Articles By Athlon Sports
As pitchers and catchers report this week in Florida and Arizona, Athlon Sports will preview every team in Major League Baseball. Outlooks for every team and so much more information, including rosters, advanced stats and anonymous scouting reports, are featured in the Athlon Sports 2016 MLB Preview, available on newsstands everywhere and in our online store.
Braves president of baseball operations John Hart isn’t doing any sugarcoating anymore. The Braves are in a full-out rebuild, selling off nearly every last tradeable piece this winter to continue bolstering their farm system for the future. That included dealing Andrelton Simmons, arguably the best defensive shortstop in the game, to the Angels and righthander Shelby Miller to the Diamondbacks. Add those two and Cameron Maybin to last winter’s list of Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Evan Gattis and Craig Kimbrel. In return, the team has received a bevy of top-rated prospects, but few are major league-ready, which means another lean year for the Braves in 2016, their final season at Turner Field. And it could be another lean one in 2017, their first season in the new stadium in the Atlanta suburb of Cobb County.
With Miller traded to the Diamondbacks, Julio Teheran is now the de facto ace of the Braves staff and frankly has pitched like one for stretches of the past two seasons. Teheran, who turns 25 in January, had an odd road slump for much of the 2015 season and — like the rest of the rotation — rarely got much run support. He topped 200 innings and made 33 starts for the second consecutive season. Matt Wisler proved himself during a 19-start stint as a rookie and is expected to fill a regular spot in the rotation to open 2016. The only other starting spot that would seem secure, for the early part of the season anyway, is one for Bud Norris. The Braves “bought low” on the 30-year-old pitcher, who was coming off a career-worst 3–11 season with a 6.72 ERA with the Orioles and Padres and signed for only $2.5 million.
The Braves also signed righthanders Jhoulys Chacin and Kyle Kendrick to minor league deals with a chance to make the rotation. They are likely to compete for one of the remaining two spots with Williams Perez, Mike Foltynewicz and Manny Banuelos. Nobody should feel especially secure, though, with the next wave of minor league starting talent knocking at the door. That list includes Lucas Sims, who stood out at the Arizona Fall League; Tyrell Jenkins, who was named the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year; and Sean Newcomb and Aaron Blair, both nearly major league-ready starters when they were acquired via trades this winter.
Jason Grilli is on track to be ready to pitch in spring training when he makes his comeback from surgery for a ruptured Achilles. He’s determined to be a factor when he does, but it might not be at the closer’s spot he held after arriving in Atlanta a year ago. Arodys Vizcaino is expected back in that role after making the most of his opportunity last year when Grilli went down. The dynamic power arm converted 9-of-10 save opportunities and posted a 1.60 ERA in 36 appearances. Foltynewicz could wind up in the bullpen if he doesn’t make the rotation, in the mold of a John Smoltz-type power pitcher. That might make more sense anyway; he is coming off surgery to remove half of a rib and relieve blood clots in his shoulder area. The Braves’ front office will continue to look for bullpen help as the season approaches.
The Braves acquired shortstop Erick Aybar from the Angels in the Simmons trade to be a stopgap until newly acquired prospect Dansby Swanson, last year’s No. 1 overall draft pick out of Vanderbilt, is ready for the big leagues. Ozzie Albies, who had been projected the organization’s top shortstop prospect until Swanson was acquired, is an option at either shortstop or second base in the near future as well. The Braves would have liked to see a little more offense than Simmons provided over the last several years, and they could get it from the 32-year-old Aybar, who hit .270 last year with 30 doubles. Jace Peterson, acquired from the Padres, won the everyday job at second base last year, but the Braves need him to take a step forward offensively after he hit just .239 with 52 RBIs in 152 games.
Freddie Freeman is pretty much the last man standing, and for a while there, Braves fans were convinced that newly promoted general manager John Coppolella would trade him too. “Coppy” has insisted he won’t, and Freeman hasn’t exactly been in top form to maximize his value anyway. A wrist injury plagued him for much of the 2015 season, when he had career lows in games (118) and at-bats (416). The two-time All-Star is expected to be healthy again this season, but with questions about what kind of protection he’ll have in the lineup, it could be another challenging season. Third base is precarious given the Braves’ decision to move Cuban defector Hector Olivera to left field after he disappointed in a brief stint in the majors last year, leaving recent signee Gordon Beckham and second-year player Adonis Garcia as the best options there.
Right fielder Nick Markakis was a puzzling addition to a rebuilding team last year when he signed a four-year $44 million free agent contract, and he still might find himself on the trading block before 2016 is out. But the Braves likely will wait to see if his value improves as the season goes along. He had spinal surgery heading into last season, and as a result his power numbers were down; he hit a career-low three home runs last season. The Olivera experiment has not gone well so far, and the Braves hope that will change with a move to left field. Ender Inciarte or Michael Bourn could open the season in center field, if one or the other is not traded this spring. Inciarte can play all three outfield positions.
This time a year ago, it would be hard to imagine that A.J. Pierzynski would be back in a Braves uniform in 2016 and Christian Bethancourt wouldn’t be. The point of signing Pierzynski was to back up the young and athletic Bethancourt. But the Braves never saw the development they wanted from Bethancourt, who was prone to passed balls at critical times, and they traded him over the winter. The Braves re-signed Pierzynski, who caught 113 games and hit .300 last season as the supposed veteran backup. Pierzynski figures to split time now with Tyler Flowers, who started 100 games last year for the White Sox and returns to the Braves organization that drafted him.
Nick Swisher gives the Braves an experienced bat off the bench, provided he’s not traded. Former Brave Kelly Johnson signed a one-year deal and will fill in at second, third and in the outfield. Emilio Bonifacio returns to the Braves’ bench after a miserable 2014 with the White Sox and an August release. That meant the Braves could sign him for only $1.25 million, and they got what had been a capable bench bat for the team in 2014 and a former Marlins player familiar with manager Fredi Gonzalez.
The Braves made it official when they promoted Coppolella from assistant GM to general manager this winter. He’s been the architect of the rapid succession of trades that have reshaped the farm system and gutted the roster. Hart and John Schuerholz will have to continue to work damage control as the Braves try to convince their fans that all the turnover has been for sound reasons. Gonzalez is back for his sixth season as manager and has largely been given a pass for trying to keep some normalcy and progress amid all the chaos.
It’s been 10 years since the Braves finished their run of 14 straight playoff appearances with the “Baby Braves,” their 2005 class of 18 rookies. They’ve made the postseason only three times since. They’re hopeful another wave of young talent sets the organization on course to get back to being regular playoff contenders. It’ll be a while, though, as the solid young pitchers who reached the big leagues last year continue to take their lumps and fans go reaching for their programs to see who the heck is who — if they show up to the ballpark at all.
Prediction: 5th NL East
CF Ender Inciarte (L)
SS Erick Aybar (S)
1B Freddie Freeman (L)
RF Nick Markakis (L)
LF Hector Olivera (R)
3B Gordon Beckham (R)
2B Jace Peterson (L)
C A.J. Pierzynski (L)
RF/1B Nick Swisher (S)
C Tyler Flowers (R)
UTL Emilio Bonifacio (S)
UTL Kelly Johnson (L)
INF Adonis Garcia (R)
RHP Julio Teheran
RHP Matt Wisler
RHP Bud Norris
RHP Jhoulys Chacin
LHP Manny Banuelos
RHP Arodys Vizcaino (Closer)
RHP Jason Grilli
RHP David Carpenter
RHP Jim Johnson
LHP Alex Torres
RHP Alexi Ogando
RHP Mike Foltynewicz
As pitchers and catchers report this week in Florida and Arizona, Athlon Sports will preview every team in Major League Baseball. Outlooks for every team and so much more information, including rosters, advanced stats and anonymous scouting reports, are featured in the Athlon Sports 2016 MLB Preview, available on newsstands everywhere and in our online store.
The window might have closed on the Angels. The task for GM Billy Eppler is to pry it back open.
After leading the majors in wins (98) and runs scored (773) in 2014, the Angels were quickly swept from the playoffs by the Kansas City Royals, presaging a season of dysfunction in 2015. Angels owner Arte Moreno reacted angrily to troubled outfielder Josh Hamilton’s relapse into substance abuse. An acrimonious parting resulted in Hamilton being dealt back to Texas for nothing.
Entrenched manager Mike Scioscia has not been able to win a playoff game since 2009. But he won a power struggle with GM Jerry Dipoto, who resigned his position in midseason and eventually landed with division rival Seattle. Eppler replaced him, becoming the fourth GM in the past 10 years to try and function between the twin powers of Scioscia and Moreno.
Eppler inherits a team saddled with at least $40 million owed to Hamilton in the next two seasons, an aging Albert Pujols and one of the weakest farm systems in baseball.
Buoyed by the generational talent of Mike Trout and a sound pitching staff, the Angels will contend — but it might be in spite of themselves.
Dipoto did the Angels a favor before he left, rebuilding the pitching staff and leaving the team with a deep reserve of young starting pitchers. The Angels have eight starters with major league experience, a group that includes six who are 28 years old or younger. Garrett Richards, the team’s 27-year-old ace, leads that group. One of the hardest-throwing starters in the majors, Richards bounced back from a devastating knee injury to make 32 starts in 2015. He went 15–12 with a 3.65 ERA, but his WHIP was higher and strikeout rate lower than during his breakout 2014 season. Richards could get even better this season as he moves farther from that knee injury.
Tyler Skaggs is coming off his own injury but should strengthen the Angels rotation when he returns from Tommy John surgery, joining fellow 20-somethings Andrew Heaney (5–0 in his first six starts last year), Matt Shoemaker, Hector Santiago and Nick Tropeano. Veterans Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson — both making $20 million in the final year of their respective contracts — are the question marks in this group. Wilson is coming off elbow surgery, and Weaver had a down year that featured a disturbing loss of velocity.
Dipoto’s makeover of the starting rotation was preceded by a bullpen rebuild two years ago. The key pieces of that reconstruction project are still in place — closer Huston Street and lead setup man Joe Smith. In the midst of converting 40 of 45 save chances last season, Street was signed to an affordable two-year, $18 million extension. Smith didn’t match his 2014 dominance (1.81 ERA, 0.80 WHIP) but remains a reliable eighth-inning option. The trade for Yunel Escobar cost the Angels young reliever Trevor Gott, but a handful of alternatives (Fernando Salas, Mike Morin, Cory Rasmus, Ramon Ramirez and lefthander Jose Alvarez) remain for Scioscia to sort through.
The Angels have moved on from the Erick Aybar-Howie Kendrick era up the middle. Eppler’s first big personnel move as Angels GM was to complete the break by dealing for shortstop Andrelton Simmons. In the 26-year-old Simmons, the Angels get one of the most dynamic defenders in baseball — and a player who is under contract through 2020. It’s questionable how much Simmons will be able to provide offensively, however. Second base remains a work in progress for the Angels, who dealt Kendrick away a year ago (also, like Aybar, a season before free agency). Johnny Giavotella and veteran Cliff Pennington also figure to see playing time there; Giavotella hit .272 in 124 starts there last season.
Pujols is coming off his first 40-home run season since 2010 and has driven in 200 runs over the past two years. The Angels have to be happy with that and try to milk it for as long as they can by gradually increasing Pujols’ time at DH. The right foot surgery that could sideline Pujols at the start of the 2016 season is just the latest red flag that should prompt Scioscia to put those two letters — DH — next to Pujols’ name in the lineup even more often this season. The opposite corner has been a sinkhole for the Angels since Troy Glaus made the All-Star team in 2003. Dallas McPherson, Brandon Wood, Chone Figgins, Maicer Izturis and Alberto Callaspo have all come and gone. David Freese wasn’t the answer, either. The Angels moved on after two years and just 24 home runs from Freese, trading with the Washington Nationals to acquire Escobar, who is not likely to be anything more than a short-term answer either.
Trout continued to be the modern personification of Mickey Mantle, setting a new personal best with 41 home runs in 2015 and leading the AL with a .991 OPS. He gained a running mate in Kole Calhoun, who emerged as a Gold Glove outfielder while hitting 26 home runs and driving in 83 runs last season. The dropoff in the Angels’ lineup was cataclysmic when those two didn’t produce. Angels left fielders in 2015 combined for just nine home runs, a .317 slugging percentage and .592 OPS — all the lowest in the majors at that position. The apparent plan to plug that hole with a platoon of Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry (rather than a costly signing of Yoenis Cespedes, Jason Heyward or Alex Gordon off the winter free agent market) offers only marginal hope.
The Angels began handing over the catcher’s job — never an easy one under the exacting standards of Scioscia, who spent his playing career behind the plate — to Carlos Perez late last season. Acquired from the Houston Astros last winter, the 24-year-old Perez essentially became the Angels’ primary catcher over the final two months of the 2015 season, supplanting Chris Iannetta (who left as a free agent). The young Perez hit .250 overall and threw out 38 percent of basestealers in his 75 starts behind the plate, one of the best rates in the American League. Veteran Geovany Soto was signed to support Perez.
Only his own limited athleticism and Pujols’ reluctance to DH keeps C.J. Cron pigeonholed as a DH at such a young age. But the 2011 first-rounder has shown signs of growing into the kind of run producer the Angels sorely need to add depth to their lineup — whether he’s at first base or DH. The rest of the bench offers little with platoon pieces from left field and second base taking up spots. Pennington adds some versatility.
Peace and harmony reign in Anaheim — for now. Scioscia has embraced the arrival of Eppler and staff changes that brought former members of his coaching staff (Bud Black and Ron Roenicke) back to the organization. The longest-tenured manager in baseball, entering his 17th season with the Angels, Scioscia had the option of opting out of his contract but elected to return. That stability is a plus for the Angels. The front-office churn and a 10–22 record in playoff games since the 2002 championship are not.
When the Angels changed GMs in the past, Moreno allowed (forced?) them to splurge on free agents in their first winter. For Tony Reagins, it was Torii Hunter. Dipoto went big for Pujols and Wilson. Eppler didn’t get the same access to Moreno’s checkbook — despite the team’s glaring need for a Heyward, Cespedes or Gordon to drop into the 2016 lineup. That frugal decision (based primarily on Moreno’s reluctance to exceed baseball’s luxury-tax cap) will likely leave the Angels an unbalanced team with Trout, Calhoun and Pujols forced to carry an inadequate offense.
Prediction: 3rd AL West
RF Kole Calhoun (L)
3B Yunel Escobar (R)
CF Mike Trout (R)
1B Albert Pujols (R)
DH C.J. Cron (R)
LF Daniel Nava (S)
SS Andrelton Simmons (R)
C Carlos Perez (R)
2B Cliff Pennington (S)
C Geovany Soto (R)
OF Craig Gentry (R)
INF Johnny Giavotella (R)
INF Rey Navarro (S)
RHP Garrett Richards
LHP C.J. Wilson
RHP Jered Weaver
LHP Andrew Heaney
RHP Matt Shoemaker
RHP Huston Street (Closer)
RHP Joe Smith
RHP Fernando Salas
LHP Jose Alvarez
RHP Mike Morin
RHP Cory Rasmus
LHP Hector Santiago
As pitchers and catchers report this week in Florida and Arizona, Athlon Sports will preview every team in Major League Baseball. Outlooks for every team and so much more information, including rosters, advanced stats and anonymous scouting reports, are featured in the Athlon Sports 2016 MLB Preview, available on newsstands everywhere and in our online store.
The Rockies have moved on, hoping that in the process they’ll finally move up. On July 28, they traded star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, the face of the franchise, to the Blue Jays along with reliever LaTroy Hawkins. The Rockies were saddled with shortstop Jose Reyes in return but did save $50 million — the difference between what Tulowitzki, signed through 2020, and Reyes are owed — and received right-handed pitchers Jeff Hoffman, Miguel Castro and Jesus Tinoco, three prospects to add to an already deep farm system.
The Rockies lost 94 games and have endured five straight losing seasons. Contending seems highly unlikely unless the starting rotation is significantly improved. And that’s a better bet to happen in 2017.
The starters had a major league-worst 5.27 ERA, the Rockies’ second-highest number in the past 10 seasons. They have starters with promise but no clear-cut No. 1 to lead the rotation. Veteran lefthander Jorge De La Rosa was unable to continue his remarkable dominance at Coors Field last year but remains a good bet to hold his own each time out. Chad Bettis spent the first month and a half in the minors but then made 20 starts for the Rockies in a breakthrough season. He has the stuff and the speed variance to be a big contributor as he continues to gain experience.
Tyler Chatwood missed all of 2015 following his second Tommy John surgery. He could return to the rotation or move to the bullpen if starting proves too taxing. Hand and foot injuries have limited Jordan Lyles to 32 combined starts and 175.2 innings the past two years. But at age 25, he has still made 97 starts in the majors and can be an asset in the back of the rotation. Jon Gray showed promise and understandable inconsistency while making nine starts for the Rockies last year before reaching a limit of 155 innings. Gray will vie for a spot in the Opening Day rotation. He’s a power pitcher with the stuff necessary to be a front-of-the-rotation starter.
The relievers had the highest ERA (4.70) and most walks (249) in the majors. To add some much-needed experience, the Rockies signed free agents Jason Motte and Chad Qualls to two-year contracts. Both can pitch at the back end, with Motte expected to begin the season closing. That job, however, could eventually go to Adam Ottavino, a power pitcher with control and swing-and-miss stuff. He closed last April and was superb before undergoing Tommy John surgery in May. Ottavino is expected back around the All-Star break, and the Rockies showed their faith in him with a three-year, $10.4 million contract. Lefty Jake McGee, acquired in an offseason deal with Tampa, has had a sub-1.000 WHIP in three of his five seasons in the majors.
Lefthander Boone Logan, a disappointment in each of his first two seasons with the Rockies, is entering the final season of his three-year, $16.5 million contract. Hard-throwing Jairo Diaz eased into the eighth-inning role after being brought up from Triple-A in late August. Scott Oberg has four effective pitches, including a 95 mph fastball, but struggles with command at times. He paid dearly for his mistakes as a rookie — yielding 10 homers in 58.1 innings — but finished strong and should contribute in the middle innings. Justin Miller is another hard thrower with good command and was equally effective against left- and right-handed hitters. Christian Bergman was the primary long reliever last season but could be challenged by David Hale for that role this year.
Reyes has $48 million remaining on his contract, including a $4 million buyout for 2018. His range has diminished considerably, and he doesn’t run as well as he once did. Major League Baseball is reviewing a domestic violence charge against Reyes that could result in a suspension and makes him virtually untradeable. Prospect Trevor Story likely will begin the season in Triple-A but should make his big league debut in 2016; he could start the season as the Rockies’ shortstop if Reyes is suspended. Second baseman DJ LeMahieu, who was selected to his first All-Star Game, plays Gold Glove-caliber defense and had his best offensive season, hitting .301/.358/.388 with 23 stolen bases in 26 attempts.
Third baseman Nolan Arenado, who turns 25 in April, has become one of the game’s elite players. He has started his career by winning three consecutive Gold Gloves and had a slugging breakthrough last year. Arenado tied for the NL lead with 42 home runs — 22 of which came on the road — and led the majors with 130 RBIs while compiling an .898 OPS. Left-handed-hitting first baseman Ben Paulsen had an .815 OPS against right-handed pitchers but just a .554 OPS against lefties, whom he faced sparingly. Mark Reynolds, signed in the offseason, likely will face most of the left-handed pitching. A power hitter with excessively high strikeout totals, Reynolds will provide a slugging threat off the bench when he doesn’t start.
