Every MLB team's greatest strength for the 2016 season
As we get ready to begin the 2016 season, most teams have legitimate hope to believe that this will be their year.
In the American League, everyone has a real chance of being a playoff team, while half the National League breaks camp with an eye on October. For the rebuilding teams in the Senior Circuit, there are generally reasons to be excited about the future, while the present provides at least a glimpse of what is to come.
So, what will each team be hanging its hat on in 2016? Let’s take a look.
1 Angels: Mike Trout
Through his age-23 season, no player has ever racked up as many wins above replacement as Trout’s 37.9, according to baseball-reference.com. Entering his age-24 season, Trout remains the best player in the game and the biggest reason that a team with an otherwise so-so lineup can compete in the American League West.
Trout is indispensable and a breathtaking player to watch — at bat, in the field, on the bases — and if you look at any offensive category, he’s capable of leading the league.
2 A’s: The element of surprise
Oakland lost 94 games last year, plays in a strong division, and — surprisingly to nobody — did not make any sexy additions over the winter. It’s possible the A’s didn’t have to. A team that went 19-35 in one-run games in 2015 can hope that an upgraded bullpen — new arrivals John Axford, Liam Hendriks, Ryan Madson and Marc Rzepczynski join the healthy-again Sean Doolittle — can play a big part in turning around that record in close games.
The infield is almost entirely different, and it’s worth remembering that the one holdover, Marcus Semien, clocked in at plus-5 defensive runs saved last year despite 35 errors. If his copious work with Ron Washington pays off, he can be something special as an offensive-minded shortstop. There’s better depth all around, and Sonny Gray is a legit ace.
3 Astros: Power
Up and down the batting order, Houston is capable of putting on a show. Even Jose Altuve, the person least associated with big power in the Astros’ thumping lineup, swatted 15 homers last year. The oldest regulars, Carlos Gomez and Luis Valbuena, are 30, so it’s not like there’s any reason to expect slippage.
On a team with a lot of strengths, including an emerging superstar in Carlos Correa, the Astros’ ability to always be one swing of the bat from adding to the scoreboard is chief among them.
4 Blue Jays: Lineup
If you can somehow navigate past Troy Tulowitzki, Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion without giving up any runs, congratulations, you get to deal with an assemblage of talented line-movers in Chris Colabello, Russell Martin, Kevin Pillar, Michael Saunders and Ryan Goins.
There is no let-up in the Blue Jays’ attack, and that means there is no game in which Toronto is dead and buried until the 27th out.
5 Braves: Freddie Freeman
Atlanta’s first baseman is 26 years old and signed through 2021. He’s the centerpiece that the Braves are building around, and a good choice for that role.
The rebuild around Freeman is focused on pitching, though there also are some solid position players in the farm system, led by shortstop Dansby Swanson. In the meantime, a young rotation featuring Julio Teheran, Matt Wisler and Mike Foltynewicz can try to prove that the spots presumed to be going to prospects may in fact be spoken for.
6 Brewers: Jonathan Lucroy
An MVP candidate two years ago, there was a lot of talk over the offseason about the Brewers trading Lucroy as they rebuild. They did not make a deal, not a sign of confidence in the 2016 edition of the club, but instead of a front office that knows what it’s doing.
Lucroy hit .264/.326/.391 last year, as he was limited to 103 games. It makes all the sense in the world to wait for the catcher to rebuild his value, then make the best deal possible. Other offseason additions such as Chris Carter and Aaron Hill are good candidates to be flipped in July for pieces to help continue the rebuilding process.
7 Cardinals: Starting pitching
Carlos Martinez, who went 14-7 with a 3.01 ERA and 184 strikeouts in 179.2 innings in his first year as a full-time starter last season, starts the season listed as the No. 5 starter. You can make the case that someone else is really the No. 5, but that someone else is either Jaime Garcia, Michael Wacha or Mike Leake.
What we do know is that Adam Wainwright is not the No. 5 starter. Also, scoring runs against the Cardinals is going to be very difficult.
8 Cubs: Lineup
Chicago’s worst hitter might be Addison Russell, who hit 13 home runs with a .696 OPS as a regular in the major leagues at the age of 21 last year. The Cubs have accomplished table-setters in Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist, plus a wealth of young power with Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber. Throw in well-rounded hitters Jason Heyward and Miguel Montero, and, well, if Russell just makes a normal amount of age-related improvement, there’s a conversation to be had about passing Toronto as the best overall lineup in the game.
