by Nicholas Cicale (@nickcicale)
Seattle Mariners (90-72)
If you asked me point blank who the best team in the American League is, I probably wouldn’t say Seattle, but once I went through the other teams in the league, and looked at this roster and its upside, the wound up with the most wins. 90 wins doesn’t look like a monstrous team, however the AL is extremely even this season, with a lot of team that are good, not great, and not too many teams that look like absolute train wrecks (I have the Twins with the worst record and still winning 72 games).
The most exciting thing about the Mariners is their pitching. King Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma are established arms that have thrived at home over the past few seasons. With Taijuan Walker and James Paxton healthy to start the year, they could have a devastating rotation that’s three or four guys deep, to go along with what was the second best bullpen statistically last year. The bullpen really helped the young arms in their rotation shine, and still has established guys like Danny Farquhar, Fernando Rodney, and Tom Wilhelmsen to lock down the late innings.
Seattle just missed the playoffs in 2014, and did just enough this offseason and at the deadline last year to get them over the hump. Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz are great back-to-back hitters, and the Mariners added enough depth in the outfield and middle infield to make up for any minor injuries or shortcomings. The division isn’t guaranteed, but the playoffs should be.
Baltimore Orioles (89-73)
At this point, it doesn’t matter how unimpressive the rotation looks, or what the infield’s depth is like. The Orioles are a good team, and the know how to win.
They didn’t sign too many pieces and lost a few players in the offseason–Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis in particular–but they have ways to replace that production in house. A full year of Manny Machado, Matt Wieters, and a healthy and focused Chris Davis should be able to naturally replace Cruz’s 40 homers, and Markakis’ 80 runs scored, while also improving the team’s defense as a whole. Once Wieters get back behind the plate, he should help settle down the pitching staff. Having Everth Cabrera as a utility player and speed option off the bench should also help the team give guys rest and stay fresh.
The team doesn’t have anything remotely close to an ace, yet somehow runs six men deep, and is competent enough to consistently hold teams to manageable scores that the offense can overcome. The bullpen is above average as well, with three good options–Zach Britten, Tommy Hunter, and Darren O’Day–at the back end.
The unknown piece of the puzzle is Steve Pearce, who came out of nowhere to become the most valuable player on Baltimore down the stretch. It’s hard to predict if he’s a one hit wonder or someone who can bat in the heart of the order again this year. I’m confident, though, that if they need to replace him–or anyone else–in the lineup, Buck Showalter will be able to find a guy that’ll work.
LA Angels (87-75)
My question with the Angels is starting pitching. Garret Richards and Matt Shoemaker came out of nowhere last season to bail out CJ Wilson and Jared Weaver, who are shells of what they once were with lower velocity and less innings pitched. Now Richards is coming back from a fluke leg injury and probably won’t be as dominant as he was last season, even if he’s fully recovered. Shoemaker shouldn’t be as good as he was in the second half, and Andrew Heaney–who they traded for in the offseason–is still a raw talent that needs big-league experience. I don’t thing it’ll be a huge problem, but that–along with the loss of Howard Kendrick in the middle, the threat of Josh Hamilton in the lineup, and a strengthening division– are the main reasons I have the team losing 11 more games than last year.
They still have the best player in baseball in their lineup, and it isn’t inconceivable that Mike Trout can actually get better in his age-23 season. Their 87 wins should still be good enough for the wildcard, or to win the West if things fall their way.
Detroit Tigers (86-76)
A lot of people are predicting the Tiger’s demise, and are propelling the Indians up the standings because of it, but I still think the Tigers will be the top team in the central.
Yes, Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera and Ian Kinsler are entering the later part of their careers, but that doesn’t mean they’ll instantly fall off a cliff. Martinez is coming off a season where he hit a career-high 32 homeruns, and in a “down” year, Cabrera still managed to bat .313 with over 100 RBI. The Tigers also added Yoenis Cespedes, an upgrade from Torii Hunter on both sides of the ball. Off last years injury, Jose Iglesias gives them an elite glove at shortstop and a nice contact hitter near the back of the order, and David Price should be able to replace Max Scherzer in the rotation more or less. They could use some depth behind those guys, but it’s not a glairing concern right now.
The bullpen remains an issue that they didn’t address at all in the offseason, and after trading Rick Porcello, the depth of their rotation isn’t nearly as much of a strength as it had been over their four-year run as division winners. That, and the slight improvements made within the division, is where the small drop in wins come from.
Cleveland Indians (85-76)
Going into last season, the biggest question for the Indians was their starting rotation, and now, one year later, it seems to be their biggest strength. Corey Kluber won the Cy Young award, and the second best pitcher in the AL after the All-star break might have actually been Carlos Carrasco. T.J. House and Zach McAllister both looked great in the bullpen and as starters, and Trevor Bauer finally began too look like the top prospect he was made out to be in Arizona. Yes, there’s a chance they all regress a bit, but that’s a really good group to start the season.
