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.

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Team Building 101: Postseason Edition

Via Chris Creamer’s SportsLogos.net

The Red Sox are an organization with tons variance heading into the offseason. They have a huge budget, terrific prospect depth, and a new front office that will likely be looking to make changes. President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski and company will have a lot of important decisions to make as they look for ways to improve their roster in both the immediate and distant future. While forward thinking will be mandatory in the front office’s quest to return the team to the postseason in 2016 and beyond, it will be also key to look back on baseball’s most recent postseason to help guide their hands going forward. Here are five lessons the Red Sox can take away from 2015’s playoff participants:

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What To Watch For: Fort Myers Edition

After a long snowy winter, spring is in the air. Pitchers and catchers went through their first official workouts on Saturday, and players of all positions have been participating in baseball activities as spring training gets underway. With all of the stuff that went down this offseason, all eyes are on the Red Sox in Fort Myers. There are plenty of storylines around the team this time of year. Here are some things that Sox fans should be paying attention to and/or keeping in mind as baseball season starts to get rolling:

Welcome To Boston Kung Fu Panda!

If you had the under on the “Over/Under 6.5 days before someone somewhere freaked out about Pablo Sandoval’s weight”, congratulations, you win! Sandoval showed up to camp looking less than slim, prompting a mini media firestorm (and thinkpieces about his diet) in which everyone was forced to decide whether the Panda was actually fat or if he always just happens to look like that. Sandoval responded to his critics in a not-so-jovial way, meaning that it took less than a week for our new third baseman to be at odds with the notoriously needling local media. Personally, I think it’s no big deal, but if Sandoval did indeed blow up in the offseason (honestly, it’s tough to tell if he actually gained much weight. It’s not like he was a skinny guy to begin with) and he struggles out of the gate, I can promise you that things will get ugly between him and the Boston reporters. It will be interesting to see how Sandoval looks once the actual games begin. He’s not necessarily the most athletic looking guy, but he’s known for his deceptively quick feet and soft hands at the hot corner. If Sandoval isn’t in shape, it should be apparent early. Again, it’s only spring training and he has a month and a half to get himself to where he needs to be physically.

Whatever The Heck is Going On with the Outfield

We knew that the outfield was going to be, for lack of a better term, a clusterf*** coming into the season. As of right now, the Sox have eight players competing for what is realistically only five spots between Rusney Castillo, Hanley Ramirez, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Daniel Nava, Allen Craig, Shane Victorino, and Brock Holt. Ramirez and Castillo seem to be locks to start the season out there coming into spring training, though the former is learning a new position and the latter has only had the smallest of sample sizes to work from as far as Major League experience goes. John Farrell tried to bring more clarity to the situation by naming Victorino the starting right fielder assuming he’s healthy in a move I wasn’t happy about, though that only managed to raise more questions about the status of Mookie Betts. I understand the choice on a basic level: Victorino was an integral part of 2013’s championship team and if he’s healthy enough to replicate his performance that season he is an excellent player to have in the everyday lineup both at the plate in the field. Farrell is showing loyalty to a veteran player who helped him win a World Series. But on the other hand Victorino missed all but 30 games last season with back issues, and even though he was “healthy” in 2013 he still only missed 40 games. 2013 was one of the best seasons (and luckiest, as he batted a tough to sustain .321 average on balls in play) of Victorino’s career, and at age 34 and coming off of back surgery, I seriously doubt that he will be able to be that player again.

