Remember, when making each team’s final win-loss predictions, everything has to add up to 2,430 wins and 2,430 losses. Try it at home! It’s not so easy when it seems like most teams improved in the offseason.
Anyway, you also have to keep in mind a relatively even split between the two leagues. Last year, the AL had a 34-win advantage in interleague play, and I’m sticking to similar results in 2016. I have the AL going 1,233-1,197 and the NL going 1,197-1,233 (one fewer win than 2015).
Most intriguing player: Francisco Lindor was edged out by Carlos Correa in the Rookie of the Year balloting, but don’t assume Correa is going to be the better player. Lindor is universally regarded as the superior fielder, and in his initial 99-game stint in the majors, his bat was a pleasant surprise, as he hit .313/.353/.482. That was much better than he ever he hit in the minors, where his career OPS was .738, but those numbers also came after he hit .223 with one home run in his first 26 games. He hit .295 in July, .370 in August and .325 in September with 18 extra-base hits. Maybe the kid -- he’s now 22 -- was just a fast learner. Watch out, American League.
I'm just the messenger: The outfield on Opening Day might be Davis in left, Abraham Almonte in center and Lonnie Chisenhall in right. Yeah, that’s as problematic as it sounds, making Michael Brantley's return from offseason shoulder surgery of paramount importance. Though Chisenhall earned rave reviews for his defense after moving from third base, he still produced a meager .667 OPS, which isn’t going to cut it as an everyday right fielder. Other than that first half of 2014, when he hit .332, Chisenhall’s bat just hasn’t developed like the scouts believed.
Where I could be wrong: I have the Indians making the playoffs as the second wild card with these 85 wins. The Astros made it last year with 86, so it’s likely the Indians will need to win a few more games to actually make the playoffs. Where will those wins come from considering little was done to improve an offense that ranked 11th in runs? Maybe those wins will simply come from better timing. The FanGraphs BaseRuns model projected the Indians to win 89 games based on their total bases gained and allowed. Instead, they won 81. Simply put, the Indians didn’t have good sequencing. Their offensive numbers suggested they should have scored about 700 runs, instead of 669, and the pitching staff should have allowed fewer. FanGraphs rated the Indians 25th in the majors in "clutch factor" in pitching and 18th on offense.
The final word: Of course, I’m betting on the trio of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar to be one of the best in the league. Though they can hardly afford one of them to go down, they do have some depth with the likes of sinkerball specialist Cody Anderson, Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin, Mike Clevinger, T.J. House and Ross Detwiler. Cody Allen, who fanned 99 in 69.1 innings, is one of the most underrated closers in the league and Terry Francona has a solid group of setup guys in front of him. I liked the Indians a year ago and it didn’t work. I still like them this season.
Big offseason moves: Signed RHP Mike Leake; lost OF Jason Heyward and RHPs John Lackey and Steve Cishek in free agency; acquired IF Jedd Gyorko from the Padres for OF Jon Jay; re-signed RHP Jonathan Broxton; signed RHP Seung Hwan Oh; lost 1B Mark Reynolds in free agency.
Most intriguing player: After tearing his Achilles four starts into 2015, Adam Wainwright made a remarkable comeback to pitch in a few games in relief at the end of the season. He’ll be back in the rotation, and he’s chomping for a big season, even calling into a fantasy baseball radio show in January after he was the 22nd pitcher taken and saying those who passed on him will regret it. How can you not love that?
I'm just the messenger: The Cardinals allowed 525 runs in 2015 -- the fewest in a non-strike season since the 1969 Orioles. That’s going to be difficult to replicate -- how can you be greater than great? Here are the 10 other teams since 2010 that allowed the fewest runs and what happened the following season:
2011 Phillies: 529 to 680
2013 Braves: 548 to 597
2014 Mariners: 554 to 726
2014 Nationals: 555 to 635
2014 Athletics: 572 to 729
2013 Pirates: 577 to 631
2014 Padres: 577 to 731
2012 Rays: 577 to 646
2011 Giants: 578 to 649
2010 Padres: 581 to 611
As you can see, all 10 teams were worse the following season, by an average of 99 more runs, even though this was an era of declining offense (other than 2014 to 2015). I’m sure all those teams believed they were positioned to do just as well as the previous season. When you allow such few runs, everything probably went your way.
I know the argument Cardinals fans are making: Wainwright is back, and they signed Leake, so those two essentially replace Lackey and the injured Lance Lynn. But Lackey had a 2.77 ERA over 218 innings -- which Wainwright can certainly replicate -- and Lynn had a 3.03 ERA (Leake’s career-best is 3.37). More likely, there will be some regression from the other starters and/or the bullpen. I’m going with history: Odds are the Cardinals allow more than 525 runs. Maybe not 99 more, but more.
Where I could be wrong: Betting against the Cardinals is like betting against the tarantulas in "Kingdom of the Spiders." The pitching staff will be awesome, and the offense (11th in the NL in runs) will be slightly improved, and the Cardinals will win 100 games again.
