2016 American League Preview — Profiles, Promises and Predictions for Every Team
If you had the Kansas City Royals as your pick for American League champion last year, congratulations. What's that? You say had them as A.L. champs the year before, too? Okay. Right. Sure you did.
While we will look skeptically on anyone's claims of predicting the Royals to win the American League in 2014 (they were 16-to-1 long shots), it's really not a huge stretch to pick them to win again the next year. That's just front-running. But can the Royals three-peat in 2016?
Seems dumb to pick against them, doesn't it? Then again, a three-peat hasn't happened in 13 years, and with baseball's talent now spread more evenly among large- and small-market clubs, it can be particularly tough for any team to sustain that level of success.
The point is, predictions are hard -- especially about the future (as the great Yogi said). But here we are again, at the doorstep of another Major League Baseball season, with every team 162 games away from a playoff berth, with every team thinking this is our year, with every team possessed of the true most valuable player: hope.
So with that, we will now go on record with our certain-to-be-correct predictions about the 2016 American League season. (For reference, you can see our 2015 picks here. We had the Royals finishing in fourth and the Mariners winning the pennant. So yeah, like we said about predictions being hard...)
After trailing the Yankees much of last year, the Blue Jays did some major wheeling and dealing at the trade deadline, acquiring Troy Tulowitzki and David Price. After that, the Jays ran away with the division. This season, though, Price has switched over to the Red Sox, leaving the Jays short an ace at the top of their rotation. Their lineup is still downright scary, though. Led by Jose Bautista, the Jays scored 891 runs last year, 127 more than their closest competition. That offense should be more than enough for them to lift the A.L. East crown once again.
The Yankees did something this off-season they haven't done in a long, long time: They didn't sign any Major League free agents. It's almost like George Steinbrenner isn't running the show anymore. The Bronx Bombers have a solid offense and the best bullpen in baseball with Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances and the newly-acquired Aroldis Chapman, but the starting rotation is suspect at best. Too many lineup spots are occupied by old and/or injury-prone veterans (Mark Texeira, Carlos Beltran, Alex Rodriguez, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, etc.), though the up-the-middle defensive combo of Didi Gregorius and the imported Starlin Castro is young, talented and upside-heavy. A lot will have to go right for the Yanks to return to the top, but there are multiple major risks likely to drag them down.
In Baltimore, manager Buck Showalter has another chance to win with his core of Adam Jones, Manny Machado and the re-signed Chris Davis, but we bet what he'd love more than anything is a true top-of-the-rotation pitcher to push them into true-contender status. With Chris Tillman as your opening-day starter, it's hard to see how the Orioles can surpass their division rivals, even with some serious offensive firepower and some excellent relievers in Zach Britton and Darren O'Day.
The Rays featured some outstanding top-tier talent last year -- Chris Archer dominating on the mound, Kevin Kiermaier playing All-World defense in center -- and very few weak spots. It's a bit mysterious how they ended up two games under .500. They had a rather uneventful off-season, so it's hard to see how things end up much different in 2016. The bullpen doesn't look like it'll help much, but their starting rotation is the class of the division. A wild-card spot isn't far-fetched, but it'll be a battle.
The Red Sox finished last for the second year in a row, enough to see the end of the Ben Cherington front office. In comes Dave Dombrowski, who promptly traded for ace closer Craig Kimbrel and handed a $200 million contract to snag David Price from the rival Blue Jays. Will that be enough to climb out of the cellar? Only if they can manage to improve greatly on a defense that gave up the second-most runs in the league. The Sawx have some dynamic young talent in Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts, and could use a bounce-back year from Dustin Pedroia. You can bet we'll be hearing a lot about David Ortiz as he puts on the uniform for his final season. If things aren't going well in Beantown, count on Dombrowski to start making some moves.
Predicted order of finish:
- Blue Jays
- Red Sox
The defending champs look to have one of the easier routes back to the postseason, as the rest of the division just isn't that great. No one's particularly weak, just not all that close to the Royals when it comes to talent. K.C. should be in the driver's seat again, with pretty much everyone coming back from last year's team, with the exception of trade-deadline-acquisition Johnny Cueto (replaced by Ian Kennedy). The starting pitching, as it has been for the Royals, is questionable, but you gotta love the bullpen. And their defense, led by Lorenzo Cain and the returning Alex Gordon, is tops in baseball. Put it all together and you've got a pretty good shot at that three-peat we were talking about earlier.
The Twins were a bit of an overachiever last year, finishing in second despite a negative run differential which would normally leave them below .500. How'd they do it? Some good luck helped, sure, but also average to above-average seasons from everyone in the starting lineup. Minnesota may not have any top stars, but they're deep and lack scrubs. The long-awaited full-season arrival of prospect Byron Buxton is imminent, which may push them up far enough to give the Royals a fight, but they'll need some luck -- even more so than last year.
