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Tom Verducci: Cubs, Rangers will face off in World Series
1:02 | MLB
Tom Verducci: Cubs, Rangers will face off in World Series
SI.com Staff
Friday March 25th, 2016

The start of the 2016 MLB season is almost here, as all 30 teams are gearing up for the 162 games ahead, including the chase for the playoffs and the World Series. But who will be this year's favorites to win it all, and who will come up short in the quest for a championship?

To get ready for another year of baseball, check out SI.com's individual season previews for all 30 clubs, featuring scouting reports, detailed analysis and more. In each preview, one of SI.com's baseball experts gives the case for and case against each team contending for a title, including the X-factor and number to know for 2016, as well as a scout's takes on the most overrated and underrated player on each roster. Each preview also includes the team's projected finish for the coming season, as we reveal our No. 1 team for 2016. And below, you'll find SI's full projected standings, playoff picks and World Series champion.

Want more exclusive and cutting-edge MLB content? Then pick up a copy of SI's baseball preview issue, now on newsstands; follow SI's MLB coverage on Twitter and Facebook; and subscribe to The Strike Zone podcast, SI.com's weekly discussion of all things baseball.

AL EAST

team w l gb
Blue Jays 93 69
Red Sox 92 70 1
Rays 84 78 9
Yankees 83 79 10
Orioles 69 93 24

AL CENTRAL

team w l gb
Royals 90 72
Indians 83 79 7
Tigers 80 82 10
White Sox 77 85 13
Twins 74 88 16

AL WEST

team w l gb
Astros 96 66
Rangers 88 74 8
Mariners 82 80 14
Angels 72 90 24
Athletics 63 99 33

NL EAST

team w l gb
Mets 95 67
Nationals 83 79 12
Marlins 78 84 17
Phillies 65 97 30
Braves 61 101 34

NL CENTRAL

team w l gb
Cubs 99 63
Cardinals 90 72 9
Pirates 87 75 12
Brewers 70 92 29
Reds 68 94 31

NL WEST

team w l gb
Dodgers 93 69
Giants 88 74 5
Diamondbacks 81 81 12
Padres 73 89 20
Rockies 73 89 20

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

American League

AL wild card: Rangers over Red Sox
AL Division Series: Astros over Rangers; Royals over Blue Jays
AL Championship Series: Astros over Royals

National League

NL wild card: Giants over Cardinals
NL Division Series: Cubs over Giants; Dodgers over Mets
NL Championship Series: Cubs over Dodgers

World Series

Astros over Cubs

Monday March 21st, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 30: the Atlanta Braves.

2015 Record and Finish:
67–95 (.414), fourth place in National League East (28th overall)

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
61–101 (.376), fifth place in NL East

The Case For

Deep at the bottom of a rebuild, the Braves are a near lock to post a losing record for the third straight season, forcing them to re-define success for the coming year. One possible positive outcome for 2016—most paradoxically but perhaps also most obviously—would be posting the worst record in baseball, thereby securing the top pick in next year's draft. That would give Atlanta top-three picks in three straight years, as the team traded this off-season for 2015's No. 1 selection, Dansby Swanson, and holds the third pick in this year's draft. That would represent a tremendous influx of elite talent for a farm system raising the expectations for their eventual return to contention in the years to come.

The Braves don’t necessarily need to get the top pick, either. Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant and Twins centerfielder Byron Buxton were No. 2 picks; Orioles third baseman Manny Machado was a No. 3 selection; and there are those who believe that last year’s third pick, high school shortstop Brendan Rodgers, is a better prospect than Swanson (Baseball Prospectus has Rodgers seven spots ahead of Swanson on its Top 101 prospects list for 2016). Three straight top-three picks would fast track Atlanta back toward a meaningful and potentially lasting contention.

Taking a more conventional approach, the Braves could measure success by the progress made by the players they hope will be a part of that next winning team. On the farm, that means a successful jump to the high minors by Swanson. Sean Newcomb, the potential front-of-the-rotation lefty acquired in the Andrelton Simmons deal, needs to show improved command at Triple A. Slick-fielding shortstop prospect Ozzie Albies needs a good showing at the plate at high A ball, and top 2015 draft picks Austin Riley and Kolby Allard need strong full-season debuts.

At the major league level, righthander Aaron Blair, who came over from the Diamondbacks with Swanson, must make a solid big-league debut. Hector Olivera needs to make a smooth transition to leftfield and prove his ability to hit major league pitching. Arodys Vizcaino has to take over the closer job, likely in the wake of Jason Grilli being dealt at the non-waiver deadline. Julio Teheran must bounce back from a disappointing 2015 campaign. Ender Inciarte needs to improve against lefthanded pitching and establish himself as a quality everyday centerfielder. Freddie Freeman has to turn in a healthy and productive season. If all of those things happen, the Braves may win a few too many games to get that elite draft pick, but they won’t need the consolation prize nearly as much.

The Case Against

The worst thing that could happen to the Braves is that they have a surprisingly successful major league season due to some fluky, last-gasp performances from their veterans. Winning roughly 77 games could drop them out of the top ten in the draft, and their pick subsequently wouldn’t be protected, limiting their ability to make free-agent upgrades for their move to their new ballpark next season.

Winning games because some combination of shortstop Erick Aybar, righthander Bud Norris, catcher A.J. Pierzynski, Grilli, utility man Kelly Johnson, third baseman Gordon Beckham, reliever Jim Johnson, centerfielder Michael Bourn and utility infielder Emilio Bonifacio—all of whom will be free agents at the end of the year—had surprising seasons would be a total disaster for Atlanta. Fortunately for the Braves, that’s extremely unlikely to happen.

MORE MLB: NL breakout candidates | NL busts | NL rookies to watch

Willie J. Allen, Jr./AP

X-Factor: Hector Olivera, LF

Of the players projected to make the Braves’ Opening Day roster, Olivera is the biggest unknown. Signed to a six-year, $62.5 million contract by the Dodgers last May, the Cuban defector (who has five years and $32.5 million remaining on his contract) was acquired by the Braves last July in the three-team,13-player trade that sent lefty Alex Wood and infield prospect Jose Peraza to the Dodgers. Primarily a second baseman in Cuba, Olivera played third base exclusively in his first major league opportunity with the Braves last September but is being moved to leftfield full time this season.

Red flags abound. For starters, Olivera will turn 31 on April 5. Concerns over the state of his right (throwing) elbow prompted the Dodgers to include language in his contract adding a $1 million option for 2021 if he needs Tommy John surgery at any time prior to that season. He has no experience in the outfield, and his bat is unproven. Early scouting reports suggest that the move to left will be a rough one for Olivera and that, while he does have good hand-eye-coordination and the ability to make contact at the plate, he does not have a ton of power and is overly aggressive at the plate; he's unlikely to add to his value by drawing walks. Given that the Braves gave up four years of control over Wood and six over Peraza, they need Olivera to pan out for that trade not to look like a massive blunder, but his ceiling seems limited.

Number To Know: 20

This will be the 20th and final season for the Braves at Turner Field before they move into the new, suburban SunTrust Park next year. That’s significant for many reasons. They will become the first major league team to abandon a stadium built during what can roughly be described as the Bud Selig-era stadium explosion. It also marks the shortest tenure for a major league team in a steel-and-concrete, baseball-only stadium in which they were the initial tenants—not counting the many newer ballparks still in use, all of which are expected to remain in use past their twentieth seasons. After the Braves’ final game in Turner Field on Sunday, Oct. 2, Turner Field will be converted into a football stadium by Georgia State University, which bought the rights to the stadium and the surrounding land in December.

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Nick Markakis, RF

“Markakis was such a good player with Baltimore, but with his neck, his shoulder, he has really battled injuries. He can rake some doubles out there, but he doesn’t drive a ton of balls. He has no power left. He has lost some speed. He has lost some arm strength in rightfield. You’re not getting typical rightfield production. He can still hit a little bit, and he’s really good in the clubhouse, but his body is definitely trending down.”

Most Underrated: Freddie Freeman, 1B

“I think this guy can be an MVP candidate if he gets some guys around him in the lineup. He’s still only 26 years old, and you watch him and you see bat speed, you see power, you see leverage. This guy has some kind of thunder in that bat. If he can stay healthy, this guy’s got a chance to hit 30 home runs and hit close to .300. When he gets pitched so carefully, he really has to be selective at the plate and have some discipline, but if they start building around him [and] getting him some protection, he has a chance to be an impact bat.”

Monday March 21st, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 29: the Oakland Athletics.

2015 Record and Finish:
68–94 (.420), fifth place in American League West (27th overall)

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
63–99 (.389), fifth place in AL West

The Case For

The A’s have been going through a tough breakup for the better part of two years, sitting on their recliner with a tub of ice cream in their laps and tears streaming down their faces. A heart-breaking 1–0 loss to the Royals in the 2014 AL wild-card game and a disastrous campaign last year have left a dismal mood in Oakland. But while there's not exactly plenty to look forward to this season for the A's, there is some promise on the horizon.

Marcus Semien, 25, is slowly building himself up into a legitimate starting shortstop. Centerfielder Billy Burns has been a pleasant surprise, and righthander Jesse Hahn was about as consistent as 25-year-olds come before his elbow injury last season. Semien, in particular, could be poised to break out in 2016: His defense is much-improved, and he finished last year on a high-note at the plate, hitting .283/.352/.478 with seven homers from Aug. 1 through the end of the season.

Old friend Jed Lowrie is back after a rough season in Houston to rescue the A’s from their second base issues, replacing the jettisoned Brett Lawrie, and he will join newly-acquired outfielder Khris Davis toward the front of the order. Between Davis, rightfielder Josh Reddick and catcher Stephen Vogt, the meat of Oakland's lineup hit a combined 65 home runs last year. You can say this about Oakland—there’s the potential for ‘boom,’ but ‘bust’ isn’t likely in the cards. At the very least, the team's offense will be average.

Oakland's rotation is also fascinating, if nothing else. Lefthander Rich Hill (signed to a one-year, $6 million deal this winter) is the club’s new No. 3 starter after a magical 2015 with Boston that saw him post a 1.55 ERA in 29 innings. Hill hasn’t been bad in his short major-league stints over the past two years—injuries have been his downfall, not performance—and if he can re-create what he did in a short stint with the Red Sox, then the Athletics will get a lot of bang for their buck.

