By its very nature, baseball is an unpredictable beast. More than any other sport in our lexicon, it possesses the ability to confound and beguile, perplex and frustrate. The margins of success and failure are so capricious that accurately foretelling the outcome of any plate appearance, let alone any game, is highly improbable. We simply don’t know what to expect next.
Yet, at this time of year, as Opening Day rounds into view following a harsh winter, we all like to prognosticate. For baseball fans and experts alike, making predictions about the forthcoming season is a cherished tradition. It gives us a rooting interest throughout the year, and fuels debate among the game’s cognoscenti.
Thus, it’s time for my annual picks and predictions. This is just the second year in which I’ve formulated my pre-season thoughts, and last year’s forecast of a Cardinals-Mariners World Series wasn’t exactly prescient. However, I hope you’ll enjoy my insight, and perhaps gain a new perspective on the season that is set to unfurl before us.
American League East
Once the defining powerhouse of baseball, this division has regressed considerably in recent years. In times of yore, the Yankees and Red Sox dominated the landscape in a highly emotive arms race. However, that duopoly has been penetrated, with mismanagement in New York and Boston meshing with aspiration in Baltimore, Toronto and Tampa Bay to form a more level playing field. The overall quality of this division may have been diluted, but that makes it more fiercely competitive, and difficult to predict, than ever before.
My Predicted Standings, 2016
1. Blue Jays – 91-71
2. Red Sox – 86-76 – 5
3. Yankees – 85-77 – 6
4. Orioles – 84-78 – 7
5. Rays – 83-78 – 8
Last year, Toronto enjoyed a baseball renaissance. With his contract expiring, general manager Alex Anthopoulos threw caution to the wind by trading for superstars such as David Price and Troy Tulowitzki, who joined a potent offensive core that blasted the Blue Jays to their first postseason berth since 1993. Despite raucous crowds and clutch heroics, Toronto came unstuck in the American League Championship Series, losing to Kansas City in six games.
Over the winter, a lot changed at Rogers Centre. Anthopoulos was replaced by Ross Atkins, while influential president Paul Beeston made way for Mark Shapiro, a frugal executive renowned for his work with the Cleveland Indians. Price joined the Red Sox in free agency, and was replaced by underwhelming arms such as JA Happ and Jesse Chavez. Accordingly, some momentum appears to have been lost, with the Blue Jays set to enter another cautious era, philosophically.
Nevertheless, Toronto possesses a truly terrifying offence, anchored by Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion. While age is increasingly an issue, reigning MVP Josh Donaldson provides a youthful touch, while the Blue Jays have plenty of young role players.
Ultimately, the pitching is very mediocre, aside from rising star Marcus Stroman, but Toronto can bludgeon teams to death, especially in their launching pad of a ballpark. On the whole, they’re worse than last year, but still the clear favourite to retain a division crown.
After successive last-place finishes, three in four years, and one playoff appearance in six seasons, the Red Sox acted. Dave Dombrowski, one of the game’s greatest architects, was hired to spearhead a more scout-oriented approach after owner John Henry admitted to relying too heavily on statistics in recent years.
Much has been written about Henry’s comments, but I read it as a signal that Boston is done with failure now. Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, the foremost avatars of a failed philosophy, are on a very short leash, as is manager John Farrell. This is one of the most storied sports teams in the world, and the last few seasons have fallen well below the expected standard. Patience is wearing thin, and Red Sox Nation demands a winner.
To that end, Dombrowski wasted little time this winter, signing David Prcie to a seven-year, $217 million contract and trading a package of valued prospects to San Diego for the phenomenal Craig Kimbrel. After so many years spent hoarding assets for a brighter tomorrow that never seemed to arrive, these moves now give Boston an elite ace and dominant closer. The addition of Carson Smith also bolsters a once-questionable bullpen.
Therefore, the Red Sox are undoubtedly a better team this year than last. The young core of Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Blake Swihart is likely to take another step towards genuine superstardom, further solidifying Bostonian hope, while David Ortiz yearns for one last hurrah before retirement.
However, I have strong reservations about the starting rotation, and fail to see how it can carry the Red Sox to anything better than the fringe of Wildcard contention. That Boston is still relying on Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello and Joe Kelly speaks volumes about how far they remain from genuine contention.
Dombrowski may have a mid-season blockbuster up his sleeve, but failing that, Boston will improve, but only from awful to slightly above average.
In isolation, the Yankees’ 2015 season can be viewed as a success. Given the ageing, injury prone nature of its roster, New York did exceedingly well to achieve a Wildcard berth. Yet, these are still the New York Yankees, and anything less than a World Series championship is often deemed a failure in the Bronx.
