It seems that the baseball season just ended, but as a New York Mets fan, I realize that my break was quite a bit shorter than other fans – despite the ignominious dismantling at the hands of the unsurprisingly superior Kansas City Royals back around Halloween.
Well, with spring training in full fling, I figured it’s as good a time as any to check out where the free agents landed, how the trades turned out, and which teams truly are primed for as long a playoff run as last season’s teams. Will there be any magical surprises akin to the resurgence of the Houston Astros? Will there be any dynasties failing to return to postseason glory like the Detroit Tigers of 2015? Here’s my take on what the 147th season of Major League Baseball might look like:
Toronto Blue Jays
In recent years, the power has shifted from the AL East being the high-caliber division to beat as the West and Central have evened out the parity for playoff teams. This has seen the rise of some unlikely teams returning to glory, such as the Toronto Blue Jays, who saw their first berth in over two decades last season. Given that they retained the majority of what brought them to that spot in the first place, there’s an optimism up in Canada (especially with the hockey season being a bust for the first time since 1970). What the Blue Jays lost was David Price, who jumped at the chance to play for the roller coaster that is the Boston Red Sox. Without him, the rotation is led by Marcus Stroman, continuing where he left off after returning from an ACL injury in September. The diminutive fastballer will be joined by Marco Estrada, RA Dickey and newly acquired J.A. Happ. While Happ may not be a replacement for Price, Estrada has really come into his own and will certainly compete for the AL Cy Young. On the offense side, don’t expect the home runs to stop pouring in. Troy Tulowitzki still has a chip on his shoulder, and 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson is definitely going to continue with his great output. I think that while the team may lose a handful of games, they have enough to compete in a diminished division, enough to recapture the title here. Playoffs are a different story.
Tampa Bay Rays
Most teams are counting on Price to bring the Red Sox back to relevance, but I’m anticipating that his original team will be the one to come back into the forefront. Chris Archer was easily the most underrated pitcher of the 2015 season, and now his time will finally be in the limelight. After a disappointing rotation let the team down, they’re bound for a bounce back. Besides that, I think the Red Sox are overrated going into the season, and the Yankees and Orioles are only getting worse. Like I said, the division is no longer the juggernaut it once was, so behind the youth in the outfield (Chris Dickerson, Kevin Kiermaier) and one of the best closers in the league (Brad Boxberger), they’ll hopefully prove critics wrong. EDIT: As I was first getting down to the business of writing this, Boxberger fell to a “core muscle injury” for the next 2 months. So we won’t see that closing until July probably, and while that won’t destroy the team, I legitimately think this division may end up a tossup after the Blue Jays. This team could be anywhere from 2nd with a great start to 5th with a terrible start.
Boston Red Sox
Ah, finally, the time has come to talk about the team David Price actually is on this season. It seems like it’s been forever since he officially became a part of the team, but he hasn’t even through a real in-season pitch for the Sox. Certainly he’ll do his best to muster a few wins for his new beloved town? Absolutely. Will that matter in the long run, as we watch David Ortiz wind down his career amidst an offense that despite driving in the fourth most runs in 2015, ended up in another basement spot in the division? Sure, they have up-and-comers like Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr and Xander Bogaerts, but if injury bites the team again, they’ll be relying on their pudgy or overextended veterans Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez. It’s good to see John Farrell back behind the bench, because he’s the exact opposite in entertainment value from the reigning champ’s skipper (Ned Yost). Koji Uehara will challenge Boxberger and Andrew Miller for best closer, while behind Price, the rotation is exactly the same. That doesn’t speak first place to me.
A lot of people place the Orioles in the bottom of the division this year, but you’ll see in a moment that I’m of the opinion that the Bombers won’t be so much hitting homers, as well, bombing. Yes, this despite the Baltimore rotation consisting of Yovani Gallardo (troublesome), Chris Tillman (shaky), Miguel Gonzalez, Kevin Gausman (both at the peak of their careers) and their “ace” Ubaldo Jimenez (well past his prime). Pedro Alvarez coming over to DH from Pittsburgh won’t do much to an offense that looks to diminish significantly due to age (Chris Davis) and lack of skill/experience (Trumbo, Kim, Schoop). The numbers don’t predict this team rises very high, but there can be surprises. Adam Jones and Manny Machado are at the tops in their position, in a hitter-friendly park, and the underdog position has worked for them before. Just not the 2000s. Let’s hope they don’t regress to that point in their history.