Even if Hill can't contribute that much, the A's should survive. Hahn will be back from injury, and you could ask for much worse out of your No. 4 than Kendall Graveman, who was roughly league average last season (99 ERA+ in 115 2/3 innings) but still has room to grow at 25. And the A's still have the right arm of Sonny Gray, who last year posted a 2.73 ERA, 147 ERA+ and 5.8 Wins Above Replacement, good for seventh among all pitchers in 2015.

The Case Against

There’s reasonable doubt that Hahn will shake his elbow injury and return to the starter that he was last summer. In order to try to stay healthy, he’s eliminated the slider from his arsenal and will opt to lean on his changeup more, but he could very well be limited this season and in years to come.

Betting on Hahn and Hill to solidify the second and third spots in the rotation is bold, and there’s not much behind them either. Oakland’s bullpen ERA of 4.63 was third-worst in the bigs last year, and while righthanders Ryan Madson and Liam Hendricks were solid additions this off-season, it's asking a lot for them to shrink that number substantially. The success of this unit will rest on the left shoulder of closer Sean Doolittle, whom the Athletics hope to get a full season out of after he missed most of last year with a slight rotator cuff tear.

If you must find a weak spot on Oakland's offense, it’s probably with the declining Billy Butler. He’s still under contract for two more years and $20 million and was borderline useless at the plate last year, hitting a meager .251/.323/.390 with just 15 home runs in 601 plate appearances. ‘Country Breakfast’ is getting cold.​

MORE MLB: AL breakout candidates | AL busts | AL rookies to watch

Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

X-Factor: Billy Burns, CF

The 26-year-old Burns, taken in the 32nd round of the 2011 draft by the Nationals and acquired by the A's for lefty reliever Jerry Blevins after the '13 season, was a revelation for Oakland last year. He hit .294/.334/.392 in 555 plate appearances, stole 26 bases and scored 70 runs. That, coupled with a solid glove in centerfield, made him worth 2.8 WAR last year, good for second among hitters on the team behind Reddick and Vogt (who tied for first).

Burns will look to take a giant leap this season, taking lessons from Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson on base stealing and further refining his offensive game. Considering the A’s are paying him next to nothing (he won't be arbitration eligible until 2018), he could turn into one of the best value outfielders in the game. If he can get on base frequently, the middle of the Athletics' order will have no issues driving him in. Burns will be instrumental to Oakland's success.​

Number To Know: 2.9

That’s all the Athletics have received in return (in WAR) for reigning AL MVP Josh Donaldson, who was traded to the Blue Jays before last season. The combined efforts of Lawrie, Graveman and lefthander Sean Nolin paled in comparison to what Donaldson did in a career year for Toronto, posting 8.8 WAR. Two pieces of that deal are already gone: Lawrie was traded to the White Sox in December for two minor leaguers, and Nolin was released over the winter to make room for Davis (and subsequently signed with the Brewers). The fourth player sent to Oakland, shortstop Franklin Barreto, is still a while away from being pro-ready; the 20-year-old topped out at high A ball for the A's last year, albeit performing well (.302/.333/.500 in 364 plate appearances).

It’s safe to say this trade hasn’t worked out for the Athletics so far, and with half of the return already elsewhere, it's hard to see Oakland recouping much of the value it gave up. An ascension up the rotation from Graveman would help the Athletics live with the deal, but they shouldn't be holding their breath.​

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Billy Butler, DH

"He’s a $30 million one-trick pony, and if you run out of that one trick, you can't hide him."

Most Underrated: Sonny Gray, SP

"I think if he were on a championship-quality team, he could've perhaps been a Cy Young winner last year. I don't think the world knows how good Sonny Gray is."

Monday March 21st, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 28: the Philadelphia Phillies.

2015 Record and Finish:
63–99 (.389), fifth place in National League East (30th overall)

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
65–97 (.401), fourth place in NL East

The Case For

After three straight seasons of diminishing returns, Philadelphia bottomed out in 2015, losing 99 games for the team’s worst finish in almost two decades. But heading into 2016, there’s plenty to suggest that the Phillies are heading in the right direction. The team has a new front office that is led by president Andy MacPhail, a longtime executive for multiple teams, and general manager Matt Klentak, an ex-Angels assistant GM, and it has placed a long overdue emphasis on analytics. The roster is young and full of promise, albeit short on players with a history of production at the major league level. Philadelphia also boasts the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft, giving it another blue-chip prospect to add to a farm system that ranks among the game’s best, and another top-five selection likely awaits after this season.

The contending teams built (and subsequently neglected by) departed general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. are long gone, but a new, young nucleus is being put in place. Leading the charge is third baseman Maikel Franco, who burst onto the scene last year by posting a 127 OPS+ and 1.7 Wins Above Replacement in 80 games before a fractured left wrist in August put an early end to his season. Franco, 23, bashed 14 homers in just 335 plate appearances last season, and he’ll be the main power threat for a lineup that will have 24-year-old speedster Odubel Herrera up top and 29-year-old slugger Darin Ruf as a potential impact bat. The rotation, meanwhile, is led by 22-year-old Aaron Nola, who posted a 111 ERA+ and a strikeout rate of 7.9 per nine in 77 2/3 innings, and 23-year-old Vince Velasquez, who was acquired from the Astros in the Ken Giles trade and fanned 58 in 55 2/3 frames for Houston last year.

As exciting as those players are, the farm system boasts perhaps more promise. Shortstop J.P. Crawford, the team’s top prospect, should be starting in Philadelphia by midseason. Last season’s Cole Hamels trade with the Rangers landed Nick Williams, who could be the Phillies’ centerfielder of the future; righthander Jake Thompson, a potential mid-rotation starter; and catcher Jorge Alfaro, who has arguably the most power of anyone in Philadelphia’s system. There's also 2011 second-round pick Roman Quinn (a .791 OPS as a 22-year-old centerfielder in Double A last season) and ‘15 first-round selection Cornelius Randolph (a .425 on-base percentage as an 18-year-old in rookie ball). For the first time in years, the Phillies and their fans have every reason to be excited about the future.

The Case Against

The future may be bright, but the present isn’t very sunny in Philadelphia, as this year’s Phillies simply lack talent. Aside from Franco, Herrera and possibly Ruf, the lineup is bereft of above-average hitters, and the rotation is equally thin behind Nola. Prospects like Crawford, Williams, Thompson, starter Jerad Eickhoff and outfielder Aaron Altherr will eventually bring some upside to the lineup and rotation, but until then, the majority of Philadelphia’s roster is a collection of washed-up veterans and back-end options miscast as everyday starters. While Phillies fans wait for the kids, they’ll have to suffer through the final painful days of first baseman Ryan Howard and catcher Carlos Ruiz and lackluster innings and at-bats from fill-ins like reliever David Hernandez, starter Jeremy Hellickson and shortstop Freddy Galvis. A losing season is a lock and 90-plus losses are a guarantee, with 100 or more not out of the question.

To be fair, there should be no expectation of the 2016 Phillies contending or even coming close to it. The lineup is too weak, the rotation lacks depth, and with Giles now closing in Houston, the bullpen is also a question mark. On top of that, Amaro and Klentak have stripped the roster down to the nuts and bolts, leaving little if nothing that could be used to acquire additional prospects. The Phillies’ future will thrive or die on the strength of the young players and prospects already assembled; injuries or poor performance on their part will push back that contention timetable, perhaps for a very long time.

MORE MLB: NL breakout candidates | NL busts | NL rookies to watch

Chris O'Meara/AP

X-Factor: Mark Appel, SP

Of all the top prospects brought to Philadelphia in the last year, none is more compelling or mystifying than Appel, the No. 1 pick in 2013 who was acquired in the Giles trade. Plagued by inconsistent velocity and results, the 24-year-old righthander stumbled through three seasons in Houston, getting plastered across multiple levels (his minor-league ERA is an unsightly 5.12), and his inclusion in the deal felt more like an afterthought. Given his age and lack of results, the odds are against him being a contributor to the Phillies at any level.

So why tab him as Philadelphia’s X-factor? Because if Appel can somehow rediscover the form and stuff that made him the best pitcher in college baseball from his time at Stanford, he could give the Phillies an unexpected boost in a rotation (or bullpen) lacking in impact arms. And at this point, no one is counting on anything from Appel, making him a perfect fit for a team seemingly built out of lottery tickets. If he busts, he’ll be a footnote in Philadelphia’s long climb out of its Amaro-created hole. But if he hits, he’ll be yet another young player ready to make the Phillies contenders once more.

Number To Know: $24.7 million

You can count the number of Phillies with guaranteed contracts for 2017 on one hand: Howard, Ruiz, lefty starter Matt Harrison and righty starter Charlie Morton. Together, that quartet will earn just under $25 million next year, and it’s likely that all four will be paid not to play in Philadelphia: Howard and Ruiz have team options that will not be picked up, Morton’s $9.5 million mutual option will likely be declined, and Harrison probably won’t be pitching for much longer due to a persistent and chronic back condition. The team’s new core, meanwhile, will be drawing below-market paychecks for quite some time, giving the Phillies almost limitless payroll room in free agency.

That won’t have much of an impact in the 2017 off-season market, when there will be few (if any) available franchise players on the right side of 30. But that lack of long-term commitments should come in handy for 2018, when superstars like Bryce Harper, Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey will be looking to cash in as best they can. If Philadelphia’s group of young talent can play up to potential, that combination of performance and available money could entice some big-market free agents, which would substantially accelerate the Phillies’ rebuild.

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Carlos Ruiz, C

“He’s really slowed down, and he’s probably going to end up backing up Cameron Rupp more than Rupp backs him up. You can see his age and all the games he caught during that run have taken their toll. His body is a lot more sluggish offensively and defensively.”

Most Underrated: Odubel Herrera, CF

“I don’t think people have figured him out offensively yet because he is a good hitter. He’s got good bat speed. His one weakness might be discipline, but it’s not always a weakness. There are times he gets himself out, but he’s starting to mature into a guy who isn’t doing that, which could be dangerous for a guy who has the weapons he has.”

