The defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals are the American League’s best team as 2016 begins. That statement is not as automatic as it sounds.
Last year, when the Royals were months removed from losing Game 7 of the World Series, Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system forecasted they’d win 72 games. The projection was 23 victories short — not including the postseason.
Now the Royals are trying to win a third consecutive league pennant and second straight World Series. The New York Yankees were the last to accomplish either feat, during their dynasty of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
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History says the odds are against the Royals. But the question lingers: Which AL team can beat them in October — or prevent them from getting there?
My ranking of the top challengers:
1. Cleveland Indians
The Indians were the only AL Central opponent against whom the Royals had a negative run differential (minus-12) in 2015. The Indians’ pitching staff — which returns mostly intact — finished with the most strikeouts in the AL last year, illustrating why Cleveland has been stingy against Kansas City’s contact-oriented lineup.
Michael Brantley, the Indians’ top position player in recent years, should return close to Opening Day after offseason surgery on his right shoulder — an encouraging development after it appeared initially that he might miss more time.
Catcher Yan Gomes (limited by injury to 95 games) and shortstop Francisco Lindor (99 games after his call-up from the minors) figure to make more meaningful contributions than in 2015. Prospect Tyler Naquin, who has impressed during spring training, is poised to help address offensive shortcomings in the outfield.
2. Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays had the majors’ best run differential last year and won the regular-season series against the Royals, four games to three. But Kansas City was the superior team in October, defeating Toronto in the ALCS thanks to two wins decided in the seventh and eighth innings, respectively.
The Blue Jays lost second-half ace David Price but have added Drew Storen’s closing experience and should benefit from Marcus Stroman’s presence over a full season. Marco Estrada’s delayed Grapefruit League debut because of a back issue is concerning, as is the uncertainty over lineup cornerstones Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion in contract years. But Toronto remains a team that can outslug opponents on many nights and worry about the finer details at the trade deadline.
3. Detroit Tigers
Admittedly, it’s brassy to include a team here that finished with the AL’s worst run differential last year (minus-114). But even the diminished Tigers were a challenging opponent for Kansas City in 2015 — the Royals barely won the season series, 10-9 — and new Detroit general manager Al Avila has made dramatic upgrades since then.
Miguel Cabrera missed 43 games last year. Victor Martinez was absent for 42 and wasn’t himself (.667 OPS) when in the lineup. Even 80 percent of the typical production from Cabrera and Martinez should be enough to transform the Tigers back into an above-average offense, particularly with help from the newly signed Justin Upton.
Justin Verlander’s second-half resurgence was genuine, and Jordan Zimmermann should provide the Tigers with the added rotation consistency they lacked in 2015. The bullpen has undergone a dramatic makeover, with the additions of Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe, and Justin Wilson. The Tigers are no longer the heavyweight that won four consecutive AL Central titles, but they’re talented enough to make another playoff run.
4. Houston Astros
Astros fans will cringe at this, but it’s worth restating: When Houston took a 6-2 lead over Kansas City into the eighth inning of ALDS Game 4 last year, the Royals had a 3 percent chance of coming back to earn the victory, according to win expectancy calculations at Baseball-Reference.com.
Of course, we know that happened next: The Royals, six outs from winter, rallied to win and never again came that close to elimination last October.
On paper, the Astros will be better on Opening Day 2016 than they were last year. Most notably, franchise player Carlos Correa is with them from the very beginning of the season. Ken Giles adds a power arm to the late innings — the absence of which was the difference in the ALDS. The Astros very quietly had the best run prevention in the AL last year, but now the challenge is managing the workloads of top starters Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh.
5. Seattle Mariners
The Mariners were a trendy pick to make the playoffs last year. One clairvoyant FOX Sports baseball insider said they would win the World Series. Well, they didn’t. The Mariners went 76-86. They fired their general manager. Then they fired their manager, too.
New GM Jerry Dipoto made wholesale changes over the winter, but if you were high on the Mariners one year ago, you have many of the same reasons to like them now. Robinson Cano can’t possibly underperform in 2016 as badly as he did last season. Nelson Cruz was as advertised in his first year with Seattle. The Felix Hernandez-led rotation has improved with the additions of Wade Miley and Nathan Karns. The bullpen, unexpectedly disastrous in 2015, now boasts Steve Cishek and Joaquin Benoit.
As disappointing as the ’15 Mariners were, the world champions didn’t enjoy playing them: While the Royals won the season series, 4-2, the run aggregate was 28-28. That’s one of many encouraging signs in Seattle, even as the task of unseating the Royals remains daunting — for the entire AL.