Tidily enough, the three most active teams of the offseason are also the favorites in each of the three American League divisions. The Red Sox, Indians and Astros this winter have moved decisively to address roster weaknesses and each team was of course working from a high baseline. When good teams make good additions, then you have the makings of great teams.
Obviously, assumptions are hazardous, and it's entirely possible that the three teams name-checked above will all disappoint to varying degrees. Right now though, Boston, Cleveland and Houston look to be the powers of the American League in 2017.
Maybe we'll be light on division-race drama in the season to come, but the AL -- at least at this early juncture -- may provide us with a compelling struggle for league supremacy (not MLB-wide supremacy, as the champion Cubs will certainly have something to say on that). To set the scene for this potential superpower title fight, let's take a quick look at each of these three teams and where they stand heading into 2017 ...
Boston Red Sox
Last season, the Sox won 93 games despite playing one of the toughest schedules around. As well, their impressive run differential of plus-184 scales to a 98-win season, so in that regard they were even better than their actual record.
Most notably, they've added lefty ace Chris Sale to the fold via trade. The long-term cost of acquiring Sale was massive, but there's no doubt that Sale improves the Boston rotation in the near-term by a substantial margin. Already in the Red Sox rotation are $217 million man David Price and reigning AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello. After that, you have Eduardo Rodriguez and Drew Pomeranz with Steven Wright on the roster for depth.
Yes, the Sox bid adieu to David Ortiz, who was legendarily productive in 2016. On the other hand, the AL's best offense in 2016 (Boston scored a whopping 878 runs) will benefit from a full season of Andrew Benintendi in left field. As well, the offseason returns on Pablo Sandoval are looking promising. Hanley Ramirez will shift to DH, and the newly acquired Mitch Moreland will provide the Sox with a substantial defensive upgrade at first base.
As for the bullpen, Joe Kelly has lockdown potential and will likely be in a relief role for the full year. Closer Craig Kimbrel showed meaningful signs of decline last season, but Tyler Thornburg, acquired from the Brewers not long ago, has the stuff and bat-missing results to step into the role if circumstances require it. On another level, free agency is in the midst of taking a big bite out of the Sox's chief division rival in Toronto. Pair one of the best offenses in baseball with such a tremendous rotation, and you have the makings of a 95-plus-win team.
The Indians are of course the reigning AL champs, and they pushed the mighty Cubs to the brink despite a rotation that was in tatters. As for the foundation, the Indians in 2016 won 94 games and they'll be playing an unbalanced schedule against what figures to be a weaker AL Central in 2017.
You know about the rotation. Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin will all be back in 2017, and Salazar and Carrasco will of course be intent on better health. They'll have Andrew Miller in the relief ace role for the full season, and Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw are still around from the right side.
As for the offense -- the Indians are of course known for their pitching -- but last season they quietly ranked second in the AL in runs scored. Most notably, they've signed Edwin Encarnacion to take over at first base, and he'll indeed move the needle for the Cleveland attack. As well, there's also the promise of a healthy Michael Brantley in 2017. Last season, shoulder problems limited Brantley to just 11 games but he is not far removed from a 2014-15 peak that saw him put up an OPS+ of 139 while stealing 38 bases in 40 attempts.
The Indians will once again have one of the best offenses in baseball. Given health, the run-prevention corps should be similarly impressive. It's possible the Indians in 2017 will win their division by the largest margin in all of baseball.
First, the necessary qualifier: The Texas Rangers have won consecutive AL West titles, and they're of course not to be dismissed in 2017. However, the Rangers in 2016 outplayed their run differential by an astounding 13 games. It's not as simple as saying they were wholly lucky last season, but some degree of luck abetted their division title run.
The Astros, meantime, will benefit from a full season of Alex Bregman in 2017, and Carlos Correa's second-half surge bodes well moving forward. Brian McCann is on board to stabilize the catcher role moving forward and Carlos Beltran directly addresses the weak spot at DH. Last season, Houston DHs combined to hit just .218/.299/.378, and Beltran, even going into his age-40 campaign, will almost certainly upgrade those numbers in a big way. Elsewhere, Josh Reddick and Nori Aoki will improve Houston at the outfield corners. Among Yulieski Gurriel, A.J. Reed and Tyler White they can perhaps cobble together solid production from first base.
On the pitching front, the Houston bullpen profiles as one of the best in baseball. The rotation, though, is less certain. The addition of Charlie Morton and his strong groundball tendencies will be a good fit for the Houston infield and its frequent overshifts. Better health for Lance McCullers will also be key. More generally, though, the Astros could be in line for better results from the rotation fronted by 2015 AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel.
Last season, the Houston starting corps ranked a middling eighth in the AL in rotation ERA. However, when you look at fielding-independent pitching (FIP) the Astros' rotation ranked a more impressive fifth in the AL with very little distance between them and the third- and fourth-place rotations. That's significant. FIP is scaled to look like ERA but reflects just those outcomes that have nothing to do with fielding -- i.e., strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed. As such, it's a better measure of raw pitching skill than ERA is. More to the point at hand, it's better at predicting future ERA than is ERA itself. On those grounds, the Astros' rotation should perhaps expect better results in 2017 based on positive regression alone.
The young core of position players plus the upgrade at DH and the outfield corners plus likely better results from the rotation mean the Astros should be one of the best teams in baseball in 2017. The same, as noted, goes for the Red Sox and Indians.
Obviously, baseball is built to defy our expectations, but at this early juncture the AL looks to be a grappling match among the three teams explored herein -- three superpowers, if you will. Such bold pronouncements are subject to change, of course.