Ultimately, the Yankees are stuck between the past and future, in a dissatisfying purgatory. As a franchise, the Bombers are trying to move towards a youthful, progressive constitution, but the legacy of superstar capitalism on which their history was built is acting as an impediment.
Yes, fresh prospect such as Luis Severino, Aaron Judge, Greg Bird and Jorge Mateo represent a huge stride in the right direction, but that optimism is counteracted by a tattered core of fading veterans. This year, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran and CC Sabathia will all edge closer to the end. Meanwhile, questionable assets like Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner and Chase Headley seem set in stark decline, raising further alarm bells.
In the offseason, Brian Cashman never spent a single dollar in big league free agency, as per instruction from owner Hal Steinbrenner, whose austere vision has the Yankees one day plunging below the luxury tax threshold. In some regards, that’s highly admirable. But this is a franchise, absolutely swimming in revenue, that willingly sat out of the best free agent market in recent memory despite having several holes to fill. I’m not entirely sure how that’s morally justifiable.
The Yankees did acquire Aroldis Chapman, the planet’s greatest closer, who will team with Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller to create a formidable bullpen trident. Similarly, Starlin Castro ought to thrive in pinstripes. However, I think there’s serious regression to come from many of the Yankees’ older commodities, which may negate any impact the new arrivals have, and the rotation is one giant question mark.
In my view, the Yankees will top .500 again this year, for their 24th consecutive winning season, but a sustained run at the division may be too much to ask.
The offseason was very strange in Baltimore, with the Orioles missing out on several targets and failing to upgrade a chronically weak rotation. Nevertheless, I’m intrigued by the culture Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette are creating at Camden Yards, as opt-out clauses and excessive post-game celebrations have been banished. Essentially, I believe these are positive changes, which may pave the way for a rebound.
While Baltimore lost a solid arm in Wei-Yen Chen, they added to a formidable lineup by retaining Chris Davis, acquiring Mark Trumbo and signing Pedro Alvarez. That offence is going to mash, plain and simple. I’m just not sure whether they’ll get on base enough or receive even mediocre pitching to be considered a serious threat.
All in all, it’s safe to expect improvement from the Orioles, who also have bonafide superstars in Manny Machado and Adam Jones, but playoff teams are usually well balanced, and that simply cannot be said for Baltimore.
It feels like Tampa Bay has quietly been tinkering on a new identity, a new plan. Since the departure of franchise figureheads such as Andrew Friedman, Joe Maddon, David Price and Ben Zobrist, the Rays have been forced back to the drawing board. Yet, under the aegis of Matthew Silverman, the industry believes they’re on the cusp of another surge.
During the winter, Tampa Bay earned rave reviews for trades yielding solid professionals such as Corey Dickerson and Logan Morrison for minimal outlay. Accordingly, this may be the best Rays roster we’ve seen in a number of years. It’s a team of grinders with altruism coursing through their veins.
Due to financial restrictions, Tampa Bay may never possess a huge team ceiling, but it’s floor, or minimum expectation, may be the second-best of all AL East teams. Chris Archer is a sensational ace with the temperament for even greater things, while Evan Longoria remains a productive leader. However, the recent loss of closer Brad Boxberger is a major blow, which may dilute the Rays’ progress.
In sum, Tampa Bay seems to be back on track, fighting towards an elusive goal despite fiscal disadvantages. Yet, for a team that requires every drop of production out of every player, injuries and underperformance are terminal, and the Rays are already suffering in that regard.
American League Central
This division has been hotly contested in recent years, thanks to several teams failing to fulfil their potential. For a long time, the AL Central was home to heralded teams that never seemed to deliver, but that changed as Kansas City won successive pennants and finally prevailed in the Fall Classic. Still, this is a division of which so much is regularly expected, but which never quite seems to yield a truly compelling race. Once again, we’re left hoping for certain teams to take that next leap forward, while expecting them to merely tread water like so many times before.
My Predicted Standings, 2016
1. Royals – 90-72 – —
2. Indians – 88-74 – 2
3. Tigers – 84-78 – 6
4. Twins – 84-78 – 6
5. White Sox – 78-84 – 12
No team since the 2000 Yankees has successfully defended a World Series championship, so Kansas City faces a difficult task in searching for an encore. It’s hard to tell whether this team is due for a period of exhalation or growth, but I would lean towards the latter owing to the hunger of its core.
However, the Royals lost Johnny Cueto, Ben Zobrist, Alex Rios and a few bullpen pieces during the winter, without necessarily finding adequate replacements. Ian Kennedy was handed an eye-watering contract, while Dillon Gee doesn’t inspire much excitement in a mediocre rotation lacking a tangible ace.
