Joel Sherman and Ken Davidoff break down the American League for The Post’s 2019 MLB preview. Sherman tackles the AL East and Central, while Davidoff digs into the West.
Over/Under win total: 97
Key player: James Paxton. He was important anyway, but with the loss of Luis Severino for at least a month and the season-opening absence of CC Sabathia as well, Paxton simply can’t be Sonny Gray redux — an AL West ace who flames out in New York. He has the repertoire to pitch at the top of the rotation.
Player who’ll need to step up: Gary Sanchez. A year ago at this time, plenty of Yankees saw Sanchez as the team’s best hitter. The emphasis is on hitter. Because there is little doubt the Yankees will hit homers. But will they be consistently tough outs who defy the game’s best pitching? Sanchez hit .284 in 2016-17 (by comparison, Manny Machado hit .276 and Bryce Harper .278). Last year he batted .186, the worst ever by a Yankee with at least 350 plate appearances. The Yanks did not pursue J.T. Realmuto, doubling down that Sanchez will hit and catch to a high level.
Name you’ll get to know: Deivi Garcia. The 5-foot-10 righty advanced from mostly unknown to Double-A at age 19 last year with a precocious feel. He is in play this year to push as a starting or relief option for the Yankees — or a trade piece come July (Madison Bumgarner, anybody?).
Biggest question mark: The rotation depth will be challenged from the outset with Severino and Sabathia sidelined. Luis Cessa and Domingo German are going to have to hold serve from the mound and Troy Tulowitzki at short until injured players return.
How it’ll go down: The past four champs — Royals, Cubs, Astros and Red Sox — have been built around young, starry, positional cores. The Yankees have such a group. It can be their time.
2. Red Sox
Over/Under win total: 94
Key player: Chris Sale. When healthy, Sale is on the short list for best starter in the majors. But he has not been right late in each of the last two seasons, including two second-half injured list stints for shoulder inflammation last year. The rest of the rotation, with Nathan Eovaldi, Rick Porcello, David Price and Eduardo Rodriguez is strong, but the depth is not, so Sale’s availability is vital.
Player who’ll need to step up: Ryan Brasier. With their payroll already touching the top levels for luxury-tax penalties for the second straight year, the Red Sox decided not to re-sign Craig Kimbrel. That left Boston without an experienced closer. The Red Sox have stated belief in Braiser and Matt Barnes. The ability to become the first repeat champs since the 1998-2000 Yankees hinges on finding the right late-game formula.
Name you’ll get to know: Darwinzon Hernandez. He is a lefty starting pitching prospect who was slated for more minor league seasoning. But his stuff is good enough and the Red Sox bullpen uncertain enough that he could become a factor.
Biggest question mark: Beyond the obvious relief conundrum, the Red Sox will have to avoid the physical/mental letdown that has beset recent champions.
How it’ll go down: Aside from Kimbrel, Boston is returning a championship roster headed by AL MVP Mookie Betts. The Red Sox are good enough to repeat at a time when they are looking at the possibility of free-agent withering — Kimbrel this past offseason, Porcello, Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez possible next offseason and Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. the one after.
Over/Under win total: 84¹/₂
Key player: Charlie Morton. The trailblazers for the “opener” will still use relievers to start this year. But Tampa Bay does have the AL Cy Young winner in Blake Snell, a key July acquisition last year, Tyler Glasnow, and now Morton, whose two-year, $30 million deal is the largest per annum pact ($15 million) in franchise history. There are questions about Morton’s health, but not his stuff. If right, Morton provides a worthy sidekick to Snell.
Player who’ll need to step up: Avisail Garcia. The Rays tried hard for Nelson Cruz and DJ LeMahieu, but secured neither. Tampa spends most of its money and energy on run prevention, but to score enough they will need a breakout or two. Garcia hit .330 with a 138 OPS-plus in 2017, but injury and underperformance led to .236/96 last year. Something in the middle would be a boon for the 2019 Rays.
