This post was inspired by Buster Olney’s column over at ESPN (unfortunately you need an Insiders subscription to view it in full). In the wintery time between the Hot Stove and Spring Training it can often feel like you’re stuck in the Black Lodge from Twin Peaks: everything looks the same, nothing makes sense, and you just want to get back to normality. For me, the most pleasant way to spend this time is thinking of MLB story lines I’m excited for in 2016. Will Lonnie Chisenhall avoid arbitration with the Indians? Does his wife still love him? Can he keep his marriage together until his kids graduate high school? Things are about to get interesting.

1. Accepting the Cubs As Our New Baseball Overlords

EP-151009375

Here’s a pull from Jeff Sullivan’s piece from December titled ‘The Cubs as the Best Team in Baseball’:

A fun fact for you: with Heyward, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta, and Jon Lester, the Cubs have five of baseball’s projected top 40 players. It’s actually five of the top 31, but I wanted to round. They’re not at all lacking for star power, and behind the Cubs, in terms of top-40 players, the Nationals and Rangers are tied with three. Other teams have two or fewer. You can’t really compete with the top of the Cubs’ roster.

The Cubs’ are projected for the highest team WAR in 2016 by over three wins. They are the only team with a combined WAR over 50. Chicago proved itself in last years’ playoffs, and this year they join the ranks of NL powerhouses housed in the Central. Despite the star power at the top, he most impressive part about this team is its completeness, versatility, and depth. If the 2008 Rays were “Doc” Brown Joe Maddon, the 2016 Cubs are Elon Musk Joe Maddon.

The Zobrist signing gives the Cubs options in the outfield and the middle infield, and is a definite upgrade over Starlin Castro at second base. It’s almost like Joe Maddon sent Zobrist out to fetch him a World Series ring and then pulled back on his leash. Behind Zobrist and Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Tommy LaStella are both solid infield depth pieces. In the outfield, besides Zobrist, of course, Chris Coghlan is a more than capable fourth outfielder.

Adding John Lackey to a rotation headed by Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester is a necessary move when you’re trying to keep up with Pittsburgh and St. Louis, and it’s a move that will pay off come October. I hate saying that the Cubs are the best team in baseball on paper, but that’s what I’m saying. That doesn’t mean that they’ll have the best record at the end of the season, it means that right now—before any baseball has been played—I would put my money on it.

Out of interest, I’d like to see how many people agree with this. It certainly doesn’t feel bold, but a poll never hurt nobody. If you don’t agree that the Cubs are the best team in baseball, comment with the team that is.

 

2. The NL East Smackdown

mets-nationals-baseball

The Nationals were picked to run away with the NL East at the start of last season. It didn’t come close to happening last year, and while it won’t happen this year, it’s not unthinkable that Washington could edge out the Mets.

Even with Scherzer and Strasburg as your top two arms, there’s no beating New York’s deep rotation of deadly young arms. The Nationals do have phenom Lucas Giolito waiting in the wings, but all they really need is the man standing in right field—Bryce Harper. There’s no telling how terrible the Nats would have been last season without Harper’s MVP performance, but this year’s team is a few bouncebacks away from returning to its juggernaut form of just two seasons ago.

The NL East will be the most addicting division to watch in 2016 because everyone in it knows it’s a two horse race from Opening Day (also because The Mighty Giancarlo Stanton). With the Mets and Nats getting easy wins off the Phillies, Marlins, and Braves all season long, we might get to see a pennant race between two 100 win teams. The best part about this epic showdown is that, at least in the narrative I have constructed in my mind, they’re sort of similar clubs.

The veteran third baseman (Zimmerman/Wright), the explosive outfielder (Harper/Cespedes), the electric young arms (Strasburg/deGrom, Harvey, … Syndergaard … Matz).

OK the comparison falls apart pretty quickly, but one fun subplot to watch if these two teams meet in the playoffs will be whether Daniel Murphy (noted bigot and current second baseman for the Washington Nationals) can recapture his Mets Magic and use it against his former team.

