The arrival of March on the horizon that means two things: March Madness is almost here, and baseball is back. Pitchers and catchers have reported while position players are making their way south in bunches. Spring Training is near, and another incredible season is within grasp. The Royals triumphed over the Mets in New York almost four months ago, and an offseason that saw free agents collect almost two billion dollars collectively ensued. The Cubs open as favorites for this year’s World Series, with 4-1 odds of winning it all; the Astros and Angels follow as 10-1. The divisions have been shaken, and teams have started to form on paper, but they play out the season for a reason. The 2015 Nationals were crowned champs well before last season started, and they limped to the finish line, decimated by injuries and barely floating above five-hundred. The 2016 season is bound to be oversaturated with the parity that baseball fans crave, and said season will officially kick-off when Spring Training games begin March 1.
The defending division champions, the Toronto Blue Jays, will have plenty of competition for their crown this year as it always shakes out to be in the oft competitive East. Led by last year’s MVP Josh Donaldson the team is virtually the same, despite not being picked to repeat. One of the men who led Toronto to the ALCS, David Price, has joined the intra-division rival Red Sox, the team favored to win this division. In an effort to shorten their “rebuild,” Boston made several splashes this offseason, including trading for star closer Craig Kimbrel, attempting to go from worst-to-first as they have done in years past. A top-notch farm system will attribute to their goal. The Yankees, coming off a one-game playoff disaster against reigning A.L. CY Young winner Dallas Keuchel, have taken an odd route in retooling their team. Learning from their past mistakes, New York doled out a total of $0 this offseason to free agents. That is right, $0, nothing, zilch, not a dollar. This may be a reason why they have been so underrated in the early goings of Spring Training; they still made a few trades that will help them now. They now have the unquestioned best bullpen in baseball, led by the three-headed-monster that is Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, and Andrew Miller. With health and some luck, the Yankees can make some noise in the American League. With a division so offensively balanced, it is the Rays who stand out pitching-wise. Anchored by Chris Archer, the rotation has playoff caliber depth; now only if the offense was not as pitiful as it is. The real wild-card in this division is the Orioles. Yes, they lost Wei-Yin Chen and are thin in the bullpen, but they resigned the league’s home run champion, Chris Davis, and still have cornerstones in Manny Machado at third and Adam Jones in center. If they get any help from their role-players, they will be in the race come summer.
Coming off their first World Series title in thirty years, you would think Kansas City would be favorites for at least the Central; well, that is not how it turned out. The Royals are projected at only seventy-nine wins by Fangraphs, good for fourth in the division. The same happened last year, and Kansas City quickly quieted their critics. Expect more of the same this year as the same core of players that are the envy of the league remains intact. Speaking of projections, the same institution has the Cleveland Indians taking the division with eighty-four wins. Backed with an elite rotation headlined by Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco, along with a potent offense, one cannot be criticized for liking the Indians on paper. While every team in this division is a contender, some are held higher than the rest. Coming off one of their worst years in the past decade, the Tigers retooled this offseason. Making impact additions like Jordan Zimmerman and Justin Upton have things looking bright in Motown. Things on the Southside are not as bright, though the team remains strong. With one of the best pitchers in the game leading your rotation (Chris Sale), and a possibly rejuvenated offense, the White Sox are only a couple breaks away from being in the race. Acquiring third baseman Todd Frazier will further their offensive improvements. The only team you could argue is not at least average are the Twins. However, with Byron Buxton, the top prospect in baseball, manning center field and an elite farm system, times have been worse in Minnesota.
Coming off an unexpected run to the ALCS, the Rangers return maybe the most complete team in baseball. After trading for Cole Hamels mid-season last year from the Phillies, Texas hopes to finally get a full season out of both him and their ace Yu Darvish, coming off Tommy John surgery. Picked to actually win the division though is Houston, with a slew of young position players at their disposal. They will get a whole year from Carlos Gomez, and if they can finally stay healthy, they will contend for a title. Last year Seattle was a dark horse candidate to win it all, but things did not quite break that way. Their once-invincible bullpen failed, their offense was among the league’s worst, and they could not stay on the field. That sets them up with some bounce back candidates in Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, and Mike Zunino, and with King Felix anchoring their staff, they will make noise in a crowded West. Flowing into the lower tier of the division you will find the likes of the Angels, equipped with the best player in baseball: Mike Trout, but Anaheim seems primed to flounder another one of Trout’s prime years. Puns. With expensive aging veterans like Albert Pujols and a fragile rotation, a lot of things will have to go Los Angeles’s way for them to prevail this season. Now we get to maybe the only team in the American League you can guarantee will not sniff the postseason, and that team is the Athletics. Same story as Anaheim without the superstar, only an abundance of talent past their prime with thin pitching depth. This is a recipe for disaster for Oakland.