The problem with Cleveland was that some of their more established players really struggled. Jason Kipnis was hurt most if the year, and lost a lot of his power and speed. Nick Swisher and Micheal Bourn–big free agent additions two winters ago–were both hurt and ineffective for much of the year. Even Carlos Santana–who had career highs in RBI, homeruns, and walks–was a victim of some bad luck early in the year, and batted a measly .231 (a career low). There’s no way these guys don’t bounce back even a little this coming season.
There were promising signs too. Yan Gomes is a great backstop that helps the rotation with his pitch framing, and helps the lineup with his power. Lonnie Chisenhall looked like a competent offensive player, and went on some huge power streaks throughout the year. Jose Ramirez filled in at shortstop and played better than expected, and should be able to play second or third base once Francisco Lindor eventually replaces him.
Cleveland is right on the edge of making the playoffs as constructed right now, and they actually have enough assets on their roster and in the minors to make a move or two later on, which should be enough to get them there.
Oakland Athletics (85-77)
The A’s are pretty clearly the more difficult team to evaluate this offseason. They added Ben Zobrest, Tyler Clippard and Billy Buttler, three guys I really like. They also got rid of Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, Derek Norris, Jed Lowrie, and Jeff Samardzia, who are also good players that had a big impact on Oakland’s success recently.
The additions of Marcus Semien and Brett Lawrie are intriguing, not because they’re particularly exciting player, but because the A’s were eager to add them to the team and Billy Bean has a track record of getting value out of players that he thinks were used incorrectly on other teams.
Nothing about this team on paper says playoffs, but the 2012 club didn’t either in March and wound up winning 94 games. I have faith in the A’s front office, the coaching staff, Sonny Gray at the top of the rotation, and their bullpen. That’s why I have them in the mid 80s for wins, but if the A’s finally miscalculated this offseason I could be really wrong.
Toronto Blue Jays (83-79)
I think the Blue Jay’s success is dependent on how good the rest of the division is. It makes sense that they made some big moves with Tampa and New York looking like they’re taking a step back, Boston coming off a bad season, and Baltimore losing some players in free agency. They’re trying to maximize their potential, and it could get them to a wildcard spot if they use their talent right.
The hitting here is great. Josh Donaldson should be an upgrade at third on both sides of the ball, as should Russell Martin, and both player’s should have their power swing play well in their new park. Those guys, with the usual suspects, Encarnacion and Bautista, should let Toronto lead the league in homers.
Pitching is the problem. R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle are old and unexciting at this point. Marcus Stroman is out for the season. The bullpen has no depth, and no great options to close. Aaron Sanchez, Daniel Norris and Drew Hutchison are young arms with upside, and I think Russell Martin will help them adjust to the majors, but they’re mostly untested, and the Jays will need them all to perform close to their potential.
New York Yankees (82-80)
I’m predicting the Yankees to be above .500 because of three things. I trust Joe Girardi to take any team to a winning record because he knows how to get the best out of his players and he works for an organization that’s always willing to make a move or two at the deadline in order to stay relevant. I’m also optimistic that Masahito Tanaka will be able to pitch close to the whole season, and if his production is 90 percent of what is was last season that’ll be a big part of the Yankee’s success. The big reason for optimism, though, is they could finish the year with the best bullpen in the majors. Losing David Robertson seems like a big blow, but adding Andrew Miller and David Carpenter definitely makes up the difference and then some. Them, plus Dellin Betances, will be an unstoppable trio for the last three innings, and will be able to hold any Yankee leads, no matter how small.
I really hate the Yankees’ roster at face value, but they had such bad luck in terms of health and production last season, and added a nice amount of depth in the offseason, that the team should be better just by regressing to the mean and having replacement level backups. Mark Teixiera missed a lot of time with nagging injuries, but was pleasantly effective when on the field, and now that A-Rod is back to give the team depth, he should be able to fill the void when Teixiera inevitable misses some time at first. Old-Man Beltran was awful, posting a career-low batting average and poor defense in 109 injury-filled games, however, if he’s healthier to start this season he should be able to contribute a little, and the Yankees added Garrett Jones and Chris Young as admirable backups for right field. Brian McCann was also very underwhelming last season, despite his power output. If he stays healthy and hits .250 instead of .232, the RBI and runs should jump to respectable numbers if the other players in the lineup step it up. There is nothing at all impressive about Stephen Drew, Didi Gregorius or Chase Headley, but somehow it’s slightly more impressive than the Yankee’s opining day infield last season, and is a defensive improvement.
