Ranking MLB's Top 2016 World Series Contenders Heading into February
Though the Major League Baseball offseason is nearing its end, it's only been three months since the completion of the 2015 World Series. There's a long way to go until the next one.
But in the name of what-the-heckery and might-as-wellery, we're going to turn our attention to the 2016 World Series anyway.
With spring training just a couple of weeks away, we have a solid idea of where teams stand going into 2016. And with that being the case, we can pick out the top 10 World Series contenders.
The list ahead includes five American League clubs and five National League clubs. In picking them, we weighed not only how well teams are constructed for the regular season, but also for the postseason. It's a different animal—one with a tendency to sniff out fatal flaws.
We'll look at some honorable mentions before getting into the top 10. Step into the box whenever you're ready.
Missed It by That Much
Here are four clubs that were strongly considered for the top 10 but didn't quite make it. In alphabetical order, they are:
Cleveland Indians: With Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar leading the way, the Indians have the starting pitching to be a threat in 2016. Whether they can excel at anything else is a good question, though, and it doesn't help that they play in a deep AL Central division.
New York Yankees: Coming off a solid 87-win season, FanGraph's projections have the Yankees pegged as one of the better teams in MLB going into 2016. But believing in them means believing in a roster that's loaded with age and injury concerns, which makes one feel a wee bit unsure.
Pittsburgh Pirates: The Pirates won 98 games in 2015 and are returning many of the players who made that happen. The losses of pitchers A.J. Burnett and J.A. Happ have pushed them back, however, and in general, the Pirates don't look as deep as they were last season. It also doesn't help that they're likely to be stuck behind baseball's best team. But we'll talk more about that later.
St. Louis Cardinals: The Cardinals are a perennial contender who won 100 games in 2015, so here's understanding that we're supposed to treat them as an obvious World Series contender. But they don't look as good without outfielder Jason Heyward and pitcher John Lackey, who both signed with the Cubs, and overall look too much like the Yankees of the National League. And as is the case with the Pirates, there's a team in the NL Central that will ensure they don't get an easy road to October.
10. Washington Nationals
It's the dawn of a new season, so of course the Washington Nationals must be hyped as World Series contenders.
They looked nothing of the sort the last time we saw them. Though the Nats were touted as a superteam going into 2015, they won just 83 games and missed the postseason. Along the way, they were plagued by numerous injuries and a clubhouse culture that went rotten.
At the least, Washington's clubhouse should be better in 2016. The Nationals have replaced manager Matt Williams with Dusty Baker, who's rightfully regarded as a true players' manager. That doesn't mean Baker's on-field managing will be any better than Williams', but his attitude is just what the doctor ordered.
Oh, and it doesn't hurt that Baker has a lot of talent at his disposal.
Reigning National League MVP Bryce Harper leads the way, and he'll have a good lineup around him if Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and new arrival Daniel Murphy can stay healthy. Staff ace Max Scherzer anchors a strong rotation trio alongside Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, and Tanner Roark and Joe Ross make for a pretty good back end. In the bullpen, Jonathan Papelbon's iffy finish to 2015 shouldn't obscure his mostly excellent performance for a second straight season.
The projections see Washington as a team that could be elite in 2016. And if everything goes well, their excellent rotation trio and deep lineup will make the Nationals a tough matchup in October.
But these being the Nationals, it's obviously no sure thing that everything will go well. One can look at their roster and see too many injury concerns and not quite enough pitching depth. Such things had a hand in killing their 2015 season, and it's not hard to imagine lightning striking twice.
Basically, the Nats are the wild card of this list. They're clearly a dangerous team but will only be one if the baseball gods allow it.
9. Texas Rangers
If the Texas Rangers have fallen off your radar, that's likely because of how little they've done this offseason. Probably their biggest acquisition has been reliever Tom Wilhelmsen.
But then, the Rangers didn't really need to do much this offseason. The last time they were on the field, they had pretty much everything they needed.
Though they were mediocre for much of 2015, the Rangers woke up in a big way by going 38-22 after August 1 en route to winning the AL West. And for 2016, much of the band is coming back.
Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre and Shin-Soo Choo come with age concerns, but they are part of a lineup that was a wonderful medley of power, speed and timely hitting by the end of 2015. Cole Hamels heads a pitching staff that will hopefully enjoy healthy versions of Yu Darvish and Derek Holland. Lastly, Texas' bullpen still has Shawn Tolleson, Keone Kela, Sam Dyson and Jake Diekman.
One thing that figures to make it tough for the Rangers in 2016 is that the AL West looks like one of the deeper divisions in baseball. The Houston Astros and Los Angeles Angels are going to be good again, and the Seattle Mariners fortified their roster in just about every way possible.
Beyond that, the Rangers roster can be nitpicked. How good will their lineup be if Fielder, Beltre and Choo are held back by Father Time? Will Darvish be his usual self coming off Tommy John surgery? If not, do the Rangers even have a No. 2?
Still, Texas figures to at least be in the mix for a wild-card berth. And if things go as well as they could, the Rangers will be a nightmare matchup in October. Hamels and Darvish could make for a lethal short-series duo and could get more than enough support from the club's lineup and bullpen.
8. Toronto Blue Jays
In 2015, the Toronto Blue Jays went from being roughly a .500 team to being a juggernaut seemingly overnight, storming their way to a long-awaited AL East title with a 40-18 showing after August 1.
This was mainly thanks to an offense that erupted down the stretch—and all the big hitters are still in town.
That includes American League MVP Josh Donaldson and fellow sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, the three of whom were a historic trio in 2015. Also along for the ride are Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin. And though it's the bats that stand out, let's not overlook how much Kevin Pillar and Ryan Goins contributed to a defense that, per Baseball Prospectus, ranked first in efficiency in 2015.
Ah, yes, but will the pitching be there?
After the Blue Jays lost David Price to free agency, it's a valid question. They need Marcus Stroman to fill Price's shoes as best he can and Marco Estrada, R.A. Dickey and new arrival J.A. Happ to at least eat innings. Even if things do go well, though, Toronto's starting staff likely won't be replicating its excellent work from the second half of 2015.
But if Toronto's starters can provide a whole bunch of league-average innings, that could be good enough for the team to hit its way to a second straight division title or a wild-card berth.
And if the Blue Jays make the postseason, their secret weapon will be their bullpen. With Roberto Osuna, Brett Cecil, new arrival Drew Storen and potentially Aaron Sanchez at the back end, the Blue Jays have a pen that should be able to shorten games with the best of 'em.
Are the Blue Jays still a juggernaut? Not quite. But don't use that as an excuse to sleep on them.
7. Boston Red Sox
For a team that finished in last place for the third time in four years, the Boston Red Sox have an awful lot of momentum going into 2016.
Much of it stems from how well they finished the 2015 season, as they went 34-26 in their final 60 games. That was mainly on the strength of a lineup that got a huge second-half boost from David Ortiz, as well as contributions from Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Blake Swihart and Jackie Bradley Jr.
They'll all return in 2016, and now they have some pitching to back them up. The Red Sox arranged an elite bullpen by adding Carson Smith and Craig Kimbrel to a roster that already included Koji Uehara and also the ace the club has been missing in the person of David Price. Said Red Sox manager John Farrell of having a pitcher of Price's caliber, per Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald:
It makes a difference. We know that David is comfortable with that label, all that comes with it. I think our guys will feel a little more of the focus or the attention being shifted off of not having a No. 1 to, "OK, here is our No. 1 guy." Whether that frees them up to go pitch to their abilities, that's the intended purpose.
Mind you, the Red Sox do have question marks.
Dustin Pedroia's health is one. What the Red Sox will get out of Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez is another. And when looking at Boston's roster, you can see a top-heavy rotation and a defense in which the excellent defenders will have to overshadow the poor ones. The Red Sox may be able to survive these issues in the regular season, but the postseason could be a different story.
Nonetheless, the projections have the Red Sox pegged as the best team in the American League. They have enough star power and depth to make that a reality, and any team that has an ace, a dangerous lineup and a shutdown bullpen will always stand a chance in October.
6. Los Angeles Dodgers
The Los Angeles Dodgers won 92 games and their third straight NL West title in 2015, but they're almost giving off the feeling of a crumbling superpower.
