When the Indians and Red Sox squared off in the American League Division Series last October, it was a confrontation between two division winners who had made big strides since the previous year.AL Central champion Cleveland jumped from 81 to 94 wins, while AL East champion Boston increased from 78
When the Indians and Red Sox squared off in the American League Division Series last October, it was a confrontation between two division winners who had made big strides since the previous year.
AL Central champion Cleveland jumped from 81 to 94 wins, while AL East champion Boston increased from 78 to 93. The Tribe swept the series and kept its incredible run going all the way until Game 7 of the World Series.
Might there be a club that enjoys a similar upturn in fortunes in 2017, rising to the top of its division?
Here is a look at four candidates, each of them AL teams that won fewer than 85 games last year and fell short of the postseason.
2016: 84-78, 3rd place, 11 games behind Rangers
The Astros made a big leap two years ago, progressing from 70 to 86 wins and claiming a Wild Card spot. While they couldn't maintain that trend in 2016, they are an obvious choice to improve once again this coming season. Houston has moved aggressively to make that happen, adding Josh Reddick, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann to a lineup that could also benefit from getting full seasons out of Alex Bregman and Yulieski Gurriel. But the factor that could determine whether the Astros win their first division title since 2001 -- when they were still in the National League Central -- is what happens at the top of their starting rotation. Rumors involving Jose Quintana and other top-line starters have not materialized, which puts more pressure on 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel to bounce back and 23-year-old Lance McCullers to step up.
As it is, the Steamer projection system has the Astros pegged for 90 wins -- a six-game spike -- so the math is on their side.
Los Angeles Angels
2016: 74-88, 4th place, 21 games behind Rangers
The Halos saw their win total drop by double digits for the second straight year, despite another fantastic campaign from Michael Trout, who took the AL MVP Award. This offseason, general manager Billy Eppler has addressed a couple of major trouble spots by acquiring second baseman Danny Espinosa from the Nationals and left fielder Cameron Maybin from the Tigers, and infielder Luis Valbuena was a savvy free-agent pickup. Those three all should help, but the Angels remain a team capable of a wide range of outcomes. Much depends on a pitching staff that struggled last year amid a slew of injuries, two of which led Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano to Tommy John surgery. Can Tyler Skaggs and Garrett Richards -- who chose to rehab his own partially torn ulnar collateral ligament -- join Matthew Shoemaker in headlining a vastly improved rotation? The possibility leans heavily on enjoying a much healthier season.
New York Yankees
2016: 84-78, 4th place, 9 games behind Red Sox
The Yankees have gone four straight seasons without winning the AL East, a drought that appears likely to be extended for at least another year as the club retools with some younger talent. But it's conceivable that the process could accelerate. Expecting catcher Gary Sanchez to repeat his mind-boggling rookie numbers would be overly optimistic, but Sanchez, right field prospect Aaron Judge and 24-year-old first baseman Greg Bird (who missed 2016 due to injury) are capable of giving the lineup a jolt, along with veteran free agent Matthew Holliday. Re-signing Albertin Chapman to pair with Dellin Betances once again gives manager Joe Girardi a lights-out back end of his bullpen, and a loaded farm system is set up to provide either reinforcements or bait for a Trade Deadline deal.
Kansas City Royals
2016: 81-81, 3rd place, 13 1/2 games behind Indians
Does this championship-winning Royals core have at least one more good run in it before several members reach free agency? Full seasons from third baseman Mike Moustakas (27 games last year) and center fielder Lorenzo Cain (103) would help, as would a rebound from left fielder Alex Gordon (.692 OPS). Trade acquisitions Jorge Soler and Nathan Karns have some upside, and Kelvin Herrera can step in for Wade Davis in the ninth inning, while young Matt Strahm builds on a stellar debut. Danny Duffy, who recently signed an extension, flashed top-of-the-rotation production in 2016, and he along with Ian Kennedy will be relied on more than ever to lead the rotation after the tragic passing of Yordano Ventura. With Cain, Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Alcides Escobar set for free agency next offseason, there should be a sense of urgency in K.C.
Andrew Simon is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.