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Play ball! (03-23-2016)

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Previewing the 2016 MLB season

Once again, spring has sprung. Regardless of what the weather outside brings, there's no escaping the fact that we're just days away from the beginnings of another baseball season. The crack of the bat and the smack of the mitt will soon surround us.

There's a lot to look forward to in 2016. We get to see the Kansas City Royals as defending champions for the first time in 30 years. We get to watch as generational talents such as Mike Trout and Bryce Harper redefine what a young player can do; we also bear witness to a season-long good-bye from Red Sox all-timer David Ortiz. Exciting young teams like the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros will show us the future of the sport.

As for what that future holds in 2016, who can say? The truth is that major league baseball has proven surprisingly unpredictable in recent years. Obviously, that means going ahead and making some predictions.

With that, here are some thoughts on the upcoming season.

(Full disclosure: last year's predictions were really bad. I mean, they're rarely great, but last year was BAD. I was so wrong that it looked like my goal was to be terrible. I assure you it wasn't. Frankly, I should probably just let my dog do it.)

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(x = division winner; y = wild card berth)

American League

AL East

Boston Red Sox - x

Toronto Blue Jays - y

New York Yankees

Baltimore Orioles

Tampa Bay Rays

It has long been established that I am utterly in the bag for the Red Sox, so it's no surprise that I have them sitting atop the division. However, the addition of ace starter David Price and elite closer Craig Kimbrel certainly make it a better choice. Those two along with emerging stars Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts and the farewell-touring David Ortiz ensure that it will be an entertaining season in Boston. It's certainly a talented team, and if Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval can rebound, this team will be a force all summer. Of course, they share the division with a powerhouse Toronto team that will undoubtedly continue to crush the ball. Reigning MVP Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and Troy Tulowitzki these Blue Jays can flat-out rake. And they'll need to, with a pitching staff that lost its best starter the aforementioned Price. Toronto has to hope for breakout seasons from its young pitchers and one last hurrah from oldsters like R.A. Dickey, but they'll hit themselves into contention and into October. The Yankees are, well old. Their primary contributors from last season are longtime veterans, guys like Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran; the odds of all three continuing to defy age are slim. The starting rotation looks a bit iffy as well, though Luis Severino could break out. However, with three of the game's best relievers (Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller) at the back of the bullpen, they've got a huge edge in any game they can keep close. If the old guard can hang in for one more year, this New York team might make some noise. Baltimore's pitching staff was blah in 2015 and looks to be blah again in 2016. Their starters were among the league's worst and don't look to have gotten much better. However, this is a team that will crush the ball. Chris Davis is the game's most prolific power hitter over the past few years. Adam Jones brings all-around excellence and Manny Machado might be the game's best young player not named Trout or Harper. Still, not even this bruising Orioles lineup will be enough to bolster that pitching staff. Picking the Rays to finish last is a bit scary this is a team that has a rotation that is really talented top-to-bottom and plays excellent defense pretty much across the board. That's enough to keep them in most games, but they're likely going to struggle to produce enough runs to earn wins. Holdovers like Evan Longoria and Steven Souza and newcomers like Corey Dickerson are gamers, but this offense is going to sputter. Still, with that staff, you never know.

AL Central

Kansas City Royals - x

Detroit Tigers

Cleveland Indians

Chicago White Sox

Minnesota Twins

There's a lot of affection out there for the Kansas City Royals. Their championship run from last season was something special. And yet, the Royals still don't get a lot of respect. For whatever reason, the team that Kansas City has assembled largely defies quantification. They just win. Expect them to continue doing just that, led by Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and a host of other players who do a little bit of everything. It's a talented team, a fun teamand a team that is likely going to make yet another deep postseason run. Detroit isn't quite the force that it was just a couple of years ago, but the Tigers still have plenty of talent. Some of that talent might be getting older Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Ian Kinsler but the team also has late-blooming star J.D. Martinez and a pitching staff that got an offseason boost from the additions of starter Jordan Zimmerman and closer Francisco Rodriguez. They'll contend all season. So will the Indians, who could easily swap places with the Tigers. They have some elite arms in Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco and one of the game's most talented young players in Francisco Lindor. It just isn't clear if they can hit the ball nearly as well as they throw it and catch it. The White Sox definitely got better Todd Frazier is a particularly impactful addition but it won't be enough. Despite potent talents both on the mound (Chris Sale, Jose Quintana) and at the plate (Jose Abreu), Chicago just doesn't have what it takes. The Twins are a team that, if you squint, resembles the Houston team prior to breakout. They have a lot of young talent all over the field guys like Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano offer a bright future. Unfortunately, the future is not now. Maybe the youngsters mature faster than expected, but more likely is a Minnesota summer with more excitement than wins.

AL West

Houston Astros - x

Texas Rangers - y

Los Angeles Angels

Seattle Mariners

Oakland A's

Not so long ago, the baseball world was expressing serious doubts about the Astros' plan to completely bottom out before beginning the climb back into contention. It's safe to say that the naysayers are no more, with Houston now sporting a collection of some of the game's most exciting young players. Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa tops the list, but guys like Jose Altuve and George Springer are incredible talents in their own rights. They also have a strong pitching staff led by Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel. This team will be scary for the rest of the decade. The Rangers might be older, but they have some significant talents of their own. They have Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish on the mound and Adrian Beltre and Prince Fielder at the plate to go with some solid young players. Still, it's the veterans who will carry Texas; if they can avoid injury no easy feat with so many aged contributors they'll go far. The Los Angeles Angels might have the game's best player in Mike Trout, but beyond that, there are a LOT of question marks. Slugger Albert Pujols was the second-most productive hitter, but he's easing into the twilight of his career and coming off an injury to boot. Basically, the Angels will be Trout and whatever the pitching staff can do. The Mariners have some talented guys Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez, Nelson Cruz, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Kyle Seager but they just don't have enough to hang in this division. Their best hope is that some of the cheap veterans they picked up in the offseason can elevate the anemic offense. The Athletics, who have once again reached the nadir of their ongoing up-and-down approach to playoff contention, are in an even more dire position than Seattle. There are a couple of exciting players, but for the most part, this team simply doesn't have the horses. That said, those who count out Oakland GM Billy Beane do so at their peril.

