American League East
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Here are the first three divisions:
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New York Yankees
Last year’s record: 92-70
Here’s something I’ve noticed from being a lifelong Yankee hater — the Yankees are absolutely the best team in all of American sports to hate. You know why? They embrace it. They enjoy it. They thrive on it. They play the heel as well as Ric Flair. All of them. The organization. The fans. The players. Everybody.
And, while gritting my teeth a little, I will admit that there’s something kind of magnificent about that.
See, in my experience, it doesn’t work like that for any other team. When you hate a team like the Cowboys or Lakers or Duke basketball or Alabama football, there’s a different reaction. There are fans in those worlds who wonder, “Hey, why hate us? We’re nice people! We play the game fairly. We’ve fought hard to get to where we are. We don’t deserve this sort of hostility!”
We all want to be liked at least a little bit, no?
Or they will think: “Fine, you hate us? Well, we hate you too!”
But not the Yankees. No. It isn’t just that they don’t care if you and I hate them. It’s more like they WANT you and I hate to hate them. It’s more like their reaction is:
“Yeah, I totally get why you hate the Yankees. We’re the best. We win all the time, and we always have, and we should win even more. We deserve to win. We have more money than your team does. You know that awesome young player on your team you like? We’ll have him soon enough. We should. We have pinstripes on our uniforms. We have a Monument Park filled with the memories of Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio and Mantle and Yogi and Reggie and Jeter. I’d probably hate the Yankees too if I were you.”
And as far as hating you back, for the most part, the Yankees don’t do that.
They just don’t CARE about you.
Yes, that’s arrogance, overbearing and maddening arrogance, but what can you or I do about it? As my old friend Buck O’Neil used to say, “It ain’t showing off if you can do it.” The Yankees do always win. They always have. They do have the most money, they do buy the best players, they do have the greatest history, and they’re not apologizing for any of it. I sometimes think that if I were born in New York (and I almost was) and grew up in a Yankees family, I’d be the most obnoxious Yankees fan of the lot.
But I was not — I was born in Cleveland, born under the thumb of Yankees tyranny — and so my white-hot loathing for the Yankees will never dissipate. And I think Yankees fans, most of them anyway, thrill in the fact that they live rent-free in my head and the heads of millions of other baseball fans.
They don’t long to be less hated but MORE hated — the vibe I get from Yankees fans is that the one thing that ticks them off these days is that the Yankees are not doing ENOUGH Yankees things. How could they not have signed Carlos Correa? How could they not have gotten Trevor Story? How are they letting the stinking Dodgers steal their mojo?
The Yankees really are the Empire from “Star Wars.” Do you think Darth Vader worried about how other people viewed him? No. Not quite. And yes, it has been 12 years since the Yankees’ last championship, all that’s well and good, but you know they’re coming back. The Empire always strikes back.
In real-time, it seemed like Gerrit Cole’s season was, I don’t know, a little bit disappointing, no? I mean, if you remember, there was a point when people thought the crackdown on sticky stuff would turn him into a Mike Boddicker-like junkballer. Then he had two months in the middle of the year when he was giving up a bunch of home runs. Then there was that horrendous playoff start against Boston, when he lasted only two innings.
And at the end of the day, though, he led the league in wins and strikeout-to-walk ratio, struck out 12 batters per nine innings, had a 1.059 WHIP and finished second in the Cy Young voting.
So maybe that’s, actually, not a disappointing season.
Cole is the default best pitcher in the American League now. And nobody is especially close. Pitchers will emerge, certainly, but in the Cy Young odds, he’s basically considered twice as likely to win the award as Shane Bieber, Robbie Ray, Lucas Giolito or anybody else.
As for the rest of the Yankees rotation, well, here’s the thing: There just aren’t that many top-shelf starters in the league right now. I just gave you the three pitchers next on the Cy Young odds list — did any of them strike you as a sure-thing star in 2022?*
*And, by the way, the next starter on the odds sheet I saw was Sean Manaea, who was just traded to the Padres, so the league’s already shaky starting pitching depth only got shallower.
So, on the one hand, you can say that a rotation filled out by Jordan Montgomery, Luis Severino, Jameson Taillon and, let’s say Nestor Cortes Jr., doesn’t exactly scare anybody. But on the other hand, how many other American League teams have four average-to-above-average starters to mix in with an ace? (Answer: Not many).
Montgomery may not be thrilling, but he struck out 162 in 157 innings last year and posted a 112 ERA+.
