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Blue Jays Joey Bautista bat flip José 'Joey Bats' Bautista's monumental bat flip was the iconic image of last year's postseason, now it's on to the 2016 season.
© Jason Swaby

MLB Season Preview 2016
The crack of the bat, the pop of the mitt. Baseball is back. Who's looking up and who's looking at a long summer? Jay B Webster takes you around Major League Baseball with a look at the season ahead.

AL East

Gone are the days when the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays battled it out for the best record in baseball, but it’s hard to completely write off any team in the division.

The New York Yankees have not aged particularly gracefully, nor have they been able to restock their lineup with high-priced free agents, as per their normal modus operandi. The Bombers were able to pry All-Star Starlin Castro away from the Cubs to man second base and add fireballer Aroldis Chapman to a formidable bullpen – after he finishes serving a 30-game suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy. If Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi eat enough innings, and graybeards such as Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira can roll back the clock, a repeat of last year’s Wild Card finish isn’t out of the question.

Over in Boston, the Red Sox have teetered between worst and first the past few seasons, and 2016 is another campaign that could go either way. David Price arrives to shore up the rotation. Outfielder Mookie Betts and shortstop Xander Bogaerts are legitimate talents, and if Dustin Pedroia and Pablo Sandoval can return to form, David Ortiz’s swan song could just extend into October.

The Orioles were the biggest offseason spenders in baseball, ploughing $280 million into retaining Chris Davis, Matt Wieters and Darren O’Day, signing Yovani Gallardo, Hyun-soo Kim and Pedro Álvarez, and trading for Mark Trumbo. The O’s will slug a lot of home runs out of Camden Yards again, and their bullpen will stay rock solid, but despite the spending spree, whether Baltimore will be any better than their 81-81 mark of last season remains to be seen.

While the Rays look pretty average on paper, Tampa Bay has tended to get the most out of what they have in a competitive division. Evan Longoria and the offense need to be more prolific at scoring runs than a year ago (6th worst in the league) in order to support what has been a solid pitching rotation, but it’s hard to get terribly excited about things in West Florida.

José Bautista’s monumental bat flip in Game 5 of the AL Division Series against the Rangers provided the iconic image of last year’s postseason, and the Blue Jays should have power to spare once again, with an offense spearheaded by ‘Joey Bats’ and defending NL MVP Josh Donaldson. They elected not to dig deeper into the wallets to re-sign ace David Price, trading instead for Jesse Chavez and inking J.A. Happ to a two-year deal. This year’s Toronto Blue Jays will look a lot like last year’s, which is no bad thing, and makes them the team to beat in the East.

AL Central

The Royals brought a World Series title to Kansas City for the first time since the George Brett era, and the question on everyone’s mind these days is, “can they do it again?” GM Dayton Moore didn’t tinker too much under the hood in the off season, re-signing left fielder Alex Gordon to a 4-year deal, much to the relief of the Royal faithful. Rentals Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist were allowed to seek greener pastures, but manager Ned Yost and the Royals have a formula based on spotless run-preventing defence coupled with a contact-oriented, team-speed offense that is geared to manufacturing runs. Add in a dash of starting pitching and a lights-out bullpen and you’ve got the recipe for a parade through downtown KC in early November. There are worries that Eric Hosmer (1B) and Mike Moustakas (3B) may regress after career years, not to mention the fact that the rest of the AL Central has improved. But until someone takes it away, the AL Central crown resides in Kansas City.

With a starting rotation that includes Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, the Indians have the pitching to make a run at a division title. The question is, can the Cleveland offense keep up its end of the bargain?

While the Tigers maintain an All-Star calibre core of Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Victor Martinez, the trio failed to put up the kind of numbers fans were accustomed to, as Detroit sank to the AL Central cellar. GM Al Avila added starting pitcher Jordan Zimmerman, outfielder Justin Upton and closer Francisco Rodriguez in order to make one more run at glory with his aging stars.

In a surprise turn of events, the Twins returned to respectability in 2015, despite an offense with the lowest team on-base percentage and a pitching staff with the fewest strikeouts in the AL – not exactly a recipe for winning in today’s baseball world. Byron Buxton continues his arc to superstardom, but second-year manager Paul Molitor may well have to continue working his voodoo (124 different batting orders in 2015 season) in order to keep Minnesota in the hunt.

The White Sox, on the other hand, had high expectations entering last season and went on to disappoint. Starting pitcher Chris Sale is one of the best around, but slugger José Abreu and newcomers Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie had better get the ‘O’ ticking over in Chi-town, or the rest of the division will continue to pass Chicago by.

AL West

After an injury-ravaged 2014, the Texas Rangers reclaimed the division title last season. GM Jon Daniels added Ian Desmond to a lineup that already included Prince Fielder, Adrián Beltré and Shin-Soo Choo. Yu Darvish is expected back in May, and coupled with a full season from Cole Hamels, the Rangers rotation figures to be formidable. If they can stay healthy, another title run could be in the cards.

Over in Houston the Astros proved a shining example of how to blow up a team, stock up on a ton of prospects, and get really good again. After losing 111 games in 2013 and 92 in 2014, the Astros saw youngsters such as José Altuve (2B), (RF), Carlos Correa (SS) and Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel blossom, lifting the team to a surprising wild card berth. The Astros need to cut down on their strikeouts, but the future is bright in Houston, and another protracted battle with their Lone Star State rivals in Arlington figures to play out for the division title this season.

