We're looking for the season from a player that's most likely to correlate directly with the success of his team. As goes (player), so goes (player's team). If you look up in September, and this player is having a good season, his team is probably having a good season. The reverse is also true. Lousy seasons for the individual beget lousy seasons for everyone.
No one man should have all that power. The good news is there isn't a single player who does. There are ways for the Angels to make the playoffs even if Mike Trout is fighting Galactus somewhere in space. Still, if a team's season goes north or south, and this player is thriving or struggling, you will not be surprised in the slightest at the correlation.
Here are the bellwether players of the AL East:
Boston Red Sox - Rick Porcello
This is possibly the most obvious choice for any team in either league. The Red Sox don't have an established ace, and they're aware of it.
Here is Wade Miley modeling new t-shirts pic.twitter.com/ikcfE25fqK— Rob Bradford (@bradfo) March 5, 2015
All of the starting pitchers were wearing that shirt. Ha ha, that's adorable. It's also TERRIFYING because, my word, aces are usually something a contending team should have. It's like a team of 5'8" basketball players with "I'M WITH SHORTY" shirts that make you giggle until you realize ... wait a sec.
Ah, but for that analogy to ring completely true, all of the Red Sox pitchers would have to be wholly incapable of ace-dom. That's not the case, and just to make sure, the person pitching that day will wear a short that reads "I'm the ace". Justin Masterson has been one in the past, Wade Miley was close in his rookie season, Clay Buchholz has shown extended flashes in his career, Joe Kelly predicted he'd win the Cy Young in 2015, and Rick Porcello was excellent just last year. It's the latter who has the best chance of leading the rotation for the Red Sox this year, if not future years.
Just imagine how giddy Porcello is.
Rick Porcello: Alright, whoa, way to go! Atta boy! Great job! What was that thing you did back there?
Pablo Sandoval: Moved 18 inches to my left, stuck my glove out, and made an accurate throw.
Porcello: Wild! Absolutely wild!
More than anyone in this series, Porcello's fortunes being tethered with his team makes sense. If he pitches as well as last year, or even better, the Red Sox are probably rolling. If he's a mess, that means that Buchholz and Masterson had better make up the difference, and it's a slippery slope from there.
Baltimore Orioles - Chris Davis
It was a busy offseason for the Orioles. They had to figure out the promotional schedule, introduce new concessions, plan a team-building exercise for the sales team ... really, they were swamped. Along the way, they forgot to make a single addition of note to help the starting lineup or rotation. Where does the offseason go, where does the offseason go?
As such, it's on the incumbents to get better. Ubaldo Jimenez pitching like the $50 million (!) pitcher he was supposed to be would be like a free agent signing, in a way. Where they were dreadful last year, they would be productive this year. The same goes for Chris Davis, perhaps doubly so. The Orioles can win -- and are planning to -- with Jimenez out of the rotation, but they'll have a much tougher time if Davis can't crack the Mendoza Line again.
Davis doesn't have to hit 53 homers again, but a return to his 2012 form would be welcome, if not necessary, for a Orioles team hoping to repeat as AL East champions. He's starting the season in the penalty box because of stimulant use, but he'll be right in the middle of the order soon enough. After Davis, the rest of the Orioles' lineup looks like this until Matt Wieters gets back:
Question mark, question mark, steady-if-unspectacular, question mark, question mark. The Orioles can't have another question mark fumbling in the dark before they get to that sketchy patch of the lineup. They were one of the best offensive teams in baseball without Davis doing much last year, but that was like performing a dangerous archery trick while wearing a blindfold. If it's all the same to you, the person with the apple in his mouth would probably prefer to not have a blindfold involved.
Tampa Bay Rays - Steven Souza
The Rays pitched well enough to contend last year, but they had a below-average offense, though, and you need some serious faith in park effects to give them that much credit. They spent the offseason trading offense away.
