The safe bet for the American League Central crown in 2016 would probably be the Kansas City Royals. In the National League East, the co-favorites are the Washington Nationals and New York Mets. And while the American League East seems to be a toss-up, we’d like to think that conventional wisdom points to the Boston Red Sox or Toronto Blue Jays capturing that division.
This article will throw all of that out the window. We don’t guarantee that the following trio will win their groups in the upcoming season or even make the playoffs. All we’re saying is that the rest of the league better look out for some potential dark horse candidates. Here are three sleeper contenders for 2016.
1. Baltimore Orioles
Over the past four seasons, the Baltimore Orioles have teetered on the brink between mediocrity and greatness. In manager Buck Showalter’s second season at the helm in 2012, the team came out of nowhere to finish the regular season with 93 wins and thus, earned a wild-card spot and playoff berth for the first time since 1997. Then they regressed a bit in 2013, dropping to 85-77, and back out of the postseason.
In 2014, the squad recorded a 96-66 mark and made it all the way to the ALCS, where they were swept by the Kansas City Royals, but then they fell back to an even 81-81 last year. The pattern tells us that the Os should be playoff-bound again in 2016 and we’ve got some concrete evidence to lay out that helps their cause.
First, an offense that ranked second in all of baseball in home runs in 2015 will return the same core of Adam Jones, Manny Machado, and Chris Davis, and they’ve added slugger Mark Trumbo to the mix too. Next, their elite bullpen of closer Zach Britton, submarine set-up man Darren O’Day, and company will be back for more, making the bridge to a win that much shorter. If their starters can put together some quality outings, and newcomer Yovani Gallardo can pitch like he did in Milwaukee, Baltimore could have a great shot at winning the AL East.
2. Cleveland Indians
The Cleveland Indians will have a tough task trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013, as they have, presumably, the defending-champion Royals and veteran Detroit Tigers to primarily contend with. The Tribe has the potential and talent to make some noise though. It starts on the mound where they have Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar at the head of their rotation.
The trio of right-handers each earned run averages between 3.45 and 3.63, and they all had at least 195 strikeouts in 2015. On offense, they’re led by five-tool player Michael Brantley patrolling the outfield, and one of the better middle infields in the game with Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis. With Terry Francona running the show — a man who knows a thing or two about winning a championship — this strong group is in good hands to try and dethrone the Royals.
3. Miami Marlins
The Miami Marlins have the steepest divisional hill to climb of these three teams. On one hand, they’re playing in the same group of five with projected bottom-feeders like the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies, but the quintet could be top-heavy. The Nationals may finally meet their lofty expectations of a deep playoff run, and the Mets are still employing their monster pitching rotation after last year’s magical NL pennant run.
If either of those two top teams falter, the Marlins could squeak into the playoffs. The front of their starting rotation should be excellent with Jose Fernandez and new-acquisition Wei-Yin Chen — and the offense has some nice pieces as well. Obviously you have the most powerful slugger in the game with Giancarlo Stanton, but there’s also defending batting and stolen base champion Dee Gordon. Add on the promising Christian Yelich and veteran utility man Martin Prado and you could have something special brewing here. We’ll see how new manager Don Mattingly handles this intriguing bunch in 2016.
Follow Victor on Twitter @vbarbosa1127