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The 5 players in the AL East who matter the most

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Sluggers! Starters! And everything in between. These are the players who will be most responsible for how their teams fare in 2017.

St Louis Cardinals v New York Yankees Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

Hello, this is the last installment of the most important/impactful/notable/what-have-you players of the AL East. While it might appear to the untrained eye that I’m trying to sneak this final installment in on a Friday afternoon, that’s just because you don’t understand web strategy and content analytics. This has been a very popular series.

Alright, fine, it’s basically an excuse to talk about 30 interesting players without writing, “Here are 30 players I wanted to talk about.” You can find the NL West here, the NL Central here, the NL East here, the AL West here, and the AL Central here. Don’t stay up all night reading the whole series, kids, ha ha.

Anyway, the idea is that these players will be a window into the hopes and dreams of their respective teams. If they’re struggling in July, their teams are likely to be struggling. If they’re thriving, their teams are on the right track.

Here are the players who matter the most in the AL East:

Baltimore Orioles — Chris Tillman

Is it a cop out to suggest that the most important and crucial piece to a team’s postseason puzzle is their best pitcher because he has shoulder problems? Yes. But, friends, I’m not sure if you’ve seen how the Orioles’ pitching staff is constructed.

Let’s use the analogy of a building. A nice, simple dwelling. Tillman is the roof, protector of everything inside, defense against weather and other nasties. He is absolutely essential. Right now there’s a hole in it.

On the Orioles’ 40-man roster, they have a lot of newspaper. It’s not wet and soggy yet, but that’s what happens to newspaper when the weather comes, and they’ll be forced to cram it into various holes when the forecast changes. Just jabbing a bunch of newspaper into huge chasms on a roof they can’t afford to fix.

Thinking Ubaldo Jimenez is a rowdy golden retriever trying to catch a moth near an open-flame lantern in this analogy, but I’ll workshop it later.

They need Tillman back, and they need him healthy. The Orioles are sitting atop the AL East right now, and they’re doing it about how you would expect, with dingers and strong late-game bullpen work. But when Wade Miley starts allowing runs, and if Kevin Gausman and Jimenez don’t turn things around, the rotation’s hopes will be on Tillman. Which is to say, the team’s hopes are on him. Building a homer-happy, all-or-nothing lineup is great, but only as long as it’s not supporting a homer-happy, nothing-or-nothing pitching staff.

Boston Red Sox — Mitch Moreland*

Mitch Moreland is seemingly one of the least important members of a strong lineup. If he succeeds, he would be found money, a completely unexpected windfall for a team that didn’t necessarily need one. And, look at that, he’s demolishing baseballs, leading the American League in doubles and slashing .351/.431/.579. The Red Sox aren’t even bothering to platoon him right now, he’s so hot.

However, be careful about the idea that a team can afford to go cheap with a position because the rest of their roster is so strong. All it takes is one injury here, and one disappointment there, and suddenly that’s not the 1-through-9 that danced with sugar plums in your head. There are holes and soft spots. And if/when that happens, if Moreland is the Moreland of old, he’ll be another soft spot, except playing at a position that’s traditionally supposed to provide most of the power.

Put it this way: If Moreland decided to retire right now — just leave and open an antique store — his 2017 season would be the second-most valuable of his eight-season career. He isn’t quite to 1 WAR for the season, which would be the second time in his career, but he’s close. This suggests that there might be a little regression coming.

If it doesn’t, or if it isn’t especially violent, the Red Sox are probably winning a lot of games. For all we know, they could have spied a simple fix for Moreland’s swing or approach, and they got him for what he could be, not what he has been.

If they just hoped they could make do with him at first and let the rest of the lineup make up the difference, though, there are a lot of ways to second guess their offseason decision to hand the job to him on the cheap.

* It’s really David Price, but that would read like the Chris Tillman section, except with a very nice condo for the analogy and a competent HOA.

