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AL East: Spring Training preview 2

Last week we previewed the Yankees and Red Sox as they approach the date that pitchers and catchers are due to arrive at their Spring Training facilities. This week, we take a look at the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles.

The Blue Jays went for it all the last two seasons, knowing that Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion would be free agents after the 2016 season. The Orioles have been up and down in the division since Buck Showalter took over as manager in 2010. The team was able to bring back free agent outfielder Mark Trumbo in the hopes that he, Manny Machado, and Chris Davis could lead the Orioles back to the postseason.

Oh Canada

Team: Blue Jays  Spring Training Site: Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, Dunedin, Florida
Pitchers & Catchers Report Date: 2/15  Remainder of Squad Report Date: 2/18
First Spring Training Game:  2/25 at Braves

INFIELD

The Blue Jays lost a tremendous amount of offense when free agent DH/first baseman Edwin Encarnacion (42 HR, AL tops 127 RBI) bolted for the Cleveland Indians. To replace Encarnacion’s power, the Jays brought in free agent Kendrys Morales, whose 30 home runs last year were his highest total since 2009. (The year before he badly broke his ankle and it cost him a year-and-a-half of baseball) The 33-year old was an integral part of the Royals lineup during the last two seasons. Justin Smoak will see plenty of time at first base, but his inconsistency at the plate and inability to hit left-handed pitching (.621 OPS) is a detriment.

The left side of the infield will provide plenty of offense as long as shortstop Troy Tulowitzki remains healthy. The shortstop reached the 130-game mark last year for the first time since 2011. Third baseman Josh Donaldson was the AL MVP two years ago when he hit 41 home runs and led the AL in RBI (123), runs scored (122), total bases (352) and sacrifice flies (10). He followed it up last year with 37 HR, 99 RBI, 122 runs, and a .953 OPS, which was 14 points higher than in his MVP season.

Second baseman Devon Travis was hampered by injuries in his 2015 rookie campaign and again last season. But, he hit better than .300 in both seasons and belted 11 home runs and drove in 50 runs in just 101 games in 2016. He also adds speed to the lineup and could become one of the AL’s most dynamic table setters.

OUTFIELD

The Blue Jays were able to re-sign Jose Bautista and by doing so avoided needing to create a complete outfield makeover. Fellow free agent Michael Saunders, who was starting to come into his own, left for a deal with the Phillies. Center fielder Kevin Pillar is one of the best defensive players in the game. Offensively, manager John Gibbons would like to see more of the 2015 version of Pillar – 12 HR, 25 stolen bases, and a .713 OPS – than the offense he provided last year.

Toronto acquired Melvin Upton Jr. for the stretch run last season, but he failed miserably. He’s likely to be in a platoon this year unless he gets red hot in Spring Training. In his 57 games with Toronto, Upton’s splits read like a horror story – .191/.261./.318. His 16 HR, 45 RBI, and 20 steals in 92 games were the reasons the Blue Jays sent 19-year old Hansel Rodriguez to San Diego for him. With the Blue Jays, Upton had three of his four home runs and 12 of his 16 RBI in August and then disappeared in September.

For additional depth and help at the plate, Toronto signed free agent first baseman/outfielder/AL East pinball Steve Pearce (the Yankees, Rays, and Orioles have each had Pearce on their team at one time or another, including three different stints on the Orioles). With a good number of at-bats, Pearce can put up 15 HR and 40 RBI. That could make up for Saunders’ departure and could take at-bats away from Upton.

CATCHER

Russell Martin has averaged 21 home runs and 75 RBI in his first two seasons in Toronto. His slugging % dropped off from 2015-2016, but he still has a viable power bat and is a solid defender. However, he could use some help from his pitching staff in holding runners on–Martin threw out just 15% of would-be base stealers last season.

A.J. Jimenez, Juan Graterol, and non-roster invitee Mike Ohlman have the inside track on the backup job.

DH and BENCH

Morales will get the bulk of at-bats at DH. He could have an impact on Smoak’s ABs in National League parks.

Darwin Barney and Ryan Goins are the backup infielders, while Ezequiel Carrera and Dalton Pompey will do battle for an extra outfield spot.

