Opening Day of the 2016 MLB season is just around the corner, and on spring training fields across Arizona and Florida teams are hard at work trying to improve themselves. Optimism is high across baseball – and for good reason. After all, just last season, the small-market Kansas City Royals beat the surprising New York Mets in the World Series and the Houston Astros completed a complete teardown and rebuilding effort by winning a wild card spot in the American League.
Which teams are poised to break out in 2016? We take a look at five on the rise.
Boston Red Sox
(78-84, 5th in AL East in 2015)
Most fans and analysts expected the Red Sox to bounce back last season following a very disappointing last-place finish in 2014. Instead, Boston stumbled again and finished last in the division for the second consecutive year – the first time the Red Sox have spent back-to-back seasons in the basement since 1929-30 – and the third time in the last four.
The biggest reason for the team’s struggles was the starting rotation. Boston ranked second to last (14th out of 15 teams) in the American League in ERA (4.31) and lacked an ace at the top of the rotation. Clay Buchholz didn’t pitch after July 10 and only one pitcher that started more than 20 games posted an ERA below 4.46 (Eduardo Rodriguez).
In an effort to fix the pitching staff and reverse the losing trend, the Red Sox were aggressive in the offseason and signed 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner (and 2015 runner-up) David Price. The 30-year-old lefty was 18-5 with a 2.45 ERA and 225 strikeouts in 220 1/3 innings across 32 starts split between the Detroit Tigers and Toronto Blue Jays last season. Price was a major factor for the Jays down the stretch and made four postseason appearances for Toronto after helping the club win the AL East.
In addition to Price, the Red Sox made a splash by trading for closer Craig Kimbrel, who posted a 2.58 ERA with 39 saves in 61 appearances for the San Diego Padres in 2015 after coming over from the Atlanta Braves. Kimbrel, the hard-throwing 27-year-old, led the National League in saves in each of his first four full big league seasons and has a career ERA of 1.63 with 225 saves and 563 career strikeouts in 348 1/3 innings.
The Red Sox are also hoping new first baseman Hanley Ramirez and third baseman Pablo Sandoval will return to form after disappointing seasons a year ago, and the club expects one last great offensive performance from designated hitter David Ortiz, who will retire following the season.
As always, expectations are high in Boston. And, they also are high across the industry. FanGraphs predicts the Red Sox to finish in first place in the AL East with a record of 88-74 - a four-game cushion over the Blue Jays. Online sports book Bovada has Boston listed as the favorite to win the AL pennant.
(74-87, 5th in AL Central in 2015)
Like the Red Sox, the Tigers expect to compete for championships on an annual basis (and had won four straight AL Central division titles), but also suffered through an unexpected losing campaign in 2015.
Detroit started well, but missed Justin Verlander in the starting rotation early in the season and fell out of first place on May 15. Once Verlander returned in early June, things only got worse as the Tigers lost each of his first eight starts, during which the 2011 AL Cy Young winner posted a 5.57 ERA with just 25 strikeouts in 42 innings. Injuries also took their toll in the middle of the summer. After the club lost Victor Martinez for a month, then Miguel Cabrera to injury in early July, the Tigers fell out of the playoff chase by the trading deadline, which played a big role in the decision to trade David Price to the Blue Jays and outfielder Yoenis Cespedes to the New York Mets.
The loss of Price still stings, but a healthy Verlander – who posted a 2.36 ERA and held opponents to .204/249/.304 with 88 Ks in 91 1/3 innings over his final 13 starts last year – will go a long way towards replacing the AL Cy Young runner-up, as will newcomer Jordan Zimmermann. Similarly, a healthy Cabrera-Martinez combo should make the Tigers competitive again, as will the addition of Justin Upton, the free agent who signed a six-year deal in January to replace the departed Cespedes.
San Francisco Giants
(84-78, 2nd in NL West in 2015)
You probably already know this, but 2016 is an even-numbered year. And, you probably remember that the Giants have won the World Series in each of the last two even-numbered seasons. Of course, the calendar itself has little to do with the Giants’ chances in 2016. Instead, hope lies on the shoulders of free-agent signees Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, who should give a jolt to an aging starting rotation and provide ace Madison Bumgarner with some support.
