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts, and Rusney Castillo. And if each player is able to have a solid year, it could point Boston to the postseason.

The Red Sox will still need to pick up another starting pitcher in order to become a legitimate playoff contender, and I don’t see Dombrowski resting on his laurels in order to get Boston back to the postseason.

New York Yankees 86-76

Joe Girardi

New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi knows how to get the most out his players as he is a master motivator. Last season the Yankees went 87-75 and made the playoffs with a team that was kept together by spit and glue. The Yankees are a team that is currently influx as they are in the process of trying to shed some of the bloated contracts that they have attached to veteran players while also developing young talent within their system. The Yankees will once again exceed the luxury tax threshold in 2016 as their team payroll will easily be over $200 million, but that hasn’t stopped team general manager Brian Cashman from going to work this off-season to get New York back to the postseason in 2016.

The Yankees team earned run average of 4.08 was eighth in the American League and their 72 quality starts were 13th as New York’s starting rotation lacks pitchers that can consistently pitch deep into games. Starting pitcher CC Sabathia is 35-years of age with a bad knee and plenty of mileage on his arm as he is rapidly breaking down. Elbow issues for starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka continue to put a ton of question marks around his overall effectiveness while Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda have each been inconsistent. Starting pitcher Nathan Eovaldi did lead the Yankees in wins last season with 14, but his 4.20 earned run average was aided by a New York lineup that swung the bats tremendously when he took the mound. The Yankees are thin in starting pitching which led Cashman to getting creative over the winter.

Aroldis Chapman

The Yankees already possessed two of the best relief pitchers in Major League Baseball last year in Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller. Cashman added to that when he acquired relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman from the Cincinnati Reds. Chapman comes to New York as a four-time National League All-Star who has saved 145 games over the last four years for the Reds. And what Chapman gives the Yankees is more depth in their bullpen. Chapman, Betances, and Miller were three of the toughest bullpen pitchers for hitters to make contact on last season and the Yankees are letting it be known that if you want to score runs on them, you had better do it early.

But all is not well with the Yankees bullpen due to the fact that Girardi tends to use his relievers a ton due to the inability of his starters to go deep into games. Last season Betances made 74 appearances while Miller made 60, and coming down the stretch of the regular season, neither one of these pitches had anything left which could once again be a problem in 2016.

Alex Rodriguez

Offensively, the Yankees have the potential to be feast or famine in 2016. After being suspended for the entire 2014 Major League Baseball season due to his use of performance-enhancing drugs, designated hitter Alex Rodriguez came back as a force last year to prove to people that he’s still got it. Rodriguez managed to lead the Yankees in home runs with 33 while he put New York on his back for lengthy periods the season. But at the age of 40, can the Yankees really expect another season like that from A-Rod?

Like Rodriguez, veteran first baseman Mark Teixeira is an aging player. Teixeira will be 36-years of age next month, and the injury bug is beginning to catch up to him as he only appeared in 111 games last season. The Yankees were counting on Greg Bird to get more playing time at first base in 2016, but a torn labrum will put him on the shelf for the entire campaign. Veteran outfielder/designated hitter Carlos Beltran did lead the Yankees in batting average last season, but it was only with a .275 batting average. Beltran will be 39-years of age next month, and like Teixeira, his skills are diminishing. The contract of outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury appears to be another one that the Yankees are going to be stuck with while you have to wonder if the front office in the Bronx has given up on outfielder Brett Gardner.

The Yanks will face a tough schedule right out of the chute with series’ against the Houston Astros, Detroit Tigers, and Toronto Blue Jays. And a slow start by the Yankees could bring out the naysayers in New York, but Girardi won’t allow his team to succumb to the white noise as they will play tough all season long.

Baltimore Orioles 86-76

After winning the American League East in 2014, there were some people that expected the Baltimore Orioles to once again contend for the division title last year. I wasn’t one of those people as the Orioles had simply lost too much in free agency in order to contend. And my theory about the O’s proved correct as they finished with a record of 81-81. Orioles owner Peter Angelos has been notorious as far as keeping it close to the chest in regards to spending which makes things a little tougher for Baltimore to consistently field a contender. But if there is a guy that can make lemonade out of lemons, it is O’s manager Buck Showalter.

