MLB Preview: Is Next Year Finally Here?

Major League Baseball’s season begins today, with a trio of games broadcast by ESPN (who has expanded their “Opening Night” game on Sunday night to three games spread throughout the day on Sunday), starting with the St. Louis Cardinals at the Pittsburgh Pirates at 1 p.m. ET, and culminating with a World Series rematch in primetime between the Kansas City Royals and visiting New York Mets.

In winning the World Series, the Royals ended a 30-year title drought.  This year, the favorite to win the World Series is trying to end a much longer drought, as the Chicago Cubs have not won the Fall Classic since 1908, some 108 years ago.  Cubs fans are famous for saying “wait ’til next year,” which begs this question for 2016:  Is “next year” finally here?

This is the third year I’ve done an MLB preview on this blog, and in the previous two, picking a World Series champion was very difficult, with numerous teams looking like they have a legitimate shot at winning it all.  But this year, although there are still several teams that I see as World Series contenders, picking a favorite was easy:  plain and simple, the Cubs are the best team in baseball.

That being said, here is how I project each division to play out, along with my picks for the MLB Postseason.

National League

East
Consensus was that the NL East was the worst division in baseball in 2015, and the numbers prove that sentiment.   With two teams in complete rebuilding mode, and questions still surrounding whether a third can contend (Miami), this is likely still the worst, but its champion is solid, as the Mets are more than capable of repeating as National League champions.

1. New York Mets (90-72 in 2015; lost in World Series to Royals)
The Mets roster is essentially the same as last year, with the biggest departure, Daniel Murphy, being replaced by Neil Walker, and Asdrubal Cabrera improving the shortstop position.  The addition of Yoenis Cespedes at the trade deadline was paramount to last year’s success, and getting him to re-sign with the team in free agency gives the Mets back their best hitter.  This team, with its unbelievably strong, young rotation, has the potential to be contending for pennants not just this year, but perennially for several years to come.

2. Washington Nationals (83-79)
There is still loads of talent on this roster, including league MVP Bryce Harper, and the team has new leadership in manager Dusty Baker after falling apart last year under Matt Williams.  They snatched Daniel Murphy from the division rival Mets, but his addition doesn’t offset the losses of Jordan Zimmerman, Denard Span, and some bullpen pieces.  This team is good, but not great, and will likely win about as many games as last year.

3. Miami Marlins (71-91)
The Marlins were a trendy sleeper pick last year, but it did not pan out well.  Now, the strong core that includes Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez is under new leadership in Don Mattingly (who won the NL West the last three seasons as Dodgers manager).  The biggest problem the club has is pitching depth, particularly in the bullpen, although they did sign starting pitcher Wei-Yin Chen to form a solid 1-2 punch with Fernandez.  The Fish have solid position players, but aren’t ready to contend just yet, although they will be improved.

4. Atlanta Braves (67-95)
The rebuilding Braves are improved offensively from last year, but even with the additions of Ender Inciarte and Erick Aybar are still likely just midpack at best.  The bullpen, led by young gun Arodys Vizcaino and veterans Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson, can be decent, and much better than last year.  The biggest question here is rotational depth, as the organization has stockpiled numerous young arms but few who are ready to be solid major leaguers.  This team should win more games than a year ago, but teams don’t typically go from 67 wins to the playoffs overnight, and this team is certainly sticking to the process.

5. Philadelphia Phillies (63-99)
Phillies fans have things to be excited about; it just won’t be immediate tangible results in the win column.  There are a lot of good young players on this roster who are simply having to develop while at the big league level instead of in the minors.  This team should score a few more runs than a season ago, as prospects like Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera are a year older, but the pitching staff will struggle.  Like several other fanbases, Phillies fans just need to be patient.

Central
At the top, this may be the best division in baseball, although the Central also has a very definite bottom two.  The Central was the only division with three playoff teams last year (and is the only division to ever achieve the feat, also doing it in 2013), and all three should at least threaten to make the postseason again.

1. Chicago Cubs (97-65 in 2015; lost in NL Championship Series to Mets)
A lot of neutral fans found themselves pulling for the Cubs in last year’s playoffs, as the young core of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, and Kyle Schwarber came within one round of their first World Series since 1945.  This offseason, the team signed Jason Heyward and John Lackey away from the Cardinals, those young stars are a year more experienced, and the rotation is one of the best in the game with Lackey being joined by 2015 Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester.  That combination turns a 2015 NLCS team into the 2016 World Series favorites, as the Cubs have incredible depth in every facet of the game.

