Predicting If Each MLB Playoff Hopeful Will Overachieve or Underachieve in 2016
Expectations. Every team carries them out of spring training, but not every club will end up fulfilling them.
For some, it's scratching into the postseason; for others, it's World Series or bust. All we know at this point is that a few squads will overachieve and others, necessarily, will underachieve.
While we wait for the meaningful games to begin, let's run through each division and sort the expectation-exceeders from the teams that are poised to disappoint.
It's only March, obviously, and a lot can change. But in making these predictions, we'll limit our focus to expected contenders and use FanGraphs' projected win-loss totals (as a jumping-off point, not a final arbiter), any pertinent injury news or spring developments and a dollop of gut feeling.
As ever, feel free to sound off with your predictions in the comments and proceed when ready.
Houston Astros (FanGraphs' projected record: 87-75)
Last season, the 'Stros went from emerging also-ran to full-fledged contender, leading the division for most of the season before snagging a wild-card slot and pushing the Kansas City Royals to five games in the American League Division Series.
Now, the Astros enter 2016 as division favorites, with a potent offensive core that will get a full season from shortstop Carlos Correa, a rotation fronted by reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel and a bullpen augmented by the addition of closer Ken Giles.
The AL West is a balanced division, as evidenced by the fact that the Oakland A's, our only non-contender, are projected by FanGraphs to get 80 wins. But the Astros are primed to build on last season's success, eclipse 90 victories and return to October.
Seattle Mariners (82-80)
After winning 87 games and just missing the playoffs in 2014, the Mariners backslid to a disappointing 76-86 finish last season.
Tasked with getting the franchise back on track, new general manager Jerry Dipoto opted for quantity, making mid-level additions all over the roster in the mold of outfielder Nori Aoki, left-hander Wade Miley and first baseman Adam Lind.
You could argue that a lineup anchored by Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager and Robinson Cano and a starting five featuring his royal highness Felix Hernandez didn't need any All-Star additions. And the M's should hang around the edges of the race.
In fact, that 82-win projection looks just about right—an incremental improvement but still a letdown for Seattle fans hoping to taste the postseason for the first time since 2001.
Los Angeles Angels (81-81)
As long as Mike Trout wears your uniform, there's hope. After that, however, the Los Angeles Angels have a whole lot of doubt.
There are questions in the lineup, where a creaky Albert Pujols and serviceable but unspectacular bats like Kole Calhoun will be asked to protect Trout. And there are holes in the starting rotation, where Jered Weaver is continuing his troubling velocity free-fall and C.J. Wilson is battling a shoulder injury.
Again, the presence of Trout means the Halos are a threat. But with a bloated payroll, barren farm system and uncertainty scattered like trash by the I-5 freeway, the Angels seem as likely to sink under .500 as they are to match last year's 85-win, third-place finish.
Texas Rangers (80-82)
The Rangers finished 2015 on a 41-22 run to wrest the division away from the Lone Star State-rival Astros. Now, Cole Hamels—last season's trade-deadline cavalry—should join forces with returning stud Yu Darvish to form a potent pair of aces.
Add a solid bullpen and an offense that scored the third-most runs in the AL, and you've got the makings of a complete team fully capable of repeating as AL West champs.
We're picking the Astros to win what should be a tight, exciting race. But put Texas squarely in the wild-card mix and among a handful of Junior Circuit contenders capable of making a deep run.
Non-contender(s): Oakland A's
Cleveland Indians (86-76)
Just like last season, Cleveland is a sexy pick to rise in the standings and vault into contention.
There are reasons for optimism. The starting rotation is stocked with dominant, strikeout-dishing arms. And the offense, while not world-beating, is buoyed by the ahead-of-schedule return of Michael Brantley from offseason shoulder surgery and the emergence of shortstop Francisco Lindor.
Still, the Indians didn't do much to upgrade over the winter. So while there's reason to believe they can improve upon last season's 81-80 finish and stay in the hunt, anointing them division favorites feels like a stretch.