Buck Showalter

Since Showalter joined the Orioles, the team has only had one losing season under him. Showalter has a no-nonsense approach while he puts a ton of attention on baseball fundamentals which means that he attempts to make the O’s sound in each phase of the game along with not beating themselves.

The Orioles recent success has been centered around outfielder Adam Jones. Jones has spent the majority of his Major League Baseball career with the Orioles where he has become the face of the franchise in Baltimore. Jones has made five All-Star Game appearances and you should once again be able to pencil him in to hit at least 25 home runs while driving in 85 runs. And another solid campaign by Jones in 2016 should see him move into the top 20 of the Orioles all-time WAR list.

Manny Machado

Third baseman Manny Machado was the third overall pick of the 2010 Major League Baseball Draft by the Orioles and after a knee injury threatened to hamper is baseball career, he has become one of the best third basemen in the game as he could be in the running to be American League MVP this year.

First baseman/designated hitter Chris Davis led the American League in home runs last year with 47. It was Davis’ walk year and he was expected to receive a huge payday this winter; just not in Baltimore. However Angelos and the Orioles shocked many people when they came to an agreement with Davis on a seven-year deal that is worth $161 million. Davis is that classic power hitter as he strikes out a ton along with going deep, but the Orioles feel that he is worth the risk.

For the first time in a few years, catcher Matt Wieters is healthy for the Orioles, and they should get a stellar season out of him as he is set to hit free agency next winter while infielder Jonathan Scoop is on the verge of being a breakout player.

The Orioles pitching staff isn’t littered with Cy Young talent, but they all possess a strong with ethic. And if this O’s starting pitching staff that includes Ubaldo Jimenez and Chris Tillman can get the ball to relief pitcher Zach Britton in the ninth inning, Baltimore will have a shot to be a playoff team in 2016.

The Orioles should hang around in the playoff race until the very end and it will be interesting to see if general manager Dan Duquette will be willing to trade some prospects to make his team a surefire contender.

Tampa Bay Rays 78-84

The magic appears to have finally run out for the Tampa Bay Rays. After six consecutive winning seasons from 2008-2013, the Rays have finished each of the last two Major League Baseball seasons with losing records. Rays president of baseball operations/general manager Matthew Silverman and manager Kevin Cash are set to begin their second year working together and they’ll once again have their hands full as they attempt to compete in the American League East.

Kevin Cash

The Rays will once again have one of the lowest payrolls in Major League Baseball as they play in a small media market along with the fact that they struggle with home attendance at Tropicana Field.

In recent years pitching has been the backbone of the Rays organization as they had the fourth lowest earned run average in the American League last season and they’ll once again need to be one of the better staffs in baseball in order to give Tampa a chance.

Chris Archer

If the Rays will be able to give starting pitcher Chris Archer consistent run support, he could be in the conversation as far as winning the American League Cy Young Award. Archer will also look to break his single-season strikeout record that he set just last year when he struck out 252 batters. Arm issues have derailed what once appeared to be a promising Major League Baseball career for starting pitcher Matt Moore, but the Rays are hopeful that this is the year in which he is able to put it all together.

Aside from Archer and Moore, the Rays have solid starting pitchers in Alex Colome, Alex Cobb, Erasmo Ramirez, and Jake Odorizzi that could put a damper into the chances of the contenders in the American League East. The Rays pitching staff must also get accustomed to a new catcher behind the plate in Hank Conger who was acquired from the Houston Astros in December.

Relief pitcher Brad Boxberger saved 41 games for the Rays last season, and if Tampa falls out of the race in the AL East early on, I can see Silverman looking to trade him.

Offense was a struggle for the Rays in the 2015 as they were 14th in the American League in runs scored and it should once again be the case this year. The only way that the Rays will be able to stay afloat in the American League East is if third baseman Evan Longoria has an MVP-caliber campaign while they are also hopeful that outfielder Desmond Jennings will be able to remain healthy.

