From the World Champion Royals to the upstart Astros, much of the success for teams in 2015 stemmed from one of two features: a stellar bullpen or an influx of young talent. Prior to the 2015 season, there were a handful of teams that fit the bill of potential breakouts. The Mets entered the year with one of the best pitching staffs on paper — and delivered — while the Astros were fielding a Minor League team that could have arguably beaten its Major League counterpart in a seven-game series. Of course, some teams — namely the Mariners and Marlins — had similar pieces in place that never developed.
It was not outrageous to look at the Astros’ farm system and expect immediate contribution whenever the organization decided to call up some of its best players. The Rangers, on the other hand, were a legitimate surprise in the postseason picture.
The Cubs were quite possibly in the best position prior to 2015, where Kris Bryant was Major League-ready by Spring Training and only needed to wait for his opportunity when the quirks of league paperwork would allow. By mid-April, he was being protected in the lineup by Anthony Rizzo, and later joined by Kyle Schwarber. In addition, it didn’t hurt that Jake Arrieta blossomed into one of the league’s best pitchers concurrently with the lineup exploding.
Some organizations had little help outside of their 25-man rosters. The Yankees opted to model their team after the Royals of 2014, and both teams earned playoff berths on the heels of lockdown bullpens.
As we turn to another season, the same parameters fit the bill as opportunities to buy or sell certain teams. Perhaps the most difficult projection is an encore for those squads who exhausted their respective opportunities to rise. Specifically, how will the Mets, Astros, and Cubs follow-up their fantastic 2015 campaigns? And which teams will emerge as the surprises’ of 2016?
Below are the projections for the 2016 Major League Baseball Season. The full league’s win total projections can be found in the chart on the bottom of this page, but only the teams that have valuable projections – e.g. a projection versus its over/under or a defending division champion ready to regress – received a write-up. The teams have been categorized to better assist in the breakdown.
New or Defending Playoff Teams – Projections Not Strong Enough to Play Versus Over/Under, but Noteworthy
New York Yankees – O/U 85.5 – Projected 86-76, No Playoff Berth
In a twist to the perception that New York simply ‘buys’ the best talent on the market, the Yankees have secretly shifted into the ultimate ‘Pythagorean wins’ team. Basically, if they can’t outscore their opponent, they are aiming to stop the other team from scoring, altogether. In essence, New York is following the blueprint of the now World Champion Royals.
The Yankees’ collective decision to build their team around run prevention became blatantly obvious prior to last season when they entered the year with defensive-minded Didi Gregorius at shortstop and Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances anchoring the bullpen. The latter was strengthened further this offseason when New York acquired Aroldis Chapman from the Reds. For the first 30 games — as Chapman serves his suspension –opponents will need to outscore the Yankees in seven innings of play. For the latter 132 games of the year, New York will play de facto six-inning games.
New York’s shift in focus from offense to pitching and defense appears to be more out of necessity than anything else. Fortunately for the Yankees, this worked to perfection in 2015, as a Wild Card berth was secured largely thanks to unforeseen over-performances from Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira — more for staying relatively healthy than anything else. The same could not be assumed for 2016, as the squad already lost Greg Bird for the season, and will rely on a bevy of aging veterans to combat Father Time and put forth an output like that of Rodriguez’s, last year.
It won’t be enough, as the Yankees simply don’t have the offense to keep up in the deadly AL East.
Toronto Blue Jays – O/U 87.5 – Projected 87-75, No Playoff Berth
Although they sit on opposite ends of the scale — and are both coming off campaigns that saw their extremist methods yield a playoff berth — the Yankees and Blue Jays are in dangerous positions. As strongly as New York leans on its bullpen, Toronto is even more dependent upon its killer offense. Top to bottom, the Blue Jays have one of the most deadly lineups in recent history, and they closed 2015 with a 127-run lead on the next best team. All this, while shortstop Troy Tulowitzki played most of his season in Colorado.
When a team exhibits such an obvious strength, it can easily hide its weaknesses. However, even the pitching staff performed well in 2015, as Toronto’s collective ERA of 3.80 was slightly better than the league’s average.
What does not get factored into the equation often enough is the momentum that helped carry said teams to outstanding seasons. The Blue Jays had already been piling up points at an insane rate prior to the league’s Trade Deadline, but added another bat in Tulowitzki at the end of July. The additional talent helped reinvigorate a franchise that was finally ready to break its previous playoff drought of two decades.
The circumstances are vastly different in 2016, as the Blue Jays have effectively put all of their eggs in this season’s basket. With most of their trades in recent years coming at the expense of the franchise’s farm system, Toronto has moved all of its resources into its Major League club. In addition, there have already been comments surrounding Jose Bautista and what will likely be his final season with the Blue Jays.
