MLB Preview: American League

After the Kansas City Royals saw Pablo Sandoval of the San Francisco Giants make the final out in the 2014 World Series, they made it their personal agenda to win it all in 2015. After a dominating performance within the American League Central, they coasted through the playoffs and won their first Fall Classic since 1985 in just five games.

When addressing the American League in 2016, the Royals will be the top dog to dethrone. Some teams have made adjustments to contend, while others may have fans scratching their heads. Here is a breakdown by division of what to expect this 2016 MLB season in the American League.

CENTRAL

Most experts and writers have predicted the Kansas City Royals to not only win the American League Central, but to possibly repeat as champs. Others have not been so kind to the Royals, as they did lose some pieces to their exquisite chemistry that was established in the past two seasons. Fangraphs.com predicted the Royals to finish in a tie for last place in 2016 with the Minnesota Twins, with a record of 77-85.

To some that may be surprising, as the Cleveland Indians are predicted to win their first divisional title since 2007. The Indians certainly have the pitching rotation to do so, and a star-in-the-making in second-year shortstop Francisco Lindor. What is peculiar about these projections is the fact the Indians will be able to win the Central with only 86 wins. The last time a team won the Central with 86 wins or less was in 1997, with the then-led Manny Ramirez Indians winning the title.

Cleveland will go as far as their pitching can take them, as the rotation containing ex-Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar will have batters whiffing at a constant rate. The Tribe also added some veterans to help the offense, such as outfielder Rajai Davis, first baseman Mike Napoli, outfielder Marlon Byrd and utility infielder Juan Uribe.

The Chicago White Sox also made waves during the offseason, acquiring star third baseman Todd Frazier from the Cincinnati Reds. First baseman Jose Abreu is a blooming slugger, and the middle infield tandem of Brett Lawrie and Jimmy Rollins brings experience and leadership into the clubhouse.

The White Sox could be a dark horse contender this season, with a young rotation led by All Star Chris Sale showing improvements each season.

Do not count the Detroit Tigers out of the mix either, as they still have quite the offensive attack in Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler, newly-acquainted Justin Upton and J.D. Martinez.
Jose Iglesias is back and healthy at the shortstop position, and Francisco Rodriguez is the new closer. The biggest question about the Tigers is what their starting rotation can do for them.
Justin Verlander is not the same Cy Young and MVP player he was once formerly known as. Anibal Sanchez will either be lights out, or lit up. Jordan Zimmermann was a great pick up for the third rotation spot, but after that it is a little murky with Mike Pelfrey and Shane Greene rounding out the final two spots.

As for the Minnesota Twins, many say their 2015 season was quite the fluke due to a 20-7 May record while going 63-72 the rest of the season. Their stats were near the middle of the pack for most categories as well, but overall their 2016 season will depend on the advancement of the youth movement.

Miguel Sano will be the focus for the offense, as he is looking to have more success from an otherwise solid rookie campaign. What will be hard to watch for a while is Sano playing the outfield, as manager Paul Molitor they are willing to take the good with the bad. Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer will be look to lead the young squad, as Torii Hunter has called it a career.

The pitching will be interesting to watch as well, as Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes and Kyle Gibson all provide valuable innings. The bullpen has all sorts of question marks. Glen Perkins will need to find a way to bounce back this season, as his numbers (and fastball speed) have gone down the past two seasons.

The team has a lot of free swingers as well, but as the season grows older and the players start to see more pitches that should be cut down. The item of importance to remember about the AL Central is it is anyone’s to take. The hottest team throughout the season could be the one to take the crown.

Predicted Winner: Kansas City Royals

Impact Players to Watch: Salvador Perez (KC), Miguel Sano (MN), Francisco Lindor (CLE), Jose Abreu (CHW), Justin Upton (DET)

EAST

Last season, the Toronto Blue Jays made a giant leap forward, and it all started with a trade involving them and the Oakland Athletics for a certain third baseman. Josh Donaldson beat out Mike Trout for the 2015 AL MVP award, having a season Blue Jays fans will not soon forget. Donaldson hit .297, with 41 homeruns and 123 runs batted in. Tough to repeat a season like that, where the Blue Jays also were only two wins away from their first World Series since 1993.