Center fielder Charlie Blackmon is a very effective and durable leadoff hitter with unusual power for that spot along with the ability to steal bases. Right fielder Carlos Gonzalez overcame an abysmal start — while he was still recovering from a knee injury that cut his 2014 season short — and hit .292 with 36 home runs, 84 RBIs and a .961 OPS after June 1. Gerardo Parra, signed to a three-year deal in January, will replace Corey Dickerson in left field. Parra is a two-time Gold Glove winner who hit a combined .291 with 14 home runs and 51 RBIs with Milwaukee and Baltimore last season.
Nick Hundley shored up what had been a weak defensive position with Wilin Rosario behind the plate. Hundley hit a career-high .301 — his .355 mark at Coors Field offsetting his .237 road average — with 10 homers and was solid defensively. Tom Murphy is the Rockies’ catcher of the future. He likely will begin the season in Triple-A, leaving Dustin Garneau and Jackson Williams to vie for the back-up job. Both are capable defensively but provide minimal offense.
Reynolds will supply right-handed power, and when he doesn’t start, he’ll give the Rockies the long-ball threat off the bench they lacked last year. Daniel Descalso is a capable defender at shortstop, second and third base and can even play first base if needed. He did little offensively, hitting .205 in 185 at-bats, including 8-for-44 (.182) as a pinch hitter. Brandon Barnes is a high-energy type who can play all three outfield positions. He will serve as a late-inning defensive replacement.
Walt Weiss is entering his fourth season as the Rockies’ manager and the final one on his current three-year contract. The Rockies are 208–278 (.428) under Weiss, who was allowed to bring back his entire coaching staff for the 2016 season. That record is more reflective of a lack of pitching than any indictment of Weiss. Nonetheless, marked improvement this season could be necessary for him to keep his job. General manager Jeff Bridich made the difficult decision to trade Tulowitzki and give the franchise a necessary reboot. He now faces the challenge of transforming a team that has made the playoffs only three times in 23 seasons.
The Rockies have had one winning season on the road — 41–40 in 2009. To overcome their historic road woes and become a factor in the NL West, they must win close to 55 games at Coors Field. But their home record last year was just 36–45, barely better than the franchise-worst 35–46 in 2012. The Rockies will hit at home — they always do — so recapturing their mojo at their home park comes down to better pitching. The Rockies have some promising starters and more on the way, but the learning curve for young pitchers at Coors Field is very steep. Finishing anywhere but last in the tough NL West should be considered a success in 2016.
Prediction: 5th NL West
SS Jose Reyes (S)
CF Charlie Blackmon (L)
RF Carlos Gonzalez (L)
3B Nolan Arenado (R)
1B Ben Paulsen (L)
LF Gerardo Parra (L)
C Nick Hundley (R)
2B DJ LeMahieu (R)
1B Mark Reynolds (R)
INF Daniel Descalso (L)
OF Brandon Barnes (R)
C Dustin Garneau (R)
LHP Jorge De La Rosa
RHP Chad Bettis
RHP Tyler Chatwood
RHP Jordan Lyles
RHP Jon Gray
RHP Jason Motte (Closer)
RHP Chad Qualls
RHP Jairo Diaz
LHP Boone Logan
RHP Scott Oberg
RHP Christian Bergman
LHP Jake McGee
RHP Justin Miller
The Rangers did relatively little over the winter for a second straight offseason, despite a free agent marketplace loaded with premium talent. Before last season, the Rangers didn’t commit much money as they waited for all their injured players from 2014 to get healthy. They didn’t go crazy this offseason because all those injured players came back to lead the team to an unexpected American League West title and are back for 2016. The Rangers won’t surprise anyone again. They have the cast to defend their division title and keep winning in the postseason.
The clock is ticking until Yu Darvish returns in mid-May from Tommy John surgery, an addition that will give the Rangers two premier starting pitchers. The Rangers know as well as any team that it takes time for a pitcher to find his stride after Tommy John, but Darvish isn’t just any pitcher. The righthander has a repertoire that rivals the best in the game. His challenge will be commanding those pitches while also building arm strength, and the Rangers will monitor him closely. Darvish’s spot will likely be kept warm by righty Chi Chi Gonzalez.
Darvish will join a rotation headed by lefthander Cole Hamels, acquired at the July 31 trade deadline with three full seasons left on his contract. The Rangers lost the first two games Hamels started, but they won the final 10 and one more in the division series before an error-fest spoiled his Game 5 start at Toronto. Hamels unquestionably is a No. 2 starter. Some say he’s a No. 1. He logs innings, piles up strikeouts and dominates lineups at times. Two more lefties, Derek Holland and Martin Perez, are back for a full campaign. Holland missed four months in 2015 with a shoulder injury, and Perez returned from Tommy John surgery at the All-Star break. Both experienced dominating starts and also the hiccups that come with returning from injury. Colby Lewis will be back, too. He and the Rangers reached an agreement on a one-year deal before Christmas.
This unit, following the mold of the Royals’ dominating bullpen, has a chance to shorten games and not be worn out at the end of the season. The Rangers could have six relievers who have experience closing games at some level, but they could also trade one of those arms to shore up another area of the club. Assuming no trades are made, Shawn Tolleson will enter spring training as the closer after saving 35 games last season. He started out as a middle reliever but took the closer’s job May 20 and stabilized a struggling unit.
Fellow righty Sam Dyson and lefty Jake Diekman joined at the trade deadline, and they carried the bullpen down the stretch. Hard-throwing righty Keone Kela returns for his sophomore season, and the Rangers added righties Tom Wilhelmsen and Tony Barnette. Wilhelmsen is a former Mariners closer, and Barnette saved 41 games in 2015 while pitching in Japan. Sam Freeman and Andrew Faulkner are lefties who can log multiple innings. If the Rangers opt for a true long man, it could be righty Nick Martinez.
The last time anyone saw Elvis Andrus, he was committing two costly errors in the seventh inning of Game 5 of the ALDS. He shouldered all the blame for the loss and pledged to learn from the experience. The shortstop’s offense came around in the second half, and he finished with a career-high seven homers. Second baseman Rougned Odor was a force for the final four months after struggling badly early and enduring a demotion to Triple-A. He returned in June and batted .292 the rest of the way with 15 of his 16 homers.
Adrian Beltre enters 2016 in the final year of a six-year contract that many criticized when he signed it in 2011. The deal rates as one of the best in team history, as Beltre has been an offensive force, a premium defender and a clubhouse leader while putting the finishing touches on a Hall of Fame résumé. His power numbers have declined the past two seasons, and he has battled through injuries. The Rangers, though, are counting on him to be their cleanup hitter, and his second half in 2015 — while playing with an injured thumb that required offseason surgery — is reason for optimism. Mitch Moreland took over at first base early in the season, as his defense was the best on the team at the position. He also finished with the best season of his career, tying for the team lead in homers (23) and batting a career-best .278. The Rangers, though, are still leery of using the lefty hitter against lefty pitchers, and he will sit against many of them. But Moreland brings pop to the lineup and quality defense behind a pitching staff that relies on the ground ball.
Potential trouble lurks across this unit, as two players could be vulnerable to declines from 2015 and another’s production is clouded by his injury history. The latter is Josh Hamilton, who was acquired last season from the Angels for next to nothing but was injured in his first week on the team. He is one big if, and the Rangers know that it is highly unlikely that he will be an everyday player. Shin-Soo Choo proved to be the Rangers’ best outfielder and was one of the best hitters in the game in the second half. His September was spectacular. He batted .404 and became the first player since Willie Mays in 1958 to lead the majors in September in average, on-base percentage, hits and runs. Delino DeShields will open in center field after a remarkable rookie season as a Rule 5 selection. He can run, he can bunt, and his plate approach gets him on base adequately enough to be a leadoff man. But there is room for improvement, especially defensively, while also the risk for a sophomore slump.
Robinson Chirinos and Chris Gimenez are the best bets to handle the bulk of the Rangers’ catching duties. The Rangers used five catchers in 2015 as Chirinos was felled by an injury to his non-throwing shoulder. When healthy, Chirinos is a top-notch thrower who has power in his bat. The Rangers would love to get 100 games from him and relegate Gimenez to 62. Gimenez, though, has never appeared in more than 45 big league games in a season, and the Rangers are aware of that. The best thing Gimenez has going for him is that Hamels and Darvish love pitching to him. That shouldn’t be understated.
Prince Fielder was the AL Comeback Player of the Year after hitting 23 homers, driving in 98 runs and batting .305 one season after undergoing major neck surgery. Fielder was at his best when the Rangers were at their worst. The body of work left the Rangers believing there is more in store for 2016. Justin Ruggiano figures to be a key contributor off the bench as the right-handed-hitting complement for Hamilton and Moreland. Ruggiano has a .856 career OPS against lefties, and the Rangers’ lineup is lefty-heavy. He can also play center field, as can the speedy James Jones.
Jeff Banister became only the fifth manager in history to be named Manager of the Year in his rookie season, and he did it by holding the club together after a 7–14 April and then by artful use of advanced metrics to position defenders and structure lineups. General manager Jon Daniels again showed an aggressive nature at the trade deadline, bolstering the roster for a winning push. The Rangers have a new pitching coach (Doug Brocail) and hitting coach (Anthony Iapoce) after years of continuity under Mike Maddux and Dave Magadan.
The oddsmakers say it, so it must be true: The Rangers are a favorite to win the American League. They will have the rotation to do so, once Darvish returns to form, and the bullpen could be one of the best in the game. The lineup that led a second-half charge is back, and though a few players could be susceptible to regression, the offense should click earlier in the season than it did in 2015 and stack up as one of the league’s best.
Prediction: 1st AL West
CF Delino DeShields (R)
RF Shin-Soo Choo (L)
DH Prince Fielder (L)
3B Adrian Beltre (R)
LF Josh Hamilton (L)
1B Mitch Moreland (L)
SS Elvis Andrus (R)
2B Rougned Odor (L)
C Robinson Chirinos (R)
C Chris Gimenez (R)
INF Hanser Alberto (R)
OF Justin Ruggiano (R)
OF James Jones (L)
RHP Yu Darvish
LHP Cole Hamels
LHP Derek Holland
LHP Martin Perez
RHP Colby Lewis
RHP Shawn Tolleson (Closer)
RHP Sam Dyson
LHP Jake Diekman
RHP Tom Wilhelmsen
RHP Keone Kela
RHP Tony Barnette
LHP Andrew Faulkner
The Pittsburgh Pirates say they are not rebuilding or retooling following three straight postseason appearances. However, the Pirates will have a new look in 2016 after trading righthander Charlie Morton and second baseman Neil Walker in the offseason while declining to tender Pedro Alvarez a contract, risking going to a salary arbitration hearing with the slugging first baseman.
All three were eligible to become free agents at the end of the 2016 season, and the Pirates say they did not plan on re-signing any of them.
The Pirates still have the nucleus of a good team but play in a strong division. The National League Central was home of the teams with the top three regular-season records last year — Cardinals (100–62), Pirates (98–64) and Chicago Cubs (97–65).
Righthander Gerrit Cole emerged as the ace of the staff in 2015, his first with more than 150 innings pitched. His 19 wins were the most by a Pirates pitcher since John Smiley won 20 in 1991. Cole has not only great stuff but also a strong competitive streak and a good idea of how to pitch. Lefthander Francisco Liriano gives the Pirates a strong 1-2 punch. Liriano has the ability to dominate a game but is prone to bouts of wildness and has a history of injuries, though he stayed off the disabled list last season.
In addition to trading Morton to Philadelphia, the Pirates lost righthander A.J. Burnett to retirement at the end of last season. They are hopeful of filling the void with lefty sinkerballer Jon Niese, who was acquired from the Mets in the trade for Walker, and veteran righthander Ryan Vogelsong, who struggled in 2015 in his fifth and final season with San Francisco before leaving via free agency. The Pirates’ strong infield defense and shifting tendencies should help Niese. However, it is safe to wonder how much the 38-year-old Vogelsong has left. Lefty Jeff Locke figures to round out the rotation. He was selected to the All-Star Game in 2013, his first full major league season, but has been inconsistent since. Kyle Lobstein, another sinkerballing lefty, could challenge Locke after being acquired from Detroit.
Mark Melancon has been lights out since being installed as the closer midway through the 2013 season, and he led the major leagues with 51 saves in 53 opportunities last year. He has perfected his cut fastball to the point that some opposing batters claim that they cannot see the ball as it reaches the plate due to its movement. Lefthander Tony Watson is one of the top setup men in baseball. With Melancon expected to leave via free agency at the season’s end, Watson will likely move into the closer’s role in 2017.
Righthanders Arquimedes Caminero, Jared Hughes and Juan Nicasio figure to share the workload in the sixth and seventh innings. Caminero’s fastball averaged 98 mph last season after he was acquired from the Miami Marlins in a cash deal just before the start of the spring training. Hughes is especially effective at stranding inherited runners with his double play-inducing sinker. Nicasio was signed as a free agent in December after spending last season with the Dodgers and will be stretched out as a starter/long reliever in spring training.
Super utility player Josh Harrison is slated to replace Walker at second base and have a position to call his own. However, the high-energy Harrison may be needed at third base early in the season to take the place of rehabbing Jung Ho Kang. Shortstop Jordy Mercer isn’t a regular on Web Gems, but he is extremely sure-handed and makes all the plays he is supposed to make. He will look to rebound at the plate after a poor offensive season in 2015.
Alvarez nearly offset his 27 home runs with 23 errors last season, but the Pirates will be hard-pressed to replace his offensive production. Veteran catcher/outfielder John Jaso was signed as a free agent to be the left-handed hitting side of a first base platoon, even though he has played just five major league innings at the position. The Pirates like Jaso’s on-base skills and believe he has the athleticism to make the position switch. Veteran Michael Morse will likely be the right-handed hitting half of the platoon, though the Pirates also acquired another right-handed-hitting first baseman in Jason Rogers in a December trade with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Switch-hitting prospect Josh Bell will be in the wings at Indianapolis and could push for a major league opportunity by midseason. Kang finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting last year after becoming the first native South Korean position player to make the jump to the major leagues from the Korean Baseball Organization. He sustained a broken leg and torn knee ligament last September in a collision at second base, but the Pirates are hopeful he can return sometime in April.
The Pirates have one of the most talented outfields in the game, anchored by center fielder Andrew McCutchen. The 30-year-old has been selected to the last five All-Star Games and has finished third, first, third and fifth in NL MVP voting during the past four years. Left fielder Starling Marte possesses as much raw talent as McCutchen and is three years younger. Marte won his first Gold Glove in 2015 and is a threat offensively with both power and speed. Right fielder Gregory Polanco also has the chance to be a star. Just 24 and having played less than two full major league seasons, Polanco is still developing his game.
Francisco Cervelli was a revelation in his first season with the Pirates after spending the first seven years of his career as a backup with the Yankees. Cervelli came to Pittsburgh with the reputation of being a good handler of pitchers and pitch framer but also proved to be a plus with the bat in his first season as a starter.
Sean Rodriguez, who appeared in 139 games in a utility role last season, could also fill in at second base until Kang is ready. Rodriguez provides some pop off the bench, but his biggest attribute is his ability to play every position but catcher and center field. Switch-hitting journeyman Pedro Florimon and slick-fielding prospect Gift Ngoepe will compete for a utility infield role in spring training. Chris Stewart is a fine backup catcher. He is strong defensively and has worked to make himself a passable hitter. The Pirates are intrigued by the high on-base percentage left-handed hitting Jake Goebbert compiled in the minor leagues and signed him to a major league contract as a free agent over the winter.
Neal Huntington took over arguably the worst franchise in baseball when he was hired as general manager late in the 2007 season. Ownership stuck with him through some lean years, including a 105-loss season in 2010, but the patience has paid off. Huntington’s rebuilding plan has resulted in three straight playoff trips following 20 losing seasons. Manager Clint Hurdle was hired in 2011 and immediately changed the culture of the clubhouse and the outlook of everyone inside the organization — as well as the beaten-down fan base — with his relentlessly positive attitude. The turnaround that he and Huntington have pulled off is nothing short of remarkable, especially with frugal owner Bob Nutting keeping the payroll low.
After finishing second for three straight years, the Pirates would love to win the division this time and avoid playing the winner-take-all Wild Card game. That may be tough to do with the Cubs loading up in free agency and the Cardinals still possessing a talented roster. However, the Pirates won’t be pushovers with a nucleus that includes Cole, McCutchen and Marte. While Pittsburgh might not make it four “Buctobers” in a row, they should at least be competitive in 2016 while a host of prospects stand ready to help in 2017.
Prediction: 3rd NL Central
RF Gregory Polanco (L)
2B Josh Harrison (R)
CF Andrew McCutchen (R)
LF Starling Marte (R)
3B Jung Ho Kang (R)
1B John Jaso (L)
C Francisco Cervelli (R)
SS Jordy Mercer (R)
C Chris Stewart (R)
1B/OF Jake Goebbert (L)
1B Michael Morse (R)
INF Pedro Florimon (S)
UTL Sean Rodriguez (R)
RHP Gerrit Cole
LHP Francisco Liriano
LHP Jon Niese
RHP Ryan Vogelsong
LHP Jeff Locke
RHP Mark Melancon (Closer)
LHP Tony Watson
RHP Arquimedes Caminero
RHP Jared Hughes
RHP Juan Nicasio
RHP Rob Scahill
RHP Neftali Feliz
The Mets followed up a run to the World Series by getting even better. They surprisingly re-signed their star center fielder and improved their lineup by adding veterans and depth. But their success last year wasn’t just about Yoenis Cespedes, it was centered on their sterling starting rotation, and that quartet of aces is still around and could be even better this year as the Mets start 2016 as title contenders.
There may not be a better one in all of baseball. Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz are all young, talented and hard throwers. The Mets rode this staff all the way to the World Series. Harvey should be even better in his second season back from Tommy John surgery, and he was already plenty good in 2015. And deGrom has proven that he is a dominant ace, too, mixing his mid-90s fastball with a lethal slider. Syndergaard could have the best pure stuff of any pitcher in the sport, regularly hitting triple-digits with his fastball and finally harnessing his off-speed pitches. Matz is injury-prone, but when he’s healthy, the Mets have a lefty who can match up with almost anyone. And Zack Wheeler should be back sometime in June from the Tommy John surgery he underwent last March. Until then, Bartolo Colon will keep his spot warm in the rotation, somehow still fooling hitters with a high-80s fastball at age 43.
Other than Jeurys Familia in the ninth inning, there are question marks here. Familia, however, is a problem solver. After just one full season in the role, he’s developed into one of the more dominant closers in the game. A split-fingered fastball makes him only that much more deadly and keeps hitters from sitting on his fastball and slider. But who can say for sure who will set up for him? Addison Reed will likely get the first opportunity, but the righthander has shown himself to be shaky with runners on base. The Mets signed Antonio Bastardo as left-handed option for the late innings and could share the role with Reed.
Hansel Robles, Logan Verrett and Erik Goeddel all showed flashes of potential but are still unsure commodities in high-leverage situations. Sean Gilmartin is dependable in long relief after sticking around all year as a Rule 5 Draft pick. Jerry Blevins got a $4 million deal to be the lefty out of the bullpen, although he missed almost all of last season with a broken left forearm. But he can get big outs against the feared left-handed hitters in the NL – lefties have a .579 OPS against him for his career. Josh Edgin will be back after missing all of 2015 because of Tommy John surgery. Jenrry Mejia tested positive for a banned substance for the third time and was permanently banned from by Major League baseball in February.
