X-Kansas City Royals 93-69 (1)
After winning the World Series Championship in 1985, it was a slow tumble down for the Kansas City Royals as from 2002-2006, they had four seasons in which they lost at least 100 games. But after having just one winning season from 1995-2012, the Royals began to establish themselves as a contender in the American League. In 2013, Kansas City finished with their first winning season since 2003. And in 2014, the Royals returned to the postseason for the first time since 1985 as they fell one victory short of winning the Fall Classic. But the Royals didn’t allow the heartbreak of 2014 to slow them down in 2015 as they were able to get back to the World Series, and this time they were able to win it. The Royals had a bullseye on their backs last year, but in 2016 it will be much bigger as in a very short time Kansas City has gone from the hunter to the hunted which should make for a very intriguing 2016 Major League Baseball season in the Heartland.
The Royals have a young core of players that have become grizzled veterans overnight, but more importantly they are good. Led by designated hitter Kendrys Morales, the Royals had six players that hit at least 13 home runs last season, but offensively Kansas City makes their mark with their ability to get on base and put pressure on opposing pitching. The Royals were tied for second in the American League last season in batting average (.269), and with a team that is full of contact hitters that is led by shortstop Alcides Escobar, and first baseman Eric Hosmer, Kansas City will once again put stress on opposing pitchers as this is a team that is tough to strike out as they were last in the AL in strikeouts last season with just 973.
Pitching wise, the Royals were third in the American League last season in team earned run average at 3.73, but they will have to replace veteran starting pitcher Johnny Cueto who left as a free agent to sign with the San Francisco Giants. The Royals had acquired Cueto in a mid-season trade from the Cincinnati Reds as he provided Kansas City with vital veteran experience in their starting rotation that was beneficial for youngsters such as Yordano Ventura. The Royals did sign veteran starting pitcher Ian Kennedy this offseason to be at the back of their rotation. But in the last two Major League Baseball seasons, Kennedy has combined to lose 28 games and the Royals are hoping that he can find the form that he had when he won 21 games for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2011.
Before becoming a dominant relief pitcher for the Royals, Wade Davis was a starting pitcher and his presence has now given Kansas City extra depth in what is a stingy bullpen. Davis took the place of relief pitcher Greg Holland as the Royals full-time closer last September, and now he is the guy that manager Ned Yost will consistently give the baseball to in the ninth inning.
The Royals didn’t beat themselves that much last season and you can expect more of the same from this bunch under Yost as they feel that that they still have something to prove.
After beginning the season with a World Series rematch against the New York Mets, the Royals will host the Minnesota Twins before a road series versus the Houston Astros whom they eliminated in the American League Division Series last October. The Royals know that they have a target on their backs, but it is a situation that I don’t expect them to run from.
Detroit Tigers 87-76*
After winning four straight American League Central Titles, things changed drastically for the Detroit Tigers in 2015. The Tigers finished 2015 with their first losing season since 2008 while they saw a reshaping in their front office. After 14 years with the Tigers organization, Dave Dombrowski was fired last summer as the team’s general manager. Dombrowski was replaced by his assistant general manager Al Avila who is focused on not only getting the Tigers back to the postseason, but to also hopefully help them win their first World Series Title since 1984.
Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera has been one of the most prolific hitters during this era of Major League Baseball. In Cabrera’s 13-year MLB career, he is a two-time American League MVP along with being a 10-time MLB All-Star. Cabrera has one of the smoothest swings in spite of the fact that lower leg injuries in recent years have limited him. Cabrera will be 33-years of age next month as Tigers manager Brad Ausmus must monitor his slugger’s health which could mean him playing more at designated hitter this season.
To provide protection for Cabrera, the Tigers were happy with the emergence of outfielder J.D. Martinez last year. In Martinez’s second year with the Tigers, he led the club in home runs (38), and runs batted (102) as he earned his first All-Star Game appearance. And now Martinez is expected to be a catalyst in Motown. But Avila didn’t rest on his laurels as he signed outfielder Justin Upton which gives Detroit even more depth.
Upton was seeking a long-term contract this off-season and he received it when he a the Tigers came to an agreement on a six-year deal that is worth $132.75 million. What Upton gives the Tigers is another power bat in the middle of their lineup that will fill the void that was created last summer when outfielder Yoenis Cespedes was traded to the New York Mets. Upton is prone to strikeout a ton, but he will make up for it as he is always a threat to hit 25 homers while driving in 100 runs.
Aside from Cabrera, Martinez, and Upton in the Tigers lineup, Detroit has professional hitters in second baseman Ian Kinsler and designated hitter Victor Martinez while they will have some speed in outfielder Anthony Gose.