Toronto may have the most prolific offense in the Majors, with shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, Donaldson, right-fielder Jose Bautista and designated-hitter/first baseman Edwin Encarnacion being the 2-5 hitters.

Starter Marcus Stroman is destined for a terrific season after missing basically all of 2015 with a torn ACL in his left knee. The rest of the starting rotation could be interesting, as it goes veteran knuckle-baller R.A. Dickey second, the 13-game winner last season in Marco Estrada third, the journey-man southpaw in J.A. Happ fourth, and rounding out the rotation is the young 23 year-old righty in Aaron Sanchez. With a lineup that could easily average five or more runs scored per game, the pitching simply has to do an average job to win most games.

The East did get a bit more competitive this season, as the Boston Red Sox acquired superstar southpaw David Price in free agency to help bolster a Red Sox rotation that ranked near the bottom of the league last year in about every category. Clay Buchholz will be the next guy, followed by Joe Kelly and Rick Porcello, who will both look to put 2015 behind them for good (4.82 earned run average, 4.92 respectively). Porcello also amounted 15 losses, so for the Red Sox to be successful in 2016 the pitching will have to improve.

With this year being the last season for David Ortiz’s long, illustrious career the Red Sox just might have some magic left up their sleeves. There is a lot of youth on this club, more so than years past. Along with youth comes the strong core in former All Stars in second baseman Dustin Pedroia, first baseman Hanley Ramirez, and Ortiz.

Third baseman Pablo Sandoval has gone from World Series hero in San Francisco, to overweight has-been in Boston. His time may be coming to an end at Fenway, as he currently stands second in the depth chart behind Travis Shaw, who saw 226 at-bats last season and did well in that small amount of time (.270 AVG/13 HR/36 RBI).

An outfield containing Brock Holt, Jackie Bradly Jr. and Mookie Betts could provide one of the best, talented, young outfield trio in baseball.

The New York Yankees could make some noise as well, with talent all over the lineup when healthy and one of the scariest bullpens in baseball. The middle infield looks a tad different as well, with second baseman Starlin Castro coming from the Chicago Cubs and shortstop Didi Gregorious coming from the Arizona Diamondbacks.

All around, the Yankees offense should produce proficiently with Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Chase Headley, Brian McCann and Brett Gardner returning as the main core.
Flame-throwing Aroldis Chapman should make a tremendous impact in the bullpen once he has served his entire suspension. Starter Masahiro Tanaka is looking to bounce back from a short-lived 2015 due to injury. Hard-throwing right-handers Michael Pineda and the young 22 year-old Luis Severino will look to balance out a solid rotation, with veteran C.C. Sabathia being the fifth starter. Severino could turn into something special for the Yankees, as he had a 5-3 record in 2015 with a 2.89 ERA.

The Baltimore Orioles certainly have the punch in their lineup with Manny Machado, Chris Davis, Adam Jones, a healthy Matt Wieters and newcomers in Mark Trumbo and Pedro Alvarez.

The biggest questions remains in the pitching, as Chris Tillman looks to make the next step in his development. Ubaldo Jimenez may not be ideal to have as an option, as his best days may be behind him back in Colorado. Yovani Gallardo was an excellent pick up for a no. 2 guy behind Tillman, but beyond that the Orioles may be in trouble. The bullpen is affective, as closer Zach Britton had an exceptional year with a combined 72 saves in the past two seasons.

The Tampa Bay Rays always seem to find themselves contending even in the years where they do not appear to have much of a chance. Their situation is almost similar to Boston’s this season, as they have their true leader in third baseman Evan Longoria and youth all around. Chris Archer is one of the better pitchers in the league, and the rest of the rotation, which includes Drew Smyly, Jake Odorizzi and Matt Moore, could help this team contend into the dog days of summer.

Centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier has flashes of stardom, and it will be interesting to see how he progresses this year. The Rays may not have enough offense to hang with the rest of the bats they will face within the division, but the pitching could keep them in most games.

Just like the Central, the East provides a lot of potential winners to contend for the majority of the season.

Predicted Winner: Toronto Blue Jays

Impact Players to Watch: Chris Archer (TB), Marcus Stroman (TOR), Xander Bogaerts (BOS), Manny Machado (BAL), Starlin Castro (NYY)

WEST

Welcome to the wild, wild, west. The Houston Astros are no joke, folks. With perhaps the best middle infield in baseball in shortstop Carlos Correa and second baseman Jose Altuve, and a pitching staff that can shut down any offense, some experts have the Astros going deep into the postseason.

They will still strikeout quite a bit, as they were one of the top teams in 2015 to do so. They have the 2015 Rookie of the Year in Correa who will only get better, the 2015 Cy Young Award winner in Dallas Keuchel, and the 2015 AL Manager of the Year in A.J. Hinch. The ultimate question will be whether the young Astros can take the next, giant leap. It will not be easy, as the Los Angeles Angels will be a tough team to beat, the Oakland Athletics are about just as unpredictable as any other team, and the Seattle Mariners are hungry to reach the playoffs for the first time in about 15 years.

Mike Trout will be back with the Angels, and honestly at this point is it ridiculous what the man has done in his short time in the league. The Angels also will welcome newcomers in shortstop Andrelton Simmons, third baseman Yunel Escobar, and outfielder Daniel Nava.

The starting rotation has potential, with Garrett Richards being named the ace as former All-Star Jered Weaver may have taken a step back in his career. Matt Shoemaker will also be a viable option on the hill. The Angels have been so close to an incredible roster in recent years, and this season will keep them contending as long as they can mesh when it comes to team chemistry and not blowing games in the bullpen.

Oakland Athletic fans seem to be losing their minds these days, as Billy Beane continues to run quite the circus at the Bay. Centerfielder Billy Burns is a spark plug, as his 2015 season was a surprise to most. Josh Reddick is still in right, but his numbers have dwindled as the years grow older. Jed Lowrie is back at second base, who will surely provide decent offense.

Sonny Gray is the highlight of this roster, as he remains as one of the young, budding stars in the league. Do not be surprised if Gray is dealt to another team sometime this season, as anything remains possible with Beane running things.

The Mariners are in the same boat as the Athletics, with maybe just a little more talent at specific positions. Robinson Cano remains one of the best hitters in the game, and “King” Felix Hernandez continues a wonderful career. All that is missing is playoff baseball in Seattle, and it may not come in 2016. The pitching is still spotty in some areas, along with some positions that could be filled with more quality ballplayers.

The 2015 West Division champion Texas Rangers will be a threat in 2016 as well, as they went out in free agency and picked up former Cy Young Award winner Cole Hamels to fill a big need in the rotation. If this roster is healthy, they can be placed up near the top of their respective league. Ian Desmond will be in left field, which will take a little getting used to as the former Washington National has been playing shortstop for most of his career. Adrian Beltre continues his Hall-of-Fame career, and the man can still do it all.

This division may have more clear-cut winners and losers, but we will not know until it is all said and done.

Predicted Winner: Houston Astros

Players to Watch: Carlos Correa (HOU), Cole Hamels (TEX), Robinson Cano (SEA), Sonny Gray (OAK), Mike Trout (LAA)

Tommy Wiita

Tommy is a junior mass media major at MSU. He plays on the club baseball team and enjoys the outdoors. You can follow him on Twitter (@Wiita_BEST) or contact him via email at thomas.wiita@mnsu.edu .

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