ROTATION

The Blue Jays need Marcus Stroman to return to the form he showed in 2014 prior to a knee injury that cost him the 2015 season. Stroman showed promise at times last season but he needs to be much more consistent. Aaron Sanchez had a breakout 2016 season and is arguably the best pitcher on the staff right now. He finished seventh in the AL Cy Young voting after a 15-2, 3.00 season in 30 starts and made the All-Star team.

Lefty J.A. Happ had a breakout season of his own last year. He continued to build off of his 2015 season with his first 20-win campaign and a 3.18 ERA in a career-high 32 starts. Marco Estrada has put together back-to-back solid seasons but struggled down the stretch due to a back injury. At this point, it remains to be seen if the injury will have an impact on Estrada’s 2017 season.

Francisco Liriano, Gavin Floyd, Lucas Harrell and Brett Olberholtzer will compete for the final spot in the rotation.

BULLPEN

After working his way up the minor league ladder as a starter, incumbent closer Roberto Osuna has saved 56 games (in 65 attempts) in the first two years of his career. Last year, he struck out 10 batters/9 IP and walked just 14. Veteran reliever/sometime closer Jason Grilli will set up Osuna with Joe Biagini and Ryan Tepera among the pen’s workhorses. The team also added veteran reliever Joe Smith to the roster this past weekend.

PROSPECTS THAT COULD IMPACT THE 2017 SEASON

Infielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. signed a seven-year, multi-million dollar deal back in November. The native of Cuban is expected to start the season in the minors but could progress quickly to the majors.


Buck Stops Here

Team: Orioles Spring Training Site: Ed Smith Stadium, Sarasota, Florida
Pitchers & Catchers Report Date: 2/13  Remainder of Squad Report Date: 2/14
First Spring Training Game:  2/24 at Tigers

INFIELD

Corner infielders are traditionally power positions and the Orioles’ duo of Manny Machado and Chris Davis fit the bill. They are also the pieces of the lineup that will make or break the Orioles’ season. Machado, still just 24-years old, has averaged 36 HR, 35 doubles, and 91 RBI the last two seasons.  He’s a Miguel Cabrera in the making, with superior defense to boot (a pair of Gold Gloves are already in his trophy case). Machado’s HR and RBI totals will be in the same range this year but his 2015/2016 split of .290/.351/.518 (.869 OPS) should continue to rise.

While not a prolific slugger like David Ortiz, Chris Davis followed a similar career path. He couldn’t put things together for his original team, but he came into his own after he joined a new team. In Davis’ case, it took a trade from Texas to Baltimore. In 2012, he hit 33 HR with 85 RBI and a .827 OPS. All were career bests in Davis’ first season in which he topped 500 at-bats. He followed that up with a 58 home run, 138 RBI assault on Major League pitching. Throw in a 1.004 OPS and you would have expected that he was the AL MVP. But, remarkably, he only finished third behind Cabrera (44 HR, 137 RBI, 1.078 OPS), and Mike Trout.

Though Davis has continued to provide power, he’s struck out more than 200 times in each of the last two seasons. In two of the three seasons, his OPS has dipped below .800. His .221 batting average last season barely eclipsed his strikeouts (219). Davis received a 25-game suspension in September 2014 for unauthorized use of Adderall, a drug he took to combat his ADHD (he has since gotten permission to use the medication). Working on the second year of a seven-year, $161MM deal, Davis is going to have to put the bat on the ball with more authority this season. For that matter, he’s going to have to put the bat on the ball more, period.

If Buck Showalter could pencil in Jonathan Schoop‘s 2016 numbers for this year, he’d take it a Baltimore minute. Schoop had the chance to play regularly and it paid off. The 24-year old contributed to the offense with 25 HR, 38 doubles, 81 RBI, and 82 runs scored. A one-year deal that was six times his previous salary was Schoop’s reward. Shortstop J.J. Hardy has lost his power bat, but the three-time Gold Glove winner still gives the O’s stellar defense.

OUTFIELD

Center fielder Adam Jones could use a bit of a boost in his offense. It sounds funny to say that about a 25+ HR/80+ RBI guy with four Gold Gloves. But, Jones batting average the last two seasons has dipped under .270. Of course, that also means a lower on-base %. Oddly, his strikeout totals have dropped, but it hasn’t had an overall positive effect. He had just 19 doubles last season and had a career-low slugging %. Jones also needs to improve on last year’s sub-.700 road OPS. A bad hammy hindered his season as well.

