It's the final countdown! Dah-nah-nah! Da! Dah-nah-nah-da-dah!
Sorry about that.
The division preview tour at last reaches its final stop, featuring wacky uniform changes, super teams, grand entrances, contract years, retirement tours, fire... sales, Dusty trails, Brad Pitt lookalikes, electric shortstops, baserunning madmen and classic perpetual futility? Not here. All these teams have a legit claim at winning this damn thing, making my job more difficult. Not to mention I am one to strongly fear the wrath of baseball jinxes and what not, those pesky things you only believe in when something bad happens. I partially blame my years playing the game, having to wear the same socks or undershirt during a hitting streak or playoff run, otherwise you risk derailing the whole thing. So please feel free to disagree with my choices, as many of you have probably put a hundred times more definitive/statistical analysis into this than I am about to.
(*plus-minus indicates how many runs they outscored/were outscored by)
---Baltimore Orioles (2015: 81-81, 3rd, 12 GB, *+20)---
Orange Is The New Black
Is this the Orioles year? They have a lot of what people look for in a contender. Great defense on the left side (Machado is unreal), power bats at key positions, and a mighty fine bullpen behind closer/British delegate Zach Britton. But there's also a lot to be desired. The rotation lost perhaps its most reliable arm in Wei-Yin Chen, they weren't able to improve their outfield situation beyond adding Mark Trumbo (have fun watching that play out, heh heh) and this really is the team that On Base Percentage forgot. Aside from Chris Davis and Manny Machado, only two guys drew more than 25 (!) walks, and they were likely backup catcher Caleb Joseph and do-everything-but-actually-hit-guy Ryan Flaherty. They were at 27 and 26, respectively, and the addition of Trumbo in a key role really doesn't seem to help in that department.
The biggest black hole is probably the rotation though. The loss of Chen hurts a lot. Now you've got Chris Tillman (who the Jays own), Yovani Gallardo and Ubaldo Jimenez (both who own the Jays for some reason), the currently injured Kevin Gausman, and two very generic names in Tyler Wilson and Mike Wright. I'm not holding that against them as pitchers, just that they have very ordinary names. I mean seriously. There's no real shutdown guy amidst these ranks, or even a sure fire 200 inning cookie monster to be found. So it could/should be a struggle for these birds.
By their offseason moves it seems the Orioles are fairly comfortable accepting what they are. They're a "let's defend well, hit lots of home runs and hope our starters give us five meh innings so our bullpen can save us". Teams have won with less, and Pedro Alvarez could go bonkers hitting in a park like Camden. But somebody's gotta finish last so... you guys! Step right up.
SPUR OF THE MOMENT PREDICTION -- 78-82, 5th
---Boston Red Sox (2015: 78-84, 5th, 15 GB, *-5)---
The Price Of Doing Business
Blasted Red Sox.
Okay everybody good? Just needed to get that out of our systems. The 2016 Red Sox look to get back into the postseason and they just might be able to do it, thanks to a bounty of young exciting talent and a few key acquisitions on the pitching side and... ugh... blasted Red Sox!
Yeah, David Price is a big time ticket for this team. An instant ace who can consume quality innings like they're Dunkin Donuts, be a positive influence to the players around him, all while giving his team an excellent chance of victory anytime he takes the mound. Does he instantly make them favourites to win the division? No. As good as Price is (realllly good), how well did the 2015 Tigers do with him under their employ? Or the 2014 Rays? Price makes this team a lot better, as does Craig Kimbrel (gawddamnit!). But...
There are still a lot of questions running about here. Nobody's sure what Hanley Ramirez is going to look like over at first base, who the everyday catcher is going to be and if he can give anything with the bat, if Pablo Sandoval can even hit his weight (at this point he'd probably win the batting title if he did. Zing! Sorry Panda), what version of Jackie Bradley Jr. is gonna show up, or how this rotation plans to shake out after Price. You would assume Price is at the top (duh) followed by Grease Is The Word (I mean, Clay Buchholz), then Rick Porcello's contract, then some combination of Joe Kelly, knuckleballer Steven Wright, Roenis Elias or that Rodriguez kid. It's not really all that impressive, unless Buchholz and his slimey hair can give you 30 starts and or Porcello remembers how to not stink.