Severino may be coming back from a devastating elbow injury, but he received Cy Young votes back in 2018 and 2019, and when he came back briefly in late 2021, his fastball was touching 98 mph and nobody got a hit off it, and his slider and changeup looked pretty much the same as they did when he was one of the game’s best.
Taillon might not get the blood pumping, but he was really good in the second half last season after fully recovering from another Tommy John surgery — he was AL Pitcher of the Month in July and the league hit just .206 against him after July 1. The Yankees won 11 of the last 14 games he started.
And Cortes might not be able to fool everybody forever with all his arm angles and 80-something-mph fastballs, but he’s fooling plenty of hitters now. He somehow struck out 103 in 93 innings last year while posting a 1.075 WHIP.
GRADE (max 10): 8.5
One of these years, hitters will get their revenge on Aroldis Chapman. At least that’s what logic suggests. An arm is only supposed to have so many 100-mph fastballs contained inside*, and Chapman should have passed his quota many, many, many years ago.
*The actual number of 100-mph fastballs the typical human arm is supposed to have: 0.
According to the incredible Statcast™ search engine, Chapman threw his first 100-mph fastball against Milwaukee on Aug. 31, 2010 (he also threw his second and third 100-mph pitches that day).
And, for comparison purposes, the next day, Neftali Feliz threw a 100-mph fastball against Kansas City. He never threw another one after that season.
You see the other relievers who threw 100-mph fastballs — Henry Rodriguez, Bobby Parnell, Andrew Cashner, Bruce Rondón, Gregory Soto, Jose Alvarado, Joe Kelly, Brian Wilson, Trevor Rosenthal, on and on — and what you really see is a pile of Tommy John surgeries and torn rotator cuffs. You just can’t throw 100 forever. Arms tire. Arms break.
Here’s a list of the relievers who have thrown the most 100-mph fastballs in the Statcast™ era:
Jordan Hicks, 931
Kelvin Herrera, 686
Emmanuel Clase, 540
Joel Zumaya, 537
That’s impressive longevity. Oh, wait, I left out Chapman.
Aroldis Chapman, 3,235
Chapman threw 131 pitches at 100 mph or more in 2021, this at age 33 and in his 12th season. It’s not human, I tell ya.
GRADE (max 10): 7.0
Well, this will be interesting — now that the Yankees have traded away Gary Sánchez, the conversation around their catcher will be very different. No more dropped jaws at the home runs. No more talk radio screaming about his inability to actually catch a baseball. No more tabloid back pages as he goes weeks without making contact. No more screams of delight when he unleashes some sort of bullet throw to nab a base stealer.
Instead, things will be comparatively quiet behind the plate in the Bronx, as the Yankees go with the presumably sound defense of 24-year-old rookie Ben Rortvedt and the occasional pop of veteran Kyle Higashioka. Yes, catching looks like a weakness here, but when you combine their powers, it’s perhaps not as pronounced a weakness as many might think. Plus, they’re the Yankees. Sooner or later, they’ll find someone new.
GRADE (max 10): 4.5
The Yankees I grew up loathing were very, very different from their 1990s dynasty or recent Yankees teams. I grew up in the Bronx Zoo era, and in those days the Yankees were the ultimate reality TV show, everybody seemed to despise everybody else (but especially Reggie), Billy Martin was always getting fired or hired, George Steinbrenner was dressing like a British king and buying the best players and complaining that the players he bought were ripoffs and so on. Each season was like a race between Yankees talent and Yankees self-destruction.
And let’s be honest, the Yankees were so much more boring when Derek Jeter was, like, all professional and stuff.
Maybe Josh Donaldson brings a little bit of that old Bronx Zoo spirit back. He’s cocky, he’ll say anything, he boldly ripped now-teammate Gerrit Cole for losing spin on his pitches after MLB cracked down on sticky stuff, he’s got a great nickname (“Bringer of Rain”) and general manager Brian Cashman has already compared bringing him over to the time he brought in Roger Clemens.
“I’m not the most hated person,” Donaldson griped when told of the comparison, but clearly this is part of Cashman’s idea — that Donaldson will give the Yankees some edge and bite. We’ll see about that. What we do know is that he still hits the ball very hard (his exit velocity and expected slugging percentage were elite in 2021), still has terrific plate discipline, and he still plays a more than credible third base.