2. St. Louis Cardinals (100-62 ; lost in NL Division Series to Cubs)
(projected Wild Card #1)
The Cardinals have made the playoffs for five straight years, the longest active streak in baseball, and have made the postseason in seven of the last 11 seasons.  The losses of Jason Heyward and John Lackey hurt even worse since they went north to Chicago, although free agent signing Mike Leake should be able to nearly match Lackey’s production.  The “injury bug” has already hit this team, although the Cardinals, with their strong organizational depth, may be the team that can deal with injuries the best.  This team is still really good, but appears to be stuck behind the Cubs in the NL Central, meaning they will have to fall back on the dreaded one-off Wild Card Game come October.

3. Pittsburgh Pirates (98-64; lost in NL Wild Card Game to Cubs)
Speaking of teams that dislike the Wild Card Game, the Pirates have lost in that round each of the last two years.  Nearly the entire core of those teams are back in Pittsburgh, although Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez have moved on, and John Jaso has come in to replace Alvarez.  The Bucs have solid pitching, a quality lineup led by perennial MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, and strong depth, but could become a victim of playing 19 games each against the Cubs and Cardinals in this division.

4. Cincinnati Reds (64-98)
The Reds lineup is decent, led by veterans Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Devin Mesoraco, and Brandon Phillips, but the pitching is… not.  The personnel that Brian Price’s club has leading the staff isn’t great, and there is no depth at all.  In this division, that will be a problem–the Reds play 57 games against the Cubs, Cardinals, and Pirates–and it will be a long year in Cincinnati.

5. Milwaukee Brewers (68-94)
The Brewers led the NL Central for 159 days just two seasons ago, but now there are only two names on the roster that casual baseball fans will likely recognize (Ryan Bruan, Jonathan Lucroy), while those two are certainly fan favorites in Milwaukee, nothing else looks good about this roster.  Simply put, the Brewers are rebuilding, and have accepted that fate, although in this division, it’s going to be an uphill climb.

West
The West has two solid contenders whose realistic goal is to win the division and beyond, two sleepers who could be a threat should things fall the right way, and the Rockies, who have finished last three of the last four years.

1. San Francisco Giants (84-78 in 2015)
It’s an even-numbered year, a fact that bodes well for the Giants, who won the World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014, while missing the playoffs in all other years since 2003.  In addition to the simple numerology, the Giants do have the talent to make it happen again in an even year.  Last year, they weren’t that far off, and had some costly injuries, but this year, the existing core of players that includes Madison Bumgarner, Hunter Pence, and Buster Posey, adds free agent signings Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, and Denard Span.  Even with the quality teams behind them, the Giants are the clear favorites in the West, and could continue this odd streak of even year success.

2. Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70; lost in NL Division Series to Mets)
(projected Wild Card #2)
To look at these Dodgers, you have to look at the pros and cons.  The pros are that this roster, which is the highest paid in baseball, knows how to win, having won the NL West the last three seasons.  The team has several proven superstars, in addition to a couple of very talented youngsters, and are led by Dave Roberts, who should be excellent in his debut as a big league manager.  The cons for the Dodgers are their questionable early season depth, as they patiently wait for several players, including Hyun-Jin Ryu, Howie Kendrick, and Andre Ethier, to return from injuries, and the bullpen’s performance is up in the air.  This team should contend, but I expect them to fall behind the Giants and earn a Wild Card spot.

3. Arizona Diamondbacks (79-83)
Last year, the D-Backs could score runs, but struggled to not allow them.  The club signed Zack Greinke and traded for Shelby Miller to shore up their rotation, and while the bullpen lacks big names, they have the potential to be decent.  The club lost Ender Inciarte (in the trade for Miller), but otherwise the lineup remains virtually intact, although it will be without All-Star A.J. Pollock for most or all of the season after an elbow injury.  His loss hurts this teams chances to contend, and the team is now the clear third choice in the West (with Pollock I might have put them second).

4. San Diego Padres (74-88)
Last year’s attempt to “win now” was a total disaster, and as a result, the team isn’t really rebuilding, but doesn’t appear to be in a position to win either.  The additions of Alexei Ramirez and Jon Jay to the lineup and Fernando Rodney to the bullpen will help, but there are multiple starting position players whose expected production level is a question mark.   This team’s pitching isn’t bad, so if they hit they can be a potential sleeper, but the odds aren’t in the Padres’ favor.