Name you’ll get to know: Brent Honeywell. He was going to be a factor last year before needing Tommy John surgery. But if his rehab continues apace, the righty could become an instrumental second-half add for the Rays rotation.
Biggest question mark: The Rays masterfully manipulated 14 pitchers to work at least 50 innings each (the third most ever to do that), swatting away credulity that a team could follow such an nontraditional path and succeed over a full season. Can the Rays do it again?
How it’ll go down: The Rays likely will be challenged to score again, but they are really good at preventing runs. A wild card is in play despite sharing a division with the Yankees and Red Sox.
4. Blue Jays
Over/Under win total: 74
Key player: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Has an organization ever been happier for an injury than the oblique strain Guerrero sustained during spring training? Guerrero has to begin the season on the injured list, removing the necessity for the Blue Jays to avoid the service-manipulation lies that were going to come when they began with arguably the majors’ best prospect in the minors. Still, with Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion now all gone, Toronto has fully flipped the page to next — and next for this franchise begins with the impact-hitting third-base prospect.
Player who’ll need to step up: Aaron Sanchez. The righty won the 2016 AL ERA title and in the two ineffective, injury-devastated seasons since has a 4.72 ERA in 28 starts. A healthy, productive Sanchez would give the rebuilding Blue Jays a sizable July trade chip.
Name you’ll get to know: Bo Bichette. Guerrero is not the only son of a former big-league star likely to debut this season. The Blue Jays signed Freddy Galvis to be a shortstop placeholder until Dante Bichette’s son is ready.
Biggest question mark: Will the roots of a rebuild be firmly planted this year with Guerrero, Bichette, catcher Danny Jansen and outfielder Anthony Alford providing better belief in the near future?
How it’ll go down: They will not be as bad as the Orioles — that is probably true of all 29 other teams. But being in a division with the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays will probably create an ugly won-loss record that only could be tolerated if Guerrero and a few other youngsters deliver hope.
Over/Under win total: 58
Key player: Mike Elias. The new GM was part of the Astros front office that endured 224 losses from 2011-13 as part of the tank that slowly evolved into a champion. He will try the same now with the Orioles, who begin with even less talent than Houston did. A year ago at this time, Baltimore at least had Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop, Kevin Gausman, Brad Brach and Zack Britton. The best remaining trade piece is probably reliever Mychal Givens.
Player who’ll need to step up: Alex Cobb. Can he pitch well enough so that the Orioles have a chance to off-load as much of the three years and $43 million left on his contract as possible — and potentially net a prospect or two?
Name you’ll get to know: Ryan Mountcastle. He is a flawed prospect because scouts have big doubts whether Mountcastle possesses the fluidity and arm to remain at third base. But his bat is good, and in this organization, Mountcastle provides at least a few dollops of optimism.
Biggest question mark: Can they lose more than last year when they had a franchise-record 115 defeats? Remember that team had Machado, Gausman, Schoop etc. for at least half a season.
How it’ll go down: They will draft first and pretty much everything else will be last.
Over/Under win total: 84¹/₂
Key player: Byron Buxton. He won a Gold Glove and got MVP votes in 2017, yet plummeted so far last year he wound up back in the minors. He has All-Star potential, but has never put those skills together for a full season. He is still only 25.
Player who’ll need to step up: Jose Berrios. In his first two full seasons, Berrios has been good. He has the talent for even more. The Twins’ weakness is in rotation depth and excellence. If Berrios rises closer to a true No. 1, Minnesota’s problems become smaller.
Name you’ll get to know: Royce Lewis. In the shortstop plus outfielder Alex Kirilloff, Minnesota has two of the game’s best prospects. Neither might make the majors in 2019 — but they are getting ever closer.
Biggest question mark: Have the power problems been solved? The Twins managed just 62 homers from righty batters last year (second fewest in the majors). They added Tyler Austin at last year’s trade deadline, and then this offseason Nelson Cruz, C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop and switch-hitter Marwin Gonzalez. There might be questions about defensive fallout, but they should have a lot more righty power.
