Monday, June 6, 2016

Cavs' Poor Defense Puts Them Down 0-2

Cleveland's defense had no answer for the Warriors in Games 1 & 2 (TopBET.eu)
This submission comes from guest of the think tank Glen Krebs, who was probably wearing his Steph Curry Davidson jersey while writing this:

For the second straight game, the Cleveland Cavaliers' defensive issues from the regular season (but were masked by their dominance of the Eastern Conference) were exposed by the Golden State Warriors, as the Warriors trounced them by 33 points at the Oracle Arena on Sunday night.  

It's hard to believe this is the same Cleveland team that coasted to its second straight Finals, rolling over the rest of the East with its superior talent level.  Going against one of the best teams in history, however, its deep-seeded flaws have come to the forefront.  Heading back home for Game 3, the Cavaliers find themselves in a position they haven’t been in since 2008: down 0-2 in a playoff series. 

What has to be most concerning for the Cavs is that they seem to be running out of adjustments to make on defense.  Their personnel have put Tyronn Lue between a rock and a hard place in terms of defensive game planning.  Cleveland played defense at the beginning of Game 2 the same way they did in Game 1, with their guards fighting over off-ball screens and switching on off-ball screens.  Their defensive communication was still sloppy, however, leading to a series of easy lay-ups and open shots for Golden State during the first quarter.  

Lue adjusted by having the Cavs switch on everything, which incurred disastrous results as Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson were repeatedly switched onto Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.  The two bigs have shown no indication that they can adequately guard either of those two on the ball, forcing Lue back to his original game plan early in the second quarter. After that, it was all Warriors.

Although Lue seems to be running out of options, there is one key change he can make to try and (literally) slow Golden State down.  After Kyrie Irving went down with a fractured kneecap in Game 1 of last year's Finals, David Blatt reconfigured the offense to feature LeBron James catching the ball in the high post and running iso-heavy sets through him.  Although the strategy had mixed results as James had a historically inefficient Finals on offense, it did slow the Warriors down enough to keep the series competitive for the next five games. Now would seem to be the best time for Lue to return to that, as his players have repeatedly blown assignments in transition that have either led to wide-open threes or defensive mismatches that the Warriors capitalized on immediately.

LeBron must be more assertive in Game 3 (CheatSheet.com)
It will be interesting to see what LeBron’s mindset is at the beginning of Game 3.  Although he finished Game 2 with 19 points and a near triple-double, it never felt like James was in attack mode.  He seemed focused on getting his teammates involved early, finishing the first quarter with no points and five assists.   If LeBron really is the “offensive coordinator” of the Cavs as claims to be, then it was clear he wanted to spoon feed Irving and Love to get them in an early rhythm.  

While the reasoning behind this makes sense--if Irving and Kevin Love get going early they will have more confidence at the end of games--the best thing for Cleveland might be for James to attack early and often.  The consummate team player throughout his career (often to a fault), LeBron might have to let the other All-Stars worry about getting their shots while he’s on the bench.  The most important thing for him looking ahead will be getting Andre Iguodala in foul trouble at the beginning of Game 3 by using the home atmosphere to get some calls that went against him in Game 2. 

Finally, the Cavs were also out-rebounded on both ends of the floor.  Coming into the series, that was supposed to be one of their biggest advantages over the Warriors.  That was not the case in Game 2, however, as Golden State annihilated Cleveland on the boards, 46-34.  If the Cavaliers are to have any shot at making this series competitive, they need to reverse this trend immediately.  

That seems unlikely to happen, however. As much of a toll as the OKC series took on the Warriors, it forced them to focus on both individual and team rebounding in a way they hadn't all season.  Their newfound dedication to improving that weakness has completely snuffed out any advantage that the Cavs had on the glass.  Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green were active in the early going, with Bogut doing a commendable job boxing out Tristan Thompson and keeping offensive chances alive by tapping them off the glass.  After having to deal with Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka for the last two weeks, Bogut and Green must feel like a baseball player swinging a bat without the weights on it.  Barring a major injury or divine intervention, it feels like the Warriors are going to cap off the best season of all-time with a ring.

