We here at GameDaySportsBlog.com are going division by division looking for the X-Factor for each team’s success this season. We have already taken a look at five divisions leaving the American League East as our last division. Here we have the always playoff caliber Yankees, two teams looking to make strides into contention in Baltimore and Toronto, the Rays who are trying to pull themselves back into relevance, and the American League favorite Boston Red Sox. And here are the players that will determine which team succeeds in their 2017 season…
Baltimore Orioles: J.J. Hardy
Over his first three seasons with the Orioles, shortstop J.J. Hardy averaged more than 25 home runs while also winning a pair of Gold Gloves. In the three seasons since he has totaled just 26 homers, and has been on and off the disabled list with a myriad of injuries playing a big factor in his depressed production.
This March though Hardy came into spring training fully healthy, but since the beginning of the month he has already been sidelined with a back-injury. If Hardy can get back on track after a disappointing and unhealthy past three years the Orioles could make a serious move in the division.
And it’s not necessarily Hardy’s hitting that will be missed if the shortstop is out with injury again, because the Orioles have plenty of power in their lineup, so a return to 20-25 home runs is not making or breaking Baltimore’s division crown chase. Instead it is the shortstop options behind Hardy that are the main reason he is so important. Robert Andino, and Paul Janish, are the other options behind Hardy and are far from as solid as the two time gold glove winning, power hitting shortstop. So Hardy’s ability to stay in the lineup and offer some level of stability at a defensively important position will be key for Baltimore this year, especially if the club is looking to make a run at the postseason.
Boston Red Sox: Pablo Sandoval
Pablo Sandoval had arguably the worst 1st season with a new team that we have seen in recent years. His first year in Boston in 2015 he put up a .245/.292/.366 slash-line, with just 10 home runs and 47 RBI over a full season. Well things actually got a lot worse for the overweight 3B last year, as Sandoval only had six at-bats, making 2016 a lost season for both Sandoval and the Red Sox.
But how could a team that won 93 games and their division be considered a disappointing? Because had the Red Sox had the Pablo Sandoval that they thought they were getting when they signed him to a 95$ million contract they would have won the American League. Instead they had to replace Sandoval, a career .294 hitter before arriving in Boston, with Travis Shaw who hit just .242 last season in Sandoval’s stead.
The good thing for the Red Sox is that Sandoval showed up to spring training at about 240 lbs. which shows that maybe Sandoval is finally ready to produce in Boston.
So while Boston clearly won’t be getting their money’s worth from Sandoval, with two years paid for and received basically nothing. What might help the Red Sox’ front office find some solace in this deal would be if Sandoval helps bring home a championship. And for the Red Sox to win the World Series this season Sandoval not only needs to stay healthy and trim, but he needs to play the way he did in San Francisco. If he does, the Red Sox will be the favorites to win the AL Pennant.
New York Yankees: Michael Pineda
Starting pitcher Michael Pineda was pretty bad last season. Don’t let his career-best 10.6 K/9 rate and a career-high 32 starts fool you. Instead look at his 4.82 ERA and the 27 home runs he allowed. The good thing for the Yankees is that Pineda’s season was kind of a tale of two seasons. Most of the pitcher’s sucking, sorry but that’s what it was, came in the first 2/3 of the season. Over Pineda’s final six starts he posted a 3.21 ERA, showing that maybe the hard throwing righty is on track to have a standout 2017.
Another good thing for the Pinstripes is that they are not relying on Pineda to be the ace for the upcoming season. Masahiro Tanaka has already been given the Opening Day nod by Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi, placing Pineda as the #2 guy in the Bronx.
But what makes Pineda the Yankees’ X-Factor is that the rest of the starting rotation carries big question marks. C.C. Sabathia, Luis Severino, and Adam Warren are in line to be the No. 3-5 starters, barring injuries. That is hardly a rotation built for a deep playoff run, but if Pineda can continue the run he was on at the end of 2016 then the Yankees can make a serious move at winning a wild card spot.
Tampa Bay Rays: Alex Cobb
The Ray’s Alex Cobb has essentially lost the last two seasons to Tommy John surgery, which means our selection for Tampa Bay’s X-Factor made just five starts with an 8.59 ERA last season. Pretty ballsy right?
Well if you look at the 2013 and 2014 season Cobb was actually pretty dominant. In over 49 starts Cobb posted a 2.82 ERA with an 82 K/9 rate and a 2.7 BB/9 rate. He was one of the best pitchers in baseball and arguably the most underrated and unheard of dominant star in the league. That is something that the Rays definitely need.
Coming off a disappointing 94-loss campaign in 2016, their pitching will have to lead any effort they have of getting back to .500 ball. The Rays had the 4th worst team ERA in the division last year, and it is up to Cobb to lower their 4.20 team ERA this season. It’s also up to him to keep Tampa’s losses below 85. If he plays well the Rays will be a lot better than they were last season, which granted isn’t asking much.
Toronto Blue Jays: Marcus Stroman
If you did not know who Marcus Stroman was before this month, chances are you do now. He is the pitcher who absolutely shut down the Puerto Rican lineup during the championship game of the World Baseball Classic last week.
The reason you might not have heard of him before that is because Stroman missed most of 2015 with a torn ACL, and last year was extremely disappointing, posting a 4.37 ERA for the Blue Jays. Hardly numbers of a player who is a household name.
Luckily for the Jays they are looking at Stroman’s post-All-Star break numbers from last season. He posted a 3.68 ERA, a strikeout-to-walk ratio close to 4.0 and a K/9 rate of 8.5 over his final 14 starts of 2016. In other words if you look at Stroman’s last half of 2016 and his dominant performance a week before Opening Day you are looking at a pitcher that has the potential to be an ace on a team looking to make a serious run in the American League playoffs.