The final word: Another thing I’ve heard: The Cardinals suffered all kinds of injuries last year. OK, Wainwright missed almost the entire season, Matt Holliday played just 73 games and Matt Adams played just 60 games. Holliday’s replacements like Stephen Piscotty and Tommy Pham, however, were excellent, and Adams isn’t that good anyway. But beyond those key injuries: Jhonny Peralta played 155 games, Matt Carpenter and Heyward played 154, Kolten Wong played 150 and Yadier Molina played 136. Four of the starters made 29-plus starts. The Cardinals were actually relatively healthy. They also had the biggest gap between actual wins and expected wins based on BaseRuns, with a plus-11 differential. A lot went the Cardinals’ way in 2015. I don’t see a better offense in 2016 and I see more runs allowed.
10. Boston Red Sox
Big offseason moves: Signed LHP David Price; acquired RHP Craig Kimbrel from the Padres for OF Manuel Margot, SS Javier Guerra and two others; acquired RHP Carson Smith and LHP Roenis Elias from the Mariners for LHP Wade Miley and RHP Jonathan Aro; signed OF Chris Young; lost LHP Rich Hill in free agency.
Most intriguing player: David Ortiz wraps up his career at age 40. He blasted 37 home runs in 2015, his most since 2006, and hit a remarkable .325/.401/.701 in the second half. Though Derek Jeter's farewell tour had a bittersweet quality to it as Jeter struggled through a rough season, look for Ortiz to go out in style with some big numbers.
I'm just the messenger: Are we supposed to just assume Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez will be better in 2016? The two were worth a combined minus-2.2 WAR in 2015. We’re already hearing "best shape of their lives" reports, as if that will magically cure their .292 and .291 OBPs. Ramirez was a disaster in left field and might be a disaster at first base. How quick of a leash will John Farrell have with these two if they struggle again at the plate and in the field?
Where I could be wrong: I have the Red Sox at 88 wins and a wild card. A lot of people liked the Red Sox last year, and they won 78 games. Could we have them pegged wrong again, pretender instead of contender? Sure, it’s possible the rotation after Price remains a problem, and the offense is depending on Ortiz to remain a force at 40. Rusney Castillo hasn’t proved he can hit and Jackie Bradley Jr. has basically had one hot month in his major league career (after a 1.163 OPS in August, he hit .216/.308/.431 in September). Dustin Pedroia isn’t exactly a picture of durability. There is stuff that can go wrong here.
The final word: Mookie Betts, MVP candidate. That’s all.
Big offseason moves: Signed 2B Daniel Murphy and IF Stephen Drew as free agents; traded RHP Drew Storen to the Blue Jays for OF Ben Revere; signed RHPs Shawn Kelley and Yusmeiro Petit and LHP Oliver Perez; acquired RHPs Trevor Gott and Michael Brady from the Angels for 3B Yunel Escobar; lost RHPs Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister and CF Denard Span in free agency; will presumably lose SS Ian Desmond.
Most intriguing player: What can Bryce Harper do for an encore?
I'm just the messenger: The Nationals had injury issues in 2015. Anthony Rendon played just 80 games, Jayson Werth 88 and Ryan Zimmerman 95 (and the now departed Span just 61). Trouble is, Rendon, Werth and Zimmerman are injury-prone players. Rendon was terrific in 2014, finishing fifth in the MVP voting, but he has had problems staying on the field going back to his days at Rice. Werth has played more than 130 games just once in the past four seasons and is now 37. Zimmerman has played 156 games over two seasons and contributed just 1.1 WAR. The Nationals can bank on better health in 2016. Or can they?
Where I could be wrong: The Nationals were in sole possession of first place entering August. But the Mets then swept a three-game series and a 12-17 record in August sealed their fate. The pitching staff, supposedly the strength of the team, allowed 4.7 runs per game in the month. The disastrous season ended with Harper and Jonathan Papelbon fighting in the dugout and manager Matt Williams receiving a well-deserved boot. Are the Nationals more likely to collapse again or more likely to win the division? I went down the middle, predicting 88 wins but missing the playoffs. I think 90 wins is more likely than a sub-.500 record. For starters, Harper and Max Scherzer are as dynamic a 1-2 punch as any pair in the game. Stephen Strasburg scuffled through that neck problem early in the season, but sitting out a month and returning in late June he went 8-2, 1.76 the rest of the way. Joe Ross has breakout potential and stud prospect Lucas Giolito is waiting in the wings. Throw in 38 games against the Braves and Phillies and everyone will likely underestimate the Nationals.
The final word: Don’t undersell the addition of Dusty Baker. He’s known for creating a positive atmosphere and will set a much different tone in that regard than Williams. They will need to get more offense from catcher (Wilson Ramos had a .258 OBP) and center field (Michael Taylor had a .282 OBP) and a remade bullpen will have to do better in the middle innings (the Nationals were actually 74-0 when leading after eight innings but had too many losses in the seventh and eighth). The Nationals were the consensus World Series favorite a year ago. Maybe that goal will just arrive a year later.
