We have been fortunate enough to have the excellent Paul Boye contribute to the site before, and this will be the first of three pieces where he and I give a rough look at how we see the six divisions shaking out in 2016. Obviously, there are still some free agents out there that could alter the calculus slightly, but with battery mates already stretching out in Arizona and Florida, we could wait no longer.
As you will see, there are no specific win totals here as this is supposed to be a macro view and a brief discussion of why we feel the way we do:
Paul: Would probably have CHW at the top even if they don’t sign Fowler/Desmond, but it’d sure help my confidence if they did
Nick: I am pretty excited to see CHW at the top of your list. Perhaps I have become gunshy after years of false optimism. I suppose I would start by asking what it is about Chicago that you prefer to Cleveland, which appears to be our top two together.
Paul: I worry that not having Brantley for a couple months, joined with having no real comfortable options at the other two OF spots and questions at 3B and C (not buying into Gomes full force), the pitching advantage is kind of offset. I’m also a pretty big Sale/Quintana/Rodon fan and think they’re comparable or even preferable to Kluber/Carrasco/Salazar. Bullpen may be a lag area, but I like the team as built to hang with the big boys.
Nick: Yeah, in a sense I have a hard time choosing between them because they’re similarly constructed teams in many respects. Strength of the team is a big front 3 and then various holes and strengths around the roster.
Perhaps I’m higher on Gomes than you are, and although it’s damning with faint praise, I think Davis / Almonte is a better situation than Avisail Garcia / Nothing in right.
Your comments made me look again, and the Indians’ offense has more holes in it than I thought, but I think they have more credible Glove Only guys at the places where there are disasters as opposed to the White Sox who may have players in those places who offer no value at all. Also Carlos Santana v. Adam LaRoche is looking pretty lopsided.
We both have Kansas City 4th. Do you care to explain why you are also asking Kansas City Twitter to attack you?
Paul: It’s less about “KC is a 4th-place team” than it is me preferring the three teams above them just slightly more. I’m not and never really have been a big Ventura fan, the pitching depth takes a hit without Holland and Madson and Cueto, and I just think the other teams at full strength are better than the current Royals at full strength. It’s entirely possible KC will be above .500 as a 4th-place club and I don’t think they’re bad, but I do think this is the year they follow-up a successful season with a slump.
Really, in the big picture, there are things I like about all five teams. It’s looking like the AL Central of old, with a whole bunch of “parity” and similarly talented teams. They might even produce a Wild Card team!
Nick: The Royals don’t look great for projection systems because projection systems aren’t necessarily going to accurately predict the effects of excellent team defense and aren't going to throw around sub-2.00 ERA projections on an entire relief corps. But at the same time, there are reasons to think they aren’t as good as last year, and that they have even less depth as an organization to address it. They already traded a lot of their best pieces -- some outlets consider them a bottom-third farm system now -- and even then the worthwhile guys are pretty far away. They’ve lost a few key players, and...I don’t know, it looks like a mediocre team at this point. 2B and RF look like potential black holes, and I don’t know what in-house depth they have at all to deal with underperformance pretty much anywhere on the roster. I suppose that criticism applies to teams like Detroit and Chicago as well, but those teams seem to have more high-end options all over the diamond.
Kennedy-Ventura-Volquez-Medlen-Duffy-Young may be good enough to get them through like it did last year, but I think there’s substantial risk of ‘15 Red Sox style meltdown possible there, although with better defense.
Like you said, the top four teams look pretty close together to me, and the only thing I’m really confident about is that the Twins are the worst of the five - but I said that going into last year also. Sano, Buxton, and Kepler are all really cool, and Dozier / Plouffe / Mauer are hardly the worst secondary options / supporting cast, but this team can’t freaking pitch at all.
Paul: The Royals have made a fool of me before, and it wouldn’t stun me if they do it again.
Nick: Well said. I suppose this is a good opportunity to emphasize that these are sort of...median expectation projections / predictions, and every team has a range of possibilities and outcomes. We’ve seen what happens when things break the Royals’ way.
Did you have anything you wanted to say about the Tigers before we declare this The Truth? I don’t know if I’ve come around to saying the White Sox should be #1 yet, but I think you’ve got me very comfortable predicting that if they add SOMETHING in right field.
Paul: The Tigers scare me the most of this group, because they’ve got the offensive potential to really smack some teams around. I like Jordan Zimmermann and think he’ll have a better year than Justin Verlander. But the dependence on older players to anchor everything - Verlander in the rotation, Miggy and V-Mart in the lineup, K-Rod in the bullpen - leaves things up in the air. If Cabrera and Martinez can both play 130-140 games, they’re a force. If Verlander’s mini renaissance last year is a building block, even better. I think my putting them third is my being overly conservative and bearish about their ability to do so.
Nick: I’m at the point where I’m not sure Victor Martinez is going to be effective even if he is healthy. At a second look, there are reasons to like their offense beyond the stars, but there’s risk at a lot of those spots too. CF and 3B are serious question marks, and other than Upton (and I suppose J.D. Martinez at this point? Is he a safe bet all of a sudden somehow?) Miggy, Martinez, and even Kinsler are being asked to defy health / performance expectations associated with their histories.