How it’ll go down: The Indians have won the division the past three years and are favored to do so again. But Cleveland has enough shortcomings in the bullpen and outfield to provide an avenue to be overtaken. Are the Twins ready to be that team?
Over/Under win total: 91¹/₂
Key player: Tyler Naquin. You can really pick any Indians outfielder or two — Bradley Zimmer, Leonys Martin, Jordan Luplow, Jake Bauers, Greg Allen and Carlos Gonzalez. With Michael Brantley gone, the Indians do not have a clear above-average performer. Can one emerge — such as Naquin — or can manager Terry Francona mix and match enough to provide competence or better?
Player who’ll need to step up: Adam Cimber. Injury and/or ineffectiveness devastated the previous dynamic duo of Andrew Miller and Cody Allen last year. Both left as free agents. That makes Brad Hand the closer with lots of questions about how the ball gets from the superb rotation to Hand’s, well, hand. Cimber was obtained with Hand from San Diego last year and was not nearly as effective with Cleveland. Can he provide eighth-inning stability for a pen in which the best returning member is — drum roll — Oliver Perez?
Name you’ll get to know: Triston McKenzie. The next link to try to keep the Indians rotation a powerhouse.
Biggest question mark: Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez are elite, but does Cleveland have enough around them to generate a consistently strong offense?
How it’ll go down: The Indians have the pedigree in this division, and 57 games against the Royals, White Sox and Tigers provide a buffet to feast upon. Do they have an offense and pen worthy of that rotation?
Over/Under win total: 69
Key player: Jorge Soler. The Royals have tried to emphasize speed this year and will be hard-pressed when it comes to power. Soler is among the few potential places Kansas City can get power now and into the future.
Player who’ll need to step up: Billy Hamilton. He was signed to play center and fuel the speed strategy. But — just like with the Reds — the question will be whether he can get on base enough to fully exploit his legs.
Name you’ll get to know: Daniel Lynch. The Royals received plaudits for their four-pitcher haul in the first 40 draft picks last June, and if there is to be a quick return to contention for Kansas City, it would be about this quartet. None excited scouts more after turning pro than the lefty Lynch.
Biggest question mark: Where are the building blocks? Aside from the double-play combination of Adalberto Mondesi and Whit Merrifield, there are no position players who clearly project to be part of the next contending Royal team.
How it’ll go down: Success for Kansas City will be if those 2018 drafted pitchers continue a positive matriculation while the Royals run out the ill-advised contracts to Alex Gordon (after this season) and Ian Kennedy (after next year).
4. White Sox
Over/Under win total: 73
Key player: Yoan Moncada. There were two key pieces the White Sox received in trading Chris Sale to the Red Sox. Michael Kopech had Tommy John surgery and will miss this season. Moncada is coming off a season in which he hit .235 with 217 strikeouts. Can he make enough quality contact to capitalize on his power and speed combo and become a White Sox cornerstone?
Player who’ll need to step up: Lucas Giolito. The key part of the return for Adam Eaton to the Nationals, Giolito — a top-10 prospect in 2015-16 — battled his control to a 6.13 ERA in his first full major league season in 2018.
Name you’ll get to know: Eloy Jimenez. Arguably the majors’ best power prospect. His arrival is imminent. Can he begin to change the losing narrative around the White Sox?
Biggest question mark: Who joins Jimenez as part of the everyday core? Both Moncada and shortstop Tim Anderson have underwhelmed while Jose Abreu is 32 and entering his walk year.
How it’ll go down: There are scenarios in which enough high-end talent hits simultaneously and Chicago has a pleasantly surprising season. But the White Sox have the majors’ worst record over the last six seasons and there are atmospheric/leadership issues that need to be surmounted as well.
Over/Under win total: 67¹/₂
Key player: Nick Castellanos. Did you know Castellanos has a 121 OPS-plus over the last three seasons, which is better than Francisco Lindor (118) and J.T. Realmuto (118)? He also is a free agent after this season, so he currently stands as the rebuilding Tigers’ best trade chip.