3. The Desert Experiment

121115-MLB-diamondbacks-greinke-speaks-to-media-ahn-PI.vresize.1200.675.high.63

The Shelby Miller trade was not pretty. Giving up a solid, cost-controlled outfielder, and strong pitching prospect, and a talented young shortstop who you used a number one draft pick on for an unproven pitcher coming off a career year. The departure of Ender Inciarte means that the mediocre Yasmany Tomas will have to start in left field, a fact that may end up evenly cancelling out any gains that Miller provides in the rotation.

The Braves definitely got a surplus of value in dealing Shelby Miller, but the Diamondbacks have clearly committed to taking a shot with this core. Or maybe Paul Goldschmidt forced GM Dave Stewart’s hand. It’s reminiscent of A.J. Preller’s gamble with the Padres in the 2014 offseason, but luckily the DBacks have some existing pieces. And they got Zach Greinke too.

The rotation looks like this: Zach Greinke, Shelby Miller, Patrick Corbin, Rubby De La Rosa, Robbie Ray. Last year, they opened the season with this: Josh Collmenter, Daniel Hudson, Jeremy Hellickson, Rubby De La Rosa, Randall Delgado. Getting a full season out of a healthy Patrick Corbin will be crucial to this team’s success, but for the first time in what feels like forever, Arizona has pitching.

Offensively, it seems like the Diamondbacks drunkenly stumbled onto an exciting young core. The sudden emergence of A.J. Pollock and David Peralta in the outfield last season reminded me of the Jays lucking out on Jose Bautista and Encarnacion. Instead of a pair of bashers, the Diamondbacks have found a duo of five-tool studs who can set the table for Goldschmidt.

The bottom of the order is an offensive hole, but Nick Ahmed and Jake Lamb might be the most impenetrable left infield in baseball. Both ranked in the top five for their respective positions according to Fangraph’s DEF metric, which adds together two widely used composite defensive metrics, Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and adjusts for positional difficulty.

In fact, if you’re going by DRS—which indicates how many runs a player saved or hurt his team in the field compared to an average player at his position—the Diamondbacks were the best defensive team in baseball by a wide margin last season.

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 1.51.09 PM
Top Five Defences in 2015 by DRS

It’s not a perfect team, but I think a lot of people are underestimating the pieces that Arizona already had in place before Stewart went crazy this offseason. They had defence, a solid lineup with players on the cusp of breaking out, and a good bullpen. He saw that, and he saw a rotation that combined for just six total WAR (third-worst mark in baseball), and he addressed the need directly.

4. The Slump of the Sophomore Slump

070715-MLB-Miguel-Sano-LN-PI.vresize.1200.675.high.23

I don’t have to tell you about last year’s ridiculous rookie class. Fangraphs’ Owen Watson covered it well here, and if you need a refresher on the meaning and aesthetic of ‘rookie’, I will direct you to this excellent movie starring Dennis Quaid. You could literally build a complete lineup using only position players who were rookie eligible in 2015. This is what it would look like:

C – Kyle Schwarber

1B – Miguel Sano

2B – Matt Duffy

SS – Carlos Correa

3B – Kris Bryant

LF – Joc Pederson

CF – Odubel Herrera

RF – Randal Grichuk

DH – Your pick: Francisco Lindor? Michael Conforto? Corey Seager? Jung Ho Kang? Byron Buxton?

These are all rookies, yes. But none of them are rookies in the traditional sense. Every one of these players will be taking a step forward in 2016. The term sophomore slump does not apply. In the AL, Carlos Correa will throw his towel into the Trout/Cabrera struggle for MVP; in the NL, Kris Bryant will seize the hardware from Bryce Harper with the magnetic traction of his cold blue stare.

There are too many names to focus on, so I’ll just pick the one who I think could lead the AL in home runs this season: Miguel Sano.

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 2.09.11 PM
Highest Rookie ISO Marks (since 2000)

First of all, what the hell is up with Randal Grichuk? That’s a question for another day, but he quietly posted the sixth-best ISO mark in any rookie season since 2000.