Monday March 21st, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 27: the Cincinnati Reds.

2015 Record and Finish:
64–98 (.395), fifth place in National League Central (29th overall)

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
68–94 (.420), fifth place in NL Central

The Case For

It's hard to be too optimistic about a team that lost 98 games and traded away its second-best position player, its ace and its closer and lost another key starter to free agency, but here goes. To start, the Reds still have first baseman Joey Votto, who finished third in the NL MVP voting and posted an even 1.000 OPS while leading the league in walks last season. He alone should be worth the price of admission at Great American Ballpark. And Cincinnati saw subtle, if notable, improvement from speedster Billy Hamilton, whose stolen base percentage jumped from 70.9% in 2014 to 87.7% last year, even though he only stole one more base (57, second-best in the Senior Circuit). Hamilton also led NL centerfielders in assists for the second straight year, giving him a potent combination of arm strength and range that could make him a Gold Glove candidate.

The pitching staff boasts a wealth of young, if unproven, arms (more on which below), but if even a couple of those guys turn into above-average starters, the Reds will have the foundation of a quality starting staff. Otherwise, the best sign of a successful season will be seeing how their efforts to rebuild the farm system progress; what kind of success they have in the draft (they hold the No. 2 pick); and, perhaps, whether or not they can play spoiler for the rivals in their loaded division. Last year, the NL Central sent three teams—the Cardinals, Cubs and Pirates—to the playoffs. Cincinnati faces those teams, plus the equally woebegone Brewers, in its final 23 games of the season. If the Reds can't go to the postseason, perhaps they can ensure that one or more of their rivals don't get there either.

The Case Against

Last year the Reds ended the longest streak among the four major North American team sports by finishing in last place for the first time in 32 years. It won't take that long for them to finish there again. Off-season trades that sent All-Star third baseman Todd Frazier to the White Sox and All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman to the Yankees not only depleted the talent on the major league club but also didn't do as much as might have been expected to replenish the farm system. Of the seven players who came to Cincinnati in those deals, only one—infielder Jose Peraza, who had been with the Dodgers, the third team involved in the Frazier deal—was considered a top-10 prospect with his former ballclub.

Those deals came on the heels of a mid-summer trade that saw ace Johnny Cueto moved to Kansas City. The Reds almost shipped out another star over the winter, but second baseman Brandon Phillips reportedly used his rights as a 10-and-5 player to block a couple of trades, one that would have sent him to Washington and another that had him ticketed for Arizona. Cincinnati would be wise to try dealing Phillips again during the season, and to do the same with outfielder Jay Bruce. That would make an already bad team even worse, but those players aren't going to be a part of whatever future success there will be in Cincinnati.

The bullpen is also a mess in the wake of Chapman's departure. Righty J.J. Hoover is expected to take over Chapman's role as closer, but he possesses neither his predecessor's fearsome fastball nor his track record of success. Hoover has just five saves in his first four major league seasons, and he saw a decline in his strikeout-to-walk ratio and his strikeouts per nine that indicate he won't be able to rely, as Chapman did, on pure stuff to lock down games.

MORE MLB: NL breakout candidates | NL busts | NL rookies to watch

Michael Thomas/Getty Images

X-Factor: Homer Bailey

Hard as it is to believe, Bailey is still just 29 years old. A one-time top-10 draft pick by the Reds back in 2004, he didn't make 30 starts in a season at the major league level until four years ago. At his best, he was good enough to throw two no-hitters, rank seventh in the NL in strikeouts in 2013 and for the Reds to sign him to a six-year, $105 million contract before the '14 season. Since then, however, he's made only 25 starts, just two of which came last year before he was shut down and underwent Tommy John surgery.

Bailey should be back in the rotation before the All-Star break, by which time it's likely the Reds will be long buried in the standings, but his return will be more about seeing what the team can expect from him in the back half of that contract. If he's good, he could provide the rotation anchor Cincinnati so desperately needs; if he's very good, he might even become a possible trade option, if not in 2016 then perhaps sometime in the next year or so. Barring an unexpected turnaround in the Reds' fortunes, they would surely love to get out from under the $63 million he's owed in guaranteed money from 2017 to '19.

Number To Know: 64

That's how many consecutive starts were made by rookie pitchers for Cincinnati to end last season, a major league record. Overall, the Reds gave the ball to a first-year pitcher in 110 games, the second-highest number in major league history. With Mike Leake traded to the Giants at last year’s deadline and the aforementioned Bailey still recovering from Tommy John surgery, Cincinnati will again be forced to call upon those same pitchers to carry its rotation.

Anthony DeSclafani, a righthander who turns 26 in mid-April, had the best season of the bunch and should be in line for an improvement over his 9–13 record and 4.05 ERA. It's harder to know what to expect from Raisel Iglesias (3–7, 4.15 ERA) and Michael Lorenzen (4–9, 5.40). The most intriguing option might be Brandon Finnegan, who made a name for himself as a key bullpen option for the Royals during their run to the 2014 World Series just a few months after he'd pitched in the College World Series for TCU. Traded to Cincinnati in the Cueto deal last July, Finnegan got the first four starts of his major league career, and though he still fared far better coming out of the bullpen (2.67 ERA, .597 OPS against) than as a starter (4.71, .847), he has a versatile enough offering of pitches (particularly a developing changeup) that the team sees him as an option. The Reds will certainly have the luxury of being patient with all of their young arms, and they can afford to figure out exactly which roles work best for which players as they begin building for their next run at contention.

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Joey Votto, 1B

"I hate to throw Joey Votto under the bus, he just is what he is, but I wish he would drive in more runs—or lead them off. There’s your on base guy."

Most Underrated: Michael Lorenzen, SP

"He’s got a great arm and he’s a great athlete. I think he’s going to be a good starting pitcher."

Monday March 21st, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 26: the Baltimore Orioles.

2015 Record and Finish:
81–81 (.500), third place in American League East (16th overall)

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
69–93 (.426), fifth place in AL East

The Case For

On the heels of a modest season that many feared would be the last in Baltimore for first baseman Chris Davis and catcher Matt Wieters, the Orioles managed to retain both this winter thanks to Davis signing a contract with a significant amount of deferred money and Wieters joining the first wave of players to accept a qualifying offer. Davis, who rebounded to 47 homers last year after restoring his therapeutic use exemption for an ADHD drug, should continue to lead a power parade that includes third baseman Manny Machado (35 homers), centerfielder Adam Jones (27 homers) and second baseman Jonathan Schoop (15 homers in 86 games) as well as newcomers Mark Trumbo (22 homers despite a partial-season exile in Seattle) and Pedro Alvarez (27 homers with Pittsburgh). At worst, only one of that aforementioned pair of new Birds will have to play the field at any given time, minimizing the damage they can cause.

Of that group, the biggest promise belongs to Machado, who is coming off a season unencumbered by knee woes and put up across-the-board career bests: .286/.359/.502 with a 131 OPS+, 20 steals to go with those homers, and 7.1 Wins Above Replacement (baseball-reference.com version). He doesn't turn 23 until July 6, so it's entirely possible that the best is yet to come from him.

Meanwhile, the team also retained reliever Darren O'Day, who has paired with closer Zach Britton to become the game's most valuable one-two bullpen punch over the past two seasons. Manager Buck Showalter's use of that duo and his facility with handling the rest of his bullpen should help mitigate some of the question marks in the Orioles' rotation.

The Case Against

Even in a division that's decidedly short on top-shelf starting pitching, the Orioles' rotation scares nobody. Their only starter to qualify for the ERA title and turn in a mark below 4.00, lefty Wei-Yin Chen, skipped town and is now a Marlin. The team's fussing with former top prospect Kevin Gausman and the decline of Chris Tillman have raised questions about the way Baltimore develops pitching from within. Both Ubaldo Jimenez and Yovani Gallardo probably have their best days behind them, and Miguel Gonzalez's terrible peripherals have finally caught up to him.

On the offensive side, for all the power that the team boasts, getting on base could be a real problem. Trumbo and four returning starters (including catcher Caleb Joseph, who may well catch more games than Wieters) are coming off seasons with on-base percentages of .310 or lower, and there's no guarantee they get more than that from their collection of question marks in leftfield (Korean import Hyun-soo Kim, Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard and veteran holdover Nolan Reimold).

MORE MLB: AL breakout candidates | AL busts | AL rookies to watch

Patrick Semansky/AP

X-Factor: Chris Tillman, SP

Over the past half-decade or so, the Orioles' track record in converting their blue-chip pitching prospects into viable major leaguers leaves something to be desired. Jake Arrieta needed a trade to Chicago to unlock his potential; Britton and lefty Brian Matusz had to move to the bullpen; and Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey have been derailed by injuries.

Tillman was the exception to the rule for 2 1/2 seasons, pitching to a 3.42 ERA (118 ERA+) from mid-2012 though '14, earning All-Star honors in '13 and topping 200 innings twice despite a gaudy home run rate of 1.2 per nine. Alas, his shaky peripherals—which produced a 4.22 FIP over the span in question—caught up to him in 2015, less in the form of his home-run rate than in his converging strikeout and walk ratios. Where he had whiffed 7.1 per nine and walked 2.8 in those 2 1/2 seasons, he slipped to 6.2 strikeouts and 3.3 walks per nine in 2015. He finished with a 4.99 ERA, second-highest among qualified AL starters, and a 4.45 FIP. One reason for his collapse may have been mechanical. As Baseball Prospectus 2016 noted, "Tillman has had one of baseball's tallest release points for the past few years, reaching almost seven feet of vertical distance, but in 2015, the arm slot dropped to a release four inches lower."

Tillman did have some encouraging stretches last season, including a nine-start span from June 28 to Aug. 22 during which he pitched to a 2.35 ERA with a 3.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio, double that of his overall one. During that time, he added a sinker and improved his changeup, but the success proved fleeting. If the Orioles are to contend, he'll have to find a way to rebound to his 2012–14 form, particularly given a rotation that offers no sure things.​

Number To Know: 8.8

That's Schoop's strikeout-to-walk ratio; he whiffed 79 times in 321 plate appearances and drew just nine free passes for the majors' highest ratio. As bad as that is, it does represent a slight improvement over his 2014 ratio of 9.4 (122 strikeouts and 13 walks in 481 PA). Not many players can get away with that kind of imbalance, but at least for the moment, the 24-year-old Schoop still offers plenty of promise thanks to his combination of power (32 homers in 817 PA at the big league level) and defensive ability (+10 Defensive Runs Saved at second base in 2014, though down to -3 last year), which has drawn positive notice from scouts.