Player who’ll need to step up: Matt Boyd. He graduated last year to a sturdy, league-average starter. Is there another level? With Michael Fulmer needing Tommy John surgery and the other piece besides Boyd from the 2015 David Price trade, Daniel Norris, not performing well, Boyd is the rare current Tiger with a chance to be part of Detroit’s next good team.
Name you’ll get to know: Casey Mize. The No. 1-overall pick last season joins Beau Burrows, Matt Manning and Franklin Perez in what the Tigers hope will be their rotation of the near future.
Biggest question mark: Detroit owes Jordan Zimmermann $50 million over the next two years and, more importantly, Miguel Cabrera $162 million over the next five. Can the Tigers get any benefits from the declining, expensive veterans or is it just an uncomfortable dance into the near future until they have to release one and/or the other and eat a lot of money?
How it’ll go down: The Tigers won’t have the AL’s most losses. But that is because the Orioles are in the league as opposed to any 2019 positive possibilities.
Over/Under win total: 96¹/₂
Key player: Justin Verlander. With the departure of two starting pitchers (Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton) to free agency and a third (Lance McCullers Jr.) to Tommy John surgery, the Astros will deploy a top-heavy starting rotation, and the 36-year-old Verlander, having signed a two-year extension rather than enter free agency for the first time this coming winter, will be counted on to produce another ace-level campaign.
Player who’ll need to step up: Carlos Correa. Honesty alert: This roster is so deep and talented that it can withstand considerable misfortune and underachievement. So Correa gets tagged with this label because he registered the most disappointing 2018 and possesses the most room for a rebound. Back and oblique problems plagued him last year. Remarkably, he’s still only 24.
Name you’ll get to know: Kyle Tucker, selected three slots behind his teammate Alex Bregman in the 2015 amateur draft, looks ready to receive some action if either corner outfielder (Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick) or DH Tyler White get hurt. The Astros have turned down countless trade proposals for him.
Biggest question mark: The starting rotation. Is there enough beyond Verlander and Gerrit Cole? They’re counting on former Met Collin McHugh to convert back from the bullpen and veteran Wade Miley to continue his revival started last season with Milwaukee.
How it’ll go down: Thanks to their loaded lineup, a solid bullpen and a lack of quality competition, the Astros will win their third straight division title, matching their three-peat from 1997 through 1999 (when they resided in the NL Central).
Over/Under win total: 82¹/₂
Key player: Cody Allen. The longtime stellar Indians closer fell off a cliff last year, his platform season, and the Angels bought low on him with a one-year contract. This team, its starting rotation less than inspiring, will need a strong bullpen to attain its goals.
Player who’ll need to step up: Zack Cozart gave the Angels close to nothing last season, the first of his three-year, $38 million contract, as he suffered a serious left shoulder injury that kept him out of action after June 13. It would aid the Angels greatly if he earned his keep.
Name you’ll get to know: Griffin Canning, in only his second season of professional ball, could be ready to help the rotation by season’s end. He struck out 64 batters over 59 innings once he reached Triple-A Salt Lake last year.
Biggest question mark: Yup, the starting rotation. Can old pal Matt Harvey build on his modest Reds rebound after the Mets banished him, or will he get distracted by his proximity to Los Angeles? Can Trevor Cahill sustain his 2018 renaissance with the A’s? Can Andrew Heaney, set to begin the season on the injured list, work through his current pitching elbow woes? Can anyone approach 200 innings or 200 strikeouts?
How it’ll go down: Despite employing perennial AL MVP candidate Mike Trout, who has signed an extension that should keep him in Anaheim for the rest of his career, and reigning AL Rookie of the Year Shohei Ohtani (who will only hit this season as he rehabilitates from Tommy John surgery) the Angels will fall short of the postseason once again with new manager Brad Ausmus.
