One of the most amazing things about professional baseball is its incredible parity. In other sports, you can count on the same teams rising to the top virtually every year- the Spurs and whatever team LeBron plays for in basketball and the Packers and Patriots in the NFL- but that isn’t the case with baseball. Last year’s World Series participants, the Royals and Mets, were teams that were branded as perennial strugglers as recent as three years ago; this year, they go into the season among the favorites. The Red Sox missed the playoffs, something seemingly unacceptable for a team that has one of the largest payrolls in the game. Both of those facts, and many others, make it plainly obvious that baseball is really, really hard to predict. You never really know which teams will show up and be contenders and which ones will be pretenders. This is my best shot at predicting the upcoming 2016 season:
The top three teams in this division all have legitimate shots at winning the division and making a run at a World Series title, and a good reason for that is each team’s pitching- the Giants will be spearheaded by their pitching trio of Madison Bumgarner and new signees Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, the D-Backs by major acquisitions Zach Greinke and Shelby Miller, and the Dodgers by ace lefty Clayton Kershaw and the phenomenal bullpen headlined by Kenley Jansen. Each staff is pretty equal talent-wise, so the difference, I think, will come from the lineup. The Giants, who have Buster Posey, Denard Span, and Hunter Pence to lean on, seem to have a more balanced rivals, and I feel that they’ll sneak into the playoffs as the division winner with the worst record in the NL. The bottom two teams… well, there just aren’t a lot to them. The Padres have James Shields and Matt Kemp, and while both are talented players, neither of them, nor anybody else in San Diego, are consistent enough to warrant putting them higher in the division. The Rockies can boast of their two bona-fide stars, Nolan Arenado and Carlos Gonzalez, but not much else- their pitching staff is nothing to write home about, especially in the thin air of Colorado, and that will make them one of the worst teams in the whole league despite the efforts of their stars.
Cardinals (#1 WC)
The Cubs have gotten a lot of publicity this offseason, and it has certainly been warranted- Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein filled the teams holes (2nd base, outfielder, 3rd starter, long reliever) about as perfectly as they could have, poaching Jason Heyward and John Lackey from their rivals down in St. Louis and making them the team to beat in this division. However, despite the losses of two important players, you can’t count the Cards out- they performed unbelievably well last season, and that was without righty Adam Wainwright available to front the rotation. His return, and the addition of Mike Leake, will allow the Cards to grab the first wild card spot with relative ease. I feel bad leaving the Pirates out of the playoffs, because Andrew McCutchen is phenomenal and Francisco Liriano has been wowing me since he was fanning countless White Sox as a member of the Twins, but I just don’t think that the rest of their lineup is good enough to carry them to the playoffs. At the bottom, both the Brewers and the Reds have lineups that feature some good players- Jonathan Lucroy and Ryan Bruan for Milwaukee, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce for Cincy- but both teams’ pitching staffs are not that good, Cincinnati’s especially so. They’ll both land top-ten picks in the 2017 draft.
Nationals (#2 WC)
The Mets were somewhat of a surprise last year, but they won’t be creeping up on anybody this year- with a new middle infield featuring Neil Walker and Asdrubal Cabrera, plus full years from Yoenis Cespedes and Matt Harvey, they might be even better on paper than they were during last year’s World Series run. That’s not to say that Washington won’t try to make things interesting again, though- with veteran manager Dusty Baker at the helm and megastar Bryce Harper leading the way, the Nats will force their way into the playoffs, where they should have been last season. If everything goes right for Miami, there’s a chance that Don Mattingly and co. can sneak their way into a wild card spot, but the back end of the Marlins’ rotation just doesn’t do it for me, and I think they’ll start to fade right before the trading deadline. As for the Braves and Phillies, Atlanta have two solid pieces to build around in Freddie Freeman and Julio Tehran, while the Phils are looking to rebuild with prospects acquired through trades and the draft. That’s really all there is to say- these two team will be whipping posts for the division’s elite.
Rangers (#2 WC)
This division always manages to confound me- the Astros, who were perennial doormats for years, weren’t supposed to do much last year, and the Mariners, with their addition of Nelson Cruz, were. Now, the ‘Stros, led by their young core of Dallas Keuchel, Carlos Correa, and George Springer, look to be legit playoff contenders for years to come. Coming in behind them will be the Rangers, who will offset the fact that Yu Darvish is on the DL to start the season by getting a full season from Cole Hamels, which will allow Texas to make the playoffs as a wild card team for the second straight season. The Mariners have some extremely talented players- Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, and the previously mentioned Cruz are just a few, but as a whole, the team lacks consistency, and the back end of their rotation isn’t very good. They’ll be in the race for a wild card spot for a while, but just don’t have enough to get over the hump. The Angels have the lineup of a playoff team, but their pitching staff beyond Garrett Richards just doesn’t do it for me- I think they’ll struggle to get outs, and therefore struggle to make the final 10. Oakland has an odd team- if everybody could exceed their potential, they could make some noise in the playoff race, but beyond Sonny Gray, it just doesn’t seem like anyone is capable of doing that. The A’s will continue to rebuild and snag a top-5 pick.
