TORONTO — Well, that didn’t take long for the approximate value of spring training to reveal itself: Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees, who led all of the majors in spring training with a 0.59 WHIP and allowed one earned run in 23.2 innings, was chased by the Tampa Bay Rays Sunday after giving up seven earned runs in 2.2 innings of the 2017 lid-lifter.
In so doing, Tanaka became the first Yankees opening-day starter to give up seven-plus earned runs and get fewer than 10 outs.
Welcome to the 2017 American League East! Here’s the glass half full/empty preview for each team, starting with the local flannel…
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Why they can win: The core of the team has gone to back-to-back American League Championship Series, and an optimist would suggest that replacing R.A. Dickey’s innings with those of Francisco Liriano, and some combination of Steve Pearce and Kendrys Morales might be enough of a net gain to mitigate the loss of Edwin Encarnacion. They have the best starting rotation in the game and they play good defence, better now that right-fielder Jose Bautista seems to be over the shoulder woes that plagued him most of last season. There might be one last kick at the can for this group.
Why they can’t win: There’s a fine line between being experienced and too old – and the Blue Jays have a ton of experience, if you catch my drift. Then, there’s the bullpen, where the Blue Jays seem to be the only team in the division that thinks you can throw slop against the wall every season and have it all work out. The bullpen almost blew the season in the first two months of 2016 and this year, at least, they won’t have Roberto Osuna at the start after what is a month of, um, carefully regulated inactivity with neck spasms. Here’s hoping they find another Joaquin Benoit. Also, after almost incredible health last season, anybody worried about having the closer shut down right away? Asking for a friend.
Why they can win: They’ll play bombs away with anybody, anytime and any place, and they have a deep, balanced bullpen with power, funky-arm angles, guile and the game’s best closer. Manny Machado is a superstar. They’ll execute and do all the little things right, and who knows? Maybe Buck Showalter will stop out-thinking himself in the clutch.
Why they can’t win: Their starting pitching was thin even without Chris Tillman starting the season on the disabled list with shoulder soreness. He could be out until May, although he had a good bullpen session this past weekend that seems to have raised hopes a little bit. Kevin Gausman will get the start against the Blue Jays on Monday, but keep an eye on Dylan Bundy, who received kudos from scouts this spring. Even though the results weren’t great, he has reincorporated a cutter into his arsenal and it can be a really effective pitch for him.
BOSTON RED SOX
Why they can win: Sure, there’s no Big Papi. But what the Red Sox do have is the best lineup in the division, returning their top five leaders in runs scored and their top three leaders in hits from a group that was the best in the majors in runs (878), average (.282), on-base percentage (.348), slugging (.461) and OPS (.810.) Not bad. The Red Sox have two of the top three hits leaders in the majors since the start of the 2015 season: Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts have 388 hits apiece in that time, behind major-league leader Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros (416). Newcomer Chris Sale has been tough on AL East teams.
Why they can’t win: Three-fifths of the starting rotation have some sort of injury concern and, in addition to his elbow, there’s a real sense that David Price might for the first time in his career be on the verge of becoming a clubhouse distraction. Tyler Thornburg was acquired at the winter meetings to provide a relief bridge to Craig Kimbrel and he’ll start on the 10-day disabled list with a shoulder strain. Wonder if the Red Sox regret rushing out to trade Clay Buchholz? X-factor: Joe Kelly has developed a filthy slider since moving into the bullpen last season, getting swings and misses on it 41 per cent of the time. He could be a dynamic two-pitch, back-of-the-bullpen option.
NEW YORK YANKEES
Why they can win: There’s no way they can. Not yet. I guess you could look at the vagaries of youth as providing some kind of positive outlook — the opening-day roster averaged 28 years, 334 days, the youngest Yankees group in the past 25 years, and the team started four players under the age of 24 for the first time since 1932 (Lefty Gomez, Bill Dickey, Frankie Crosetti and Ben Chapman). I mean, we all say it’s a young man’s game, right?
Why they can’t win: The starting rotation is abysmal — although Luis Severino could single-handedly do something about it — and you wonder how many leads are going to be turned over to Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman, the best one-two bullpen punch in the division by some length. The fact that mega-prospect Gleyber Torres was sent out just hours after the Yankees announced that Didi Gregorius would start the year on the disabled list with a shoulder issue suggests the organization is going to be extremely conservative with the treasure-trove of prospects it has accumulated. In other words, the organization has taken a relatively measured approach to winning in 2017.
TAMPA BAY RAYS
Why they can win: They’re the Rays and every time you count them out… well, no, that’s not actually true, anymore. There’s still a great deal to like about the starting pitching and it’s still young — Chris Archer’s start in the opener marked the 399th consecutive game in which the Rays started a pitcher under the age of 30, which is impressive but not as much as the run of 764 straight games started by under-30 pitchers from 2007-2011. But the magical Rays formula of ditching pitchers just before they got hurt and maintaining enviable health with their remaining pitchers has worn a little thin.
Why they can’t win: The Rays had the worst team batting average in the AL, more strikeouts and fewer hits than any team in the league, the second-worst on-base percentage and they failed to add much in the off-season. Subtracting Logan Forsythe? Not good. The bullpen is the worst in the division — Brad Boxberger is one of seven Rays starting the season on the disabled list, a club record that includes Matt Duffy, who is out indefinitely after heel surgery and who was counted on to deepen the lineup. Each of the Rays’ 26 games this month are against teams that finished above .500. In fact, of their first 46 games, only four are against teams that finished under the break-even mark. No bueno.
QUIBBLES AND BITS
We deep-thinkers (and Mike Wilner) put together our season preview elsewhere on sportsnet.ca, where we picked division and World Series winners (I have the Los Angeles Dodgers beating the Cleveland Indians), and individual awards but here’s a more detailed breakdown of how I have the divisions.
Boston, Toronto (wild-card), Tampa, New York, Baltimore
Cleveland, Kansas City, Detroit, Minnesota, Chicago
Houston, Seattle (wild-card), Texas, Los Angeles Angels, Oakland
Washington, Miami (wild-card), New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia
Chicago, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Cincinnati
Los Angeles, San Francisco (wild-card), Colorado, Arizona, San Diego
So it turns out we were all right to be suspicious about Roberto Osuna’s lack of activity this spring and, well, I guess John Gibbons is going to start earning that new contract right away, eh?
If I’m Gibbons, I’m going to be inclined to give my starters more rope than I might be comfortable with in the first month. Other than Osuna’s move to the disabled list — and let’s keep in mind that since the DL is only 10 days under the new collective bargaining agreement as opposed to 15, it’s going to be used as a “roster management” option more than ever before — there wasn’t much shocking about the makeup of the 25-man roster.
Putting together a roster involves some politics. There’s a give and take between the coaching staff and upper management. Trade-offs are made, and it’s remarkable how many times the decision on the 25th man comes down to the manager’s gut. I think that’s what happened here; Gibbons has a degree of trust in Ryan Goins that he never had in Melvin Upton Jr. The only way Upton made this team, in my mind, was if Steve Pearce was unable to answer the bell.
I’m not certain it’s the decision I’d make, but I understand why it was made. I’d also be willing to bet this team has another everyday player in here before the end of the month.