Sunday, April 3, 2016

MLB 2016 Predictions

MLB teams are as tightly clustered as ever. (art by Chenglor55)

Predicting baseball has become harder than ever. This is a good thing. It's more fun to watch it all unfold when you have no idea which team might suddenly start firing on all cylinders and plow through everyone.

Trying to predict what the final results will be in six months from now, with so many variables in between, is also a fool's errand. But we do it because it's fun to talk about, read about, and write about baseball.

What I've gathered here are more like expectations than predictions. A key part of this, though, is that after doing so many of these over the years, it is not just an expectation but a certainty that some of these predictions will be very, very wrong. There will be injuries, there will be sudden performance dropoffs, there will be midseason trades that transform mediocre teams into contenders, there will be breakout stars and broken legs and torn UCLs. There will be lots of unforeseen events between now and October.

But this is how we like to talk about baseball when the season starts. We make predictions.

As usual, I'm starting off with Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projection system, noting the PECOTA win projection for each team and then choosing an over/under on that number. I will also rank the teams in each division and pick two Wild Card teams in each league.

First, a quick word on the difference in expectations between the two leagues.

The American League is a crowded collection of flawed contenders. Just about every single one of the 15 teams is a viable playoff threat. The projections are incredibly close. Just for kicks, I assembled the 2016 win estimates from all the statistical projection systems I could find (PECOTA from Baseball Prospectus, ZiPS from ESPN, Steamer from Fangraphs, and Clay Davenport's projections from his site). When you average up the team win estimates from each of those projections, the American League looks like this:

Red SoxAL8787888687
Blue JaysAL8684848885.5
White SoxAL8483808883.75

That is barely ten wins separating the best team in the AL from the worst. That's absurd. And note that the projected worst team is also the defending World Series champion (and two-time defending AL champ). None of the systems have been able to figure them out.

So, if anything is certain, we can expect a close and exciting race between many evenly-matched teams in the American League.

The National League is a slightly different story. The very worst and the very best teams in baseball reside in the NL this year. You've got a handful of teams openly tanking (Braves, Phillies, Rockies, Brewers, Reds) then two teams that are pretending to try but have almost no chance (Padres, Marlins). Everyone else hopes to be a playoff contender. The Cubs and Mets are considered among the elite teams in baseball. The Giants are an easy World Series pick. The Dodgers can never be counted out, nor can the Cardinals. Pittsburgh won 98 games last year and looks strong again. And the Nationals are as talented as anyone.

Today they can all begin duking it out.

Happy Baseball!

*National League*

NL West

1. Giants
PECOTA: 85 wins
My pick: Over

Ought to be the World Series favorite over anybody, including and especially the Cubs. Going for their fourth #evenyear title in seven years, Bruce Bochy's Giants look stronger than ever. They spent big on free agent starters to patch up a rotation that had been a weakness even on their last two title teams. While success from Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija is hardly assured, they are both better pitchers than anyone the Giants have been giving the ball to when Madison Bumgarner isn't on the mound.

The offense is absolutely stacked, new addition Denard Span (if healthy, that tedious everpresent qualifier) makes a perfect fit in this lineup stylistically with his contact-heavy low-strikeout approach, dude might hit more than a few triples in the AT&T alleys. Buster Posey remains one of the game's best hitters and underappreciated spearhead of the dynastic San Francisco run. Well, unheralded in some circles. BP (Baseball Prospectus) made BP (Buster Posey) the feature of their team preview this year.

2. Dodgers
PECOTA: 94 wins
My pick: Under

I thought it interesting and even very odd that Fangraphs had the current iteration of the Dodgers rotation projected as second best in all of baseball, tied with the Mets. The sheer quantity of serviceable arms the Friedman-Zaidi think tank has assembled is certainly admirable. But there is no way this is the second best rotation in baseball. Not a chance. Sure, regularly rotating Scott Kazmir, Kenta Maeda, Alex Wood behind Kershaw would be a nice front four. But all three, and every other arm in their pile of starters are either unproven as steady mid-rotation options or significant injury risks. In Maeda's case, maybe both (though I have high expectations for the newest Japanese import). Then there's Julio Urias, the fascinating 19-year-old southpaw starting the year in Triple-A. Who knows, maybe Kershaw-Urias-Kazmir form an unexpectedly stellar lefty trio atop the rotation. More likely they run out lots of upper minors fodder or recovering Tommy John guys. Ross Stripling, uniform #68, is listed as their fifth starter as I type this.