Cleveland had a disappointing 2015, continuing a trend that has seen them go from 92 wins in 2013 to 85 in 2014 to just 81 last year. The talent is certainly there. The Indians have an excellent 1-2-3 at top of the rotation with Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. Second-year Shortstop Francisco Lindor looks set to have a wonderful career, combining with Houston's Carlos Correa and Boston's Xander Bogaerts for the best crop of young shortstops since the A-Rod / Jeter / Garciaparra days of the '90s. Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley are also top-notch for their positions, so what's the problem? The bullpen is fairly weak, aside from Cody Allen. Depth may be a problem, with Brantley starting the season on the DL following shoulder surgery. But if things go well, it could be Cleveland breathing down the Royals' necks.
What to make of the White Sox? After loading up on free agents in the 2014-15 off-season, the Pale Hose managed to finish 10 games below .500, not even sniffing a wild card. They acquired third-baseman Todd Frazier via trade to bolster a lineup that scored the fewest runs in the A.L. in 2015, but the offense is gonna need more help than that. Cy Young candidate Chris Sale and the perennially underrated Jose Quintana make for as good a 1-2 punch as any, and the other three starters aren't too shabby either. The bullpen is okay to terrific (David Robertson). So yeah, it's probably gonna come down to whether the ChiSox can score enough to compete. That's a tall order.
Make no mistake: the Tigers, even coming off a surprising last-place finish, are clearly a threat. Having added Jordan Zimmerman and Justin Upton to a team that massively underachieved in 2015 will help on both sides of the ball, and another 74-win season looks highly unlikely. Miguel Cabrera is still one of the best hitters anywhere, and the middle infield of Ian Kinsler and Jose Iglesias is one of the best. Right-fielder J.D. Martinez's breakout 2015 gives the Tigers another potential superstar. But the pitching could wash everything out. Justin Verlander could return to form, but that's a tough bet. If Anibal Sanchez bounces back as well, then those two could form a high-quality top three with Zimmerman, though this will be Zimmerman's first season in the A.L., which could require some adjustment time.
Predicted order of finish:
- Royals (we're not betting against them again)
- White Sox
The Rangers came out of nowhere to steal the 2015 A.L. West crown after a disastrous 67–95 record in 2014. They also managed it without their ace, Yu Darvish, who underwent Tommy John surgery prior to the season. So how'd they do it? Uh, we don't really know. They only had a plus-18 run differential, which should have landed them well behind the Astros (plus-111), but hey, baseball is weird like that. With Darvish due to return and pair with Cole Hamels, that's a pretty devastating 1-2, as long as Darvish pitches like he used to. They somehow managed to sign former Washington shortstop Ian Desmond to a one-year deal to play ... left field? Texas's best hitter, Adrian Beltre, will turn 37 next month, so the Rangers may need a major contribution from top prospect Joey Gallo, who in 36 games last year showed monstrous power but an equally monstrous tendency to strike out. This is a wild division, so anything could happen, but we'd be cautious betting on the Rangers to repeat.
After years of losing lots and lots and lots and lots of games (some might even call it tanking), the Astros finally emerged in 2015 -- and the future looks as bright for them as for any team in baseball. With Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa and Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel leading a group of young, dynamic players, things in Houston should be all set for years to come. It's hard to find too many weaknesses here, though the bullpen after closer Luke Gregerson could use some help. Houston has a solid roster up and down, and barring too many major injuries, should be a force in the West for as far as we can see.
The Angels have Mike Trout. It's important to start there, because any team who has Mike Trout can't be written off. But things in Anaheim have a distinct whiff of peril. The aging roster features a few guys you'd want on your team (new shortstop Andrelton Simmons, Kole Calhoun, Garrett Richards), but there are major warning signs of imminent collapse. This team could win or lose 90 games, depending on whether Albert Pujols can stave off injuries and if the starting pitching (Richards aside) can manage to be at least league-average. These are not the kinds of ifs you want your team to have to answer. But then again, they do have Mike Trout.
Seattle had a strange season in 2015. They brought in Nelson Cruz to hit some homers, and he did just that by mashing 44 dingers. Felix Hernandez had yet another great year on the mound, though not necessarily up to his lofty standards. Kyle Seager had another terrific year at third, and Robinson Cano overcame a dreadful start and ended up with a solid overall performance. The Mariners didn't do much in the off-season, but we think they're set for a better 2016 than 2015, when we mistakenly picked them to represent the A.L. in the World Series. It may not go that well this year, but better than last year shouldn't be a problem.
What happened in Oakland last year? The Athletics were coming off an excellent three-year stretch from 2012–2014 and then things just fell apart, landing them in last place in 2015 at 68–94, worst in the American League. Part of the answer could be bad luck, as they went just 19–35 in one-run games. That should probably turn around, but they're gonna need more help than that. The starting rotation, led by Sonny Gray, looks like a strong point, but the defense and the lineup are subpar. An awful lot will have to go right for the A's to be competitive this year.
Predicted order of finish:
Division Champs: Blue Jays, Royals, Astros
Wild Card Game: Tigers defeat Rangers
Division Series: Blue Jays defeat Rangers, Astros defeat Tigers
ALCS: Blue Jays vs. Astros
American League 2016 Champions: Toronto Blue Jays
National League preview coming tomorrow.