Random Musings from Game Two

1.     LeBron’s Post Problems
a.      If it’s possible for the best player in the world to improve upon anything this offseason, it’s his postgame.  The King has done a masterful job of transitioning his game to being almost completely interior-based to accommodate the strengths of Love and Irving.  Although James is a mismatch against any small forward and most traditional fours, he still has a tendency to end his post-ups by finding himself underneath the basket with a crowd of people around him.  If he can start his post moves with more of a plan and sprinkle in some counters when he gets stopped initially, he should be the best back-to-the-basket player in the league.  That’s a scary thought for the rest of the Association, considering he’s already a supersized Blake Griffin in his current iteration. 

2.     The Curious Case of Harrison Barnes
a.      For as much as Harrison Barnes has struggled this year, he has found new life against Cleveland.  Lue has tried to hide J.R. Smith and Kyrie Irving on Barnes sporadically throughout the first two games without any success.  Barnes has done a great job exploiting Irving and Smith’s ball-watching tendencies by cutting for open looks close to the basket and driving to a spot that puts the defense at a disadvantage and opens up playmaking for his teammates.  Although Barnes struggles at creating his own shot and often seems to get in his own head, his smart play on both ends of the court show he is still a valuable asset for Golden State.

3.      Richard Jefferson’s Last Stand

a.      One Finals story that never gets old is that of the veteran role player, long past his glory days who knows this is his last real chance at a ring.  Jefferson is that guy this year.  He was ignominiously traded from Golden State in 2013 to clear up cap space fir Iguodala, his four year $39 million contract suddenly an albatross.  Although Jefferson is nowhere close to the player he was as an All-Star with the New Jersey Nets of the early 2000’s, he has aged gracefully as a backup small forward for these Cavaliers.  He was one of their few bright spots in Game 2, tallying 12 points and five rebounds in a throwback performance  Here’s to hoping to he’ll be able to continue that success as the series progresses.  

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Way-Too-Early All-Stars

It's that time of year again, baseball fans--time to vote for the MLB All-Star Game!

Don't worry, you didn't bump your head back in April and miss all of spring with a concussion. May is still a week away.

But wait, isn't the All-Star Game in July? And wasn't Opening Day, like, yesterday?

Not quite, but it sure feels that way. The season is only three weeks old, and everyone still seems to be getting their legs under them. We've only just begun.

And yet, MLB wants us to start picking who should start the All-Star Game in San Diego, even though the stats are pretty much useless at this point. There's not much to glean from a handful of starts or three weeks of at-bats, as the sample size is just too small. We haven't seen close to enough baseball to know who's legit and who's not. We've only had a taste.

Besides, what's the rush? The game is 11 weeks from Tuesday, which means many teams have about 70 games to go until the Midsummer Classic. A lot can change between now and then, including perceptions of possible All-Stars.

But say the voting closed tomorrow and we had to choose today. Who would you pick?

If you were filling out your ballot based on who's played the best so far, it might look something like this:
Get used to that friendly face, baseball fans (Chron.com)
American League

An All-Star each of the past three years, so this makes sense.

Chris Davis is a bigger name, but White has been a hair better.

Could win MVP this year.

Tough to say no to Josh Donaldson, but Machado's hit for just as much power while batting close to .400.

In a relatively weak crop of shortstops, Correa's shadow looms large. He missed out last year, but this should be his first nod of many.

I wasn't sure off the top of my head if Trumbo had been an All-Star before, as it's been awhile since he was actually good. Turns out he was--once--in 2012, when he had that ferocious first half before face-planting in the second.

Rasmus has never made an All-Star team, which is certainly disappointing considering he received Rookie of the Year consideration in 2009 and hit 23 home runs with a 132 OPS+ the following year at age 23. Five years ago, Rasmus looked like a future star. Perhaps that future is finally here?

A boring pick, but the right one. Joey Bats has been an All-Star every year this decade, which I don't think anyone else can say (at least for position players).

It's Big Papi's final season. Even if he wasn't crushing the ball, you're not going to not vote for him, unless you're a Yankees fan, in which case you have no soul and are voting for Alex Rodriguez instead.
I have no idea who that is (kdding--Denver Post)
National League

C Wellington Castillo
I'm pretty sure he has more homers than all the other NL catchers combined (not really, but it's close).