Though the Mariners struggled mightily last year, there is still plenty of talent up in Seattle with the likes of Robinson Canó (2B), Nelson Cruz (DH), Kyle Seager (3B) and of course ‘King’ Felix Hernandez. New manager Scott Servais will have his work cut out for him getting this team to gel and keeping up with the boys down in Texas, but a wild card push isn’t out of the question if the cards fall just so.

Elsewhere, the Angels still have one of the best players in baseball in Mike Trout, but not a lot else, while other than ace Sonny Gray, wheeler dealer GM Billy Beane doesn’t appear to have a lot of chips on the table in Oakland with his A’s this season,.

NL East

After just about every prognosticator was picking the Nationals to win it all this time last year, it was the Mets who rode the pitching of Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, and Noah Syndergaard (and the clutch hitting of playoff star Daniel Murphy) all the way to the World Series. Offense is still a concern for NYC's Metropolitans – with Murphy heading to the rival Nationals – as is the health of third baseman David Wright and outfielder Yoenis Céspedes.spedes. With so much pitching though, the Mets figure to be right back in the mix again this year.

In a word, ‘disappointing’ would sum up the Nationals’ 2015 season. A mix of volatile personalities in the clubhouse never seemed to gel and the Nats missed the post season completely. Dusty Baker, who replaces Matt Williams at the helm in Washingotn D.C., will be tasked with a veritable chemistry experiment in getting the most out of a talented Nats roster, which includes the likes of Bryce Harper and pitchers Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.

The East would figure to be a two horse race, but one has to wonder if the Miami Marlins might be poised to upset the balance. The biggest off-season additions weren’t the ones on the field in South Florida though, as Don Mattingly takes over the managerial duties, while Barry Bonds (yes THAT Barry Bonds) joins the staff as the Marlins’ hitting coach. $300-million-man Giancarlo Stanton is one of the best players on the planet, but has had trouble staying healthy. Likewise with starting pitcher José Fernandez, who is coming off of Tommy John surgery.

The Braves are firmly in rebuilding mode, hoping to get good by the time they move into their new suburban Atlanta stadium in 2017. The Phillies have the albatross of Ryan Howard’s untradeable $25 million salary around their necks, and a 100-loss season is well within their grasp.

NL Central

The Cubs just about managed to turn that Back to the Future headline into prophecy in 2015, but fell short, losing in the NL Championship Series to the Mets. To say expectations are high in Wrigleyville this year would be like saying the sun is kind of hot. After watching the likes of Anthony Rizzo (1B), Kris Bryant (3B), Kyle Schwarber (LF) and starting pitcher Jake Arrieta come of age, the Cubs went out and added Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward, versatile utility man Ben Zobrist and right hander John Lackey to an already stacked lineup. Yes, expectations are sky high for good reason in Chicago. Now there’s just the small matter of a certain curse.

After losing Heyward and Lackey to their upstart division rivals, the Cardinals, as they tend to do, will look to restock from within with the likes of youngsters Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty. The Cards have one of the preeminent organizations in baseball. They always seem to find a way to stay relevant, and one writes them off at their own peril. With all of the noise up in Chicago, it’s easy to forget that it was the St Louis Cardinals who owned the best record in baseball a year ago.

The Pirates put years of mediocrity behind them with two straight playoff appearances, but the window of opportunity might just be starting to close. Andrew McCutchen remains a cornerstone in Pittsburgh, and Gerrit Cole is a legitimate ace. The Pirates will be good again this year, but will they be good enough to reach the post season once again?

The Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds have three bona fide Major Leaguers between them in Ryan Braun, Jonathan Lucroy and Joey Votto, all of whom figure to be on offer to the highest bidder come the end of July.

NL West

After lofty expectations, a gargantuan payroll and another early playoff exit, the LA Dodgers said goodbye to manager Don Mattingly at the end of the season, and hello to Dave Roberts. They also, somewhat surprisingly, lost out on a bidding war with Arizona to re-sign pitcher Zack Greinke. Japanese import Kenta Mazda and left hander Scott Kazmir will hope to paste over that glaring hole in the starting rotation. The Dodgers will also need continued improvement from young stars Corey Seager (SS) and Joc Pederson (CF) to keep the NL West flag in Chavez Ravine for a fourth consecutive year.

The good news for Giants fans is that it is an even-numbered year, as San Fran has been alternating World Series titles with missing the playoffs each year since 2010. The Giants spent big to bring in pitchers Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samaradzija. With a solid lineup anchored by catcher Buster Posey, the Giants look poised to make things interesting once again.

The Diamondbacks shocked the baseball world by swooping in from Arizona with $206 million to swipe Greinke away from their division rivals in the biggest coup of the offseason. The D-Backs didn’t stop there, though, adding Shelby Miller to the rotation. Combined with an offense that includes superstar Paul Goldschmidt, the D-Backs are clearly all-in when it comes to competing with the Dodgers and Giants this season.

The Padres have some decent pitching prospects down in San Diego, though it’s hard to see them making headway in the division, while up in the mountains, the Colorado Rockies' biggest question is how much they can get in return for Carlos Gonzalez as they continue their own rebuilding project.


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