Neil Walker will add power to the middle of the Mets infield. Walker will probably last only one year in New York, with Dilson Herrera in the wings, but the Mets gave up starter Jon Niese to get him. He’s hit at least 16 home runs in each of the last three seasons and is an upgrade defensively on the departed Murphy. He’ll have a new shortstop to work with, too, as Asdrubal Cabrera takes over. He’s not much of a defender, but the Mets clearly prefer offense to defense, and he’ll try to follow up on his best season since 2012. With two switch-hitters in the lineup now, the Mets have more versatility. Defense, however, could still be a worry.
It’s hard to predict what David Wright will bring in 2016 because the Mets don’t even know. He came back to play on a semi-regular basis after being diagnosed with lumbar spinal stenosis, but this season will be the bigger test to see how Wright holds up to spring training and beyond. He has played just one full season since 2011, and while he’s the face of the franchise, Wright hasn’t lived up to his $138 million deal. He’ll probably miss a few games each week, with a mix of backups sliding in at third, but Wright should still be able to hit for average, if not his usual power. At first base, Lucas Duda is locked in. He’ll provide around 30 home runs and drive in around 80 runs. He showed he could hit left-handed pitching last year and is getting better defensively. When he’s in the zone, there are few hitters more dangerous, but when Duda is cold, he’s nearly unplayable.
It took a while but the Mets brought back Yoenis Cespedes. That gives the team its slugger in the middle of the lineup. Cespedes will play center field and give the Mets the fearsome right-handed hitter they needed. Michael Conforto will step into an everyday role after a promising rookie season. He can hit for average and power, with nine home runs and 14 doubles in just 56 games, and will slide into the middle of the lineup. It’s still uncertain whether he can consistently hit lefties, but he’ll have the opportunity to do it.
Curtis Granderson will retake his place as the leadoff hitter and has learned to mix a patient eye (.364 on-base percentage) with the ability to drive the ball. His 2015 season made up for a difficult debut season with the Mets, and he was probably their team MVP. And with Cespedes’ return, the Mets have significant depth on the bench. Juan Lagares dropped off from his Gold Glove-winning defense last year and was miserable at the plate, essentially losing his job in August, but as a defensive replacement and bat against left-handed pitching, he should be adept.
Travis d’Arnaud comes with a qualifier: if healthy. He’s played just 175 games over the last two years, missing time for various reasons. Last year he was on the disabled list with three different injuries. But d’Arnaud can hit for average and power and is one of the best catchers in baseball when on the field. Kevin Plawecki, his backup, might actually be an even better pitch framer and game caller, but he struggled to hit last year (.576 OPS) after coming into the year as one of the best catching prospects in baseball. Which is even more reason for the Mets to hope d’Arnaud can remain healthy for a full season rather than wait on Plawecki to adjust to major league pitching.
It’s certainly a lot better than at the start of last year. Michael Cuddyer’s retirement is addition by subtraction. Wilmer Flores will roam around as a position-less utility man, likely playing each of the four infield spots. The Mets will be more likely to look past his .295 on-base percentage from last year if he’s coming off the bench and flashing his 16-homer power than if they had to watch him play every day. Meanwhile, Ruben Tejada will likely be used as a late-inning defensive replacement, and the Mets will hope to ride his occasional hot streak. Alejandro De Aza could be useful against right-handed pitchers (.800 OPS against them last year), while Lagares will often be used as a late-inning defensive replacement when he doesn’t start.
Sandy Alderson is the reigning Executive of the Year and showed the wherewithal last summer to get a deal done when needed. No one is really quite sure how high the Mets’ payroll can go, but Alderson has shown he can make moves even with limitations. Manager Terry Collins will keep the Mets playing hard even in the darkest of days and has shown himself to be capable if given good players. He received a two-year extension after 2015 and is now one of the more popular people in the organization.
The Mets have dynamic starting pitching, and that alone makes them contenders. But their lineup should be even deeper and better than it was last year, which means they should avoid the pitfalls of last season. With the National League East weak and probably the worst division in baseball, they should emerge into the playoffs. And their first championship in 30 years isn’t such a crazy thought. In fact, they are probably the favorites to make it out of the National League.
Prediction: 1st NL East
RF Curtis Granderson (L)
3B David Wright (R)
CF Yoenis Cespedes (R)
1B Lucas Duda (L)
2B Neil Walker (S)
LF Michael Conforto (L)
C Travis d’Arnaud (R)
SS Asdrubal Cabrera (S)
C Kevin Plawecki (R)
INF Wilmer Flores (R)
SS Ruben Tejada (R)
OF Alejandro De Aza (L)
CF Juan Lagares (R)
RHP Jacob deGrom
RHP Matt Harvey
RHP Noah Syndergaard
LHP Steven Matz
RHP Bartolo Colon
RHP Jeurys Familia (Closer)
RHP Addison Reed
RHP Hansel Robles
LHP Antonio Bastardo
RHP Erik Goeddel
LHP Sean Gilmartin
LHP Jerry Blevins
The Yankees ended a two-year postseason drought in 2015, but their Wild Card loss to the Astros left them with a bitter taste in their mouths. Now they’re looking to take the next step toward a 28th World Series title.
“We expect to win,” manager Joe Girardi says. “We’re doing everything to help us win a World Series as soon as possible. I liked what our guys did last year. I think we can do better.”
GM Brian Cashman spent the winter watching the rest of the league spend lavishly on free agents, but the big-market Yankees held firm to their vow not to hand out any more significant contracts, turning to the trade market to bolster the roster. This year’s big additions were Starlin Castro, the three-time All-Star shortstop who will take over as New York’s everyday second baseman, and hard-throwing reliever Aroldis Chapman, acquired on the cheap from the Reds in late December. Castro turns 26 in March, continuing the Yankees’ efforts to get younger and more athletic as they prepare for the future while trying to win at the same time.
The Yankees return the same batch of arms led by ace Masahiro Tanaka, who enters his third season in the majors after signing a seven-year, $155 million contract with New York in 2014. Tanaka went 12–7 with a 3.51 ERA in 24 starts during his sophomore season, missing nearly six weeks with wrist and forearm injuries. The good news was that the partial ligament tear in Tanaka’s elbow never reared its ugly head, though the righthander did undergo offseason surgery to remove a bone spur. Behind Tanaka is the ace of the future, second-year righthander Luis Severino. The rookie was impressive during his two-month debut, posting a 2.89 ERA in 11 starts. Severino might have a slight innings restriction this season, though he should be able to give the Yankees 190 during his first full season in the majors.
Nathan Eovaldi was on his way to a solid season in his first year in pinstripes before being shut down for the final month with an elbow injury. The 26-year-old had a 3.43 ERA over his final 14 starts. Eovaldi continued to show improvement all season with his splitter. Michael Pineda showed flashes of brilliance but must still prove he can stay healthy, having missed a month with a flexor forearm strain. CC Sabathia figures to fill out the rotation, though Ivan Nova will return again as a potential sixth starter if the Yankees decide to give their top five an extra day from time to time. Sabathia battled problems with his chronically bad right knee, though he had success during the final month with a new brace on his leg.
Chapman will join Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller to form a devastating trio in the back end of the bullpen. Betances and Miller combined for 45 saves and a 1.73 ERA in 134 appearances, giving Girardi the ultimate weapon in the eighth and ninth innings. With Chapman now on board, the Yankees can shorten games even more. One of the hardest throwers in the history of the game, the lefthander from Cuba has 546 strikeouts in 319.0 innings in his six-year big league career. Major League Baseball is investigating domestic violence allegations against Chapman that could lead to a 60-game suspension in 2016. Chapman’s arrival — even if it is delayed into the summer — will more than make up for the loss of two key bullpen arms, Justin Wilson and Adam Warren. Chasen Shreve is expected to earn a spot despite a dreadful September, while young arms such as righthanders Nick Rumbelow and Branden Pinder and lefties Jacob Lindgren and James Pazos will be among those competing for jobs.
Charged with the task of taking over for Derek Jeter, Didi Gregorius overcame a terrible first two months of the season and wound up posting respectable numbers while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense. Gregorius’ second year in New York should be smoother from the start, giving him a chance to post even better numbers. Gregorius will also have a new double-play partner after the Yankees acquired Castro from the Cubs. Castro struggled at the plate during the first four months, but a move from shortstop to second base seemed to energize him as he posted a .942 OPS with six homers and 25 RBIs in his final 156 plate appearances.
The Yankees were banking on a comeback from Mark Teixeira last season after the first baseman battled myriad injuries in 2014. Teixeira answered the call by hitting 31 home runs through Aug. 15, but his season was cut short once again, this time by a foul ball that fractured his leg. He’ll be ready to go for spring training, but Girardi might need to give the 36-year-old an extra day off here and there during the season. Chase Headley returns for a second full season in pinstripes, looking to improve on his pedestrian output from 2015. Headley’s offense was not his only problem, as he committed 23 errors to lead all American League third basemen and had more errors than all but three players in the majors.
Brett Gardner earned his first career All-Star selection with a superb first half in 2015, but the speedster slowed down considerably after the break and limped to the finish line. Jacoby Ellsbury’s hot start lasted six weeks before he landed on the disabled list with a knee injury, and he never found his stroke after returning in July. If the Yankees are to make any noise this season, Gardner and Ellsbury need to be the table-setters they’re expected to be in front of the big bats in the middle of the lineup. One of those bats is Carlos Beltran, who shook off a miserable April to post solid numbers over the final five months. Beltran turns 39 in April but will have to play right field as often as possible given Alex Rodriguez’s status as full-time DH.
Brian McCann looked more comfortable during his second year in the Bronx, and it showed in his production. The catcher set a new career-high with 26 home runs and matched his personal best with 94 RBIs, playing solid defense behind the plate and working well with the Yankees’ pitching staff. With John Ryan Murphy headed to Minnesota in an offseason trade, the backup job appears to be Gary Sanchez’s to lose heading into the spring. Sanchez, 23, hit well at Double-A and Triple-A last season before posting excellent numbers in the Arizona Fall League. If he’s not ready, Austin Romine could fill the job.
The arrival of Castro at second base means Dustin Ackley will play off the bench, giving the Yankees protection at second base, first base and in the outfield. Aaron Hicks, acquired from the Twins, will take over for Chris Young as the fourth outfielder, giving Girardi a switch-hitting bat to play against lefties. Castro could serve as Gregorius’ backup at shortstop, giving the Yankees the opportunity to carry an extra reliever rather than using the spot on a utility infielder. Rodriguez will continue to get the majority of his at-bats as the DH.
Girardi hasn’t led his team to a postseason win since 2012, but he may have done his best managing during the past three seasons. The Yankees have squeezed 87, 84 and 85 wins out of teams that could have easily had losing records, finally snapping the postseason drought last year by winning a Wild Card spot. Girardi has excelled with his use of the bullpen, though the uncertainty surrounding this year’s group could be his biggest challenge yet.
The talent is there for the Yankees to contend for another AL East title, though they’ll need to avoid major injuries and get more innings from the rotation. If they can do that, a 90-win season isn’t out of the question. If they can’t, it could be a long year in the Bronx.
Prediction: 3rd AL East
CF Jacoby Ellsbury (L)
LF Brett Gardner (L)
RF Carlos Beltran (S)
DH Alex Rodriguez (R)
1B Mark Teixeira (S)
C Brian McCann (L)
3B Chase Headley (S)
2B Starlin Castro (R)
SS Didi Gregorius (L)
C Gary Sanchez (R)
INF Dustin Ackley (L)
INF Pete Kozma (R)
OF Aaron Hicks (S)
RHP Masahiro Tanaka
RHP Luis Severino
RHP Nathan Eovaldi
RHP Michael Pineda
LHP CC Sabathia
LHP Aroldis Chapman (Closer)
LHP Andrew Miller
RHP Dellin Betances
RHP Ivan Nova
LHP Chasen Shreve
RHP Nick Rumbelow
RHP Branden Pinder
The Marlins hoped to challenge the Nationals for the division title in 2015 thanks to offseason acquisitions and blossoming stars. Those aspirations quickly crashed. Despite a quiet winter, those hopes remain the same in 2016. Pairing a young core with a proven manager, the Marlins are seeking an end to a 12-year postseason drought. Not many organizations boast one of the top pitchers, sluggers and speedsters in the game. If Miami gets help from its supporting cast, perhaps the “could’ve been” of 2015 will become reality in 2016.
Nothing pleases the Marlins more than penciling in ace Jose Fernandez as the Opening Day starter — a luxury they didn’t have in 2015. Fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, Fernandez tossed 64.2 innings, going 6–1 with a 2.92 ERA and showing flashes of his former dominant self. The Marlins strengthened the top end of their rotation in January by signing free agent Wei-Yin Chen, a lefty who compiled a 27–14 record over his final two seasons in Baltimore. As for who follows, that remains to be seen. Righthander Henderson Alvarez, a 2014 All-Star, made only four starts before requiring right shoulder surgery. He signed with the A’s in the offseason after his contract was not tendered by the Marlins.
Jarred Cosart, a 25-year-old righty acquired from the Astros at the 2014 trade deadline, battled through vertigo for much of 2015 — without realizing it until months later. It landed him on the DL, and he rehabbed in the minors to regain his form. Miami would love to see the pitcher who posted a 4–4 record and 2.39 ERA over 10 starts upon his arrival in South Florida. Eating up innings is righty Tom Koehler, who has recorded double-digit wins and 30-plus starts in both of the last two seasons. Veteran Edwin Jackson is a candidate to grab the final spot in the rotation.
High velocity is a theme with this Marlins bullpen. Carter Capps’ production from May 19 on solidified his spot as the setup man. Until landing on the DL with a right elbow sprain, he led all relievers with 57 strikeouts between May 20 and Aug. 2 (when he suffered an elbow injury) thanks to a triple-digit fastball and wonky delivery. Lefty Mike Dunn pitched in 72 outings. He holds Marlins records for relief wins (20), holds (96) and lowest percentage of inherited runners scored (25.6).
Bryan Morris was a surprise in 2014 when the Marlins traded for him in June to shore up the pen, recording a 0.66 ERA. The groundball pitcher bounced back from a rough 2015 start (4.10 ERA) by allowing just 10 earned runs for a 2.45 ERA in his final 41 games. With Capps out, both Morris and Dunn were used interchangeably in the eighth. A.J. Ramos might not have the best velocity, but he proved himself worthy of the closer’s role after taking over for Steve Cishek. He established career highs in appearances (71), saves (32) and strikeouts (87) and showed a flair for the dramatic during the second half of the season.
It doesn’t get much better than two-time All-Star second baseman Dee Gordon and two-time Gold Glove finalist Adeiny Hechavarria up the middle. Gordon, acquired from the Dodgers via trade, won a batting title, Silver Slugger and Gold Glove in a historic 2015 season. He solidified the leadoff spot and added much-needed speed to the lineup. Miami wants to keep him in South Florida for the foreseeable future. Despite missing the final month with a hamstring injury, Hechavarria recorded career bests in average (.281), runs (54), homers (five) and RBIs (48). Oddly enough, he owned a .305 average batting eighth, but .235 anywhere else. Hechavarria ranked third in Fangraph’s defensive rating at 21.6.
Both third baseman Martin Prado and first baseman Justin Bour emerged as crucial cogs. Prado, part of the Nathan Eovaldi-David Phelps deal with the Yankees, assumed the role of unofficial captain following the trade deadline. The 10-year veteran is known as the ultimate professional. He doesn’t post gaudy offensive or defensive numbers, but is reliable. A sprained right shoulder put him on the DL from June 18 to July 17. He would then reach base safely in all but two of his final 51 games and hit .353 over the last 32. Bour, meanwhile, didn’t make the Opening Day roster. He took over for a struggling and injured Michael Morse with just 39 games of big league experience. His 23 homers and 73 RBIs ranked third among MLB rookies, while his .302 average with runners in scoring position placed fifth. His inability to hit lefties (.219, 0 HRs in his career) means the Marlins will likely invest in a right-handed platoon bat. Bour’s offensive production will compensate for his defense, though he promised to lose weight to improve his agility.
Before the 2015 season, some touted the Marlins’ outfield as one of the best in baseball. Injuries and underachievement quickly nixed that notion. Giancarlo Stanton, fresh off the richest contract in North American sports, didn’t show many after-effects — aside from a caged helmet — of a pitch that fractured his face to end his 2014. Before breaking his left hamate bone in late June, Stanton led the majors in home runs (27) and RBIs (67) through 74 games, even getting voted in as an All-Star starter by the fans. He would not return because of several setbacks later in the summer. Christian Yelich had two stints on the disabled list. The first came during the season’s first month — a lower back strain that clearly affected his swing. On May 25, he was hitting just .196, but he posted an MLB-leading .357 clip over the final 71 contests to get to .300.
Then there was the enigma of Marcell Ozuna. The center fielder, who finished fourth with 23 homers and second with 85 RBIs among NL center fielders in 2014, recorded four dingers and 26 RBIs before the Marlins shipped him to work on his swing in New Orleans, where he stayed for 33 games. His agent, Scott Boras, claimed Miami kept him there longer than necessary to delay his arbitration clock. Once back with the Marlins, he bumped his numbers up to finish .259/10 HRs/44 RBIs in 123 contests. Ozuna’s name has floated around the trade mill for possible starting pitching.
On Opening Day 2015, there were no rookies on the Marlins roster. By season’s end, 14 wound up in the bigs. When Jarrod Saltalamacchia got off to a slow start, Miami designated him for assignment. J.T. Realmuto, the backstop of the future, took over with just 11 games of big league experience. He set several single-season club records for a rookie catcher, including games (118), average (.259), runs (49), hits (114), doubles (21), triples (seven), RBIs (47) and stolen bases (eight). A three-sport letterwinner in high school who didn’t begin catching until the minors, Realmuto is still a work in progress. His athletic ability and speed are unusual for his position. Jeff Mathis returns in the backup role, providing a veteran presence that will greatly help Realmuto and a pitching staff that’s already familiar with him.
When the Marlins signed future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki, it was to be a fourth outfielder. That plan changed when each of their starters landed on the DL at one point or another. Suzuki stands 65 hits shy of 3,000. Though his 2015 offensive numbers were the lowest in his 15-year career, he appeared in a team-high 153 games and posted a perfect fielding percentage. Miguel Rojas, who came over with Gordon in the Dodgers trade, proved he could man shortstop for an extended period if Hechavarria gets injured. Chris Johnson will back up third base and could also see some at-bats as a right-handed option at first.
Don Mattingly led the Dodgers to three straight NL West titles for the first time in franchise history but went 8–11 in the postseason before stepping down in late October. Mattingly, who expressed interest in molding young talent, is the eighth Marlins manager since 2010 and brings along bench coach Tim Wallach. Juan Nieves, pitching coach for the Red Sox until last May, takes over for Chuck Hernandez. In a provocative move, the Marlins hired Barry Bonds to be hitting coach. MLB’s home run leader has spent time as a special instructor during spring training with the Giants.
The Marlins believe that if their roster stays healthy, they can compete in the NL East. That was the state of mind, after all, entering the 2015 season following a 15-win improvement and roster upgrades (at least on paper). Much had to go wrong for the Marlins in 2015 to underperform. Much has to go right for that to change in 2016.
Prediction: 3rd NL East
2B Dee Gordon (L)
LF Christian Yelich (L)
3B Martin Prado (R)
RF Giancarlo Stanton (R)
1B Justin Bour (L)
CF Marcell Ozuna (R)
C J.T. Realmuto (R)
SS Adeiny Hechavarria (R)
OF Ichiro Suzuki (L)
INF Miguel Rojas (R)
OF Cole Gillespie (R)
3B Chris Johnson (R)
C Jeff Mathis (R)
RHP Jose Fernandez
LHP Wei-Yin Chen
RHP Tom Koehler
RHP Jarred Cosart
RHP Edwin Jackson
RHP A.J. Ramos (Closer)
LHP Mike Dunn
RHP David Phelps
RHP Carter Capps
RHP Kyle Barraclough
RHP Bryan Morris
LHP Brad Hand
For the first time in a generation, the Royals enter spring training as the reigning World Series champions, and the 1985 World Series trophy finally has company in the club’s Hall of Fame.