The Dodgers began stumbling even before they got to the postseason last year and then were ousted in the National League Division Series. This offseason, they've watched Zack Greinke sign with division rival Arizona and have had a couple of big-ticket deals fall apart.
If you check right now, though, you'll find that the Dodgers are still projected as the second-best team in the National League.
Certainly, it helps that Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher on the planet and that he's flanked by some pretty good depth in Scott Kazmir, Brett Anderson and Japanese import Kenta Maeda. Elsewhere on the Dodgers' pitching staff is Kenley Jansen, one of the five best closers in baseball.
The key will be how well the Dodgers offense rebounds from its second-half slump in 2015, and it could rebound well. Yasiel Puig is a huge bounce-back candidate, and Justin Turner and Yasmani Grandal will be weapons again if the injury bug stays away. Corey Seager and Joc Pederson are youngsters with a lot of potential.
Still, it's not hard to see the cracks in the Dodgers. New skipper Dave Roberts may not be able to manage the club's many personalities as well as Don Mattingly did. And in a postseason setting, the lack of a strong No. 2 behind Kershaw and a strong bridge to Jansen are worries.
These gripes aside, there's little question the Dodgers are going to be a dangerous team again. There's also no escaping the sense that, at some point, all their star power is finally going to get it done in October.
5. Houston Astros
Though it was a struggle at times, let's give the Houston Astros credit for what they did in 2015. Beyond rising from the ashes with 86 wins, they darn near knocked off the eventual champs in the American League Division Series.
Now in 2016, Houston looks ready to take the next step.
The Astros figure to stick to the same formula that worked in 2015, which included an offensive attack specializing in power and speed. Almost everyone in the lineup can hit home runs, and the Astros have a few guys who can handle both power and speed in Carlos Gomez, George Springer and Carlos Correa.
Correa is especially worth watching going into 2016. He won the American League Rookie of the Year on the strength of an .857 OPS, 22 homers and 14 steals in only 99 games, and he could evolve into an even better player in his age-21 season.
"Correa already is [a star on the rise]," wrote ESPN.com's David Schoenfield recently, "and if there's one player who can challenge Mike Trout and Bryce Harper for best-player-in-the-game honors, it's Correa."
Meanwhile, Houston has a strong starting pitching staff led by AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel and the underrated Collin McHugh. And this winter, the club's big move involved adding flamethrowing closer Ken Giles to a bullpen that was already good.
Because the Astros lineup still figures to swing and miss a lot in 2016, there are likely to be times when the club looks human. But with lots of power, lots of speed and a stable full of talented arms, you can also rest assured they can be a threat both in the regular season and the postseason.
4. San Francisco Giants
The San Francisco Giants failed to defend their World Series title in 2015, but they were in it to the bitter end. If they had more starting pitching depth behind the awesome Madison Bumgarner, they likely would have had no trouble making the postseason.
So it's no surprise the Giants made starting pitching a priority this winter, dropping more than $200 million on Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto. That's a lot of money considering that neither had his best season in 2015. But the Giants aren't fools to be betting on them.
Both will benefit from pitching in the National League and at AT&T Park on a regular basis. Samardzija will also gain from swapping the Chicago White Sox defense for the Giants defense, which is a massive upgrade. And as Grant Brisbee of McCovey Chronicles pointed out, Buster Posey is just the guy to make the most of Cueto's nibbling pitching style.
As for Posey, well, he's easily the best catcher in baseball. In front of him is a young infield that was excellent on both sides of the ball in 2015. Behind that is an outfield that now has more depth after the signing of Denard Span. And lastly, cleaning up is a bullpen that kept getting the job done in 2015.
This is not to say the Giants don't have imperfections. There's quite a bit of injury risk in their outfield, and it won't be surprising if injuries and ineffectiveness turn the back end of their starting rotation into a revolving door.
There's no question, though, that the Giants are a solid team that's gotten even better. And if they can make it to the postseason, it'll be hard not to like Bruce Bochy at the controls of a team that will have starting pitching, relief pitching and hitting in roughly equal measure.
3. Kansas City Royals
We come now to the reigning champs, who should be right back in the middle of things in 2016.
To be sure, it was looking a little iffy for a while there. The Kansas City Royals began their offseason by losing Ben Zobrist, Johnny Cueto and Ryan Madson, with Alex Gordon in line to follow them out the door. Even after winning it all in 2015, it looked like the Royals were still forcing themselves to pinch pennies.