Trumbo returns after a career-best 47 HR, 108 RBI, and .850 OPS season. His free agency could not have come at a better time. The O’s brought back Trumbo on a three-year, $37.5MM deal. Now the right fielder/DH has to live up to the cost.

Left fielder Hyun Soo Kim had an odd 2016 season. He couldn’t hit his way out of a paper bag in Spring Training and then refused a demotion to the minors. Instead, he stuck around and eventually worked his way into the lineup. In a little over 300 at-bats, he hit 16 doubles and six home runs and had a .420 slugging %.

Kim will be in a battle for at-bats, however, with the Orioles having signed free agent Seth Smith.  The 10-year veteran adds 12-15 HR and 40-60 RBI to an already potent lineup. He’ll also see time in both corner outfield spots, with Trumbo getting the majority of DH at-bats.

CATCHER

Free agent Matt Wieters remains unsigned, but a return to Baltimore is not likely. The Orioles signed free agent Welington Castillo, who spent the last two seasons with the Cubs, Mariners, and Diamondbacks. Castillo has averaged 15 HR and 55 RBI over the past four seasons. The Orioles signed him to a one-year $6MM contract (with a $7MM player option). That’s a fraction of the salary it would have taken for the O’s to keep Wieters. Last season, Castillo threw out 38% of potential base stealers, well above the 27% league average.

Caleb Joseph adds some pop as the backup. Francisco Pena will vie with Joseph for the spot.

DH and BENCH

As previously stated, Trumbo will be the main DH, with Davis, Kim, and Smith seeing some at-bats. Outfielder Joey Rickard has a chance to be the extra outfielder, though he might benefit more from playing full-time at Triple-A. Chris Dickerson and Logan Shafer will compete for the extra outfield spot.

Ryan Flaherty gets one utility spot on the roster, while veterans Robert Andino and Johnny Giavotella compete for another extra infield spot.

ROTATION

The rotation is led by veteran Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman, who started 30 games for the time in his career. The duo were the only starters on the team that had an ERA under 4.00. Tillman won 16 games and bounced back from a mediocre 2015 season. These two are the keys to the Orioles competing for the division and wildcard spots.

Dylan Bundy overcame injuries and adversity to make his first Major League appearances in four years. Bundy made 22 relief appearances before he was moved to the rotation. He experienced growing pains but has the potential to be a big contributor in the rotation this season.

The final two spots in the rotation are a major problem. Wade Miley was acquired from Seattle at last year’s trade deadline and was awful. Ubaldo Jimenez has never been able to replicate his 2010 season with the Rockies when he finished third in the NL Cy Young voting. He’s in his fourth season with the O’s and is coming off a career-worst 5.44 ERA. He allowed more hits than innings pitched and issued 4.6 BB/9 IP. A ray of hope came in September when he had a 2.31 ERA in five starts.

Mike Wright or Tyler Wilson could eventually replace either Miley and/or Jimenez in the rotation.

2/14 Update: Chris Tillman is expected to miss Opening Day and may start the season on the disabled list after having undergone treatment on his right shoulder in December. Orioles’ beat writer Roch Kubatko tweeted that Tillman received a “platelet-rich injection” in his shoulder. He’s three weeks behind the rest of the Orioles’ pitchers.

BULLPEN

The pen is one of the strongest parts of this team. At one time, the Orioles thought Zach Britton would be the ace of their staff. Instead, he’s developed into one of the game’s best closers. He had a season for the ages in 2016 – 47 saves, just one home run allowed and a 0.54 ERA. Darren O’Day, Brad Brach, and Mychal Givens provide Showalter with three strong setup men. T.J. McFarland will be among the pitchers battling for a lefty specialist job.

PROSPECTS THAT COULD IMPACT THE 2017 SEASON

The team’s top prospect, catcher Chance Sisco, played most of the 2016 season at Double-A Bowie. He’ll begin the year at Triple-A Norfolk and could be a later Summer addition to the Orioles. First baseman Trey Mancini has had back-to-back 20 home run seasons in the minors. He’s likely to stay in the minors to start the season.

Next week we wrap up the AL East preview with a look at the Tampa Rays.

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