Back to Sano, who’s .262 ISO ranks 13th among rookie seasons since 2000, and was a tick lower than Nelson Cruz’ .264 mark for last season. Sano has the kind of power that makes people forget he ever played a position before becoming a DH, and he’s only started 69 games at DH. His raw strength shocked people into tuning into Twins games, and likely kept the mediocre Twins above .500 down the stretch. 18 home runs over 80 games translates to roughly 37 over a full season, and I have no reason to believe that number isn’t within his reach.

While he struck out 35% of the time, he also walked 16% of the time (and homered 5% of the time). He’s the three true outcome rookie designated slugger we desperately need in this scary era of toolsy position player phenoms.

5. AL Beast is Back 

19271879-mmmain

The AL East has had a strange couple of years. The retirement of Derek Jeter does strange things to a division, but it’s starting to look like the AL Beast is back. Toronto made a statement with a historic offensive season, Boston poached David Price from the Jays, Baltimore resigned Chris Davis, Chris Archer is probably even better than Price, and New York went out and added Aroldis Chapman to its bullpen.

AL East Bullpen Depth Charts
AL East Bullpen Depth Charts

No team in this division can be discounted. Toronto will have to defend its first pennant since 1993 against fierce competition, and with the contracts of Jose Bautista and Edward Encarnacion both expiring at the end of 2016, this season is shaping up to be a climactic one in the AL East.

Baltimore and Tampa Bay both have great pieces, but ultimately too many holes to contend this season. With Baltimore, the issue will be offence despite the resigning of Chris Davis. Behind Davis, Machado, and Jones, the drop-off is steep in the batting order. This is no longer an offence that can prop up a shaky rotation, and with New York’s wild off-season, the O’s can’t even hang their hats on having the best bullpen anymore.

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 2.27.30 PM

In Tampa the reality of Evan Longoria’s decline is starting to sink in. It’s been happening since 2010, and the past two seasons especially have been depressing to watch for a player who put up back-to-back 7+ WAR seasons in his age-24 and age-25 seasons. Getting Corey Dickerson for Jake McGee was a steal by GM Matt Silverman, and the Rays have potential to be an intriguing team to watch, but the top of the division has grown stronger.

6. Sleeping Tigers

kc44

After reeling off four consecutive division titles, the Tigers’ stretch of dominance came to a screeching halt in 2015. It was a season full of changes for a team used to stability: David Price departed for Boston, followed by longtime GM Dave Dombrowski; Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez all spent significant time on the DL; Yoenis Cespedes was shipped off for peanuts. The Tigers finished dead-last with a 74-87 record. It was their first losing season since 2008.

Perhaps the most shocking statistic from that trash-fire of a season was that the Tigers’ pitching staff posted the 27th worst ERA (4.64) in the league. This is a team that not too long ago sent out David Price, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, and Anibal Sanchez as their #1-#4. To get a sense of how precipitous the drop-off was: Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez alone combined for more WAR in 2014 (8.4) than the entire 2015 pitching staff (8.1).

Tigers Pitching: 2014 v. 2015
Tigers Pitching: 2014 v. 2015

If you’re a Tigers fan, that should be a cause for optimism for three reasons.

1) The pitching woes overshadowed a quietly solid lineup. The Tigers led the league in batting average (.270) and came second in OBP (.328).

2) The offence is looking forward to healthy seasons from Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez, and the newly acquired Justin Upton

3) The pitching can’t possibly be that bad again. Verlander rebounded nicely down the stretch, posting a Verlander-y 8.15 K/9 over his last 10 starts. He projects to pitch around 200 innings with an ERA in the upper 3 range, but I am more optimistic than that. The addition of Jordan Zimmerman will bolster the top of the rotation, and young arms Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd—acquired in the David Price rental/trade—are loaded with potential.