5. Colorado Rockies (68-94)
This is a classic Rockies roster, as their lineup is filled with legitimate major league hitters, like Carlos Gonzalez and Nolan Arenado, but very little pitching depth.  Free agent pitchers never want to come to play at altitude in Denver, and the Rockies have struggled to get the pitching to contend throughout their history as a result.  They have only made three playoff appearances in their 23-year history, and it doesn’t look likely that they will make the postseason this year either.

Playoffs

Wild Card:  Cardinals def. Dodgers
NL Division Series:  Cubs def. Cardinals, Giants def. Mets
NL Championship Series:  Cubs def. Giants

 

American League

East
This historically tough division lives up to its reputation this season, with four of the five teams likely to be around or over the .500 mark, and arguably the best last-place team in the game.

1. Toronto Blue Jays (93-69 in 2015; lost in AL Championship Series to Royals)
Canada had something to cheer about last year, with Toronto winning its first playoff series in 22 years.  Mostly the same team is back for 2016, although David Price left in free agency (but remember, he was only with the Blue Jays after July 30).  Arguably the best lineup in the game is led by league MVP Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion, and while the rotation lacks an ace, it is still solid from top to bottom, and is complimented by a good bullpen.  This team absolutely has the ability to repeat its success from a year ago, or even top it.

2. Boston Red Sox (78-84)
The Red Sox, coming off of a disappointing 2015 season, improved in every facet of the game this offseason.  The biggest change is the addition of free agent David Price to the rotation, a group that has lacked an ace since the trade of Jon Lester.  The bullpen is better after acquiring Craig Kimbrel, someone who would make any bullpen better, and the lineup is solidified by a solid blend of young guns and veterans, including David Ortiz in his final season.  This team has the ability to contend, and even go deep, although it won’t be easy, considering the same has been said the last two seasons, and the AL East field, as well as the AL in general, is deep.

3. New York Yankees (87-75; lost in AL Wild Card Game to Astros)
This is virtually the same team that made the Wild Card Game last year, with a few subtle exceptions.  These include the addition of Starlin Castro at second base, and the addition of Aroldis Chapman to an already stout bullpen, although he is suspended for the first 30 games of the season.  Age (and, therefore, injury) are always a question with this team, which is one of the oldest in baseball, and that makes them very unpredictable–if everyone stays healthy they could win the division, but with a lot of injuries, they can drop to the cellar quickly, especially in this division.

4. Tampa Bay Rays (80-82)
The Rays have as good of a rotation as anyone, with the young quartet of Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, Jake Odorizzi, and Matt Moore, and the bullpen is around average, but sufficient.  The biggest question for this team is where runs will be coming from.  There is no protection in the lineup for Evan Longoria, as the team’s second best hitter is likely Cory Dickerson.   This team is not going to score enough runs to consistently support even an excellent pitching staff like the one they have, and as a result, while they are a sleeper in the East, it is more likely they find themselves in the bottom half of this tough division.

5. Baltimore Orioles (81-81)
This team is going to score a lot of runs and hit a lot of home runs, something that has been their method for a couple of years, and is even more pronounced now with the additions of Mark Trumbo and Pedro Alvarez.  The bullpen is decent, with underrated closer Zach Britton leading the way, but rotation is made up of five “back-end” starters, and certainly lacks an ace.  This has been the team’s weakness for several years, and it will make it hard to compete in the East this year, although with their lineup, they could still make some noise.

Central
All five teams in this division can have the realistic goal of winning this division, making this division very tough to put in order from one to five.  Honestly, if you drew the five names out of a hat, you might have a better chance of getting the order right than doing what I’ve done and looking into each team.

1. Kansas City Royals (95-67 in 2015; won World Series over Mets)
The defending World Series champions are not looked at favorably by some computer projections for the season, but they weren’t last year either.  What makes this team click is something that analytics cannot measure, as they have a certain “it” factor that drives them to win big, close games.  They have lost Johnny Cueto and Alex Rios in free agency, but the rest of the core remains intact (although they had already gained a 7.5-game lead last year before acquiring Cueto on July 26).  In one word, this team is solid, and could potentially even repeat as champions, but in the AL Central, they could also be beatable.

2. Detroit Tigers (74-87)
(projected Wild Card #2)
The strength of the resurgent Tigers is their rotation, with Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez both back 100 percent healthy, and Jordan Zimmerman signing as a free agent to create a solid top three.  The team also finally shored up the bullpen, fixing a problem that’s existed for the last several seasons, adding Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe, and Justin Wilson.  Free agent signing Justin Upton joins the existing offensive core to produce an electric, powerful lineup.  This team looks like a playoff team, and can be as long as they put last year’s struggles out of their minds, as the 13-15+ win improvement necessary to make the playoffs is not easy.