They've got a new manager, a deep lineup where three young sluggers---Joc Pederson, Corey Seager, and Yasiel Puig, all 25 or under and full of potential---hope to start settling into stride, and one of the game's most dominant arms pitch-for-pitch, Kenley Jansen, finishing the games off (since assuming the closer role in 2012 is 3rd in K% behind only Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman). Oh and that Kershaw guy will take the mound every fifth day. Yeah, they'll be okay.

3. Diamondbacks
PECOTA: 78 Over
My pick: Over

The crushing injury to center fielder A.J. Pollock cuts the Achilles heel of this pumped up team before they even get to start the race. Even with Pollock, I expected them to be a middling team struggling for a Wild Card spot. Without him, the top-heavy lineup is dependent almost solely on Paul Goldschmidt to generate offense. I mean, David Peralta is a nice hitter (.842 OPS through first two seasons), but who else does this team have? Welington Castillo? Yasmany Tomas?

A rotation with Greinke, Patrick Corbin, and Shelby Miller at the top is pretty cool. These D'backs will be watchable for the fantasy stars but outside the playoff picture due to the steep dropoff in talent beyond those guys.

4. Padres
PECOTA: 74 wins
My pick: Under

Another baseball season, another new opportunity for the Padres to take aim at third place.

If not, you'll get 'em next year.

5. Rockies
PECOTA: 74 wins
My pick: Under

How deep does this cave go?

NL Central

1. Cubs
PECOTA: 94 wins
My pick: Over

Some very smart people and computer algorithms are convinced the Cubbies are headed toward 100 wins or more. I'm reluctant to go that far, though I can't help gawking at that lineup. This is a new Golden Era at Wrigley Field. God bless Theo Epstein.

It felt fitting when Noah Syndergaard made his major league debut at Wrigley last year because from now on the young New York Mets rotation (Syndergaard, deGrom, Harvey, Matz, Wheeler) will vie with this young Cubs lineup (Bryant, Rizzo, Schwarber, Heyward, Russell, etc, etc) for National League supremacy.

This Cubs lineup looks ridiculous. Overabundant in its riches. Overflowing with more hitters than starting lineup spots. Its representative symbol is Javier Baez, the filthy raw power-swinging middle infielder, trainee of Manny Ramirez, a 23-year old slugger of immense potential who is likely to sit on the bench as pinch-hitter and occasional fill in as a utility infielder. Maybe pinch run for Ben Zobrist once in a while... Spell shortstop Addison Russell who, at the tender age of 22 is also potentially a future superstar... Start at third in place of Kris Bryant who might start in center once in a while...

The versatility and flexibility of this team mixed with the machinations of manager Joe Maddon's overactive mind make this Cubs team a powerhouse. There are no sure things in baseball, so don't bet on 100 wins or a even a division title, but expect another playoff appearance.

2. Pirates
PECOTA: 82 wins
My pick: Over (Wild Card)

One of the most fascinating teams in baseball for their purposeful use of advanced analytics in various areas of the game in attempt to gain any edge they can. They remain a small market club with a payroll in the bottom third of the league, yet they won 98 games last year and brought in enough intriguing pieces this offseason to once again compete.

The lineup is deep and flexible, the defense is strong and made more effective by its frequently shifting alignments, and Ray Searage is a miracle worker with the pitching staff. They probably won't win 98 again but maybe this is the year the Pirates finally advance deep into the playoffs.

3. Cardinals
PECOTA: 81 wins
My pick: Over

It's very hard to imagine the Cardinals not being good. They won 100 games last year despite key injuries and haven't missed the playoffs since 2010 when they still won 86 games.

Following up a season where they led the league in ERA, the pitching staff looks excellent once again and there is plenty of talent throughout the lineup. The losses of Heyward and Lackey to a division rival hurt, though, and this new core of young hitters can't be counted on to carry this team yet. A year of losing lots of low-scoring games is quite possible. The offense-in-transition and the ascent of other NL beasts leaves this proud team above .500 but outside the playoff mix.

4. Brewers
PECOTA: 78 wins
My pick: Under

New GM David Stearns, all of 30 years old (!!!), has already made his mark on this team by assembling an abundance of young and very raw talent. They'll be in tank mode but there are plenty of intriguing players to watch.

5. Reds
PECOTA: 74 wins
My pick: Under

Of all the NL teams expected to totally suck this year, this is the only one that has a shot to surprise people because of the lingering presence of quality hitters in the lineup. Joey Votto is still in Cincy (and, oddly enough, wishes not to leave) as are Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce, and Devin Mesoraco. Don't forget Billy Hamilton. It's the pitching staff that clearly reveals this team as being in tank mode. Raisel Iglesias is a nice arm, but that's about it. All kids and retreads. If they suck, some of those remaining offensive pieces might be going elsewhere.