Schoop swings at everything short of hot dog wrappers wafting in the summer breeze. At the 300 PA cutoff, he swung at the AL's highest percentage of pitches in the zone (83.5%) and the fifth-highest percentage of pitches outside the zone (44.6%). Teammate Jones outranked him in that latter category, and the two players had very similar slash lines (.279/.306/.482 for Schoop, .269/.308/.474 for Jones). That's not ideal, but it does offer something of a template for where Schoop is heading, as power and solid defense from an up-the-middle position player is always welcome. Still, he does need to cut down his whiff rate, particularly against offspeed stuff; via Brooks Baseball, he swung and missed at least 39% of the time against sliders, curves and changeups.​

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Matt Wieters, C

“If people think he's a star player, well, he's not. It'll be almost impossible for him to get that big contract. His arm is coming back from the Tommy John surgery, but it's not back yet, and he's never been a real great offensive player. He's going to have to work to take the full-time job back, because Caleb Joseph is coming on like crazy.”

Most Underrated: Jonathan Schoop, 2B

“Schoop is a plus defender, almost Gold Glove-caliber—one of the better second basemen in all of baseball. He still chases breaking balls out of the zone and has to learn the strike zone better, but he's got power and offensive skills that very few second basemen have.”

Monday March 21st, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 25: the Milwaukee Brewers.

2015 Record and Finish:
68–94 (.420), fourth place in National League Central (25th overall)

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
70–92 (.432), fourth place in NL Central

The Case For

You have to squint. Maybe leftfielder Ryan Braun, at 32 and with five years and $105 million left on his contract, will return to MVP form after a few seasons compromised by a PED suspension and injuries to his thumb and his back. Maybe his dinged-up running mate, catcher Jonathan Lucroy, will be healthy, too. Maybe first baseman Chris Carter, signed as a free agent after being non-tendered by the Astros, will hit 37 home runs again, as he did two years ago.

Maybe toolsy 6’5” outfielder Domingo Santana, another former Astro—there’s a theme for new general manager David Stearns, formerly Jeff Luhnow’s assistant in Houston—will break out at 23. Maybe centerfield prospect Brett Phillips (another key piece in last July’s trade that sent Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers to Houston) will arrive ahead of schedule to save the club from the prospect of regular at-bats for Kirk Nieuwenhuis. Maybe defensively gifted, 21-year-old shortstop Orlando Arcia—sixth on MLB.com’s top 100 prospects list, after batting .307 in Double A—will also force his way into the majors early.

Maybe Matt Garza will surpass 200 innings for the first time since 2010. Maybe hard-throwing, 26-year-old starters Jimmy Nelson and Wily Peralta will suddenly develop into a credible one-two punch for a rotation that ranked 28th in ERA last year, at 4.79. Maybe.

The Case Against

Here is a list of players whom the Brewers have traded since the last day of August in 2014, when they were 73–63 and tied atop the NL Central: reliever Jonathan Broxton, outfielder Khris Davis, Gomez, Fiers, first baseman Adam Lind, outfielder Gerardo Parra, third baseman Aramis Ramirez, closer Francisco Rodriguez and shortstop Jean Segura. You can’t blame them, as a 9–17 September left Milwaukee six games out of even a wild-card spot two years ago, before last season’s disaster.

It was time to rebuild, and the Brewers have the right man to do it in the 31-year-old Stearns, a central strategist in Houston’s successful effort. Now, though, the team is right in the middle of the teardown, and its immediate fortunes won’t be helped by the fact that the Brewers, like the equally beleaguered Reds, play in a division with three of the majors’ best clubs—the Cardinals, Cubs and Pirates. “That’s crazy in one division, especially when you’re playing them over and over,” says one rival scout. “Poor Reds and Brewers, these three teams!”​

MORE MLB: NL breakout candidates | NL busts | NL rookies to watch

Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

X-Factor: Jonathan Lucroy, C

Lucroy wasn’t just the best catcher in baseball in 2014; he was one of the best players in baseball. His 6.2 Wins Above Replacement (FanGraphs version) ranked him eighth among regulars, sandwiched between the Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton and the Indians' Michael Brantley, and he finished fourth in the NL MVP balloting. He paired elite hitting (a .301 average, 13 homers, a league-high 53 doubles) with similar receiving skills behind the plate; he was such a good pitch framer that he could turn a finger-painting hurler into Rembrandt. Last year, though, Lucroy missed a month and a half with to a broken toe suffered in mid-April and then a couple more weeks in September due to a concussion. He finished with a .264 average, seven homers and a .717 OPS, a drop of 120 points from 2014.

Catching is a grueling gig, and the 29-year-old Lucroy hasn’t done it in a major league game since last Sept. 8, when he took that fateful foul tip to the mask. But the Brewers need him to return to form and his natural position to have any shot to compete. Realistically, though, they’ll need him to do so in a sustained way in order to reestablish his trade value—which could be extremely high, as he’s due less than $10 million in salary over the next two years and because several contenders (including the Astros, Nationals and Rangers) have clear holes at catcher. A healthy, productive and catching Lucroy is the type of trade chip that could significantly shorten any rebuilding plan. A Lucroy who is limited to playing first base would have much less value, both to the Brewers and to suitors.

Number To Know: 20

That’s how many spots the Brewers have risen on Baseball America’s organization talent rankings list over the past two seasons, going from 29th to ninth. Only the Braves have made a bigger jump, from 26th to third, and they’ve been strip-mined to a degree that Milwaukee hasn't quite. Aside from the aforementioned Arcia and Phillips, the Brewers have four other prospects who have made at least one of the big three top-100 prospects lists: catcher Jacob Nottingham, outfielder Trent Clark and starters Jorge Lopez and Josh Hader. Unless something truly unexpected develops in Milwaukee, 2016 will really be about '17 and beyond.​

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Scooter Gennett, 2B

“He’s the only regular left from their competitive days aside from Braun and Lucroy, but he’s a little inconsistent with his offense. Not a real fluid defender at second. Doesn’t do the pivot well. For me, not a solid, everyday player. You’re always going to be looking for something a little better. I know he plays the game hard, but he’s stiff and he struggles against lefthanded pitching.”​

Most Underrated: Will Smith, RP

“When he’s going good and not overused, Smith is one of the better lefthanded relievers in the game. I just think he’s a valuable setup guy that has quality stuff: a plus fastball, a hard breaking ball, a breaking slider with sharp bite and depth. He could pitch on anybody’s staff in baseball, even in the Royals’ bullpen. He's one of Milwaukee’s best assets.”

Tuesday March 22nd, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 24: the Los Angeles Angels.

2015 Record and Finish:
85–77 (.525), third place in American League West (11th overall)

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
72–90 (.444), fourth place in AL West

The Case For

Any team that has Mike Trout is bound to stumble upon some degree of success, but the presence of one phenom on a roster is never enough to carry an entire team (see: the 2015 Nationals). The four-time All Star has put in MVP-caliber work every year since his first full season with the Angels in 2012—including his lone win in '14—but postseason success in that period has been sparse to nonexistent. In 2014, Los Angeles finished with baseball's best record but was swept out of the ALDS by the Royals—its only trip to October so far with Trout. Last year, the Angels finished with the best record of teams that didn’t make the playoffs, and a wild-card berth dangled just out of their grasp until the season’s final days. Trout, catcher Carlos Perez and then-third baseman David Freese all did their part by hitting over .300 in the season’s final month, but the rest of the starting lineup hit a collective .233, and the Halos missed the second wild-card spot by just one game. The theme of Trout receiving little backup at the plate was present throughout the Angels' entire season, and that will be the crux of whether Los Angeles can max out its present potential in 2016.

Despite Trout’s best efforts, the team’s season slash line of .246/.307/.396 sat at the bottom of the AL, and Los Angeles' 4.1 runs per game ranked 20th. The Angels will need more consistent production from prolific but aging first baseman Albert Pujols, who hit .244/.307/.480 in 2015 but reminded us he isn’t an old man quite yet by clubbing 40 home runs in his climb up the all-time leader board. In the best case scenario for the Angels, new additions Andrelton Simmons and Yunel Escobar turn in career years at the plate; Pujols defies age and injury once again; Kole Calhoun, Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry do an above-average job at flanking Trout in the outfield; and the rotation behind righty ace Garrett Richards keeps the Angels in games. But without making many improvements in the areas they were lacking—catcher, second base, leftfield, designated hitter—it will be tough to contend in the AL West against the offense-heavy Rangers, the rebuilt Astros and the overhauled Mariners.

The Case Against

The prognosis looks grim for Los Angeles. Missing a playoff berth by so little was disheartening, but the Angels may not even come that close this year. Acquiring a second baseman, corner outfielder and starting pitcher could have turned this team into a powerhouse, but instead, the Halos will be entreating the baseball gods with prayers for uncharacteristically productive seasons from every player on their roster just to give them hope for a wild-card spot.

At second base, the Angels will stick with Johnny Giavotella despite his middling offense (96 OPS+) and awful defense (-12 Defensive Runs Saved) last year. In left, the duo of Nava (.194/.315/.245 in 166 plate appearances for the Red Sox and Rays) and Gentry (six hits in 26 forgettable games for the A's) will form arguably the least productive platoon in the majors. Barring a miracle or a midseason change, those positions will be persistent black holes for the Angels' offense—and that doesn't include the equally problematic options at designated hitter (C.J. Cron, 106 OPS+), catcher (Perez, 82 OPS+) and shortstop (Simmons, 86 OPS+). As it stands, Trout, Calhoun and Pujols are the only above-average regulars in Los Angeles' lineup; they will have to carry an incredibly heavy load.