Under Cash, the Rays will be an up and down team in 2016, but they will compete on a nightly basis.

Source: Baseball-reference.com

X-Division Winner

Y-Wild Card Winner

*Play-in Game

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The New Nasty Boys

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The law firm of Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, and Andrew Miller will make the New York Yankees tough to score runs on in late inning situations in 2016.

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2015 National League Central Projections

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X-St. Louis Cardinals 92-70

Since 2000, the St. Louis Cardinals have been the model of consistency in Major League Baseball. The Cardinals have had nine seasons in which they have won at least 90 games with a pair of World Series Championships in four appearances in the Fall Classic over that stretch. What has separated the Cards from their brethren in the National League Central over that stretch is their ability to roll with the punches by developing talent and doing things the “Cardinal Way” which will once again be the theme for them in 2015.

Jason Heyward

Tragedy struck the Cardinal family last fall when their young outfielder Oscar Tavares was killed as the result of a single-car accident in his native Dominican Republic. Tavares was just 22-years of age with a tremendously bright future in MLB which left a void for the Cards. But Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak knew that he needed to get a player to replace Tavares and he did so when he acquired outfielder Jason Heyward from the Atlanta Braves. After finishing second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2010, Heyward produced for the Braves, but he was out of place in their lineup as he was asked to be a leadoff hitter or in the second slot of the batting order which is not his cup of tea. Heyward is now in one of the most balanced and professional lineups in baseball. And with some pressure off of Heyward’s shoulders in St. Louis, he can reach his full potential now. Along with Heyward’s bat, he is a two-time NL Gold Glove Award winner that has range along with a solid throwing arm. Heyward will join a Cardinals lineup that is loaded with professional hitters such as outfielder Matt Holliday, third baseman Matt Carpenter, and outfielder Jon Jay while first baseman Matt Adams is becoming one of the big power hitting threats in the NL.The trade that brought Heyward to St. Louis would send starting pitcher Shelby Miller to the Braves and it would also see the Cards acquire relief pitcher Jordan Walden as well. Walden enjoyed a solid 2014 in the Braves bullpen where he had a 2.88 earned run average and struck out 62 batters in 50 innings pitched. And now Walden joins a bullpen and an organization with a rich and deep pitching history.

Walden comes to a Cardinals pitching staff that is looking to improve off of their team earned run average last season of 3.50 which was eighth in the National League. The Cardinals starting pitching will once again be led by Adam Wainwright. Wainwright is coming off of his second 20-win season of his MLB and you’ll hear his name in the discussion for the NL Cy Young Award as long as he remains healthy. Wainwright is 33-years old, but Cards manager Mike Matheny is a former Major League Baseball catcher and he knows how to manage a pitching staff and he’ll take care of his ace. The Cardinals starting rotation has solid arms behind Wainwright with veterans John Lackey, Lance Lynn along with youngsters in Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez. Cardinals relief pitcher Trevor Rosenthal was second in the NL last season in saves with 45 and he should once again be one of the more dependable pitchers in the ninth inning.

Yadier Molina

The engine for the Cardinals pitching staff is their catcher Yadier Molina. There is always an ongoing debate between people as to who is the best catcher in MLB between Molina and San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey. But Molina is the better defender as he dares runners to test his powerful throwing arm. Molina’s offensive numbers dipped somewhat last season as he was injured and at 32-years of age he could be slowing down with his bat, but Matheny still looks at him as a manager on the field.

The Cards will begin the season attempting to survive the tide as they’ll open the season on the road against the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds respectively who would love nothing better than to put St. Louis in chase mode early on.

Cincinnati Reds 85-77

After two straight postseason appearances the Cincinnati Reds took a huge step backwards last year as they lost 86 games for the first time since 2008. In his first season as Reds manager, Bryan Price had to deal with a slew on injuries to key players and he is hopeful that Cincinnati’s title window has not closed.