On this team, there are only a handful of sure things. That Mookie Betts will be great, Dustin Pedroia will be scrappy/annoying, Xander Bogaerts will also be great (probably), Price will be Price, Koji Uehara will frustrate everybody with that stupid 87 mph splitter that nobody can hit for some reason, David Ortiz will get way too much lavish attention and praise from broadcasters (I'm looking at you, Buck and Tabler) and Kimbrel will strike out lots of guys. They'll likely be a good team, frankly. But to be a contender a lot of starting pitchers are gonna have to step up, and that can be a tall order.
What really astounds me about the Red Sox though is how much dead money is on their books. Allen Craig gets 10 million to struggle in AAA, Sandoval 20 million to sit on the bench, Porcello 22 million, Rusney Castillo is still owed close to 60 million over the next five years to be a fourth outfielder (for now) and of course Hanley Ramirez at another 22 million a year to be a DH in waiting. There's brand name depth sure, but it's expensive depth. You'd think that has to hurt them at least a little. I've been wrong about Boston before though. Blasted Red Sox.
SPUR OF THE MOMENT PREDICTION -- 86-76, T-3rd
---New York Yankees (2015: 87-75, 2nd, 6 GB, *+66)---
The Old And The Beautiful
It's beginning to seem possible that the New York Yankees may never have a bad baseball team again. Sure, there'll be plenty of seasons that they miss the playoffs or have to resign themselves to a wildcard chase, but a full on bad Yankees team? Like 70 wins bad? Doesn't seem possible anymore. They have too many financial resources, don't trade prospects away in short-sighted moves like they used to, will always be able to seduce the biggest free agents, and can absorb any bad contract with all that money. The Yankees of today remind me of the San Antonio Spurs, which is weird to say. They'll always have old players and a couple guys destined for the Hall of Fame, but what makes them so scary are the young guys they develop now, the Severinos, the Betanceses or the Kawhi Leonards.
The core of their offensive attack is very old, however, and they got the absolute most they could've reasonably hoped for from them in 2015. Mark Teixeira was having his best season since their 2009 World Series run before a foot injury did him in during August, Alex Rodriguez hit about as well as a 40 year old non superhuman who missed an entire year can, Carlos Beltran rediscovered that sweet stroke enough in the second half to be dangerous again, while Brian McCann bopped out dingers like a good left-handed hitter should in that bandbox ballpark. Can all this (and more!) happen again in 2016? Sure, but would you bet on it? Teixeira is already 36, Beltran 39, A-Rod turns 41 in July, Chase Headley is 32 as is Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner and McCann. These are the ages when your skills are supposed to decline, either ever-so-slightly or precipitously down a cliff. These are all good ballplayers, true, so if they can stay healthy enough then I'd be inclined to predict most of them can/will keep this pace for another year. But if not... that offense doesn't quite look so hot anymore.
They can win in other ways though. Masahiro Tanaka continues to bamboozle batters despite his elbow being held together by duct tape (if the women don't find ya handsome, they can at least find ya handy), Nathan Eovaldi and Luis Severino are young guys with impressive big arms, Michael Pineda could be a Cy Young dark horse if he ever finds the Fountain of Health (more elusive than the Fountain of Youth for some), and C.C. Sabathia is still around to remind everybody why long contracts for pitchers can look real ugly in the backend. Oh, and that bullpen will probably be pretty good also. They have that tall lefty who throws hard, that tall righty who throws hard, and that other lefty who throws really hard. I'd pick them to win the thing, but I can't. It's a matter of principle, a matter of honour. Oh and because old guys, injuries something something.