Things aren't much better on the mound. The Angels' pitching hung near average in 2015 with a 3.94 ERA, and no significant acquisitions were made to improve the ailing starting rotation, most of which will be found in the training room rather than on the mound come Opening Day. Their starters (3.98 ERA) did a good job of limiting hits (.247 opponent's batting average) but gave away the second-most free passes in the AL (303 walks). The bullpen was average (3.86 ERA), though it benefited from a nearly full season from closer Huston Street, who was shut down in September with a groin injury, missing the final nine games of the season. Street has a long and unpleasant history of injuries, and the Angels' bullpen behind him would struggle to pick up the slack if he goes down for any significant length.

MORE MLB: AL breakout candidates | AL busts | AL rookies to watch

Mark J. Terrill/AP

X-Factor: Andrew Heaney, SP

With C.J. Wilson and Tyler Skaggs already set to begin the season on the disabled list (Wilson is out indefinitely with a shoulder problem and Skaggs is recovering from Tommy John surgery) and Jered Weaver potentially not far behind as he deals with degenerative changes in his vertebrae, the stage has been set for Heaney, a 24-year-old lefthander, to emerge as a leader in the rotation. Heaney owns a 4.00 ERA over two career seasons but showed promise in the 18 starts he made for the Angels last year. He finished with a 6–4 record and a 3.49 ERA, and his 1.7 WAR was just a tenth of a point behind those of Richards and All-Star Hector Santiago in the rotation. He will likely follow those two in the order again, and the Angels will rely heavily on him to pitch up to his prospect potential while the rest of their pitching staff mends.

Number To Know: 5.5

That's how many miles per hour Weaver has lost off his fastball since his rookie season. His diminishing velocity was a concern going into last season, and it remains a problem entering this season. Weaver's ERA has gone up every year since he finished second in Cy Young voting in 2011, and his average fastball velocity has correspondingly decreased; he finished last year with his fastball clocking in at 84.9 mph and his ERA at 4.64. According to FanGraphs, only five other non-knuckleball pitchers who have thrown more than 150 innings per season over the past 14 years have had a slower average fastball velocity than Weaver did in 2015. As he sluggishly brings up the rear in the starting pitching parade, he will need to find new ways to outsmart hitters, as blowing balls by them seems to no longer be an option.​

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Craig Gentry, OF

"You've got a fifth outfielder you're considering to be an everyday player. At that position you're expecting power numbers. He has not performed at that level."

Most Underrated: Kole Calhoun, RF

"He just keeps getting better. Playing with the best player on the planet, I think people miss how much damage he’s doing there next to Trout."

Tuesday March 22nd, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 23: the Colorado Rockies.

2015 Record and Finish:
68–94 (.420), fifth place in National League West (27th overall)

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
73–89 (.451), fourth place in NL West

The Case For

On the heels of a 94-loss season, the Rockies didn't make any high-impact moves, and they're no threat to win the NL West. Still, that's not to say that they'll be completely unwatchable or incapable of producing some level of success this year. For one thing, they've got one of the game's elite defenders in Nolan Arenado, a spectacular third baseman who has won three Gold Gloves in three years and led the league in both homers (42) and RBIs (130) in 2015 as well. For the moment at least, they've got a healthy Carlos Gonzalez coming off career highs in games played (153) and homers (40), though with two years remaining on his contract, the team would be well-served by marketing him for a trade this summer.

Perhaps the most interesting facet of the roster is the quartet of young pitchers—Jonathan Gray, Eddie Butler, Jordan Lyles and Tyler Matzek—who are all in their age-25 seasons or younger. Sure, they've taken their lumps in the big league thus far; all but Matzek have career ERAs above 5.00, and Matzek has the additional challenge of dealing with an anxiety issue that remains unresolved. All four are former first-round (or supplemental first-round) picks who since being drafted have each spent multiple seasons on top prospect lists, cracking the top 50 at some point before getting their rude introduction to the majors. They won't all pan out to the same extent, and keeping them healthy has been a challenge thus far, but if the team hits on a couple of those pitchers, respectability may not be far away.

The Case Against

Last year was the Rockies' fifth straight below .500 and third out of the last four with at least 94 losses. Over that span, only the Astros have had a worse record, and they're coming off a 2015 playoff appearance, with a full season from AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa on tap. Colorado has a strong farm system, but the team doesn't have that kind of organizational savior on the way. The Rockies also didn't add anyone this winter who will make them particularly more compelling to watch, unless subbing in Gerardo Parra for Corey Dickerson, Jake McGee for Rex Brothers, or Jason Motte for John Axford moves the needle for you (if it does, seek help). It may be that general manager Jeff Bridich has a plan for how to build a winner at high altitude, but so far, the best that can be said for his tenure is that it's still early, as he took over in October 2014.

MORE MLB: NL breakout candidates | NL busts | NL rookies to watch

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

X-Factor: Chad Bettis, SP

Between the aforementioned young pitchers and grizzled 35-year-old staff ace Jorge De La Rosa is Bettis, a soon-to-be-27-year-old righty coming off a breakout 2015 season. A second-round pick out of Texas Tech back in 2010, he grazed prospect lists in '12 before missing all of that season due to a rotator cuff injury, and his exposure to the big leagues in '13–14—a total of 69 1/3 innings, with a 6.88 ERA and 5.14 FIP—was not positive.

But after beginning his 2015 season at Triple A Albuquerque, Bettis pitched well enough to be promoted to the majors in mid-May. Aside from a 10-run drubbing by the Angels on July 7 and a five-week stint on the disabled list due to elbow inflammation, he was a pleasant surprise, pitching to a 4.23 ERA (110 ERA+) and 3.85 FIP in 115 innings. Among the nine pitchers who made at least nine starts for the team, both his 0.7 homers per nine and his 7.7 strikeouts per nine ranked second. As Baseball Prospectus 2016 noted, "Bettis did a better job consistently burying his slider low and away to righthanders, giving him two secondary pitches (the changeup is the other) that drew whiffs 20% of the time and produced two grounders for every three balls put in play."

Extending that encouraging 20-start performance across a full season is no small challenge, particularly given that Bettis's elbow troubles probably had something to do with ramping up his workload (he threw just 80 innings in 2014). If he can pull it off, however, he'll lessen the pressure on the younger pitchers, a group that also includes Tyler Chatwood, who despite having just turned 26 is coming off his second Tommy John surgery.

Number To Know: TBD

As in "To Be Determined," the length of Jose Reyes's suspension under the game's new domestic violence policy. The 32-year-old shortstop, who was acquired from the Blue Jays in the Troy Tulowitzki blockbuster in late July, was arrested in Hawaii last Halloween on charges of domestic abuse; his wife reportedly suffered injuries to her neck, face and leg. Reyes pled not guilty and is scheduled to go to trial on April 4. Commissioner Rob Manfred, who has not yet imposed a suspension in this case, placed him on paid administrative leave as of Feb. 23 and will make his decision as to further discipline upon the completion of the case. Given Aroldis Chapman's 30-game suspension for an incident in which no charges were actually filed, it's reasonable to assume that unless the facts of the case differ considerably from what has been reported thus far, Reyes will receive a longer ban.

As to what the Rockies do without Reyes, 23-year-old prospect Trevor Story, who hit .279/.350/.514 with 20 homers split between Double and Triple A, is viewed by some as needing more seasoning before he can claim a major league job. While there's no real reason to start his service clock before he's ready, he’s made a strong impression thus far this spring, and the odds of him making the team have increased even further with the news of Daniel Descalso’s fractured left hand.

The 29-year-old Descalso and 24-year-old Cristhian Adames are the top alternatives to Story. Descalso has five-plus major league seasons under his belt and has shown that he's a terrible hitter (.238/.309/.339 overall, including .205/.283/.324 for a 55 OPS+ in 209 plate appearances last year) for whom shortstop is a stretch (-19 Defensive Runs Saved in 999 1/3 innings there, around two-thirds of a season). Adames has just 33 games and 73 plate appearances in the majors; he hit .311/.362/.438 with 11 homers at Albuquerque last year, but beyond those altitude-inflated stats, his profile is that of a defense-first utility man who's probably a better bet for shortstop. He's out of options, which could work in his favor to start the year as well, assuming Reyes isn't available.

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Gerardo Parra, OF

"The trade for him was confusing. It doesn’t solve the all-lefthanded outfield problem, and at this stage of his career, he’s really more of a good platoon guy. And the guy they gave up [Dickerson] had a higher ceiling offensively. It just didn’t make sense with any type of long-term plan.​"

Most Underrated: Chad Bettis, SP

​"He’s really settling in for two reasons: He finally has a defined role after bouncing back and forth as a reliever and a starter, and the club helped fix his delivery this time last year. I think he’s going to be the guy they wanted when they drafted him.​"

Tuesday March 22nd, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 22: the San Diego Padres.

2015 Record and Finish:
74–88 (.457), fourth place in National League West (23rd overall)

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
73–89 (.451), fourth place in NL West

The Case For

Change can sometimes be a good thing. Certainly that wasn’t the case for last year’s Padres, even with many calling general manager A.J. Preller the champion of the off-season after he made numerous high-profile moves that ultimately didn’t end with winning results. But after underperforming last season, San Diego could finish higher in the standings than many predict if the team can find a groove and get career years from several players.

The real question is whether that can happen with the roster the Padres currently have. There are a few potential difference makers on the team. Rightfielder Matt Kemp, who rebounded from a slow start with a fantastic second half (.868 OPS after the All-Star break), could be vital for the Padres if he can provide a consistent performance throughout the year. San Diego also dealt with an injured Wil Myers last season and the lack of a regular shortstop; Myers is back and healthy to man first base, and Alexei Ramirez will take over as the everyday starter at short after getting released by the White Sox.

In the rotation, the Padres still have righthander Tyson Ross, who led the starting five with a 112 ERA+ and boasts a fantastic 9.7 strikeout-per-nine ratio. One key here will be righthander Andrew Cashner, who is coming off a tough 2015 in which he went 6–16 with a 4.34 ERA, 84 ERA+ and -0.9 Wins Above Replacement. If Cashner can turn around his performance and return to his 2013–14 form (2.87 ERA, 119 ERA+ in 298 1/3 innings), the Padres' pitching rotation will certainly be stronger.​

The Case Against

As they did last year, the Padres will enter the season with a roster that looks markedly different from the previous year's edition, but whereas 2015 was about trying to build a contender on the fly, '16 will be simply about rebuilding. Gone is leftfielder Justin Upton, who led the team in home runs with 26 and is now with the Tigers. Also departed: righthander Ian Kennedy, first baseman Yonder Alonso and second baseman Jedd Gyorko. The latter three won't be missed much, but San Diego failed to replace Upton's power this winter, leaving a sizable hole in the middle of what is already a thin lineup.

