2016 MLB Preview: Is Parity Here to Stay?

The Dodgers' Corey Seager is a viable NL Rookie of the Year candidate.The Dodgers' Corey Seager is a viable NL Rookie of the Year candidate.

There is a chance that the 2016 Major League Baseball season is as unpredictable as the weather has been this winter. The good news in that is, well, that means that the season will be unpredictable. Parity has come on strong in recent years, and the question is whether the trend will continue. For the first time since 1986, the Kansas City Royals open a season as defending World Series champions. It’s an even-numbered year, which should be good news for the San Francisco Giants. Three years after predicting the Apocalypse correctly (okay, it was just the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series), I’ll try to be spot-on once again in 2016. A division-by-division look, with some other prognostications as well:

 

(*-Denotes Wild Card team.)

 

American League East

PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH

1. Toronto Blue Jays (91-71)

I’m going against the grain here somewhat. The Red Sox are everyone’s chic bounce-back pick, and I’m just as tempted to pick the Yankees to win their first division crown since 2012. But perhaps there will be a carryover effect from Toronto’s scorching-hot run to close out the 2015 regular season. The rotation and bullpen aren’t star-studded, but they have depth. And the lineup remains as good as any in baseball.

2. Boston Red Sox (85-77)*

It’s highly unlikely the Red Sox experience a third straight losing season and fourth in five years. But there is already some dissension in Boston with the benching of Pablo Sandoval, and the team has star talent but depth is a question.

3. New York Yankees (83-79)

The Yankees haven’t had a losing season since 1992, so expect them to be in the mix. They could certainly win the division if the bullpen stays healthy and the veterans in the lineup supply the power again.

4. Baltimore Orioles (81-81)

The Orioles will be fun to watch in 2016. They figure to play a lot of high-scoring games, being forced to outslug teams with their powerful lineup to overcome a shoddy rotation. But they do have a strong bullpen, and could also contend for the East crown if the rotation overachieves or the lineup figures out how to score runs without the long ball.

5. Tampa Bay Rays (76-86)

The Rays are always a hard team to figure out, but what’s never unclear is that they simply don’t spend money. The starting pitching will be strong, but the lineup and bullpen have big question marks.

Breakout player – Travis Shaw, IF, Red Sox: Shaw pushed $90 million man Sandoval to the bench and has plenty of pop in his bat. In David Ortiz’s swan song season, he could ease some concerns about replacing him in the future.

 

American League Central

PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH

1. Kansas City Royals (90-72)

Sure, no one is expecting a third straight AL pennant. But why can’t it happen? The Royals are anything but a fluke, and adding Ian Kennedy to their rotation could prove valuable. The bullpen is still stout, and the Royals pressure their opponents as well as anyone in baseball.

2. Detroit Tigers (84-78)*

The Tigers are a perfect rebound candidate. The bullpen is still a headache, but the lineup is stacked and the rotation has strong pieces in place. J.D. Martinez has emerged as an elite player.

3. Cleveland Indians (83-79)

It almost feels like the Indians’ window has closed. A chic World Series pick last year, they still have a tremendous young rotation, but losing Michael Brantley for an indeterminate amount of time really stings. The offense scuffled last year and hasn’t improved much on paper this year.

4. Minnesota Twins (77-85)

The Twins surprised everyone last year, so they won’t exactly sneak up on people in 2016. But with young studs like Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton, they will be exciting to watch. The pitching staff is hardly elite, but the team learned how to win last year and plays hard for Paul Molitor. Still, they did overachieve in 2015.

5. Chicago White Sox (72-90)

Talk about dissension. The Adam LaRoche saga could be a bad omen for the White Sox as they look to get back to playoff baseball for the first time since 2008. A lefty-heavy rotation led by dominant ace Chris Sale gives reason for hope, and the bullpen is underrated. But a lack of depth, concerns about team chemistry, and a middling offense likely means another silent October on the South Side.

Breakout player – Byron Buxton, OF, Twins: If Miguel Sano can do it, then so too can Buxton, the 2nd overall pick in the 2011 Draft. What he lacks in offense, he will make up for with his exceptional speed and defense.