NL East

1. Mets
PECOTA: 90 wins
My pick: Over

If ever there was a team designed to bring on the six-man rotation revolution, this is it. Alas, it is unlikely to happen. Mets fans will just have to savor every inning of their five-man rotation built out of 27-and-under studs and cross our fingers hoping nobody ends up getting hurt.

Despite that nervous trepidation, this is a Golden Era for Mets fans. The starting rotation is the envy of major league baseball, truly a collection of five potential #1 starters (as soon as Zack Wheeler returns) all of whom are young. And their adult chaperone Bartolo Colon is the most amusing player in baseball.

I loved the moves Sandy Alderson made to improve his pennant-winner, creating plenty of depth and flexibility on a roster that was otherwise vulnerable. David Wright probably won't play 120 games but both Asdrubal Cabrera and Wilmer Flores are capable third basemen. Keeping Cespedes complicates the outfield defense but it also creates lots of depth in the green pasture. Cespedes can play left or center, Juan Lagares can play anywhere as can Alejandro De Aza, and even Curtis Granderson can play center in a pinch.

Acquiring Neil Walker to play second base felt like Plan B coming on the heels of Ben Zobrist opting for Chicago over Queens, but Walker is younger, cheaper, and has been just as good a hitter as Zobrist the last three years (116 OPS+ for both).

The lineup has no easy outs, the bullpen as a whole could be an improvement over last year, and the rotation will steal your lunch money. Only the defense is a weakness here and it's mitigated by all the strikeouts and capable defenders on the bench. Should be a fun race with the Cubs for the NL crown.

2. Nationals
PECOTA: 87 wins
My pick: Over (Wild Card)

As a Mets fan, this team scares me. Let's face, last year was an aberration. The Nationals have as much top tier talent as anybody in baseball. Here's hoping the continued presence of Jonathan Papelbon sabotages the clubhouse and they falter again. Even if they disappoint again, they can still win the Wild Card.

3. Marlins
PECOTA: 75 wins
My pick: Under

If Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton each play a full season, this team is suddenly very interesting. I don't expect that to happen---catastrophe is always the most likely scenario for Jeffrey Loria's squad.

4. Braves
PECOTA: 69 wins
My pick: Over

What a teardown in Atlanta. How quickly they went from a young promising team atop the National League to a team of washed up vets and non-prospects racing toward the bottom.

They're a very good bet to finish dead last in baseball in home runs.

I'm going to pick the Over on that 69-win projection only because the offense is full of high-contact slap hitters which projections do seem to underrate.

5. Phillies
PECOTA: 66 wins
My pick: Under

There is Maikel Franco in the lineup and a few noteworthy young arms in the rotation and that's it. 100 losses is a good possibility.

*American League*

AL West

1. Astros
PECOTA: 87 wins
My pick: Over

We came so close to getting an Astros-Blue Jays ALCS last year. I think we'll be getting one this year.

Suddenly, I'm very thankful to live within driving distance of Houston because I get the chance to see this burgeoning and immensely talented young team a couple times a year. The core of young hitters in this lineup is the envy of every team in the league save for the Cubs. Dallas Keuchel is a true ace. The bullpen added the one missing piece it needed.

Exciting times are ahead in Houston.

2. Mariners
PECOTA: 84 wins
My pick: Over (Wild Card)

GM Jerry DiPoto stepped in and seemingly transformed this team into a contender over night.

Starting off with a core of Robinson Cano/Kyle Seager/Nelson Cruz on offense and King Felix/Hisashi Iwakuma/Taijuan Walker in the rotation, it feels like it would be hard to screw that up. Yet departed GM Jack Z made a habit of screwing things up and now King Felix is one of the longest tenured players in baseball not to have played in the postseason. That streak should end this year after DiPoto supplemented that impressive core with some sorely needed OBP in the lineup and acquired two back-end starters (Wade Miley and Nate Karns) who will fit nicely in this huge ballpark.

3. Athletics
PECOTA: 76 wins
My pick: Over

As happens every year, I spent most of February and March devouring every MLB season preview I can find. To my surprise, nobody seems willing to even try to make a case for the A's to contend this year. Since baseball, especially the American League, is so hard to predict lately (and because I'm an A's fan), I'll take a shot at it.