New York Yankees
As I just mentioned, I think the Yanks will fall this far. As my father pointed out tonight, not one individual player on the team is in the top 100 in fantasy rankings (Yahoo!) save Jacoby Ellsbury. He does not a team make, so we’re a far cry from the years when the top twenty would boast five or six from the Bronx alone. Sure, Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances are still on the team, so the bullpen will among the best in the league, and that’s before they added noted gun enthusiast Aroldis Chapman as their closer. Unfortunately for their late innings teammates, players like Brett Gardner, Mark Teixeira, Chase Headley, Brian McCann and Ellsbury are all likely past their prime. Surely they’ll hit well, but maybe not as well as they might have three years ago (or even last year). They were surprisingly in the mix all last season, and barely managed to snag a wild card then. With Didi Gregorious coming over from Phoenix and Starlin Castro from the Windy City, we’ve discovered the potential face of the future in the Bronx. We’ve also seen the end of the tunnel for comeback (kid) Alex Rodriguez, who announced today that he will be retiring after his contract ends in 2017. For now, will that help him strive for the ultimate goal in a World Series win? Time will tell, but despite being better on paper than the Orioles, I think injuries will nag the aging offense enough to offset the aging rotation (Tanaka, Sabathia). When Nathan Eovaldi looks like your best hurler, you should take a closer look.
Kansas City Royals
It’s consistently hard to come back to the playoffs, let alone come back to the World Series…and then win it. That’s exactly what the Kansas City Royals did, though, a year after falling to the even-year-magic that was the San Francisco Giants in 2014. The team stayed virtually the same, and plugged away, patiently stealing bases on their way to an October full of dynamo and bluster. While the New York Mets seemed to struggle all the way against adversity, the Royals just didn’t mind being that adversity, telling everyone that it was their time. After all, it had been since 1985 that the team last won the World Series, and the players (almost all born after that title) were hungry for the highest level. Lucky for the fans, the team has yet again remained virtually the same, stealing superstar Alex Gordon from waiting free agent mongers for the next four years. It’s telling when you built a team from the ground up and could go anywhere you want in the league, but manage to stay in the same exact place, wanting to do it all over again (even for less money than you were likely offered). Alongside him will be World Series MVP catcher Salvador Perez, mainstays Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Mike Moustakas. The only escapees are veteran Alex Rios and Johnny Cueto – who was only there to be the final piece for a crown anyway, and has abandoned the midwest to take on that even year magic in the Bay Area. I wouldn’t bet against this team, especially after the last few years, and it’s the first time in a while that I have a good feeling about the defending champ in ANY sport. We’ll see when I predict the playoffs on Thursday, but I may pick these guys.
My man Phil Hughes will be the lynch pin for a team that saw themselves in a surprising postseason run late in the season, only to fall short in the last week. While the rotation hasn’t gotten any particularly stronger, it’s still solid and will get a full year out of Ervin Santana, along with the future of the team, Tommy Milone and Kyle Gibson. With youth the factor of the division, will this be the first time in half a decade that the team takes back the AL Central? You have to like the young infield, consisting of Brian Dozier, Joe Mauer, Trevor Plouffe and Eduardo Escobar. That’s before you mention AL Rookie of the Year candidate Miguel Sano and his outfield linemates Byron Buxton and Eddie Rosario. I’m liking this to be the one that takes down the defending champs, by taking their division.
Pitching, pitching, pitching. The team really hinges on this, and with a rotation that boasts Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer, they’ll be looked at to perform better than they likely will. The offense sputtered late in 2015, and it likely won’t start off stellar either. Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis are the likely heavy hitters, while newly acquired veterans Mike Napoli and Juan Uribe could sputter come August. Giving the team a large lead will go a long way to helping spell them down the line, so we’ll see if the team has the energy and the stamina to put in a quality year for the first time in too many years.
Yes, the Tigers will be better, but this division will be the best in baseball. I anticipate that, mostly because of the veteran presence on the mound (bullpen and rotation) that the pitching won’t be as solid as it was in their near-dynastic run through the 2000 and 2010s. With a stranglehold on the division for so long, they’ve allowed those great contracts to become albatrosses, hanging around long enough to watch teams rise up from oblivion and take over the crown. The Royals were the team to finally get it done in the division, in fact, and that hasn’t been lost on management, surely. If I were to guess, just on paper, this team will be near the bottom again this season, but I wouldn’t be super surprised to see a better run for deeper into the summer. With Justin Verlander healthier to start, and Ian Kinsler less…chippy…the team may have a chance to actually utilize Miguel Cabrera, Jose Iglesias, Jordan Zimmermann and Anibel Sanchez to their superior levels. It’s really a question over whether last was an unhealthy fluke or that the team is truly aging, much like we’d expected the Texas Rangers to be. Perhaps this will be our big surprise of the year?
