As spring training winds down, expectations are low for several MLB teams that have fully committed to rebuilding in 2016 and beyond, including the Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Brewers and Philadelphia Phillies. If those teams lose 90 games or more, it will be disappointing to fans, but not unexpected.
Related: 5 MLB Teams on the Rise in 2016
However, there are several teams that are expected to compete for division and league titles that could cause major disappointment this year should players regress or fail to develop, or should injuries and age take their toll. We take a look at five teams expected to contend for championships that could fall short of expectations in 2016.
Kansas City Royals
(95-67, 1st in AL Central, World Series champions)
Kansas City surprised many by reaching the World Series in 2014, then repeated as American League pennant winners last season before taking down the New York Mets in the Fall Classic. The Royals’ offense ranked sixth in the AL in runs scored (724), and next to last in home runs (139), but Kansas City’s winning formula consisted of great defense, outstanding team speed, and arguably the best bullpen in all of baseball and it paid off (ahem) royally. The defending champs made only a few offseason moves, most notably adding Ian Kennedy to bolster the starting rotation and grabbing a few bargains mined from the scrap heap, so the recipe for success in 2016 is the same – and so are the projections.
Projections are rarely perfect – and several of the statistical projection systems expected KC to take a step back in 2015 instead of win the franchise’s first World Series in a quarter of a century – but both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA are bearish on the Royals this season. In both instances, Kansas City is expected to fall all the way into last place in the AL Central. It could be that the statistics-based models simply don’t give the Royals enough credit for their strengths: specifically their defense and bullpen. Or, it could be that KC wildly overachieved in 2015.
Aside from Kansas City itself, the division as a whole should be stronger with Detroit and Cleveland expected to compete again for the top spot, as well as a young and talented Minnesota team, which started fast in 2015 before falling out of the race late. Even the Chicago White Sox have legitimate playoff hopes. Therefore, 95 wins and a third straight World Series appearance seem highly unlikely, but by now, the Royals are used to surprising us.
New York Mets
(90-72, 1st in NL East, NL pennant winner)
Speaking of surprises, no one expected the Mets to make it to the World Series this time last year. But, now that New York can boast one of the most dominant starting rotations in baseball, has graduated key prospects to the big leagues like Michael Conforto, and was able to keep late-season hero Yoenis Cespedes – who hit .287/.337/.604 with 17 home runs and 44 RBIs in 57 games with the Mets – over the winter, this team (and their fans) expects to make another run at a title.
There were a few adjustments to the Mets’ roster over the offseason: The club traded veteran starter Jon Niese for Neil Walker to replace departed postseason hero Daniel Murphy at second base, and Asdrubal Cabrera (currently nursing a minor knee injury) is expected to beat out Wilmer Flores for the everyday duties at shortstop. Niese was expendable because the Mets still have Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and the ageless Bartolo Colon to take the mound in rotation, as well as Jeurys Familia to close the door in the ninth inning. New York posted a 3.43 team ERA last season and could be even better in 2016 because the club expects to have Zack Wheeler (Tommy John surgery) back in the fold in July.
As for the projections, both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus expect the Mets to win the division in a close race with the Washington Nationals, who will certainly pose a threat with Cy Young candidate Max Scherzer and MVP Bryce Harper leading the way and a lineup that aims to stay much healthier than it did a year ago. The rest of the division is far weaker, though the Miami Marlins are optimistic they can improve under first-year manager Don Mattingly, and even the rebuilding Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies are capable of overachieving in 2016 and playing spoiler.
Of course, it’s possible that 2015 was a one-off. After all, the franchise hadn’t posted a winning record since 2009. The pitching staff was brilliant last season, but it’s possible that Conforto, Syndergaard or Matz suffers a sophomore slump, and the offense may take a hit without Murphy, with outfielder Curtis Granderson turning 35, and with team leader David Wright coming off a season in which he was limited to just 38 regular season games due to injury.
Everything went right for New York in 2015, and 90 wins were enough to win a watered-down division. Expect the road to a second straight division title to be much tougher this year.
Los Angeles Dodgers
(92-70, 1st in NL West in 2015)
Most analysts and projections systems (including both FanGraphs and PECOTA) expect the Dodgers to win the NL West again in 2016, and there is certainly plenty of reason to be optimistic about the team’s chances. Clayton Kershaw is still arguably the greatest pitcher on the planet, Adrian Gonzalez is about as solid as they come in the middle of the lineup, and there’s a ton of young talent already on the roster, such as Yasiel Puig, Joc Pederson, and Corey Seager, who all have All-Star potential. Plus, even more talent is on the way. Pitchers Julio Urias and Jose De Leon are the team’s top two prospects and each could make his big league debut this year.
