Updated 2016 MLB Playoff Team Predictions Entering February
The NFL wants you to think this is Super Bowl week.
But when you got up Monday morning and turned the calendar to February, that can only mean one thing: Baseball is back! Winter is over. Pitchers and catchers report this month, and so does everybody else.
It's time for spring training, time for the sun and the fun and the "everybody has a chance" cliches.
And time to remind you those cliches aren't true, because not everyone has a chance to win this year. The Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies and Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers? They have no chance.
You know who else has no chance? Me. I'm about to tell you now, at the start of February, which teams will still be standing at the end of September, and even which one will be celebrating at the start of November. And I'll need even better luck than the teams I'm picking, because my prediction history suggests strongly I'll end up being wrong.
But the big free agents have signed, the big trades have been made and if it's just about time for spring training camps to open, then it's just about time to update our 2016 predictions.
I'm the guy who's going to do it, starting right now.
American League East Champion: Boston Red Sox
We used to think it was tough to go worst to first, but the Boston Red Sox weren't your typical last-place team.
For one thing, they finished 2015 with 78 wins, only eight games out of a playoff spot. For another, they had a strong core of talent and the resources to go out over the winter and get just what they needed. With new ace David Price and new closer Craig Kimbrel, there's no way the Sox should finish 14th in the American League in team ERA, as they did last year.
The pitching should be better, and the defense should be better with Hanley Ramirez moved out of left field. Maybe even the karma will be better, with manager John Farrell returning to the team now that his cancer is in remission.
The Red Sox aren't a clear favorite by any means. The Toronto Blue Jays won't have Price, as they did for the final two months of the 2015 season, but they should have a full year of emerging star Marcus Stroman and a full year of shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.
The New York Yankees will have a mighty back end of the bullpen with new closer Aroldis Chapman joining Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances.
The Baltimore Orioles managed to keep most of their team together after a challenging run through free agency, and the Tampa Bay Rays still may have the best rotation in the division (and one of the best in baseball).
But the Red Sox never would have finished in last place in 2015 if their pitching and defense had been better than dreadful. They used money and prospects to fix both, and they should be much better.
Will they improve enough to make up the 15 games they finished behind the first-place Blue Jays and jump past the other three AL East rivals, too?
Right now, at the start of February, we're saying they will.
American League Central Champion: Kansas City Royals
I wasn't going to pick the Kansas City Royals to repeat in the American League Central, but I wanted to use that great picture of their 2015 World Series celebration one more time. I wasn't going to pick the Royals to repeat, but then I saw that FanGraphs pegged Kansas City to have just 79 wins.
Nothing against FanGraphs. The folks there do great work, but you'd think they would have learned after picking the Royals for 79 wins last year.
I learned, so as long as the Royals can keep the core of their team together, as they did this winter, I'm going to keep picking them until they lose. Yes, they watched starting pitcher Johnny Cueto and the useful Ben Zobrist leave in free agency, but they had a big lead in the division before they traded for Cueto and Zobrist last July.
The Royals' 12-game margin of victory in the Central was the biggest of any first-place team in 2015. The division should be considerably more competitive this year, with a real chance the Detroit Tigers can bounce back from their uncharacteristic last-place finish, and with the Chicago White Sox much improved. The Minnesota Twins weren't a fluke when they won 83 games and finished a surprising second in 2015, and the Cleveland Indians still have the best starting pitching in the division.
This has a chance to be the most interesting division in baseball, and it's hard to see the Royals just walking away with it again. But it's even harder to see them dropping all the way to 79 wins.
And hey, if they do, just look at that 2015 celebration photo one more time.
American League West Champion: Seattle Mariners
I'll admit, this is the division that puzzles me the most, perhaps because it took the fewest wins to conquer in 2015 (the Texas Rangers finished first with just 88 wins), or perhaps because the Los Angeles Angels remain a puzzle.
