The Yankees main adversaries will be the Red Sox, and as the table shows, they are prohibitive favorites over the Yanks as a result of the off-season maneuvering. Offensively and defensively, they lose 7 wins from Adrian Beltre, but the Red Sox will benefit from some more health for Youkilis, Pedroia, Cameron, and Ellsbury, which more than makes up for the loss of Beltre. Add Crawford and Gonzalez, and the position players have really improved from last season, especially if they don’t need to give innings to the black holes of Eric Patterson, Jeremy Hermida, and Yamaico Navarro. The Red Sox paid dearly, but they have a younger, better core of position players than the Yankees. If they stay healthy, they could be devastating.
Unfortunately for the Yankees, the team should also improve their production from the pitching staff. I went fairly conservative on some of the pitchers because of health concerns for Lackey, Beckett, and Matsuzaka, but the rotation looks to be really good. Where the Yankees have the advantage is, oddly enough, depth, and if Red Sox rotation members start going down, they don’t have the same upper-level pitching that the Yankees do. The Red Sox have also spent a fair amount of time on reconstructing the bullpen. Getting Wheeler wasn’t a big deal, but adding Jenks gives them another 1-win reliever while Doubront could be pretty good as well. The improvement isn’t quite as remarkable as the position players’, but the Red Sox still have an excellent rotation and bullpen.
The Red Sox are pretty star-studded. Their line-up could go Pedroia, Crawford, Youkilis, Gonzalez, Ortiz, Drew, Lowrie/Scutaro, Ellsbury/Cameron, and Saltalamacchia, and the pitching staff has quite a few names itself. Additionally, the defense at each position ranges from above-average to plus at every position, which might be the most underrated part of this team. Everyone will rightly talk about how the offense will be outstanding, but Epstein did all of that while adding defensive value to his team. The job he did is just phenomenal.
Tampa Bay Rays
The outlook on the Rays is … not as good, but all is not lost. In regard to the position players, they have lost Crawford, which is pretty devastating, but the Rays will silently improve in some other areas. John Jaso needs to be given the every-day job behind the plate, and I really like him, though he may never play in an All-Star Game. Taking Crawford’s spot, Matt Joyce has patience, power, and defensive value that will soften the blow of losing Crawford, though he won’t completely make-up for it. Luckily, the Rays can still make up for it in two other spots that were dark voids last season—1B and DH. If there are league-average players to be found, they usually occupy these spot, and if they grab a couple for these slots, add 4 wins to the total to bring it up to 96. The Rays have some wherewithal to be more creative and make a few heady trades and add more value (see Butler, Billy), but I don’t think they’ll do it. Being more creative alongside those moves, I would rather them put Zobrist at second, Joyce in right, and Desmond Jennings in left, which could give them an extra win or two.
If you thought that was complicated, the pitching staff is worse. The Rays rotation should actually perform better next season, but their ERAs will likely look significantly worse as some BABiPs, HR rates, and bullpen aid worsen. However, some of that will depend on who they choose to place in the rotation as they have six starters worthy of a spot. If the Rays decide to put Hellickson in the rotation, I think he instantly grabs two extra wins (he only has two now because I’m not sure how many innings he’ll get, though I think they will be significant either way) and becomes the second-best pitcher on the staff. Inserting him in for any of the Rays pitchers, save Price, would be an improvement. Switching over to the bullpen, there’s been a lot of ink spilled over losing Soriano, Balfour, Benoit, and Choate, and they gave the Rays around 4.5 wins. Luckily, the bullpen is the easiest thing to rebuild, and while it may not be elite as it was last season, they can still find enough value to only lose a win or two, especially because I like McGee and Howell (I wish they would have protected Aneury Rodriguez and put him in the bullpen as well, but they can still get him back if the Astros don’t hold on to him, though I find that unlikely).
I don’t think the Rays have lost as much value as most people imagine they have, partly because they may not have been that good last season. They certainly lost a lot of star power, but their player development should help ease the pain. That being said, the Rays need to add a 1B and DH, and until we see who they choose, we won’t really know how to fully judge this team. Otherwise, they have uncertainty in the outfield at least one position (LF but could also add RF if Zobrist moves to 2B), the infield at possibly 3 positions (not Longoria and not Zobrist if he’s at 2B), and in the bullpen.
After looking at the three teams, the order of teams is just as it appeared—Red Sox, Yankees, and Rays. If we subtract 6 wins from each projection (yes, that was highly unscientific, but I’ve seen that FANS projections tend to be 6-10 wins too optimistic and I think I’m more conservative than most), the standings have the Red Sox at 102-60, the Yankees at 95-67, and the Rays at 89-73 (I’m adding 3 wins for the 1B and DH spots), which seems to make the standings more realistic (CAIRO has released an early projection as well–they’re less optimistic about the Yankees). The Red Sox have improved dramatically through some heady moves and better health. The Yankees have stayed more-or-less the same. And the Rays have suffered some setbacks, though they remain fairly strong. I would love to see the Rays be bold and trade several prospects and some decent major-league redundancy (Rodriguez, Niemann, Sonnanstine) to reel in at least one 3-4 win player that still has 3-4 years of control left, but I think they’ll be more conservative. For now, the Yankees appear to be playing for the Wild Card, but A) the Wild Card isn’t a bad thing and B) we still have to play the games.