Another thing to keep in mind here is versatility. Zobrist is the chief example, but the Cubs have several players capable of playing multiple positions, so Joe Maddon can be creative when giving days off to his regulars.
9 Diamondbacks: Starting pitching
What a difference a year makes. In 2015, Josh Collmenter was the opening day starter for Arizona, and the team that scored the second-most runs in the National League stumbled to a sub-.500 finish as starters routinely got pounded.
How to turn things around? It started last year with Patrick Corbin coming back from Tommy John surgery and the emergence of Robbie Ray to post a 3.53 FIP with 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings in his age-23 season. The offseason additions of Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller mean that Rubby De La Rosa — last year’s most dependable starter — now occupies the back end of the rotation, and Arizona has what it takes to contend.
10 Dodgers: Depth
A spring plague of injuries has shown just how important it is that the Dodgers have used their massive financial resources to make sure major league talent is always at hand.
A quick rundown: Andre Ethier broke his leg, Brett Anderson had back surgery, Howie Kendrick hurt his calf, Yasmani Grandal strained his forearm, Alex Guerrero tweaked his knee, Hyun-Jin Ryu isn’t ready to come back from shoulder surgery ... and the Dodgers still have the ability to field a representative team. Just, you know, put Clayton Kershaw in bubble wrap or something.
11 Giants: It’s an even year!
OK, just kidding, but there’s a real chance of 2016 joining 2014, 2012 and 2010 as Giants championship years thanks to a stacked rotation, a well-assembled bullpen and a lineup that features a good mix of youth, experience, power and plate discipline.
That the Giants have a future Hall of Fame manager in Bruce Bochy to tie it all together is a big part of why four championships in seven years is a possibility, more than some fluke of numerology.
12 Indians: Starting pitching
It was widely thought around baseball that Cleveland would deal from its stockpile of starters to upgrade the lineup, but instead the Tribe has stuck with the idea of riding all those starters to the playoffs, starting with former Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and running through a rotation with Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar and Josh Tomlin.
There have been far worse ideas in the history of baseball than rolling with really good starters and hoping to score enough runs.
13 Mariners: Rebounding
Shoutout to the SuperSonics, may they return soon. For the Mariners, rebounding means that we know Felix Hernandez is better than a 3.72 FIP and 107 ERA+, Taijuan Walker can get his groove back after struggling in his first full season, Robinson Cano already showed in the second half of last year that the first half was an isolated disaster and the Mariners as a whole can be more like the team that contended for the playoffs in 2014 than the one that flopped in 2015.
Oh, and new closer Steve Cishek is 6-6, so he can work the boards a bit when he’s not busy working his way back from an out-of-character 1.48 WHIP last year between Miami and St. Louis.
14 Marlins: Star power
Giancarlo Stanton tied for 10th in the National League with 27 home runs last year, when he played 74 games. There is no more fearsome slugger in all of baseball. Jose Fernandez made 11 starts down the stretch in 2015 after coming back from Tommy John surgery, and he went 6-1 with a 2.92 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 64.2 innings. He’s 23 and a Cy Young contender in a league loaded with pitching talent.
Do the Marlins have enough talent around them to get into the playoff mix in 2016? Maybe, maybe not, but Stanton and Fernandez might be the best 1-2 hitter-pitcher punch in the game, and that’s no small feat.
15 Mets: Starting pitching
The rest of the roster is better than it was at the start of 2015, when the Mets became contenders even though their lineup was a mess. They were contenders then because of the young starters, and the young starters have lived up to the hype, with Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard all staking claims to the mythical ace spot. Steven Matz is right there with them, and Zack Wheeler returns from Tommy John surgery this summer.
To keep their young starters fresh and healthy, the Mets plan to occasionally throw in a sixth starter. Once Wheeler returns, that sixth starter is Bartolo Colon, who begins the year in the rotation before a presumptive move to a kind of swing role, and even at 43, Colon remains plenty effective at what he does.
16 Nationals: Matt Williams is gone
With a team that was supposed to run away with the National League East last year, Washington instead ran off the rails, and the manager took the fall — deservedly so, given the accounts of how things fell apart.
The offseason was disappointing for the Nationals, who missed out on a number of top free agent targets, but Dusty Baker has a history of getting the most out of his teams, so even with a team that looks worse on paper than it did a year ago, there’s reason to be positive for a team that does have the reigning National League MVP and top-flight starting pitching.
17 Orioles: Power
A team that already had Chris Davis, Manny Machado and Adam Jones, and hit the second-most homers in team history, 217, went out over the winter and added Pedro Alvarez and Mark Trumbo. That’s not to mention a full season of Jonathan Schoop, who went deep 15 times in 86 games last year. The Orioles record for home runs in a season is 257.
