With spring training underway, we decided to solicit opinions from our experts on some of the biggest stories heading into 2016.
No. 1: Is this the Chicago Cubs' year?
Jesse Rogers: Answering that question means answering it twice -- once for the regular season and once for the playoffs. Remarkably, the Cubs have gone to the postseason in back-to-back years only once since a three-year run from 1906 to 1908. Since then, almost every good Cubs season has been followed by disaster. Then came 2007 and 2008. The Cubs won the division each of those years but failed to win a playoff game in either. The Cubs will make the postseason in 2016. After that, it's anyone's guess, as the playoffs are a crapshoot. Considering the odds at that point are just 1 in 10, it would be hard to say this is the Cubs' year. But is this their best chance in decades? Probably. That's the most you can commit to when it comes to the Cubs. They have a horrible past to overcome.
Mark Saxon: I'm not willing to ride the Chicago Cubs-to-the-World Series bandwagon as eagerly as some of my colleagues. Even with Jake Arrieta's magical Cy Young season, they finished third in their division in ERA in 2015, and I'm not convinced John Lackey can replicate his 2015 performance in his age 37 season. The St. Louis Cardinals, New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers all have deeper starting rotations. The Cubs have served notice that they're a team to be feared -- probably for years to come -- but they haven't guaranteed themselves anything.
Christina Kahrl: The question going in should be not whether this team is going to win the NL Central, but by how much they will do so. The Cubs have the best lineup in baseball and are ready to crank out massive amounts of run support, with the additional upside of Jorge Soler and Addison Russell being ready to add their names to the Cubs' burgeoning list of superstars. Adam Warren can make a huge difference if the team ends up giving him a high-leverage setup role. Anything can happen in a short series in October, but if Jake Arrieta isn't gassed by the time the Cubs reach the NLCS -- signing John Lackey certainly helps give the rotation the depth to be careful about that -- they can do it, even against the Giants in an even year or that Mets rotation.
No. 2: Can the Kansas City Royals repeat?
Jerry Crasnick: It's always difficult to predict whether a team can survive three rounds of postseason play and win a title, but the Royals have every reason to believe they'll make it to October. The offensive cast from 2015 returns almost intact. They've added old friend Joakim Soria to the bullpen, and the rotation is deep if unspectacular. Hang around the Royals a while, and you come to understand what a driven and together group they have, and how determined they are to do special things. If they could win the World Series last year when the prognostications called for them to win 72 games, who's to say they can't go the distance again?
David Schoenfield: Guess what? The computers are doing it again. A year after the Baseball Prospectus PECOTA system projected the Royals to win 72 games, it has them winning ... 76 games. FanGraphs isn't much higher. Considering that the Royals were still complaining about preseason projections on the eve of the 2015 World Series, this will add even more incentive. More importantly, they re-signed Alex Gordon, they still have Wade Davis in the bullpen, they will still play great defense, and their key guys are all in their primes. Maybe the rotation isn't great, but it wasn't great the past season, and they won 95 games.
Kahrl: It won't be easy because there are major questions about depth in the rotation to win over the season's six-month slog. A lot depends on whether Yordano Ventura finally takes a big step forward to match his big-time velocity, whether Kris Medlen is healthy and can carry a starter's workload, and, most of all, whether former Padre Ian Kennedy adjusts to life in the DH league. But as GM Dayton Moore proved last year in getting Johnny Cueto, the Royals can help themselves at the deadline if those "maybes" turn into "won'ts." Like most of the AL, the Royals will need to get off to a good start and then swing a Cueto-grade deal to leverage their opportunity. If they get back to October, you do not want to be the team trying to take them down in a short series: The Royals will find a way to beat you.
No. 3: What are your expectations for the New York Mets and their dominant rotation?
Adam Rubin: It's no secret the Mets have an elite, young rotation, but it could be even more formidable in 2016. Matt Harvey posted a 2.71 ERA in his first season after recovering from Tommy John surgery, and pitchers frequently perform better the second season back (Adam Wainwright shaved a full run off his ERA in 2013). Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom have become elite pitchers, while left-hander Steven Matz is unbeaten in six career regular-season starts. Bartolo Colon is a fine placeholder for another young ace, Zack Wheeler, who is penciled in to return from Tommy John surgery around July 1.
