Even with the defending World Series champs, the American League seems to be much more wide-open this year than its National League counterpart. In addition, each of the last two seasons there has been a surprise pennant winner coming out of each league (Mets last year, Royals in 2014). Will that trend continue? If so, here are the two teams that appear most likely to come through at healthy futures odds.
Cleveland Indians (2015 Record: 81-80; Odds: 15-1)
The Indians finished with a winning record last year despite being one of the worst hitting teams in baseball. Cleveland ranked 11th in the AL in both runs per game (4.16) and slugging percentage (.401), and their 141 home runs was the second fewest in the junior circuit. How they managed to finish above .500 is a credit to manager Terry Francona, who is undoubtedly one of the best skippers in baseball, and its quality front-line starting pitching.
The top of the Indians' rotation features 2014 Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, budding All-Star Carlos Carrasco and fireballer Danny Salazar. That trio helped Cleveland post the AL's second-lowest ERA (3.67) last year. Additionally, opponents could muster only an AL-low .237 batting average against the Indians last season. In an era where pitching dominates, that alone seems enough to keep Cleveland in contention in 2016.
But to take the next step, the Indians will have to find a way to generate more offense. Last year, Cleveland had a league-high 11 losses in games in which they allowed two runs or fewer. That's abysmal offensive production. Even just a slight uptick in that area and this would have been a playoff team in 2015.
There is reason to think things will be better at the plate for the Indians. For starters, good-hitting catcher Yan Gomes missed the first quarter of the season with a knee injury and was never able to find his groove at the plate. Now fully healthy, Gomes is a candidate for a bounce-back season in 2016. But perhaps the biggest reason for optimism is the left side of the Cleveland infield. Shortstop Francisco Lindor and third baseman Giovany Urshela were called up in mid-season and instantly showed they can be impact big leaguers. Lindor, a slick-fielding 22-year-old, batted .313 upon his call-up and finished with a WAR rating of 4.8 that led all American League rookies. Urshela isn't likely to hit for a high average, but he's strong with a lightning-quick bat. He should, at the very least, be an additional power source for the Indians.
Cleveland will be without All-Star left fielder Michael Brantley for the first month of the season, but when he returns this should be a much better offensive club than a year ago. There is no reason to think this team can't contend for a Wild Card. If the Indians do make the postseason, they will be a tough out given their three All Star-caliber starting pitchers at the top of the rotation.
Seattle Mariners (2015 Record: 76-86; Odds: 18-1)
It was a disappointing 2015 for the Mariners, who some considered contenders for a Wild Card entering the season. High-priced second baseman Robinson Cano didn't hit a lick the first three months of the season and the bullpen was atrocious. That alone was enough to crush Seattle's hopes. However, there is reason for optimism in the Emerald City.
First-year General Manager made a handful of acquisitions this offseason to boost the offense and help shore up the bullpen. In are relief pitchers Steve Cishek, a proven closer, and veteran set-up man Joaquin Benoit. Also added were catcher Chris Iannetta, center fielder Leonys Martin and first baseman Adam Lind. All three should be significant upgrades at their respective positions. Iannetta replaces Mike Zunino, who the numbers suggest (.174 BA, 34% strikeout rate, minus-3.9 WAR) was the worst everyday player in the big leagues last year. Iannetta will provide occasional pop, but his biggest asset will be defensively behind the plate. He is known for his excellent pitch-framing skills. According to Baseball Prospectus, that ability was worth an additional 98 strikes to Angels' pitchers last year, which was the fifth-best mark in the majors.
Martin, acquired from the Rangers, has exceptional speed and a cannon arm. He will be a major upgrade to what was the worst defensive outfield in baseball last year. Lind struggles against lefties but absolutely wears out right-handed pitching (.313 BA, .912 OPS over the last three seasons).
Now, on to Cano. The first half of the season was no doubt a disaster. But note that from June 19, the day the Mariners hired Edgar Martinez as hitting coach, to the end of the season Cano hit .317 with 19 HRs and 59 RBIs. This came despite playing with an abdominal injury that required off-season surgery. Now full healthy, Cano could also be ready for a big bounce-back season.
Baseball is largely about starting pitching these days, and in that department the Mariners are on solid footing. Felix Hernandez (18-9, 3.53 ERA) continues to be a workhorse at the top of the rotation. No. 2 starter Hisashi Iwakuma (9-5, 3.54 ERA) throws less than 90 mph, but his superb splitter and precise command makes him a tough matchup for hitters Then there is Taijuan Walker. Once dubbed the next Dwight Gooden, he has yet to fulfill those hopes. He went 11-8 with a 4.56 ERA last season. However, Walker is just 23 and may still yet reach his considerable potential.
There are certainly things to like about Seattle. The middle of the order is strong with Cano, Nelson Cruz (.302, 44 HR, 93 RBIs) and Kyle Seager (.266, 26 HR, 74 RBIs). The bullpen should be vastly improved and the starting pitching should be adequate. Add the fact they play in the wide-open AL West and what you get is a potential playoff team. And once in the postseason, history tells us anything can happen.
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