General manager Dayton Moore’s 10-year process was never about simply winning a championship. It was always about reestablishing a culture that could win consistently. That mission, including reaching Game 7 of the 2014 World Series, appears to have reached its zenith. With a strong core of returning position players and a lights-out bullpen, the Royals should once again be in the thick of the playoff chase, assuming an unspectacular rotation continues to benefit from the majors’ best defense.
Kansas City wasn’t able to retain two key trade-deadline acquisitions/playoffs heroes — second baseman/outfielder Ben Zobrist, whom the Royals coveted but not at the price the Cubs paid (four years, $56 million), and righthander Johnny Cueto, who was always viewed as a rental and signed a six-year deal with the Giants. Still, with some tinkering, a third consecutive postseason berth certainly is possible in a winnable AL Central.
Edinson Volquez was everything the Royals could have hoped for in his first year after signing a two-year, $20 million deal. He emerged as the club’s ace, going 13–9 with a 3.55 ERA and topping 200 innings for the first time. An encore from “Steady Eddie” would suit Kansas City fine. The same can’t be said for young flame-thrower Yordano Ventura (13–8, 4.08 ERA), who was shut down in mid-June with elbow inflammation and briefly demoted in mid-July (only to be recalled within 24 hours due to Jason Vargas’ elbow injury). Ventura seemed to press after signing a five-year, $23-million extension two days before the season, but the Royals hope a year of much-needed maturity will help him rediscover his 2014 form.
Kansas City bolstered its rotation in January by signing veteran righthander Ian Kennedy to a five-year deal. Kennedy went 21–4 for Arizona in 2011 but has won more than nine games only twice since. He has started at least 30 games in six straight seasons. The Royals could use a rebound season from lefthander Danny Duffy. Duffy’s ERA spiked to 4.35 in 24 starts, and command issues landed him in the bullpen. After signing a two-year deal worth $11.5 million to remain with the Royals, Chris Young is a near lock for the rotation.
Kris Medlen, who returned from his second Tommy John surgery last summer, will get every opportunity to earn a spot as well. If Kyle Zimmer, a former first-round pick with electric stuff, can move past durability issues and harness his talent, he could arrive in the bigs this season.
Wade Davis has been arguably baseball’s most dominant reliever the last two seasons. He inherits the closer’s role with Greg Holland sidelined for 2016 after Tommy John surgery in October. Davis (8–1, 0.94 ERA) earned 17 saves with Holland injured off and on last season, so he’s accustomed to the job. The bridge to the ninth — Kelvin Herrera (4-3, 2.71 ERA) — remains intact. He also has closer stuff, which he flashed by striking out 64 and allowing only 52 hits in 69.2 innings last season.
Expect an expanded role for Luke Hochevar (1–1, 3.73), who recovered nicely from Tommy John surgery before the 2014 season. He’ll be in the seventh-inning mix with Joakim Soria (3–1, 2.53 ERA), who reunited with the Royals on a three-year deal worth $25 million. Lefthander Tim Collins missed 2015 after Tommy John surgery, but he re-signed with the Royals and is the frontrunner to be the lefty specialist. Kansas City signed former Mets starter Dillon Gee to a minor league deal, hoping he could be a long-relief/spot-starter option, but Yohan Pino or lefties Brian Flynn and John Lannan also will vie for that role, as could heralded prospect Miguel Almonte.
Newly minted Gold Glove shortstop Alcides Escobar is a slick fielder who ranked seventh among all shortstops in ultimate zone rating last season, according to FanGraphs. He isn’t much of an offensive threat, but the Royals inexplicably flourish when he bats leadoff. Second base is a problem. The Royals would love to unload Omar Infante and the $17.8 million he’s owed the next two seasons, but there isn’t much of a market for aging former All-Stars who batted .238/.268/.329 the last two seasons. Kansas City plugged that hole with Zobrist for last season’s title run, but former first-round pick Christian Colon represents the most realistic alternative for Infante, and he’s yet to prove he’s a substantial upgrade.
With Eric Hosmer at first base and Mike Moustakas at third, the Royals’ corner infield is set. Both were tremendous in 2015. Hosmer, a three-time Gold Glove winner, batted .297/.363/.459 with 18 home runs and a career-high 93 RBIs. Moustakas enjoyed a breakthrough season, including an appearance in the All-Star Game. He used a retooled approach to finish with career highs in virtually every offensive category.
Center fielder Lorenzo Cain emerged as a star during the 2014 playoffs and backed it up with a third-place AL MVP finish in 2015. Left fielder Alex Gordon opted for free agency, seeking a deal in the range of $20 million per season. He eventually re-signed with the Royals in early January to the richest deal in team history — taking a slight hometown discount at four years, $72 million. The deal keeps the lifelong Royals fan in Kansas City and solidifies one of the corner outfield spots. Jarrod Dyson, a career fourth outfielder known primarily for his basestealing prowess, almost certainly becomes an everyday player despite the fact that he’s never had an OPS higher than .691. Brazilian Paulo Orlando, another speedy backup with more pop than Dyson, is in line to earn a spot as the fourth outfielder.
Ever-grinning, Gatorade bath-hunting Salvador Perez has a claim as the AL’s best backstop, though his average and on-base percentage have dipped under a heavy workload. Perez clubbed a career-high 21 home runs last season and reached 70 RBIs for the third straight year, but he’s averaged more than 143 games the last three seasons plus two lengthy playoff runs. Hoping to find more rest for Perez, the Royals traded for Tony Cruz, who is viewed as an upgrade over Drew Butera. Both will compete for the backup job in spring training.
Many scoffed when the Royals inked Kendrys Morales to a two-year, $17 million deal before last season, but nobody was laughing after he delivered an .847 OPS with 41 doubles, 22 home runs and 106 RBIs. If Colon doesn’t beat out Infante at second base, pencil him in as backup middle infielder. Third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert also is projected on the Royals’ bench. Orlando has the edge as the fourth outfielder, although Brett Eibner and Reymond Fuentes also could be in the mix.
Manager Ned Yost, the winningest manager in franchise history, has found a groove by lightening up with one of the most affable clubhouses in the game. Moore has proven to be a shrewd pitching evaluator, and the aggressiveness he showed at the trade deadline last season might be called upon again to plug the roster’s holes provided Kansas City is a contender again as expected.
Kansas City doesn’t have the same depth as previous seasons, but there’s reason to hope for more postseason magic with luck on the health front. It’s time to put to rest the notion that owner David Glass is miserly; the Royals could have a franchise-record Opening Day payroll for the fourth consecutive season.
Prediction: 1st AL Central (ALCS)
SS Alcides Escobar (R)
CF Lorenzo Cain (R)
1B Eric Hosmer (L)
DH Kendrys Morales (S)
3B Mike Moustakas (L)
C Salvador Perez (R)
LF Alex Gordon (L)
2B Omar Infante (R)
RF Jarrod Dyson (L)
INF Christian Colon (R)
C Tony Cruz (R)
3B Cheslor Cuthbert (R)
OF Paulo Orlando (R)
RHP Yordano Ventura
RHP Edinson Volquez
RHP Ian Kennedy
RHP Kris Medlen
RHP Chris Young
RHP Wade Davis (Closer)
RHP Dillon Gee
LHP Tim Collins
RHP Kelvin Herrera
RHP Luke Hochevar
RHP Joakim Soria
LHP Danny Duffy
The newest feeling for the Astros is expectation.
The long and painful rebuilding is over, and now the question is whether Houston’s baseball team can maintain annual contention in a football-first town. Last season brought the Astros’ first winning record since 2008 and first playoff appearance since 2005.
It should be harder this year. The Astros grew a huge lead early in ’15, a scenario that’ll be hard to replicate in a division that’s only gotten tougher. But after years of losing — and years of talking about creating a sustainable model — the Astros and general manager Jeff Luhnow need to take another step forward in 2016, or at the very least, avoid one in the wrong direction.
The Astros boast one of the best young players in the game in shortstop Carlos Correa. But many of his teammates had career years in 2015, leaving question marks on the whole as to how improved the team will be. Power, strikeouts and speed should still be calling cards.
Pitching is an overall strength of the Astros. Dallas Keuchel, the bearded lefty who stunned everyone with his Cy Young-winning campaign, will have the burden of proving he can repeat as one of the game’s most dominant pitchers. He’s no fluke, but can he remain among the uber-elite without top-shelf velocity? Keuchel has gotten better with age. Now 28, he actually averaged nearly two more strikeouts per nine innings (8.38) in 2015 than he did the year prior. In 22-year-old sophomore Lance McCullers, the Astros have a traditional overpowering arm who could combine with Keuchel to form one of baseball’s best one-two punches. McCullers’ fastball doesn’t touch 95 mph — that’s where it sits.
Collin McHugh is a stable piece in the middle of the rotation. Doug Fister, signed to a one-year deal in January, will be slotted in the middle of the rotation. Mike Fiers proved to be the best pick-up the Astros had at last year’s trade deadline — more consistent than Scott Kazmir and healthier than Carlos Gomez — and is sneakily effective. Veteran Scott Feldman is a question mark as he comes back from a right shoulder sprain that ended his season prematurely.
Righty Ken Giles, a 25-year-old closer with a 100-mph fastball, is the biggest addition of the winter. And he should be, considering his price tag included big arms Mark Appel and Vince Velasquez in a five-for-two deal with the Phillies. (The trade also brought the Astros a young minor league shortstop they like, Jonathan Arauz.) Giles is the piece the Astros didn’t have in the American League Division Series when they coughed up a four-run lead with six outs remaining in Game 4 against the Royals. Giles’ track record in the big leagues isn’t long, but it’s overwhelmingly good. The Astros hope jumping from a last-place Phillies team to a brighter spotlight won’t have an adverse effect.
The pen is otherwise built on pitchers who can get swings and misses but do so without high heat. Righty Luke Gregerson — who performed admirably as closer in 2015 — and lefty Tony Sipp are as solid a setup combo as can be found. Righty Will Harris has proved to be a genius under-the-radar acquisition, much like Sipp in 2014. Pat Neshek lost his control at the end of last season. He was bothered some by a right foot fracture he suffered in spring training and pitched with all season. His foot was surgically repaired in the offseason, and there’s nothing to suggest the righty veteran won’t return to form.
You won’t find a better combination up the middle. Correa, a veritable manchild, towers over Jose Altuve physically, but together they form the core and motor of the Astros. When both are hot, the Astros can run circles on opponents — particularly if outfielder George Springer is locked in, too. A full season of Correa could bring MVP-like numbers. The only player younger than Correa to have a multi-homer postseason game in big league history is the Braves’ Andruw Jones, who was 19 years old for Game 1 of the 1996 World Series. Correa had been 21 for less than a month when he slugged his pair in Game 4 of the LDCS.
For years, the infield positions where the most power production is expected have been glaring weaknesses for the Astros. Finally, a bright spot emerged. Third baseman Luis Valbuena, a free agent after 2016, is coming off a career year that included 25 homers. The left-handed hitter will get everyday at-bats — he can play first base too — but what he can do for an encore is a curiosity. His .337 OBP from 2013-14 dropped to .310 last year. Jon Singleton, who signed a contract that guaranteed him $10 million before he played a day in the big leagues, should have his chance now that Chris Carter is gone. Singleton has raked in Class AAA but struggled in the bigs. Still just 24, the once-touted slugger hasn’t had an extended look in the majors since 2014.
This is one of the game’s best outfields if everyone’s on the field. From left to right, the Astros have three center fielders — Colby Rasmus, Carlos Gomez and George Springer — and each has power. Gomez and Springer bring speed as well. The only question is health. Recent injury histories abound for the starters, although Springer’s 2015 right wrist fracture was caused by an errant pitch. Now in his second season with the team, Rasmus fared better leaving Toronto’s artificial surface, but he was nonetheless banged up last year. Fortunately for the Astros, they have depth. Jake Marisnick is capable enough to be in Gold Glove conversations — were he to be a regular. Springer had a .365 OBP when Edinson Volquez nailed him in the wrist on July 1. A sustained increase in Springer’s on-base ability would make him a true monster. Otherwise, he’s a big-power, big-strikeout, magnetic talent who fearlessly crashes into walls.
Jason Castro is no longer the offensive catcher he was a couple years ago, but he’s still in line to be paid next offseason as a free agent. The left-handed hitter has made a remarkable transformation into one of the game’s best defensive catchers. Castro is always good for double-digit homers, but his total has dropped two straight years, from 18 to 14 to 11. The Astros ditched Hank Conger after one year, which might leave the back-up job to Max Stassi, who has some pop and has been a September call-up but never had a chance otherwise.
Evan Gattis could still catch or play left field if necessary, but it’s best for his health that he remains a full-time DH. The Astros love Marwin Gonzalez in his heavy part-time role, and that’s how they want to use him again this year. He’s an infielder by trade but can play most anywhere, and a career-high 370 plate appearances is nothing to sneeze at. A platoon at first base is possible, particularly if Singleton is the left-handed half. Righty Tyler White doesn’t have the best physique, but he dominated in winter ball and has hit at every level. Another righty bat, Matt Duffy (not the Giants’ Matt Duffy), got a taste of the bigs at season’s end.
Manager A.J. Hinch and pitching coach Brent Strom divvied up bullpen usage well, and that helped the relievers stay effective ahead of September hiccups. Hinch is aware of the drop-off for starting pitchers a third time through the opponent’s order — a subject that’s become a sticking point for high-minded analysts — but the manager takes every game case by case. Luhnow has shown a willingness to deal at the deadline, even for a rental, so if there’s a piece the Astros need in July, there should be faith it can be landed.
Giles is the big piece the Astros needed in the bullpen. But they’re going to need a lot of similar or repeat performances in 2016 from others, and regression can be cruel. The Astros should be in the mix once again, but it’s hard to say they’re a favorite.
Prediction: 2nd AL West (Wild Card)
2B Jose Altuve (R)
RF George Springer (R)
SS Carlos Correa (R)
LF Colby Rasmus (L)
CF Carlos Gomez (R)
3B Luis Valbuena (L)
DH Evan Gattis (R)
C Jason Castro (L)
1B Jon Singleton (L)
1B/3B Matt Duffy (R)
INF Marwin Gonzalez (S)
OF Jake Marisnick (R)
C Max Stassi (R)
OF Preston Tucker (L)
LHP Dallas Keuchel
RHP Lance McCullers
RHP Collin McHugh
RHP Doug Fister
RHP Mike Fiers
RHP Ken Giles (Closer)
RHP Josh Fields
RHP Will Harris
RHP Pat Neshek
LHP Tony Sipp
RHP Luke Gregerson
After four straight AL Central titles — which, alas, resulted in just one World Series appearance — the Tigers’ championship window slammed shut in 2015, a horrid first-to-worst season that saw core veterans Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Justin Verlander all miss significant time due to injuries, and that also saw the departure of GM Dave Dombrowski to Boston at midseason. But the Tigers were intent on prying that window back open in time for 2016, with owner Mike Ilitch vowing to tell his brain trust, “Go out and get me the best players. I don’t care about the money.”
New GM Al Avila moved swiftly, signing righthander Jordan Zimmermann early in the free agent period, and stayed busy adding veteran pieces to his roster. Meantime, the trades of David Price and Yoenis Cespedes last July netted the Tigers a handful of talented young players ready to help immediately. Nonetheless, the Tigers’ fortunes for 2016 will rest, as they did during the sustained run of division titles, largely with the health and performance of their highly talented, highly compensated veteran core.
The signing of Zimmermann to a five-year $110 million deal — one that looked increasingly club-friendly as the winter progressed — essentially slots the former Washington Nationals stalwart into the spot vacated by Price. Zimmermann has been one of the most dependable arms in the game the last half-dozen years, but a dropoff in 2015 is at least a little concerning. Barring anything unforeseen, veteran ace Verlander appears set to make his eighth Opening Day start in nine years on April 5, following a second-half resurgence in 2015 that had onlookers recalling vintage Verlander. In the middle of the rotation are veterans Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey, the latter a December free agent signee. If both can give the Tigers 175 innings, it will go a long way toward stopping the revolving door that saw them use a whopping 12 starters in 2015. Youngster Daniel Norris, the cornerstone of the Price trade, is the frontrunner for the fifth starter’s job after a solid audition last summer.
After years of fruitless tinkering and updating, the Tigers’ 2016 bullpen is a full-blown gut-and-rehab job, and with good reason: The 2015 version ranked 27th in MLB in ERA. Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez, acquired in a November trade, becomes the team’s seventh closer since the start of 2013, following Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit, Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria, Bruce Rondon and Neftali Feliz. But that was hardly the only upgrade. The eighth inning also got an overhaul, with Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson imported to handle right-handed and lefty set-up duties, respectively. Suddenly, there is some depth to this pen, with Alex Wilson — the Tigers’ lone bullpen bright spot in 2015 — slotted into the primary middle relief role, and a cast of characters including Drew VerHagen, Blaine Hardy, Kyle Ryan and Buck Farmer on hand to round it out.
Ian Kinsler remains perhaps the least worrisome player on the Tigers — good for 150-plus games, a .750-plus OPS, a dozen stolen bases and sterling glove work at second base, year after year. And all of it at a club-friendly price: $14 million in 2016, $11 million in 2017 and $10 million in 2018. No reason to expect anything but the same from Kinsler this season, despite the fact that he will turn 34 in June. Shortstop Jose Iglesias would be in the same category — if the Tigers could keep him on the field. After missing all of 2014 with shin injuries, he was an All-Star in 2015 — only to miss the final month of the season with a hand injury. At 26, this would be an opportune time for Iglesias to take another step toward stardom.
Cabrera’s 2015 season can be viewed one of two ways: It was either a resurgence, with a nearly 80-point jump in OPS from the year before plus his fourth batting title in five years. Or, it was the beginning of the downhill portion of his career. The evidence for the latter is that he missed a career-high 43 games with a variety of ailments and produced his fewest home runs (18) since his rookie season. Obviously, 2016 will go a long way toward determining which interpretation prevails. Third baseman Nick Castellanos likewise faces a critical season at age 24. His up-and-down 2015 season seemed to pivot on a three-day benching in June, after which a revived Castellanos went, and pretty much stayed, on a tear, hitting 11 of his 15 homers after his return to the lineup. The Tigers would very much like to see another leap, into the 20-homer, 80-RBI range, in 2016.
The Tigers turned a potential problem area into a position of strength with the signing of Justin Upton in January to play left field. Upton has averaged 27.3 home runs over the last three years and also adds another basestealer to the lineup. Right fielder J.D. Martinez built on his breakthrough 2014 season with a 38-homer, 102-RBI campaign that also saw him earn his first All-Star berth and win a Silver Slugger Award. Cameron Maybin, a top Tigers prospect a decade ago, has come full circle, returning to the organization following a November trade. He will battle Anthony Gose, the rare light-hitting outfielder who also strikes out a ton, for at bats in center.
James McCann was a revelation in 2015, getting thrust into starting duty a month into his rookie season when Alex Avila was hurt, and almost immediately proving himself a capable starting catcher. Though his offense was only average, defensively he managed to go the entire season without an error — just the sixth such season (min. 100 games) in MLB history. Now, with Avila gone, McCann is the unquestioned starter, although the Tigers signed veteran Jarrod Saltalamacchia to compete with Bryan Holaday for the backup job.
