Salvador Perez and the defending World Series champion Royals may not even be the class of the AL Central this season
On Opening Day today every team in MLB has the same record and the same chance to win it all. There are favorites and dark horses, but ultimately nothing will be decided for six months. Many experts and analysts will make their picks on which teams will win the divisions or the wild cards as well as the major awards at the end of the season. And you can count on one thing — many of their predictions will wind up being wrong.
One thing is guaranteed, however, in that there will be a surprise team or two and a few players that will unexpectedly emerge. Instead of making safe predictions for what will transpire in the American League in 2016, here are a couple of bold, dare we say “outrageous,” scenarios that could happen.
Red Sox will miss the playoffs
The Washington Nationals were the Vegas favorites to win the World Series prior to the 2015 season. This was the case after the team was aggressive in free agency, signing 2013 AL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer to a record-breaking, seven-year, $210 million contract. Unfortunately, a bevy of injuries to key players like Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman left the club disjointed and inconsistent. The Nationals ended up finishing in second in the NL East behind the New York Mets and missed the playoffs entirely last season. Does this sound familiar? Boston enters this season with the best odds of any team in the AL to win the World Series.
Optimism is high regarding the Red Sox after they added David Price (7 years, $217 million) to be their new ace along with the emergence of budding superstars Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts. But will it be enough? Third baseman Pablo Sandoval recently lost his starting job to unheralded Travis Shaw, and the remainder of the rotation behind Price is very suspect. This team appears to still be missing a few pieces to seriously contend in what should be an even stronger AL East in 2016.
Yankees will win the AL East
Staying with the always-exciting AL East, I have the Yankees locking up the division in 2016. The Toronto Blue Jays had an incredible second-half run last year en route to an AL East title. They eventually fell to the World Series champion Kansas City Royals in the ALCS, and I believe the offseason moves the Yankees made were aimed to emulate the Royals’ style of play. With the addition of Aroldis Chapman, the Yankees now have Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller and Chapman coming out of the bullpen. This is one of the greatest trios to round out a bullpen in the history of baseball.
In terms of strikeouts per nine innings among relievers last season, Chapman, Miller and Betances finished first, second and third in the majors. Another telling pitching statistic that exhibits the dominance of these guys: Miller, Chapman and Betances finished among the top three for batters’ swing and miss percentage (minimum 400 pitches). The Royals have proven that a supreme bullpen can be a difference-maker in October, and the back end of the Yankees’ pen is ready to dominate the late innings all season long. Chapman will miss the first 30 games due to a suspension and Miller is dealing with a broken bone in his right wrist (non-throwing hand), but on paper the pieces are place. If the Yankees have a lead going into the seventh inning, good luck beating this team.
Defending World Series champion Royals will not win the AL Central
After surprising many and making it all the way to the World Series in 2014 before falling to the Giants in seven games, few gave the Royals a chance of getting back to the postseason. But Kansas City paid no attention to the naysayers and not only won the AL Central, the Royals beat the Mets in five games to win their first world championship since 1985.
Despite this success, the doubters are still out there and while I don’t see them missing the playoffs completely, if they get a chance to defend their World Series crown it will be as a wild card. Following the departure of Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist over the winter, the Royals have lost some key pieces. The only major addition was veteran pitcher Ian Kennedy, so I worry Kansas City won’t have enough depth to sustain it over the course of the season against a stronger AL Central.
Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and Minnesota are each capable of relative success in 2016, with strong pitching a theme in this division. The Royals have been spectacular the last several seasons, but as a result of all of the wear and tear from lengthy postseason runs, combined with the loss of a few important players, they will fall short, at least in their division, in 2016.
Mike Trout will hit 50 HRs
Trout is the best player in the AL and arguably the best in the majors. By many accounts he is, some folks in Washington would beg to differ. The Angels’ five-tool, 24-year-old center fielder hit 41 home runs in 2015, five more than his previous high of 36 in ‘14. With home runs on the rise in 2015 I expect more of the same this season. Albert Pujols has imparted his long-ball wisdom on Trout, who will become the 28th player to hit 50 home runs in a season. This also will make him just the 15th in the AL to do so.