Tigers (#1 WC)
I think that this is the toughest division in baseball- it is one of two divisions, along with the AL East, in which every team has a decent shot at the playoffs, and there’s no one team that’s enormously better than another. The defending champs managed to keep an important piece of their core by re-signing Alex Gordon and have an extremely deep pitching staff that will allow them to pull away from the rest of the pack. The back end of Detroit’s rotation is a little bit unstable, but owner Mike Illitch spent some major dollars to acquire a great pitcher in Jordan Zimmermann and a powerful outfielder in Justin Upton that should help Detroit recover from last season’s abominable season. My beloved White Sox are good enough to be in the thick of the playoff race, I just don’t think that they’ll get enough from their outfield offensively, and I’m worried that the drop-off that the rotation suffered last year is a sign that maybe it doesn’t quite have the balance that it should, so I think they’ll miss out (for more on the Sox, please click here). I picked the Indians to win the division last year, and think that their top three pitchers are the best trio in the division, but just can’t see them getting enough production from their lineup to get them into the playoff conversation. The Twins had a good record last year, but many stats showed that they got very, very lucky, very, very often. They have some good players, but no real boppers in their lineup, and their pitching staff just doesn’t impress me- I think they’ll fall back to earth this season.
Blue Jays (#1)
Losing David Price to a division rival certainly won’t help the Blue Jays, but full seasons of Marcus Stroman and Troy Tulowitzki definitely will. The back end of the rotation makes me a little bit nervous, but I think that the team has a lineup that is just so unbelievably loaded that it can be made up for easily; so easily, in fact, that I think they’ll be the AL’s #1 seed. Price moving to Boston was a big signing for the organization, but I feel that the performance of last year’s rotation, sans Eduardo Rodriguez, was closer to being the norm than it was an aberration, and that the offense relies just a tad too much on a 40 year-old David Ortiz to be considered a playoff team. Tampa Bay seems to have a fantastic rotation and a vastly underrated bullpen, but lineup anchor is in the middle of a slow, steady decline, and there’s really nobody else in the order that really stands out. The Orioles are going all-in with the signings of Yovani Gallardo and Pedro Alvarez, and while I think that the Orioles will score a lot of runs with their power this season, beyond Gallardo, I’m not all that impressed with any of the Baltimore pitchers, and I think they’ll struggle, just like they did last season. As for the Yankees, the pitching staff seems to either be inconsistent or in disarray, and I don’t think that many of the aging core they count on to provide offense will have seasons as productive as they did last year; those things will see the Yanks fall from a wild card spot last year to a top-10 pick this year.
NL MVP: Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks
Even though I don’t though I don’t think that the D-Backs will be making the playoffs this season, I think Goldschmidt will pick up some well-deserved hardware- he’s been arguably the best player not named Mike Trout over the past three seasons, and now that he’ll finally be a member of a contending team, he’ll be recognized for his efforts.
NL Cy Young: Madison Bumgarner, Giants
Two starters were signed to take some of the pressure off of MadBum, and I think that’ll do wonders for his stats. The lanky lefty will have to battle his division rivals, Greinke and Kershaw, for the award, but will ultimately prevail to win his first Cy Young.
NL Rookie of the Year: Corey Seager, Dodgers
Seager is heavily favored to win the NL ROY award, and with good reason- the brother of Mariner’s third baseman Kyle Seager is a freak athlete that is good both at the bat and in the field. Should be an easy victory.
NL Comeback Player of the Year: Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
The St. Louis ace suffered a gruesome injury last spring while running out of the batter’s box, and if he were healthy all season, the Cards might have performed better in the playoffs. He’s won 20 and 19 games, respectively, his last two full seasons, and I expect him to approach those totals again this season.
NL Manager of the Year: Joe Maddon, Cubs
It’s one thing to have unbelievably high expectations, as the Cubs do this season, and another thing to meet them; I feel that Maddon’s wacky yet easygoing personality will be a perfect foil to said expectations and will win him the award over a former Cub skipper, Dusty Baker.
NL Best Offseason Acquisition: Zach Greinke, Diamondbacks
Seeing Greinke leave what seemed like a potentially powerful Dodgers team for an underachieving Diamondbacks one seemed baffling at first, but now, I feel the deal is a win-win: Greinke gets the last massive contract of his unbelievable career, and Arizona gets a bona fide ace for many years to come.
NL Worst Offseason Acquisition: Ben Zobrist, Cubs
This isn’t to say that Zobrist isn’t a very talented player that fits Joe Maddon’s ideal vision of a player- a patient hitter that is adept in multiple positions- because he is all of those things. I just feel that paying $56 million for a 35 year-old guy that doesn’t play a premium position is a little much, even for a team as rich as the North Siders.
AL MVP: Carlos Correa, Astros
Last year the young shortstop showed that he is capable of carrying a team to the playoffs. Even though pitchers will now have had a year to figure out his weaknesses, I think that the talented youngster will continue to improve, eventually beating out fellow shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and a resurgent Miguel Cabrera for the MVP.