Those moves are certainly questionable, but Kansas City has never been a conventional franchise. Dayton Moore has surprised us at every turn, building a world champion with debatable moves that worked out. Furthermore, there should be enough improvement to come from guys like Eric Hosmer and Alcides Escobar to lead a relentless offence and counterbalance any pitching woes.
Ultimately, I believe regression is a near certainty for the Royals, who reached utopia last October, but they’re still division winners in my estimation.
Cleveland sports is a confounding phenomenon. The city hasn’t enjoyed the fruits of sporting success since 1964, with its professional teams combining for 156 consecutive seasons without a championship. The modern Indians fit this narrative handsomely, in that they’ve promised so much for so long, without ever delivering the goods.
I’ve believed in the Indians for many years. They have the appetite. They have the talent. Yet, the same old problems always seem to stymie a potent juggernaut near Lake Erie. There’s always one cog missing, be it the strong number five starter or the menacing slugger, that prevents Cleveland from reaching its full potential. They never quite spend enough money, as windows close and generations fade away.
In recent years, the Indians enjoyed major breakout seasons from Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley and Corey Kluber, but have thus far been unable to coordinate that production. For instance, when Kluber was great, Kipnis was bad; and when Kipnis was good, Kluber regressed slightly. They just need to put it all together.
I really like the offseason additions of Mike Napoli, Juan Uribe and Marlon Byrd, all of whom should provide veteran leadership and much-needed power to a perplexing lineup. Similarly, a full season of shortstop phenom Francisco Lindor ought to really ignite the Indians’ offence.
Finally, we come to the rotation, which is dominated by Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazaar, three electric pitchers with truly filthy stuff. That may be the best starting trident in the American League, giving the Tribe a solid chance every single day.
This may finally be the year Cleveland scores enough runs to validate a brilliant rotation and seriously contend for the pennant. This may finally be the year they complete the jigsaw under the brilliant tutelage of Terry Francona. This may finally be the year, although people have been saying that since 1948.
Over the past decade, Detroit has been a baseball powerhouse. Since 2006, the Tigers have won two pennants and lost twice in the ALCS. Owner Mike Ilitch, now 86-years old, just yearns for one World Series title, a moment of crowning glory for a team and city he helped rejuvenate from the 119-loss nadir of 2003.
Accordingly, a 74-87 record and last-place finish in 2015 meant changes at the top. Dave Dombrowski was replaced by Al Avila, who was given free licence to improve the team how he saw fit. Spending lavishly on payroll has never been an issue for Ilitch, who could be mistaken for the likeable alter ego of George Steinbrenner. This winter, that money was spent on bringing a slew of new players aboard. Jordan Zimmerman arrives to bolster the rotation, while Justin Upton provides another elite bat for the lineup. Meanwhile, accent pieces such as Francisco Rodriguez, Cameron Maybin and Justin Wilson raise the overall talent level in Detroit.
The Tigers finished last season at a crossroads. They chose to reinvest and attempt to artificially boost their chances by spending heavily, given a weak farm system. The team had plenty of holes entering the winter, but did a pretty solid job of filling them. Of course, a lot will depend on the health of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, plus the ability of JD Martinez and Ian Kinsler to repeat their usual output. However, Detroit could be set to surprise, and pole-vault back into the conversation, if not guaranteed contention.
Minnesota took a big step forward last year, jumping from 70 to 83 wins in a twelve-month period. The influence of manager Paul Molitor was considerable, as the Hall of Famer commanded respect from his players. Yet, for their prolonged rebuild to be justified, the Twins need to slip into another gear this season, with Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton finally playing regular roles.
Once again, Minnesota endured a fairly frustrating offseason, during which it lost Torii Hunter, Aaron Hicks and Mike Pelfrey for minimal return. The arrival of Korean slugger Byung Ho Park is a potential wildcard, but a very poor rotation means the Twins are again left relying on over-performance, which may not happen.
Right now, Minnesota lacks that extra splash of variety, that one veteran superstar to put them over the edge. Think of the Cubs signing Jon Lester last year. Sure, Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer are consistent performers, and Eddie Rosario caught the eye at times down the stretch last year. But, in the starkest terms, this is a very similar team to the one that finished in a distant second place last year. In an improved division, Minnestoa will have to go some to even achieve that this time around.