The pitching rotation for the Padres could also be problematic. Although James Shields and Ross are reliable, the bottom half of the rotation is still in the works. At this point, it looks like righthanders Brandon Maurer and Colin Rea and lefty Robbie Erlin could be filling those spots. Maurer, who served as the Padres' setup man last season, is 4–12 with a 6.62 ERA in his career as a starter. He also last pitched on Aug. 9 and was shut down for the season after dealing with shoulder inflammation. Rea made his major league debut in 2015 and tallied six solid starts, going 2–2 and striking out 26 in 32 2/3 innings, but he's never thrown more than 139 innings in a season. All three pitchers will likely face some growing pains in their starting roles, and San Diego lacks veteran options should they falter.

If the Padres do find themselves in close games, the bullpen situation could be brutal. San Diego traded away closer Craig Kimbrel, who recorded 39 saves last season, and setup reliever Joaquin Benoit. Even with Kimbrel and Benoit, San Diego’s bullpen struggled last season, accumulating a 4.02 ERA, which ranked 13th in the NL. It's hard to imagine that number improving without those two.

MORE MLB: NL breakout candidates | NL busts | NL rookies to watch

David Zalubowski/AP

X-Factor: Wil Myers, 1B

Dealing with a wrist injury throughout the season, Myers was unable to contribute the way the Padres had hoped after the team acquired him from the Rays for top prospect Trea Turner. Myers played in just 60 games for San Diego last season, spending prolonged stints on the disabled list. Myers did contribute when healthy, hitting .253/.336/.427 for a 114 OPS+ in 253 plate appearances, but those stats were still a far cry from his Rookie of the Year-winning form in 2014.

With the addition of former Cardinals centerfielder Jon Jay, Myers will move out of the outfield and over to first base, and with Upton gone, he'll be counted on as a potential run producer in the middle of the Padres' lineup. Now 25 years old and entering his fourth season, Myers’s experience and growth as a player will be crucial for San Diego. If he is able to stay healthy, he could provide the kind of impact the Padres need to return to contention.

Number To Know: 44

In his first year behind the plate for San Diego, catcher Derek Norris led the majors in runners thrown out trying to steal with 44, nabbing an impressive 34% of would-be base stealers. That's the most runners thrown out by a catcher in a single season since Gerald Laird caught 40 when he was with the Tigers in 2009. Norris also set a career-high in starts at catcher with 116 last season, and he graded out positively in Baseball Prospectus' catcher defense metrics. With a lot of questions facing the Padres this season, one certainty is that San Diego will have stability behind the plate.​

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Andrew Cashner, SP

"The guy that’s the puzzle is Andrew Cashner. For throwing as hard as he does, he just can’t get through five innings. I saw a game where he had 96 pitches in 3 1/3 innings. His fastball moves, it’s 95–96 [mph], [but] when things go wrong, he doesn’t handle it well. He should be better."

Most Underrated: Wil Myers, 1B

"Wil Myers has been hurt, but he has real power. We loved him in high school. He can run. And he said he likes first base."

Tuesday March 22nd, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 21: the Minnesota Twins.

2015 Record and Finish:
83–79 (.512), second place in American League Central (14th overall)

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
74–88 (.457), fifth place in AL Central

The Case For

In their first year under manager Paul Molitor, the Twins snapped a streak of four straight seasons with at least 92 losses and remained in the AL wild card hunt until the second-to-last day of the season. This time around, they'll go wire-to-wire with both righthander Ervin Santana, who missed the first 80 games of last season due to a PED suspension, and new rightfielder Miguel Sano, who bopped 18 homers in 80 games as a rookie. They might also get a full season of Byron Buxton, the consensus No. 2 prospect in the game and the likely Opening Day centerfielder given the trade of Aaron Hicks, with holdover Eddie Rosario (who's entering his age-24 season) and newcomer John Ryan Murphy (entering his age-25 season) augmenting the youth movement. Meanwhile, veteran Joe Mauer—whose production has sagged in two seasons since moving to first base—is using sunglasses to help combat vision problems that have lingered since the 2013 concussion that ended his catching career.

As for the pitching, the rotation can look forward to the arrival of righty Jose Berrios (one of the game's top prospects) at some point in the season, though he’ll start the year in the minors and will have to force his way to the Twin Cities given the depth of the rotation. Barring injuries, that starting five will consist of Santana, righties Phil Hughes, Kyle Gibson and Tyler Duffey and either southpaw Tommy Milone or veteran righty Ricky Nolasco. In the bullpen, Glen Perkins should be able to resume closer duties after a bulging disc in his neck contributed to an 8.22 ERA in 7 2/3 innings in September, with power arms Kevin Jepsen and Trevor May in support.

The Case Against

Last year's Twins were a lousy offensive team, ranking dead last in the league in on-base percentage (.305) and in the bottom four in both batting average and slugging percentage (.247 and .399, respectively). Sano (146 OPS+) was the only player substantially above league average, with six regulars or part-timers in the 95–104 range, all but one of whom (Hicks) is returning. Buxton has tremendous upside, but he struggled mightily (.209/.250/.326 in 138 plate appearances) in his first exposure to major league pitching, and Rosario's 7.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio and .289 OBP were both appalling. At least to start the season, it appears that Murphy will take a back seat to Kurt Suzuki, who's not only a poor hitter but also one of the game's worst pitch framers.

As ever, the Twins will struggle to miss bats. The team ranked last in the league in strikeouts, with back-rotation candidates Duffey and Nolasco the only ones to whiff even 7.0 per nine; Perkins, Jepsen and May were the only relievers who topped 8.0 per nine. Fewer missed bats mean more balls in play, and that isn't necessarily a plus for a team that was tied for the league's fourth-worst defensive efficiency mark (.687) and tied for third worst in Defensive Runs Saved (-21). The potential improvement offered by a full-time Buxton could be offset at least somewhat by the learning curve that Sano must scale in rightfield, though to be fair, Torii Hunter was rather brutal there (-8 DRS) in his final season before retirement.

MORE MLB: AL breakout candidates | AL busts | AL rookies to watch

Ron Schwane/AP

X-Factor: Phil Hughes, SP

Hughes was a revelation in his first year in Minnesota, setting career bests with a 3.52 ERA in 209 2/3 innings and leading the league in both home run rate (0.7 per nine) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (11.6, a record). The Twins were so happy with his performance that they converted the final two years of his initial three-year, $24 million deal into a new five-year, $58 million deal. While his salary was still a comparatively modest $9.2 million in 2015, he wasn't exactly a bargain.

Between tinkering with his repertoire and arm slot, losing five weeks in August and September due to a back injury and shedding around two mph in velocity, Hughes was a different pitcher. In just 155 1/3 innings, he led the league in homers allowed (29, a rate of 1.7 per nine), and his strikeout rate plummeted from 8.0 per nine to 5.4. His ERA rose by nearly a run to 4.40, and his FIP rose by more than two runs, from 2.65 to 4.70; meanwhile, his Wins Above Replacement sank from 4.3 to 1.8. Had he replicated that 2014 season, the Twins would have been within a whisker of the second wild-card spot, as the Astros finished just three wins ahead.

Which Hughes will the Twins get? The question is all too familiar to Yankees fans, for sure. Like Josh Beckett and Bruce Bochy's Giants, Hughes has fallen into a pattern of being good in even-numbered years (averaging 192 innings, a 3.94 ERA and 2.7 WAR in 2010, '12 and '14) and lousy in odd ones (averaging 125 innings, a 4.98 ERA and 0.4 WAR in '11, '13 and '15). To his credit, he showed up to camp having lost a reported 15–18 pounds, but it's too early to tell whether he can reclaim the mantle of staff ace. Obviously, the Twins' chances of contending are much better if he does.

Number To Know: 2.76

That's Mauer's rate of ground balls to fly balls in 2015, a career high and well above his career mark of 1.99. Unfortunately, that's not a good thing at all, because Mauer's inability to get the ball off the ground translated into a career-worst .265/.338/.380 line and a 96 OPS+, the first time in his 12 seasons that he'd been below league average. On the 275 ground balls that Mauer put into play, he hit just .207 and slugged .215, lacking enough mustard even to meet his career marks of .248 and .258, respectively. On the 206 line drives and fly balls he produced, however, he hit .483 and slugged .811—numbers right in line with his career marks (.487 and .813, respectively).

As noted above, Mauer finally conceded that the foul tip-induced concussions that drove him out from behind the plate were causing blurred vision and difficulty tracking pitches, saying, "There are times I’ve gone up to the plate and I just couldn’t pick up the ball." If the sunglasses he's using can help him track pitches better, he can back off his attempts to pull the ball more often, which didn't bear much fruit. Where the average AL lefty hit .330 and slugged .610 when pulling the ball, Mauer hit .298 and slugged just .412. On the other hand, where the average AL lefty hit .322 and slugged .478 when going to the opposite field, even this less-than-mint Mauer hit .420 and slugged .636. He just needs to do it more often.​

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Trevor Plouffe, 3B

"He's an okay third baseman, but they think he's a power bat. He hit 22 home runs last year, but he didn't hit all that much [for average]. They're counting on him to be a big-time player, but I don't think he is, personally."​

Most Underrated: Brian Dozier, 2B

"Dozier is a great, underrated player, an All-Star second baseman because his offense is so good, and he works so hard on defense."​

Tuesday March 22nd, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 20: the Chicago White Sox.