He can keep flirting with the Mendoza line all year as long as he keeps putting up those big-time power numbers.

He's picking up right where Daniel Murphy left off. Apparently playing second base for the Mets in the past six months causes players' power production to go through the roof.

Nolan Arenado's better, but the laws of baseball dictate that any and all Rockies hitters be harshly penalized for playing half their games in Coors Field. That's why Larry Walker's not in the Hall of Fame, and it's also why no Colorado player has won an MVP in almost 20 years..

Never heard of him.

They used to say the All-Star Game was made for Willie Mays. It was also made for Bryce Harper.

He's back, baby (but hopefully not back on the 'roids).

Two months ago he was unsigned despite having the best year of his career in 2015. Did everyone just sort of forget about him? I think everyone forgot about him. Who were we just talking about?

Some of these guys will be deserving All-Star starters, but some will be best suited as reserves or left off the team altogether. I don't think anyone would rather see Castillo start in place of Buster Posey or White taking Chris Davis's place at first. So please walk, don't run, to the ballot boxes. Trust me, you have plenty of time.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Cardiac Kids: A Dream Deferred

This year's Red Sox conjure memories of the Impossible Dream (Boston Globe)
With the 2016 season now underway, Red Sox fans have plenty to be excited about. This year's team features one of the best starters in the game (David Price), one of the best relievers in the game (Craig Kimbrel) and, for the final time, the great David Ortiz.

That's all well and good, but what Sox fans should really be psyched about is Boston's youth. Whereas the teams that won World Series in 2004, '07 and '13 were veteran-laden clubs, this year's outfit oozes youth. With Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Blake Swihart, Henry Owens, Eduardo Rodriguez, Christian Vazquez, Travis Shaw, and Jackie Bradley Jr. 25 or younger on Opening Day, the Sox boast their best young core in years. In fact, one might argue it's been nearly half a century since Boston had such an abundance of twenty-something talent.

If you want to make a Baby Boomer feel old, tell him or her it's been almost 50 years since the Impossible Dream (they'll remember it like it was yesterday). For Red Sox fans, the story of the fabled 1967 Red Sox is as familiar as Paul Revere's midnight ride and the Pilgrims' landing at Plymouth Rock. Tabbed 100-to-1 World Series longshots after after finishing ninth in a ten-team league the year before, the Cardiac Kids shocked the world by by winning the pennant on the season's final day. Then, just as improbably, Boston failed to win another one until 1975, by which point only two Impossible Dreamers remained (three if you count Tony Conigliaro, who played just 21 games and retired that summer) and the Sox had been re-built around a new generation of emerging stars.

The dream was ephemeral, a dream in the truest sense. While the Cardiac Kids are credited with saving baseball in Boston, revitalizing a franchise that had suffered eight losing seasons in a row and gone over two decades without a pennant, their failure to win another flag was somewhat disappointing. The '67 Red Sox were impossibly young, sporting baseball's second-youngest lineup and zero starting pitchers over 30. Considering that young players typically get better or at least stay the same, and that many Boston regulars weren't even in their primes yet, the team should should have improved throughout the late '60s and into the '70s.

Instead, the Red Sox went backwards, following up their pennant with a fourth-place finish and then three straight third-place finishes in their new six-team division. After winning 92 games in '67, the Sox didn't win that many again until 1975.

So why didn't Boston emerge as the powerhouse it seemed poised to become? The main reason is that their resurgence coincided with Baltimore's run as one of the most dominant teams in baseball history. The 1966 AL champs had a down year in '67, hired Earl Weaver midway through '68, and then ripped off three straight 100-win seasons and pennants from 1969-71. Their injury-marred '67 and subsequent re-shuffling opened a brief window for Boston and other teams to contend, but that window quickly slammed shut as Baltimore reloaded under Weaver.