Joey Votto

Reds first baseman Joey Votto was the National League’s MVP in 2010, but injuries forced him to miss 100 games last season. Votto is vital to any success that the Reds will potentially have this season due to the fact that he is one of the better contact hitters in Major League Baseball along with being a tremendous glove man at first base. At 33-years of age, Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips isn’t the player that he once was as his skills are diminishing. Like Votto, Phillips also missed a healthy amount of time last season. But injuries to the likes of Votto and Phillips allowed players such as third baseman Todd Frazier and catcher Devin Mesoraco to emerge in the Reds lineup. Last season saw Frazier hit 29 home runs and emerge as one of the top third basemen in the NL while Mesoraco had a career high in home runs as well with 25. Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton was second in the NL last season in stolen bases with 56 and he could be an even bigger factor in Cincinnati’s lineup if he can improve on his on-base percentage. Hamilton stole 56 bases last season in spite of the fact that he only had a .292 on-base percentage. If Hamilton is able to improve on his on-base percentage it will be a huge boost to the Reds lineup as his speed will give the Reds power hitters better opportunities at the plate.

Offense has never been an issue for the Reds, but their pitching staff will need to improve on a team earned run average of 3.59 which was ninth in the NL last season. Reds starting pitcher Johnny Cueto is coming off of his first 20-win season and he and his quirky pitching delivery will need to have a big impact on Cincinnati’s starting rotation. But behind Cueto there are questions about the Reds starting pitching as the other four pitchers have been inconsistent at best. If the Reds will be able to head into the ninth inning with a lead, Price can rely on relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman who has saved 112 games over the last three years and he is also no stranger to regularly reaching 100 miles per hour on the radar gun with his fastball.

For the month of April, the Reds will play all but one of their games against the NL Central which will go a very long in determining their season.

Pittsburgh Pirates 84-78

Two consecutive trips to the playoffs have definitely created some optimism in Western Pennsylvania for the Pittsburgh Pirates. But getting back to playing baseball in October for 2015 won’t be easy. In two years as the Pirates everyday catcher, Russell Martin had a big impact on Pittsburgh”s pitching staff. With Martin as their backstop, the Pirates team earned run average was never lower than fifth in the National League. But this past winter Martin hit the free agent market and he joined the Toronto Blue Jays on a five-year, $82 million contract. Martin is a native of Toronto and that was the icing on the cake for him. For Pirates general manager Neal Huntington he had to replace Martin which he did by trading for another former New York Yankees catcher in Francisco Cervelli. Cervelli will split time behind the plate Chris Stewart as the two of them will have their hands full as far replacing Martin and it will tough for both of them to replicate Martin’s overall production.

Cervelli and Stewart will be working with a Pirates pitching staff that will have a blend of youth and experience. Pirates starting pitchers Francisco Liriano and AJ Burnett are veteran pitchers that possess rubber arms while Pittsburgh is hopeful that youngster Gerrit Cole will be able to put it all together this season.

Andrew McCutchen

The Pirates scored the fourth most runs in the NL last season with outfielder Andrew McCutchen being their catalyst. McCutchen won the NL MVP Award in 2013 and he’ll once again be in the running for it in 2015 as he is one of the best five-tool players in Major League Baseball. Huntington and Pirates manager Clint Hurdle were happy with the emergence of third baseman Josh Harrison in the lineup along with first baseman Pedro Alvarez as he is once again going to be counted on to provide some protection for McCutchen in the Pirates lineup. The Pirates had nine players hit at least 10 homers last season with McCutchen leading the way with 25 and the group effort will be needed again if the Pirates are going to be a playoff contender this season.

The Pirates do have some tremendous young talent on their team, but the loss of Martin behind the plate will be tough for them to overcome.

