Minnesota Twins – O/U 78.5 – Projected 88-74, AL Central Division Winner
The Minnesota Twins may be often overlooked in what some are considering a crowded AL Central, but they have quietly been assembling one of the league’s best crop of young talent. This year’s version of the 2015 Cubs, the Twins will likely feature Byron Buxton – even through injuries, the 21-year old has remained at or near the top of all prospect lists for years – and Miguel Sano in their second seasons – although Buxton will officially be listed as a rookie. The speedster and slugger, respectively, will help lengthen a lineup that already includes Brian Dozier – likely still in his prime – Joe Mauer and Torii Hunter. While Mauer and Hunter are approaching the end of their careers, the responsibilities they once shouldered will be greatly lessened in 2016.
The Twins’ rotation may appear as a weakness when comparing the relatively unknowns to the rest of the league, but Ervin Santana will now lead the group for a full season. Perhaps more importantly, the Twins’ Minor League system is stacked with arms, and top pitching prospect Jose Berrios should be on-call as soon as the Twins need another starter. All this, while closer Glen Perkins will be challenged closely by Trevor May with another Minor League arm in Nick Burdi waiting to solidify the bullpen further.
While they won’t hit for as much power as last year’s Cubs, the Twins are following strikingly similar parallels. If Santana can be the true ace of a pitching staff for an entire season and the youth develops as expected, the Twins will grow seemingly overnight. It should also be noted that Minnesota finished second in the division with an 83-79 record, last season. The Twins are now poised to take the next step.
Tampa Bay Rays – O/U 81.5 – Projected 88-74, AL Wild Card Berth
The Rays are often so forgotten in the AL East that they are in a constant state of reinvention. Perhaps like no other franchise – except Oakland – this works in Tampa Bay’s favor.
Now one full season removed from manager Joe Maddon, the Rays have reset and are ready to move forward with a new plan. This one actually includes protection for Evan Longoria‘s bat.
Few players throughout the league suffer a bigger hit in the projection of numbers more than those coming from Colorado to any other ballpark. Corey Dickerson is the latest of said hitters, expected to add weight to the middle of the Rays’ lineup. His risk as much in the injury department as it is the change in scenery, but the Rays are at the top of a short list when it comes to assessing talent and finding value in all places. Evidence of this could be found in the emergence of Logan Forsythe as a constantly underrated contributor, as well as the previously immeasurable – now a topic of conversation – defense that Kevin Kiermaier brings to the table.
Behind the addition of Dickerson and the fears regarding the gauntlet of the AL East, the Rays may secretly have the best starting rotation in baseball. Ace Chris Archer blossomed in 2015 and has already taken a leadership role among his younger peers. Considering one-time top prospect Matt Moore is dubbed the fourth or fifth starter, the rotation is both talented and deep. If any struggle, prospects Blake Snell and Jacob Faria are a promotion away.
The Rays tend to catch people by surprise whenever they re-emerge. Don’t be fooled. Their projections are too low, where they should realistically be expected to secure one of the two AL Wild Card berths.
Oakland Athletics – O/U 75.5 – Projected 82-80, No Playoff Berth
Are they the Oakland A’s or the Rays West? In almost every way, Oakland’s organization mirrors that of Tampa Bay’s. From the addition of a new, risk-filled cleanup hitter in Khris Davis to the tough division in which it plays, Oakland even has its own young ace – Sonny Gray – ready to lead a staff that should add Minor League talent as the season goes on. Unlike the Rays, however, the Athletics fall a few games short of a playoff berth in 2016, mainly because their collective Opening Day pitching staff has more questions than answers.
The Athletics are simply a season-long play against their win total projection. They will not be able to compete for a division title in the AL West – although a Wild Card run is not outside the realm of possibility – but they will overdeliver in 2016.
Pittsburgh Pirates – O/U 86.5 – Projected 94-68, NL Central Division Winner
As evident by the National League’s top-three teams in 2015 all residing in the NL Central, the division is a relative powerhouse – even with the Reds and Brewers each expected to win fewer than seventy games. While the Cardinals have been the class of the division – in reality, the National League – for years, the Pirates have steadily built themselves up into perennial winners.
For two of the past three seasons, they have played second-fiddle of the aforementioned Cardinals and burst-on-the-scene Cubs, respectively. The carousel has come full-circle, and it is now Pittsburgh’s time to lead the charge.
The Pirates are arguably the most complete team in the league, with a superstar in Andrew McCutchen and a lineup full of perfect complements. From Gregory Polanco to Starling Marte, the Pirates even have room to grow.
Pittsburgh’s offense is countered with an equally ideal pitching staff, with possibly two aces in Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano, a lockdown closer and setup man in Mark Melancon and Tony Watson, respectively, and the toast-of-the-town for March in Juan Nicasio. Indeed, the Pirates play in what was statistically the best division in baseball in 2015, but when they emerge as the NL Central champion, it should help catapult them into a bigger accomplishment.
The Pittsburgh Pirates will be the 2016 World Series Champions.