Will the Royals defend their title? – 2016 American League outlook

Baseball is back, and it’s time for the American League portion of my season outlook. Last year, the AL was very balanced, with only two teams falling more than ten games outside of a playoff spot.

The Royals are in an excellent position to defend their World Series Championship, yet it seems that they still get no respect. Even after falling one game short of a title in 2014, many writers and commentators refused to take them seriously, but instead, they cruised to the AL Central title, on their way to a World Championship. Kansas City will return with a very similar team in 2016, the most notable losses being Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto. While both players helped the team in winning it all, the Royals already had a comfortable lead atop their division at the time they traded for Zobrist and Cueto in July. It’s no secret that their strength for the last two years has been their bullpen, and that should continue this year even without Greg Holland, who was non-tendered this offseason after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Kansas City promptly stepped up in free agency and brought back former Royal Joakim Soria to fill the void. Wade Davis, probably the best relief pitcher in baseball, will serve as the closer.

The Tigers upgraded their bullpen in the offseason, along with adding Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmermann. If their veterans perform well, Detroit will be a very dangerous team. The Indians and White Sox both entered 2015 with high hopes but disappointed. They will have a chance to compete again, but that could prove difficult in a stacked division. The Twins probably over-performed last season, but could take a big step forward in 2016 if their young players develop. However, their pitching looks like a major weakness at the moment.

The Blue Jays, whom Kansas City defeated in the ALCS, will look to build upon their 2015 successes, where they ended the longest playoff drought of any Major League team. Baseball’s top scoring team from last season may be even better this year, but the pitching remains a concern. Remember that their season took off after trading for David Price last July, who they will now have to deal with when facing their division rivals, the Boston Red Sox. The good thing is that Marcus Stroman proved that he is the real deal, even in the very brief amount that he pitched in 2015. If the Blue Jays want to defend their AL East title, they will need to do it by outslugging everybody, something they have shown to be capable of.

The AL East should be extremely competitive, and I could see the last place team finishing close to .500. The Red Sox added David Price and followed the league-wide trend of building a stacked bullpen by trading for Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith. They have a good offense, but the big question will be whether or not there is enough starting pitching depth past Price to keep them competitive. Last year’s wild card team, the Yankees, had an uncharacteristically quiet offseason, so their success will depend upon the health of a number of veteran players. The back of the Yankees bullpen looks unhittable, but they may not have enough quality starting pitching for it to matter much. The Orioles have even more uncertainty in their rotation than any of their division rivals listed above, but they should not be counted out. I see a lot of comparisons to last year’s Blue Jays, as Baltimore has enough offensive firepower to carry the team towards the trade deadline, where they can acquire a frontline starter. Their lineup features six players who have hit 30 home runs in a season. The Rays had a good offseason and have the potential to be a sleeper playoff team.

One of the bigger surprises in baseball last season was the Texas Rangers winning the AL West. The Rangers still have plenty of upside to defend their division title. Along with steady veterans Adrian Beltre in Prince Fielder, young second baseman Rougned Odor is one the baseball’s top breakout candidates. Their starting pitching is also greatly improved, since they will have Cole Hamels for an entire season and will eventually get Yu Darvish back from Tommy John surgury.

The Rangers will face strong competition from the Astros, who have an envious collection of young talent, headed by Carlos Correa, who I believe will contend for the AL MVP this year. The biggest move of the offseason was bringing in reliever Ken Giles, for a whopping five players. Giles will help their bullpen, but they gave up way too much to get him and it would have been nice to see them go after additional upgrades in other areas as well. It wouldn’t surprise me if Houston falls short of the postseason, but there is also enough talent for them to make a serious push for the AL pennant. I’m a big fan of what the Mariners did this offseason with their smaller, under-the-radar moves, so they should be improved from last year. Rounding out the division is the Angels and Athletics, both of whom could be looking forward to 2017 come August, despite some obvious star power on both clubs.

Just like last year, the American League is wide open, as you could make the case for almost any team to make the playoffs. All three divisions appear strong, so we’ll probably get to see some tight pennant races go down to the wire.

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