Monday, March 28, 2016

Predicting the 2016 Season—American League

Every year, the baseball cognoscenti make predictions about what will happen the coming year. Every year, they're horribly wrong. With that said, here are my totally correct, unimpeachable picks for what will go down in 2016 in the American League. Take them seriously if you must... Or, as I have learned to do, just have fun and recognize them for what they are: an excuse to talk about baseball again after a long, long winter.

As I do every year, I'll predict each team's order of finish and final record, and I'll include a few "fearless predictions" for each team—at least half of which never come true. Enjoy!

AL East

1. Toronto Blue Jays (90–72, 2nd playoff seed)
  • The Blue Jays' fate will be determined by how hard their rotation falls back down to earth. Marco Estrada simply will be slaughtered. Returning to 9.0 hits per nine innings will put dozens more runners on base for the 30 home runs he allows to this division's potent offenses. JA Happ, meanwhile, will turn in his third season of an exactly 90 ERA+ in Toronto.
  • Young hurlers Roberto Osuna and Aaron Sánchez will suffer from role mismatches. Sánchez is a better fit for the bullpen, which means the experiment of trying him as a starter will fail. In a role reversal with Drew Storen, Osuna will pout as a setup man after Storen is named closer, leading to a sophomore slump that will cause the Jays to consider a move to the rotation.

2. Tampa Bay Rays (87–75, 1st Wild Card)
  • The Rays easily have the most upside in this division. Watch out for breakout seasons from Steven Souza and Steve Pearce. In a mirror image of the Dodgers last season, Drew Smyly will vie with teammate Chris Archer to be Cy Young runner-up.
  • The pitching staff will only get stronger in the second half, as Alex Cobb returns from Tommy John surgery and top prospect Blake Snell makes a play for Rookie of the Year by striking out over 10 batters per nine innings.
  • Kevin Cash will win Manager of the Year in a close race against Terry Francona.
  • Tampa will follow the trail blazed by the 2014 Royals and advance from a nailbiter Wild Card game into the World Series.

3. New York Yankees (83–79)
  • The Yankees' most valuable position player? Would you believe Chase Headley? He'll rediscover his footing defensively and improve to league-average hitting with 20-home-run power.
  • This year's version of Greg Bird will be Aaron Judge, who will replace a totally hapless Carlos Beltrán in right field and sock 10+ home runs in 200 plate appearances.

3. Boston Red Sox (83–79)
  • Rick Porcello will be a very sad sinkerballer. His ERA will be half a run higher than his FIP, thanks to Boston's league-worst defensive infield.
  • Led by Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith, the Red Sox bullpen will strike out a quarter of the batters it faces, second in the league only to the hated Yankees.
  • Mookie Betts will contend for MVP, but Xander Bogaerts will remain stuck on single-digit home runs.

5. Baltimore Orioles (80–82)
  • Yovani Gallardo and Kevin Gausman will swap 2015 ERAs—with Gausman finishing 2016 as the Orioles' ace with a 3.42 ERA and Gallardo regressing to 4.25. The now spectacle-less Gausman will credit his offseason LASIK surgery for the improvement.
  • As a team, the O's will hit 250 home runs—the most since the 2010 Blue Jays.
  • Korean import Hyun Soo Kim will lead even this loaded lineup in OBP.
  • Another subpar season on the field will lead to the dismissal of manager Buck Showalter.

AL Central

1. Cleveland Indians (86–76, 3rd playoff seed)
  • Good infield defense—including surprising glovework at both corners by Juan Uribe and Mike Napoli—will result in ERAs below 3.00 for both Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco.
  • Cleveland will break its MLB-longest streak without a no-hitter with THREE no-nos in 2016: one each by Kluber, Carrasco, and Danny Salazar.
  • Cody Allen will pace the majors in saves.
  • Francisco Lindor, last year's should-have-been Rookie of the Year, will be as good as he was last year, but his numbers will look totally different. He won't be anything special with the bat, dropping 100 points of OPS, but his incredible D will lead to a Gold Glove.