The Angels have made several ill-advised signings over the past several seasons and will once again be on the outside looking in come playoff time. One major highlight of the season will be Trout aiming for 50 home runs in search of his second AL MVP in three years (won in 2014). He was runner-up to Toronto’s Josh Donaldson last season, meaning he has finished no worse than second in MVP voting in each of his first four full major league seasons. It’s a trend I expect to continue in 2016.
Carlos Correa will have a sophomore slump
Many have warned Chicago Cubs’ fans to not be too bullish on their World Series chances in 2016. Reigning NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant could potentially take a step back with his high strikeout count still a bit of a concern. Additionally, teammate Kyle Schwarber could see some regression, not to mention the catcher-turned-outfielder can be a liability on defense. The Astros have gone a bit more under the radar following an impressive turnaround in 2015 that landed them in the playoffs for the first time in a decade. The young Astros won 16 more games than they did in 2014 and competed hard in the ALDS, taking a 2-1 lead against the Kansas City Royals before eventually falling in five games.
Correa was spectacular in 2015. The 20-year-old, Puerto Rican-born shortstop slashed .279/.345/.512 and had 22 home runs in just 99 games (387 AB). He is a proven defender, but I see pitchers making the necessary adjustments on him this season. The Astros will battle all year with the Rangers, their fellow Texas counterpart, in the AL West. Houston’s pitching is the best in the division bar none, but an ALDS return is not guaranteed.
Indians will make it all the way to the ALCS
Cleveland will piece things together and make a prolonged postseason run in 2016. Corey Kluber’s 2015 record of 9-16 was misrepresentative of how he pitched throughout the year, and he will return to Cy Young form. Win-loss record aside, Kluber racked up 245 strikeouts compared to 48 walks in 222 innings, including four complete games. He will spearhead a strong rotation in Cleveland and the offense should have better results this season.
Another Puerto Rico-born shortstop that was less celebrated in 2015 than the Astros’ Correa, Cleveland’s Francisco Lindor, who finished as the runner-up for AL Rookie of the Year honors. The two appeared in the exact same amount of games, and what Lindor lacks in power he makes up for in consistency. Lindor slashed .313/.353/.482 through 99 games, very similar numbers to Correa. He only had 14 home runs, but was even better than Correa on the defensive side. Lindor, along with second baseman Jason Kipnis and outfielder Michael Brantley, will carry the Cleveland offense. The Indians will be good enough in October with the pitching staff they have to make a surprise run to the ALCS.
A Twin will win AL Rookie of the Year
Minnesota fans have plenty of reasons to be excited this season. Following the trade of center fielder Aaron Hicks to the Yankees, top prospect Byron Buxton is set to take over and leave his mark. Buxton is a speed demon in center and will be sure to produce a few Web Gems with his glove in 2016. He isn’t the only Twin in contention for AL Rookie of the Year this season. In fact two of his teammates are just as capable of claiming the honor.
Right-handed pitcher Jose Berrios may not have made the Opening Day roster, but he has already made a case for joining the starting rotation. Just 22, he enters this season No. 19 on MLB.com’s prospect rankings. And there’s also first baseman Byung-ho Park, the latest foreign player looking to make the leap to the majors. A 29-year-old from South Korea, Park is not your typical rookie. He hit 105 home runs over his last two seasons in the Korean Baseball Organization while also hitting better than .300. The Twins also will have slugger Miguel Sano for a full season. The 22-year-old from the Dominican Republic mashed 18 home runs in 80 games last season. A third baseman by trade, Sano figures to see most of his playing time in right field or as DH. Regardless, if he can provide the power he showed as a rookie over a full season, the Twins’ offense could put up impressive numbers this season.