Friday, January 13, 2017

AL East Preview: Season 24

This entry marks the fifth of a series of previews by division for the young 24th season of Upper Deck.  A run down of each team will be followed by an overall analysis of the division.  We will continue with the AL East.

Key additions: None.

Key losses: None.

Last season, Baltimore’s formidable offense, led by future Hall of Famer Don Tamura, was a top five offense by several metrics.  That success was tempered, however, by a pitching staff that was statistically average in almost every way and a defense that committed the sixth most errors (121) in the league.

The Dry Docks clearly have a formula for success, however, as they’ve accrued six postseason berths and finished with fewer than 84 wins only twice since general manager krisr took over in season 16.  Despite a minor step back the past two seasons, Baltimore still clearly has the core to compete, with a rotation led by SPs Luis Diaz, Trevor Allen, and Emilio Cordero, a bullpen flanked by CP Tony Romero, and a lineup built around Tamura and DH Aaron King.

A promotion to prospect RF Jose Quevedo constitutes the biggest move for the team, bolstering the bench.  So while the team may find themselves active at the deadline should the East continue to be competitive - all four teams finished with at least 82 wins in season 23 - the Dry Docks are certainly in good position to compete once again.

The Swinging Hoosiers of season 23 had an above average offense, and were, in fact, one of the best contact hitting teams in the league - their .276 team batting average ranked second only to eventual World Series Champion Albuquerque.  As with the Dry Docks, though, a pitching staff was the limiting factor.  The staff was significantly below average in season 23 despite inducing 430 double plays, good for 3rd most in the league.

Aware of its needs, Indianapolis GM egide was decisive this offseason, placing a big emphasis on the pitching staff.  The team brought back starter Austin Sanders, who had spent the past two-plus seasons in Richmond, as well as signing Max Trajano to fill out the rotation.  Veteran Jose Rijo, with more than 2,000 innings under his belt, was also brought in to strengthen the front end of the pen.

Meanwhile, despite an offense that hit the ball well, the Swinging Hoosiers felt that more power was needed for this season’s lineup, addressing an area the team lacked last season.  Gregory Erdos, famed contact hitter, started at first last season in Indy, but the team declined his option and moving Carlos Ortiz from left field, gaining the expected power profile at first.  They replaced his production in left field by trading John Crede, who performed well in center last season, and another for the powerful David Valdes.  Jarrett Reese was brought in to replace Crede in center.

The team also allowed long-time DH Gary Patrick to walk, and though the fans may miss him, egide has replaced his production well in the lineup. An extension to RF Norm Knight and the promotion of 2B Aramis Perez round out a busy offseason in Indy.

Iowa City has been rebuilding for a long time, but finally tasted the fruit of those labors last season with an 88-win campaign.  Despite an offense that rated as only slightly above average, the Small Bears finish 8th in the league home runs. They were carried by a pitching staff that posted a healthy .250/.318/.401 line against.

Despite the success, however, the team missed out on the postseason, and GM rschaitkin saw room for improvement.  Through aggressive maneuvering in the trade market, the club acquired young started Steve Holden to solidify the rotation.  The team also acquired DH Rougned Sierra via trade.  In both instances, the club parted with prospects who had been acquired throughout the rebuild.

The offense lost Doug Burks, who started 93 games at shortstop in season 23, and DH Sparky McMurtry, who batted .281 with 28 home runs and 84 RBI last season.  Their production will be replaced by the savvy signing of Quinton Brohawn, as well as the aforementioned Sierra and trade acquisition Bob Axford, also acquired for prospects.

Iowa City also extended SP Rob Farr, who performed well after coming over in a trade last season and who they hope will be a key cog in the rotation for the next four to five seasons.  They also signed reliever Sean Fischer and traded for Carl Henry to replace the swing innings lost by the departure of Max Trajano.

Pittsburgh Pilots

In season 23, the Pittsburgh Pilots extended a playoff berth streak to five seasons and won its second consecutive AL East division title.  The playoff run wouldn’t last long, though, as the club fell in the playoffs’ opening round.  Though the Pilots featured a top 10 pitching staff in many regards, the bullpen surrendered a league high 28 blown saves.  Problems with the offense, who carried a subpar .324 on base percentage, were exacerbated by an average defense that had problems up the middle.

To address its needs, Pittsburgh went all in on superstar Rodney Bradley, ultimately signing him for $110 million over five seasons.  In him, the club got a player capable of protecting (or of being protected by) franchise cornerstone Chili Cornelius.  The signing did, however, tighten the Pilots’ payroll flexibility, leading to the waiver claim of Max Marmol to become the everyday second baseman, though his defensive ability also helps to fix some of the middle infield woes from a season prior.  It also precluded the re-signing of Eliezer Camacho, a productive member of the Pittsburgh outfield for three-plus seasons.

The other major need - the bullpen - was addressed by the low-risk signing of reliever Harold Lee off of a down season in Las Vegas.  The club also dealt C Phil Clifton to Sioux City for sinker baller Mario Barclay and re-signed the bullpen’s lone bright spot from a season ago, CP Albert Jimenez, who saved 39 of 44 opportunities.

In other notable moves, Pittsburgh re-signed 1B/LF Andy Stark on a one-year pact, extended Gold Glove CF Galahad Merloni through season 25, and promoted SS Tony Banks to platoon with SS Izzy Crow.  The platoon sacrifices the offensive potential offered by Stuffy Stanley, who they club let walk, in favor of a strong defense that should help a pitching staff reliant on the ground ball.

AL East Analysis

The flurry of moves that Indianapolis made this offseason open the door for them to be the division’s most improved team, which could have significant implications considering the last place team still finished with 82 wins a season ago.  Baltimore, who had possibly the quietest offseason in the league, still has the core to compete, and may find themselves buying at the deadline.

Like Indianapolis, Iowa City had a similarly busy offseason, stabilizing a team that finished only three games behind Pittsburgh for first place in the division last season.  Their focus on younger players and trades should allow this window to remain open for seasons to come.  Meanwhile, Pittsburgh made moves they hope will fortify a bullpen that ruined some of the starting five’s fun from a season ago, and added a big bat that they hope will push the team’s offense over the top.

In this division, which may end up as the most competitive of season 24, there may be no clear frontrunner, and it would not be shocking to see the division send multiple teams to the playoffs.

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