2015 Record and Finish:
76–86 (.469), fourth place in American League Central (21st overall)

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
77–85 (.475), fourth place in AL Central

The Case For

The White Sox have been aggressive the last two off-seasons, clearly laboring under the illusion that they were just a few key players away from a return to contention. I haven’t shared that optimism, but I understand its source. They do indeed possess a trio of elite players in key roles—Chris Sale as The Ace, Jose Abreu as The Bat, David Robertson as The Closer—and have some valuable complementary pieces in centerfielder Adam Eaton and No. 2 starter Jose Quintana. I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about Chicago’s addition of righthander Jeff Samardzija (since departed as a free agent), outfielder Melky Cabrera and Robertson (whom I saw as lipstick on a pig) last winter. But this off-season’s new additions—third baseman Todd Frazier and second baseman Brett Lawrie—represent more essential and significant upgrades (as detailed below).

With those two in place, you can follow the train of logic that might lead the White Sox to believe they can contend this season. If Cabrera, who hit .309/.351/.458 (125 OPS+) from 2011 to '14, can bounce back from his lousy South Side debut, that should boost the offense. Avisail Garcia taking that long-awaited big step forward in his age-25 season would help even more. Chicago's new catching tandem of Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro must make up with its bats what it will take away with its gloves. Adam LaRoche’s surprise retirement, meanwhile, could prove to be a blessing in disguise if it allows the White Sox to upgrade their outfield defense by using Austin Jackson with regularity in the corners.

In the rotation and bullpen, more optimism is required. Carlos Rodon must fix his control problems and pitch like the front-of-the rotation horse his draft position in 2014 (No. 3 overall) suggests he should be. Chicago also needs to hope that Erik Johnson really did fix his mechanics; that John Danks or Mat Latos can turn back the clock; that righty setup man Nate Jones can stay healthy; and that the rest of the bullpen can pitch more like they did in 2014 than in '15.

If all of that happens, everyone stays healthy, and the other teams in the division match the White Sox’s stunning good fortune with an equal measure of misfortune, then yes, Chicago could be a surprise playoff team this year. But what are the chances of so much going right for one team in a single season?​

The Case Against

If none of those “ifs” is answered affirmatively and at least one key player (Sale, Abreu, or Frazier) suffers a major injury, the White Sox will likely remain stuck at the bottom of the division.​

MORE MLB: AL breakout candidates | AL busts | AL rookies to watch

Ross D. Franklin/AP

X-Factor: The catchers

The White Sox overhauled their catching situation this off-season, non-tendering Tyler Flowers, allowing Geovany Soto to depart as a free agent and signing Navarro and Avila to take their places. The hope is that they will get more production at the plate from their new tandem, but I think they should have paid more attention to the performances they were likely to get behind the dish. Flowers was the best pitch framer in the AL last year according to Baseball Prospectus’ numbers, saving 16.7 runs with his framing alone—a contribution worth nearly two full wins—and Soto was close to average at -0.6 framing runs. Navarro and Avila, however, were a combined 12.1 framing runs below average in 1,463 fewer chances than Flowers had on his own. That’s more than a three-win swing in the wrong direction, and that doesn’t factor in the injury risk associated with Avila, who has a history of concussions (including three in the 2013 and ’14 seasons combined) and arguably shouldn’t be catching any more for his own good.

As for their hitting: Over the last two years, Navarro and Avila combined to hit .240/.323/.365, and Flowers, who is a year older than Avila but two years younger than Navarro, hit .240/.296/.378. It’s difficult to see how making an unnecessary change in personnel behind the plate won’t undermine the team’s attempts to improve elsewhere, not least of all when it comes to Rodon’s attempts to find the strike zone more often.​

Number To Know: .222/.276/.326

That’s the combined line for Chicago’s second and third basemen in 2015. Over 162 games, every player the White Sox ran out at those two positions combined for 371 total bases last year. Meanwhile, in 157 games last year, Frazier collected 308 total bases on his own. He and Lawrie combined to hit .257/.304/.455 last year, and a simple average of their career lines produces a .260/.319/.442 line. On their own, those Frazier/Lawrie lines may not look terrible impressive, but compared to what the White Sox got at second and third base last year, they represent a massive upgrade at two spots in the lineup.​

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Carlos Rodon, SP

"This guy made some nice strides last year and has some big upside. But let's calm down anointing him as a future No. 1. Let's see him do it first. He had so much fanfare around him in college, was going to be the top overall pick out of college, but he struggled his junior year for one reason or another. In college, we were concerned there was a problem with his back—he’s not an overly athletic guy, his delivery is not strong and loose, and I still have concerns that he just can't have great command with it. No doubt, his pure stuff is so good that he can get away with it at times—but not at this level. He needs to make more adjustments to reach that upper echelon people think he'll get to. I have my doubts."

Most Underrated: Jose Quintana, SP

"This guy is Mr. Underrated. And he is Exhibit A why wins don’t tell the whole story—he hasn’t won more than 10 games but has three straight 200-inning seasons with an ERA that’s around 3.40. I’ll take that any day. He gets lost in the shuffle behind Chris Sale and now Rodon, too. His fastball doesn't exactly capture your imagination. And he's not going to be on billboards in your city. But he is a No. 2 on most teams. He's done this at one of the more hitter-friendly ballparks in the majors. He's signed to one of the better contracts out there, too."

Tuesday March 22nd, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 19: the Miami Marlins.

2015 Record and Finish:
71–91 (.438), third place in National League East (24th overall)

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
78–84 (.481), third place in NL East

The Case For

Starting last year with a 12–12 record, the Marlins managed to hang at the top of the NL East standings for the first month of the season as spectators were left wondering how the Fish were besting the division favorites. But by mid-May, Miami's glimmer of hope was gone, as the Marlins resumed losing and assumed their familiar position near the bottom of the pile. Their streak of consecutive years with a losing record reached six in 2015, but '16 could be the year they break from tradition.

Full seasons from Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez will give the team pillars around which to build. Fernandez enjoyed a successful return to the mound from 2014 Tommy John surgery, posting a 2.92 ERA over 11 starts in the back half of the season. But as one star returned, another departed: Stanton’s season ended just before Fernandez’s began due to a broken hand. Before that, however, the burly rightfielder clobbered 27 home runs and kept the Marlins’ offense among the top half of teams for the first three months of the season. Positive production from both Stanton and Fernandez this season will be vital to the Marlins’ chances at winning.

Miami stayed busy in the off-season, bringing in pitchers Wei-Yin Chen and Edwin Jackson to absorb the loss of Henderson Alvarez, who was by far the team’s most valuable pitcher in 2014 before a shoulder injury derailed his '15 season. But even more important than any on-field acquisitions were the changes to the coaching staff. Former Dodgers manager Don Mattingly brings five years of managerial experience and a 446–363 career record to Miami, and former slugger Barry Bonds was hired to revitalize the Marlins’ bats as a hitting coach alongside veteran journeyman Frank Menechino. Expect Bonds and Menechino to encourage increased patience at the plate (in 2001, Bonds and Menechino swung at the lowest percentage of pitches of all major leaguers and still reached base at a combined .447 rate). The Marlins were among the top 10 teams most inclined to swing at the first pitch last season but had just a .299 on-base percentage when they swung compared with a .314 OBP when they watched the first pitch go by. Bonds’s influence could coax greatness out of the Marlins’ young lineup (their average age of 27.5 ranks tenth-youngest of teams), with players already expressing their excitement at the opportunity to learn from him.

Though the division is presumably the Nationals' or the Mets' to take, a winning record is an incredibly achievable goal for Miami. The off-season changes could go a long way toward separating the Marlins from the middling Braves and Phillies at the bottom of the division and showing they can contend with the top teams in the East.

The Case Against

Each year the Marlins seem to improve, and yet each year they somehow find a way to disappoint. Miami finished last season with a .260/.310/.384 slash line, with its team batting average ranking in the top 10 but the lineup's on-base and slugging percentages lagging in the bottom third. Getting hits doesn’t matter if those players never score, and the Marlins averaged just 3.8 runs per game, second worst in baseball just ahead of the Braves. They didn’t sign any big bats to help boost those numbers, and expecting big jumps in their stats after just a few months of hitting lessons from Bonds seems unrealistic. That offense could sag even further with regression from last year’s batting champion, Dee Gordon. A career .272 hitter before logging last season’s NL-best .333 average, Gordon is likely to trend back toward his career norm.

On the pitching side, the Marlins' ERA sat at 4.02, with the starters contributing a 4.25 mark and the relievers finishing at 3.66. The starting ERA should drop this year thanks to the presence of Fernandez and Chen, but we still don’t know what to expect from Fernandez’s arm in his first full season since Tommy John. The bullpen, meanwhile, seemed to be in decent shape until the Marlins announced earlier this month that flame-throwing reliever Carter Capps, who posted a 1.16 ERA over 30 games last season, would be lost for the year after suffering a torn elbow ligament of his own.

There are still several question marks hovering over this Marlins team, and while no one would be surprised or disappointed with a third-place finish, it will be the number of games separating them from the top and bottom of the division that shows whether they are evolving into true contenders. Last season, the Marlins finished much closer to the 63–99 Phillies (eight games ahead) than they did to the division champion Mets (19 games behind). If they can keep pace with the Mets and the Nationals this year, it could foretell an upset in the dynamic of the division in the seasons to come.

MORE MLB: NL breakout candidates | NL busts | NL rookies to watch

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

X-Factor: Giancarlo Stanton, RF

Whether Stanton can remain healthy this season will make all the difference for the Marlins. In 2014—his closest to a full season since '11—he played in 145 games, led the league in home runs, finished second in the NL MVP voting and was worth 6.5 Wins Above Replacement. The electricity Stanton provides to the Marlins when he is healthy enough to remain in the lineup is undeniable, but the Marlins’ $300 million man has averaged just 114 games over his past four seasons. He strained a hamstring in 2013, took a fastball to the face in '14 and broke his hand last year, and also underwent bone chip removal surgery in his knee in '12; lingering knee pain has slowed his start this spring.