By 1972, Boston's roster looked dramatically different from that which had fallen one game short of winning it all five years earlier. The entire infield had turned over with the exception of Rico Petrocelli, who had moved to third base to accommodate aging future Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio. Conigliaro, Jim Lonborg, and Dick Williams were all gone, too. Carl Yastrzemski still remained, but at 32 his best days were behind him. It was unusual for teams to dismantle so quickly in the days before free agency, but within half a decade the soul of the Impossible Dream team was gone.
Aside from Yaz, the '67 Red Sox didn't have much staying power (ESPN)
So that's one reason, Boston swapping out most of its pennant winning pieces within a few years. They gave up too soon on Joe Foy and Sparky Lyle, couldn't make it work with Ken Harrelson, failed to realize Reggie Smith's value, dealt their 27-year-old second baseman (Mike Andrews) for a 37-year-old Luis Aparicio, and traded George Scott before the best years of his career (then traded back for him after they'd already happened). Some of those trades worked out and some didn't, but the point is that the Red Sox didn't make themselves any better.

One could also argue that Cardiac Kids simply weren't that good to begin with. They were heavily reliant on Yastrzemski and Lonborg, that year's MVP and Cy Young winners, and were just a handful of wins away from finishing fifth. The problem with that argument is while Boston won the pennant by a combined five games over the three closest teams, they were still the American League's best team that year in several respects, leading the league in scoring, run differential, and road record. Anytime you win a pennant on the season's final day, you're going to need some breaks, but Boston didn't luck into its flag by any means, as they had a losing record in one-run games and extra innings.

It's not like all the Red Sox happened to have career years in 1967, either. Sure, Yaz won the Triple Crown, but he was arguably just as good the following year and again in 1970. The best of George Scott and Reggie Smith was still to come, while the best seasons of Boston's double play combo (Petrocelli and Mike Andrews) remained in the future.

Maybe the real reason the dream ended so soon was that it quickly became a nightmare for two of the team's best players. Tony Conigliaro was just 22 in 1967, but he was already a home run champion as well as the club's second-best hitter after Yastrzemski. The future seemed bright for the Red Sox slugger until a Jack Hamilton fastball crashed into his face on August 18th, costing him the rest of '67 and all of '68, as well as much of the vision in his left eye. Tony C would return to produce effective campaigns in 1969-70, but he was traded to California and played just 95 games after that.  Had Hamilton's heater sailed one foot higher, Conigliaro likely would have remained a star throughout the 1970s and gone on to enjoy a Hall of Fame career. Instead, he was basically finished by 26.

Four months after Conigliaro was carried off the field on a stretcher, another Boston star suffered a career-altering injury. Fresh off signing a $50,000 contract for 1968, Lonborg shredded his knee while skiing at Lake Tahoe just before Christmas. The reigning Cy Young winner made just 44 starts over the next three seasons, effectively wasting his prime years. Losing Lonborg, who had carried much of the load in '67 by ranking second in innings pitched during the regular season before making three World Series starts, was a devastating blow to Boston's rotation. It would be several years before the team found another reliable ace and big-game pitcher in Luis Tiant, whose first season in Boston coincided with Lonborg's last. Had Lonborg stayed healthy, Boston likely would not have traded him following the 1971 season, pairing him with Tiant for years to come.

The dual-loss of Conigliaro and Lonborg likely cost the Sox around eight wins in 1968, as both were four win-players the year before by bWAR (any regression suffered by Lonborg likely would have been negated by a full season and continued improvement from Conigliaro). While manager Dick Williams was able to adequately replace Tony C by shifting first baseman Ken Harrelson to right, a healthy Conigliaro would have let Williams play Hawk at first and bench George Scott instead. The portly first baseman batted a dreadful .171/.236/.237 and was worth 2.8 wins below replacement that year, so Williams could have saved Boston several wins by replacing Scott early on. Throw in a typical Conigliaro season and a less dominant but still effective year from Lonborg, and Boston probably wins more games than they did in '67 and challenges Detroit for the American League pennant. Instead, they slipped from 92 wins to 86 and finished fourth, 17 games off the pace.