Yes, the A's absolutely sucked last year. The Donaldson trade was a bad move and it's a head-numbing puzzle trying to decipher exactly what Billy Beane and David Forst are trying to do with this team. But consider this: over the first half of the season last year the A's were tied with the Royals for the third best Pythagorean record in the AL:

With a +52 run differential and such a crappy win-loss record, clearly they were an aberration. The culprit was a historically bad bullpen that would end up destroying their season. The A's went 19-35 in one-run games over the full season.

With the additions of Liam Hendricks, Ryan Madson, John Axford, and Marc Rzepczynski plus the return of closer Sean Doolittle, this will be an entirely different bullpen. The two holdovers from last year, Fernando Rodriguez and Ryan Dull, have actually shown flashes of dominance. So there could be a complete reversal of fortunes in the Oakland pen.

Offensively, the A's are surprisingly solid. Last year, without any stars or recognizable sluggers, with Billy Butler leaving a smelly turd in the DH spot, and even after trading away Ben Zobrist, they were still at worst an average offense. This year, they look once again like an average-at-worst offense that can actually surprise people because of its depth. Look at the lineup with their 2015 adjusted OPS numbers:

Hitter2015 OPS+
Butler 96
Semien 95

Substitute in Chris Coghlan (113 OPS+ in 2015) for Butler and this is a lineup with no real weak spot. There aren't any real mashers here, but there is a chance Danny Valencia is the next late-blooming slugger. He's destroyed lefties his whole career and finally seemed to solve right-handers last year after adding a leg kick to his swing. His average batted ball velocity exceeded Josh Donaldson's and was 9th highest in baseball. Watch highlights of some of his home runs against righties and you'll see him making hard contact on well-located pitches. He crushed the ball in spring training. Danny Valencia might be for real.

The problem for this team will be in the rotation where they have bonafide ace Sonny Gray and then a whole bunch of young #3 or 4 type starters trying to figure out the major leagues. It's pretty much the same story as so many other AL teams: a nice lineup with a shaky, unbalanced starting rotation. (Edit: Originally I forgot to mention Rich Hill here. Signing the 36-year-old lefty was a gamble. He was horrible in Spring Training and got knocked out in the third inning on Opening Day. On a team desperate for starting pitching, he may not even stick around very long.)

Here's my bold prediction: if the A's can get anything approaching adequate starting pitching from the #2-through-5 spots for the first few months of the season, they will be in the Wild Card mix at the end.

If not, look for Beane/Forst to dismantle the team once again.

4. Rangers
PECOTA: 79 wins
My pick: Under

I've got nothing but respect for this organization and the rich farm of budding major leaguers they've maintained for years now. For the most part, everyone is picking them to either win the division again or finish in second. I think last year was so flukey, regression to the mean is an inevitability. Beyond Cole Hamels the rotation is a whole lot of meh, they'll be lucky to get a half season of Yu Darvish, the bullpen is nothing to be excited about, and the lineup has its share of holes.

They're a fun team to follow and I hope to see Joey Gallo and Nomar Mazara (not to mention Jurickson Profar) get some time in the majors this year, but this is not a playoff team.

5. Angels
PECOTA: 76 wins
My pick: Under

What a bizarre organization and what a waste of Mike Trout. Their ceiling seems to be a spot at the bottom of the AL Wild Card race. With the Mariners on the ascent and so many solid teams now in the AL, they may finish at the very bottom of the league.

AL Central

1. Indians
PECOTA: 92 wins
My pick: Under

They always seem to be the hipster pick for a breakout season and then disappoint. The starting pitching staff is among the best in baseball but the offense (and defense) just doesn't hold up its end of the bargain. I'll buy into them again this year but after failing to significantly improve the offensive attack (Marlon Byrd, Juan Uribe, and Mike Napoli are all kinda okay but this team needed to add a star or two), I wouldn't be surprised if they falter again.

Or maybe with a full season of Francisco Lindor, they're a completely different team and a World Series run is realistic.

2. Royals
PECOTA: 75 wins
My pick: Over

After watching them dismantle my two favorite teams (Mets and A's) in consecutive years, I think I've learned my lesson on the Royals. They're a good team that has clearly shown an ability to succeed in excess of the sum of its parts. Luck is part of that. Maybe the luck runs out this year.

3. Tigers
PECOTA: 79 wins
My pick: Over

Verlander appears to be back to his old self performance-wise if not stuff-wise, and the offense looks dominant (though a little too righty-heavy). With Dave Dombrowski gone, they may have finally figured out the back-end of the bullpen. I would love to see this group make a run at the playoffs, but I expect them to finish just outside the postseason picture.

4. White Sox
PECOTA: 84 wins
My pick: Under

The Drake LaRoche saga actually improved this team in the end as his pops was an expensive sinkhole.