Age, injuries and the grind of so many years behind the plate finally appeared to catch up to Martinez in 2015. He was hurt much of the year, and he was a shell of himself when he was in the lineup. His OPS of .667 was the worst of his career and a drop of more than 300 points from 2014. It is difficult to overstate how important he is to the Tigers, but he will need to prove he can produce like the V-Mart of old in order to return to his days of 600 plate appearances. Meantime, the Tigers’ bench was looking perilously thin before the December signing of veteran Mike Aviles, who won’t smash many pinch-hit homers but whose versatility (he played everywhere but first base, pitcher and catcher for Cleveland last year) makes him a perfect fit here. Otherwise, Gose and/or Maybin will serve as the fourth outfielder, with veteran Andrew Romine as the top utility infielder, and a slew of others certain to cycle through.
The transition from Dombrowski to Al Avila felt mostly seamless, owing largely to the latter’s role as a Dombrowski lieutenant for so many years. And in Avila’s first offseason, the moves came fast. Meantime, Brad Ausmus nearly lost his job as manager at the end of last season, but he was given a reprieve for 2016 — though with the mandate that there must be immediate improvement in the final year of his contract. A new pitching coach, veteran Rich Dubee, joins Ausmus for 2016.
The AL Central has grown up around the Tigers in the last few years, with the Kansas City Royals, in particular, surging past them. (By the end of 2015, the Twins, Indians and White Sox had surged past them — at least in the standings — as well.) The core of veteran talent, combined with Ilitch’s willingness to spend, means the Tigers will always have a shot at contention. But as that Cabrera-Verlander-Martinez core ages — and sucks up resources — contention is no longer a given. The Tigers need a lot to break right to return to the playoffs in 2016, and it’s probably asking too much for all of it to happen.
Prediction: 2nd AL Central
2B Ian Kinsler (R)
LF Justin Upton (R)
1B Miguel Cabrera (R)
DH Victor Martinez (S)
RF J.D. Martinez (R)
3B Nick Castellanos (R)
C James McCann (R)
SS Jose Iglesias (R)
CF Cameron Maybin (R)
OF Anthony Gose (L)
UTL Mike Aviles (R)
C Bryan Holaday (R)
INF Andrew Romine (S)
RHP Justin Verlander
RHP Jordan Zimmermann
RHP Anibel Sanchez
RHP Mike Pelfrey
LHP Daniel Norris
RHP Francisco Rodriguez (Closer)
RHP Mark Lowe
LHP Justin Wilson
RHP Alex Wilson
LHP Blaine Hardy
RHP Drew VerHagen
RHP Shane Greene
Welcome to the first year of the big rebuild. The Reds are not expecting to contend in 2016. Flirting with .500 would be about as lofty a goal as you could put on the season. The Reds, after all, lost 98 games in 2015 and then traded their second-best hitter and one of the game’s elite closers.
It’s hard to say when the Reds expect to return to contention. But from the moves they made, it seems like they are geared toward 2018. Rebuilding is not an easy process. “This was very difficult to do,” Reds president of baseball operations Walt Jocketty said after the Todd Frazier trade. “It was a difficult phone call to make, but as we move forward, what we set out to do here is to try and get this team back into contention as quickly as we can. We felt this was part of the process to get to that point.”
The club went into full rebuild mode at the trade deadline in 2015. That continued in the offseason, although one of the big trades the team tried to pull off didn’t happen as Brandon Phillips rejected a deal to Washington as a 5/10 player. They did, however, manage to unload reliever Aroldis Chapman to the Yankees in a late-December trade that netted the Reds four prospects.
The Reds are going young. They’ll build around Jose Peraza, obtained in the Frazier deal, and Eugenio Suarez, acquired last year in the Alfredo Simon deal. And they’ll hope that young pitchers, thrown into the mix in 2015, take the next step in 2016.
But they’ll continue to rebuild in the meantime.
“I think our approach is to do whatever we can to help the club long-term,” Jocketty says. “We’re in an extremely tough division. We had the three best records in the league, including the winner that won 100 games. It’s more realistic that we’ll be competitive in 2017 and ’18. We met with major league staff and the pro scouts and put together a strategy for that.”
The Reds are hoping the lumps they took in 2015 pay off in ’16. They traded away Mat Latos and Simon in the offseason, then traded away Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake at the deadline. The result was an all-rookie rotation from July 28 on. The rookies — nine of them in all made at least one start — showed promise. The stuff was there, but the results weren’t. None of the nine had a winning record or an ERA under 4.00. Righthanders Anthony DeSclafani and Raisel Iglesias pitched well enough to guarantee spots in the 2016 rotation. Veteran Homer Bailey will join them when he’s fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, probably early to mid-May. There are plenty of candidates for the other two spots. Michael Lorenzen is probably the favorite for one of them. It will be interesting to see what the Reds do with Robert Stephenson and Cody Reed. They are the two top prospects in the system with the highest ceilings. They’ll probably start in the minors but could be up early if the others struggle.
The competition for spots should be wide open. The Reds finished 12th in the National League in bullpen ERA in 2015, and more than half the pitchers who ended the year in the pen are gone. The Reds chose not to add any veteran free agents in December. J.J. Hoover is the leading candidate to close with Chapman gone. Hoover was very good most of the season, although he struggled late. The setup jobs will not be set going into spring. Righthander Jumbo Diaz is probably assured of a spot. Other than that, it’s open tryouts in the spring. The Reds may have to turn to young arms they’ve accumulated through trades to fix the bullpen.
The club is relying on shortstop Zack Cozart to return and be healthy after a major knee injury ended his 2015 season in June. Cozart was confident he’d be ready for spring after resuming full baseball activities in early December. After an attempt to trade him failed, Phillips returns at second base. That circumvents the plan to play Jose Peraza at second. Peraza was the No. 1 prospect for the Atlanta Braves before being traded to the Dodgers at midseason. Phillips had a solid year in 2015. He’s under contract for 2016 and ’17.
First base is the Reds’ one rock-solid spot as Joey Votto returned to form in 2015 after an injury-riddled 2014. He finished third in the MVP vote. Votto was able to return to his normal offseason routine following the ’15 season after spending the previous offseason rehabbing his knee. He was the best hitter in baseball after the All-Star break. With Frazier gone at third, the Reds will try Eugenio Suarez there. Suarez hit very well in shortstop Cozart’s stead after the injury, but he struggled sometimes on defense and has played only three games in the majors at third.
Billy Hamilton will be the center fielder. Hamilton struggled at the plate in 2015 and missed most of the last two months with a right (throwing) shoulder injury that eventually needed surgery. That curtailed Hamilton’s offseason plans. But the Reds have nothing to lose in giving him another shot in center. He’s one of the best defenders in baseball, and his speed on the bases can change the game. He stole 57 bases last season while being caught only eight times. In 2014, Hamilton stole 56 bases but was thrown out 23 times. Jay Bruce returns in right. He has struggled at the plate for the last two years after winning the Silver Slugger in 2012 and ’13. The Reds tried to trade him at deadline, but his name didn’t come up much early in the offseason. Left field is wide open. Adam Duvall, obtained in the Leake trade, and Scott Schebler, obtained in the Frazier trade, could platoon there. The Reds also could look at young players Jesse Winker and Yorman Rodriguez.
Devin Mesoraco, an All-Star in 2014 when he hit 25 home runs, is coming off surgery to correct impingement in his left hip. Mesoraco’s bat and leadership are paramount for the Reds to have a chance at success in 2016. Mesoraco did not catch after April 11 last year as the injury kept him from being able to squat. He is expecting to be fully healthy in time for spring training.
Ivan DeJesus Jr. emerged as a solid utility man last season and played well at third, second and left. The Reds allowed catcher Brayan Pena to leave via free agency. Tucker Barnhart, a solid defender, will be the backup. Rodriguez, who is out of options, could be an extra outfielder. Jake Cave, a Rule 5 pickup, has a chance to make the club as well.
Bryan Price returns as the manager. He’s in the final year of his contract. The Reds shook up the coaching staff, as pitching coach Jeff Pico and bench coach Jay Bell were not brought back. Mark Riggins takes over as pitching coach. First base coach Billy Hatcher moves to third. Freddie Benavides, the infield coach, will coach first base. Third base coach Jim Riggleman moves to bench coach. Riggleman is a strong candidate to take over the managing duties if Price is fired during the season. Dick Williams’ ascension to the general manager’s job shows that the Reds are moving to become more of an analytics-driven team. That became clear early in the offseason when the club posted two jobs for statistical analysts. Jocketty remains the head of the baseball operations, but he’ll move to a consulting role after 2016.
The Reds definitely will not deal with lofty expectations. On paper, the team looks like it has the potential to break the franchise record for losses (101, in 1982). To compete, it will have to get healthy seasons from Cozart and Mesoraco and have the young pitching take a major step forward.
Prediction: 4th in NL Central
CF Billy Hamilton (S)
3B Eugenio Suarez (R)
1B Joey Votto (L)
2B Brandon Phillips (R)
RF Jay Bruce (L)
C Devin Mesoraco (R)
LF Adam Duvall (R)
SS Zack Cozart (R)
C Tucker Barnhart (S)
UTL Ivan DeJesus Jr. (R)
OF Yorman Rodriguez (R)
OF Scott Schebler (L)
INF Jose Peraza (R)
RHP Homer Bailey
RHP Anthony DeSclafani
RHP Raisel Iglesias
RHP Michael Lorenzen
LHP John Lamb
RHP J.J. Hoover (Closer)
LHP Tony Cingrani
LHP Brandon Finnegan
RHP Jumbo Diaz
RHP Keyvius Sampson
RHP Jon Moscot
RHP Carlos Contreras
Re-tooling, not rebuilding, remains the White Sox operating philosophy. Management hopes two major December trades work better than the free agent investments from a year ago. Buying talent translated into merely a three-win upgrade and fourth place in the AL Central. This time, the Sox dealt five solid prospects to fix their infield and the American League’s worst offense by adding Todd Frazier (third base) and Brett Lawrie (second base) to a lineup that provided little help to Jose Abreu. The starting rotation, led by Chris Sale and Carlos Rodon, is formidable, and the bullpen is adequate. If the Sox score enough runs, they can play their way into Wild Card contention.
The best is likely yet to come for Sale, even after he led the American League in strikeouts last season. He won eight of his first dozen decisions after missing several weeks of spring training with a foot injury. He was dazzling in June, striking out 75 in 44 innings. The second half wasn’t as kind, especially the final month as he lost four of his last five decisions and slipped to fourth in Cy Young voting. Lefthanders remain the rage in the Sox rotation.
Sale is backed by three — Rodon, Jose Quintana and John Danks. Quintana started the season as the team’s No. 2 starter, but Rodon appeared ready to overtake him in September. Armed with a crackling fastball and wipeout slider that some compare to Steve Carlton’s, Rodon averaged a strikeout per inning in his first full pro season. He won his final three decisions and did not allow more than two earned runs in any of his last eight starts.
Good luck finding a more consistent or unluckier pitcher than Quintana, who has won nine games for three straight seasons, even though he has pitched at least 200 innings and posted ERAs of 3.51, 3.32 and 3.36 those years. This figures to be Danks’ farewell in Chicago. He’s in the final season of a five-year contract that will pay him $15.75 million, a brow-furrowing amount for a guy who has averaged six wins and 11 losses with an ERA close to 5.00 over the deal. Mat Latos, who went a combined 28–11 in 2012-13 with the Reds, was signed to a one-year, $3 million deal to (hopefully) fortify the back end of the rotation. Injuries have contributed to Latos’ recent struggles; he won only four games while playing for three MLB teams in 2015.
The best free agent investment the Sox made a year ago was David Robertson, who earned $10 million after arriving from the Yankees. Some considered that an extravagance for a team that has not contended since 2012. Although Robertson tied for sixth in the AL with 34 saves, he also tied for the league lead in blown saves (seven) and allowed seven home runs for the second straight year. The Sox were encouraged by Nate Jones’ return from Tommy John surgery over the last two months and signed him to a three-year extension. His fastball hits triple digits, allowing him to average nearly 1.5 strikeouts per inning.
The Sox re-signed Matt Albers, who had a 1.071 WHIP in 30 games with the team in 2015. Zach Putnam (home runs), Jake Petricka (lack of strikeouts) and Tommy Kahnle (walks) all have improvements to make to complete the right side of the pen. Zach Duke was a mild disappointment as the primary lefthander after he signed a three-year contract for $15 million. Dan Jennings, the bullpen’s other lefty, also struggled with control. Opponents hit .256 against him.
After an eight-year run by Alexei Ramirez, the Sox are starting over at shortstop. Ditto for second base after giving two rookies a chance to replace Gordon Beckham. Lawrie arrives from Oakland to play second. Management wanted Lawrie for his bat more than his glove, and the Sox will be thrilled if he can repeat his 16 home runs while upgrading his 60 RBIs from 2015. Shortstop will not be decided until spring training — or several months into the season. Either Tyler Saladino will slide over from third base or Carlos Sanchez will move from second. Offensively, their numbers were similar last season, so the winner figures to be the guy who shows the most consistent glove.
With the acquisition of Frazier from Cincinnati, the Sox are finally positioned with strong run producers on both sides of the infield. Abreu has delivered 208 RBIs during his two seasons without batting order protection. His only struggle was against left-handers; he strangely hit just .232 against them. Abreu should see more fastballs with Frazier hitting behind him. An All-Star the last two seasons in the National League, Frazier hit all but 10 of his 35 home runs before the All-Star break, raising questions about whether his participation in the Home Run Derby altered his stroke.
Adam Eaton played like an All-Star in the second half, posting an on-base percentage of .418, hitting eight of his 14 home runs from the leadoff spot and driving in 38 runs. Melky Cabrera hit .241 with five extra base hits in the first two months, but rallied in the second half to post numbers (.273/.314/.394) closer to his career norms. Avisail Garcia was a disappointment in his first full season back from shoulder surgery, lacking consistent power and struggling in right field. Even Garcia admitted he chased too many pitches outside the strike zone.
GM Rick Hahn signaled his displeasure with last season by letting both catchers — Tyler Flowers and Geovany Soto — walk. Their replacements arrive with question marks, too. The Sox have always admired Alex Avila. They’re optimistic his offense can return to his pre-concussion levels at Detroit, which let him walk even though his father is the new general manager. The Sox are the seventh big league team for Dioner Navarro, who drove in 69 runs two years ago in Toronto.
Pardon Sox management if they never sign another free agent named Adam from the Washington Nationals. After four mostly underachieving seasons from Adam Dunn, the team expected a power and on-base upgrade from Adam LaRoche. It didn’t happen. He started slowly — and got worse. With a $13 million salary, he’d be tough to move. J.B. Shuck showed excellent pinch-hitting skills as a left-handed bat while handling all three outfield positions. Saladino and Sanchez are capable of playing third, short or second. Leury Garcia had his best offensive season at AAA and could force his way into the mix because of his ability to play three infield spots and the outfield. He can run.
Not many managers or coaches survive back-to-back-to-back losing seasons in pro sports, but Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf runs his organization with loyalty, especially to popular former players. Robin Ventura has fallen out of favor with many White Sox fans because of a perceived lack of fire, but management says that is a misconception, and Ventura remains respected in the clubhouse. Either way, if the White Sox start slowly again — and with the crosstown Cubs looming as the NL favorite — pressure will build to make a change.
Sale is one of the best starting pitchers in the AL, and Abreu swings one of the most feared bats. The Sox intend to build around those two for at least the next two seasons. Rodon and Quintana give the team two more solid starters. The Sox need Latos to be effective and consistent as a No. 5 starter. Jones is the key to upgrading the bullpen. But the offense will determine if the Sox get to .500 and possibly contend for the first time since 2012. They finished last in the AL in home runs and runs scored in a hitters’ park. Frazier and Lawrie should help, but there are still holes at DH, shortstop and right field. They look like a team at least two bats short of the top of the division.
Prediction: 4th in AL Central
CF Adam Eaton (L)
LF Melky Cabrera (S)
1B Jose Abreu (R)
3B Todd Frazier (R)
2B Brett Lawrie (R)
DH Adam LaRoche (L)
RF Avisail Garcia (R)
C Alex Avila (L)
SS Tyler Saladino (R)
C Dioner Navarro (S)
INF Carlos Sanchez (S)
UTL Leury Garcia (S)
OF J.B. Shuck (L)
LHP Chris Sale
LHP Carlos Rodon
LHP Jose Quintana
LHP John Danks
RHP Mat Latos
RHP David Robertson (Closer)
LHP Zach Duke
RHP Nate Jones
RHP Matt Albers
LHP Dan Jennings
RHP Jake Petricka
RHP Zach Putnam
John Henry had seen enough. After three last-place finishes in four years, the Red Sox principal owner examined every level of the organization, every assumption he believed true, and challenged them. Out went analytics-minded general manager Ben Cherington, and in came the old-school Dave Dombrowski, Henry’s first GM with the Marlins back in 1999. He traded legit prospects for a closer, generally considered a no-no in the sabermetric community, landing four-time All-Star Craig Kimbrel. Once outspokenly averse to signing pitchers in their 30s to big contracts, Henry made lefty David Price the highest-paid starter in history when he signed him to a $217 million deal. The Red Sox look very different, even as the goal remains exactly the same: win a World Series.
A year after attempting to win without an ace, the Red Sox were humbled by the complete and total failure of their plan. When Rick Porcello crumbled, Clay Buchholz got hurt, and Wade Miley struggled to be anything beyond average, the Red Sox found themselves plummeting to the basement. Now there’s no question who rules the roost. Price is widely considered one of the best teammates in the game, and the former Cy Young winner knows how to lead. That should help Porcello, in particular, find his place in the middle of the rotation, rather than feeling the need to front it. Behind Price, though, many questions remain. Will Buchholz stay healthy? Will lefty Eduardo Rodriguez build upon an encouraging debut at age 22? Can Porcello bounce back? Is Joe Kelly a starter or reliever? The Red Sox may need to address the rotation with an in-season trade, but they’re at least positioned to do so.
As bad as the rotation looked in 2015, the bullpen limped right alongside it. Dombrowski made it a priority to upgrade the arms manager John Farrell can turn to at the end of games, and he delivered. First with Kimbrel, one of the greatest strikeout pitchers in history; and then with Mariners righty Carson Smith, a hard thrower who strikes out more than 11 batters per nine innings. That allows Koji Uehara to slide into the eighth inning as a potentially dominant setup man, with Junichi Tazawa and Smith sharing the seventh. Add lefties Robbie Ross and Tommy Layne (the latter limited lefties to a .148 average last year), and Farrell suddenly has options. Knuckleballer Steven Wright provides a swingman/long man.
Nothing strengthens a double-play partnership like familiarity, which is why shortstop Xander Bogaerts and second baseman Dustin Pedroia built on the chemistry they developed during the season by working out together over the winter at EXOS in Arizona. The two may be entering different stages of their careers — Bogaerts hasn’t even started his prime yet, while Pedroia is exiting his — but 2016 has the potential to hit the sweet spot where both perform like All-Stars. Pedroia spent the winter improving his first-step quickness, which is the best way to stave off the ravages of time. Bogaerts, meanwhile, was a Gold Glove finalist and is improving in every facet of his game. If Pedroia hits like he did last year before a freak hamstring injury sidelined him (.306-9-33-.819 through June 24), and Bogaerts adds power to his near batting title of a year ago, the Red Sox could boast the best double-play duo in the game.