After that there was no beating Baltimore, but it seems likely that, had Conigliaro and Lonborg been healthy, the Red Sox would have been consistent 90-95 game winners with them, seeing as how they usually won 85-87 without them. Perhaps that would have convinced Boston's front office to keep the Cardiac Kids together, rather than slowly ship them out one by one until most of them were gone. They had built a team capable of competing with the Orioles; they just never knew it because fate intervened.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

White Sox Lose LaRoche

LaRoche is leaving on his own terms (Chicago Tribune)
It's jarring how quickly athletes lose their talents, their ability to do their jobs. One year they can hit a 95-mile-an-hour fastball, and the next they can't. One day they're hitting shots from everywhere on the court, and a few months later they're missing all the same shots. We've seen it happen so many times, guys going from great to horrible practically overnight. And yet, when it happens, it never fails to surprise us. We can't believe that Peyton Manning is suddenly throwing more interceptions than touchdowns, or that Derek Jeter can no longer reach a ball that isn't hit directly at him. Wasn't it just yesterday that they were making highlight reel plays and seemingly at the top of their games?

It's something most of us can't comprehend because most of us don't have skills that can decline so rapidly. Barring some sort of traumatic brain injury, you're not going to wake up in a year and forget how to type or make a sandwich or drive your car. If you play recreational sports, this happens to a much lesser extent. You feel yourself getting older, slower, thicker, but the same thing is happening to everyone else. The teams aren't being re-stocked with fresh 22-year-olds every year, which is why you can hang on in your pick-up basketball league long after you've lost the ability to jump, and why you can play beer-league softball even after developing a pretty substantial beer gut.

Obviously, that is not the case in professional sports. The level of competition is so high, the margin for error so small, that almost imperceptible drops in performance can make the difference between being a star and washing said star's laundry. Lose a mile on your fastball or a foot on your passes, and you'll be out of a job before long.

It's scary, how quickly it can (and does) disappear. Just ask Adam LaRoche.

***

This time last year, things were looking up for Adam LaRoche. He had just signed a two-year, $25 million deal and was coming off a typical Adam LaRoche season of 26 homers, 92 RBI, .817 OPS. Even though he was 35, some thought he could still improve on those numbers, as he was moving to U.S. Cellular Field (a slugger's paradise) and could focus on his hitting full-time as an everyday DH.

"Physically, I still feel great," he said after joining the White Sox. "I'm looking forward to hopefully being in the middle of that lineup and having a chance to drive some runs in."

Fast forward one year, and he's retiring following the worst season of his career.

It was some career, 12 seasons defined by remarkable consistency, If LaRoche had 12 more seasons like them, he'd be going to the Hall of Fame.

Nine times he swatted 20 or more home runs in a season, but only twice did he top 30. Eight times he drove in at least 78 runs, but never more than 100. His batting average rarely strayed more than 10 points in either direction from .270 before ultimately settling at .260.

Even as the game changed around him, LaRoche remained the same. Every year starting in 2006, the major leagues set a new record for strikeouts, but LaRoche struck out at pretty much the same rate every year. Walk rates continued creeping up as well, but LaRoche didn't become increasingly patient. Batting averages fell as all the walks, strikeouts, and better positioned defenses sucked up hits, but LaRoche's didn't.

Constant changes of scenery never phased LaRoche, either. He changed teams six times in his dozen seasons, but no matter where he played--Atlanta, Chicago, Arizona, Washington--he always seemed right at home.

For nearly a decade, nothing got in the way of LaRoche's eternal quest for those 25 home runs and 80 RBIs. Not age, not defensive shifts, not the expanding strike zone, and not even injury. In 2011 he needed shoulder surgery after batting just .172 in 43 games at age 31. For many first basemen, that would be a death sentence. He came the next year and slugged 25 home runs with 100 RBI--a career high.

LaRoche could never run and didn't play first base particularly well, despite winning a Gold Glove, but he always hit, which is why it seemed like he always would. LaRoche looked like he'd keep on hitting until he was 40, especially after moving to the American League and being able to take advantage of the DH. When he signed that contract with Chicago, it felt as though a new chapter of his career was just beginning.

That chapter turned out to be very short, however, because in 2015 LaRoche finally stopped hitting. He batted .207/.293/.340 with just 12 home runs and 44 RBIs--the worst full-season numbers of his career. He struck out 133 times in only 429 at-bats--the second-worst percentage of his career. I he was worth 1.4 wins below replacement.

It wasn't just a terrible season; it was an embarrassing season. For the first time in his life, his only job was to hit, and he'd responded with the worst offensive campaign of his career. He was often benched against lefties (due to his .383 OPS against them) and struggled versus righties (against whom he had a .697 OPS). Many picked the White Sox to make the playoffs, or at least contend, but instead they finished 10 games below .500. LaRoche barely played in September as Chicago played out the string.