Detroit Tigers (81-81)
After a disappointing last-place finish, the Tigers are counting on good health from an array of veterans, including offensive cornerstones Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. That's no sure thing.
On the other hand, Detroit made some significant moves this offseason, signing right-hander Jordan Zimmermann and left fielder Justin Upton for a combined $242.75 million.
And the Tigers boosted a bullpen that posted an ugly 4.38 ERA in 2015 with the additions of Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson.
If injuries mount, the wheels could come off. But the Tigers did enough to spark thoughts of a comeback in the Motor City.
Chicago White Sox (80-82)
By now you know all about the crisis in the White Sox clubhouse that was set off by the sudden retirement of veteran Adam LaRoche and has led to ace Chris Sale publicly bashing executive Ken Williams.
Chicago was already a fringe player in the deep and balanced AL Central. While the offense could get a jolt from the addition of Todd Frazier and the pitching has promise behind Sale, suddenly the Sox appear rudderless.
This could all blow over. More likely, though, it'll bleed into another dismal season on the South Side.
Minnesota Twins (78-84)
The Twins emerged earlier than expected in 2015 behind rookie skipper Paul Molitor and a gaggle of young talent. Now, they'll look to build on an 83-79 finish and push into October.
If rookie outfielder Byron Buxton can deliver on his considerable tools, it could shift the offense into a higher gear. And a rotation that lacks a true ace could benefit from the arrival of top pitching prospect Jose Berrios at some point in 2016.
The Twinkies are still probably a year or two away from fully reaching their potential, but underestimate them at your peril.
Kansas City Royals (77-85)
Of all FanGraphs' projections—and, again, we're taking these win-loss predictions as a jumping-off point, not gospel—this one is the biggest head-scratcher.
Yes, the defending champs lost right-hander Johnny Cueto and super-utilityman Ben Zobrist to free agency. But they added ancillary pieces like righty Ian Kennedy and reliever Joakim Soria.
Most essentially, the Royals brought back left fielder Alex Gordon and retained their slick-fielding, balanced backbone that also includes center fielder Lorenzo Cain, first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas and catcher Salvador Perez.
Hoover-vacuum gloves, speed, a deep lineup and a stalwart bullpen have been the bedrock of the Royals' recent success. All those elements remain in place, meaning a third consecutive AL crown and a repeat title are well within reach.
Boston Red Sox (88-74)
If divisions were won on offseason hype, the Red Sox would have this one sewn up.
They acquired closer Craig Kimbrel from the San Diego Padres. Then they netted ace David Price. Add young emerging stars like shortstop Xander Bogaerts and outfielder Mookie Betts, and you've got the makings of a worst-to-first finish in Beantown, right?
Maybe. No question the Red Sox got better, and they could well win the noisy, flawed AL East. But there are still plenty of questions.
Can Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, last year's free-agent duds, contribute anything? Do David Ortiz, who is embarking on his farewell tour, and Dustin Pedroia have much left in the tank? And is the rotation deep and talented enough after Price?
Pencil the Red Sox in as nominal division favorites. But if last season proved anything, it's that splashy winters don't always equal successful seasons.
Toronto Blue Jays (84-78)
The Blue Jays lost Price, and to a division rival no less. But while their rotation took a hit, they've still got baseball's beefiest offense, anchored by AL MVP Josh Donaldson.
It's wide-open for now, however, and while most of the talk has been about what Toronto lost, look for the defending AL East champs to make plenty of noise.
New York Yankees (83-79)
The Yankees didn't spend like the Yankees this offseason, adding zero big-ticket free agents and opting instead to swing deals for mercurial infielder Starlin Castro and closer Aroldis Chapman, who will open the season by serving a 30-game domestic abuse suspension.
Apparently, this is the new normal in the Bronx.
The Yankees do have a surplus of fragile, expensive veterans, including lineup cogs Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira and rotation keys Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia.