Chicago Cubs 79-83

Theo Epstein

The Chicago Cubs are set to enter their fourth season with Theo Epstein as their president of baseball operations and Jed Hoyer as their general manager. But unlike the previous three seasons there is some more optimism for the North Siders. Former Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon has taken over as the skipper for the Cubs and he has brought his quirky style of managing to the Windy City with him. In nine seasons as the Rays manager, Maddon had six winning campaigns while leading Tampa to four postseason appearances which included a pair of American League East Titles and their only World Series appearance in franchise history. Now Maddon has been charged with doing the impossible which is molding this young Cubs roster into contenders that can ultimately win the franchise’s first World Series Championship since 1908.

Last season the Cubs team earned run average of 3.91 was 13th in the National League which was something that Epstein and Hoyer needed to remedy. Epstein is hopeful that he solved this problem as he lured a familiar face to Chicago. Prior to joining the Cubs, Epstein worked in the front office of the Boston Red Sox and in his time there he watched starting pitcher Jon Lester blossom into one of the best left-handed pitchers in Major League Baseball. The Red Sox traded Lester to the Oakland Athletics last summer as he was set to become a free agent this winter. The Red Sox wanted to bring Lester back to Boston, but they were unwilling to get into a bidding war with the Cubs who offered Lester $155 million over six years. What Lester brings to the Cubs is a career record of 116-67 with a 3.58 earned run average. In six of the last seven seasons Lester has thrown at least 200 innings and he’ll be a guy that Maddon will count on to be the ace of his pitching staff.

Behind Lester, the Cubs have youngsters in their starting rotations in Jake Arrieta, Travis Wood, and Jason Hammel that will need to be ready for the big time if the Cubs are going to reach the postseason for the first time since 2008.

Anthony Rizzo

The Cubs are also high on their young lineup led by first baseman Anthony Rizzo who emerged as a power-hitter last season. Rizzo has tremendous power and he has the potential to hit 40 home runs this season. It seems like Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro has been around forever, but he is only 24-years old and he will need to become more consistent defensively while making sure that he gets on base ahead of Rizzo. The Cubs front office is high on outfielder Jorge Soler and second baseman Junior Baez as they feel that they have their core in place that will allow them to compete with the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central.

Wrigley Field has been the home of the Chicago Cubs since 1914 and it is dire need of a renovation. Cubs owner Tom Ricketts is full steam ahead with his plan to renovate the facility and thus the left field bleachers there will not be ready when the season starts. The Cubs will have to do without the crazies in left field to start the season, but everyone in the Windy City believes in what Epstein, Hoyer, and Maddon are selling to them as far as the direction of the team.

Milwaukee Brewers 81-81

Since winning the National League Central in 2011, the Milwaukee Brewers have been an up and down team. And 2015 won’t be any easier for the Brewers who’ll be swimming upstream in an improved division. Ron Roenicke is set to embark on his fifth season as the Brewers manager and he has plenty of question marks surrounding his club.

Ryan Bruan

The life of Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun has not been the same since he was linked to performance-enhancing drugs in 2011. Braun was the NL MVP in 2011, but since being outed for PED’s he has dealt with his fair share of public scrutiny and injuries as you simply don’t know how he’ll perform in 2015. In Braun’s absence last season outfielder Carlos Gomez led the team in home runs (23) and he is emerging as one of the better center fielders in Major League Baseball. At 36-years of age, Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez is not the player that he once was and he has announced that this will be his swan song while Roenicke is hopeful that shortstop Jean Segura is ready to have a bounce back season.

Wily Peralta

With the likes of pitchers Wliy Peralta, Kyle Lohse, and Matt Garza in the Brewers starting rotation, they will need to pick up the slack for Yovanni Gallardo who was traded to the Texas Rangers this off-season. Roenicke has options in his bullpen as he can turn to either Jonathan Broxton or Francisco Rodriguez to close out ballgames. Broxton hasn’t been a closer since 2012 when he was with the Kansas City Royals. But 6’4″, 295 lbs., Broxton’s presence alone of the mound can intimidate hitters while Rodriguez did save 44 games for the Brewers last season.

The Brewers will be a gritty team in 2015, but it will not be enough for them to hang around in the playoff race.

X-Division Champion

Source: Baseball-reference.com

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