Armed with the game’s best rotation, along with the return of folk hero Yoenis Cespedes, the reigning N.L. Champion Mets are favorites to at least win their division. After the team’s magical run to the World Series, General Manager Sandy Alderson changed the makeup of his middle infield, trading for second baseman Neil Walker and signing shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. After fortifying his bullpen, New York looks even stronger than they did at the tail-end of last season. Hot on their tail though are the Nationals, led by reigning N.L. MVP Bryce Harper and former CY Young winner Max Scherzer. Picked to win it all last year by the consensus, Washington fell flat, plagued by injuries. They remain a popular pick for a rebound year. Residing in Florida are the Marlins where year after year owner Jeff Loria proves himself wrong; building a successful and sustainable baseball team in Miami is impossible. The team returns phenom Jose Fernandez, coming off Tommy John Surgery, along with slugger Giancarlo Stanton. The team has plenty of young, controllable talent, but it is what they do what them that will decide the Marlins future. That marks the end of anything resembling competitive baseball coming out of the East; the Braves and Phillies are locked in rebuild mode and would each be fortunate to eclipse seventy wins.
In what is maybe the best division in baseball, the Cubs are the clear favorites to win the Central; in fact, they currently have the best odds to win it all at 4/1. Reigning Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta returns to one of the game’s top staffs, followed by Jon Lester and free agent addition John Lackey. Also picked up this offseason were arguably the top two position players on the market, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist. That, with returning young talent in the likes of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber, and Chicago is set to contend for years to come. Coming off a 100 win season, someone would think the Cardinals would be favored to repeat as division winners, yet in losing the battle for the aforementioned Heyward and losing top starter Lance Lynn for the year, St. Louis looks like second fiddle in this division, which is no slight. The division did produce the top three teams record-wise in the league last year. One of said teams are projected to regress significantly this year, as the Pirates are pegged at eighty-four wins by Fangraphs after finishing second in the sport with ninety-eight wins. Even with a top-flight outfield with Gregory Polanco in right, Andrew McCutchen in center and Starling Marte in left, the team is expected to especially feel the loss of first baseman Pedro Alvarez and what time Jung Ho-Kang has left on the disabled list. That with a rotation that is a notch below the top teams that fill out the rest of the league means that the Pirates could conceivably be on the outside looking in come October. Two teams that will for sure be spending October golfing are the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers, both locked with aging stars and a simple lack of talent. Each seem destined to compete for the number one overall pick in next year’s draft.
Another top heavy division is located out west, with the reigning champion Los Angeles Dodgers projected to win it for the fourth straight year. Even after losing ace Zach Greinke this offseason, the team looks about the exact same as we last saw them, losing to the Mets in L.A. With top prospect Corey Seager finally taking over shortstop permanently and the best pitcher in the game Clayton Kershaw taking the ball every five days, the Dodgers are poised for another run to the postseason. It is an even-year though, which will always raise hype around the magic that ensues every couple years in the bay area. The Giants have claimed three of the past five World Series titles, all of said runs coming out of nowhere. While they do not have the pitching of championship teams of the past, it really is not that far off. The team dropped over $200 million on Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija to bolster the rotation behind Madison Bumgarner. Returning are veterans Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, and Hunter Pence, among others, who look to pursue yet another title in an even year.
Now we transition to the team that stole Greinke away from Los Angeles: the Diamondbacks. After making that splash move, they made another, somewhat smaller, splash in acquiring the Braves staff ace, Shelby Miller. Now aligned with a more-than formidable rotation and a fresh crop of position players, Arizona looks capable of doing some damage this season. Something that seems to be a theme in the National League is the bottom two teams of every division being in the midst of a rebuild. The Rockies are at the beginning stages of said rebuild, while the Padres have wallowed into mediocrity in what seems like a decade-long rebuild. Both teams remain poised to repeat their losing ways.
Spring Training has begun and the smell of baseball is in the air. Teams have now fully reported and games began as early as Mar. 1. The disparity and competitiveness of the American League will coincide with the top-heaviness of the National League to create another thrilling and unforgettable MLB season. The narratives are endless, with storylines abound for seemingly every ball club. Now all that is left to wait for is April.