New York Yankees — CC Sabathia

In this odd era of newfangled Yankees austerity, the former big-market bullies are relying on what they have on hand. They can’t, or refuse, to go out and get the modern equivalent of CC Sabathia. They have to keep driving the one they got years ago with 170,000 miles on it.

So it would help an awful lot if that old workhorse was quietly excellent again. After three painful, expensive seasons in which Sabathia was competent at best, a drag on the team at worst, he came back and had a fine 2016. That likely has to do, at least in part, with him confronting his personal demons and a fresh mental slate, which is inspiring. In simple baseball terms, though, the Yankees had a solid starting pitcher, and that’s exactly what they needed.

They need that again. Through three starts, they’ve had one, with Sabathia pitching about as well as could possibly be expected. The 36-year-old is something of a quiet Hall of Fame candidate, and a couple more outstanding seasons at the back of his career could make a huge difference. While that’s nice, the Yankees just care that they have something more than a warm body to support with their homers and large young sports participants.

Sabathia has been much more than a warm body. He’s been a revelation in this third stage of his career. If he keeps rolling, so will the Yankees.

And don’t forget, he can always call for help if he needs it:

sabathia

Tampa Bay Rays — The whole danged lineup

There’s no sense picking one. The Rays clearly have a type, or an idea of what they want their low-cost roster to look like. Corey Dickerson is young and athletic, and he has a ton of power. Brad Miller is young and athletic, and he has a ton of power. Steven Souza is young and athletic, and he has a ton of power. Derek Norris is young and ... has a ton of power.

A couple of them need to pan out, then. At least a couple. The pitching should be strong, both in the rotation and the bullpen, but if they aren’t overwhelmingly dominant, they’ll need the lineup to chip in. This was the scenario last year, and, well, it didn’t turn out so well.

It was A. Bartlett Giamatti who probably said, “The definition of insanity is to keep using that stupid quote about the definition of insanity,” so I can’t really fault the Rays for trying again. Dickerson is probably better than he was last year. That goes for Souza, too. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that both of them are thriving early in the season — it’s not like the Rays pick their names out of a hat.

If the Rays are going to win, they won’t need to outslug the other team. They’ll just need to slug enough to support their pitchers, who will be busy de-slugging the other team, in theory.

(And if you’re upset that I’m not picking a single player, fine, it’s Souza. The Rays picked him as their return for Wil Myers, and it’s far too easy to dwell on what they could have had instead. If he keeps playing like this, though, there will be a lot less dwelling.)

Toronto Blue Jays — Jose Bautista

“Remember all that stuff you did for us? Do it again, but more of it.”

That’s not exactly what the Blue Jays said when they brought Bautista back but not Edwin Encarnacion, but it was close. The vaunted lineup of death from the end of 2015 became the less-vaunted lineup of “Say, is that Justin Smoak?” so quickly, we haven’t had time to process it. The Blue Jays still have talent in their lineup, but they’re relying on Troy Tulowitzki, who is frequently injured, and Josh Donaldson, who is currently injured.

They’ll need Bautista, then, if not at full strength, than at the strength he showed for much of last season. What they certainly don’t need is for Bautista to crumble into a sad pile of memories and regret, and if there’s a scariest part of the Blue Jays’ 3-12 start, it’s that he’s hitting .109/.242/.145. On one hand, that’s over 66 plate appearances. On the other hand, .109/.242/.145. That’s appalling.

The Blue Jays were able to get Bautista back without messing up their future, so it’s a little over-dramatic to suggest this has ramifications for subsequent seasons, but it’s another reminder that the fun dinger-mashing Blue Jays of late ‘15 aren’t coming back, at least in their funnest possible form. They’ve built a rotation that could contend, in theory, in the meantime, so not all is lost. They’ll need to thump a little bit like they used to, though, and they’ll have to count on a 36-year-old slugger to do a lot of that thumping.

It’s ... not going well. I reached out for comment, but I haven’t heard back.

I never do.

If you know a Blue Jays fan, bake them some zucchini bread or something. The season just started, but it sure is getting late in the season.