Given the look of the starting rotation, outfield seats at Camden Yards should be particularly good for souvenir hunting. But this is a time to focus on the positive, which is that the Orioles will be sending a lot of balls over walls.
18 Padres: Players with three-letter names
You like a three-letter first name? Here’s Wil Myers. A three-letter last name is more your thing? Well, meet Colin Rea. You want both? JON JAY IS HERE.
This is unfair. The Padres also have players with long names that are fun to say, like Kevin Quackenbush, Yangervis Soalrte, Cory Spangenberg and Travis Jankowski. Who’s playing shortstop? It’s either Alexei (Ramirez) or Alexi (Amarista). You cannot go wrong with your spelling of Alex(e)i. Also, their uniforms look fantastic.
San Diego is a very nice city, the Padres have a beautiful ballpark and great throwback uniforms, and most people seem to agree that Andy Green has a very bright future as manager. Also, some fun prospects should get a look after the trade deadline, when the Padres should be one of the market’s top sellers.
19 Phillies: Ryan Howard’s farewell tour
The 2006 National League MVP has hit 23 home runs each of the past two seasons, the kind of power that maybe can help a contender down the stretch this season and get the Phillies some value in return for the final couple of months before his $23 million option for 2017 turns into a $10 million buyout. Either way, Howard isn’t part of the future for Philadelphia, a future that becomes much brighter when one of baseball’s riches teams sees millions upon millions of spendable dollars to go along with a core that is developing nicely.
They’re going to lose a ton of games, but the Phillies can give Howard a fond farewell while enjoying the progress of players such as Maikel Franco and Aaron Nola.
20 Pirates: Outfield
The trio of Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco combined for 101 doubles and 51 home runs last year while saving a combined 28 runs defensively, if you’re a believer in defensive runs saved, which somehow had McCutchen at minus-8 for the season. It’s an incredible group, and McCutchen, very much in his prime at 29 and a top-five finisher in the MVP race each of the past four years, is the oldest member.
Everything the Pirates do starts with their outfield, including the support that they provide to the pitching staff with the ability to run down every fly ball in sight.
21 Rangers: Choose your own adventure
The Rangers should be good this year, but it’s hard to say what the best part of the Rangers really is.
Is it having a full year of Cole Hamels atop the rotation, with Yu Darvish returning from Tommy John surgery early in the year? Is it the knowledge that Rougned Odor and Delino DeShields, so important to last year’s division title, are 22 and 23 years old, respectively, and that there’s more young talent coming through the pipeline? Is it the continued brilliance of Adrian Beltre, leading a veteran lineup with guys such as Shin-Shoo Choo and Prince Fielder, who got back to being themselves in 2015?
You could pick any of these things and be right.
22 Rays: Starting pitching
In a division where rivals have built up their bullpens and stockpiled power hitters, the Rays have found a market inefficiency. OK, it’s only the most tried and true way to make yourself a contending team: put dudes on the mound for six-plus innings a game who don’t give up a bunch of runs, and put yourself in position to win. Starters matter, who knew?
Chris Archer is a clear ace, and after him there’s nobody who’s worse than a standard No. 3, with Matt Moore, Jake Odorizzi, Erasmo Ramirez and Drew Smyly all capable of big things. That’s before Alex Cobb gets back from Tommy John surgery in the second half of the season, by which time the Rays might find themselves in much better position than most people expect.
23 Red Sox: Options
The Red Sox scored the fourth-most runs in the American League last year but still finished last in the East thanks to disastrous pitching. David Price and Craig Kimbrel were huge offseason additions to address that, but the real reason to believe in Boston for this year is the ability to continue to address problems.
If Pablo Sandoval stinks, Travis Shaw or Brock Holt can step in at third base. If Rusney Castillo can’t hit, the move could be made to a Chris Young/David Murphy platoon, or Holt could play there, too. Steven Wright and Roenis Elias are nice depth pieces to have if a starting pitcher falls flat. In an ideal world, these are decisions John Farrell won’t have to make, but the ability to make them with confidence is something that gives the Red Sox an edge over the competition.
24 Reds: Joey Votto
Even when everything else stinks in Cincinnati, you can still watch Joey Votto hit. Maybe you won’t watch him hit. Maybe you’ll watch him walk, instead. Take that as a treat, too, because he’s amazing at it. The name of the game as a hitter is to reach base safely, and Votto’s skill at that is astonishing. Would it be nice if he could do his base-reaching for a good team? Yes. Maybe that will happen again in the years to come. In the meantime, Votto is amazing and should be appreciated as such.