Suddenly, the arrow that had been pointing up has not only leveled out, but crept downward.
The final nail in the coffin is the suspiciously low over/under projection of 87.5 games. Using any metric, the Blue Jays are a near-lock to win more than ninety games as long as they carry over last year’s success. Not only is this not guaranteed, but it is unlikely.
2015 was Toronto’s season. 2016 is not.
Kansas City Royals – O/U 85.5 – Projected 85-77, No Playoff Berth
Kansas City, you’ve done your job. Following the magical ride that fell one game – and many incredible Madison Bumgarner performances – short of a World Series title in 2014, the Royals finished what they started by taking the crown in 2015. It takes a rare and special team to accomplish the feat that the Royals did – that is, back-to-back pennants, but winning the World Series after a seven-game heartbreaker – but they are reaching the point of unsustainability.
Not only will a third consecutive return to the World Series be out of the question, but a trip to the playoffs will equally be out of reach. Despite how balanced the Royals are and how they tend to find ways to win under nearly any circumstance, they are not particularly outstanding in any one category – except their bullpen. Kansas City had the blueprint and driving force to carry the team to a Championship last year. Unfortunately for Kansas City, the removal of the latter will be too much to overcome.
With a new target on their collective backs and the lack of truly outstanding performances, the Royals are about to enter a ‘down year.’ The low over/under win total helps confirm this regression.
Texas Rangers – O/U 84.5 – Projected 88-74, AL Wild Card Berth
When the Texas Rangers traded for Cole Hamels late in 2015, many could have questioned why the team would make such a move when they appeared so far away from competing. Texas had the proverbial last laugh, however, as the Rangers tore through the latter portion of the regular season en route to an AL West title. The only risk that carries over from last year’s surge is whether or not the Rangers peaked too soon.
The Rangers enter 2016 in the incredibly rare position of having safety nets for each of their potential potholes. While the Rangers dealt a few arms away to acquire Hamels, they protected their Minor League hitters so well that their outfield prospects would compete for a roster spot on any Major League team. Nomar Mazara, Lewis Brinson, and Joey Gallo will all start the season in the Minor Leagues, but create incredible depth for the Rangers in the same vein as Carlos Correa and Vincent Velasquez for last season’s Astros.
Admittedly, the Rangers are relatively thin behind ace Cole Hamels in the rotation, but their offense should more than offset the runs they allow. While the Minor League strengths should be considered as support for the Major League team, April will feature established hitters like Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre, and Shin-Soo Choo mixed with the potential of Ian Desmond – perhaps a change of scenery will reignite his bat – and Rougned Odor. The Rangers stand alone as one of the few over-achievers from 2015 that are poised to withstand a regression.
Washington Nationals – O/U 89.5 – Projected 93-69, NL East Division Winner
How easy it is to forget. The Nationals were ‘the team’ to project as the NL East winner in 2015, only to disappoint from the start. What makes matters worse is that Washington enjoyed the success of the league’s Most Valuable Player during Bryce Harper‘s explosion of a season, yet still underperformed. If the Nationals couldn’t capitalize on the emergence of their young slugger as one of the best hitters in the league, why should they be any more optimistic entering 2016?
The reality is that the Nationals were greatly over-valued entering last season. They should not have been expected to outlast the Mets in the division. But 2016 is a completely different conversation.
Like all extraordinary performances, Bryce Harper should pull back towards the pack, but he will hardly be the only young talent helping the Major League team in 2016. Shortstop Trea Turner and pitcher Lucas Giolito should be contributing for the National, this year, and mainstays like Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon should finally be healthy. Washington is also now managed by the established Dusty Baker, providing a much needed boost to the organization.
Most importantly, the Mets and Nationals were headed in opposite directions during the latter half of last season, and they are both due for a return to the mean. As the Mets lose ground, the Nationals gain it and win the NL East.
St. Louis Cardinals – O/U 87.5 – Projected 88-74, Wild Card Berth
The Cardinals have entered dangerous territory. That is, they have enjoyed such a run of success that they are becoming a foregone conclusion for an annual playoff berth. Unfortunately for St. Louis, it is not that easy.
The Cardinals are still a fantastic organization who will be getting back ace pitcher Adam Wainwright for the entire season, and they do feature a deep lineup loaded with potential, but they are bound to give back wins in the NL Central. Most notably, the growth of Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk should offset the loss of Jason Heyward, but projecting another 100-win season is unwise. St. Louis even has a second potential ace in Carlos Martinez, but the rest of the staff inspires much less confidence.
