We are now less than a week away from America’s pastime beginning its magical 2016 journey. Teams are making final roster moves, and pretty soon every 25-man unit will be in place for Opening Day. Given the multitude of injuries that occur on a daily basis and the seemingly annual overachievers and disappointments, picking each MLB division winner before a regular-season pitch has been thrown is a risky game.
For now, we are up for the challenge. We have done extensive previews over the past couple of months, ranging from possible bounce-back players and sleeper teams to some bold predictions and loads of fantasy advice. Now, it is time to reveal our best guesses for what ultimately matters the most. Here are our 2016 American League divisional and wild-card predictions (with the National League coming soon).
American League East
1. Boston Red Sox
“Big Papi” David Ortiz is entering his final season. David Price is taking over as the ace for a team in need. Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval — the poster boys for last year’s disaster — are attempting to prove the doubters wrong. Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts will look to build off of last season’s breakout campaigns as the young stars of this team. There are story lines abound for the Boston Red Sox in 2016.
The bullpen should be terrific and the lineup should suffice as usual. Even with the expected dominance of Price at the head of the starting five, the rotation still seems mighty iffy. Yes, this team has holes, but so does the rest of the division. Wouldn’t Ortiz going out with a bang (and possibly tying New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady with four championships) be a script written for Hollywood?
2. Baltimore Orioles (wild card)
The Baltimore Orioles’ roster makeup, believe it or not, is pretty similar to that of the Red Sox. We know about the stacked bullpen consisting of Zach Britton and Darren O’Day, and the lineup could be lethal with all-around studs Manny Machado and Adam Jones surrounded by big boppers Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo. The questions here obviously lie in the starting rotation.
The loss of Wei-Yin Chen may hurt the club more than expected and with the “big” offseason pickup being Yovani Gallardo, a lack of confidence with O’s fans would be understandable. Luckily for Baltimore, the rest of the division may stink and this starting five should not be too far behind the other division contenders.
3. Toronto Blue Jays
We have said it before and we will say it again: The Toronto Blue Jays are going to really, really miss Price at the head of their pitching staff. There are few arms in the league who can replace that kind of talent and production; way too much will be riding on Marcus Stroman’s ability to put up Cy Young-numbers.
R.A. Dickey has been wildly inconsistent, Marco Estrada is unproven, and J.A. Happ is past his prime. Yeah, the offense should be dangerous again, but that can only take them so far. The relief corps has potential with a back-end of Roberto Osuna and Drew Storen, but will the starters be able to make it to the seventh inning without imploding?
4. New York Yankees
There is no shame in forgetting that the New York Yankees technically made the playoffs in 2015. Despite earning the home field advantage against the significantly less experienced Houston Astros for the do-or-die wild card affair, Yanks’ ace Masahiro Tanaka was thoroughly out-pitched by reigning-AL Cy Young award winner Dallas Keuchel. Tanaka’s short MLB career has already earned the label of “injury-prone” and that is where the Bronx Bombers issues begin.
Their rotation has many question marks. Only if Tanaka and Michael Pineda stay healthy and if Nathan Eovaldi and Luis Severino can put up monster numbers at their young ages will the Yankees have a chance. The projected starting lineup is ancient, and it would be a miracle if guys like Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez make it through the season unscathed. The Aroldis Chapman suspension only complicates things, but the one silver lining on this Yankees team should still be a standout bullpen.
5. Tampa Bay Rays
The Tampa Bay Rays enter the season showcasing a promising, youthful group of starting pitchers, but an reliable offense with plenty of holes. What else is new? Only this time, as was the case in 2015, the Rays will not have the mastermind of now-Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon to bail them out. If the lineup wants any chance of avoiding the bottom of the league leaderboard, Evan Longoria will have to revert back to 2013 form. After a nice half-decade or so run of serious contention in the AL pennant race, the Rays are trending in the wrong direction.
American League Central
1. Kansas City Royals
Could it really be anybody else? The defending-World Series champion Kansas City Royals are bringing back the bulk of their title-winning roster and there is no reason to doubt their shot at winning this division again. The only projected starter different from last season will be in right field (either Jarrod Dyson or Reymond Fuentes) and the stellar bullpen has remained intact. Ian Kennedy will slide into the middle of the rotation, and although the pickup was probably overrated, this club simply knows how to win.
2. Cleveland Indians
Second place for the AL Central should be a battle, but we are going with the Cleveland Indians. Baseball pundits have waited for the Tribe to breakout for a couple years now and unfortunately, we do not see it happening in 2016. The rotation should rack up the Ks with the best of them, and it is hard to beat the potential of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar. Cody Allen has filled the closer’s role nicely and will be a key to Cleveland’s success in 2016.
