The season is a success if: Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval reverse their horrible 2015s.
Ramirez, the former shortstop who will be adjusting to first base, and Sandoval, the three-time World Series champion who does not appear to have passed up a meal since that 2014 title with the Giants, can’t be a drag on what is one of the most exciting young cores in the game. This could be the year that shortstop Xander Bogaerts, outfielders Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. and catchers Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez take over from the old guard – veteran second baseman Dustin Pedroia and retiring designated hitter David Ortiz, repositioning the Red Sox to contend consistently in years ahead. But if Ramirez (.717 OPS in his first year in Boston) and Sandoval (.648 OPS in same, the worst among third basemen in 2015) don’t improve, the acceleration of that core could be wasted.
2. Toronto Blue Jays
2015 record and finish: 93-69, first
Significant additions: RP Drew Storen, SP J.A. Happ, RP Jess Chavez, RP David Aardsma, OF Junior Lake, GM Ross Atkins
Significant losses: SP David Price, SP Mark Buehrle, C Dioner Navarro, OF Ben Revere, RP Mark Lowe, RP LaTroy Hawkins, GM Alex Anthopoulos
The season is a success if: The pitching keeps up with the hitting.
The offense — with American League MVP Josh Donaldson, sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki – was historically good in 2015, outscoring the next closest team by 127 runs, a wider gap between first and second than any team since the 1961 expansion. But the Blue Jays won their first division title since 1992 because the pitching was steady enough – fifth in the American League in ERA. That was, of course, helped by the midseason acquisition of Price, who went 9-1 with a 2.30 ERA for Toronto but signed over the winter with intra-division rival Boston. The addition of the well-traveled Happ doesn’t make up for Price’s loss. But a full season from homegrown ace Marcus Stroman, who made only four regular season starts after blowing out his knee in spring training, could. It bears watching, too, how new team president Mark Shapiro and GM Atkins will act at the trade deadline should the Blue Jays be in contention and need a piece.
3. New York Yankees
2015 record and finish: 87-75, second
Significant additions: SS Starlin Castro, RP Aroldis Chapman, OF Aaron Hicks
Significant losses: C John Ryan Murphy, RP Adam Warren, IF Stephen Drew, SS Brendan Ryan
The season is a success if: The rotation remains healthy.
The Yankees got a little younger and more athletic by adding Castro and Hicks to the mix, and the offense still has that old thunder of Alex Rodriguez, who hit 33 homers in the season he turned 40. The back end of the bullpen, with some combination of Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller and Chapman (after he serves his 30-game domestic-violence suspension) in innings seven-nine could be otherworldly. So the question comes up front. Masahiro Tanaka is the ace, but he hasn’t yet made more than 24 starts in a season. Michael Pineda has great stuff, but hasn’t yet reached 175 innings. Nathan Eovaldi has the hardest fastball (an average of 96.6 mph) of any starter in the game, but he allowed the fourth most walks and hits per inning pitched of anyone with at least 150 innings pitched in 2015. Luis Severino had a promising debut last summer (2.89 ERA in 11 starts), but is just 22 and must prove himself over the long haul. And CC Sabathia, fresh off alcohol rehab, was left battling with Ivan Nova for the fifth starter’s spot. Each of their best-case scenarios would add up to one of the AL’s best rotations. But none have yet executed their best over the entirety of a 30-start, 200-inning season.
4. Tampa Bay Rays
2015 record and finish: 80-82, fourth
Significant additions: OF Corey Dickerson, SS Brad Miller, 1B Logan Morrison, OF/1B Steve Pearce, RP Danny Farquhar, C Hank Conger
Significant losses: RP Jake McGee, SS Asdrubal Cabrera, SP Nathan Karns, OF Grady Sizemore, OF/C John Jaso, RP Ernesto Frieri
The season is a success if: They can find ways to score.
The Rays have a rising star in ace Chris Archer and the best defensive center fielder in the game in Kevin Kiermaier, who trumped all other outfielders in the advanced metrics of ultimate zone rating (UZR) and defensive runs saved (DRS). But the lineup generated fewer runs than any American League team except the White Sox. Third baseman Evan Longoria, the face of the franchise, is just 30, but his last two years have been the least productive of his career (.870 OPS from 2008-13, .744 OPS in 2014-15 even though he played in 322 of a possible 324 games). Yet no Ray topped his 21 homers or 35 doubles. Outfielder Steven Souza, acquired from Washington to be a middle-of-the-lineup cog, was exposed in his first full major league season, striking out in 33.8 percent of the time, the highest for anyone with 400 plate appearances. The additions this year aren’t transformative: Miller had a .707 career OPS with Seattle; Dickerson, a former Rockie, had a 1.085 OPS at Coors Field, a .695 mark on the road; Morrison responded to his first chance to play every day by posting a career-worst .685 OPS. Where will the runs come from?
5. Baltimore Orioles
2015 record and finish: 81-81, third
Significant losses: SP Wei-Yin Chen, OF/1B Steve Pearce, OF Gerardo Parra, C Steve Clevenger, OF David Lough, OF Junior Lake
Significant additions: SP Yovani Gallardo, DH/1B Pedro Alvarez, DH/1B/OF Mark Trumbo, RP Vance Worley, OF Hyun-soo Kim, OF Joey Rickard
The season is a success if: The rotation finds itself.
The Orioles have won more games than any team in the American League since 2012 in part because they have thumped the most homers during that four-season span, and the long ball – with first baseman Chris Davis, third baseman Manny Machado and center fielder Adam Jones combining for 109 in 2015 – still defines the team. But take the rotation: Last year, it posted a 4.53 ERA, second-worst in the AL, and the Orioles were a .500 team. The year before, its ERA was 3.61, and the Orioles won 96 games and the division title. This year’s starting group lost Chen, sneakily its most consistent member, to Miami in free agency, and replaced him with Gallardo, who has made at least 30 starts in seven straight seasons. But the key lies elsewhere: Is Chris Tillman (3.34 ERA in 2014, 4.99 ERA last year) the ace or a flop? Can Kevin Gausman, who has never thrown 115 big league innings, establish himself in the majors? Will former first-round pick Dylan Bundy be healthy and a factor? Can Ubaldo Jimenez (3.30 ERA his final year with Cleveland, 4.39 ERA his two years in Baltimore) live up to his four-year, $50-million contract? And is Miguel Gonzalez the guy who posted a 3.45 ERA in his first three seasons, or the guy who had a 4.91 ERA and 1.396 WHIP last year?