SPUR OF THE MOMENT PREDICTION --- 86-76, T-3rd
---Toronto Blue Jays (2015: 93-69, 1st (!), +6, *+221)---
Fly Between The Raindrops
It's reasonable to imagine the 2016 squad failing to follow on that magical 2015 run. Think of the guys who came out of nowhere or nowhere-ish to become big contributors: Chris Colabello, Marco Estrada, Roberto Osuna, Justin Smoak, Kevin Pillar, Ryan Goins, Devon Travis, Liam Hendricks and so forth. That kind of stuff doesn't happen to that degree every year. And a lot of that insane run differential could be a result of all those guys having career years simultaneously, a miracle of magic timing I'm not sure Dumbledore could improve upon. Something's gotta give. Not all these guys can make it outta here in one piece.
It's reasonable to imagine the 2016 squad being even better than the 2015 team. You know, that cast of stars and scrubs that spun their wheels for four months, played over a dozen games with only one legit outfielder, employed the skeleton of Jose Reyes at shortstop the majority of the time and broke spring training camp with two 20 year olds set for key bullpen roles. Everything seems much more locked into place now, the roles and expectations upon them more defined. They only had that Price guy for two months; they had four months of trying people like Scott Copeland, Matt Boyd, Felix Doubront and Dan Norris in a desperate attempt to find something. If good health obliges, that should not be an issue.
Now we just sit back and see.
SPUR OF THE MOMENT PREDICTION -- ()-(), 2nd, Wildcard
---Tampa Bay Rays (2015: 80-82, 4th, 13 GB, *+2)---
Shine A Light
I definitely need to explain myself at this point. Do I think the Rays are better than the Blue Jays or any other team in the AL East? No I don't. Do I think they're the squad most likely to win the division? Again, no. So why, after process of elimination, do I have them in this spot? Because it's the AL East, and because I fear the jinx.
There's no way in good conscience I can have the Red Sox or Yankees as my pick to win it, because... just no. But I can't/don't want to risk picking the Blue Jays either, because... bad mojo something something. So that leaves Baltimore and Tampa Bay, and as the team I dislike less between those two options, the Rays are my choice. So here goes my attempt to convince you all of how they will prevail in 2016.
It really comes down to their pitching. They have a legit Cy contender with Chris Archer, high upside southpaws with Drew Smyly and Matt Moore, another good effective arm in Jake Odorizzi, and Erasmo Ramirez whom they also transformed into a very good starting pitcher. No other team in the division has that level of strength and certainty in their rotation, so that's one big point right there.
Second could be a much improved offense. The Rays were actually an average-ish team at the plate in 2015, despite running out Rene Rivera (.178/.213/.275) for 319 plate appearances (aside: yikes! 2013 J.P. Arencibia scoffs at that line). They've improved back there with the addition of Hank Conger, who at the very least can get on base way more than a fifth of the time. They've also added some of those spare parts this team is known to love, like shortstop/outfielder Brad Miller from the Mariners, everyman Steve Pearce from Baltimore, and of course their big trade addition young power hitter Corey Dickerson from the Rockies. Dickerson has a nice bat and is a nice piece with upside, though you have to squint real hard to ignore the Coors Field Effect(TM) on his numbers.
The Rays defense should also be good, especially in centerfield where Kevin "catch everything that moves" Kiermaier roams. (Speaking of Kiermaier, is this guy a madman on the bases or what? I can't recall a guy so aggressive in baiting outfielders to throw behind him so he can nab an extra ninety feet). They defend well (edit: maaaaaybe not?), they have the potential to hit well enough they pitch really well. You could go crazier than picking these guys to win the division, like picking the Reds to be better than the Cubs. That's like going from "talking to yourself when no one's around" crazy to "Old Man Yells At Cloud" crazy. Rays 2016? I'm not going to say I can get behind it, just that I'm not revolted by it. Besides, I expect something else will probably happen anyway.
SPUR OF THE MOMENT PREDICTION -- 94-68, 1st AL East
And that is finally that, Misters and Missises. I'd like to thank everybody who read this far and know you have my everlasting appreciation (the good kind, not the cheap knockoff stuff you find for 1.77 at a dollar store). Cheers to this wild, wild ride through the majors. Now lets see how it all shakes out.