However, there are reasons to be concerned. Kershaw’s running mate Zack Greinke now pitches for a division rival, and the Dodgers will rely heavily on Scott Kazmir (who washed out of baseball in 2011 before making a miraculous comeback) and Kenta Maeda (who has never pitched in a MLB game because he has spent his entire professional career in his native Japan) to provide Kershaw with support in the rotation.
Injuries also are an issue. Andre Ethier is expected to miss 10-14 weeks due to a fractured tibia and Yasmani Grandal and Justin Turner are both recovering from offseason surgeries while numerous pitchers are either hurt or still on the comeback trail. Also, Dave Roberts is in his first major league managerial role, and it’s a tough one given the size of the payroll (and accompanying egos) in Los Angeles and the high expectations for the franchise.
The Dodgers should be good – and they could even be great if the powers that be decide to use a deep farm system and even deeper pockets to make improvements to the roster over the course of the season. But, Los Angeles could also be a disappointment if Puig and Pederson don’t improve, the other young talent doesn’t pan out, or injuries take their toll.
(97-65, 3rd in NL Central in 2015, NL Wild Card)
Finally. This is the year. Or is it? The Cubs are the favorite to win the World Series according to Las Vegas odds makers – and for good reason. This team is absolutely loaded with young talent like All-Star Anthony Rizzo, reigning NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant, and fellow sluggers Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler in the lineup, plus a veteran pitching staff led by Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and solid lefty Jon Lester. The team added prized free agents Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist (one of manager Joe Maddon’s favorites from his time in Tampa Bay) to give the team a boost both in the field and at the plate and also brought in veteran right-hander John Lackey for the rotation.
At this point, it’s hard to find a weak spot and most positions in the infield and outfield are at least two deep thanks to the flexibility of players like Zobrist, Schwarber and Javier Baez. And if a need presents itself over the course of the season there is still enough talent on the farm to fill it through a mid-summer trade, or through promotion.
But, let’s not forget the Cubs have a longstanding tradition of finding creative ways to make their fans suffer. And, baseball is a very difficult game; it’s quite possible that the youngsters the Cubs will lean on in the lineup fall short of expectations should the rest of the league make adjustments. Injuries could be a major factor, or the bullpen could blow up.
Those are a lot of what ifs, but let’s also not forget that the NL Central is incredibly tough because of the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates, which both finished ahead of the Cubs a year ago and are primed to make postseason runs again in 2016.
This could be the year... or it could be another heartbreaker.
Los Angeles Angels
(85-77, 3rd in AL West in 2015)
Mike Trout is the best player in the American League and Albert Pujols is a surefire Hall of Famer who hit 40 home runs last season. Kole Calhoun is one of the best defensive right fielders in the game, and new shortstop Andrelton Simmons is this generation’s Ozzie Smith/Omar Vizquel in terms of making spectacular plays with the glove. Even through Jared Weaver and C.J. Wilson are already dealing with nagging injuries and Tyler Skaggs won’t be fully recovered from Tommy John surgery until mid-April at the earliest, the Angels’ starting rotation features hard-throwing Garrett Richards, underrated Hector Santiago and budding star Andrew Heaney.
But, despite the very bright spots on the Angels’ roster, there are some major questions that must be answered. Can incoming third baseman Yunel Escobar come close to repeating the uncharacteristic .314/.375/.415 slash he produced last season in Washington, and if not, can Kaleb Cowart improve upon the paltry .174/.255/.283 he hit in 34 games after re-emerging as one of the club’s top prospects earlier in the year?
Can Chad Pennington win an everyday job on the strength of his hot spring (.410/.452/.462 across his first 39 at-bats) and carry that over to the regular season? Can the Angels get any offensive production out of an expected left field platoon headed up by Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry? How will the aging bullpen hold up?
Then, there’s the question as to whether or not Pujols, Wilson, and Weaver can make it through the season healthy. And finally, with one of the weakest farm systems in baseball, and a reluctance to spend money on free agents like Jason Heyward, Alex Gordon or Yoenis Cespedes over the winter, would the Angels be willing or able to make a big move later in the season to challenge the suddenly strong Houston Astros and surging Texas Rangers?
Simply put, that’s far too many questions for us to expect the Angels to improve upon last year’s 85-77 record - especially since Los Angeles overachieved anyway. The Angels finished dead last in the AL in 2015 in hits (1,331), batting average (.246), doubles (243) and were next to last in OPS (.702) and total bases (.702), but pitched well enough to finish one game out of a playoff spot. Unless the offense improves in 2016, expect a postseason bid to be even farther out of reach.
5 Other Teams to be Concerned About
Chicago White Sox
New York Yankees
San Diego Padres
St. Louis Cardinals
— Rankings by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Allen's work can also be found on SaturdayDownSouth.com. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.