Ten Things to Look Forward to in 2016

Yasiel Puig is looking to bounce back from a down 2015 season. (via Arturo Pardavila III & Howell Media Solutions)

Yasiel Puig is looking to bounce back from a down 2015 season. (via Arturo Pardavila III & Howell Media Solutions)

The 2015 season was an exciting one for baseball. It started with all eyes on New York Yankees’ slugger Alex Rodriguez — who was making his return to the Majors after a season-long PED suspension — and it ended with the Kansas City Royals returning to Fall Classic for the second year in a row and winning it all for the first time since 1985. In between we saw seven no-hitters, two from Max Scherzer alone, 11 three-home run games by 11 different players, including Rodriguez, the Toronto Blue Jays won the American League East for the first time in over 20 years and the New York Mets shocked everyone—their fans included— by making it to the World Series for the first time since 2000.

So will the 2016 baseball season be just as exciting? Here are 10 things to watch this year.

1. Will Yasiel Puig rebound?

When Yasiel Puig burst onto the scene from Cuba in June 2013, baseball fans were enamored with how he played. He hustled—turning singles into doubles and making web gems on plays in the outfield—and he hit an excellent .319/.391/.534 in 104 games with 19 home runs. After another strong season in 2014, last year was a nightmare in comparison for the Dodgers outfielder. Puig suffered a couple of hamstring injuries that kept him out for a bulk of time — he hurt his left hamstring in May and then missed all of September with a right hamstring strain—and his numbers were noticeably down. He batted .255/.322/.436 with only 11 homers, and he was also unlucky when he put the ball in play—his BABIP dipped below .300 for the first time in his career.

The Dodgers and Puig have to hope that 2015 was an aberration, that he can get back to his all-star numbers of 2014 and that he can stay healthy in 2016. A couple of things work in his favor: He’s still young (only 25) and can improve, and the fact that his 2015 was so bad may have humbled Puig a bit, which could make him work harder to have a better 2016.

2. Will the Mets build on 2015 and go all the way this year?

The New York Mets surprised a lot of people last season by winning the National League East division and making it all the way to the World Series. They did so with a mostly young, elite starting rotation and the key members of that rotation remain intact. Not only that, but the young big three — Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard — have more big league experience than they did a year ago. Harvey is now a full season removed from Tommy John surgery and posted a 2.71 ERA in 2015, and the combination of Harvey, deGrom and Syndergaard posted a 2.81 ERA. What’s scary is that all three have the potential to be even better in 2016, should they remain healthy. And we haven’t gotten to Steven Matz, who was phenomenal in his six late season starts or soon-to-be 43 year-old home run hitting machine Bartolo Colon. They will likely be the fourth and fifth starters, at least until Zack Wheeler comes back from his Tommy John surgery (he’s expected to return before the All-Star break).

On the offensive side, the Mets lost postseason hero Daniel Murphy to free agency, but don’t feel too bad for the boys from Flushing because they still have masher Lucas Duda, who is hoping to replicate his 2014 and 2015 campaigns when he hit 30 and 27 homers respectively, Yoenis Cespedes, back after many people thought he’d leave due to free agency, and the captain, David Wright, who is hoping that 2016 is a better season healthwise than 2015.

We’re going to be honest here: If the Mets’ starting rotation improves upon 2015’s performance in 2016, the offense may not need to score much.

3. Can Don Mattingly survive in Miami and can Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez stay healthy?

Former Dodgers manager Don Mattingly took his talents from Hollywood to South Beach (I know the teams don’t play in either place, but for the sake of my silly joke, please suspend disbelief and logic for a moment) and will manage Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton, along with Ichiro Suzuki and old friend Dee Gordon. He also gets to work with Barry Bonds, who signed on as the Marlins’ hitting coach.