The Rangers could certainly win again, with a full year of Cole Hamels and with Yu Darvish due back after Tommy John surgery. The Houston Astros could win, with a full year of Carlos Correa and with the experience and confidence that came with what they accomplished last year. And yes, the Angels could win, despite (or maybe because of) their underwhelming winter.
The trend the last few years, though, has been teams breaking long playoff droughts (the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2013, the Kansas City Royals in 2014, the Toronto Blue Jays in 2015). And the longest current playoff drought in baseball belongs to the Mariners.
They haven't been to the postseason since the 116-win season of 2001, when Lou Piniella was still the manager and Alex Rodriguez had just left to sign with the Rangers. They've gone through six managers since, and Scott Servais was an unconventional choice as the seventh. But Servais has Felix Hernandez (above), and he has Robinson Cano, and first-year general manager Jerry Dipoto has built a more functional roster around them.
It would be a great story if the AL West race turns into Dipoto's Mariners against Mike Scioscia's Angels, given the way the two clashed in Anaheim. It would be a greater story if the Mariners are the latest team to end a long playoff drought.
I'm all for good stories. I'm going with the Mariners.
National League East Champion: Washington Nationals
The Washington Nationals did not have a good winter. They butchered the managerial hiring process, making it seem like they had to settle for Dusty Baker, who was the best choice all along. They shot big but shot blanks in free agency, trying and failing to sign Jason Heyward, Yoenis Cespedes and Ben Zobrist. They watched starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann leave for the Detroit Tigers and center fielder Denard Span leave for the San Francisco Giants.
Meanwhile, the defending National League champion New York Mets kept Cespedes against all odds, and they recovered nicely from their own failed pursuit of Zobrist by acquiring second baseman Neil Walker in a trade.
So why in the world am I picking the Nationals? Am I crazy?
Quite possibly, but I can't forget that the Nationals had by far the most talented team in the division going into 2015. They stumbled through a miserable season that began with injuries and finished with a fight in the dugout, finally costing manager Matt Williams the job he probably should have lost long before that.
Baker has won division titles at each of his first three managerial stops, and he won with the San Francisco Giants and Chicago Cubs back when that seemed a lot tougher than it does now. It doesn't seem that crazy to think he can win with the Nationals, who still have the best player in the league (Bryce Harper) and a rotation that begins with Max Scherzer.
The Mets are great, and the Miami Marlins could respond well under new manager Don Mattingly—and new hitting coach Barry Bonds—but I'm sticking with the Nationals.
National League Central Champion: Chicago Cubs
It's funny how a team that finished in third place in 2015 has become a chic pick to win the World Series.
I normally hate chic picks, but it's hard to ignore the Chicago Cubs, who rode a ton of young talent and some Joe Maddon magic to the National League Championship Series in 2015. It's hard to ignore how the Cubs raided the rival St. Louis Cardinals to sign pitcher John Lackey and the 26-year-old Jason Heyward, and how they added Ben Zobrist, too.
It's true the Cubs finished third in 2015, but they won 97 games—three fewer than the Cardinals, one fewer than the second-place Pittsburgh Pirates and seven more than the Mets—and they spent the winter adding talent, while the Cardinals and Pirates seemed to stand still or go backward.
They still may not be ready to win a World Series, but the Cubs are ready to win the division.
National League West Champion: San Francisco Giants
It's an even-numbered year, isn't it?
Look, this on-again, off-again, every-other-year thing the San Francisco Giants have going is more than a little strange, but right on schedule, they dropped to 84 wins and missed the playoffs in 2015. Right on schedule, they rushed into the free-agent market over the winter to try to make sure 2016 goes better.
The Giants missed out on big target Zack Greinke, and the consolation of seeing him going to the Arizona Diamondbacks rather than stay with the Los Angeles Dodgers could subside if the Diamondbacks become their biggest threat in the National League West. Even if they do, the Giants can feel good about a winter in which they added two significant starting pitchers—Johnny Cueto (above) and Jeff Samardzija—and a difference-making leadoff man in center fielder Denard Span.