Here’s where things get dicey. In first baseman Hanley Ramirez and third baseman Pablo Sandoval, the Red Sox field their two biggest X-factors. Signed for more than $180 million prior to last season, they disappointed in virtually every way imaginable. Ramirez bulked up beyond recognition, played a disastrous left field, and posted the second-lowest OPS (.717) of his career. He also showed little interest in improving his defense, which caused friction on the coaching staff. Sandoval, meanwhile, lost a step in the field, posted the lowest OPS (.658) of his career and faced questions over his ballooning weight. He also Instagrammed during a game to earn a benching. The Red Sox are stuck with them, though. If one or both plays to a level approaching their pedigrees, the Red Sox could be in business. Otherwise ... look out below.
The Red Sox will entrust two-thirds of their outfield to unknowns, and the rest to a potential superstar. First, the good. Right fielder Mookie Betts just got better and better last year, overcoming some serious bad luck in the first half to finish at .291 with 18 homers and earning a couple of MVP votes in the process. Betts has all the tools to be a franchise cornerstone. Less certainty surrounds his coworkers, however. Jackie Bradley Jr. might already be the game’s best defensive outfielder, particularly when he makes throws that have been clocked at over 100 mph. However, outside of one month (last August), his bat remains a mystery. Speaking of which, no one knows what to expect out of Rusney Castillo, the Cuban free agent whose tenure with the team has mainly been defined by injuries.
Originally slated to spend most or all of the season at Triple-A, Blake Swihart was forced to the majors in May when injuries sidelined starter Christian Vazquez and backup Ryan Hanigan. Initially overmatched, he eventually found his stride, hitting .303 after July 20, the day he returned from a foot sprain. The switch-hitting Swihart has gap-to-gap power and impressive athleticism for a catcher, though Farrell would like to see him improve behind the plate, particularly on balls in the dirt. Hanigan will almost certainly open the season as his backup, because the rifle-armed Vazquez is attempting a comeback from Tommy John surgery, and the Red Sox won’t rush him.
The bench appears set. Hanigan should back up Swihart while Vazquez gets back up to speed in the minors. Outfielder Chris Young is on board not only to mash lefties, but also as insurance in case Bradley or Castillo struggles. That leaves super-utilityman Brock Holt, who has played every position in his career except pitcher and catcher, and first baseman Travis Shaw, who holds some value as a defensive replacement/depth if the Hanley experiment at first base fails. DH David Ortiz is going out on his own terms, which is the only way he’d have it. Fresh off another 30-100 season, this one at age 39, Ortiz announced on his 40th birthday in November that he planned to retire after the season.
Talk about a sea change. The widely respected Dombrowski represents the polar opposite of the Theo Epstein/Cherington tree that built a powerhouse organization. However, there’s no questioning Dombrowski’s ability to field consistent winners. He’ll just do it differently in Boston, where he inherited one of the biggest analytics departments in the game after employing one of the smallest in Detroit. On shakier footing is Farrell, who saw the team excel in his absence after he began cancer treatments last year. The team’s young players responded to interim manager Torey Lovullo, who received a two-year extension that makes him one of the highest-paid bench coaches in the game. If the club falters or Farrell is perceived not to be hitting the right buttons, Lovullo could earn a promotion.
The Red Sox have finished last in three of the last four seasons, so naturally Las Vegas gives them the third-highest odds to win the World Series in 2016. That sounds optimistic, given a careful examination of the roster, but stranger things have happened. If Bogaerts and Betts develop into All-Stars and Ortiz digs deep to deliver one final monster season before walking into the sunset, the Red Sox could be ready to roll on offense. Starting pitching remains a concern, but count on this much — they’ll finish closer to first than last.
Prediction: 2nd AL East (Wild Card)
RF Mookie Betts (R)
2B Dustin Pedroia (R)
SS Xander Bogaerts (R)
DH David Ortiz (L)
1B Hanley Ramirez (R)
3B Pablo Sandoval (S)
LF Rusney Castillo (R)
C Blake Swihart (S)
CF Jackie Bradley Jr. (L)
OF Chris Young (R)
1B Travis Shaw (L)
UTL Brock Holt (L)
C Ryan Hanigan (R)
LHP David Price
RHP Clay Buchholz
RHP Rick Porcello
LHP Eduardo Rodriguez
RHP Joe Kelly
RHP Craig Kimbrel (Closer)
RHP Koji Uehara
RHP Junichi Tazawa
RHP Carson Smith
LHP Robbie Ross
LHP Tommy Layne
RHP Steven Wright
The Orioles have followed 14 straight losing seasons with four in a row at .500 or above, but they failed to make the playoffs in 2015 because the rotation regressed and they didn’t adequately replace outfielders Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz. They’re showing more of a willingness to spend money, which is long overdue, and they figure to contend again with the chance to get back into the postseason if their starters bounce back and they do a better job in free agency or on the trade market. The core group of players and the bullpen are reasons for optimism, but that probably won’t be enough to win the AL East. This team is good — just not good enough when stacked up against the top dogs in the American League.
The starters’ ERA rose from 3.61 in 2014 to 4.53 in 2015, the primary reason why the Orioles finished at .500 and failed to defend their division crown. Executive vice president Dan Duquette was searching for an arm to slot into the front end of the rotation. Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez were disappointments. Ubaldo Jimenez regressed in the second half. Kevin Gausman failed to take the next step. The most consistent starter, Wei-Yin Chen, was destined to leave via free agency. Tillman’s ERA jumped from 3.34 to 4.99, and Gonzalez’s jumped from 3.23 to 4.91 while he battled injuries. Jimenez, coming off a brutal debut season with the Orioles in 2014, went 7–4 with a 2.81 ERA in the first half and 5–6 with a 5.63 ERA in the second. Gausman, the former first-round pick, will finally break camp with the team as a starter and take the ball every fifth day. The Orioles claimed Vance Worley off waivers, and he’ll compete for a job in the rotation or bullpen. Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson made their major league debuts last May and remain in the mix.
The bullpen remains the strength of the Orioles, with the back end particularly formidable. Orioles relievers ranked third in the AL with a 3.21 ERA last year, and the unit returns closer Zach Britton, setup man Darren O’Day, righthanders Brad Brach and Mychal Givens and left-handed specialist Brian Matusz. Britton has gone from failed starter to shutdown closer, making his first All-Star team and recording 36 saves last season and also leading qualified relievers in ground ball percentage (79.1) and ground ball/fly ball ratio (8.47). O’Day, the bullpen leader, received a four-year, $31 million deal to stay in Baltimore. He’s a dominant setup man. Brach posted a 1.92 ERA in his last 42 appearances. The Orioles could go in many directions to fill the other two spots. Lefthander T.J. McFarland is a valuable innings-eater backing up the right-handed starters, but he has an option and may start in Triple-A. Worley could be in the bullpen if he isn’t starting. Chaz Roe was outstanding in the first half last season and terrible in the second. Former first-round pick Dylan Bundy is out of options and may need to be stashed in the pen.
The Orioles are strong defensively up the middle with shortstop J.J. Hardy and second baseman Jonathan Schoop, a budding superstar who came back from an early-season knee injury. Hardy’s a three-time Gold Glove winner who’s battled a variety of injuries over the past few seasons, including one to his left shoulder last March that hindered him throughout the 2015 season. He batted only .219/.253/.311 with eight home runs and 37 RBIs in 114 games. Schoop is 24, and he’s only going to get better. Ryan Flaherty can back up at all four infield positions and is trusted defensively anywhere he plays.
Third base is in great hands with Manny Machado, winner of two Gold Gloves. Machado replaced Markakis in the leadoff role, though the Orioles would like to move him down in the lineup and take better advantage of his run-producing skills. He posted career highs across the board while being the only player in the majors to appear in all 162 games. First baseman Chris Davis, who led the majors in home runs for the second time in three seasons, was re-signed in mid-January to a lucrative deal that will keep him in Baltimore for the next seven seasons.
Few center fielders in baseball can brag that they’re better than Adam Jones, and none can say that they play harder. Jones was banged up for much of the season and still became the first outfielder in club history to smack at least 25 home runs in five straight seasons. Hyun-soo Kim, signed out of the Korean Baseball Organization, was the early favorite to start in left field after signing a two-year, $7 million contract. Kim, who turns 28 in January, is a career .318/.406/.488 hitter in 10 seasons. He brings the on-base capabilities that the Orioles desperately need, plus a batting eye that allowed him to draw 101 walks and strike out only 63 times in 630 plate appearances last season. Kim also can play right, but his arm is better suited for left. There’s no clear-cut choice for right, the candidates including Nolan Reimold and Dariel Alvarez. The Orioles selected Joey Rickard in the Rule 5 draft, and he plays all three outfield spots.
Matt Wieters became only the second player, and the first Scott Boras client, to accept a qualifying offer. Returning from ligament-reconstructive surgery on his right elbow, Wieters will make $15.8 million and test the market again next winter. He’s still one of the best offensive catchers in baseball, and he’s expected to take on a much heavier workload behind the plate. He used to be a plus-thrower, and the Orioles are hoping that hasn’t changed. Caleb Joseph is more than capable of backing up Wieters. The staff ERA actually is lower with him behind the plate, and he’s got some pop. Joseph also is capable of playing a few other positions.
Mark Trumbo was acquired as insurance in case the Orioles failed to re-sign Davis. Now, he figures to see the bulk of his at bats while serving as the designated hitter, though he will also play first base and the corner outfield. Joseph doesn’t have any real competition for the backup catching job, and he also could play first base on occasion. Flaherty plays all four infield positions, and he can move to the outfield if needed. Jimmy Paredes was the story of spring training, and he hit .299/.332/.475 with 10 home runs in the first half. However, he slumped to .216/.252/.265 with no home runs in the second. He’s below average defensively at third base, and he tried to improve his standing in the organization by playing right field in winter ball. He’s more suited for the designated hitter role. Rickard may stick as an extra outfielder, and the Orioles also have Reimold, Alvarez and Henry Urrutia on the 40-man roster.
The Orioles are fortunate to have Buck Showalter in their dugout. He’s one of the game’s best managers, and no one is better at handling a bullpen. He’s earned the respect and admiration of his players, who are fiercely loyal to him. Duquette could use his own bounce-back season after failing to properly address the losses of free agents Markakis and Cruz. The Orioles kept having to DFA players he acquired via trade and free agency. Majority owner Peter Angelos seems willing to spend more money, but the Orioles’ payroll never is going to move into the upper tier in baseball.
Showalter has changed the losing culture in Baltimore, which explains the four straight seasons at .500 or above and two playoff berths. But it’s always challenging in the AL East, especially when everyone except the Rays is walking around with deep pockets. The Orioles expect to contend now, but getting back into the playoffs will be difficult without a dominant starting pitcher to anchor the staff.
Prediction: 4th in AL East
3B Manny Machado (R)
LF Hyun-soo Kim (L)
CF Adam Jones (R)
1B Chris Davis (L)
C Matt Wieters (S)
DH Mark Trumbo (R)
RF Nolan Reimold (R)
2B Jonathan Schoop (R)
SS J.J. Hardy (R)
INF Ryan Flaherty (L)
C Caleb Joseph (R)
OF Joey Rickard (R)
UT Jimmy Paredes (S)
RHP Chris Tillman
RHP Kevin Gausman
RHP Miguel Gonzalez
RHP Ubaldo Jimenez
RHP Vance Worley
LHP Zach Britton (Closer)
RHP Darren O’Day
RHP Brad Brach
LHP Brian Matusz
RHP Mychal Givens
RHP Dylan Bundy
RHP Chaz Roe
Madison Bumgarner carried a team on his back to a World Series parade in 2014, its third in five years. But no man can shoulder the full load of a 162-game season. And once again, the odds weren’t with the Giants in 2015. They simply sustained too many injuries, beginning with the club’s second spring exhibition game when a pitch fractured iron man Hunter Pence’s forearm.
Outside of Bumgarner, who was durable as ever, the Giants’ aging rotation sputtered, and all the short and ineffective starts caught up with a talented bullpen. Because the Giants’ minor league pitching factory has slowed down since graduating Bumgarner to the big leagues, the front office tried hard for Zack Greinke before ponying up $220 million to sign Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto — a rotation rebuild that they hope will better supplement a homegrown, contact-hitting lineup that led the NL in average last season. It’ll be an even year, after all.
The bargain free agent pitcher might be the rarest of birds in baseball, and it’s hard to argue that the Giants bought low when they guaranteed $90 million over five years to Samardzija before agreeing to a six-year, $130 million contract with Cueto. But both pitchers likely would’ve commanded even bigger contracts if they hadn’t struggled at times last season. The Giants looked past the fact that Samardzija gave up the most hits and earned runs of any American League pitcher last season, instead betting that his stuff (he ranked 12th in average fastball velocity, at 94.1 mph) will translate to the NL West.
Cueto might have commanded a $200 million contract if he hadn’t struggled following a midseason trade from Cincinnati to Kansas City. Still, his last act was throwing a two-hit shutout against the Mets in Game 2 of the World Series. Since 2011, only Clayton Kershaw has posted a lower ERA among pitchers to throw 600 innings. Neither of the new additions will have the pressure to be an Opening Day ace. That’s still Bumgarner’s domain. Jake Peavy was an effective starter last year once he found a way to compete with his arthritic hip and back. Matt Cain is an uncertain commodity, but he’s another year removed from elbow surgery. And the Giants are asking him to be a No. 5, not a No. 2. If he falters again, Chris Heston looms as an option.
The Giants were third in the NL in bullpen ERA and only figure to be better. Santiago Casilla recorded a career-best 38 saves, and although he usually hits a rough patch around midseason, he is one of the more underappreciated relievers in the league. Sergio Romo and Javier Lopez remain one of the most effective specialist tandems in the NL, and with more innings from the rotation, manager Bruce Bochy should be able to utilize them better to get the matchups he wants. Lopez thrived in 77 games; his .145 opponents’ average was second-lowest among all relievers, behind only the Royals’ Wade Davis.
Lefty Josh Osich has the power stuff that plays against righthanders and lefties alike, and he should step into the role previously occupied by retired bullpen stalwart Jeremy Affeldt. Hunter Strickland got wiser about deploying his fastball, too. After setting a record by allowing six homers in the 2014 postseason, he didn’t allow a long ball in Triple-A or the majors until August of last season. George Kontos was among the best in baseball at stranding inherited runners. Cory Gearrin looms as an interesting option with his ground ball-inducing sinker, and Heston is slotted for the long man role.
Shortstop Brandon Crawford and second baseman Joe Panik became the Giants’ first middle infield combo to go to the All-Star Game together since Rich Aurilia and Jeff Kent in 2001, and the accolades didn’t end there. Crawford won both the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger at his position, becoming the first Giant to claim both honors in a season since Barry Bonds in 1997.
A week or two after those awards were announced in November, Crawford had even more reason to be thankful: He signed a six-year, $75 million extension. Panik was on his way to a 200-hit season before back inflammation sent him to the disabled list at the beginning of August, and a brief attempt at a return did not go well. He was cleared to swing a bat before Christmas and is expected to be 100 percent by the start of spring training, allowing him to bring his contact skills back to the No. 2 spot in the lineup. Although rookie Kelby Tomlinson did an admirable job filling in for Panik, the defensive dropoff was evident.
The Giants had their share of issues last season, but replacing Pablo Sandoval wasn’t among them. They found their answer in the form of skinny rookie Matt Duffy, who kept on achieving beyond anyone’s expectations. Duffy didn’t hit a single aluminum-pinging home run in 501 at-bats at Long Beach State, and batted .244 as a junior. But the Giants liked his defense and pegged him as a potential utility guy as a 16th-round pick in 2012. They could not have fathomed what he did as a rookie: .295, 77 runs, 28 doubles, 12 homers, 77 RBIs and 12 stolen bases while mostly hitting third in front of Buster Posey to finish second in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting. First baseman Brandon Belt hit 18 homers and played Gold Glove-caliber defense but finished short of a breakout year because of a concussion.
Pence’s fractured forearm developed a bone callus and necessitated a second trip to the DL after he returned in May. Then came the oblique strain in mid-August that ended his season. The Giants expect Pence to return to his iron-man form in right field, and they hope Angel Pagan, who was a defensive liability in center field, will be spry (after knee surgery) and motivated (he’s entering his walk year) in a likely shift to left field. The Giants prioritized pitching over the winter, but still found the money to sign Denard Span to a three-year deal to play center field.
Posey had another solid season, finishing fourth in the NL in average (.318), sixth in on-base percentage (.379) and ninth in RBIs (95) while also hitting .351 with runners in scoring position. Playing a bit more first base likely helped to keep his legs fresher and avoid another second-half downturn. Andrew Susac could be an everyday player in many lineups, but he could be trade bait. Trevor Brown drew rave reviews after debuting in September.
Because the rotation struggled to pitch effectively past the fifth inning, the Giants spent much of the year carrying eight relievers and just four backup position players. As a result, the bench contributed almost no offense. Gregor Blanco will serve as the fourth outfielder after hitting .291 in 327 at bats in 2015. Kyle Blanks will try to make the club on a minor league contract. Kelby Tomlinson has speed and a flat swing that should work as a reserve; he’ll attempt to play a little outfield this spring to enhance his utility.
Bochy enters his 10th year on the Giants’ bench with a chance to add to a Hall of Fame dossier. His 1,702 victories are the most among active managers, and he is one of just four managers in history to win 700 regular-season games with two different teams. The Giants prize continuity in their front office, which underwent a reorganization with Bobby Evans now running day-to-day duties as GM. Brian Sabean, who had served as GM since 1996, still heads up baseball operations as executive vice president.
The Giants’ beefed-up rotation, combined with their hitting and defensive acumen, will make them a favorite to emerge from a competitive NL West and find a way back into the postseason. And if they get that far … well, Bochy’s squads have faced 10 postseason opponents since 2010 and beaten them all.
Prediction: 1st in NL West (NL champion)
CF Denard Span (L)
2B Joe Panik (L)
3B Matt Duffy (R)
C Buster Posey (R)
RF Hunter Pence (R)
1B Brandon Belt (L)
LF Angel Pagan (S)
SS Brandon Crawford (L)
C Andrew Susac (R)
OF Gregor Blanco (L)
INF Ehire Adrianza (S)
INF Kelby Tomlinson (R)
OF Jarrett Parker (L)
LHP Madison Bumgarner
RHP Johnny Cueto
RHP Jeff Samardzija
RHP Jake Peavy
RHP Matt Cain
RHP Santiago Casilla (Closer)
RHP Sergio Romo
LHP Javier Lopez
LHP Josh Osich
RHP Hunter Strickland
RHP George Kontos
RHP Chris Heston
With two bold moves, the Diamondbacks turned themselves into a contender. The signing of free agent Zack Greinke to a six-year, $206.5 million deal seemed to mandate another step forward, and general manager Dave Stewart complied by trading for righthander Shelby Miller. With a strong offense already in place, the D-backs are a threat.
Greinke was the best free agent starter on the market, and the D-backs’ five-hour contact-to-contract machinations on Dec. 4 were the coup of the winter. Greinke was “minutes,” he said, from signing with another team, believed to be the Los Angeles Dodgers, before the D-backs moved in after managing partner Ken Kendrick included some deferred money to make the numbers work. Greinke was 51–15 with a 2.30 ERA in his three seasons with the Dodgers, and he would have won the 2015 Cy Young Award if voters had made ERA, WHIP or WAR the determining stat. Greinke led the majors in each category, showing command of four pitches while going 19–3 with a 1.66 ERA.
