Getting on for two weeks ago we looked at the off-season so far in the National League.
When I made some notes for this article they began by stating that no major deals have happened since that point, yet on Saturday that changed with reports of Baltimore re-signing Chris Davis.
There are still a number of free agents on the market that you would have expected to have signed by now though and they may prove to be a difference-maker, especially if signed by a team in the American League.
Currently, whilst the National League has clear dividing lines between genuine contenders and the rest (at least so it appears, we’ve all learned that MLB is capable of surprising us), it’s much harder to nail your colours to the mast of many teams and say they are clearly better than their division rivals at first glance in the AL.
AL East: Boston bouncing back?
The main off-season story has been the two big moves made by the Boston Red Sox. After finishing dead last with a talented but underperforming roster, they’ve responded by signing the best free agent pitcher in David Price (taking him from the reigning division champions) and trading for arguably the best closer in Craig Kimbrel.
Bitter rivals the New York Yankees hit back by trading for flamethrower Aroldis Chapman and, even though he is likely to start the season serving a suspension for an alleged domestic violence incident, he will help to give them a fearsome bullpen as they hope their group of veterans can hold together for one more year.
As for the Toronto Blue Jays, there’s no doubt that losing Price is a blow to their hopes of retaining their crown, especially with him staying in the division. They haven’t done all that much over the offseason – the main moves seeing a reunion with pitcher J.A. Happ and a trade for reliever Drew Storen – and the plan is to hope for full seasons from Marcus Stroman (injured for much of 2015) and Troy Tulowitzki (a mid-season acquisition who also lost time to injury) and that their batting strength continues to come through for them.
I don’t think any of those three teams will be exceptional, but they all have a chance to win 91-92 games and take the division. I’d rank them as 1. TOR, 2, BOS, 3 NYY for now, although I just have a hunch that the Blue Jays might not quite live up to their 2015 season.
I’m putting the contender cut-off at that point even though Baltimore appears to have made a big move this weekend by re-signing Chris Davis. They went 81-81 with him last year and haven’t yet replaced starting pitcher Wei-Yin Chen (who has signed with the Miami Marlins), so don’t look a good bet to improve. Neither do the Tampa Bay Rays, who haven’t done little this off-season and look set to put together a good but not great team again, whilst still punching above their weight against teams with vastly greater financial resources.
AL Central: Royals reign, but can Tigers roar again?
The Kansas City Royals won the Central handsomely before winning the World Series and they have to be favourites again in 2016. Although they parted ways with mid-season recruits like Johnny Cueto (signed with the Giants) and Ben Zobrist (Cubs), they kept hold of Alex Gordon when he appeared to be leaving as a free agent and have added pitcher Ian Kennedy this weekend on a five-year contract.
Alongside the Royals winning it all, the AL Central in 2015 was marked by the Detroit Tigers collapsing after their run of dominance. That plays into two storylines for 2016.
The Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians ended up in second and third place respectively, yet being honest you would have to say they were just above average. Neither team has much in the way of money to throw around and they haven’t made significant signings to push forward over this off-season, with the main move being the Twins taking a punt on South Korean slugger Byung-ho Park. The Twins will be looking for youngsters Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton to excel, and the Indians to somehow find some runs to support their strong starting pitching, to try to keep in the running.
That’s going to be difficult because the Tigers have added Jordan Zimmerman to their rotation and revamped their bullpen, including signing closer Francisco Rodriguez. Add in some decent roster additions for depth, including outfielder Cameron Maybin, and they are back to the position of being favourites for second place and a shot at a Wild Card if Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez can stay injury-free.
The Chicago White Sox made plenty of moves over the previous off-season and they didn’t have the desired effect. You can understand why they’ve tried again, trading for Todd Frazier from the Reds and Brett Lawrie from the A’s, through wanting to take advantage of having one of the best pitchers in the league in Chris Sale. They need everything to go right to get back into the race and that’s a bit too much to rely on to predict they’ll do it right now.
AL West: Your guess is as good as mine
The West was taken over by Texas Rangers and Houston Astros in 2015 (strange as that is based on their locations, but that’s how the divisions shape up in the AL), so the question is can they stay in front?
They can as neither team has got worse over the winter, yet neither has made additions that would clearly keep them ahead either. The Astros have added Ken Giles as their closer in a trade with the Phillies, whilst the Rangers’ main move actually came before the mid-season deadline last year when they brought in Cole Hamels (also from the Phils).
So what about the chasing pack?
The A’s have completely revamped an awful bullpen and resisted the temptation to trade Sonny Gray, but it would be a stretch to push them too high up the predicted standings based on that. Last year’s third placed team the LA Angels traded for star shortstop Andrelton Simmons and will always be dangerous with Mike Trout and Albert Pujols at the heart of their lineup, although that potential makes it all the more surprising that they haven’t added further (yet) to really take advantage of the talent they do have.
In contrast, the Seattle Mariners have been very active this off-season. They re-signed Hisashi Iwakuma after it looked like he was off to the Dodgers and also traded for Wade Miley from the Red Sox to give them a potentially strong starting rotation. What will define their season is if their position player additions (including Nori Aoki, Adam Lind and Leonys Martin) provide a solid complement to the Cano-Cruz-Seager core, of if they make that trio’s contributions count for little.
I can genuinely see a way in which the Mariners get into the race here, and it’s not completely beyond the realms of possibility that the A’s could as well, so this is the most difficult division to predict. I’ll duck the issue and keep the five teams in their finishing positions of 2015 for now, as Spring Training injuries or late off-season additions could have more bearing on this division than any other.