The rotation of Tanaka, Michael Pineda, and Nathan Eovaldi is actually pretty nice, and anything the Yankees can get from CC Sabathia will be a bonus.
If everything falls right for New York, the could sneak into a wildcard spot.
Boston Red Sox (82-80)
I would be shocked if Boston didn’t add one more arm to their rotation by midseason, but assuming the team stays as it’s constructed now, they have a rotation of #3 and #4 starters, all solid guys with no upside and nobody they can lean on. Adding an ace would do wonders, because the bullpen and the rest of the guys would just fall in place.
The moves the Red Sox made in the offseason didn’t necessarily fill any needs; they instead decided to sign the best guys they could and to figure out their roles later. They had so many outfield options already, so signing Hanley Ramirez to play the outfield will be a fun experiment that could backfire tremendously. I don’t know where he plays if he can’t settle in defensively, considering they also spent big money on Pablo Sandoval at third, have David Ortiz as the fulltime DH, and Xander Bogaerts filling the shortstop role. The logjam in the outfield also includes, Mookie Betts (who I love), Shane Victorino (who I don’t trust health-wise), Rusney Castillo (who’s untested but has a lot of upside), Allen Craig (who was awful last season), and Brock Holt (who’s everyone’s favorite backup in the infield as well). That’s six guys, for three spots, and even though depth is always a good theing, too much depth in the same place could be a hassle.
The offense should be improved, especially if they forget about the players who are making money and just play the best players they have in their best positions.
This is a conservative projection for sure, but until I see it all work on the field and they add a pitcher, I’m going to be hesitant to totally buy in.
Kansas City Royals (82-80)
Not having James Shields back will hurt. He wasn’t as dominating a force last year but did give them somebody to lean on and eat up innings. Last year’s best and most overworked bullpen is returning its entire staff but there’s no way there isn’t a little regression to the mean this year. The Royal’s lost Aoki, but added Alex Rios in the outfield as a replacement.
There isn’t too much that changed from this year to last, so the Royal’s shouldn’t be much different than they were. They definitely out-performed their projections though (taking their success all the way to the World Series), and unless they can again, 82 wins is a much more realistic prediction.
Chicago White Sox (81-81)
A trendy pick this spring because they made a lot of moves for players people know, the White Sox are a stronger team even if I don’t think they really optimized their spending.
Chicago went out and bought a really good closer (understandable when you consider how terrible their bullpen was last year) which is probably the most volatile position to invest money in. They purchased one of the best defensive first basemen in the league, and even though his offense should do well in the park, they’ll waste his best asset and play him at DH. They also sent some young assets away for Jeff Samardzija, a 30-year-old starter with a recognizable name and an up and down track record.
Despite the $134 million in salary they handed out (good for the fourth most in the majors this off season) they still have questions at second, third, and the back of their rotation, an aging shortstop, and a bullpen without any depth. The team is unquestionably better this year, and really minimized their downside. I can’t see them losing more than 78 games, but don’t think they can win more than 84 either.
Tampa Bay Rays (79-83)
It’s hard to measure the impact a front office and a manager has on a team, and the two biggest offseason losses for the Rays were probably Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman.
Even after losing Ben Zobrest, I think the team’s offense actually improved. (It would have been hard for it not to get better; they were dead last in the AL in runs scored in 2014). Swapping Wil Meyers for Stevan Sousa shouldn’t hurt the team at all. Sousa has more power and is probably a better defender. Asdrubal Cabrera and Nick Franklin are also upgrades in the middle of the infield, while a full season of Kevin Kiermaier is an exciting story.
The big difference, though, is with the pitching staff, which has been their bright spot for years. They didn’t do anything to replace David Price. Alex Cobb has been hurt this spring and is a wildcard for the season. Their bullpen also isn’t the most stable. Their best two options to close are probably Jake McGee and Brad Boxberger, but with “proven closers” Grant Balfour and Ernesto Frieri lurking, you would assume they’ll both have extremely loose grasps on their roles.
I like a lot of what they have, but right now there are too many questions, which force this low prediction.
Texas Rangers (75-87)
There’s no way the Rangers have as bad injury luck as they did in 2014. Prince Fielder is healthy now, and will bounce back, giving the team a much needed power swing and RBI creator in the middle of the lineup. A full season of Derek Holland and Colby Lewis, the additions of Yovani Gallardo and Ross Detwiler, and the knowledge that Matt Harrison and Martin Perez will be coming back at some point this year, makes this a much deeper rotation than the battered one last year, even without Yu Darvish at the top.
With Shin-Soo Choo and Elvis Andrus coming off down years, and questions still in the outfield, behind the plate and in the pen, the team has plenty to fix before getting back to making an impact to the playoff race. They’ll be better than last year and have a really solid core. In a very competitive division their upside is just under .500, a much better outlook tan last year.