Stanton and Fernandez have injury histories and are looking for a full season of work for the first time in awhile (2014 for Stanton, 2013 for Fernandez). The Marlins did lose reliever Carter Capps to Tommy John surgery, which is a pretty big blow to a team that was already expected to not be that great. They also aren’t supposed to be that terrible either, at least compared to the two teams that the projections have finishing behind them. Both Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA and FanGraphs have Miami pegged in third place, ahead of the Braves and the Phillies, though FanGraphs is more optimistic about their win total, pegging Miami for 79 wins compared to 73 in PECOTA. Hopefully for Mattingly, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria will be patient and understand that this team of youngsters and Ichiro is expected to finish as a middle of the road team in the National League East in 2016.

4. Will the rookie stars of 2015 experience the dreaded sophomore slump?

Last season was a good one for players making their major league debut. Guys like NL rookie of the Year Kris Bryant of the Cubs (.275/.369/.488 with 25 home runs in 151 games) and Noah Syndergaard of the Mets (9-7, 3.24 ERA, 3.25 FIP, 2.91 xFIP in 24 starts) helped their teams make it to the playoffs; Carlos Correa of the Houston Astros (.279/.345/.512 with 22 home runs in 99 games) won AL rookie of the year; Francisco Lindor of the Indians (.313/.353/.482 with 12 home runs in 99 games), Jung Ho-Kang of the Pirates (.287/.355/.461 with 15 home runs in 126 games) and Matt Duffy of the Giants (.295/.334/.428 with 12 home runs in 149 games) all had strong seasons as well. And then there were Joc Pederson of the Dodgers, who was voted to the All-Star Game, Justin Bour of the Marlins (262/.321/.479 with 23 home runs in 129 games), Kyle Schwarber of the Cubs (.246/.355/.487 with 16 home runs in 69 games), Carson Smith of the Mariners (2.31 ERA, 2.12 FIP, 2.36 xFIP) and Stephen Piscotty of the Cardinals (.305/.359/.494 in 63 games).

There was an abundance of stand-out rookies in 2015 and it will be a lot of fun to see whether they build upon their stellar debuts or fade into obscurity in a few seasons.

5. Which rookies will shine in 2016?

Look out for these names this season: Jose Berrios and Byron Buxton of the Twins, Joey Gallo of the Rangers, Steven Matz of the Mets (who you saw in the playoffs last year but who is still a rookie by service time), Blake Snell of the Rays, Trea Turner of the Nationals (who may have a shot at playing shortstop now that Ian Desmond went to Texas), Jesse Winker of the Reds, and Julio Urias and Corey Seager of the Dodgers. These are the players who are expected to make an impact this season. Seager seems to be everyone’s choice as front runner for Rookie of the Year, much like Kris Bryant was last season, but don’t be surprised if someone like Matz or Turner walks away with the award either.

This season could be more of the same with regard to strong rookie performances. Add to those above J.P. Crawford of the Phillies, Orlando Arcia of the Brewers, Marco Gonzales of the Cardinals, and Josh Bell of the Pirates, who all have a chance of making an impact with their major league squads this season.

6. What will the return of Dusty Baker mean for the Washington Nationals?

It seems like every season preview the last few years has a slot reserved specifically for the Washington Nationals. Whether it’s about a free agent signing or about the fact that the Nationals, once again, didn’t live up to high expectations placed upon them at the start of the season, something is always going on with them. This time, we have a new manager joining the fray and he’s not a newcomer to baseball or to a team in flux.

The All Scott Boras Contract Team
Spoiler: MIke Trout isn’t on it, but perhaps two Alex Rodriguezes make up for it.

After a long absence, Dusty Baker, who was last seen as manager of the Cincinnati Reds in 2013, has returned to baseball as manager for the Nationals. While he was away, Baker worked for TBS doing playoff coverage last season. And shortly after he was hired, Baker made headlines, and not in a good way, when he made some questionable (at best) statements about domestic violence, Aroldis Chapman and MLB’s response to his October incident. Since those comments, Baker hasn’t been in the news much and that’s a good thing for him and his team. After all, everyone’s still reeling from the sight of closer Nats closer Jonathan Papelbon choking MVP Bryce Harper in the home dugout during a game in late September and their former manager Matt Williams acting as if nothing happened.

