The Orioles finished in last place in the 2017 season thanks to an MLB-worst starting rotation paired up with an offense that disappeared once the calendar turned to September. The question everyone would like an answer to is: Can the O’s do better next year?
Part of the answer to that question will have nothing to do with the Orioles at all. The fortunes of the rest of the teams in the AL East next season will also play a part in whether the Orioles are able to ascend from the cellar of the division, and if they do, how far they might be able to rise.
This offseason will help shape next season for those teams, the same as it will for the Orioles. So what are they going to be searching for this offseason? I’ll be surveying the landscape for the rest of the division in this article.
Despite winning the division, the Red Sox parted ways with manager John Farrell. You can always sign me up for hilarious Red Sox drama. They ended up hiring Astros bench coach Alex Cora, who seems to be a particular favorite of all the ESPN baseball personalities who worked with him while Cora was at ESPN from 2013-16.
The Red Sox were able to win the division this past season despite not having a very potent offense. They were 14th of 15 AL teams in slugging percentage and hit the fewest home runs of any AL team. Sox home run leader Mookie Betts had 24 home runs, which would have tied for fifth-most on the Orioles.
Barring a trade that shakes things up, nearly all of the Red Sox players will be back. Their biggest free agent loss is first baseman Mitch Moreland. Other than him, it’s mostly bullpen guys like Fernando Abad and utility players such as Chris Young and Eduardo Nunez. Maybe they will make a free agent splash, but they don’t really have to. Lucky for them!
There is room for improvement even among the remaining players, though. Red Sox catchers were among the least productive in the AL. So were their first basemen - so in that sense, Moreland is not even a big loss. They would surely like more production from remaining outfielders, especially Jackie Bradley, who keeps getting mentioned as a trade candidate, anyway.
The folks at MLB Trade Rumors predict the Red Sox will make a big splash to address the outfield by signing J.D. Martinez to a six year, $150 million contract, and also add Logan Morrison on a three year, $36 million deal as well as lefty reliever Bryan Shaw on a three year, $21 million contract.
The Yankees quest to get under the luxury tax has been mentioned for several seasons now without it actually happening. Maybe this year they’re actually serious, as they try to get under the line to reset their tax penalty in preparation for next year’s expected free agent bonanza. They currently have an estimated 2018 payroll, including arbitration-eligibles, of “just” $156 million.
With the exception of starter CC Sabathia, who everyone expects to re-sign with the Yankees anyway, the free agents don’t look to be a huge loss. Their biggest hole was first base, and a healthy Greg Bird, who went bonkers in the postseason, figures to be the answer there.
The core of one of the AL’s best bullpens are all returning. With Masahiro Tanaka choosing not to opt out of the rest of his contract, the whole rotation aside from Sabathia will be back. Barring a surprise, they may not even need to address that at all heading into next year.
The Yankees have five top 100 prospects in MLB to either plug in soon or trade for a present answer. They were sellers at the 2016 trade deadline and then won 91 games in 2017 and things still look bright for the future. I hate these guys.
The MLBTR prediction for their offseason is fairly low-key, with a guess of Sabathia re-signing for two years at $24 million and Alex Avila signing for two years and $16 million.
The craziest stat to me about the Rays is the one about how long it’s been since they have had a starting pitcher who was 30 years old or older. It’s been more than three full seasons since the last time they had any game started by a 30+ year old. Conveniently, Alex Cobb, who’s about to be 30, is now a free agent.
The big question mark for the Rays has more to do with how much they will be willing to have for their payroll. The Rays payroll was just $70 million in 2017 and they’re already committed to an estimated $84 million payroll for 2018, without counting any possible signings or trades. The team has never had an Opening Day payroll higher than $77 million.
So, that probably means trades. Closer Alex Colome just racked up a gaudy 47 saves despite a 1.200 WHIP. In his first year of arbitration, MLB Trade Rumors estimates his salary will jump to $5.5 million. Trade! $5 million for Adeiny Hechavarria? Trade! $6.4 million for Corey Dickerson? Trade!
Chris Archer had a decent season, finishing with a 4.07 ERA in 201 innings while racking up 249 strikeouts. A team can have Archer for the next four years for just about $34 million. That will make him valuable to other teams and even though his 2018 salary is just $6.4 million, the cheap Rays could trade him while that remaining control is substantial.
With their best 2017 hitter, Logan Morrison, hitting the free agent market as well, all of this may send the Rays into selling mode. It’s not hard to picture a gutted Rays team hitting the AL East basement next year. If so, that’s good news for the O’s.
Of the top 50 free agents as judged by MLBTR, the Rays are only suggested for one signing: Michael Pineda, who’s coming off a season where he had a 4.39 ERA in 17 games for the Yankees. Pineda won’t be 30 until after the 2018 season, so he’s allowed to start for the Rays! They think he’ll get just a two year, $6 million deal.
Things were looking pretty good for the Jays after they made it to the ALCS in 2016. However, that didn’t save them from falling back into fourth place in the division in 2017, with only the massive Orioles September collapse saving them from last place. The Jays were 14th in the AL in OPS for the season, and they scored the fewest runs of any AL team.
The post-2018 free agent apocalypse is looming large over the O’s. It could be substantial for the Jays, as well, with the AL’s reigning worst haircut Josh Donaldson set to be a free agent in another year, along with starters Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ. Donaldson was one of only two good hitters on the team. Estrada wasn’t good this year, but Happ was.
That league-worst offense is going to have to improve itself, because there aren’t many departures this offseason. Jose Bautista, who played in 157 games and hit to just a .674 OPS, is out of there. Darwin Barney and his .602 OPS are also now on the market. The rest, including .643 OPSing infielder Ryan Goins, are coming back. They need a trio of 35-year-olds, Steve Pearce, Kendrys Morales, and Russell Martin, to hit better, as well.
With a need in the outfield, the Jays are projected as the destination for Jay Bruce on a three year, $39 million deal - though Bruce is said to be seeking much more. They’re also tabbed for Eduardo Nunez at two years and $14 million, as well as lefty reliever Tony Watson for two years and $12 million. Nunez is probably a better answer than the departing Barney.
If the O’s don’t improve the big deficiencies with their starting rotation, it’s not going to matter how good the rest of the AL East might be. But even if they do improve, it’s not going to be an easy path back to the top, or even close to the top, with the Yankees and Red Sox figuring to remain strong competition, no matter what they do this offseason.