Where did it all go wrong for the Chicago White Sox, one of baseball’s most historic franchises? Since the halcyon days of Ozzie Guillen, Frank Thomas and Paul Konerko, this has been a mundane team in a miserable ballpark, struggling for identity and living off bygone glories. In the past three years, the Sox have finished 30, 17 and 19 games out of first place, amid a worrying stasis. Contrary to industry wisdom, I just don’t see them clambering from the cellar this year, either.
The South-Siders added Todd Frazier, Jimmy Rollins, Austin Jackson and Mat Latos, but saw Jeff Samardzija, Alexei Ramirez and Trayce Thompson depart. I’m a huge fan of Thompson, a young outfielder with tremendous athleticism, and feel that Ramirez is perennially underestimated. Therefore, I struggle to see the White Sox improving a great deal.
That suspicion is affirmed by a clubhouse chasm following the retirement of first baseman Adam LaRoche. According to various reports, certain White Sox players and officials were unhappy with the omnipresence of LaRache’s son in their clubhouse. When asked to reduce those visits, LaRoche opted to retire instead, with many Sox players voicing their displeasure towards management, and even threatening to boycott an exhibition game.
Though we should be careful when tampering with pop-psychology, I believe there is a very disconcerting undercurrent within the White Sox’ camp. For a team with only an outside chance in the first instance, unity is paramount if success is to be achieved. This year, I just don’t think the White Sox have it in them.
American League West
Often overlooked due to late game times and a relative lack of history, this division is notoriously difficult to predict. In a typical year, one can make an argument for any of the teams, which aren’t always great but very rarely rebuild. The AL West hasn’t yielded a World Series winner since the 2002 Angels, which is the longest wait of any division in baseball. But, with some powerful teams and incredible individual talent, that wait could soon be over, as the West commands attention.
My Predicted Standings, 2016
1. Astros – 89-73 – —
2. Rangers – 87-75 – 2
3. Angels – 83-79 – 6
4. Mariners – 83-79 – 6
5. Athletics – 73-89 – 16
I frequently mourned the loss of Astros tradition, as the losses piled up and the uniforms became more lurid, but all of that was rectified with one glimpse of a slender shortstop of inimitable grace. Carlos Correa, the 21-year old Puerto Rican somehow redolent of Derek Jeter, was an electrifying presence in Houston last year, as the Astros won their first playoff berth in a decade. Alongside Jose Altuve and Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, the phenom helped wipe away 590 defeats in a six-year span as the vision of Jeff Luhnow finally came to fruition.
Despite losing to Kansas City in a deciding fifth game of the ALDS, Houston proved a lot last year. They improved from 70-92 in 2014 to secure a playoff berth twelve months later, in spite of the Majors’ second-lowest payroll. Then, they beat the fabled Yankees in the Bronx before 50,000, the largest crowd for any Astros game in five years. When everybody said they couldn’t, the Astros just did, as their window for sustainable contention was opened wide.
During the winter, Houston let slugger Chris Carter leave, feeling that Jon Singleton is ready to play first base every day. The ‘Stros also lost reliable starter Scott Kazmir, but reallocated funds smarty in signing Doug Fister, who many have earmarked for a rebound. Closer Ken Giles arrives from Philadelphia with a growing reputation, and there is still considerable growth to come from guys like Correa, Altuve and George Springer.
Quite incredibly, the Astros have assembled one of the most balanced and complete rosters in the American League on what projects to be the seventh-smallest payroll in baseball. That speaks to the efficiency of their operation, but also to the rules governing modern baseball, which motivates teams to tank and rebuild with more severity than never before. For the Astros, it worked a treat. After so much pain, they now get to enjoy the good part: fighting for a World Series crown.
Jon Daniels built a juggernaut that won successive pennants in 2010 and ’11, before a steep decline that culminated in a disastrous 2014 season. However, that 67-95 finish was widely attributed to injuries, which were recurrent and devastating in Arlington. Accordingly, it was a surprise to some that Texas rebounded strongly last year, but I viewed it as a natural realignment given full health for a strong roster.
Ultimately, the Rangers lost a pulsating ALDS to the Blue Jays, but rookie manager Jeff Banister led a revival of talent and culture that restored pride to a fascinating franchise. Prince Fielder was exceptional, Shin-Soo Choo retuned to form, and the acquisition of Cole Hamels gave Texas fresh appeal. Whether those factors can be sustained into another year remains to be seen, but the Rangers are at least in the conversation for a pennant.
They allowed Mike Napoli to leave during the offseason, while Leonys Martin, one of my favourite players, was traded to Seattle. Ian Desmond arrived one a bargain one-year deal, but he will experiment with a new position in left field as Josh Hamilton continues to struggle for health.