I love the additions of Brett Lawrie and Todd Frazier for two reasons: they're vast improvements over their predecessors in the Chicago infield and their power should play well at the Cell.

The problem for this team remains a lack of OBP in the lineup.

Should be a fun team to watch, but one that still slides toward the bottom of the crowded AL Central.

5. Twins
PECOTA: 78 wins
My pick: Under

Lots of talent making its way up into the major leagues now. Miguel Sano could very well lead the league in homers. The rotation will hold this team back, though.

AL East

1. Blue Jays
PECOTA: 86 wins
My pick: Over

Still the best offense in baseball. Losing David Price sucks, but they played most of last year with no Price and no Marcus Stroman in the rotation. The latter now returns to the rotation full-time. Troy Tulowitzi was also a late arrival last year and didn't even play all that well (.239/.317/.380 in 41 games). I expect him to have a big year now that he's settled into Toronto and the drama of his departure from Colorado is in the past.

2. Rays
PECOTA: 87 wins
My pick: Under (Wild Card)

It's the same old story despite a new general manager. The run prevention unit should be among the best in the American League. The offense might be among the worst.

Granted, this could be the best lineup the Rays have put together in a while. If they can manage to score 700 runs, they'll make it to 90 wins and a Wild Card. PECOTA projects them to score 642 runs, albeit with a .268 True Average tying for 2nd best in the AL. That's promising. I'll take the under on the 87 win projection but pick them for a Wild Card spot.

3. Red Sox
PECOTA: 87 wins
My pick: Under

A very difficult team to evaluate. Like so many other aspiring AL contenders, they have a very flawed starting rotation behind newly minted ace David Price. Clay Buchholz was good when healthy last year, but he's nobody's idea of a reliable #2 starter. Joe Kelly and Rick Porcello are powder kegs whose very appearance on a major league mound can lead to a slew of loud bombs at any moment. And they're giving knuckleballer Steven Wright a chance to stick as the fifth starter which is a boon to baseball aestheticians but alarming for Red Sox loyalists. I love the young lefty Eduardo Rodriguez they acquired from Baltimore but he's currently on the shelf with a dislocated kneecap.

With Mookie Betts, Hanley Ramirez, Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts, and the last vestige of Big Papi in the lineup there's enough firepower to likely keep them hovering around .500. But I don't think the additions of Price at the front and Craig Kimbrel at the back end of this shoddy pitching staff will be quite enough to push the Sox to the top of the crowded AL East pile.

4. Yankees
PECOTA: 84 wins
My pick: Over

The oldest lineup in the major leagues (for years running) tries to hold itself together with an injection of youth around the keystone, the double play pair of shortstop Didi Gregorius and second baseman Starlin Castro are both 26 and may still have some growth left. Otherwise this lineup is ancient and falling apart, as Joe Sheehan noted in his preview: "Seven of the nine Opening Day starters are at least 32, and most of them have a history of missing time."

These are the last days of A-Rod in a major league batters box so savor the spectacle while you can. The likely full-time DH (he played just six out of 142 games in the field last year) is still fun to watch at the plate, likely one of the smartest hitters in the game (along with Joey Votto and Big Papi), and has plenty of pop. His return in 2015 went as perfectly as anyone could have possibly hoped for---no drama, no injuries, just 620 plate appearances with a 131 OPS+ (his best hitting since 2009) and a resounding 33 home runs. He even repaired and possibly reversed his public image with a postseason stint as a TV analyst where he was likable, articulate, informative, and fact-based, a refreshing reversal from the endless string of retired MLB vets earning a paycheck and air time for yucking platitudes and cliches if not aggressive ignorance or racism. A-Rod is the exact antithesis of fellow '90s Seattle Mariner, Harold Reynolds. A long tenured star who brings reason and knowledge to his televised commentary on the game.

5. Orioles
PECOTA: 74 wins
My pick: Over

- Lots of home run power here but very little OBP.

- The rotation is weaksauce.

- Manny Machado is a young A-Rod who exhibits Brooks Robinson-level fielding skills with ease, a treat to watch play baseball (except when he's tantrum-hurling a baseball bat at Josh Donaldson). He belongs right next to Harper and Trout in the generational talent discussion.

- There is a division-winning ceiling in Baltimore because Buck Showalter's team has shocked everyone before. Like their orange-and-black cousin Giants, they've thrived in the last two even years, winning 93 games in 2012 and 96 in 2014 succeeding with a formula of strong defense, deep bullpen, and free-swinging home run power. Those might all be present this year. But I expect the imbalanced formula leaves them at best around last year's perfectly mediocre 81-81.

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