Miller had an historic outlier of a season with Atlanta in 2015, going 6–17 despite a 3.02 ERA. He received an average of 2.55 runs per nine innings last season, the lowest figure since Tom Candiotti (now the D-backs’ radio analyst) received 2.53 per nine in 1993 and the second-lowest figure since the stat was first compiled in 1988. Miller, who broke a 24-game winless streak in his final start of the season, deserved much better. He found success with a new two-seam fastball, giving up only 13 homers and inducing 17 double-play grounders in a career-high 205.1 innings.
Lefthander Patrick Corbin, an All-Star in 2013 before missing 2014 because of Tommy John surgery, will slot in at No. 3. He showed signs of previous brilliance while blowing off the rust after returning July 4. On a strict pitch count, Corbin made five straight quality starts while using 85 pitches or fewer, the first pitcher since Bryn Smith in 1988 to do that. He was 5–2 with a 1.61 ERA in the nine starts in which he went at least six innings.
No. 4 starter Rubby De La Rosa threw a career-high 188.2 innings while leading the D-backs with 14 victories last season, a function of his receiving 5.79 runs per start. Both he and No. 5 starter Robbie Ray spent their first full season in a rotation last year, and the Diamondbacks believe both will be the better for it.
Righthander Archie Bradley not only beat Clayton Kershaw but also singled off him in his first major league start April 11, but he was not the same after being hit by a line drive in the face in his fourth career start. Chase Anderson, who was among the National League leaders in ERA through the first two months of the 2015 season before falling back, was dealt to Milwaukee in the offseason.
Submariner Brad Ziegler is not the prototype closer, unless you look at results. Ziegler had a career-high 30 saves in 31 chances last season after taking over the job in late May, and he will begin the season in the same role. He converted 28 straight save chances to end the season, tying a franchise record. His funky delivery was particularly tough on righties, who hit .179 against him.
Righthander Daniel Hudson, two years removed from a second Tommy John surgery, developed into the most reliable setup man late last season while hitting 97-99 mph with his fastball, and the D-backs like him in that role. Closing also seems an option.
Lefthander Andrew Chafin, a candidate for the starting rotation last spring, enters this season as the D-backs’ most effective lefty after settling nicely into a setup role. Matt Reynolds and Keith Hessler are candidates for a role as second lefty. (Remember, chief baseball officer Tony La Russa even kept three lefties when he managed in St. Louis.) Josh Collmenter, who started on Opening Day in 2015, struggled in the rotation but again found his niche in the bullpen with a 1.89 ERA in 52.1 relief innings. He is the designated long man.
Godley and Randall Delgado also could be used as swing men, in long or short relief or even an occasional start. Rookie righthander Silvino Bracho was particularly effective in his first look at the majors last September, and rookie righthander Enrique Burgos brings a 99 mph fastball to the party.
Nick Ahmed was among the top defenders in the league at shortstop, “saving” 20 more runs than the average player at his position according to baseball-reference.com. He figures to be the everyday shortstop, assuming Jean Segura — acquired in a multi-team deal with Milwaukee — takes over at second base. Segura has spent the majority of his career at short but has the versatility to play multiple positions. Chris Owings was affected by a shoulder surgery following the 2014 season, and the D-backs see a return to form. He could see significant time at second base if Segura is needed at short.
First baseman Paul Goldschmidt is one of the best players in baseball, a virtuoso at all phases — hitting, fielding, baserunning, preparation, leadership. He is the foundation upon which the franchise is built, and he is under contract through 2019. Jake Lamb will start at third, although Phil Gosselin and prospect Brandon Drury are also options. Drury has done about all he can do at the minor league level.
If you believe in WAR, consummate two-way player A.J. Pollock was the best center fielder in the NL in his 2015 breakout season, and it wasn’t even close. Baseball-reference.com calculated Pollock’s WAR at 7.4, fourth in the league and behind only MVP Bryce Harper among outfielders. David Peralta continued his remarkable transition from left-handed pitcher to left fielder with 17 homers and 78 RBIs in his first full season in the majors. The trade of Ender Inciarte opened the right field job for Yasmany Tomas, who at the D-backs’ behest lost weight over the winter. Rookie Socrates Brito has shown speed, gap power and athleticism in the system and is the top candidate as the fourth outfielder for a team that prizes defense. Peter O’Brien also has played outfield.
Welington Castillo was a revelation after being acquired from Seattle two months into the 2015 season. He had 17 homers and 50 RBIs while throwing out 28 percent of potential base stealers in 80 games with the D-backs. Tuffy Gosewisch suffered a season-ending knee injury in late May and is a candidate for backup catcher, as are O’Brien and Chris Herrmann. Both also can play the outfield.
The Diamondbacks plan to carry five reserves, making them deeper and more versatile than a year ago. Gosselin can play three infield positions and left field. Owings can play second and short, and Brito can defend all three outfield positions with a right fielder’s arm.
Kendrick believes in putting any profit back into the team, and he showed that with the signing of Greinke. A new 20-year, $1.5 billion local TV contract with Fox helped. The TV deal is graduated and will support the $62.5 million in deferred money to Greinke after his deal expires in 2021. First-year manager Chip Hale received good reviews for the way he handled his team in 2015. Stewart and La Russa may be old school, but they have embraced defensive metrics as they seek out their kind of players. They know how to win.
The D-backs are in it to win it. Their top three starters are among the best in the league, and their position players are agile and athletic on defense and productive on offense. This could be a big year.
Prediction: 2nd in NL West (Wild Card)
CF A.J. Pollock (R)
3B Jake Lamb (L)
1B Paul Goldschmidt (R)
LF David Peralta (L)
C Welington Castillo (R)
RF Yasmany Tomas (R)
2B Jean Segura (R)
SS Nick Ahmed (R)
2B Chris Owings (R)
C/OF Chris Herrmann (L)
OF Socrates Brito (L)
UT Phil Gosselin (R)
C Tuffy Gosewisch (R)
RHP Zack Greinke
RHP Shelby Miller
LHP Patrick Corbin
RHP Rubby De La Rosa
LHP Robbie Ray
RHP Brad Ziegler (Closer)
RHP Daniel Hudson
LHP Andrew Chafin
RHP Randall Delgado
LHP Matt Reynolds
RHP Zack Godley
RHP Josh Collmenter
The Cardinals spent a year recruiting an outfielder they believed could be a part of the next core, the one who would in the coming years inherit the history and annual championship aspirations now driving Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright. They gave him a summer to get comfortable in the clubhouse and, when he reached free agency, an offer potentially richer than any they had made before. Two weeks before Christmas, Jason Heyward made his decision. He left the Cardinals for the Chicago Cubs, offering a public referendum on a changing division.
The Cardinals enter 2016 facing their sternest challenge yet to their dynastic hold on the division and franchise record run of postseason appearances. And it’s not just the Cubs that should concern Cardinals fans — it’s also time. The three pillars from a decade of contending — Molina, Wainwright and 2009 addition Matt Holliday — are in their mid-30s, and each spent significant time on the disabled list in 2015. All three return for 2016, but it’s identifying who will join Matt Carpenter in the next core that will determine if they can not only fend off the Cubs now but also meet their own expectations for seasons to come.
The backbone of the best record in baseball in 2015 and one of the best run-prevention teams of the era was pitching, or, as manager Mike Matheny called it, “historically good pitching.” The Cardinals’ starters had a 2.99 ERA — a half run better than all but two other teams in the majors. The Cardinals did that without ace Wainwright, who missed five months recovering from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon. As Wainwright returns, Lance Lynn departs.
The workhorse will miss the entire season recovering from elbow surgery. To pick up those innings, the Cardinals signed free agent Mike Leake — a prototypical, contact-seeking, athletic Cardinals pitcher who can be a quality start monster in the middle of the rotation. The Cardinals don’t expect the rotation to match last year’s history, but they believe young arms Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez can improve, if only by adding more innings and more consistency deeper into the season. Lefty Jaime Garcia’s health was an unexpected bonus in 2015 and a necessity for 2016.
It wasn’t until the 67th of his 68 games last summer that Trevor Rosenthal blew his third save and first against a team other than Pittsburgh. Rosenthal asserted his place as a shutdown closer with a club-record 48 saves and would have challenged 50 if not for a last-weekend shutdown. Workload was, after all, the prevailing concern. Two of the relievers who led the majors in appearances were setup men Kevin Siegrist (81) and Seth Maness (76). They were a sturdy, well-trod bridge to Rosenthal, and the Cardinals must remain wary of creaks. With Jordan Walden an unknown due to a shoulder injury, burly Jonathan Broxton returns to fortify the route to Rosenthal. Korea’s all-time saves leader with 277, Seung Hwan Oh brings late-inning savvy to a setup role. Tyler Lyons is an intriguing addition as a lefty who won’t be limited to a specialist role.
Injuries and slumps to other All-Stars left shortstop Jhonny Peralta to carry a greater offensive load, and it came at a cost. A year after leading the team in homers, Peralta faded to a .243/.306/.325 slash line in the second half with only three extra-base hits in his final 146 plate appearances. His legs left him, and his swing followed. To keep Peralta fresher in his third year with the team and help third-year second baseman Kolten Wong blossom, the Cardinals traded for Jedd Gyorko. The right-handed-hitting infielder will be an alternative to Peralta at short and a platoon complement for Wong at second, or a challenger. Gyorko has averaged 16 homers in three seasons — the kind of pop the Cardinals want from Peralta and expect Wong to grow into.
The corners were a study in contrasts. Carpenter, who frequently batted first — not a spot often reserved for power — led the team in homers (28) and RBIs (84). From first base, a position defined by power, the Cardinals got fizzle. The combined .392 slugging percentage from the position was the lowest in the NL, and the committee provided almost 10 strikeouts for every one homer. Incumbent Matt Adams and veteran Brandon Moss will get first crack, with Stephen Piscotty a right-handed-hitting option. At first, it’s simple: Who produces most, plays most.
The departures of Heyward and Jon Jay, who went to San Diego in the Gyorko trade, clear the way for the next generation. The Cardinals want to unleash Randal Grichuk and Piscotty in 2016, and the lone question is where will they find at-bats. Barring a late-winter acquisition, the answer is every day. Grichuk had as many homers (17) as Peralta — and in 256 fewer at-bats. If Grichuk can stay healthy returning from elbow soreness and hernia surgery, he has rare power for a center fielder, power the Cardinals crave. Heady hitter Piscotty is set to replace Heyward in right, and he ultimately may be the superior offensive player. While the twentysomethings will get a chance to reveal who they are, most of all the Cardinals need Holliday to be who he always has been. The All-Star twice tore a quadriceps muscle and had career lows across the board.
For the second time in as many springs, Molina will be returning from hand surgery. Molina shredded a ligament in his left hand late in 2015 and required two offseason surgeries to repair damage. It took him time a year ago to regain strength in the right hand and force in his swing. To sub while Molina heals and alleviate some innings, the Cardinals added Brayan Pena, a seasoned backup.
What happens at other positions will define the bench bats (Adams or Moss? Gyorko or Wong?). For years, the Cardinals have struggled to find that right fit for pinch-hitting — cycling unsuccessfully through veterans — so they’ll attempt a blend this season. There should be more versatility and more damage to choose from, but also more part-time players to stay sharp with starts and not idly wait for that one swing at contributing.
A gifted, players-first motivator capable of infusing his guys with confidence, Matheny embraced a “next man up” mantra and refused to let the clubhouse surrender to the absence of multiple stars, convincing youngsters and backups they could win 100. He admits to learning the clockwork of his job — particularly bullpen management — in the crucible of contending, and he’s eagerly sought suggestions, including tips he’s employed from the analytics department. John Mozeliak, entering his ninth year as general manager, works to shape a roster for his manager’s tendencies. What he did for the bullpen during 2015, he wants to do for the bench — add name players Matheny will trust and thus play. A series of playoff exits shy of a title has increased the pressure on leadership and gotten Mozeliak rethinking the trade deadline through a postseason lens. This July he’ll look for an addition that lifts them in October.
The Cardinals entered the winter eager to pursue two of the most prominent free agents available, and they finished second each time. Pitcher David Price signed with the cash-splashier Red Sox, and Heyward picked the flashier Cubs. This didn’t sit well with the Cardinals, who have long used their history and atmosphere to woo players. While their place as a destination franchise may have changed, the Cardinals and their aging core have this year to show that their status hasn’t changed where it counts — the standings.
Prediction: 2nd NL Central
3B Matt Carpenter (L)
RF Stephen Piscotty (R)
LF Matt Holliday (R)
CF Randal Grichuk (R)
1B Brandon Moss (L)
SS Jhonny Peralta (R)
C Yadier Molina (R)
2B Kolten Wong (L)
1B Matt Adams (L)
INF Jedd Gyorko (R)
C Brayan Pena (S)
OF Tommy Pham (R)
INF Greg Garcia (L)
RHP Adam Wainwright
RHP Michael Wacha
RHP Mike Leake
LHP Jaime Garcia
RHP Carlos Martinez
RHP Trevor Rosenthal (Closer)
RHP Jordan Walden
RHP Seth Maness
RHP Jonathan Broxton
LHP Kevin Siegrist
LHP Seung Hwan Oh
LHP Tyler Lyons
It’s a whole new ballgame in Philadelphia. The Phillies have a new club president in Andy MacPhail, a new general manager in Matt Klentak, a bunch of new players and even a new way of thinking. (Yes, this quintessentially old-school franchise has joined the analytics movement.)
Unchanged is the team’s commitment to a full rebuild. Most of the cast that won the 2008 World Series has been shipped out, and the last few stragglers will soon follow. Year 1 of the rebuild resulted in the worst record in the majors in 2015, but through the rubble a brighter day could be seen. Several promising youngsters arrived in the majors, and more are soon to come. This team is still an active construction site with much work to do, but it does appear to be headed in the right direction.
Phillies starters had the second-worst ERA (5.23) in the majors in 2015, so it’s understandable why the club’s new leadership overhauled the rotation. There will be competition for jobs in spring training, and when camp breaks there could be as many as four newcomers in the rotation. Creating a balance of veterans and youngsters was Klentak’s goal. He picked up veteran stabilizers Jeremy Hellickson, Charlie Morton and Brett Oberholtzer in trades. They are expected to provide innings to a starting staff that ranked 28th (892.2) in that category last year, while taking pressure off a core of youngsters expected to contribute now and in the future.
Righthander Aaron Nola, the team’s top pick in 2014, heads the young core. The 22-year-old LSU product arrived in July and showed exceptional poise and fastball command in going 6–2 with a 3.59 ERA in 13 starts. Jerad Eickhoff, 25, acquired from Texas in the package for Cole Hamels, had a 2.65 ERA in eight starts. Power-armed righty Vincent Velasquez, 23, was the centerpiece of the December trade that sent closer Ken Giles to Houston. Nola, Eickhoff and Velasquez are the foundation on which the rotation will be built. The team hopes Mark Appel and Jake Thompson can contribute before the season is over, thus turning veterans such as Hellickson and Morton into July trade bait.
Giles handled the closer’s role brilliantly after bad boy Jonathan Papelbon departed in July. But a top closer was a luxury that the rebuilding Phillies did not need, so he was dealt for five starting pitchers. “It was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up,” Klentak says. Every role in the bullpen is open. Who fills the closer spot will be an intriguing spring training storyline with many candidates. Veteran David Hernandez, who had a couple of strong seasons with Arizona before Tommy John surgery cost him the 2014 season, signed a big league deal just as Giles was exiting and will get the first chance.
The team has also signed veterans Andrew Bailey, Ernesto Frieri and Edward Mujica to minor league deals. Hernandez, Bailey, Frieri and Mujica have 231 big league saves among them. Righthanders Jeanmar Gomez and Luis Garcia both return in setup roles. Righthanders Dalier Hinojosa and Hector Neris and lefty Elvis Araujo also return after gaining valuable experience in 2015.
For the first time since 2001, the Phillies will have neither Chase Utley nor Jimmy Rollins in their Opening Day lineup. The other half of the best double-play combination in franchise history exited when Utley was traded to the Dodgers in August, following Rollins, who had been dealt to that club the previous offseason. Shortstop Freddy Galvis’ first season as the regular was rather unremarkable as he recorded just a .302 on-base percentage and was inconsistent in the field despite the occasional highlight-reel play. Even a significant across-the-board improvement might not help Galvis hold off top prospect J.P. Crawford later in the season. Though not a standout, switch-hitting second baseman Cesar Hernandez does a lot of things well on both sides of the ball and will look to establish himself as a regular in 2016.
Here’s where the past meets the future. First baseman Ryan Howard, 36 and a shadow of his MVP past, returns for his final season with the club as third baseman Maikel Franco gets set for his first full season in the majors. Franco, 23, has pillowy hands and a rocket arm. He could be a Gold Glover once he overcomes some youthful sloppiness. He could also blossom into an RBI champ and the type of middle-of-the-order threat that Howard was in his prime. The Phils, who averaged just 3.86 runs per game in 2015, really need that.
Franco played in 80 games last season, and 37 of his 85 hits were for extra bases, fueling an .840 OPS. Howard led the club with 23 homers and 77 RBIs, but he hit just .229, including .130 against lefties, and played poor defense. He was platooned over the final two months with Darin Ruf, who hit .371 with a 1.107 OPS in 97 at-bats against lefties. Howard’s contract is guaranteed just through this season — but the Phillies still owe him a whopping $35 million.
There is youth and athleticism here, led by 24-year-old Odubel Herrera, the Rule 5 pick who became the center fielder and one of the team’s best players in 2015. A slashing hitter with good quickness, Herrera polished his skills as the season unfolded and hit .324 with an .832 OPS after June 1. He played standout defense in his first full season as an outfielder. The addition of Peter Bourjos could push Herrera to a corner spot, but he remains a key foundation piece. The speedy Bourjos is a brilliant defender but has not hit consistently since a breakout season with the Angels in 2011. He will get an early opportunity but will need to produce offensively to remain a regular. Aaron Altherr, rangy and strong-armed, plays all three positions well. His first seven big league hits were for extra bases last season. The Phils are again looking to hit big on a Rule 5 addition. Tyler Goeddel, plucked out of the Tampa Bay system, was the first pick in the Rule 5 draft. He was the 41st overall pick in the 2011 amateur draft and stands a good chance of sticking.
The end is near for another World Series hero. Carlos Ruiz lost his starting job to Cameron Rupp in 2015. Rupp threw out 38 percent (20 of 53) of would-be base thieves and showed pop — eight homers in his final 38 games — as he got more regular at-bats. Veteran J.P. Arencibia will be in camp on a minor league contract, and that sets up some intrigue. Can he unseat Ruiz as the backup? Or will the remaining one year and $9 million on Ruiz’ contract secure his spot?
Switch-hitting veteran Andres Blanco is an asset. He can pick it at any infield position. He can swing it — 32 of his 68 hits last year were for extra bases. In addition, he’s a valuable mentor to the team’s young Latin players. Cody Asche, who plays third base and left field, lines up to be a left-handed bat off the bench. Ruf will add right-handed pop on days he does not start. Ditto for Arencibia if he makes the club.
Billionaire John Middleton, the most visible member of a deep-pocketed ownership group, said MacPhail’s mandate was to win, and he promised every resource needed to make that happen. The Phillies spent over a half-billion on salaries from 2012-14 and missed the playoffs all three years. Howard, Ruiz and Cliff Lee ($12.5 million buyout) come off the books after 2016, and the team could be primed for a big move in the free agent market — if it’s ready to win. Despite this, MacPhail and Klentak remain committed to building from within, with deep stocks of pitching leading the way.
The Phillies still aren’t ready to contend, and they know that, but important young players have gained experience, and the pitching is deeper. They should climb a few steps out of the major league basement in 2016 and be quite interesting as more prospects begin to arrive later in the season.