I think it’s logical to expect some regression from the Rangers’ core, with Adrian Beltre and Choo the most likely culprits, but Texas should be able to call upon the tandem of Hamels and Yu Darvish from May. If they can pitch to the back of their baseball cards, the Rangers will have an unrivalled one-two punch. Yet, all things considered, I see Texas fighting a very close battle with Houston, which will ultimately prevail by a narrow margin.
These are strange times for the Angels, who are perhaps the least convincing potential juggernaut I’ve ever seen. Last year, GM Jerry Dipoto was caught in a power struggle with owner Arte Moreno and manager Mike Scioscia, before ultimately resigning his post. His replacement, highly regarded Yankees executive Billy Eppler, brought a new ethos to Anaheim, and has even managed to change Scioscia’s approach on certain aspect of the game, according to reports.
However, over the winter, the Angels were criticised heavily, as Moreno stood pat citing financial difficulties. The fans, and seemingly the media, wanted Anaheim to spend lavishly on a prized slugger such as Justin Upton or Yoenis Cespedes to complement the incredible Mike Trout. When that didn’t happen, knives were drawn, in what I deem a fairly unwarranted attack.
From the general tenor of spring debate, you would be forgiven for viewing the Angels as a cellar-dweller. Yet, this is a team containing Trout, the greatest player of our time; Albert Pujols, one of the greatest players of any time; and Andrelton Simmons, generally considered the finest defender in our game today. Of course, the rotation is decidedly shaky behind Garrett Richards, and Pujols is stuck in a steady decline, but people are still underrating the Angels.
I don’t expect them to overtake Texas or Houston, two more well rounded rivals, but a Wildcard fight isn’t beyond the realm of possibility. The farm system is fairly barren and the lineup has some holes, but to insinuate that Anaheim is considerably worse than the average American League team is folly.
With the longest postseason drought in Major League Baseball (14 years), and a point to prove following a 76-86 record as American League favourites last season, Seattle should improve in 2016. The aforementioned Jerry Dipoto was hired to oversee baseball operations, with Scott Servais coming aboard as manager. Those are two huge upgrades in my opinion.
Seattle was incredibly busy during the winter, as Logan Morrison and Mark Trumbo were moved, among many others. Meanwhile, Steve Cishek arrived to close games, while Nori Aoki and Leonys Martin add to a decent outfield. Wade Miley should be a reliable cog in a rotation headed by the marvellous Felix Hernandez, and Adam Lind will provide pop at first base.
However, while these trades seem to improve the Mariners on paper, I’m not necessarily sure there’s a logical thread coursing through the moves. Some of the deals seemed to be made for the sake of it, but perhaps that’s what Seattle needs after so many false dawns. As a net result, the Mariners just feel better with this injection of new blood. I really like the nucleus of Hernandez, Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager, and the new additions appear to provide a greater degree of certainty.
All in all, the Mariners have done well to construct a less capricious foundation, but the ceiling is pretty low, in my estimation. The pieces are still there, and Dipoto has perhaps even added even more of them, but history suggests the Mariners will still have a hard time completing the jigsaw. Can they put it all together, for a fanbase and industry tired of waiting? I doubt it, but a return to .500 baseball will constitute progress.
Oakland took a step back last year, finishing 68-94, causing some to wonder whether Billy Beane needs a fresh challenge with a different team. Admittedly, I was intrigued by his aggression during the winter, particularly in the stockpiling of bullpen arms, but they’re more likely to become trade bait than difference-makers by mid-summer.
Oakland is busying itself with the usual reclamation projects, of which Henderson Alvarez is particularly fascinating, but this franchise is still struggling to recover from trading away Josh Donaldson prior to last season. The third baseman proceeded to win the MVP award with Toronto, as the Rogers Centre spurred his transformation into an offensive monster. That was one deal Beane simply cannot defend; one deal that derailed progress by the Bay.
As a collective, one could argue that Oakland is slightly above average, but there is no core or heart or foundation to this Athletics team. Sadly, Beane traded that away in the form of Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes and Addison Russell. Of course, his genius has saved this franchise repeatedly, so he should be forgive. Moreover, when the budget is so tight, the margin for error is almost non-existent. Yet, right now, the magic has faded in Oakland, which needs a new formula from its revered baseball laboratory.
American League Wildcard
My Predicted Standings, 2016
1. Indians – 88-74 – —
2. Rangers – 87-75 – —
3. Red Sox – 86-76 – 1
4. Yankees – 85-77 – 2
5. Orioles – 85-77 – 2
6. Tigers – 84-78 – 3
A rollercoaster ride involving most of the league, but the superior pitching of Cleveland and Texas holding sway.