Fans of the other 2018 playoff teams (Cleveland and Oakland) may disagree, but in most quarters the three best teams in the AL entering the off-season and likely entering the 2019 season are the 2018 World Champion Boston Red Sox, the 2017 World Champion Houston Astros and the many time champion New York Yankees. The Astros eliminated the Red Sox and the Yanks in 2017 and the Red Sox knocked off the other two in 2018.
These three teams had varying amounts of losses and have been involved in various numbers of offseason transactions. So, how do these teams stack up with Spring Training just around the corner?
Red Sox (108-54 and WS Champions in 2018)
Added. 2B Dustin Pedroia
The Red Sox were the best team in baseball in 2018. Like the Astros in 2017, they had an absolutely killer offense that carried a very good rotation and a solid bullpen to the crown. Like the Astros after their World Series run, they have mostly stayed with a pat hand. Their biggest additions this offseason have been the re-signing of Nathan Eovaldi and Yankee killer Steve Pearce. Potentially adding Dustin Pedroia back even as a part-timer sure can’t hurt their offense.
Offense. There is no reason to think this offense will fall off, but… that is what most folks thought about the Astros heading into 2018. But even if they fall some, it is hard to see them worse than a top 3 spot in the league. JD Martinez, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi are a terrific quarter of hitters and are joined by playoff heroes Jackie Bradley Jr.and Rafael Devers in a stout lineup.
Starting Rotation. It is easy to picture a full season of starts from Eovaldi and Chris Sale (who only had 38 starts between them) amounting to more than 15 wins. It is also easy to picture that another season of a 4.28 from Rick Porcello not resulting in a 17-7 record. Astro killer David Price brings an extra solid presence to the rotation. The offense will help them all out, but a little fall-off overall would not be surprising.
Bullpen. This is the big question this off-season as the Sox have not (so far) done anything to replace Kimbrel and Kelly. It would not be surprising to see the Sox pick up some help before Spring Training or during the season. This is likely to be the focal point until/unless the Red Sox make another move.
Prognosis. Hard to not see this team winning at least 100 games again in 2019.
Yanks (100-62) Wildcard in 2018 and Lost to Boston in ALDS
The Yankees were one of the best teams in baseball in 2018, and would have led 4 of the 6 divisions in baseball, but ended up losing their division to the Red Sox. They have been busy in a slow off-season, even if the Yanks’ fans think they haven’t been busy enough. The addition of Paxton along with re-signing Sabathia and Happ helped really solidify their rotation while re-signing Britton and signing Ottavino turn a strength into a super-power.
Offense. The Yanks rode the top power lineup in the game to the 2nd best run-scoring team in the game. The biggest question here may be how well and how long Tulo has to replace Didi Gregorius while he recovers from Tommy John surgery. Will youngsters Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar continue to rake. Will the offense reach their potential that poorer performers like Greg Bird and Brett Gardner helped drag down? Some of that depends on Gary Sanchez being healed from off-season surgery and a full season from Aaron Judge. And they have some guy named Stanton who might be OK.
Starting Rotation. Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka were a strong 1-2 at the top of the rotation and Paxton will likely make this a tough top three. Happ was light’s out after coming to the team and Sabathia turned in another solid season. The biggest question with their rotation is whether the 35 y.o. Happ or the 37 y.o. Sabathia show signs of slowing down.
Bullpen. They did lose Robertson, who was a strong performer for them, but adding Ottavino and holding on to Britton on top of Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, and Chad Green makes late innings against this team a tough assignment.
Prognosis. This Yankee team should give the Red Sox all they can handle in 2019 and is the type of team that could bring NY the parade they last saw 10 seasons ago.
Astros (103-59 AL West Champs, lost to Red Sox in the ALCS)
The Astros set a club record for regular season wins and after sweeping the Indians in the ALDS and winning the first game of the ALCS against Boston looked like they might repeat their magical run to the World Series. Four hard fought losses later and they headed home.
In some ways, the most important additions to the Astros would be a healthy knee for Jose Altuve and healthy back for Carlos Correa. The Astros have sustained the most losses of the top three and sustained the biggest losses to the top rotation in the major leagues.
Offense. Adding Brantley is a terrific plus, adding an All-Star lefty bat to a right-centric offense. Diaz should fill the offense that the up and down Gonzalez takes with him, but it may take a number of players to fill the defensive flexibility Marwin brought to the team. Correa and Altuve hitting at 90% of 2017 would be a huge shot in the arm to an offense that was led by the so-solid Alex Bregman in 2018. WS MVP George Springer, Yuli Gurriel and new DH Tyler White could bring real depth to the lineup. Kyle Tucker is the wild card here. Is he the top prospect he has been rated or a not ready for prime time player?
Rotation. Even with losing Keuchel (not counting on his potential re-sign), Morton and McCullers the cupboard is not bare. Two guys named Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole are not bad (as in great) and former #2 starter Collin McHugh, who pitched brilliantly in the bullpen in 2018 will slip into the #3 spot. Potentially for the 4 and 5 spots are Swingman Brad Peacock, who was very good as a part-time starter in 2017 and youngsters Josh James and Framber Valdez, who turned some heads in 2018. And not far behind them are some big-time prospects in Forrest Whitley and J.B Bukauskas or perhaps Rogelio Armenteros. Still, it would not be surprising to see the Astros make a move in the Spring or at the trade deadline for one more starter.
Bullpen. The Astros had one of the best bullpens in 2018, though just like in 2017, it struggled a bit in the playoffs. Roberto Osuna, Ryan Pressly lead the bullpen with Hector Rondon (who had a bit of a hissy in being left off the playoff roster) and there is likely going to be a wave of youngsters helping out along with vets Chris Devenski and Will Harris.
Prognosis. The Astros are not in the same boat as the Sox or the Yanks as it should not take nearly as many wins to clinch the AL West as the East. If they struggle Jeff Luhnow has shown he is not afraid to make big moves along the way. This team should be better offensively, worse with the rotation (but still good) and maybe a wash with the bullpen. This looks like a 98-100 win team.
Wrap. Injuries, bad performances, bad attitudes have deflated teams before and what’s on paper needs to make it on to the grass. But there is no reason to think that the road to the AL title and possibly the World Championship runs anywhere other than through these three teams in 2019.