That means the Yanks' 2016 MVP could be the training staff. If they can find a way to keep the disabled list light, New York could return to the playoffs. Right now, however, that's a massive "if."
Tampa Bay Rays (81-81)
Like the Indians, the Rays are a sexy pick to sneak into contention. If they do, it'll be on the strength of their starting pitching—fronted by Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi with Alex Cobb due back from Tommy John surgery—and a defense that ranked third-best in the AL, per FanGraphs.
The rub is whether mid-level offseason additions such as Corey Dickerson and Logan Morrison will be enough to boost an offense that finished 25th in the big leagues in runs scored.
If anything, that .500 projection is probably right on the nose for Tampa Bay. But we'll sip the Kool-Aid and predict a winning season, if not a postseason berth.
Baltimore Orioles (79-83)
If you like dingers, the Orioles are your team. In addition to re-upping basher Chris Davis, the O's nabbed boppers Mark Trumbo and Pedro Alvarez to join a team that cracked 217 long balls in 2015, third-most in baseball.
Of course, you've got to throw the ball, too. And even with the addition of Yovani Gallardo, Baltimore's starting rotation looks shaky.
Still, with all that thump, budding superstar Manny Machado and an excellent bullpen, it seems like the Orioles should be getting more respect. This is a team that won the division in 2014, after all. And, especially if the Orioles add another starter at the trade deadline, they could easily do it again.
Los Angeles Dodgers (93-69)
The Dodgers lost co-ace Zack Greinke and now face a flurry of question marks in their starting rotation.
Brett Anderson, who accepted the $15.8 million qualifying offer, is out at least three months following back surgery. Hyun-Jin Ryu is recovering slowly from shoulder surgery. And Japanese ace Kenta Maeda signed an incentive-laden deal with the Dodgers because of concerns about his durability.
Yes, they've got Clayton Kershaw, arguably the best pitcher on the planet. And there's talent all over the lineup, particularly if Yasiel Puig can stay healthy and return to his ball-of-energy ways.
But despite plenty of nice pieces and baseball's highest payroll, the Dodgers are vulnerable. Unless the pitching stabilizes, their run of three consecutive division titles could follow Greinke out the door.
San Francisco Giants (88-74)
Hey, not sure if you've heard, but it's an even year. Wink, wink.
Numerical harbingers aside, the Giants have a roster built to contend. They spent $220 million to bolster the starting rotation with Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija (both of whom, for what it's worth, are having rocky springs).
And they've got an enviable homegrown nucleus that includes ace Madison Bumgarner, franchise catcher Buster Posey and the infield of Brandon Belt, Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford and Matt Duffy.
It's tough to say the Giants will overachieve when another World Series win would simply feel like destiny fulfilled. But the fact that it's an even year and they're again positioned to make a serious run is pretty damn remarkable.
Verdict: Overachiever (wink, wink)
Arizona Diamondbacks (80-82)
Most of the chatter out West has been about the Giants and Dodgers, as usual. But the Diamondbacks could easily crash the old rivals' party.
They scored the second-most runs in the NL in 2015. They've got a legit MVP candidate in first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. And now they've got Greinke, MLB's ERA king, and trade acquisition Shelby Miller at the top of their rotation.
There's some uncertainty in the infield, and the starting five gets softer at the back end. But don't be surprised if these Snakes slither into October.
Non-contender(s): San Diego Padres, Colorado Rockies
Chicago Cubs (96-66)
Of all the teams here, the Cubs might be the toughest to categorize.
On the one hand, they're a rising juggernaut loaded with talent. NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta fronts the rotation. NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant joins a firmament of rising offensive stars.
And offseason additions such as Zobrist, outfielder Jason Heyward and veteran right-hander John Lackey make an already-potent roster even deeper and more dangerous.
On the other hand, no club has siphoned up more hype than the Cubbies. How can they possibly overachieve?
By breaking the most legendary, generation-spanning championship drought in professional sports, that's how. It won't be easy—it never is—but Chicago is built for the task.