The Cardinals will make the playoffs, but not with the same dominance as last season. In addition, their drop in the standings coincides with the over/under win total to meet, and, while our projection has St. Louis barely beating the number, this is a team to avoid for season-long picks.
San Francisco Giants – O/U 89.5 – Projected 91-71, NL West Division Winner
If there ever existed a reason for concern when projecting a team’s performance, it is when expectations are placed due to false signals and unreliable patterns. For the 2016 Giants, the belief is that the ‘even-numbered year’ has treated San Francisco so well that it will do the same again.
It will, but not because the year ends with a 6. Caution should be exercised when taking any action.
The Giants are projected to win the NL West title solely based on their fortified rotation and underrated lineup. As inconsistent as his career has been, Jeff Samardzija is arguable the best ‘number three’ pitcher in baseball, and he and newcomer Johnny Cueto should thrive in the pitcher-friendly ballpark of San Francisco. In addition, the Giants’ franchise is generally known for its pitching, but San Francisco tallied the twelfth-most runs and fifth-most hits in the league. With basically the same lineup entering 2016, the Giants should only improve.
The key is simply to not expect too much. The over/under projection of 89.5 is too high considering it is likely being inflated due to the ‘every-other-year belief.’ It’s best to predict the Giants to win the division, but stay away from attempting to land on one side of the over/under or another.
Arizona Diamondbacks – O/U 82.5 – Projected 87-75, NL Wild Card Berth
Prior to the 2015 season, the San Diego Padres spent the offseason making a splash in the market via aggressive acquisitions. One year and a losing record later, the Padres are now shrouded in irrelevancy. Potentially on the verge of making a similar mistake – within the same division, nonetheless – is the 2016 Arizona Diamondbacks.
The most noteworthy move of the offseason was the shift in pitching power from Los Angeles to Arizona as the Diamondbacks plucked ace Zack Greinke from the Dodgers for a hefty fee – down the road, Greinke’s contract could easily become an albatross, but his projections for 2016 are fantastic. In addition, Jean Segura – still only 26 years old and with three full Major League seasons to his name – will join a Diamondbacks lineup that quietly ascended to one of the best in the league – ranking eighth in 2015 in runs scored.
The difference between the aforementioned Padres and their spending spree and that of the Diamondbacks is that the pieces they acquired fit nicely into their established foundation. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt is in a class of his own, and outfielders A.J. Pollack and David Peralta developed into legitimate threats to lead the front-half of the lineup.
The pitching staff behind Greinke does leave something to be desired, and the competition within the division will likely hold back Arizona from rising to the top. The Diamondbacks are, however, ready to secure a Wild Card berth.
Los Angeles Dodgers – O/U 88.5 – Projected 85-77, No Playoff Berth
Like their geographical counterparts in the American League, the Los Angeles Dodgers are in the odd role of featuring the best player in the sport at his given position, yet failing to materialize as a Championship-caliber squad. Such is the case when Clayton Kershaw stands alone as the key contributing factor for a Dodgers team that is surprisingly lacking elsewhere.
While other teams receive a boost by having Major League-caliber players starting the year in the Minors , the Dodgers arguably tipped their hand, last year. Indeed, rookie Corey Seager will take over the everyday shortstop role on Opening Day, but he joins a lineup filled with aging veterans and sophomore Joc Pederson – who will attempt to regain the magic his bat displayed in the first half of 2015.
Ironically, the Dodgers do have weapons of their own that will start the season in the Minor Leagues. Julio Urias and Jose De Leon are considered two of the best young pitching prospects in the game, but their arrival to the Major League club in 2016 will likely mean that Los Angeles is in trouble. Unfortunately, the loss of Zack Greinke puts the rotation in jeopardy – and the Dodgers have already dealt with an abnormal amount of preseason injuries – but the lineup could easily crumble on a whim. When it does, Urias and De Leon will be of little help.
Boston Red Sox – O/U 86.5 – Projected 90-72, AL East Division Winner
Never the franchise to shy away from making an aggressive move, the Red Sox added pitchers David Price and Craig Kimbrel during the offseason to go with a lineup that, surprisingly, barely changed. The recent news that Pablo Sandoval will start the season on the bench has little negative impact on a team that had nowhere to go but up. Outside of the headlines, the Red Sox will now unveil a high-upside batting order filled with hitters ready to breakout.
Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts suddenly look like mainstays in Boston, and veterans Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, and Hanley Ramirez will no longer be asked to carry the team. Instead, they will add length to a lineup that is rivaled within the AL East only by Toronto.
As fate would have it, the Blue Jays may field the better hitters, but the Red Sox enter 2016 as the best team in the division, and will represent the American League in the World Series.