With Ben Zobrist and Wil Myers gone, the Rays are counting an awful lot on Souza, who will probably hit fifth or sixth. He'll be sandwiched between James Loney, a known quantity, and Kevin Kiermaier, who's something of an unknown quantity still, considering he hit much better than expected in his rookie season. Souza needs to hit if the Rays are going to take advantage of a rotation that's still stuffed with talent.
Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projection is dubious.
.228 batting average, .304 on-base percentage, .396 slugging percentage, 15 home runs
Fans are optimistic!
.267 BA, .352 OBP, .444 SLG, 18 home runs
It took Souza seven years to reach even Triple-A, where he hit better than he ever had at any level. His previous two seasons were excellent -- especially his time in the pitcher-friendly Eastern League -- but the projection systems are still wary of the early career and average plate discipline from a player who wasn't young for his league. If the Rays are going to surprise, they'll need a lot of things. They'll need a combination of Evan Longoria bouncing back, Asdrubal Cabrera having a good season, Desmond Jennings breaking out, excellent pitching ... there are permutations that get them near the top of the division.
But they'll also need at least one more thumper in the middle of the lineup, and they're probably not holding out hope that Loney is their guy. Souza is their best chance.
Toronto Blue Jays - Drew Hutchison
Drew Hutchison might have the most anonymous name in baseball. Is he a fourth-round outfielder out of Stanford with a limited ceiling? A generic sinker/slider reliever? He's probably a utility infielder. He sounds like all of those things. When Drew Hutchison doesn't want to be bothered when he's on the road, he checks into his hotel as "Drew Hutchison."
(He's a starting pitcher for the Blue Jays. Noted.)
The Blue Jays have boom and bust throughout their entire rotation, with old-timers who might be a year too late and youngsters who might be a year too early. Hutchinson is the middle ground, then. He wasn't awful last year, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio suggests he can be much better. He was electric as a 20-year-old mowing through the Midwest and Florida Leagues, but then injuries futzed things up, as they so often do. Last season was something of a learning year, a take-yer-lumps experience that built character and experience in preparation for this year.
The Blue Jays can still contend if there's a disappointment or two in the rotation, but they'll need some stability, too. They'll probably get it from one of the veterans, and they'll hopefully get it from one of the prospects, too. A little support from Hutchison, who is like the veteran of Blue Jays prospects, would be something of a best-case scenario.
New York Yankees - Alex Rodriguez
If the Yankees are going to spend their time trolling you, they're not going to do it half-assed. They will be unrepentantly full-assed. This ... this makes sense.
He's not even in the starting lineup to start the season, at least not on paper. Garrett Jones will be the DH against righties, which is to say most of the time. Chase Headley is making many millions to not be Alex Rodriguez, a job he's handled exceptionally well for his entire life. The Yankees would probably prefer to bury A-Rod at the bottom of the bench, with Jones and Headley playing well enough to make the decision easy and defensible. The ridiculous contract becomes unfathomably ridiculous with incentives, and that would be the best way to avoid them.
The Yankees expect to contend, even though their top three pitchers might have one working shoulder and elbow between them. You know they'll contend. You've seen this show before. It's in syndication, and it's on every time you turn on the danged TV. It's the Big Bang Theory of baseball, and you keep reminding yourself that millions of people actually enjoy it. The Yankees will troll, and they'll do it with ... Chris Capuano? Sure, Chris Capuano, a soft-tossing fly-ball lefty who seems like the worst possible fit for Yankee Stadium. Of course they will.
They'll do it with A-Rod, too. Someone will get hurt, and he'll start hitting. He'll start hitting even though he's rusty, even though he's achy, even though he's old. When he's hitting his 30th homer and the Yankees are in first place in August, remember this article. Remember it and share it through social media.
Or A-Rod will crumble into dust and the Yankees will crumble into dust, and the spell will lift and the forest animals will sing, and everything will return to how it was before Derek Jeter's calm eyes came along.
Either way is fine with me, to be honest. I'll start prewriting for either outcome, just to be sure.