Prediction: 4th in NL East
CF Odubel Herrera (L)
2B Cesar Hernandez (S)
3B Maikel Franco (R)
1B Ryan Howard (L)
RF Aaron Altherr (R)
C Cameron Rupp (R)
SS Freddy Galvis (S)
LF Peter Bourjos (R)
1B Darin Ruf (R)
INF Andres Blanco (S)
3B/OF Cody Asche (L)
OF Tyler Goeddel (R)
C J.P. Arencibia (R)
RHP Jeremy Hellickson
RHP Charlie Morton
RHP Aaron Nola
LHP Brett Oberholtzer
RHP Jerad Eickhoff
RHP David Hernandez (Closer)
RHP Jeanmar Gomez
RHP Luis Garcia
LHP Elvis Araujo
LHP James Russell
RHP Dalier Hinojosa
RHP Vincent Velasquez
The 2016 NASCAR season will be here soon, and Athlon Sports is helping you prep for the season with a scouting report and fantasy preview for each of the top 16 drivers. The Athlon Sports 2016 Racing Preview, available on newsstands now, includes previews and stats for every driver and every track.
Joey Logano checks in at No. 1 in our countdown. Here’s what his season could look like on the track and on your fantasy team:
“Joey’s really a nice kid when you get down to it,” an industry insider says. “But he got over to Team Penske and his ‘role model’ was Brad Keselowski, a talented but younger driver himself who doesn’t always think before he makes a move on the track — or opens his mouth, for that matter. I think it’s rubbed off on Joey in a way that maybe has helped him be more aggressive, sometimes, obviously too aggressive, on the track, and in a way that’s sometimes hurt him with what he says off the track. What he’s said and done recently has made a lot of veteran drivers dislike him.”
“Listen, this is what young kids do. They run their mouths and make mistakes and usually pay a price for it. It’s totally normal for young people,” a former driver says. “I didn’t see it coming with Joey. But Joey learned, ‘Look, it’s an eye for an eye, man.’ He thought what he did at Kansas was cool. But we all said he’s going to get wrecked back. I think he will become a better driver in the long run because of what he’s now gone through. Joey Logano, for me, is right up there with the talent to become one of the next champions. We all learn lessons along the way. He’s very young. He’s only 25, you know?”
Victory Lane or bust: Logano has more wins (11) than any driver on the Sprint Cup circuit since the start of the 2014 season. They’ve come on each of NASCAR’s four major types: short tracks, intermediates, superspeedways and road courses — variety that makes him a “must have” for your roster.
Restrictor plate roller coaster: Logano’s recent plate track record shows the difficulty in trying to pick drivers for Daytona and Talladega. In four starts last year, he had two victories, including the sport’s Super Bowl (Daytona 500), but was 22nd and 33rd, respectively, in the other two events. Select at your own risk.
No senior citizen here: Logano, just age 25 was the lone twenty-something to make the 16-driver Chase. Tops among NASCAR’s next generation, he possesses upside potential in drafting that is far greater than many of the 40-ish drivers who’ve already reached their peak.
The 2016 NASCAR season will be here soon, and Athlon Sports is helping you prep for the season with a scouting report and fantasy preview for each of the top 16 drivers. The Athlon Sports 2016 Racing Preview, available on newsstands now, includes previews and stats for every driver and every track.
Kevin Harvick checks in at No. 2 in our countdown. Here’s what his season could look like on the track and on your fantasy team:
“Harvick is the hottest driver in NASCAR right now, even though he didn’t win the championship (last year),” says one former driver. “He’s the champion of 2014 and there’s no doubt he was the fastest car, leading in every category in 2015. He had a record amount of second-place finishes and still is, in my opinion, the man to beat. Harvick performs more consistently up front than any driver in the sport right now. He’s the fastest driver. He just missed the championship by one spot last year, and there is no doubt he’ll be right up there contending for it again in 2016.”
“Rodney Childers is the perfect crew chief for Harvick. I think a lot of people see Childers as the next Chad Knaus in the Sprint Cup garage,” one rival driver says. “(Childers) always has had a lot of respect from his peers, because they always realized his potential and his talent. Once he got with the No. 4 team and Stewart-Haas Racing, the chemistry with Harvick was solid right off the bat, and he’s had the opportunity to showcase how good he really is.
“If they keep them together for a long time — and there’s no reason to think they won’t — they’ll probably just keep getting better and better and start finishing off more of the races where they fell just a little short with more wins. That’s a little scary for everybody else in the garage.”
Up front early and often: Harvick has led 4,431 laps over the last two seasons, tops on the circuit by a wide margin. His 48 bonus points last season also paced the Sprint Cup field, and he posted a whopping 20 finishes inside the top 3. That means 56 percent of the time last year Harvick was guaranteed to earn your roster a top-3 result.
Phoenix flame: Harvick has four victories in his last five starts at the one-mile oval and hasn’t finished worse than second since taking over the No. 4 car in 2014. If not for a bizarre, rain-shortened ending that allowed Dale Earnhardt Jr. to squeak by last November, he’d have five in a row.
Short circuit: If there’s one small kink in the armor for Harvick, it’s at the three tracks on the schedule shorter than a mile: Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond. He has just one victory on those three the last four seasons (Richmond, 2013) and has three runs of 31st or worse in his last 12 starts.
If the Indians are a contender in 2016, it will be for a Wild Card spot and not the AL Central Division championship. They have the starting rotation to win their first division title since 2007, but not the offense. In the offseason, the front office chose to keep that rotation intact instead of trading an arm for a big hitter to put in the middle of the lineup.
As for acquiring a flashy bat through free agency? That’s been a non-starter since the organization’s painful misses on Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn before the 2013 season. Hey, but at least the Indians were able to dump the bodies, trading Swisher, Bourn and an estimated $15 million to Atlanta last August for Chris Johnson and his $17.5 million contract. Then Johnson was designated for assignment and released in December. Still, that doesn’t help an offense that finished 11th in runs and 13th in homers last season in the American League.
To add urgency to the situation, Michael Brantley, the Indians’ most consistent hitter over the last three years, had surgery on his right shoulder in November and could miss the first month of the regular season. It’s been speculated that he could be out longer, but the Indians say Brantley’s recovery is on schedule.
The Indians, in the wake of Brantley’s injury, signed Rajai Davis, traded for Collin Cowgill and will bring a host of other outfielders to spring training on minor league deals to try and strengthen the weakest part of the team. Young outfielders Tyler Naquin, James Ramsey, Bradley Zimmer and Clint Frazier were expected to get a long look in spring training as well.
The Indians did sign Mike Napoli to a one-year deal to add some thump to the middle of the lineup. A full season from AL Rookie of the Year runner-up Francisco Lindor and a healthy season from catcher Yan Gomes should help as well.
Corey Kluber returns as the No. 1 starter despite going from AL Cy Young winner in 2014 to leading the league with 16 losses in 2015. A lot of those losses could be tied to a lack of offense and a foot injury that the Indians kept quiet. Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, 14-game winners last year, fill the middle of rotation after drawing intense interest on the trade market over the winter. Trevor Bauer completes the top four spots. Cody Anderson and Josh Tomlin, who combined to go 14–5 in 25 starts last year, will compete for the fifth spot. T.J. House, Mike Clevinger, Ryan Merritt and Adam Plutko could help during the season.
The bullpen, despite producing the second-lowest ERA in the AL last season, heads into 2016 with questions. Can closer Cody Allen and setup man Bryan Shaw continue to produce at a high level after three seasons of heavy work? Allen made 223 appearances and Shaw 224 from 2013 through ’15. Following the trade of Marc Rzepczynski at midseason last year, there has been a need for a dependable lefty. Veteran lefties Joe Thatcher, Tom Gorzelanny and Ross Detwiler were signed to minor league deals to compete with Kyle Crockett and Giovanni Soto in spring training. Righties Zach McAllister, Jeff Manship, Austin Adams, Shawn Armstrong, Dan Otero, Joba Chamberlain and Kirby Yates offer plenty of depth behind Allen and Shaw.
Lindor and two-time All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis are key to the Indians’ success. A full season from Lindor will definitely boost the offense. In 99 games as a rookie last year, he hit .313 with 12 homers and 51 RBIs. How he handles a full season will be critical for the offense. Defensively, Lindor helped transform MLB’s most error-prone team in 2014 to a team that tied for second in fielding percentage in 2015. Kipnis plays gritty but effective defense. He sparked the offense last year when he was moved into the leadoff spot, but a right shoulder injury caused him to slump in the second half. Kipnis and Lindor, hitting first and second, form a dangerous combination. It will be interesting to see if Brantley’s injury causes a change in their lineup spots.
The Indians tried to upgrade first and third base over the winter. They bid on Korean first baseman Byung-ho Park but lost out to the Twins. Then they signed Napoli to a one-year, $7 million deal. Napoli is expected to get most of the playing time at first, with Carlos Santana moving to DH. After failing to trade for Todd Frazier, Giovanny Urshela is expected to start at third. Urshela made his big league debut last year and played good defense but didn’t hit much. He dealt with a sore right shoulder in the second half after missing much of spring training with back and knee injuries. The Indians believe Urshela can be a better hitter if he can stay healthy. Switch-hitter Jose Ramirez could see time at third base.
Davis is expected to start the season in left field in place of the injured Brantley. Davis will move to center against some lefties, while Cowgill should get a chance in left and right field. Lonnie Chisenhall made the move from third base to right field after the All-Star break and hit .288 with 25 RBIs in 54 games while shining defensively. Joey Butler or Cowgill are potential platoon partners for Chisenhall. The Indians aren’t certain if Abraham Almonte is an everyday center fielder, but he played like one over the final two months of last season. They also invited outfielders Shane Robinson, Michael Choice and Robbie Grossman to camp on minor league deals.
Gomes and Roberto Perez form a solid catching combination. Gomes has power, frames pitches well and calls a good game. The 2014 Silver Slugger winner was limited to 95 games last year after missing six weeks early in the season because of a right knee injury suffered on April 12. Gomes, who threw out 33 percent (19-of-58) of potential basestealers last season, played catch-up the rest of the year. Perez stepped in when Gomes was injured and threw out 42 percent (18-for-43). Perez hit seven homers in 184 at-bats, and Tribe pitchers posted a 3.71 ERA when he was behind the plate.
In the last three years, Santana has been the Indians’ Opening Day catcher (2013), third baseman (2014) and first baseman (2015). In 2016, he’s likely to be their Opening Day designated hitter with the arrival of Napoli to play first base. Santana led the team in homers, RBIs and walks last year but batted .231 for the second straight season and seemed miscast as a cleanup hitter because of his fondness for walks. Napoli, a top vote getter for the Gold Glove last year, played just 111 games at first base so Santana shouldn’t put his glove in cold storage. Ramirez is expected to replace departed Mike Aviles as manager Terry Francona’s jack-of-all trades. Ramirez can play second, short, third and left field.
Chris Antonetti, president of baseball operations, and Francona went into the offseason with the idea of keeping their starting pitching intact unless they were overwhelmed. Regarding offense, well, they’d worry about that later. The rotation is full of good arms signed to club-friendly contracts, but you have to score runs to win. If Brantley returns on schedule, perhaps the Indians can still deal a pitcher at the trading deadline to fuel a second-half push.
The Indians have put together three straight winning seasons for the first time since 1999-2001, but the paying public has greeted them with a yawn. In that three-year span, the Indians have finished 28th and 29th (twice) in attendance. It’s clear something dramatic needs to be done, but that’s unlikely to happen. The Indians operate on a restricted payroll and play in a division featuring a Kansas City team that has been to the World Series the last two years. The Indians definitely have a playoff-worthy rotation, but scoring enough runs to reach the postseason will be the problem.
Prediction: 5th AL Central
2B Jason Kipnis (L)
SS Francisco Lindor (S)
LF Michael Brantley (L)
1B Mike Napoli (R)
DH Carlos Santana (S)
C Yan Gomes (R)
RF Lonnie Chisenhall (L)
3B Giovanny Urshela (R)
CF Abraham Almonte (S)
UTL Jose Ramirez (S)
C Roberto Perez (R)
OF Collin Cowgill (R)
OF Rajai Davis (R)
RHP Corey Kluber
RHP Carlos Carrasco
RHP Danny Salazar
RHP Trevor Bauer
RHP Josh Tomlin
RHP Cody Allen (Closer)
RHP Bryan Shaw
RHP Zack McAllister
RHP Jeff Manship
LHP Joe Thatcher
RHP Joba Chamberlain
LHP Kyle Crockett
The 2016 NASCAR season will be here soon, and Athlon Sports is helping you prep for the season with a scouting report and fantasy preview for each of the top 16 drivers. The Athlon Sports 2016 Racing Preview, available on newsstands now, includes previews and stats for every driver and every track.
Kyle Busch checks in at No. 4 in our countdown. Here’s what his season could look like on the track and on your fantasy team:
“Listen, we already know that Kyle Busch is one of the greatest drivers of all time,” says one former driver. “We all have a tendency to throw the word ‘great’ around a little too much these days. But what makes Kyle truly great is all the wins. My gosh, he just wins in everything all the time. We all have just been shocked that he hadn’t won a (Cup) championship before last year.”
“Some people have it together right away and with some people it takes time,” a former crew chief says. “The only thing he was missing was patience. There is no doubt in my mind that breaking his leg (and foot), getting married and having a kid were all keys to his success. That’s it in a nutshell. We already know he’s great; he’s won all the races there are to win. The key to him winning that championship was something that God did that was unexpected. We don’t see these things coming until they come. But he’s a completely different person after getting married, having a baby and breaking his leg.
“Sometimes when you’re sitting down on the outside looking in, it gives you a different perspective and it changes you. And what I noticed about Kyle this year, is that when his car wouldn’t handle good, he would drive it. In the past, when his car didn’t handle good, he would drive it hard and then wreck it. That’s the deal with him.”
Boom or bust: The reigning champ can be tricky from a fantasy perspective because of his aggressive driving style. His 18 DNFs since 2011 pale in comparison to top-level rivals Harvick (eight), Johnson (14), Joey Logano (13) and Brad Keselowski (six).
Starting up front: Leagues with qualifying points should take heed of Busch’s average start in 2015 (8.2), a number that came with one pole position. Only Joey Logano’s was better as Busch posted the best average of his career.
The seven-year itch: Busch is the defending champ at Sonoma and was second at Watkins Glen last year, proving his prowess on road courses. But hold on a second: Busch’s last Sonoma top 10 before that victory was in 2008, and he was 40th at Watkins Glen in 2014.
Kentucky king: Use Busch for all intermediates but especially in the Bluegrass State. He dominated the Kentucky event last year, leading 163 laps en route to victory, and hasn’t run outside the top 10 in any of the five Cup races held there.
Jimmie Johnson checks in at No. 3 in our countdown. Here’s what his season could look like on the track and on your fantasy team:
“With his six championships, he’s the greatest driver of the last 10 years,” one former driver says. “I think Jimmie comes out stronger than ever next year because of the new rules package. I think he can drive a car very neutral to loose, and I think Jimmie Johnson is going to be strong in 2016 not only because he’s a good driver and a great champion, but because we’re going to see a big change in the rules in 2016.
“The rules changes are huge. A three-inch spoiler is like having nothing on the rear of the car. There will be less downforce on the front and less downforce overall. It’s going to be a game-changer, and I think it’s going to fit right in Jimmie’s wheelhouse. Bottom line: Jimmie Johnson is the best and fastest driver of the last decade in this modern era — and the new rules package is going to be right in his wheelhouse for next year. I say Jimmie in the next two or three years ties the all-time record with his seventh championship.”
“You can’t ever underestimate the fact that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have won six titles together already,” one industry insider says. “Nor should you underestimate the fact that they desperately want to not only tie the record for most of all time (currently held by Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt), but surpass it. I won’t say the best is yet to come from them because they’ve been too damn good already in their time together, but there are more great times ahead.”
Trophy collector: Johnson has earned at least two victories for 14 straight seasons. He’s won four times or more in 11 of those years.
Mr. Consistency: NASCAR’s six-time champion is also “20-time,” posting at least 20 top-10 finishes every year of his Sprint Cup career (since 2002). No one else offers that type of consistency.
Lowe’s Low: Charlotte used to be “Jimmie’s house,” but Johnson was 40th and 39th last year, has just one win in his last 12 starts and an average finish of 19.9 during that stretch.
Closing the deal: Johnson has 26 career postseason victories, the most in NASCAR history, and he has won at least once every year inside the Chase since it began in 2004. Your best bets are the Martinsville and Texas fall races; Johnson has won them both five times for a startling Chase success rate of 45 percent.
Last season, one fan base saw something they probably thought would never happen again: The Kansas City Royals won the World Series for the first time in 30 years.
The question for 2016 seems to be if another franchise will end a drought. Or will baseball again work like clockwork in an even-numbered year?
Naturally, the longest drought belongs to the Chicago Cubs, who have been building and re-building and building again since 1908. The New York Mets will look to follow the Royals lead by turning a loss in the World Series into a championship the following year to end a 30-year drought.
Perhaps the Blue Jays will end their own drought after last winning back-to-back titles in 1992-93.
The San Francisco Giants, though, are ready to contend for another world championship in an even-numbered year after winning the 2010, 2012 and 2014 titles.
Then again, the Royals won’t go away quietly and will try to be the first franchise to win back-to-back titles since the Yankees from 1998-2000.
Athlon Sports will give you the most complete look at the 2016 season in our Baseball Preview annual, available now on newsstands everywhere.
As a tease, here are our picks for each division and major awards.
|AL East||NL East|
|AL Central||NL Central|
|AL West||NL West|
|MLB Playoff Predictions|
|MLB Individual Awards|
|AL MVP||NL MVP|
1. Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels
2. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Detroit Tigers
3. Josh Donaldson, 3B, Toronto Blue Jays
4. Carlos Correa, SS, Houston Astros
5. Manny Machado, 3B, Baltimore Orioles
6. Jose Bautista, OF, Toronto Blue Jays
7. Jose Abreu, 1B/DH, Chicago White Sox
8. Lorenzo Cain, OF, Kansas City Royals
9. Mookie Betts, OF, Boston Red Sox
10. Eric Hosmer, 1B, Kansas City Royals
1. Bryce Harper, OF, Washington Nationals
2. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Arizona Diamondbacks
3. Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
4. Buster Posey, C, San Francisco Giants
5. Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Chicago Cubs
6. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Los Angeles Dodgers
7. A.J. Pollock, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks
8. Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Miami Marlins
9. Kris Bryant, 3B, Chicago Cubs
10. Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado Rockies
|AL Cy Young||NL Cy Young|
1. David Price, Boston Red Sox
2. Dallas Keuchel, Houston Astros
3. Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox
4. Sonny Gray, Oakland A’s
5. Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays
1. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
2. Zack Greinke, Arizona Diamondbacks
3. Jake Arrieta, Chicago Cubs
4. Matt Harvey, New York Mets
5. Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants
|AL Rookie of the Year||NL Rookie of the Year|
1. Byung Ho Park, 1B/DH, Minnesota Twins
2. Byron Buxton, OF, Minnesota Twins
3. Joey Gallo, 3B/OF, Texas Rangers
4. Jose Berrios, RHP, Minnesota Twins
5. A.J. Reed, 1B, Houston Astros
1. Corey Seager, 3B/SS, Los Angeles Dodgers
2. Hector Olivera, 3B/OF, Atlanta Braves
3. Kenta Maeda, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers
4. Trea Turner, SS, Washington Nationals
5. Steven Matz, LHP, New York Mets
WANT MORE? BUY ATHLON SPORTS 2016 MLB PREVIEW MAGAZINE NOW.