2016 MLB Preview Part I: The American League

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Arizona Diamondbacks
It’s been nearly half a year, but on Sunday meaningful baseball games will finally be played once again when the Cardinals, Pirates, Cubs, Angels, Jays, Rays, Mets, and Royals kick off the MLB season. CAN YOU FEEL THE EXCITEMENT? There’s nothing quite like Opening Day, the only day (or, I guess two days now) where every team is 0-0 and, theoretically, has an equal shot at winning the World Series. It’s the most unpredictable point in the season for baseball fans. The good news is, I’ve taken the liberty of figuring out exactly what’s going to happen over the next seven months. You’re welcome America. Warning, heavy spoilers for the 2016 season to follow. Note: an asterisk (*) denotes a playoff team.

AL EAST

  1. Baltimore Orioles (89-73)*
  2. Boston Red Sox (87-75)*
  3. Toronto Blue Jays (85-77)
  4. New York Yankees (80-82)
  5. Tampa Bay Rays (76-86)

There was a time when the AL East was the undisputed best division in baseball. While that is no longer necessarily the case, I would still contend that it’s the most competitive division in the majors. Sure, the Yankees and Red Sox aren’t averaging 94+ wins per season like they did from 2002-09, but the rest of the division has improved around them while they’ve fallen back to to pack. Both the Sox and Yankees have built their teams around a dominant bullpen, though with Boston’s Carson Smith and New York’s Aroldis Chapman set to miss the beginning of the season, neither team’s end-of-game pitching situation is at full strength at the moment. The Rays are decent enough and have the best rotation in the division thanks to Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi, but on paper their offense looks anemic. The Yankees are old and reliant on too many injury prone players. Even with their three-headed monster looming at the end of games, can we really trust A-Rod, Mark Texiera, Brian McCann, and the rest of the 30+ year old position players to prop up a rotation that, outside of the often injured Masahiro Tanaka, doesn’t exactly stand out?

That leaves the Jays, Sox, and O’s to duke it out for the top three spots in the division. Toronto can still mash, but the loss of David Price means that they’ll be relying heavily on Marcus Stroman (157.1 career IP) and Marco Estrada, who’s 2015 xFIP was nearly two runs higher than his ERA. Plus, they likely won’t have the boost that last year’s trades for Price and Tulowitzki brought. Boston has perhaps the best young core in the majors, and Mookie Betts is a dark horse MVP candidate. The addition of Price was sorely needed to bolster their lackluster rotation, and with Pablo Sandoval mercifully headed to the bench in favor of Travis Shaw, the baseline for this team might have just been bumped up.  That rotation is still a concern though, and I don’t think that their offense is going to be able to score runs at the same rate as the Orioles, who have a pretty realistic shot to lead the league in both HRs and strikeouts after bringing back Chris Davis, signing Pedro Alvarez, and trading for Mark Trumbo. They have starting pitching issues too (unless you find Chris Tillman and Yovani Gallardo as the staff anchors inspiring), but man, that lineup is going to be dynamite.

AL CENTRAL

  1. Kansas City Royals (90-72)*
  2. Cleveland Indians (86-76)
  3. Detroit Tigers (79-83)
  4. Minnesota Twins (78-84)
  5. Chicago White Sox (73-89)

Last year’s World Series champs figure to be in the mix again this season, even after parting ways with last year’s trade deadline rentals Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist. They still have the OG bullpen monster looming at the end of games, swapping out former closer Greg Holland for two-time Royal Joakim Soria. That’s important, because their rotation looks a lot like it did pre-Cueto trade. Edinson Volquez is solid and volatile Yoradano Ventura has great stuff, but Ian Kennedy, Chris Young, and Kris Medlen are involved too, which makes that ‘pen all the more invaluable. KC can still hit, though, and if Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer continue their upwards trajectory, the Royals will be playing deep into October. The Indians are a dark-horse playoff contender again, and if their bats can catch up to their promising crop of young arms, look out. A full season of Francisco Lindor (PSA: I might be cheating on Xander Bogaerts with Lindor. Please keep it on the down low, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings) should help out too.

The Tigers have talent, but they’re old, thin, and counting on JD Martinez to push 40 dingers again this season despite spending a lot of dough on Justin Upton. Bringing in Jordan Zimmerman should help offset the departure of Price a little, but since age and Kate “Delilah” Upton sapped Justin Verlander of his talent like an alien from Moron Mountain, it might not make enough of a difference. The Twins were 2015’s big surprise team, but even with Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton in the fold for Opening Day, I’d expect a little bit of regression from them. As for the White Sox, I picked them to win the American League last year in my unofficial, never-released-to-the-public predictions last year. I’m not falling for it a second time, even though I’m tempted to do so if only to spite that whole Drake LaRoche story, AKA the dumbest story in the history of time.

AL WEST

  1. Houston Astros (94-68)*
  2. Texas Rangers (93-69)*
  3. Los Angeles Angels (81-81)
  4. Seattle Mariners (79-83)
  5. Oakland A’s (70-92)

Sports Illustrated picked the Astros to win the World Series in 2016, one year ahead of schedule, and for good reason. This team is loaded, with the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner in Dallas Keuchel, a great bullpen, and power bats out the wazoo. Carlos Correa (the shortstop position is BACK baby) will be around for 162 games this year which is never a bad thing, and if George Springer can avoid a prolonged stint on the DL this time around, maybe Houston can avoid another late-season swoon. One player to watch is Tyler White, who was a 33rd round draft pick in 2013 and has raked in the minors and Spring Training to the point where he’s the favorite to land the starting first baseman gig despite having zero major league at bats. But while the Astros are the AL West favorite, they’re going to be challenged by the other Lone Star State team. The Rangers have decimated by injuries the last two seasons, though they were able to overcome that last year and win the division. This year, they’re looming as a potential juggernaut. Cole Hamels will be joined at the top of the rotation by Yu Darvish by mid-May, and there really aren’t many weak spots in the Texas lineup, though one has to wonder how much longer Adrian Beltre can keep this up. Ian Desmond, the former Nationals shortstop, could be an X Factor in this divisional race. If he can handle the move to left field better than, say, Hanley Ramirez, the Rangers will have found a major bargain.

Also, is it okay to start feeling bad for Mike Trout? I know it can’t be that awful being the best player on planet Earth, but it has to hurt being leapfrogged by Houston and Texas so quickly. The Angels have Trout, but not a third outfielder or second baseman. Albert Pujols still produces power numbers, but his body has broken down with age, and though Garrett Richards and 24-year-old Andrew Heaney could be a formidable duo at the top of the rotation, the rest of the staff has plenty of question marks. As for the A’s and Mariners, neither team looks poised to make much of a run. Oakland lacks talent, and while it’s not unusual for one of Billy Beane‘s teams to play better than it looks on paper, it’s hard not to think this is a transition phase. The Mariners made separate trades for Adam Lind and Wade Miley, two solid pieces, but neither of which will be enough to get Seattle to the playoffs for the first time since 2001.

OTHER PICKS

MVP: Mike Trout, Angels (Duh.)

CY YOUNG: Chris Sale, White Sox (Because this has to be rewarded eventually, right?)

ROY: Byung-Ho Park, Twins (He’ll finish what the Pirates’ Jung-Ho Kang started in the NL last year.)

LEAGUE CHAMPION: Astros over Royals in 7

Check back later today/tomorrow morning for Part II: The National League, and follow In Wakefield We Trust on Twitter here.

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