Is anyone happy that the Yankees brought Anthony Rizzo back? I don’t know anyone. Rizzo doesn’t seem especially happy — based on Ken Rosenthal’s reporting, it seems like Rizzo would have preferred to go back to the Cubs, but they just weren’t offering enough money. Yankees fans don’t seem especially happy about it, because Freddie Freeman and Matt Olson were out there for the taking, and both of them are significantly more exciting than Rizzo.
And we Yankees loathers aren’t happy because while Rizzo might not be quite the All-Star Gold Glover he was a few years ago, he’s still good defensively, still a solidly above-average hitter, and he’s got something to prove. Oh, and that Yankees’ rightfield fence is awfully tasty. Would anyone be surprised if Rizzo returned to the 30-homer, .850-to-.900-OPS player he was not so long ago?
If you would be surprised, it’s only because you don’t understand how Yankees’ black magic works.
Gleyber Torres went walkabout in 2021 for reasons that still remain entirely unclear. He hit 38 home runs in 2019, and he hit nine last year — losing 175 points of OPS in the process — plus his shortstop defense became such an eyesore that the Yankees finally just had to move him out of there. There’s undoubtedly a middle ground between the All-Star slugger he was then and the roughly replacement-level player he became. Maybe being at second base every day will help him find that ground.
Torres’ move to second will leave newcomer Isiah Kiner-Falefa at shortstop. He won a Gold Glove as a third baseman in 2020, and he was sensational enough to contend for another one as a shortstop in 2021. His offense comes without power — batteries not included — but he makes some contact and ended last season on a high note (hitting .337 in his last 24 games).
GRADE (max 10): 5.5
Outfield and DH
Is this the year that Aaron Judge wins his MVP award? It certainly could be, especially now that he’s been cleared to play games in New York whether or not he’s vaccinated. (Judge has never made clear if he is or isn’t; he has only said, “I’m not worried about it.”)
Judge played a full season — the first time since 2017 — and he was terrific, hitting .287/.373/.544 with 39 homers. He cut back his strikeouts. He played fantastic defense. He also has become this team’s most vocal leader in and out of the clubhouse. You can’t help but wonder if he will become the seventh Yankees captain of the Expansion Era:
List of Yankees captains in the Expansion Era (1961-present):
Thurman Munson, 1976-79
Graig Nettles, 1982-84
Willie Randolph, 1986-88
Ron Guidry, 1986-88
Don Mattingly, 1991-95
Derek Jeter, 2003-2014
The projections for Joey Gallo are surprising to me — virtually every projection that I’ve seen has him as a roughly 4 WAR player. That shouldn’t surprise me, of course. He was a roughly 4 WAR player in 2021, even as he hit .199 and struck out 213 times. He just squeezes a lot of good stuff into the empty spaces. He won another Gold Glove. He smashed 38 home runs. He led the league with 111 walks. He was a plus baserunner.
True, Yankees fans booed him pretty hard after he got to New York, but Gallo seems to be one of the most self-aware players in baseball — he looked for a job on LinkedIn during the lockout — and you get the sense he doesn’t blame the fans. You get the sense he might have booed himself. He’s looking for a big rebound season.
Aaron Hicks is back in centerfield, assuming he can stay on the field. That’s been the hard part — he lost another year to injuries in 2021. He did come to camp in, yes, the best shape of his life, and has been talking about how he’d really like to have a 30-30 season in 2022. I’m sure the Yankees would be pleased with half that and something close to a full season.
Giancarlo Stanton will be the designated hitter. He still hits the ball harder than anybody else in baseball, and when he gets hot, there is nobody in baseball who can get him out. When he’s cold, alas, it looks like you or I could get him out.
It’s worth mentioning that I haven’t mentioned DJ LeMahieu, who came close to winning the MVP in 2019 and 2020. The Yankees, alas, are so good that they’ll just fit him in wherever.
GRADE (max 10): 8.5
I don’t get the sense that Yankees fans are in love with Aaron Boone as manager, even if he has averaged 98 wins per full season. That’s just the deal — being a manager of a Yankees team that doesn’t win the World Series is a tough gig for anybody.
Still, there’s a Fire Aaron Boone petition going around, a Fire Aaron Boone Facebook group, several Fire Aaron Boone YouTube videos, and I suppose there was some talk about firing Aaron Boone. And he does know that any extended slump or playoff defeat could lead directly to his firing. He just has to live with it.