Houston Astros (75-87)
Still a year or two away, the Astros are slowly unleashing their top prospect to the world, and are building to make a run soon. Jed Lowrie and Luis Valbuena were good additions in the offseason that are versatile and can be moved around as new players get called up from the minors. Colby Rasmus is a good, cheap, stopgap in the outfield with some upside, while Evan Gattis gives Houston an established power bat that should play well in their park, even if his defense leaves something to be desired in the outfield. They also solidified the bullpen with the addition of Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek, two established setup guys.
The Astros had some breakout bats in 2014. Chris Carter exploded in the second half, and it’s hard to think some of that power won’t carry over this season. George Springer, while clearly hurting at times, clearly made a name for himself and has the tools to be a 30-20 guy this year. Even in the rotation, Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh look like real mid-rotation guys, and the team has plenty of young arms ready to make an impact soon.
Even though we’re still a season or two away from any playoff runs, this is clearly an organization that’s making the right moves after biding their time the last few years.
Minnesota Twins (72-90)
(Editor’s Note: Because I live and write for a newspaper in Minnesota, I wrote a complete preview for the Twins, which ran in the paper last week. This is a slightly abridger version of that column.)
I think this year’s team will look noticeably better at times than 2014’s squad. I’m predicting a small improvement in record but by the end of the season the Twins should be in a much better position to win than they are right now. Minnesota probably has the strongest farm system in baseball (behind the Cubs), and if they play their cards right this year, should be able to give valuable playing time to their three top prospect in order to get them ready for the future.
The problem for the team in 2015 is that they’re in the super competitive American League central, and all four teams ahead of them are set up to have win totals in the 80s. The playoffs just aren’t in the books for Minnesota right now, but there are still plenty of things for Twins fans to look forward.
Outfielder Torii Hunter, a beloved figure in recent Twins history, is back on the team to finish off his career. He’s still a consistent contributor on offense, and even if he isn’t the magical defender he once was, he’s a nice placeholder until some of the team’s younger players mature enough to see the field.
The team also signed free agent pitcher Ervin Santana to a four-year contract in an attempt to add stability to their porous, yet strengthening, rotation. He isn’t a super star by any means, but has a pretty solid track record, especially playing in pitchers parks like Target Field. (His suspension to start the season hurts the team and really makes one question the contract). Phil Hughes, the Twin’s big free agent pitching addition last off season, looked like he has the stuff to be a really impactful arm for years to come. He had what was easily the best season of his career, and it was in large part thank to his newfound command. Hughes walked an astonishing low 16 batters all season, and only gave up 16 home runs.
Two young impact players from the second half of 2014 look to be taking a prominent role on the big league club this season also. Danny Santana out performed his expectations when he was called upon last year, hitting for an impressive .317 batting average with 20 stolen bases and seven homers. He profiles more as a .280 hitter and strikes out a little more frequently than is comfortable, but the speed is real, and he’s earned his keep. Now the utility man is slotted to start the year as the Twins’ leadoff hitter in the lineup. Another 24-year-old, Kenny Vargas flaunted his raw power in 2014. He need to learn how to take a walk from time to time, and cutting down on his strikeouts would be a bonus, but if everything goes right, he’ll develop into a deadly weapon as the team’s main designated hitter in the heart of the order. If Vargas get’s the playing time, expect just about 20 home runs with 70 runs batted in (RBI) in 2015.
The Twins also have three big names in their minor league system that should get the call to the majors at some point this season. Byron Buxton is arguably the best prospect in baseball, with above-average power for a center fielder, elite speed and a great glove to match. He missed a lot of time last season due to nagging injuries and a devastating collision in the outfield late in the year, but all signs point to him being health heading into the new year. Third basemen Miguel Sano was also injured last season, but that should stop him from cracking the major league roster once he shows he’s back to full health. He has tremendous power, and just needs to work on making contact a little more frequently. Pitcher Alex Meyer was probably good enough to play for the Twins last year, but the extra time in the minors has helped him develop a more consistent fastball. He’s an impressive, 6-foot-9 righty that could be a devastating bullpen option late in the year, or a mid-rotation starter, depending on what the Twins need come the All-Star break.
Yes, the playoffs are a long shot (to say the least) but there are still plenty of reasons to tune into you local broadcast a few times a week, and to head over to the Twin Cities once or twice this summer to catch a game at a great ballpark (I already know I’m going to a game on April 19 when the Twins host the Indians, and again when the Yankees come to town in late July). With some talented young athletes, a few new faces, and new manager Paul Molitor at the helm, the 2015 Twins should be entertaining, and I expect them to have a much better outlook come 2016.