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Division favorites preview: Cleveland and Houston loom large

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And the shortest guy is the scariest one.

World Series - Chicago Cubs v Cleveland Indians - Game Seven
“He’s good at baseball” — Bryan Joiner
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

We’ve covered the other teams in the division, but Boston face obstacles all across the American League this season, not just their purported backyard. Here are two teams who could give the co-World Series favorite Red Sox problems this season, per Baseball Prospectus’ projected standings.

Cleveland Indians

Last year’s runners-up not only dispatched the Red Sox in three games in the ALDS, they improved in the offseason, adding former Toronto slugger Edwin Encarnación to bolster their already potent lineup. For their efforts, they have the second-highest AL win total in Baseball Prospectus’ adjusted standings, with a record of 92-70. This is two games better than Boston, but perhaps in a nod to the Sox’ huge fan base, the Indians have slightly worse odds to win it all.

This team is ferocious. They’re ably led by Terry Francona, with whom you might be familiar, and who is surely headed for the Hall of Fame as a manager. Yes, the Indians blew a 3-1 lead in last year’s World Series, but losing three straight to those Cubs is nothing of which to be ashamed.

Still hurts though, I bet.

The Indians are led by Corey Kluber, who probably should have won last year’s Cy Young Award over Rick Porcello, and who is one of the two or three best pitchers in the AL. Fortunately for Boston, the other two contenders for that title, Chris Sale and David Price, sit atop their rotation but with Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar behind Kluber, Cleveland’s top three starters are a match for that of nearly every other team in baseball.

On top of this, their bullpen boasts the certifiably great Andrew Miller in a flex role before also-pretty-rad closer Cody Allen. Francona’s skill in managing the bullpen, by eschewing traditional “setup” and even “closer” roles, helps him greatly in the era of the power reliever. He was willing to learn new things in a way Buck Showalter was not, and it makes Cleveland very dangerous.

On offense, Encarnación headlines a lineup that was perfectly strong without him and becomes abjectly terrifying now that he’s there. Rotochamp predicts that Michael Brantley, who could win an MVP with a career year on a great team, could bat sixth behind Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, Francisco freaking Lindor, Encarnación and Jose Ramirez. In this case, Yan Gomes, Tyler Naquin and Lonnie Chisenhall could fill out the lineup.

That is nasty. With BP predicting the AL Central to be generally weaker than the AL East, there’s a good chance Cleveland could have home-field advantage in the playoffs and finally, blissfully, have it all the way through, no matter who won the All-Star Game.

Houston Astros

Houston Astros v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Half man, all amazing.
Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The Astros, however, could spoil all of it. BP predicts the Astros to finish a 93-69, first place in the AL. Nice. They wouldn’t have true home field advantage -- BP sees the Dodgers at 99-63! -- but there are real reasons to think this could be Houston’s year, even if I’m a little skeptical.

Still, I know that José Altuve is a miracle on earth. It is easy to compare him to Isaiah Thomas, so I will, though I believe Altuve is better, having done it longer. He hit .338/.396/.531 last season with 216 hits, 24 home runs, 30 steals, one batting title and a third-place MVP finish. He’s not Mike Trout, but on any given day he can be the best player of the game.

He is far from the only stud in the lineup. Carlos Beltran, Josh Redick and Brian McCann join a lineup that already boasted Carlos Correa, George Springer, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel. That’s pretty good, and that’s before you wonder how good they’d be if they hadn’t let J.D. Martinez walk three years ago. Analysis: That was a bad idea, but that was then and this is now.

Grading on a curve against the Cleveland and Boston rotations, I’ll call the rotation “fine.” It’s deeper than those two, but if 2016 Dallas Keuchel shows up there could be bad news. He’s followed by Lance McCullers and Colin McHugh, with Mike Fiers, Charlie Morton, Chris Devenski and Joe Musgrave waiting in the wings. See? Fine. The bulllpen is ably led by Ken Giles and Luke Gregerson, and holy crap do I not care about the Houston pitching staff, much love to them all, so I’m going to stop now.

I have my reasons. I think Cleveland is a bigger threat to the Red Sox than Houston, but in fairness to Houston, I have a long, storied history of being wrong. Mostly I just don’t like the uniforms. That’s pretty much it.