The Nationals definitely needed a change at the top, but a lot of people around baseball are wondering if Baker, an old school manager, is the right fit for this ball club. That remains to be seen, but what the Nationals, and Baker, really need most in 2016 is a quiet season with no expectations thrust upon them, and no controversial incidents. If that’s the case, and they do play well, and they happen to make the playoffs, it will be a pleasant surprise for their fans who have witnessed enough turmoil the last few seasons to last a lifetime. Of course, Harper and Papelbon are both still on the team…

PECOTA has them just sneaking into the playoffs, as does FanGraphs, so maybe not having the pressure of being a favorite to make (and win) the World Series will help the Nationals survive 2016. We just have to wait and see how Baker responds to his new team.

7. Who will improve upon last year’s performance and who will falter?

A few teams had particularly disappointing seasons in 2015. Chief among them were the Tigers, Red Sox, Mariners and Nationals. You also had teams who had surprising performances in 2015 and who are looking to build upon them, such as the Houston Astros.

The Tigers are looking to take back the American League Central, which they had won from 2011-2014, before finishing last in 2015. Unfortunately for them, most of the projection systems and baseball experts are not expecting them to finish in first this season. Of course, projections are often wrong and other teams can suffer unexpected injuries which could enable the Tigers to reclaim their throne. More ifs for the Tigers: if they stay healthy, if Justin Verlander can rebound from an iffy 2015 and if newcomer Jordan Zimmermann, who signed with the Tigers in November, can make the transition from the National League to the American League.

The Red Sox are hoping their offense will bounce back after disappointing seasons from the aforementioned Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval and Dustin Pedroia, that David Price will slip into their ace slot with no issues and that Craig Kimbrel will make the transition into the American League with no hiccups. It’s expected that they can go from worst to first again, as they did in 2013, holding off the reigning American League East champion, Toronto Blue Jays.

The Mariners’ disappointing 76-win 2015 which resulted in team president Kevin Mather firing general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Lloyd McClendon and replacing them with Jerry Dipoto and first-time big league manager Scott Servais, who was Dipoto’s assistant GM with the Angels. Got that?

One of Seattle’s biggest letdowns last season was its 240-million-dollar man, Robinson Cano, who had a rough beginning in 2015. He suffered from a stomach ailment that dragged his first half numbers down to an un-Cano-like .251/.290/.370, with only six home runs in 86 games. Luckily for Cano and the Mariners, his numbers dramatically improved in the second half when he hit a more Cano-like .331/.387/.540 with 15 home runs in 70 games.

Another guy who had a somewhat rough 2015 was starter Felix Hernandez. After pitching to a 2.14 ERA in 34 starts in 2014, Hernandez had a 3.53 ERA in 31 starts last season. He still won 18 games, but Felix is turning 30 in 2016, and as we’ve seen with other pitchers of his caliber and with as many innings under their belt (2,262.1), it’s possible that we’ve already seen the best of King Felix. By WAR, 2015 was his worst season since his rookie 2005 season. Good news for the Mariners is that they’ll probably improve in 2016, but the bad news is that they still might finish behind the next team we’re going to talk about, the Houston Astros.

The Astros surprised people with their 2015 performance, which was good enough to earn them a spot in the American League Division Series against the eventual champion Kansas City Royals. They ended up losing the series in five games, but they gave the Royals a challenge and they are expected to improve enough in 2016 to possibly win the West, if everyone stays healthy and repeats, or improves upon, their performances in 2015. Rookie phenom Carlos Correa and 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel are the players to watch. If they can duplicate last season’s numbers, the Astros definitely have a shot to improve in 2016.

On the other side of the coin, the Cardinals won 100 games last season. Ho hum, what else is new? Well, it looks like they’re going to be one of the teams that may actually fall back to earth a bit in 2016. They lost two big free agents in Jason Heyward and John Lackey to the rival Cubs, and PECOTA is not being kind to them at all. It’s projecting an 81-81 season in 2016. FanGraphs is slightly more kind, pegging them for an 85-77 record, which would still be a 15-win drop-off.

