The Royals are still World Champions, and will be until this fall. However this means they will not be able to fly under the radar as they did in 2014, or use the "nobody believed in us!" battle cry as they did in 2015. In 2016, the Royals will have the target placed firmly on their back. The big bad bully on the block is us, and all the underlings are gunning for us.
So who is the biggest challenger to the crown at this point? Most of the big moves have been made, and while there are still a few good free agents out there like Dexter Fowler and Yovani Gallardo, we are getting a clearer picture of what each team's roster will look like by Opening Day. Here's my way-too-early ranking of how the American League contenders stack up as we get ready for spring training.
1. Houston Astros
2015 record: 86-76
The Astros really seemed like they were one or two big moves away from clearly solidifying themselves as the favorite to win the American League pennant. Instead, their only big move this winter was to trade for young closer Ken Giles. The team signed pitcher Doug Fister, but lost Scott Kazmir. Still, they are a team with upside, as we can expect youngsters like Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Lance McCullers to improve. Prospect A.J. Reed could possibly be ready to contribute this season as well. The Astros are the most serious contender to topple the Royals, but if they blow another series in October, we may wonder why they didn't do more this off-season.
2. Boston Red Sox
2015 record: 78-84
The Red Sox had their second-consecutive losing season since winning the 2013 championship, but they should be back in a major way in 2016. They addressed their atrocious defense from last year by moving Hanley Ramirez from left field to first base, leaving an outfield of Rusney Castllo, Jackie Bradley, and Mookie Betts that should be fantastic defensively. Betts, Bradley, and shortstop Xander Bogaerts seem to be rising stars, and if the Red Sox can get a bounceback year out of Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, the offense should be in good shape. Boston had a major upgrade in their pitching staff by replacing Wade Miley with free agent David Price, then acquiring closer Craig Kimbrel for the pen.
3. Cleveland Indians
2015 record: 81-80
All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley will likely miss at least a month of the season, possibly more, with a shoulder injury and his health could very well decide the fate of the Central Division, The Indians are another team that seemingly had an opportunity to make a big move to vault themselves into serious contention, only to make middling moves like signing Rajai Davis and Mike Napoli. They still have that terrific rotation, and the defense should be vastly improved with Davis and Napoli, and a full season of shortstop sensation Francisco Lindor. This could finally be the year the team fulfills expectations and goes on a deep post-season run, but there are enough flaws with this team to be hesitant about making them Sports Illustrated cover boys again.
4. New York Yankees
2015 record: 87-75
The Yankees have been quiet this off-season, only making a splash with their acquisition of Aroldis Chapman. Their offense is old - only two starters (Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius) - are under 30 years of age. However they were second in the league in runs scored, and that was with Mark Teixeira and Jacoby Ellsbury each missing over 50 games to injury. The starting pitching should be better this year, although C.C. Sabathia is a bit of a question mark after entering rehab for alcoholism last season. The rest of the staff is made up of strikeout pitchers all 27 years old or younger, and the bullpen trio of Aroldis Chapman/Andrew Miller/Dellin Betances has surpassed even the Royals as the most feared relief staff in baseball.
5. Detroit Tigers
2015 record: 74-87
The Tigers had a nightmare season last year, but we shouldn't expect them to be down for long. Their addition of Justin Upton gives them a fearsome lineup, even if it may be a bit right-handed heavy. Jordan Zimmermann is a fine addition to the rotation, but the team will need vast improvement from the starting pitching that finished last in the league in ERA. David Price is gone, but the Tigers will be counting on a rebound from Anibal Sanchez and Justin Verlander. The big question, as always, is the bullpen. Francisco Rodriguez may be on his last legs, but the Tigers did make some stealthy moves in acquiring relievers Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson. There is not much depth beyond that, however, and that could prove to be the Tigers' weakness once again.
6. Toronto Blue Jays
2015 record: 93-69
The Blue Jays were the biggest threat to the Royals with their second-half run and ALCS berth last season, but they lose ace pitcher David Price to free agency and could be looking at regression from players like Marco Estrada and Chris Colabello. They will have a full season of shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who they acquired mid-summer last year, as well as pitcher Marcus Stroman, who missed most of last year with a knee injury. They can still bash with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, but the starting pitching looks suspect. Joining Stroman are questionable arms like Estrada, R.A. Dickey, and free agent J.A. Happ.
7. Seattle Mariners
2015 record: 76-86
The Mariners struggled to score runs in 2015, but Robinson Cano went on a tear in the second half after a dreadful first half, and should anchor a better lineup in 2016. Nelson Cruz flourished in Seattle, and with Cano and third baseman Kyle Seager, the Mariners have a decent middle of the lineup. What will improve the lineup is getting rid of black holes in the lineup like Logan Morrison, Austin Jackson, and Mike Zunino, and replacing them with solid players like Adam Lind, Nori Aoki, and Chris Ianetta. The starting pitching should still be very solid with Felix Hernandez anchoring the staff, and James Paxton and Taijuan Walker having quite a bit of upside potential.