AL Cy Young: Cole Hamels, Rangers
This was a toughie, since guys like Sonny Gray, Chris Sale, and Chris Archer are all studs that might not warrant any conversation in the Cy Young award race. The transition that the former Phillie made to the Junior Circuit last season was nothing short of amazing, and I think that Hamels will continue to be a top-flight performer in his first full season in Texas.
AL Rookie of the Year: Byron Buxton, Twins
Buxton is an absolute animal that has the athletic ability to fit in playing any sport, and his closest competitor for the award, teammate and former Korean League star Byung Ho Park, will take some time to adjust to major league pitching.
AL Comeback Player of the Year: Alex Cobb, Rays
Cobb was slated to be the ace of last year’s Rays team before ending up having Tommy John surgery. With Chris Archer around to take some of the pressure off of the lefty, I think that Cobb bounces back and has a career-year and keeps the Rays in playoff contention through late September.
AL Manager of the Year: Brad Ausmus, Tigers
The Tigers were a high-priced flop last season, and that put Ausmus under a lot of fire from many media members. Even though I don’t think too highly of Detroit’s moves this offseason, I feel that the success of the Tigers, in the face of last year’s disappointing finish, will win Ausmus his plaudits.
AL Best Offseason Acquisition: David Price, Red Sox
I feel that Dave Dombrowski overpaid a tad for the star lefty, but he gives the team a true number one, something that their unstable rotation sorely lacked last season. Price has been nothing if not consistent, and will almost certainly bring that consistency to Boston.
AL Worst Offseason Acquisition: Ryan Madson, Athletics
A lot of the big money that was thrown around this off season was distributed by National League teams, and there weren’t any really glaringly bad moves in the AL. The A’s addition of Madson, though, seems to make very little sense- a budget-conscious, non-contending team handing out $22 million to a 35 year-old reliever is very out of Billy Beane and company’s wheelhouse.
Cardinals over Nationals
The quality of this game shows how talented the NL’s elite are this year- the traditionally powerful Cards matching up against the Bryce Harper-led Nats. Adam Wainwright outduels Max Scherzer, and a 3-run Matt Holiday homer pushes St. Louis on.
Cubs over Cardinals
The Cubs had a fairly easy time with the Cards in last year’s NLDS, which made sense, considering how hot the Cubbies were and how banged up Mike Matheny’s squad was. Both teams have improved this offseason, and while having a full team at his disposal will certainly help Matheny, I think the Cubs just have too much talent. They move on.
Giants over Mets
Both of these teams have pitching staffs that are good enough to allow them to reach this point. In a bummer for the Mets, though, the Giants not having to play in the Wild Card game means that Madison Bumgarner can make two starts, and I just don’t think that New York can do enough to overcome him to prevail in this series. The G-Men move on to keep the even-year theory alive.
Cubs over Giants
Watching Jake Arrieta square off against MadBum will be one of the best pitching duels in the past decade of playoff baseball, and while the Giants may be more playoff-tested than the young Cubs, I just think that the Lovable Losers have a more powerful, and more consistent offense then San Fran does. Chicago moves on.
Tigers over Rangers
I’m a big Jordan Zimmermann fan- in fact, I predicted that he would win the Cy Young award last season- and even though the Tigers’ righty-heavy lineup will be ideal for Rangers star Yu Darvish to exploit, I think that the former Nationals starter will shut down Texas, and that Detroit’s slugging trio- Miguel Cabrera, Justin Upton, and JD Martinez- will find a way to power the Tigers to the ALDS.
Blue Jays over Tigers
The problem for Detroit will be that, after Zimmermann, they don’t really have anybody to count on in their rotation. Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez are both obviously on the downturn of their careers, and the Mike Pelfrey/Daniel Norris duo won’t intimidate the powerful Blue Jays. Toronto advances to their second straight ALCS.
Royals over Astros
A rematch of last year’s highly entertaining LDS, in which Houston went up 2-1 in the series before losing the next two games, will surely bring some more excitement this year. Even though Houston has gotten better after adding Doug Fister and Ken Giles, I just feel that the Royals have enough magic left in them to overcome the young ‘Stros.
Blue Jays over Royals
As good, and as pesky, as the Royals are, the Jays will want revenge for last year’s ALCS. While the Jays have lost David Price, I think that the Royals replacing Greg Holland and Ryan Madson with Joakim Soria, Johnny Cueto with Ian Kennedy, and losing Ben Zobrist to free agency are far bigger hurdles to overcome than losing Price. The Jays will advance after an entertaining series.
Blue Jays over Cubs
Part of me want my hometown Cubs to break their seemingly never-ending World Series drought this year. The White Sox fan in me wants that drought to extend one more year. Regardless of whatever I’m feeling, I think that it’s pretty clear that while the Cubs may have the more well-known, and well paid, players, that the Jays are a better team. This one won’t end in a walk-off, but it will certainly be a dramatic, back-and-forth series that Toronto and Series MVP Jose Bautista take in 6 games.