That’s before we even get to the pitching. I’ve always liked Zimmermann to an extent, but 14 of his 33 starts last year were against the trio of Miami, Atlanta, and Philly (sorry, Paul). The NL has become so polarized between Good and Awful, I do wonder how he’s going to hold up switching to an AL that doesn’t really have those opponents that are essentially mulligans, not to mention the DH. Verlander had a stronger 2015 than I remembered, and maybe he’s about to enter that post-stuff phase that aces adjust into once they lose some velocity, but Anibal Sanchez has had what, 30 injuries to his throwing shoulder and has never pitched more than 200 innings. I’m still convinced Mike Pelfrey is garbage. They’re re-tooled admirably, but I feel like they’re banking on a lot of luck.
Shall we jump to the NL?
Paul: I’ll hold my nose.
Nick: So you’re going to have Royals Twitter and Cubs Twitter going after you. How much of this prediction is Cardinals Devil Magic based?
Paul: Too much talent in this division. I think the Cubs should win the division, but the Cardinals are still very good, especially if Adam Wainwright goes a full season. He makes a big difference. Losing Heyward to a division rival is a blow, but if you believe in Stephen Piscotty, it’s not a huge one. They do have some unquantifiable magic atop their talented rosters that keeps them winning 95 games. I’d be a little worried about their depth, but they always seem to produce some contributor in the face of injury, so that worry’s probably for naught again.
Really I don’t have a huge argument against the Cubs winning the division other than feeling. They have, arguably, a more talented roster across the board. I feel kind of dumb talking up the Cubs and still picking them second, but here we are.
Nick: It’s easy to get caught up in offseason excitement and the Cubs have added Heyward, Zobrist, and Lackey. My thing with the Heyward deal, though, is that if he’s playing CF then that takes away a lot of what makes him so special. He’s an elite corner OF defender, but my understanding is he’s merely solid in CF -- in which case, it’s unclear just how big of an upgrade he really is over Fowler in center for year one of the contract. Zobrist and Lackey can be really good, but they’re also aging.
The Cubs also don’t really have much MLB-ready pitching depth on hand, so if something goes wrong with Jason Hammel or Kyle Hendricks - let alone Arrieta or Lester - I’m not sure how they address it other than Adam Warren. I suppose a lot of how you think their season will go depends on what you think of Addison Russell’s bat, Jorge Soler, how Schwarber handles LF, whether Baez or Alcantara can actually add anything...versus the Cardinals’ injury concerns at a ton of places.
I went so far as to put the Pirates ahead of the Cardinals, too!
Paul: I’m not sure there’s a team outside of my own (and Cleveland for sympathy reasons) that I’d want to see win more than Pittsburgh. The city has responded really well to the club being competitive, Andrew McCutchen is a superstar who I think is still kind of underrated somehow, and Gerrit Cole is a lot of fun to watch pitch. In almost any other division, they might be a clear favorite to win it.
Nick: Yeah, McCutchen rules, and that makes me lean in their direction, but I also think Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco each have another gear in them, and they have enough patchwork stuff in the infield to make things work (depending on Kang’s knee and Harrison’s BABIP, I suppose). Also having Ray Searage Magic to work on every pitcher they touch doesn’t hurt either.
That 1B situation does give me pause, though. Now I’m starting to talk myself into boosting Pittsburgh even higher...Is there any reason to doubt, say, Matt Holliday or Yadier Molina for age / injury reasons more or less than one should be concerned about a team relying so heavily on Francisco Liriano?
Another question I’d want your take on - the Brewers and Reds are pretty clearly behind the top three here, but how do you think they stack up against the other NL Cellar Dwellars - ATL, COL, your beloved Phillies, etc.
Paul: I think the universal expectation for this season is that things are going to be crowded at the bottom across the league. The Brewers and Reds lost 192 games last year, and they didn’t really get any better. That said, both teams employ legit, established stars - Ryan Braun and Joey Votto - and MVP winners who can still really hit, it’s just depth that’s the problem. Assuming the impact players on their rosters stay healthy and agile, they could avoid 100 losses and pick fourth, fifth or sixth in the 2017 draft...for whatever small victory that would be.
Nick: For some reason I find myself thinking the Brewers and Reds’ “true talent” levels are higher than that of, say, the Rockies or Padres, largely because I think they have more depth in their starting pitching. Particularly in their ability to just flood the rotation with potential back-end arms (and I am a big Raisel Iglesias fan). They don’t look like 100-loss teams to me, although I suppose having an uneven schedule and having to go against STL/CHC/PIT a lot might inflate their loss totals.
Perhaps this is a question to ask after we’ve looked at the NL West - but do you see both wild cards coming out of this division again?
Paul: I do. I know the NL West has seen the most dramatic upgrades in name this season, and there are some good teams out there, but I think the flaws of the NL West frontrunners outweigh those of the Central. I think the depth of the teams in the Central - and the lack of major injury concerns with said depth at the moment - lend them the edge. Barring the typically unpredictable seismic injury changes, I like the Cubs/Cardinals/Pirates to get two of three spots ahead of Dodgers/D-Backs/Giants.
Nick: Yeah, I’d be extremely confident that one of the two comes out of the NL Central, and if forced to pick now, I'd say they both come from here too, but I think Spot #5 could be close. We’ll explore it more in a future piece, but I think the Giants have a very high ceiling, albeit with a lot of volitality.
So there you have it - rush off to Vegas and make a fortune based on this knowledge. You can find Paul on Twitter @Paul_Boye and Nick @Nick_TCS.