Mark Simon: The 2016 Mets have a starting rotation capable of returning to the World Series, with four arms in the prime or just entering the prime of their careers. Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard combined for a 2.80 ERA in 2015, and there is untapped potential left for each of the three, who showed moments of brilliance in the postseason. Behind them is Steven Matz, who ranked No. 37 in Keith Law's Top-100 and pitched to a 2.27 ERA in six starts. The primary concern with him is health. But the Mets are fortified to deal with that, with Zack Wheeler due for a midseason return. And let's not forget Bartolo Colon, who provides both great entertainment and the numbers of one of the better No. 5 starters in the game.
Eddie Matz: Collectively, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom have 200 percent more big league experience heading into 2016 than they did a year ago. Scary thought No. 2: Matt Harvey is that much further removed from Tommy John surgery. Scary thought No. 3: Steven Matz replaces Jon Niese. Add it all up, and as ridiculous as the Mets' rotation was in 2015, they should be even more ridiculous this season.
No. 4: Can Zack Greinke and the Diamondbacks compete in the NL West?
Doug Padilla: It was hard to tell what was more valuable: the small fortune it took for Arizona to land Zack Greinke or the impressive cache of prospects it took to procure Shelby Miller from the Braves via trade. Easier to decipher is the Diamondbacks' standing in a rugged National League West: They are legitimate contenders now. A talented young core to go with that beefed up rotation makes the Diamondbacks a must-see event in the desert and takes them back to a proven formula in club history: that a pair of horses atop the rotation can win a title. Where can it go wrong? The Diamondbacks are not as deep as their rivals, so health is key, especially for guys such as Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock.
Schoenfield: The first start Zack Greinke makes against the Dodgers is certainly going to be one of the must-watch games of the season. Then he should get another four or five starts against them. Will those games decide the division? It's certainly possible. Greinke will obviously be hard-pressed to repeat the 1.66 ERA he had a year ago, so the D-backs have to count on Shelby Miller, Patrick Corbin and Robbie Ray to produce behind him. If that happens, it could be a three-way race in the NL West.
Crasnick: Things didn't work out according to plan for the Padres and Mariners, two teams who entered spring training as fashionable picks a year ago. But the Diamondbacks have enough pieces to be a serious threat. Perennial MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt leads an offense that ranked second in the league with 720 runs scored, and Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller will provide lots of cover at the top of the rotation. The Diamondbacks need Welington Castillo to carry the load as their starting catcher and Yasmany Tomas to show more than he did as a rookie, and Patrick Corbin, Robbie Ray and Rubby De La Rosa will have to get the job done in the 3-4-5 spots in the rotation. But at the very least, the D-backs are relevant again in the NL West. If a few things go right, they'll hang with the Giants and Dodgers well into September.
No. 5: What kind of season do you expect from David Ortiz (his last) and the Red Sox in 2016?
Andrew Marchand: The Red Sox's season is going to be centered around the retirement tour of David Ortiz. Although Mariano Rivera's and Derek Jeter's recent long goodbyes did not end with playoff appearances, Ortiz and the Red Sox might be the favorites to win the AL East. In the second half of the past season, they were one of the stronger teams in the AL. This offseason, they added David Price and Craig Kimbrel. If they can receive bounce-back years from Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, Big Papi's farewell tour might extend into his favorite month: October.
Kahrl: Mr. Sulu, set your expectations to 'oh my' because Boston will contend for a division title in a tight AL East. They have three big questions to answer: Will a rebuilt bullpen compensate for their lack of rotation depth beyond David Price? Will the young outfielders all deliver? Can veterans Dustin Pedroia, Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval all provide healthy, effective seasons? Count on GM Dave Dombrowski's not being afraid to dip into a top-10 farm system to patch holes and give David Ortiz a proper sendoff because a fourth straight 30-homer season and plating another hundred runs is totally doable for Big Papi in his final season. Start writing your "please don't go" letters now.
Simon: David Ortiz has left a powerful impression in the first 19 years of his major league career. His will not be a goodbye due to declining production: He has hit at least 30 home runs and driven in 100 runs in each of the past three seasons, and you could make a case that he could have one of the best last seasons ever. Among the quests along the way in his farewell tour: He needs 18 home runs to catch Ted Williams on the all-time home run list.
What will be interesting is how other teams and their fans will receive Ortiz, given the PED suspicions from his past. This especially applies in New York, where Ortiz is not particularly liked by Yankees fans. This farewell tour will be different from those of Chipper Jones, Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter. It will definitely have its moments of intrigue.