8. Tampa Bay Rays
2015 record: 80-82
I don't see a lot of separation between the teams ranked 7-11. Tampa Bay has one of the best young 1-2 pitching combos with Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi, but the rest of the rotation is questionable with Drew Smyly, Erasmo Ramirez, and Matt Moore. The Rays were second-to-last in runs scored last year, and will be counting on bounce-back seasons from James Loney, Logan Morrison, and Desmond Jennings, while hoping Logan Forsythe doesn't regress too badly. Tampa Bay acquired outfielder Corey Dickerson to hit in the middle of the lineup, but his ability to hit away from Coors Field, and against left-handed pitchers, has been called into question. The Rays have upside, but also have a lower floor than some of the other mid-tier teams.
9. Texas Rangers
2015 record: 88-74
The Rangers were one of the best teams in baseball in the second half last year, but also outperformed their pythagorean expectation by five wins. They got nice rebounds from Shin Soo Choo, Prince Fielder, and even some contributions from Josh Hamilton, but all of those players are on the wrong side of 30. The Rangers will have a full season with Cole Hamels after acquiring him last July, but Derek Holland was ineffective after missing most of the season with a shoulder injury. The rest of the pitching staff is full of low-upside starters, and unproven relievers.
10. Chicago White Sox
2015 record: 76-86
The White Sox made a big splash last off-season, only to have it backfire. They doubled down this year with some puzzling moves and non-moves that have backfire potential as well. They acquired Reds All-Star Todd Frazier, which should serve as a significant upgrade, but they will also move newly-acquired third baseman Brett Lawrie to second base, and incumbent third baseman Tyler Saladino to shortstop, a major gamble defensively. The outfield is almost certainly going to be dreadful defensively with Melky Cabrera and Avisail Garcia manning the corners. The front of the starting rotation is very good with Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and Carlos Rodon, but there is little depth after that with John Danks and Erik Johnson.
11. Baltimore Orioles
2015 record: 81-81
The Orioles have had a nice run the last few seasons, but they could stumble in 2016. They still have a terrific core with Chris Davis returning to join Manny Machado, Adam Jones, and Matt Wieters. They did lose some nice complimentary pieces in Steve Pearce and Gerardo Parra without adding much depth. But perhaps the biggest loss was left-handed starting pitcher Wei-Yin Chen. Losing him to a rotation that was already second-worst in the league last year puts a lot of pressure on Ubaldo Jimenez, Chris Tillman, and Miguel Gonzalez.
12. Minnesota Twins
2015 record: 83-79
The Twins were a bit of a surprise last year, and they could be one of the more exciting young teams to watch in 2016. Phenoms Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton should be with the club most of the year, joining solid hitters such as Brian Dozier and Trevor Plouffe. Korean free agent Byung-Ho Park will be interesting to watch, and the Twins will be counting on a rebound from Joe Mauer. The rotation however, is filled with mediocre, overpaid starters like Ervin Santana, Ricky Nolasco, and Phil Hughes. Manager Paul Molitor did a fine job last year, but he'll have to get Sano and Buxton ahead of schedule if the Twins are going to repeat their magic of last year.
13. Oakland Athletics
2015 record: 68-94
A's General Manager continued his string of puzzling transactions this offseason by trading away third baseman Brett Lawrie, then spending most of his resources in fortifying his bullpen, adding Ryan Madson, Liam Hendriks, and John Axford. The starting rotation should be solid, led by Sonny Gray, with free agent Rich Hill having some interesting upside. But the lineup will likely be dreadful, with Josh Reddick having to carry a lineup full of disappointing hitters like Billy Butler and Yonder Alonso, with regression candidates like Danny Valencia and Stephen Vogt hitting in the middle of the lineup. If Gray gets dealt mid-season and there is a firesale, the season could really head south.
14. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
2015 record: 85-77
The Angels seems intent on wasting one of Mike Trout's prime years with a dreadful team around him. All-Star Albert Pujols is questionable for Opening Day due to a toe injury, and if he's out, Mike Trout's protection in the lineup is going to be.....Daniel Nava? Todd Cunningham? Johnny Giavotella? Mike Trout is going to put up Barry Bonds-level walk totals this year. The rotation does not look much better with Garrett Richards anchoring a rotation with unproven lefty Andrew Heaney, 35-year old C.J. Wilson, regression candidate Hector Santiago, and soft-tossing Jered Weaver. Maybe we'll get to see just how valuable MVP-candidate Mike Trout really is.