LaRoche could have walked away at any point over the winter, and everyone would have understood. To his credit, though, LaRoche came back. He worked hard during the offseason and showed up to Spring Training, ready for his 13th major league season.

It turned out to be LaRoche's final season, as well as his shortest. It lasted just two Spring Training games before he called it quits, deciding to step away for personal reasons.

And just like that, his career was over.

***

People, myself included, don't appreciate how hard it is to hit consistently at the major league level. As if playing everyday for 7-8 months isn't hard enough, you're constantly traveling, facing new pitchers, and trying to master an ever-changing strike zone. You deal with different weather, altitudes, and hitter's backgrounds. The scouting report on you gets a little longer, so pitchers know how to attack your weaknesses and the defense knows where you're going to hit it before you do. No wonder hitters are like mad scientists, constantly making adjustments, tinkering with their swings, toying with their stances, trying whatever they can think of that might help them gain an edge and hoping to God it actually works.

Whatever Adam LaRoche was doing, it worked pretty darn well for 12 years.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Praise Parity

It's going to be tough for KC to repeat with so much competition (CNN)
If you thought there was a lot of parity in the American League last year, just wait. Everybody's going for it this year, which means anyone could win. It's going to be a fun summer.

I've highlighted the strengths of each team below, outlining the reasons they could be this year's American League champions. The teams are ordered by FanGraphs' projected standings, with their projected records and run differentials included in parentheses.

AL East--We've reached a point where every year it seems like every team in the division could have a winning record. Maybe that happens this year.

Boston Red Sox (88-74, +69)
After another busy offseason, Boston now has the division's best pitcher in David Price as well as a shutdown bullpen and a promising lineup. They're blessed with two great young catchers (Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez) who complement each other perfectly, are extremely talented up the middle and project to have an amazing outfield defense of Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Rusney Castillo. This is pretty much the same team that was favored to represent the American League in the World Series last year, only with a better bullpen and the ace that Ben Cherington refused to acquire.

Toronto Blue Jays (84-78, +32)
The best lineup in baseball is back and ready to mash its way to the playoffs, giving pitchers plenty of nightmares along the way. Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchison, and Aaron Sanchez will have to step up and cover the losses of Price and Mark Buehrle (who finally retired), but if they do it could mean a second straight division crown for Toronto.

New York Yankees (82-80, +11)
New York returns essentially the same crop of position players that outscored every team except Toronto last year, and that was despite having three offensive black holes up the middle in Didi Gregorius, Stephen Drew, and Jacoby Ellsbury (Chase Headley wasn't anything to wrote home about, either). Gregorious is never going to hit, but Drew's gone (replaced by Starlin Castro) and Ellsbury should be better with improved health.  Their rotation has loads of potential if Luis Severino and Michael Pineda break out to supplement Masahiro Tanaka, and their bullpen is so good that they may never lose a game they're leading after the sixth inning.

Tampa Bay Rays (81-81, -1)
PECOTA picked Tampa Bay to win the AL East, and if you look at their starting rotation it's not hard to see why. Headed by Cy Young candidate Chris Archer and filled out by Jake Odorizzi, Drew Smyly, Matt Moore, and Alex Cobb, the Rays rotation could be the AL's best. Its offense should also pack more punch this year--especially in the outfield--with a healthy Desmond Jennings and the plundering of Corey Dickerson from Colorado.

Baltimore Orioles (80-82, -7)
Baltimore boasts a power-laden lineup that ranked third in the majors in home runs last year and could easily lead both leagues this year, which is why FanGraphs expects them to outscore every team except the Blue Jays. Most of their position players are in or near their primes, Manny Machado is still only 23, and Matt Wieters could be in line for a big bounce back as he plays for his next contract. Their bullpen was very good last year, and the rotation could get a boost if young starters Kevin Gausman (25) and Dylan Bundy (23) make the leap.
Chris Sale (pictured) and Jose Abreu lead an improved Chicago club (MLB.com)
AL Central--No longer Detroit's to lose, but they're not going down without a fight.