As someone who is firmly planted on #TeamMookie, this news is concerning if only because of the potential looming Cole Hamels trade which the Red Sox may or may not make. Betts was excellent in his limited time last season, slashing .291/.368/.444 in 211 plate appearances at age 21. As one of the few recent Red Sox prospects that have actually produced at the major league level, it pains me to think about a world where he’s shipped off to Philadelphia and proceeds to be awesome for the next 12 years. While I don’t think it would have been prudent to have given him the starting job right away either, I was hoping that there would have been a positional battle this spring where Victorino and Betts would have had to win the job based on merit rather than seniority. It’s early to tell, but hopefully there is a meaningful spot for Betts on the Opening Day roster where he can contribute to the team. That leaves (likely) two more spots for 5 other players. Holt, Betts, and Craig provide positional versatility, Nava is a switch hitter and specifically crushes right-handed pitching, and while Bradley Jr. has yet to prove he has even the smallest semblance of an offensive game, he does things like this on a regular basis. It’s going to be a tough call for Farrell, and it will be interesting to see who makes the cut out there.

Henry Owens Watch 2k15

Top Red Sox pitching prospect Henry Owens was invited to spring training for the second straight year, meaning that if you follow the team you should probably take note of how he does. There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding the 22-year-old, who dominated Double A Portland before a more up and down stint at Triple A Pawtucket. Owens is the best hope for the Red Sox to develop a star pitcher from within, something they have really struggled to do in recent years. Clay Buchholz is the only homegrown pitcher in the starting rotation and while he hasn’t been as reliable as, say, recently departed Jon Lester, he’s still had some moments when healthy. Owens doesn’t project to have the same upside as Buchholz did coming up through the system, but at 6-6  205 lbs he does have the frame of a workhorse. His fastball usually sits around the low 90’s and though it isn’t an elite-level pitch Owens has benefited from increasing command. Over three levels between 2013 and 2014, Owens has seen his BB/9 drop from 4.56 in 20 starts at High A Salem at the beginning of 2013 to 2.84 in last season’s small Pawtucket sample size. Back in October Fangraphs’ Marc Hulet projected Owens as a #3 starter with potential for better if his command and secondary pitches continue to improve.That may not set the world on fire, but it would be  a victory for a Red Sox farm system looking to end a developmental drought of starting pitching.

The Chase for Yoan Moncada

Having already traded for (and subsequently trading away) Yoenis Cespedes and signing Castillo late last summer, the Red Sox are looking to dip into the Cuban talent pipeline once again with their pursuit of 19-year-old second base phenom Yoan Moncada. CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported late last night that the three lead candidates are the Red Sox, Yankees, and the suddenly profligate Padres, with the bidding supposedly moving north of $20 million. Moncada is highly rated by scouts due largely in part to his youth and upside. In two seasons (101 games) in the Cuban National Series, Moncada has posted a slash line of .277/.388/.380 in 367 plate appearances to go along with 21 steals despite being nearly 11 years younger than his competition. While Moncada likely wouldn’t really factor into this season’s plans and isn’t even necessarily going to be part of the team, this is absolutely a situation worth watching given that Dustin Pedroia and Pablo Sandoval are locked up for the next half decade, Xander Bogaerts is still highly regarded by the front office and manning shortstop, and Betts is already waiting in the wings in that 2B/OF spot that Moncada would likely fit into. Still, the Red Sox have never been afraid to make a splash in the international market as we learned with the Daisuke Matsuzaka and Castillo signings, so even though Moncada might not be a perfect match that the Sox have gotten this deep into the negotiating process shows that they are willing to create room for him. Regardless, this is something Sox fans should be keeping an eye on, especially if the Yankees decide to unload a pile of cash and bring Moncada to the AL East.

EDIT: MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez tweeted out a half hour after I posted this that the Red Sox and Moncada have agreed to terms in the $30 million range. Huge investment for the Sox and one that throws Mookie Betts’ future with the team into greater uncertainty. I don’t have much to add to what I wrote here other than that it will be interesting to see where he fits into the team’s plans and that the signing gives even more depth to an already impressive farm system. This move could be a game changer.

Spring training is a time for wild speculation, shameless optimism, and is a sign that warmer weather is around the corner. There will likely be a lot more narratives that emerge over the next month plus and it’s important not to overreact to anything. That said, keep an eye on these situations for the rest of the spring. They could be telling for how the rest of the season (and in the case of Owens and Moncada, future seasons) will play out.