National League

NL East

Washington Nationals - x

New York Mets

Miami Marlins

Atlanta Braves

Philadelphia Phillies

The Nationals were a big disappointment last year; many (including me) saw them as World Series contenders, but they failed to even reach the playoffs. They'll bounce back this year, led by MVP Bryce Harper and a one-two-three starting rotation punch Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez that rivals any other in baseball. If vets like Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman stay healthy, there will be no stopping Washington's march to the postseason. Standing in the way of that march are the New York Mets, the reigning National League champs. They've got their own one-two-three (Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Matt Harvey) a group that might be the only one in MLB better than Washington's and their rotation as a whole is consensus best in baseball. If the Yoenis Cespedes-led lineup can score at even an average rate, the Mets could easily leapfrog the Nats. Miami is third because someone had to be. While they have some elite talent particularly pitcher Jose Fernandez and slugger Giancarlo Stanton they don't have nearly enough of it to contend. And with a flighty cheapskate running the show, that's unlikely to change. Luckily for the Marlins, there are two teams in their division that are even worse off. The Braves made some quality baseball deals in shipping out pitcher Shelby Miller and defensive whiz Andrelton Simmons, but those deals were clearly for the future at the present's expense. They've got a mediocre pitching staff and exactly one potent offensive performer (Freddie Freeman). And yet, they're still not the division's worst. That honor goes to the dumpster fire that is the Philadelphia Phillies. This is a team that was at the bottom of the league in both offense and pitchingand they haven't improved. The only remaining reminder of the glory years of the previous decade is the albatross that is Ryan Howard. This team isn't just the worst in the division they're the worst in the majors.

NL Central

Chicago Cubs - x

St. Louis Cardinals - y

Pittsburgh Pirates

Milwaukee Brewers

Cincinnati Reds

This might be the most exciting time to be a Cubs fan in decades. Chicago has seen a massive influx of young talent in the past year or so. Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant leads the way, but guys like Addison Russell, Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber are impressive players as well. Plus, they've got Jon Lester and reigning Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta. Oh, and they brought in Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey in the offseason. This team is absolutely stacked. Cross your fingers, Cubs fans this might be the year. Love them or hate them, there's something nice and reliable about the Cardinals. There's no easier call in the sports prediction game than picking St. Louis they were actually the only call I got right from last year. They likely won't repeat their incredible mound work from 2015, but if a few injured players bounce back, it won't matter. I might not be sure how they'll do it, but I feel safe in saying that the Cardinals will once again make the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Pirates have become perennial contenders after decades of futility. They've got elite talents like Andrew McCutchen, Gregory Polanco and Gerrit Cole. They've got one of the league's best bullpens. But their rotation looks thin after Cole so thin that they might wind up on the outside of the postseason looking in for the first time in four years. The Brewers are rebuilding and doing a reasonable job of it but looking to the future has torpedoed their present a bit. Jonathan Lucroy and Ryan Braun are still solid, but their stars are fading; it looks to be a long summer in Milwaukee. Not as long as the one coming to Cincinnati, however. The Reds barely avoided 100 losses last year; now they have to go without Todd Frazier and Aroldis Chapman. Sure, hitting savant Joey Votto is still there, but other than that, the cupboard is pretty bare. This is an incredibly competitive division right now and unfortunately, Cincinnati just can't hang.

NL West

Los Angeles Dodgers - x

San Francisco Giants - y

Arizona Diamondbacks

Colorado Rockies

San Diego Padres

The Dodgers suffered one of the biggest losses of any team this offseason when Zack Greinke signed elsewhere after his historic season. However, current best-pitcher-on-the-planet Clayton Kershaw is still in Los Angeles, heading up a rotation that remains solid behind him. The offense has sputtered, but the presence of young phenoms like Joc Pederson and Corey Seager could go a long way toward alleviating that concern. Of course, that division title will ultimately prove meaningless, because it's an even-numbered year, and the San Francisco Giants win titles in even-numbered years (2010, 2012, 2014). All kidding aside the Giants added Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija to their rotation, two of the biggest free agents out there. Throw in the greatness of Buster Posey and a handful of above-average offensive players and you're looking at streak-continuing potential. Arizona made a splash in signing Greinke and trading for Shelby Miller. They've still got MVP-level players like Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock. The Diamondbacks are definitely all-in. Even with their improvements, however, they look destined to come in third in a two-horse race. Colorado will never lack for offense thanks to Coors Field, but they can't seem to find their way out of mediocrity. Nolan Arenado leads the high-octane offense that has become standard-issue for the Rockies. Unfortunately, the franchise has never quite figured out the proper strategy when it comes to pitching. Expect a season filled with 9-7 losses in Colorado. Finally, we've got the Padres. San Diego looked to be moving in the right direction with a bunch of moves prior to last season, but none of them wound up really panning out. Guys like Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel and Ian Kennedy are all long gone, leaving the Padres with even less in terms of elite talent. The closest is probably Matt Kemp or James Shields, but their All-Star days are looking increasingly distant. But hey at least the weather will be great.

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