Brian Cashman has been the Yankees’ general manager for 24 years — something that would have been unheard of under George Steinbrenner. He’s had incredible success and is widely known to be one of the best GMs in the business, but it has been 13 years since the Yankees’ last World Series win — that’s 91 in Yankees years — and it’s clearly backing up on him. He went on that weird rant just a few days ago about the 2017 Astros cheating the Yankees out of the World Series, I mean, let it go, man.
GRADE (max 10): 5.5
The Farm Report
While Yankees fans screamed for the team to get Carlos Correa or Trevor Story or Honus Wagner to play shortstop, the Yankees held off and the big reason is certainly Anthony Volpe. He was the team’s first-round pick in 2019, and he has developed into one of the game’s best prospects. He has become much stronger and has added some power to his already exciting offensive toolbox. And he’s excellent defensively. And scouts can’t stop talking about his work ethic. The funny thing is that another Yankees shortstop prospect, Oswald Peraza, might beat him to the big leagues; Peraza is a defensive marvel with power and speed and he’s already been to Class AAA.
The Final Word
The Yankees are the Yankees are the Yankees are the Yankees.
TQ: 39.5, 1st in AL East
Toronto Blue Jays
Last year’s record: 91-71
The other day, for reasons I cannot explain, I was trying to come up with the most Toronto Blue Jays player ever. I sat in my office, stared at the ceiling and thought to myself for much, much, much too long: Well, who is the most Blue Jays player ever? Is it Dave Stieb? Maybe it’s Lloyd Moseby? Or Jesse Barfield, yes, it’s got to be Jesse Barfield. But how about Ed Sprague? Then, it could be Tony Fernandez. Hmm.
Now, I am guessing that you might have questions. These would include:
What are you even talking about?
What does it even mean to be the most Blue Jays player ever?
This doesn’t make any sense at all.
I apologize for my brain. That’s all I can say. Like, this is how it works, my mind, this is what it is to be trapped in the absurd county fair funhouse that is my subconscious. I’ll just be sitting there and some pointless and utterly unanswerable question like, “What is the best REM song to play when you’re playing table tennis*?” or “What is the best font to type your rough drafts in?**” and then I’ll spend like all afternoon trying to come up with the right answer when there obviously is no right answer, and I could be doing something constructive.
*It’s definitely ”Cuyahoga” or, if you’re playing table tennis doubles, we’ll also accept “Don’t Go Back to Rockville.”
**I think the correct font is Georgia, but I don’t feel as confident about this.
But here’s another thing about me … I won’t keep these questions to myself. I will bother my friends with them too. So, like, 10 or 20 of my friends were minding their own business when they got a text that said, “Who is the most Toronto Blue Jays player ever?” And they’ve grown so used to me, that not one of them responded, as a normal person might, with a follow-up text like, “What does that mean?” or “New phone, who dis?”
One friend nominated Pat Hentgen, which is an excellent choice. He wrote: “He’s in my popular imagination as a prototypical Blue Jay — solid with occasional brilliance.”
One friend nominated George Bell, which I think is great … by the way do you remember when his name was spelled Jorge Bell? For years, it was like pot luck, you never had any idea whether the papers or his baseball card would refer to him as “Jorge Bell” or “George Bell.” My guess is that everybody Americanized his name and he either was fine with it or just wanted to stop fighting it.*
*In trying to find when the spelling of his name switched, I came upon a column from 1984 about Bell complaining that the Toronto media chose Dave Collins over him for team MVP. The writer seemed to be mocking Bell for thinking he had as good a season as Collins.
Here were their two seasons:
Bell: .292/.326/.498, 39 doubles, 4 triples, 26 homers, 11 steals, 85 RBIs, 85 runs.
Collins: .308/.366/.444, 24 doubles, 15 triples, 2 homers, 60 steals, 44 RBIs, 59 runs.
Who actually had the better year? By WAR the answer is — neither of them. Each was three wins above replacement.
Boy, has this Blue Jays essay gone off the rails.
Other people nominated Kelly Gruber (because of the name, surely), Joe Carter (of course), Carlos Delgado, Barfield, Fernandez, Jose Bautista, Roy Halladay, etc. But I think I was right the first time. The player mentioned most often is surely the most Blue Jays player ever — that’s Dave Stieb.
Which is a good reminder that you should watch this.
The Blue Jays dealt for José Berríos at the trade deadline last year and a little more than three months later signed him to a seven-year, $131 million extension. Now, obviously, the Blue Jays love Berríos’ four-pitch stuff, particularly love his curveball which is one of the best in the game, and certainly love the consistent way he has pitched the last five seasons.