25 Rockies: In the scope of the universe, baseball is inconsequential
It is highly unlikely that anything that happens in the 162 games played by the Rockies this year will have a profound impact on human history, let alone the history of the world, which extends back not only hundreds of millions of years to the dinosaurs and even further back to the birth of the planet in cosmic cataclysm, but also, presumably, extends forward for billions of years to come. That’s not even to mention the rest of the solar system, the galaxy, the galactic cluster, or the entire rest of the universe. The 2016 Rockies season is a microscopic speck in that four-or-more-dimensional tapestry.
If, somehow, the phrase “Nolan Arenado is an incredible baseball player, and the farm system looks pretty good” becomes the touchstone that brings peace to life forms across vast swaths of dark matter and fosters intergalactic harmony, Sporting News will gladly print a retraction.
26 Royals: Bullpen
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Royals have relied heavily on their relievers as the piece of the puzzle that makes Kansas City catenaccio work to the tune of an American League pennant in 2014 and a world championship in 2015, so expect more of the same in 2016.
Greg Holland no longer is part of the mix, but Wade Davis has shown that he’s more than capable as closer, and with the Kansas City return of former Royals closer Joakim Soria to go along with Kelvin Herrera, Luke Hochevar and Danny Duffy, there’s no reason to believe that things will be much different as the Royals play their game of “get five or six innings from a starter who gives up two or three runs, scratch out three or four runs, then lock it down with the bullpen.”
27 Tigers: Hitting
Detroit had the third-ranked OPS in the American League last year but scored the 10th-most runs, which is probably an anomaly and certainly something that figures to improve with the additions of Justin Upton and Cameron Maybin and the continued maturation of Nick Castellanos and James McCann, who go along with stars Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler and J.D. Martinez.
It’s to the point in Detroit where if Victor Martinez offers a legitimate contribution, that’s a bonus. It shouldn’t be, given his contract, but that’s the reality of the situation. And with some better pitching, it should still be the Tigers’ lineup that leads them back to contention.
28 Twins: The purifying qualities of the waters of Lake Minnetonka
Last year, the Twins were not particularly good. They were 13th in team OPS in the American League and 10th in team ERA yet still hung in the playoff race until the end, finishing 83-79. It wasn’t like they had crazy luck in one-run games — they were 21-20. So, yeah, turn to Prince for the explanation.
Taking Torii Hunter’s 567 plate appearances and giving them to Byung Ho Park is a quietly awesome upgrade, there’s a full season of Miguel Sano’s bat and Ervin Santana doesn’t have to serve an 80-game suspension. The Twins should be better in 2016 than they were in 2015. The question is whether they’re better than an 83-win team or better than a team that had really mediocre numbers behind those 83 wins.
29 White Sox: Things can’t possibly get any dumber
The White Sox spent a full week as the center of the baseball world’s attention this spring as the result of Adam LaRoche’s sudden retirement because the club asked that he not bring his 14-year-old son to work every day. It was, for many of us, a refreshing break from worrying about whether Jose Bautista had trampled on the delicate feelings of the Rangers by vigorously celebrating a home run five months earlier, but it was also breathtakingly stupid.
Oh, and the White Sox are better without LaRoche, which is probably why the organization leaned on him anyway — star players who are productive get more privileges, because this is America. If Chris Sale wanted to start bringing a 6-foot python to work every day, the White Sox would say, “OK, we’ll have a clubhouse attendant take care of that.” Chris Sale is really good. So is Jose Quintana. So is Todd Frazier. So is Jose Abreu. Hey, the White Sox might be a pretty good team here, and nobody noticed because everyone was obsessing about a 14-year-old kid whose dad doesn’t believe in sending him to school.
30 Yankees: Late-inning relief
Dellin, Miller, Chapman — it’s No-Runs DMC when the Yankees have the advantage late in the game. Seriously, Betances has been an All-Star each of the past two years, with 266 strikeouts over 174 innings, and he’s the No. 3 relief option here. Betances also has value in his ability to work more than one inning. As long as the Yankees can have starters bring a lead into the sixth inning, they have the ability to throw fire from there.
Chapman is suspended for the first 30 games of the season, stemming from a domestic violence incident in October. That matters for several reasons. On the field, there is a plus side for the Yankees, which is finding out which reliever might fit in front of their power trio and make things even tougher on opponents as the season goes on.
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