In 2015, the baseball gods picked up the AL Central and shook it upside down like a snow globe. While nobody will be doubting the Royals heading into 2016, don’t be surprised if they’re battling the Tigers late into September for the division crown.

Another intriguing story line to watch in the AL Central will be the Brett Lawrie experiment in the South Side of Chicago. He’s only 25, but this feels like a make or break year for the supercharged Canadian third baseman. While A’s fans were probably too distracted by Josh Donaldson’s torrid season to notice, Lawrie quietly put together a solid season. He played in a career-high 149 games, and while he continues to struggle to get on base (.299 OBP with the A’s) and strikes out far too often, his potential is still attractive.

He was shiny enough for the White Sox to trade for him this offseason, but that shine will quickly wear off if he fails to take a big step forward in Chicago. This is Lawrie’s year—out from the shadow of the Donaldson trade—to prove to the league that he’s more than an infielder with elusive power.

7. Houston Gets Even Better

920x920

Despite the stumble at the finish line, it was a magical season in Houston. Throughout the first half, the Astros were probably in disbelief of their own success. This was the team what was going to be good in two or three seasons. Rebuilding takes time. Yeah, not if you draft well and play your cards right.

There was a little luck (nine triples from Evan Gattis) and also a little bad luck (a costly error from Carlos Correa in the ALDS)—but the Astros’ success was no fluke. Houston struck gold with Carlos Correa and George Springer, and the dependable production of Jose Altuve and Dallas Keuchel make the Astros the best team in the AL West.

GM Jeff Luhnow went out and addressed the team’s needs this offseason by acquiring closer Ken Giles from the Phillies, and signing Doug Fister to slot into the rotation behind rookie phenom Lance McCullers. If McCullers can harness his filthy breaking stuff and take a step forward, this rotation is on par with any in the division. The Angels and Rangers are bogged down by aging stars (Pujols and Beltre), the A’s and Mariners aren’t in positions to contend, and the Astros are only getting better with time.

The strikeout-prone offence will lead to some ups and downs for this team, but that’s a weakness that will improve as this young squad matures.

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 9.39.23 PM

Add in a bounce back from Carlos Gomez, an ownership that isn’t afraid to spend money when needed to win now, and a fan base eager to make new postseason memories to bury the ones from last season, and you get an Astros team that will be even better in 2016.

8. Alex Rodriguez Completes His Metamorphosis (Into a Harmless Milquetoast)

As much as I try to stay away from him, A-Rod always finds a way to pull me back in. He’s the centaur in my dreams, the mongoose to my snake, the finger that beckons.

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 11.31.28 PM

After a steady six year decline in which his OPS went down every year consistently, Rodriguez popped out a 30 homer season where he reached base at a .350 clip, and was somehow one of the Yankees most dependable batters. His slugging percentage shouldn’t be expected to stay at an elite level in his age-40 season, but he should continue to get on base enough to stay productive. While Derek Jeter has probably barred him from staining the hallowed pages of his Players Tribune, A-Rod isn’t ready to pen his retirement letter quite yet.

At the same time, he’s doing everything in his power to clear a smooth path for his landing in Florida. He was a hit as a FOX analyst during the World Series, and the video of him breaking a TV with an errant football throw on his first day at FOX drew nervous and enthusiastic laughter.

Here’s his game: he wants you to laugh at him, but in an endearing way. Like you would laugh at a foreigner who couldn’t figure out how to buy a subway ticket. He’s always kept up an innocent, baseball-loving public persona, and now he’s pushing it into lovable goof level in order to pump up his gullibility, because gullible is the one thing you need people to believe you are if you’re A-Rod.

Based on recent voting, there’s no way Rodriguez is getting into the Hall of Fame, and he must know that. He’s undertaking this metamorphosis to slide form under a much worse punishment: the Pete Rose treatment. Commissioner Rob Manfred put his brass balls on the table in his upholding of the all-time hits leader’s* lifetime ban, and A-Rod is doing everything he can to avoid falling into Rose’s distasteful trap of infamy.

 

Advertisements