Big offseason moves: RHP A.J. Burnett retired; acquired LHP Jon Niese from the Mets for 2B Neil Walker; signed 1B John Jaso; signed RHP Neftali Feliz; traded RHP Charlie Morton to the Phillies for RHP David Whitehead; re-signed IF Sean Rodriguez; signed RHP Ryan Vogelsong; acquired 1B Jason Rogers from the Brewers; didn’t offer a contract to 1B Pedro Alvarez; lost LHPs J.A. Happ and Antonio Bastardo and RHPs Joakim Soria and Joe Blanton in free agency.
Most intriguing player: Gerrit Cole went 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA in his first full season. You don’t want to say there’s room for improvement after a season like that, but given Cole’s stuff ... well, there might be room for improvement. He failed to go six innings in six of his of 32 starts, his strikeout rate was 20th among qualified starters and he was 29th in the percentage of runners stranded. With incremental gains in those areas he could finish higher than fourth in the Cy Young voting.
I'm just the messenger: Sometimes you just need to throw out the numbers and look at the names. Right now, the Pirates’ website lists Jeff Locke, Niese and Vogelsong as 3-4-5 starters. Does that sound like the back end of a playoff rotation?
Where I could be wrong: Another reason the Pirates might not meet my expectations: The bullpen was arguably the best in the game last year, even better than Kansas City’s. The Pittsburgh pen went 31-16 with an MLB-best 2.67 ERA. They were 83-1 when leading after eight innings and 79-1 when leading after seven (even the Royals lost three games when leading after seven). The Pirates were 17-8 when tied entering the seventh inning. The bullpen should be very good again, but those results are nearly impossible to replicate.
The final word: Sometimes you just have to believe in the system, and I believe in the Pirates. There are some obvious concerns besides the back of the rotation, as they have to replace 43 home runs from Alvarez and Walker and Jung Ho Kang will miss the start of the season after his knee injury. Pitching coach Ray Searage has been a miracle worker with his reclamation projects, and if you read Travis Shawchik's "Big Data Baseball," you know no team is more prepared than the Pirates. I have the Pirates making the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season -- unfortunately, in a wild-card rematch from 2014 against Madison Bumgarner.
Big offseason moves: Signed RHPs Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija; signed CF Denard Span; lost RHPs Mike Leake, Yusmeiro Petit and Ryan Vogelsong and OFs Norichika Aoki and Marlon Byrd in free agency; RHP Tim Hudson and LHP Jeremy Affeldt retired; RHP Tim Lincecum remains a free agent.
Most intriguing player: Was Cueto’s inconsistency with the Royals just a blip? An American League thing? A temporary loss of mechanics or release point? Is the sore elbow that caused him to miss a couple starts an issue that lead to a severe injury? Or will he go back to being the pitcher who had a 2.51 ERA with the Reds from 2011 to his trade to the Royals?
I’m just the messenger: Aside from Cueto’s health and Matt Cain's health and Jake Peavy's health and Samardzija's ability to bounce back from an awful season, there are concerns about the entire outfield. Hunter Pence had been about the most durable player in the game -- playing all 162 games in both 2013 and 2014 and 154-plus every full season of his career, but suffered through an agonizing 2015: A broken forearm in spring training when hit by a pitch, a DL stint with wrist tendinitis (near where his arm was fractured) and then an oblique that sidelined him mid-August to the end of the season. He says he’s completely healthy and won’t be rehabbing in spring training. New center fielder Span is coming back from hip surgery. Angel Pagan had a terrible season worth minus-1.9 WAR. Note their ages: Pence is 33, Pagan 34 and Span 32. Fourth outfielder Gregor Blanco is also 32. That’s an outfield with a lot to prove in 2016.
Where I could be wrong: Even with the outfield issues, the Giants seem like a relatively safe bet. The question is if I’m underestimating them. Is this more like a 95-win team that will finally beat out the Dodgers for the division title? It seems like the best chance for that happening is for Cueto and Samardzija to have big seasons -- certainly, moving to pitcher-friendly AT&T Park will help, especially Samardzija, who gave up an AL-worst 29 home runs with the White Sox. And with all three of those capable of 200-plus innings, Bruce Bochy won’t have to demand as much from a bullpen that is still relying on 30-somethings like Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo and Javier Lopez.
The final word: The big surprise in 2015 was the offensive production from infielders Brandon Crawford, Matt Duffy and Joe Panik, as they all added power to their games. The Giants are never going to lead the league in home runs because of their home park, but this is a good offensive team -- second in the NL in 2015 in runs scored on the road. I believe in the improvements those three made, and along with Brandon Belt form what might be the best infield in the majors (the Cubs have a strong case as well).