2. Kansas City Royals (85–77)
  • Yordano Ventura will be the Royals' only above-average starting pitcher. That won't matter during the regular season thanks to another excellent year from the majors' most-used bullpen…
  • …But it will matter when the Royals find themselves in a tiebreaker game against the Rangers for the second Wild Card. Ian Kennedy will be no match for Cole Hamels.
  • The Royals will have a better record when Raúl Mondesí Jr. starts at shortstop than when Alcides Escobar does.

3. Chicago White Sox (82–80)
  • Chris Sale's 3.41 ERA from 2015 will prove to be a career high when all is said and done; he's not merely above average, he's one of the best pitchers in baseball. He'll return to a sub-2.50 figure and finally win a richly deserved Cy Young Award.
  • Carlos Rodon will notch 200 strikeouts, and Mat Latos will be worth 2.0 WAR despite missing a few months, as usual, with injuries.
  • The offense will rocket from the league's worst to above-average, thanks in large part to a bounceback from Melky Cabrera.
  • José Quintana and Adam Eaton will both have WARs over 4.0 but remain criminally underrated.

4. Detroit Tigers (75–87)

4. Minnesota Twins (75–87)
  • The Twins and Tigers will finish with identical records and run differentials—boasting the best offenses in the division but the worst pitching staffs.
  • However, unlike the ageing Tigers, Minnesota will be must-see TV. Three Twins will finish in the top five for AL Rookie of the Year: José Berrios, Byung Ho Park, and eventual winner Byron Buxton.
  • Park and Miguel Sanó will combine for 60 home runs.
  • #FreeOswaldoArcia will be the hashtag activism cause of the summer, as the outfielder hits .300/.350/.500 but can't get more than two starts a week over the far inferior Eddie Rosario.

AL West

1. Houston Astros (91–71, 1st playoff seed)
  • Playing the role of Miguel Cabrera/Josh Donaldson—i.e., the player who steals the MVP Award from Mike Trout—in 2016 will be Carlos Correa. Voters won't be able to resist voting for a shortstop who flirts with the 40-homer plateau.
  • Doug Fister, sadly, will show he has nothing left in the tank, forcing the Astros to trade from their stash of prospects for rotation reinforcement at midseason.
  • The Astros will assiduously try to keep Ken Giles out of the closer's role to keep his price from skyrocketing in arbitration, but that will actually be to their benefit—he'll work in the team's highest-leverage situations and lead the AL in leverage index.

2. Texas Rangers (85–77, 2nd Wild Card)
  • Yu Darvish will win Comeback Player of the Year as he pitches 150 innings of 3.30-ERA ball.
  • Even though Ian Desmond usually starts the year on shaky defensive footing, he'll look so lost in left field in the early going that the Rangers will bench him. He'll enter career purgatory, bouncing around on the free-agent market as a utility man for the rest of the decade.
  • Talent defeats age in Texas, at least for one more year: Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo will turn in carbon copies of their superb 2015 seasons.

3. Seattle Mariners (80–82)
  • Joaquín Benoit will end up with more saves than Steve Cishek.
  • M's fans will finally see the Robinson Canó they thought they were getting, as he stretches last year's second-half slash line of .331/.387/.540 over a full season.

4. Oakland Athletics (77–85)
  • Sonny Gray's 2015 luck will reverse itself; a .340 BABIP will lead him to a forgettable 3.95 ERA season.
  • Rich Hill will pick up right where he left off—with four dominant starts to begin the year. Then he will lose his feel for pitching and finish with a 4.00 ERA.
  • Despite his poor defensive reputation, Marcus Semien will be one of Oakland's best players next year, including as a net positive on defense (going by metrics more advanced than errors).

5. Los Angeles Angels (73–89)
  • The left-field combo of Daniel Nava against righties and Craig Gentry against lefties will be among the most successful platoons in history. Together they'll hit .320/.380/.420 and amass 4.0 WAR.
  • Andrew Heaney will establish himself as a bona fide ace in the middle of a rotation in tatters. CJ Wilson will be injured all year and untradeable, while Jered Weaver will shockingly decide to retire midseason when it becomes apparent he can't throw above 80 miles per hour.
  • The total collapse of Albert Pujols is nigh.
  • Despite the presence of Mike Trout, the Angels will have the lowest OBP in the American League.

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