But, if I had to bet, I would guess that just being around Berríos for the last two months of the season convinced them that this is the pitcher they want to build this exciting young team around. Berríos has that effect on people. He has this magnetic personality, this pitching curiosity, this sense of wonder about the game. Someone asked Berríos during spring training what it means to be an ace. He gave a fantastic answer:
“For me,” he said, “being an ace doesn’t mean you are the best necessarily … it means we have to be a good leader, we have to be involved and helping every other pitcher.”
How can you not want to sign that guy?
Less than two weeks after extending Berríos, Toronto signed Kevin Gausman to a five-year, $110 million deal. When general manager Ross Atkins was asked why they took the plunge on Gausman, he talked about how Hall of Fame GM Pat Gillick had once told him that what you want in players is dependability and reliability.
“That is what Kevin has been,” Atkins said. “And it is something that’s exceptionally attractive to us … a remarkable track record thus far as a professional, as a teammate and as a human being.”
Shortly after signing, Gausman and his wife, Taylor North, did a video expressing to Toronto fans just how excited they are about coming.
I bring this up because I adore what the Blue Jays are trying to do. I think it’s great that they’re openly trying to build a team around not only talent but character and leadership. Berrios and Gausman are more than good pitchers. I do think that one of the consequences of the analytical movement in baseball is that people get super suspicious anytime someone talks about character or leadership or chemistry because that stuff isn’t easily quantified. I think that stuff does matter too.
Back to the baseball part — Gausman finished sixth in the Cy Young voting for the Giants, and he struck out 227 in 192 innings while making a league-leading 33 starts.
Six-foot-six, 260-pound hulk Alek Mahoah looks ready to step into the No. 3 spot in the rotation. He still has some stuff to figure out, like not hitting batters all the time (he hit 16 in 111 innings). But he throws four plus-pitches and has a personality as big as his body — he just LOVES being a big leaguer. At 24, he’s a good candidate for breakout pitcher of the year.
Hyun Jin Ryu had just finished second in the Cy Young voting for the Dodgers in 2019 and then signed a four-year, $80 million deal with the Blue Jays. He promptly finished third in the Cy Young voting during the COVID season.
But last season, he ran into his first issues since coming over from Korea in 2013. With his stuff — built around a high-80s fastball and a high-70s changeup — he needs to be very fine. That has always been his superpower. But in 2021 he missed some spots, and he gave up career highs in hits per nine innings and home runs. He probably dropped a spot in the rotation, to which he calmly responded in Korean: “It doesn’t matter.” That’s a pro.
GRADE (max 10): 7.0
Jordan Romano has another one of my favorite baseball stories. He grew up a huge Blue Jays fan in Toronto — well, in a nearby suburb of Markham — and dreamed of playing for his hometown team someday. Trouble was, he wasn’t all that good at baseball. He played pretty much every sport in high school, including volleyball, and he wasn’t really better at baseball than any of the other sports. It goes without saying that he wasn’t drafted. Nobody even knew who he was.
But he loved baseball. He came from a family that loved baseball. So he went more than 1,000 miles away, to Connors State College, a community college in Muskogee, Okla. Well, that’s where his brother had gone to play ball. Jordan showed enough in his second year that he was asked to transfer to Oral Roberts in nearby Tulsa. There, his fastball picked up a lot more steam, and the Blue Jays — always interested in local products, took him in the 10th round of the 2015 draft.
Then, in short order, Romano got off to a promising start, missed a year with Tommy John surgery, became a starter, was left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft, was taken by the White Sox, didn’t stick with the White Sox, came back to the Blue Jays and found his way to the big-league squad. All the while he kept adding mph to his fastball. In 2021, he averaged 98 mph on his fastball and topped out at 101.
And he was pretty sensational as the Blue Jays’ closer, striking out 85 in 63 innings while giving up just 41 hits. More than twice as many strikeouts as hits is solid stuff.
GRADE (max 10): 5.5
Danny Jansen is an above-average defensive catcher from Harry Houdini’s hometown of Appleton, Wis. He frames strikes (magic!) and handles the pitchers and while he’s not going to wow you at the plate, he will hit the occasional home run that makes everybody feel better about things. The other half of the platoon, Alejandro Kirk, is a former top prospect from Mexico who was rushed to the big leagues after Class A ball. He is more of an average defender, but he has some hitting chops.
GRADE (max 10): 6.0
There are three MVP candidates in this Blue Jays infield.