So much for that. Just when it looked like a $25 million deal for old friend Joakim Soria was going to be Kansas City's biggest move, the club went and dropped more than $140 million to re-sign Gordon and bring in Ian Kennedy.
Soria is a good replacement for Madson, and Gordon's return kept an important bat and glove in Kansas City's lineup. And though Kennedy's track record is problematic, he'll eat innings and should enjoy throwing at Kauffman Stadium with his fly-ball style of pitching.
Elsewhere, the gang is all back. The Royals will once again have a lineup that plays outstanding defense and scores runs with a mix of contact, speed and a bit of power, and a pitching staff that gets solid work out of the rotation and excellent work out of the bullpen.
Be warned that all this might not be as effective in the regular season as it was in 2015. The AL Central looks a lot deeper than it was in 2015, and you have to wonder if all the extra baseball the Royals have played over the last two years will catch up with them over the 162-game grind.
But if the Royals can make it to the postseason, watch out. Their well-balanced style of play has taken them far two years in a row—and could do so again this October.
2. New York Mets
As recently as a week ago, the idea of the New York Mets going back to the World Series in 2016 required a bit of faith. After all, a big puzzle piece that helped them get there in 2015 was missing.
Well, it's back now. The Mets re-signed Yoenis Cespedes late last week and look all the better for it.
Cespedes was a monster after arriving in New York last year, OPSing .942 with 17 home runs in only 57 games. That helped energize a Mets lineup that was outstanding down the stretch. It's highly unlikely Cespedes can be that dominant again over a full season, but he still looks like the big bopper the Mets lineup needed alongside the likes of Curtis Granderson, Lucas Duda, David Wright, Travis d'Arnaud, Neil Walker and Michael Conforto.
But while the Mets lineup should be good, their starting rotation should be downright great. Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard will be bringing the heat once again, giving the Mets arguably the best rotation trio in baseball.
"You watch Harvey pitch, and you say, 'Boy, I'd love to have that guy,'" one scout told ESPN.com's Jayson Stark last summer. "Then you see deGrom the next night, and it gets better. And then you see the freak [Syndergaard], and you say, 'Oh my God.' When do you ever see all those No. 1s back-to-back like that?"
With Steven Matz, Bartolo Colon and a healing Zack Wheeler at the back end, the rest of the Mets rotation isn't too shabby either. And for the late innings, they have a closer in Jeurys Familia who throws some of the nastiest stuff in the sport.
One would feel a bit better if the Mets bullpen featured a stronger bridge to Familia. But with a championship-caliber rotation and a strong lineup, that's more of nitpick than a fatal flaw. The Mets have all they need to win a second straight NL East title—and to make another run at a World Series title.
1. Chicago Cubs
It's been 108 years since the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series. If they have anything to say about it, the counter will not reach 109.
The Cubs were one of the big success stories in 2015, as they shook off their rebuild with a 97-win season that ultimately put them in the National League Championship Series. They could have done nothing this winter and still walked into 2016 as a heavy World Series favorite.
Instead, the Cubs flexed their financial muscle and added Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey. With the three of them aboard, a roster that was already excellent now looks pretty close to flawless.
Thanks to guys like Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs lineup already had plenty of power. With Heyward and Zobrist up top, it now has two hitters who can draw walks and put the ball in play, which will help balance out all the strikeouts. And though he's a right fielder by trade, Heyward should be a defensive upgrade over what the Cubs had in center field last year.
As for Lackey, he's joining a rotation that already had National League Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta and crafty left-hander Jon Lester. The Cubs now have one of baseball's top rotation trios, and Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks make for a pretty good back end.
The Cubs bullpen, meanwhile, was quietly elite in 2015. And for 2016, everyone is back.
We can stop short of calling the Cubs flawless. Heyward likely won't be getting much help on defense from Schwarber and Jorge Soler, the latter of whom has much to prove going into 2016. It also looks like Javier Baez is going to play a superulitity role, which may not work out.
But as far as complaints go, these are minor. The truth is the Cubs are absolutely loaded, and nobody should be surprised if they tear their way through both the regular season and the postseason.