 

American League West

PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH

1. Texas Rangers (93-69)

The Rangers were looking to 2016 when they traded for Cole Hamels last season. Pairing him with a healthy Yu Darvish is a scary proposition for the rest of the AL West. So, too, is a potent Texas lineup that conjures up memories of the 2010 and ’11 clubs that reached the World Series. The bullpen overachieved in 2015, but the Rangers look as deep and talented as anyone in the division.

2. Houston Astros (83-79)

Now, there are expectations for the Astros. They weren’t there last year when the team came from nowhere to win 86 games and push the Royals to the brink in the Division Series. Carlos Correa is barely legal to drink, and he’s a superstar, but is it reasonable to expect another Cy Young season from Dallas Keuchel? Plus, the team is overly reliant on home runs and the bullpen is average.

3. Seattle Mariners (81-81)

The Mariners were another chic playoff pick last year that disappointed. Things should be better in 2016, though it may not result in a playoff berth. The middle of the lineup needs to produce, while King Felix just needs to be King Felix. There are some problem spots elsewhere, though.

4. Los Angeles Angels (74-88)

This team has Mike Trout, but it ultimately lacks depth in a major way. Mike Scioscia has had nine lives, but a losing season could push him out the door. The pitching staff is very pedestrian, and the talent around Trout is diminishing.

5. Oakland Athletics (70-92)

The Athletics always scrap and claw, but like Tampa Bay, they don’t spend enough to contend seriously. Sonny Gray is among the game’s best, and it will be interesting to see if Khris Davis emerges as a star, but they are really up against it coming off a bad season.

Breakout player – Andrew Heaney, SP, Los Angeles Angels: Heaney has earned the No. 2 spot in the Angels’ rotation. A big year could boost the Angels’ floundering playoff chances, but Heaney figures to be a young pitcher on the rise regardless.

 

POSTSEASON

AL Wild Card Game – at Fenway Park – Tigers 7, Red Sox 4

The two teams that dueled in a very entertaining 2013 ALCS square off again in the Wild Card game, which has been heavily sided toward road teams. Justin Verlander outduels old teammate David Price, whose postseason struggles continue. JD Martinez goes deep to boost the offense.

ALDS — Rangers def. Tigers, 3-1; Royals def. Blue Jays, 3-1

It’s deja vu all over again in 2016. Kansas City digs deep to continue their mastery of Toronto, while the Rangers turn back the clock a half-decade to 2011 and KO the Tigers again. Edinson Volquez stars for KC, while Yu Darvish shines in his postseason debut.

ALCS — Rangers def. Royals, 4-2

Texas rights last year’s wrongs when it couldn’t close out a 2-0 series lead over Toronto by getting down and dirty to take out the gritty Royals, in their third straight ALCS. Joey Gallo has been called up and shows off his massive power, while the rotation outperforms Kansas City’s. Rougned Odor snags ALCS MVP honors.

 

National League East

PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH

1. Washington Nationals (89-73)

This is a dangerous pick. Primarily because I was all over the Nats being overrated last year, which proved correct. But with Matt Williams out and Dusty Baker at the helm, and some addition by subtraction, the Nats should overtake a Mets team facing the weight of grand expectations.

2. New York Mets (87-75)*

The Mets are no fluke. But things broke perfectly for them in last year’s postseason. A resilient bunch with a great rotation, they could recapture the East, but will the offense provide enough pop? Will the bullpen — particularly closer Jeurys Familia — hold up? A Wild Card berth will have to suffice.

3. Miami Marlins (79-83)

The Marlins have improved, but not nearly enough to win the division. Jose Fernandez could win the Cy Young, and Wei-Yin Chen was a solid pickup. Giancarlo Stanton is certainly worth the price of admission, too, but there just isn’t enough depth to sustain a playoff run.

4. Philadelphia Phillies (73-89)

The Phillies are still a few years away, but the 2016 portion of the rebuild will be better than 2015. Young power-hitting infielder Maikel Franco is poised to be the star that Ryan Howard used to be.

5. Atlanta Braves (66-96)

The Braves are basically where the Phillies were last year. It won’t be pretty, even though they are generally headed in the right direction.

Breakout player – Maikel Franco, IF, Philadelphia Phillies: Franco had a strong rookie season and his big spring performance could be a sign of good things for the young Phillies.