St. Louis Cardinals (85-77)
The Cardinals won 100 games last season, and they're set to get ace Adam Wainwright back after an Achilles injury that cost him most of 2015. That's the good news.
The bad news is that Heyward bolted for Chicago and, despite some promising younger players like outfielders Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, they're relying on an aging core to keep them atop the division.
A thumb injury to veteran shortstop Jhonny Peralta, who had more hits last year than any Cardinal other than Heyward, didn't doom St. Louis. But it highlighted the club's vulnerability.
It's never wise to bet against the Cards, who contend annually despite injuries and roster turnover. But with the Cubs the odds-on favorites and the Pirates nipping at their heels, this could be the year St. Louis takes a step back.
Pittsburgh Pirates (83-79)
The Pirates shuffled a lot of pieces this winter, losing the likes of Alvarez, Neil Walker, A.J. Burnett, J.A. Happ, Joakim Soria and Antonio Bastardo and supplanting them with John Jaso, David Freese, Jon Niese, Ryan Vogelsong, Juan Nicasio and Neftali Feliz.
But core pieces such as perennial MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, left fielder Starling Marte and ace Gerrit Cole remain. And revelatory Korean import Jung Ho Kang is due back from a knee injury sometime in April, per Travis Sawchik of Trib Total Media.
The Bucs probably won't catch the Cubs. But they could pass the Cardinals for second-fiddle status and claim a fourth consecutive wild-card berth.
Non-contender(s): Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Brewers
New York Mets (89-73)
The defending NL champs return with the deadliest rotation in baseball. Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom are the current co-aces, but Noah Syndergaard may have the best stuff of the bunch. Add left-hander Steven Matz and the anticipated return of Zack Wheeler from Tommy John surgery, and you've got a group that can dominate one through five.
On a recent podcast, ESPN's Karl Ravech went so far as to declare it "the best pitching staff that's ever been assembled."
The offense should be able to score enough to support the Mets' superlative hurlers, with a full year from Yoenis Cespedes and a possible bounce-back from veteran David Wright, who told the New York Post's Dan Martin he's getting "more and more comfortable" this spring.
Like the Cubs, it's tough to put the Mets in the overachiever column after they won the NL pennant and soaked up their share of offseason accolades. But a return to the postseason and another deep run seem probable, if not inevitable.
Washington Nationals (88-74)
Fool me once, right? After entering 2015 as the consensus division favorites and a popular pick to bring a Commissioner's Trophy to the nation's capital, the Nats fell flat. Blame injuries, blame infighting—the disastrous result was as undeniable as it was difficult to watch.
Now, Washington is looking to hit the reset button behind new skipper Dusty Baker. There's plenty of talent, including NL MVP Bryce Harper and co-aces Max Scherzer and impending free agent Stephen Strasburg.
And there's more coming up the pipeline, with rookie shortstop Trea Turner fighting for a spot on the Opening Day roster and top pitching prospect Lucas Giolito knocking on the door.
It's tempting to write the Nationals off after last season's debacle. And they'll have their work cut out for them catching the Mets. But with the pieces they have and an imbalanced schedule that allows them to feast on the bottom-feeding Braves and Phillies, the Nats could engineer a redemptive return to the postseason.
Miami Marlins (79-83)
The Marlins have Jose Fernandez, who might have the best pure stuff in baseball. They have Dee Gordon, last season's hits and stolen bases leader. They have Giancarlo Stanton, arguably the best pure power hitter in the solar system.
And they have a new manager in Don Mattingly, who arrives in South Beach with the goal of stabilizing a fractured clubhouse.
The opportunity is there, in other words, for the Fish to swim into contention. Then again, this is South Beach, where dysfunction and outright chaos usually win out.
If Stanton and Fernandez can stay healthy, Gordon avoids a regression and new hitting coach Barry Bonds coaxes big seasons out of guys like Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich, Miami will be dangerous.
Until further notice, though, bet on the Marlins to remain baseball's most entertaining disaster.
Non-contender(s): Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies