With MLB's spring training in full swing in Florida and Arizona, the main storyline in the American League is pretty straightforward – everyone is trying to catch up with the reigning World Series champion Kansas City Royals. Some teams are trying to emulate their back-end bullpen dominance, and others are trying to imitate their homegrown success with the acquisition of young talent. Others, like Toronto are hoping to be able to put together a stacked lineup that will allow them to slug their way past Kansas City. So with that in mind, here are the biggest storylines in the AL as we stand less than a month away from Opening Day.
1. Blue Jays Want to go Back-to-Back
The 2016 Blue Jays will be relying heavily on the same slugging lineup that scored a major league-best 891 runs a season ago and features the AL MVP Josh Donaldson, bat-flipping aficionado Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Troy Tulowitzki. But gone is rent-an-ace David Price as well as general manager Alex Anthopoulos, the craftsman of the first Toronto team to make a postseason appearance in 22 years. The microscope is now hovering over team president Mark Shapiro and new GM Ross Atkins from a fan base disgruntled over the surprise departure of Anthopoulos.
With Price gone, the rotation is now headlined instead by Marcus Stroman, a young fireballer in a small (5-8) package. Stroman tore his ACL in spring training last year, but returned to give the Jays a jolt down the stretch and in the playoffs. Manager John Gibbons will be relying heavily on Stroman, 24, who has yet to pitch a full season in the majors.
The rest of rotation has plenty of question marks. Marco Estrada put together his best season as a pro in 2015 (3.13 ERA, 181.0 IP), earning him a two-year, $32 million deal. But consistency has been elusive for Estrada throughout his career, as it has for knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, and lefty J.A. Happ. Dickey is likely to eclipse 200 innings for the sixth consecutive season, but he has to do a better job of keeping the ball in the yard. While Happ is out to prove that his second half stint in Pittsburgh last season (11 starts, 1.85 ERA, 69 K, 2.19 FIP) wasn’t a fluke.
The Jays’ bats are more than capable of slugging their way to another AL East title, but the question remains — is the rotation good enough to win a World Series?
2. Rejuvenated Red Sox
Sure, signing the aforementioned Price for $217 million helps the Red Sox win in the long run. But for my money, the trade for closer Craig Kimbrel signaled that the Red Sox and new GM Dave Dombrowski are ready to win right now.
Think back to last offseason when then-GM Ben Cherington brought in Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to dig the Sox out of the AL East basement. Well, that backfired — horribly — and cost Cherington his job. But despite the 78-84 finish, there were a few bright spots for Red Sox Nation in ’15. A pair of 22-year-old phenoms, center fielder Mookie Betts and shortstop Xander Bogaerts, proved to be franchise cornerstones with breakout performances in the field and at the plate. Throw in outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and catcher Blake Swihart, and the Red Sox have plenty of young, promising position players to place alongside their new ace in hopes of putting together another stretch of sustained success.
The problem with the Red Sox clearly isn’t dealing with the expected growing pains endured by their younger players, but the questions surrounding some of their high-priced, aging veterans. Sandoval and Ramirez were atrocious last season, but they weren’t the only ones. Starting pitchers Joe Kelly, Rick Porcello and Wade Miley all had posted ERAs well north of 4.00. De facto No. 1 starter Clay Buchholz and perennial All-Star second baseman Dustin Pedoria were effective, but couldn’t stay healthy. In order to compete with Toronto in the AL East, manager John Farrell will have to find the right mix of aging vets and blossoming youngsters.
3. Farewell Big Papi
At 39 years old, David Ortiz was the arguably most productive player in the Red Sox lineup last season when he hit .273 with 37 home runs, 37 doubles and a .913 OPS. Ortiz is getting ready to embark on his final season, and all of New England is praying that he has more than enough life left in his bat.
Since coming to Boston in 2003, he has been the unequivocal clubhouse leader and arguably the most noticeable face of one of baseball’s most recognizable franchises. But it isn’t only Ortiz’s on-field accomplishments (2,303 hits, 503 home runs, 1,641 RBIs) that has earned him a special place in New England folklore — granted it certainly helps that he was the driving force behind three World Series titles and eradicating the 86-year Curse of the Bambino.
Ortiz came to symbolize the best of Boston when times were at their worst. Ortiz exemplified camaraderie and toughness after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. His speech prior to the first home game following the attacks spawned the rallying cry “Boston Strong,” and with some fantastic choice language, reinvigorated the entire city.
Since winning the World Series win in 2004, Ortiz has often been in the forefront of the baseball spotlight for his outgoing and endearing personality and on-field accomplishments, becoming just the fourth player ever to hit more than 500 home runs and win three World Series titles. (The other three players were all Yankees. Fitting, right?)
To many, Ortiz represents the ills of the modern athlete — boorish, overpaid and irritable — not to mention his failed PED test in 2003. But to others, especially in the baseball world and in New England, he is Big Papi — the outgoing, charitable, clutch slugger who embraced one of America’s greatest cities both on the field, and when it matters most off the field. One thing is for certain, Big Papi is going out on his own terms — and that is more than well-deserved for one of the game’s great ambassadors.
4. Royals Repeat?
Last season Kansas City ran away with the AL Central crown by a jaw-dropping 12 games. Yes, the Royals were that good — and yes, the rest of the division was really that bad. This summer looks like it could be much of the same.
The Royals return pretty much the same roster that won the World Series last October. Outside of injured free-agent closer Greg Holland (who could be brought back), along with half-season rentals Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist, everyone else is back. This is bad news for AL Central opponents.
With the return of Alex Gordon, alongside the core group of Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Salvador Perez and Mike Moustakas (not to mention the bulk of that lights-out bullpen) the Royals have to be the favorites to repeat as AL Central champs.
The only things that could deter a Royal repeat would be their vanilla starting rotation not being able to last a whole summer and a healthy and max-performing Tigers lineup. I wouldn’t bank on the latter.
5. Youth Movement
I’ve already mentioned the likes of Marcus Stroman, Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts as young AL game-breakers under the age of 25. Stroman will be atop of the Blue Jays rotation this summer with potential to be a bona fide ace while Betts and Bogaerts could be the only everyday Red Sox players to make the AL All-Star team. But these three aren't the only youngsters who figure to make big waves in the Junior Circuit this summer.
Francisco Lindor was supposed to win the AL Rookie of the Year Award last season — and he should have — that is until Carlos Correa showed up and helped the Astros qualify for the postseason. Outside of Andrelton Simmons, Lindor might have been the best defensive shortstop in all of baseball in 2015. But unlike Simmons, Lindor isn’t limited to just his leather. In just 99 games last season, Lindor hit .313/.353/.482 with 12 home runs and 12 stolen bases. Most think Lindor, 22, will regress offensively given his numbers in the minors, but that doesn’t make him any less of a potential perennial All-Star for Cleveland.
And then there’s Correa, the man who beat out Lindor in the voting for AL Rookie of the Year. The young shortstop has drawn comparisons to Alex Rodriguez when he burst on the scene back in 1996. Making his MLB debut last June at 20 years old, Correa hit 22 home runs, 22 doubles, drove in 68, stole 14 bases with an OPS of .857 OPS in just 432 plate appearances. What Mike Trout is to the center field position, Correa has a chance to be at shortstop — the complete package. The only question about Correa is where his ceiling might peak? It’s entirely possible that he put himself in the MVP discussion as early as this season.