 

National League Central

PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH

1. St. Louis Cardinals (92-70)

The Cardinals will win the Central because, well, they’re the Cardinals. Three straight NL Central crowns and five straight playoff appearances will become four and six, respectively, on the strength of the league’s deepest rotation and emerging young sluggers like Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk. Keep an eye on South Korean import Seung Hwan Oh out of the bullpen, as well.

2. Chicago Cubs (90-72)*

The Cubs look too talented not to reach the postseason, but what are the odds Jake Arrieta comes close to last year’s performance? The young players showed they can handle expectations, but a drop-off after a 97-win campaign is to be expected.

3. Pittsburgh Pirates (84-78)

The Pirates are still a solid all-around team, but they simply don’t have the talent that St. Louis or Chicago does. They have made some under-the-radar moves, but being without Jung Ho Kang for some time will be a costly loss.

4. Cincinnati Reds (69-93)

The Reds should have started over a long time ago. They ended up starting a rotation entirely made up of rookies last year, and that experience might help a little. But this team will simply be overmatched by the rest of the division.

4. Milwaukee Brewers (67-95)

Speaking of overmatched, the Brewers are in full rebuild mode too. It will be interesting to see the likes of young players such as Taylor Jungmann and Domingo Santana, but wins will be hard to come by.

Breakout player – Stephen Piscotty, OF, Cardinals: A stellar spring is no surprise for the supremely talented Piscotty, who had a great showing after his call-up last summer. He hits to all fields and has power.

 

National League West

PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH

1. San Francisco Giants (95-67)

It’s an even-numbered year, which doesn’t even seem to warrant an explanation about why the Giants will win the division. But they will because of the healthy returns of many stars and additions of Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto. Bruce Bochy also happens to be the game’s best manager.

2. Los Angeles Dodgers (84-78)

One of these years, all the money in the world isn’t going to be enough to get these Dodgers to October. They have continued to come up short because they are paper champions, and this may be a transition year as they try to get their future stars some experience.

3. Arizona Diamondbacks (82-80)

Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller instantly make the D-Backs a contender, but the depth is a concern. Paul Goldschmidt is a perennial MVP candidate and A.J. Pollock had a terrific year, but Arizona will come up a little short in 2016.

4. San Diego Padres (78-84)

The Padres were supposed to be the bee’s knees last year, and they flopped. They are lacking in talent even though they have some quality young pitching.

5. Colorado Rockies (73-89)

It doesn’t seem like picking the Rockies last ever warrants an explanation, either. Colorado will mash the ball all over the place and still hover around 90 losses.

Breakout player – Corey Seager, IF, Los Angeles Dodgers: It’s hardly a stretch, but baseball’s top prospect could put up big numbers in his first full year in the big leagues.

 

POSTSEASON

NL Wild Card Game – at Wrigley Field – Mets 3, Cubs 2

An NLCS rematch goes in New York’s favor as Noah Syndergaard outduels John Lackey. Michael Conforto has a key extra-base hit.

NLDS — Giants def. Mets, 3-2; Cardinals def. Nationals, 3-1

The Giants get by the Mets as Madison Bumgarner tallies two wins. The Cardinals break the Nationals’ hearts again as Randal Grichuk goes on a power binge.

NLCS — Giants def. Cardinals, 4-2

It’s deja vu in the Senior Circuit, too, as familiar foes San Francisco and St. Louis meet. San Francisco gets the nod because they’ve beaten St. Louis in the NLCS en route to 2012 and 2014 world championships. Hunter Pence has a big series and is named MVP.

 

2016 WORLD SERIES – Giants def. Rangers, 4-2

The even-numbered year magic continues one more time as the Giants beat the Rangers as they did in 2010. Johnny Cueto surprisingly is the Giants’ best starter in the series, but Buster Posey takes home MVP honors.

 

Regular Season Awards

AL MVP – Josh Donaldson, Blue Jays

NL MVP – Stephen Piscotty, Cardinals

AL CY – Chris Archer, Rays

NL CY – Jose Fernandez, Marlins

AL ROY – Byron Buxton, Twins

NL ROY – Corey Seager, Dodgers

AL MGR – Ned Yost, Royals

NL MGR – Bruce Bochy, Giants

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