The last time the Cardinals finished with fewer than 90 wins was in 2012, when they finished with 88, but even then, they still made it to the NLCS. So what’s so different about this upcoming season aside from losing an important bat and a front-end starter? Everyone’s a year older, Adam Wainwright is coming back from injury and the Cubs are projected to be the NL Central winners in 2016.

The reigning World Series champion Royals are another team that’s expected to come back down to earth. They lost midseason acquisition Johnny Cueto to free agency, gained Ian Kennedy through free agency and extended Salvador Perez. So what’s so different in 2016 that they’re projected to only win 76 games in PECOTA and only 81 according to FanGraphs? It seems the computers didn’t like them last year either. Their offense is returning pretty much intact. Kris Medlen is returning from injury and if he can stay healthy, provides a little more depth to their pitching staff. Sure they have a big question mark in their rotation in Kennedy, who’s been over in the National League for the past seven seasons but if the Royals can make it to October for the third year in a row, why would anyone bet against them making another long run?

8. Will Alex Rodriguez pass Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list?

Last year, fans and beat writers were wondering if Alex Rodriguez would even make it through spring training without getting cut by the New York Yankees. Now, coming into the 2016 season, he’s only 27 home runs away from tying Babe Ruth on the all-time list at 714. We say “only” because Rodriguez had a pretty strong 2015, finishing with 33 home runs while hitting primarily as a DH. If he stays healthy, and if his body doesn’t suddenly remember that it’s soon to be 41, it’s  possible that he could pass Ruth in 2016. If he doesn’t, Rodriguez can do it in the early days of what will more than likely be his last in baseball, 2017.

When Rodriguez returned to baseball after his 162-game suspension last season, he was obviously well-rested and that seemed to help him in the first half, when he batted .278/.382/.516 with 18 home runs. He seemed to slow down a bit in August and September, and he admitted as much in the offseason, but Rodriguez still hit 15 home runs in his not-as-strong second half. Last year was also his first year as a full-time DH, so maybe now that he knows what to expect, and has a routine, he can actually repeat last season’s performance.

9. Notable Changes and Comebacks

A lot of guys changed scenery—and uniforms—this offseason, and for some reason, and a bunch of the more notable free agents went to different teams within their division. David Price, who helped Toronto win the AL East and make the ALCS, is now Boston’s ace. Jason Heyward and John Lackey went from the Cardinals to the Cubs, Zack Greinke traveled east from LA and landed in Arizona, and Daniel Murphy took a trip down I-95 from New York to D.C.

Other notable free agents with new uniforms in 2016 are Johnny Cueto, who goes from the 2015 champion Kansas City Royals to the eventual 2016 champion San Francisco Giants (it’s an even year). Joining Cueto on the Giants are Jeff Samardzija and Denard Span. Ben Zobrist also left the Royals and signed with Cubs. Ian Desmond also switched leagues, going from the Nationals to the Rangers, while Wei-Yin Chen did the opposite, signing with the Marlins after playing for the Orioles since 2012.

A few notable players are looking for comebacks from injuries or subpar seasons. Among pitchers hoping to have a full, healthy 2016 are Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals, Marcus Stroman of the Blue Jays and Jose Fernandez of the Marlins. All three are coming back from surgeries and/or serious injuries suffered in either 2014 or 2015. Both Wainwright and Stroman returned to their teams earlier than expected. Also coming back from injury, not for the start of the year but soon, is Yu Darvish of the Rangers.

Among the players who are hoping for a bounce-back 2016 are Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval of the Red Sox, CC Sabathia of the Yankees, and Anthony Rendon of the Nationals. Ramirez and Sandoval had atrocious seasons and the Red Sox are hoping the former All-Stars can rebound in 2016 both offensively and defensively. Sabathia, who announced he was entering rehab for alcohol abuse right before the American League Wild Card game, is looking to build upon his strong finish to 2015, when he was 2-1 in five starts with an ERA under 3.00. Rendon had an injury-plagued season in which he played in only 80 games. If he can repeat his superlative 2014, when he won a Silver Slugger, he’ll be in good shape.