Last season, only Bumgarner and Chris Heston started more than 30 games for the Giants, and the pair joined Jake Peavy as the only starters to post an ERA under 4.13. Cueto may have struggled in the regular season after a trade to Kansas City (4-7, 4.76 ERA with 56 strikeouts in 81 1/3 innings), but he finished strong with a complete game, two-hitter in Game 2 of the Fall Classic and also has a history of terrific success that includes two top-four finishes in NL Cy Young voting.
Samardzija struggled with the Chicago White Sox last season (no one in MLB surrendered more hits or earned runs, and he led the AL with 29 home runs allowed), but in 2014 he posted a 2.99 ERA across 33 starts split between the Cubs and the Oakland A’s. Perhaps a stable contract situation will help get Samardzija on track. He signed a five-year deal worth $90 million.
Like most of the teams on our list, the Giants are banking on a comeback season from an injured regular. For San Francisco, it’s Hunter Pence, who was limited to 52 games a year ago, and Joe Panik, who played just three games after Aug. 3. The Giants are also hoping for big things from new center fielder Denard Span, who hit .301/.365/.431 with five home runs and 11 stolen bases in just 61 games with the Nationals last year because of a variety of injuries, including a hip issue that required surgery.
(79-83, 3rd in NL West in 2015)
Unlike Boston, Detroit and San Francisco, Arizona made a big step forward in 2015 – a whopping 15-game improvement, in
fact. Tony La Russa and Dave Stewart have been aggressive in their rebuild of the Diamondbacks – so aggressive that the pair sprung for top free agent pitcher Zack Greinke and traded away 2015 No. 1 overall draft pick Dansby Swanson, pitching prospect Aaron Blair and rising star Ender Inciarte for Atlanta All-Star pitcher Shelby Miller. The addition of Greinke – the former AL Cy Young Award winner who was the runner-up in the NL last season after going 19-3 with a MLB-leading 1.66 ERA, 225 ERA+ and 0.844 WHIP – is doubly important because he came over from the division rival Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Diamondbacks also signed reliever Tyler Clippard to further bolster a pitching staff that ranked ninth in the NL with a 4.04 ERA last season and allowed 182 home runs – more than all but two other teams in the league. Arizona, which led the NL in hits (1,494) and ranked second in runs (720) also acquired shortstop Jean Segura in a trade with Milwaukee.
(83-79, 2nd in NL East in 2015)
The Chicago Cubs are the odds-on favorite to win the 2016 World Series, which is a position the 2015 Washington Nationals know well.
Last season, the Nats built an incredibly strong starting rotation, headlined by new ace Max Scherzer and featuring Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg and Doug Fister. Scherzer did his part by posting a 2.79 ERA with 276 strikeouts in 228 2/3 innings, which included a no-hitter that was one out shy of a perfect game. So did 22-year-old outfielder Bryce Harper, who hit .330/.460/.649 with 42 home runs, 99 RBIs and 118 runs and won NL MVP honors.
However, the club struggled as a whole – and like the Tigers and Giants was bit badly by the injury bug – and fell well shy of expectations. Instead of a third NL East title in four seasons, the Nationals finished seven games behind the Mets, whose starting rotation quickly became the talk of baseball.
Looking ahead to 2016, the Nationals will rely heavily on Scherzer and Harper, but must replace Zimmermann and Fister, as well as outfielder Denard Span and shortstop Ian Desmond. The Nats added speedy outfielder Ben Revere and postseason hero Daniel Murphy, and moved Tanner Roark back into the rotation where he thrived in 2014. If Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth bounce back from injury-plagued seasons, and Washington takes advantage of the opportunity for easy wins in the division against the rebuilding Braves and Phillies, the Nationals should give the Mets a stiff challenge for the division title.
5 Others to Watch
Cleveland Indians, Minnesota Twins, Oakland Athletics, Seattle Mariners, Tampa Bay Rays
Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Allen's work can also be found on SaturdayDownSouth.com, SaturdayBlitz.com and FanSided.com. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
(David Price photo courtesy of Getty Images)