Even without Greinke, the Dodgers remain a threat to win the division for the fourth straight year (the Giants were a wild-card team on the way to their 2014 World Series win). By adding Greinke and Shelby Miller to the rotation and having Patrick Corbin back, the Diamondbacks are absolutely a threat.
Somehow, Giants manager Bruce Bochy will find a way. He always does—every other year.
American League Wild Cards: Detroit Tigers and Toronto Blue Jays
Yes, it's true that just a couple of weeks back, I suggested the Tigers as the winter winner that could end up as the "paper tigers" in the summer. But I also said in that column that from the beginning of 2015, the Tigers had replaced David Price with Jordan Zimmermann and Yoenis Cespedes with Cameron Maybin.
It wasn't too many days later that the Tigers signed Justin Upton (above). That sentence reads quite a bit different when you substitute Upton for Maybin (and still have Maybin as a center fielder/extra outfielder).
The Tigers are old, but they could have both their superstars healthier than they've been in a few years. Miguel Cabrera is still the most feared hitter in the league, and Justin Verlander showed down the stretch last year he can still be a dominant starter.
First-year general manager Al Avila attacked the team's biggest weakness when he loaded up on pitching over the winter, adding not just Zimmermann but also closer Francisco Rodriguez, setup men Justin Wilson and Mark Lowe and starter Mike Pelfrey.
The Blue Jays didn't have nearly as good a winter, losing not only Price but also general manager Alex Anthopoulos. They still have that same great lineup that got them to the American League Championship Series in 2015, and they still boast the same improved defense that helped change their team over the second half of the season.
The Tigers and Blue Jays were great American League East rivals in the 1980s. The rivalry faded when both teams stopped winning and when the Tigers moved to the American League Central, but a Wild Card Game between them would be fun.
National League Wild Cards: Miami Marlins and Los Angeles Dodgers
Sometimes, you make predictions with your head. Sometimes, you just go for the best story.
Don Mattingly managing a winner-take-all game against the Los Angeles Dodgers would definitely be the best story.
Honestly, it's hard to see the New York Mets missing the playoffs, with that outstanding rotation that will get better when Zack Wheeler returns midseason after Tommy John rehab. The Mets could win the division and could win it all, and here I have them missing the playoffs?
Yes, I do, and not entirely because Mattingly's Miami Marlins against his old team in Los Angeles would be so compelling. The Marlins have real talent, and in ace Jose Fernandez and outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, they have a potential Cy Young winner and a potential Most Valuable Player.
Owner Jeffrey Loria is always a threat to do something crazy, but Loria did something smart when he went after Mattingly as his manager. He should handle the Marlins circus well, and he should even be refreshed after a final season in Los Angeles where it was obvious he wasn't the front office's first choice.
As for his former team, the Dodgers still have Clayton Kershaw at the top of their rotation. There are big questions about the rest of the rotation, but the Dodgers won 92 games and a third straight division title in 2015, and most of that talent remains. It's also time for some of that young talent they've refused to trade to make an impact on the big league team.
And maybe new manager Dave Roberts will have better luck getting the most out of Yasiel Puig's talent.
Who knows, maybe Puig will be the guy who gets the big hit to knock Mattingly's Marlins out of the playoffs.
What a story that would be.
Your 2016 World Series Champion: San Francisco Giants
Just remember, this isn't about who has the best team.
You can make a good argument the San Francisco Giants didn't have the best team in 2010, 2012 or 2014. You can't argue with their three World Series trophies.
I'm not saying the Giants have the best team now. All I'm saying is when they get to October, they find a way to win, and the every-other-year thing is going to land them in the tournament again.
All through this already-incredible run, the Giants have never won more than 94 regular-season games, and only twice have they won as many as 90. But the front office, led by Brian Sabean and now Bobby Evans, understands how to assemble a roster, and Bruce Bochy understands as well as any manager in baseball how to use it.
The Giants teams that won World Series looked quite different in September and October than they did in February, so it's easy to imagine this one will, too. But the winter moves to add Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija and Denard Span should set the Giants up as contenders and allow Bochy and the front office to take it from there.