Scoring enough runs could be an issue for the Indians though. Mike Napoli, Juan Uribe, and Marlon Byrd are the primary new offensive weapons, but it is not 2010 anymore and it will be hard to trust them as significant contributors. The promise in this group lies at the top (and in the middle infield) with Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis. A healthy season from the team’s best all-around player, Michael Brantley, will go a long way in determining whether the Indians can challenge KC for first.
3. Chicago White Sox
The Chicago White Sox lineup should be greatly improved this upcoming campaign, as the additions of Brett Lawrie, Todd Frazier, and Austin Jackson among others may pay immediate dividends. If the organization could clone Chris Sale four times to pitch every day, this team would be the favorite for the division, if not the AL. Unfortunately, behind the lefties Sale and Jose Quintana is a group of unprovens and has-beens. David Robertson is an underrated solid option for the ninth, but the bridge leading to him looks wobbly.
4. Detroit Tigers
For the first time in five years, the Detroit Tigers failed to qualify for the postseason in 2015. They had a pretty busy winter, revamping their bullpen, adding a top-of-the-lineup bat, and a pair of middle-of-the-rotation arms, but we do not see it being enough. The offense looks powerful, but other than that, this team does not look like a contender. New acquisition Jordan Zimmermann is probably the best starter and he is currently slated for the No. 3 spot in the rotation. Playing the Royals nearly 20 times in 2016 will just be too much for the Tigers to handle.
5. Minnesota Twins
We really like what the Minnesota Twins are doing. They are getting younger and moving on from the glory days of Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer (as a catcher at least). The lineup is still a year or two away from contending though and a rotation headed by Ervin Santana is a recipe for disaster. Look for Minnesota to be making some noise in 2017 or 2018, but not quite yet.
American League West
1. Houston Astros
The Astros, we feel, are the most well-rounded team in the junior circuit and the AL favorites headed into the season. While the AL East should be a dogfight between mediocre teams and the AL Central may be a two-horse race between Kansas City and Cleveland, Houston goes into Opening Day as the runaway favorites for the AL West. The projected starting lineup has everything you could ask for; speed at the top, power in the middle, and potential at the bottom. If Keuchel can even come close to last year’s dominance, the rest of the rotation should be solid enough.
An under-appreciated aspect of the Astros success in 2015 was their relievers and that group should only get better with newcomer Ken Giles taking over as closer. Injuries and poor play can always come up at the most inopportune times, but as of right now, the Astros look like the best team in the division.
2. Texas Rangers (wild card)
If Yu Darvish comes back by the All-Star break and pitches like he did prior to his injury, the Texas Rangers look like a good bet for second place and a wild-card berth. If not, the Indians or Seattle Mariners could sneak in and snag that honor. The offense has a nice right/lefty balance and Prince Fielder and Adrian Beltre make for some great power in the heart of the order. There is promise with Rougned Odor and Elvis Andrus near the bottom as well.
To reiterate, if Darvish enters the rotation by mid-July or so, that should be enough time for the Rangers to make up any lost ground. Darvish and Cole Hamels make for an elite duo, and that would push Derek Holland and Colby Lewis down to more fitting three-four spots in the unit. Shawn Tolleson came out of nowhere to grab the closer’s role a year ago and looks to repeat his strong outings in 2016.
3. Seattle Mariners
The Seattle Mariners were a massive disappointment in 2015 and should be much better this time around. If Texas falters, expect the M’s to be right on their tail for the runner-up spot. Bringing back Hisashi Iwakuma as the No. 2 starter behind Felix Hernandez completely changes the complexion of the starting five. Newcomer Wade Miley and the intriguing Taijuan Walker should make a decent middle of the group. The bullpen will look new with Steve Cishek and Joaquin Benoit at the end, but both have some solid numbers on their resume.
4. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Even the best player in baseball will not be able to get the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim back to the postseason this year. The top of the lineup with Yunel Escobar and Daniel Nava will look to prove that they still belong in the majors, while Albert Pujols and company simply do not provide enough insurance for the alluded to best player, Mike Trout.
Garrett Richards is solid, if unspectacular, but not quite ace material yet, and the cast of Jered Weaver, Andrew Heaney, Hector Santiago, and Matt Shoemaker may not be good enough to keep the Angels consistently in games. The bullpen is mostly the same with Huston Street securing the closing job, but he is going to need more save opportunities for this team to get back to October.
5. Oakland Athletics
New Oakland Athletics pitcher Rich Hill’s monster September last season was a heartwarming story, but he is not suited for a No. 2 spot in any rotation. Behind ace Sonny Gray is Hill, and it only gets more dicey with Chris Bassitt, Kendall Graveman, and Jesse Hahn following suit. The offense could struggle again, with a steep drop off after the projected one through five batters.
Like the Angels, the A’s strong suit may be their bullpen, with Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson leading the way, but they will need runs from the offense, run prevention from the defense, and solid starts from the rotation in order to have a chance. Something tells us that it is another last place finish facing Oakland.
Follow Victor on Twitter @vbarbosa1127