3. Minnesota Twins (83-79)
Last year, the Twins were “ahead of schedule”, and were still in the playoff race going into the last weekend of the regular season.  This solid young core has lost the leadership of the retired Torii Hunter, but the lineup should score enough runs without him.  The rotation is solid from top to bottom, although it lacks a true ace, and the bullpen is solid.  This team has the capability to contend again, although I still think they are a year away from having a legitimate case for a deep playoff run.

4. Cleveland Indians (81-80)
The Indians are built on their pitching staff, which is led by a strong rotation that includes former AL Cy Young winner Cory Kluber and young guns Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, and a strong bullpen.  With that pitching, some have the Indians contending or even winning the Central, but I don’t think that pitching staff will get sufficient run support from this lineup, which has several good hitters, but no one to blow teams away.  The most likely scenario for the Indians is to repeat last year’s record right around .500, but to not be contenders late in the crowded Central.

5. Chicago White Sox (76-86)
The White Sox have a solid lineup, including new addition Todd Frazier and slugger Jose Abreu, although they are taking a flyer on Jimmy Rollins and Alex Avila producing.  The rotation is very good at the top, including ace Chris Sale, but unknown towards the bottom, and the bullpen is similar, with David Robertson essentially serving the ace role.  A good core is in place for this team, but the questionable depth puts them last in these predictions in the Central, although if everyone plays well the club could contend.

West
This division has a clear division between the top three teams and the bottom two, but that division could create a terrific three-way race down the stretch for the division title.

1. Houston Astros (86-76; lost in AL Division Series to Royals)
The Astros’ young core reached the playoffs last year, a year earlier than expected by many in the game.  Now their young stars like Carlos Correa, George Springer, and AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel are a year older and more experienced, and seem primed to take the next step and win the division title.  Ken Giles will solidify the bullpen in the back end of games, and Doug Fister joins a very solid rotation.  This team hits homers and strikes out a lot, and to some extent are similar to the Cubs in roster makeup.  The Astros should be really solid this year, and if the cards fall right, can win it all in October, something the franchise has never done.

2. Texas Rangers (88-74 in 2015; lost in AL Division Series to Blue Jays)
(projected Wild Card #1)
The Rangers made a near-miracle run to the West title last year, and did so without Yu Darvish in the rotation, making the run even more remarkable to think about.  Darvish will be out until at least mid-May (continuing to recover from Tommy John surgery), but when he returns will join Cole Hamels, Martin Perez, Derek Holland, and Colby Lewis in arguably the best rotation in the game.  This rotation is complemented by both a strong bullpen and a solid lineup that will score enough to win.  The Rangers are the best non-division winner in my predictions–the choice between the Rangers and Astros to win the West was the toughest on the board.

3. Los Angeles Angels (85-77)
This team has the best player in the game in Mike Trout, a former best player in Albert Pujols, and the best defensive player in the recently acquired Andrelton Simmons.  The team’s pitching is satisfactory at the top, but with injuries (and they’ve already had some), their depth will come into question.  The core is the same as the 98-64 team from two years ago, and the Angels still have the talent to win, but it certainly won’t be easy with the strength of the other two contenders in the West.

4. Seattle Mariners (76-86)
Last year, many (including me) picked the Mariners to win the West, but the team struggled mightily, spending only one day over .500 (when they were 1-0).  This year, the rotation is solid, especially at the top with Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, but the bullpen’s depth is questionable.  The lineup is excellent in the middle, led by Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz, but rough around the edges.  With the three teams picked above them on their schedule 57 times, it will be hard for the Mariners to contend.

5. Oakland Athletics (68-94)
Some A’s teams of the past have been called a group of “misfits,” and to some extent it still applies today.  There are certainly some good players on the roster, including Sonny Gray in the rotation and Stephen Vogt and Billy Butler in the lineup, but a few players projected to start every day are below average at their position.  The bullpen, which is almost entirely “misfits” is an unknown, as the production of many of its members can only be guessed but not counted on.  This franchise started downhill with a Wild Card Game loss to the Royals in 2014, and is continuing that trend now.

Playoffs

Wild Card:  Rangers def. Tigers
AL Division Series:  Astros def. Rangers, Blue Jays def. Royals
AL Championship Series:  Astros def. Blue Jays
World Series:  Cubs def. Astros