Cleveland Indians (86-76, +45)
The Indians have what FanGraphs believes to be the run prevention in the American League, which could be the case if its flamethrowing rotation holds up. Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, and Carlos Carrasco make for a formidable big three, and there's plenty of arms beyond them in Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin, and Cody Anderson. Cleveland's lineup is balanced, with only one glaring weakness in center field, and their infield looks tremendous on paper. A full season of Francisco Lindor will help, too.

Detroit Tigers (81-81, -1)
After stripping down their team last summer, the Tigers reloaded during the winter and are poised to make another run. Jordan Zimmermann joins what should be a solid rotation, especially if Daniel Norris breaks out and Justin Verlander rebounds a bit. Their dynamite offense, bolstered by Justin Upton, could improve as well if Victor Martinez bounces back, Miguel Cabrera stays healthy, and Nick Castellanos progresses.

Chicago White Sox (81-81, -4)
Two consecutive offseasons of upgrades has the Sox on the brink of contention. Their offseason wasn't as splashy as the cross-town Cubs, but they still improved themselves plenty by signing Mat Latos and Austin Jackson in addition to trading for Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie. The result is a very well-rounded roster that should make a lot of noise in an up-for-grabs division.

Minnesota Twins (77-85, -34)
Minnesota surprised everyone by remaining in contention deep into lastyear, and their young players are only getting better. Miguel Sano looks primed for an MVP season and Bryon Buxton should make more of an impact. A healthy Ervin Santana will help the rotation.

Kansas City Royals (77-85, -39)
Coming off two straight pennants and a World Series victory, Kansas City is this division's team to beat. They're bringing back pretty much the same team from last year, too (minus Johnny Cueto, who stunk for them anyways).

Already, the best shortstop in baseball, Correa could be AL MVP this year (MLB.com)
AL West--Houston appears to be the top dog in this dogfight.

Houston Astros (87-75, +60)
Houston has plenty of power and speed after ranking first and second in the AL last year in steals and long balls, respectively. Full seasons from George Springer, Carlos Gomez, and Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa will add more of both.  Their rotation is really good too, led by defending Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel and fortified by Collin McHugh, Lance McCullers, and Doug Fister. The Astros are the most complete team in this division and loaded with young talent, making the AL West theirs for the taking.

Seattle Mariners (82-80, +12)
The M's are like the Rays--loaded with pitching but short on bats. Their rotation projects to be one of the better units in the league, especially if Taijuan Walker steps it up in his third season and Felix Hernandez rebounds from what was a down year for him. They'll have plenty of help from newcomers Wade Miley and Nate Karns as well as the always-underrated Hisashi Iwakuma. Bounce backs by Kyle Seager and Robinson Cano will infuse the offense and relieve some of the pressure on Nelson Cruz.

Los Angeles Angels (81-81, -3)
Mike Trout, a healthy Albert Pujols, and C.J. Cron can do some serious damage, and they now have the game's best defensive shortstop in Andrelton Simmons. The rotation will be better than last year with better health from Matt Shoemaker and C.J. Wilson, improvement from Andrew Heaney and a rebound from Jered Weaver.

Texas Rangers (80-82, -8)
Texas has big bats all over the place with Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre, Ian Desmond, Josh Hamilton, and Shin-Soo Choo leading the charge. Those are all veterans, but the Rangers have talented youngsters too, as Rougned Odor is trending up and everyone's in love with Jurickson Profar. They also have a pair of bona fide aces in Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish, which will make them tough to beat if their stars ward off age for another year.

Oakland Athletics (79-83, -17)
The A's were one of baseball's unluckiest teams last year, so if their luck flips they'll be contenders again. As always, they're a deep team with talented players manning every position, which makes them better able to withstand injuries. They also have one of the best young pitchers in baseball in Sonny Gray, who heads an intriguing rotation. Full seasons from Kendall Graveman and Jesse Hahn, plus a renaissance from the seemingly rejuvenated Rich Hill, could add up to a successful year for Oakland.
 
My take: As a Red Sox fan I'm tempted to pick Boston, but Houston appears to have the best all-around team on paper. I think their division might be a little easier, too, since LA and Oakland aren't that good and Texas could easily regress if everyone gets old at once. They're a team on the rise, and I like their chances in 2016.