10. The David Ortiz farewell tour

After a hiatus in 2015, the farewell tour is making its return to major league baseball this season. This time, the player bidding the game a fond farewell is Red Sox slugger David Ortiz. Ortiz, who announced that the 2016 season would be his last, is entering his 14th year with the Sox and will leave the sport as one of the most feared designated hitters in history. He enters 2016 with a .284/.378/.547 regular season career line with 503 home runs. Oh, and also the 17 postseason homers, which is tied for seventh all-time.

Ortiz will begin his farewell tour on the road in Cleveland against the Indians on April 4. The Red Sox will play there for three games, then travel to up to Toronto for three more road games before returning home to Fenway Park for the home opener against Baltimore on April 11. Some key dates for Ortiz in his last season: His last game in Yankee Stadium, which will be on Sept. 29, and his last regular season game in Fenway Park on Oct. 2.

Will Ortiz close his career with a big moment like other retiring stars of the recent past (like Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera) have? Will he hit a walk-off in his last game at Fenway? Will it occur during a long playoff run? Will the fans in Yankee Stadium give Ortiz a standing ovation or a Bronx cheer? And how will fans around the rest of baseball receive him as he’s waving goodbye to the sport he’s excelled in for well over a decade?

It’s just another thing to look forward to in 2016.


Stacey Gotsulias is a freelance writer whose work has appeared on ESPN.com, USA Today online and FanRag Sports. She currently writes for Baseball Prospectus and is an author of The Hardball Times. Follow her on Twitter @StaceGots.
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AaronB
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AaronB

I’m a Cards guy, but even then, I can’t really decide on them. They’ll be in the thick of it, but will it be enough? Losing Lackey hurts, but the Cards are replacing him with Wainwright. Lackey had 5.7 bWAR. Wainwright, when healthy, was over 6 bWAR for his last four healthy seasons. I think this is a net gain for the Cards. Wainwright may not be a 6 level pitcher anymore, but I doubt Lackey puts up another near 6 season either. I expect him to regress and I expect Waino to at least put up a 4 bWAR… Read more »

MattJ
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MattJ

“Gricuk is slated to play CF, and he was actually more productive than that ROY from the Cubs last season on a per bat basis.”

No.

burts_beads
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burts_beads

Well, his wRC+ was one higher than Bryant’s last year so he’s technically correct if you’re only taking 2015 into account.

MattJ
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MattJ

The difference in wRC+ stems from an imperfect understanding and calculation of the Park Factor (PF). Excluding the PF only (leaving intact the league adjustment), Bryant was better in every meaningful statistic, including wRC+. The PF in and of itself is imperfect, but add on to it the fact that the Cardinals have had an anemic offense the last couple of years (2015 in particular) and a very good pitching staff (overachieving on top of being strong in the first place), and the PF becomes even more distorted. Vice versa for the Cubs over the past handful of years, who’ve… Read more »

MikeyLikesit
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MikeyLikesit

Awesome.

AaronB
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AaronB

Here you go: Grichuk: traditional slash line of .276/.316/.548 – average one point higher, but a wash with Bryant. OBP much lower, but slugging % is much higher. Grichuk has an OPS of .877 and an OPS+ of 133. He produced 3.2 bWAR in 103 games which produced 350 PA. A full season of games puts his bWAR production to just over 5 bWAR. His ISO for the season works out to .272. Bryant: tradtional slash line of .275/.369/.488 – average a wash, much better OBP, lower slugging. OPS of .858, which somehow works out to an OPS+ identical to… Read more »

RBemont
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RBemont

I believe Grichuk was 3rd in MLB in average exit velocity of batted balls. I saw the stat on MLB Network, so I’m not sure of the original source.

Cordell
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Cordell

Should have mentioned Phillies’ Maikel Franco as one of those emerging rookies from last season and he’s tearing it up in spring training so far.

RGSFAN4LIFE
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RGSFAN4LIFE

Cool Story.