Chicago White Sox
Clubhouse issues aside, the White Sox are going to be bad. While they took a step forward last year with Jeff Samardzija at the helm, they absolutely will take a step back this year. I’m not saying that this team (mostly the same) won’t play some meaningful baseball at first, but with the resurgence of the Tigers and the continued rise of the Twins and Indians (and the domination of the reigning champion Royals) the AL Central is the new division to beat. Simply put, the White Sox would contend in any other division, but here, with only one great pitcher (Chris Sale), they will likely fall to fifth place. It’s a shame too, because besides adding superstar Todd Frazier, as well as former Blue Jays Melky Cabrera and Brett Lawrie, they’ll continue to groom their homegrown franchis face Jose Abreu. Perhaps I’ll be proven wrong, because I as I write this, on paper these players sound better than the basement spot, but I have a gut feeling that Chicago will implode much like Washington did last year. Leave it up to the key ingredient – recent player-turned-skipper Robin Ventura. In his third year behind the bench, he’ll be on the hot seat, and the wind won’t cool the south side down for very long if the team’s fortunes go south too.
Cliff Lee was decidedly the reason the Rangers pushed their way to a division title late in 2015, especially when their season was called before day 1 in April because of the loss of superstar pitcher Yu Darvish. Lee was dynamic down the stretch, pulling up his bootstraps and getting the team as far as he could – the divisional series against the Blue Jays. Despite all his efforts, Lee was unable to overcome David Price and his own revitalized franchise. With that in the rearview mirror, we’ll welcome Darvish back to make a one-two punch in the heart of Texas, alongside long-time hurlers Derek Holland, Martin Perez and Colby Lewis. Ian Desmond comes over from Washington, hoping he can forget his own errors of 2015. With a team that boasts Roughned Odor, Elvis Andrus, Shin-soo Choo, Mitch Moreland and Adrian Beltre, I’m certain this will be the team that decides the AL.
After their own surprise run to the playoffs on the backs of eventual AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, the Astros made the most of their trip, getting past the Yankees in the wild-card game, but faced the juggernaut that was the Royals. If the matchups work out right, thanks to a surge to the top, perhaps the Astros will go much further and be back to their second World Series (last was 2005, loss to White Sox when they were still in the NL). I expect this to be the true battle in the AL – the Rangers vs. Astros. The Texas titans will face off against the youth movement involving Evan Gattis, Jose Altuve, Jason Castro, Carlos Correa and a finally healthy George Springer. This is truly the team to beat in the West, and I’m sure they’ll be great – put I’m picking the Rangers to sneak on by.
This team has to be better, right? With a mix of veterans (Chris Iannetta, Nori Aoki, Adam Lind) and proven youth (Kyle Seager) the team will be looking to improve to match the output of their sort-of superstars Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz. Will the team finally do famed pitcher Felix Hernandez proud? Will the addition of Wade Miley bolster a rotation that could boast stronger seasons out of Taijuan Walker and Hisashi Iwakuma? Will the shortstop position be a boon for the team with newcomer Ketel Marte, or will he be on the shortlist for rookie of the year? I’m excited to see where this team goes, even if it’s to another third-place finish. I expect the standings to be higher, at the very least, and for them to compete down to the wire with the Rangers and Astros.
Give credit to Billy Beane, but he’s always finding the best way to push out a competitive team in Oakland despite their non-celebrity and money-saving efforts. It almost has to be the case in the sinking ship that is O.co Coliseum, but besides that, Beane always finds a way to put out an entertaining team anyway. After last year’s fluke, I expect the team to bounce back in several ways: 1) Rotation will be healthy – the A’s were adamant about latching on to Sonny Gray, despite Beane’s penchant for dropping guys as soon as they get popular. He’ll lead a gaggle of arms that includes four men I’ve never heard of. Perhaps we’ll hear about them by the end of the year? I trust in Beane’s madness, plus they’re taking a chance on Felix Doubront, the guy I wanted to help Boston win another Series after swinging wildly in 2014. 2) Offensive beasts like Stephen Vogt, Khris Davis, Jed Lowrie and Yonder Alonso aren’t there to revitalize their careers, as has often been the case in the A’s clubhouse. It’s likely that with the Rangers and Astros battling it out, this team won’t make the playoffs, but at least they should be better than fifth.
Los Angeles Angels
The Angels on the other hand, bewilder me. They spend a ton of money on guys who peter out, and don’t seem to be able to plug the holes. Andrelton Simmons is not the answer to your problems, fellas. This team is basically an ancient Albert Pujols alongside the miring and soon to be bitter Mike Trout. If they aren’t careful, the guy will jump ship (or more likely traded) like Todd Frazier was this season as the Reds fell to the basement. I still like players like Kole Calhoun and Huston Street, but the other teammates just don’t give me hope. The rotation consists of Garrett Richards and Jered Weaver, and then…CJ Wilson is injured again and the other pitchers are either untested or no-names. I’m looking at this team being at the bottom, and Mike Trout asking for a way East towards home (he’s from my home state, New Jersey).
Check in tomorrow when we detail the National League, where the designated hitter has yet to force his way into the lineup. Don’t forget to return Thursday (the day of my fantasy draft!) when I tell you who I expect to make it into the 2016 MLB playoffs and be crowned the king of baseball!