Over/Under win total: 82
Key player: Matt Chapman led the A’s unlikely 2018 charge to an AL wild-card slot, and logic dictates he’ll need another monster season for these guys to dive back into the mix, all the more so with his fellow young stud Matt Olson suffering a significant right hand injury in Japan.
Player who’ll need to step up: The A’s took a shot on Marco Estrada in the free-agent market after he registered a terrible 2018 season (5.64 ERA) with the Blue Jays. Oakland must see something in the 35-year-old to entrust him with a spot in its starting rotation. Or it might just be that desperate for starting pitching help.
Name you’ll get to know: Jesus Luzardo ranks as “the top left-handed pitching prospect in the game,” according to MLB.com, but the 21-year-old, who made it all the way to Triple-A Nashville last season, suffered a left shoulder injury in camp. If he gets healthy, he’ll get a chance.
Biggest question mark: Can the A’s duplicate the amazing fortune they experienced last year? They vastly overachieved, simply enough, because so many of their players — from young to old — recorded peak performances. Considerable regression appears virtually unavoidable. The A’s must nevertheless determine how to avoid that.
How it’ll go down: Yeah, it’s just quite difficult to envision Oakland registering consecutive miracle seasons, even in the extremely watered-down AL. The A’s could stay in contention thanks to their impressive lineup, deep bullpen and weak opposition, yet their rotation seems like the probable downfall. This doesn’t look like the year for celebrated head of baseball operations Billy Beane to reach his first World Series.
Over/Under win total: 73¹/₂
Key player: Mitch Haniger stands alone as the future face of this franchise. The M’s took a major step back as they traded every veteran player with value, and they’re counting on the 28-year-old outfielder, who has only two-plus years of service, to still be around when the next contention run comes.
Player who’ll need to step up: A three-way tie among Jay Bruce, Edwin Encarnacion and Dee Gordon, all of whom become trade candidates the moment they show any flash of past greatness. If all three are off the roster by Aug. 1, then that could make this a successful Mariners season in the macro sense.
Name you’ll get to know: Yusei Kikuchi inspired a modest bidding war among major league teams after the Seibu Lions posted him, and his match with Seattle served as a surprise given the Mariners’ offseason teardown. Now the left-hander becomes part of the M’s buildup.
Biggest question mark: Is trade-happy general manager Jerry DiPoto the man to lead this organization to its first postseason berth since 2001? He earned a midseason extension last year, when the Mariners surged to a fast start, only to see the club trip and fall out of the playoff race. Now he’s taking a step back with the hopes of reboot in a few years.
How it’ll go down: At least Kikuchi will be interesting to watch, and the Mariners will be in the center of many trade rumors as they try to continue shedding payroll. All in all, however, the forecast calls for a downer and an 18th straight season, most of any major North American sports franchise, without a postseason invitation.
Over/Under win total: 71
Key player: Joey Gallo. He ranks fourth in home runs (81) the last two seasons combined, yet he remains a very unfinished product, a poor man’s Adam Dunn. If the 25-year-old can ever supplement his power with patience and contact, then he could be a franchise player.
Player who’ll need to step up: When we last saw Lance Lynn, he was enjoying a modest reboot in Yankees pinstripes before pitching poorly in the postseason. The Rangers saw enough in him to invest $30 million over three years. With the club badly in need of starting pitching, he can help scratch that itch by looking more like his old Cardinals self and less like the guy who stunk it up with the Twins last year.
Name you’ll get to know: Jonathan Hernandez could be part of the starting pitching solution as soon as this year if he fixes the command issues that plagued him last season with Double-A Frisco.
Biggest question mark: Who and what will define this team as it prepares to move to a new ballpark in 2020? The impressive run of contention, with a 163rd game or better six times between 2010 and 2016, has ended. Future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre has retired. The young talent in the majors is underwhelming. Can rookie manager Chris Woodward develop a team character as it leaves Globe Life Park?
How it’ll go down: Quietly, with a second straight last-place finish. This season will be all about building for the future, both internally (player talent) and externally (the new stadium). Fans will just have to hope for better times ahead.