Pitching will once again be an issue for the Tigers as they were last in team earned run average last season in the American League at 4.64. Injuries and age appear to be catching up with starting pitcher Justin Verlander while Mike Pelfrey and Anibal Sanchez have seem themselves have up and down Major League Baseball careers which means that the Tigers bullpen could once again be busy. This off-season the Tigers did sign starting pitcher Jordan Zimmerman to a five-year contract that is worth $110 million, but his velocity has dipped ever since he won 19 games in 2013 as a member of the Washington Nationals.
For years the Tigers bullpen has been a source of frustration for the team and now it could be Francisco Rodriguez who gets his chance to close out games for Detroit which should be nail-biting to say that least.
The bats will carry the Tigers in 2016, but don’t rule out Avila making a move between now and the trading deadline In order to get his hands on a quality starting pitcher.
Minnesota Twins 86-76
After four consecutive losing seasons, the Minnesota Twins bounced back in 2015. The Twins were under the guidance of first-year manager Paul Molitor who instilled some of the same values that he used during his Hall of Fame career as a player. The Twins were in contention for the entire 2015 Major League Baseball season until were they swept in their final regular season series by the eventual World Series Champion in the Kansas City Royals. The Twins fell just three wins shy of claiming the second wild card berth in the American League, and this year, Molitor and his bunch in Minnesota are looking to build off of the strides that they made in 2015.
The Twins were near the bottom of most offensive categories in the American League last season which is something that they must improve on this year in order to get to the postseason. Led by utility man Trevor Plouffe, the Twins are not a team of stars, but they’ll simply fight, scratch, and claw on a nightly basis.
Neil Allen is in his second year as the Twins pitching coach and he’ll look to get the most out of veteran pitching that consists of Ervin Santana, Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes, Tommy Milone, and Kyle Gibson that will need to give Minnesota enough quality starts to keep them in playoff contention. And if the Twins rotation is able to succeed at that, relief pitcher Glen Perkins could become the first player in franchise history to record 40 saves in a season since Joe Nathan in 2009.
The Twins will be a hot and cold team in 2016, but they should once again be in the wild card race until the very end.
Cleveland Indians 82-80
Terry Francona is set to begin his fourth year as the manager of the Cleveland Indians and he is looking to recapture the magic that was on display in 2013 when the Tribe played in the American League Wild Card Game. Under Francona, the Indians have finished the last three Major League Baseball seasons with a winning record, however they have not had enough to be a legitimate contender for the postseason. But will 2016 be any different in Cleveland?
For the Tribe to be a playoff contender in 2016, they will need to do themselves a favor and get off to a better start. Last year the Indians began with a record of 9-16 which resulted in them fighting an uphill battle for the majority of the season in the American League Central.
A big part of the Indians struggles last year began with starting pitcher Corey Kluber. After Kluber won the American League Cy Young Award in 2014 with a record of 18-9, he struggled for the majority of 2015 as he finished with a record of 9-16. And for the Indians to be a player in 2016, Mr. Kluber will need to regain the form that made him one of the best pitchers in the business in the previous year.
Behind Kluber, the Indians have some depth in their starting rotation in the form of Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. And if this trio is each able to win at least 15 games, the Indians could hang around in contention for playoff spot in the AL.
The Indians must get more production out of their offense in 2016 as they were near the bottom of most statistical categories in the American League last season. Outfielder Michael Brantley is the Indians best all-around player as he can hit for average along with being a solid defensive player. But Brantley cannot do it by himself at the plate as players such as first baseman Carlos Santana and designated hitter Mike Napoli will need to have solid seasons at the plate for the Indians to be a playoff team.
Francona’s teams have always been known to compete, and the 2016 Indians should be no different.
Chicago White Sox 79-83
It’s hard to believe, but 2008 was the last time that the Chicago White Sox were in the postseason. In the late 2000’s, the White Sox were an aging team which has paved the way for them to rebuild. The last three years have seen the White Sox finish with a losing record and they are hopeful that things will turn around for them in 2016 as they are seeking to be a contender for a playoff spot in the American League.
Robin Ventura is in his fourth year as the manager of the White Sox and after bottoming out in 2013 when Chicago lost 99 games, he is hopeful that he has a team that is on the upswing.
The White Sox have one the best starting pitchers in Major League Baseball at the top of their rotation by the name of Chris Sale. The last three seasons have seen Sale strike out at least 200 batters in each year as his quirky delivery from his lengthy 6’6″ frame keeps hitters off balance. But as good as Sale is, he has been the victim of a lack of run support when he takes the mound along with the bullpen behind him not being able to consistently finish games for him. But the bigger problem for the White Sox is that they are extremely thin in their starting rotation behind him.
The White Sox have a new third baseman in Todd Frazier who they acquired this off-season from the Cincinnati Reds. Frazier has morphed into one of the better power hitters in Major League Baseball and he will now team with first baseman Jose Abreu to give the White Sox a solid power-hitting combination. But there will be a big question mark around the rest of the White Sox lineup as this team was near the bottom in most offensive categories in the American League last year.
A slow start by the White Sox could get the rumor mill going on the South Side as far Ventura’s job security.