If Stanton's trend of bad injury luck reverses, Miami fans could be in for a treat. Stanton hit a home run every tenth at-bat in 2015, finishing with 27 homers in 74 games. Extrapolated over an entire season, Stanton could have reached 60 home runs last season, easily surpassing NL MVP Bryce Harper and Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, who finished at the top of the NL with 42. Bemoan small sample sizes all you want, but we’ve already seen the damage Stanton can do to a baseball when he is healthy. The key will be keeping him that way.​

Number To Know: 4.1

That was Fernandez's WAR (FanGraphs version) in 2013, his only full season in the majors. Miami's rotation as a whole put up 8.6 WAR that season; in other words, Fernandez singlehandedly accounted for almost half of the starting five's value to the team. Last year, the Marlins' rotation posted a WAR of 6.8. Double that, and Miami would likely find itself among the playoff teams. At 23 years old, Fernandez’s full potential is still unknown, but his value to the team cannot be denied.​

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Justin Bour, 1B

"This guy came out of nowhere last year, crushing 23 home runs, and doing some damage in that graveyard in Miami is impressive. He’s a mammoth and can swing the pole, [and] if you make a mistake to him, he's going to crush it. But now we’ll see if he can make adjustments—I’m saying he won’t. The guy hit all his home runs against righties last year—I think this guy is pretty hopeless against lefties. He'll hit a bomb and everyone will go crazy, but then he'll have 20 at-bats where he looks pretty lost. He's a poor man's Matt Stairs."

Most Underrated: Adeiny Hechavarria, SS

"Say what you want about defensive metrics—and I’ll say they’re full of s---—Hechavarria is a guy who can play on the defensive side. I don't think this guy gets enough love for his glove: He's one of the better fielders out there. He’s maturing as a hitter, too, cutting down on his strikeouts. This guy gets lost in the shuffle with all the flash on this team, but he does a little of everything well, and as he's hitting his prime—he's still just 26. I think there's some nice upside here.​"

Wednesday March 23rd, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 18: the Detroit Tigers.

2015 Record and Finish:
74–87 (.460), fifth place in American League Central (22nd overall)

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
80–82 (.494), third place in AL Central

The Case For

The Tigers won the AL Central every year from 2011 to '14, and it’s not difficult to see how they could return to the playoffs this year after an off-season in which they filled the three biggest holes on their roster with star-quality players in ace Jordan Zimmermann, slugger Justin Upton and closer Francisco Rodriguez, all without sacrificing a player from their 40-man roster. If Justin Verlander can build off his strong finish to 2015 (2.27 ERA over his final 14 starts), he, Zimmermann and a healthy Anibal Sanchez could be a formidable trio backed up by the league-average ground-balling of winter addition Mike Pelfrey and the high ceiling of 23-year-old lefty Daniel Norris. Rodriguez and fellow new arrivals Mark Lowe and lefty Justin Wilson give the Tigers a quality top three in the bullpen, as well, with a slimmed-down and rededicated Bruce Rondon as another potentially dominant short reliever.

On the other side of the ball, healthy seasons from Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez along with prime-age seasons from Upton and J.D. Martinez, continued growth and maturity from third baseman Nick Castellanos, catcher James McCann, centerfielder Anthony Gose and shortstop Jose Iglesias, and continued good work from Ian Kinsler make for a promising attack. Opposing pitchers should have their work cut out for them facing a top five of Kinsler, Upton, Cabrera and the Martinezes.​

The Case Against

The yawning gap between the quality of the name on the jersey and the performance of the player within swallows this team whole. Victor Martinez is a 37-year-old with bad knees who posted an 85 OPS+ last year. Kinsler turns 34 in June. Cabrera will be 33 in April and has proven increasingly fragile in recent seasons. Upton’s contact and strikeout rates have been trending in the wrong direction in recent seasons, and he represents a significant defensive downgrade from Yoenis Cespedes, who won a Gold Glove for four moths of work in Detroit last year. Worse, the young players in the lineup (Castellanos, et al.) all appear to have limited ceilings.

Pitching-wise, things are equally iffy. Sanchez hasn’t made 30 starts since 2012 and has never thrown 200 innings in a season. Verlander is 33, has lost at least two miles per hour off his peak fastball and can no longer dominate with his stuff the way he did in his late-twenties peak. Norris has great stuff and a bright future, but has yet to show he can translate either to a major league mound with consistency. Lowe threw all of 18 2/3 major league innings in the two seasons before 2015 and will turn 33 in June, and Rondon is completely unproven.​

MORE MLB: AL breakout candidates | AL busts | AL rookies to watch

Tony Dejak/AP

X-Factor: Age

Not just advanced age—though that’s certainly a concern with the team’s biggest stars—but also excessive youth. The Tigers have very few players in their natural peak seasons. A third of the lineup is 33 or older, and another third of their lineup is still adjusting to the majors, with McCann and Gose in just their second full major league seasons and Castellanos a mere 24 years old. Of the top three men in the rotation and bullpen, Verlander, Sanchez, Rodriguez and Lowe are 32 or older, and the two starters appear even older due to injury and decline. Rounding out the rotation, Pelfrey is also 32; Norris is the youngest player on the team at 23.

Zimmermann, J.D. Martinez, Upton, Iglesias and Wilson are in their respective primes, but the rest of the team is outside of that sweet spot. Correspondingly, they're less likely to deliver peak-quality performance in 2016.​

Number To Know: 19

That’s how many blown quality starts—a start in which a pitcher finishes the sixth inning or beyond with a quality start but remains in the game to give up a fourth run—the Tigers have had in Brad Ausmus’s two seasons as manager, according to Baseball Prospectus, and they led the league both years, with nine in 2014 and ten last season. A blown quality start is a measure of a manager’s failure to capitalize on a winning situation—either his failing to (or perhaps in Ausmus’s case, reluctance to) call in fresh arms out of the bullpen when his pitcher is tiring, or his inability to detect a decline in his starter’s performance.

Ausmus’s slow hook has resulted in another dubious distinction. In his first two years with Detroit, he has allowed one of his pitchers to throw 50 or more pitches in an inning on four occasions, including letting the 22-year-old Norris throw 54 in the first inning of a game against the Rangers on Sept. 30 last year. The rest of the league has combined for just one 50-pitch inning in those two seasons (by the Royals’ James Shields in 2014); Ausmus has overseen 22% of the 50-pitch innings in the last seven years despite managing in only two of those seasons. Given the fragility of the arms in his charge, including the overworked Verlander, the fragile Sanchez, the surgically repaired Zimmermann and the still-developing Norris, the hope is that Ausmus will have increased confidence in his relief corps this year.​

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Justin Upton, LF

“I think this guy is in a slight decline right now. The body’s getting big. He’s just slowing down a little bit. He’s been terrible in spring training. He’s been chasing high fastballs. He’s been chasing sliders out of the strikezone. I know it’s spring training and it’s early, but you get frustrated because the guy is unbelievably talented.”​

Most Underrated: James McCann, C

“This guy is a good player. He can hit. He can catch. For me, he’s going to be one of the better catchers in the American League. I’m excited about this one. I expect big things from this guy.... In the minor leagues, they weren’t sure about his defense, but he has gradually gotten better with his receiving, his throwing and everything. His bat is surprising. You stick him down in the bottom of this lineup, and he’s going to do some damage. You can’t forget about this guy.”​

Wednesday March 23rd, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 17: the Arizona Diamondbacks.

2015 Record and Finish:
79–83 (.488), third place in National League West (18th overall)

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
81–81 (.500), third place in NL West

The Case For

In our Wait ‘Til Next Year series in September, I wrote that the Diamondbacks “could be a front-end starter away from a return to contention in 2016.” Well, it’s next year, and the Diamondbacks have added not one but two significant arms to their rotation in 2015 NL Cy Young runner-up Zack Greinke and 25-year-old righty Shelby Miller, the latter of whom posted a 124 ERA+ in 205 1/3 innings for the Braves last year. Those two will combine with Patrick Corbin—who made a strong, 16-start return from Tommy John surgery last year—to form an excellent top three in Arizona's rotation.

Behind that trio, the Diamondbacks have more talent on the way, with 24-year-old sophomore Robbie Ray likely to land one of the final two spots after an impressive rookie season and 23-year-old Archie Bradley and 24-year-old Braden Shipley as potential midseason reinforcements. Mix in a quality bullpen buoyed by the addition of veteran setup ace Tyler Clippard, and the Diamondbacks appear to have assembled a pitching staff worthy of their impressive young lineup.

That lineup, led by a pair of MVP-quality studs in Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock, was outscored by only the park-assisted Rockies last year. It also doesn’t include a single player who will have reached his thirties by the end of the coming season and has its own potential prospect reinforcements in infielder Brandon Drury and outfielder Peter O’Brien. Put that all together, and there are many reasons for optimism in the desert this season.​

The Case Against

As strong as that lineup is, Arizona is going to miss Ender Inciarte—who was part of the package sent to Atlanta for Miller—more than it realizes, as will the pitching staff. The speedy Inciarte made 536 plate appearances in one of the top two positions in the batting order last year, posting a .343 on-base percentage and scoring 70 runs from those spots. He was also an elite defender, and those combined contributions made him worth more than five Wins Above Replacement per baseball-reference.com.

In Inciarte's place this season, the Diamondbacks will trot out fellow 25-year-old Yasmany Tomas, whose middling performance at the plate and brutal play in the field (both in the outfield and at third base) made him more than a win below replacement level in 2015. Moving off third base and having that rookie season and the associated adjustments both to the major leagues and life in the United States under his belt could help Tomas take a meaningful step forward this season, but that has not been the pattern for his fellow Cuban defectors. Among Cuban hitters who did not spend prolonged time in the minors (Tomas played a grand total of five games there), Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu, Yunel Escobar, Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo were all better in their rookie seasons than in their second major league campaigns. Even if Tomas is able to pull himself up to replacement level this season, simply swapping out Inciarte for Tomas could result in five-win drop in value for the Diamondbacks in the outfield, if not more.

Beyond that single disastrous decision, sandwiching Pollock between the defensively challenged Tomas and David Peralta in the outfield and forcing him to cover far more territory than a year ago could have a detrimental impact on his overall game. There is little optimism to be had about the offense of the team’s middle infielders, regardless of where or how much new addition Jean Segura plays. Having averaged 73 appearances per season for the last six years, Clippard may be at the end of his rope, a concern elevated by his struggles in September and October of last season and again this spring. Finally, while the Diamondbacks undeniably upgraded their rotation this winter, both Greinke and Miller will be undermined somewhat by the move to a far less friendly home ballpark and, in Greinke’s case, the loss of an ace pitch-framer in Yasmani Grandal. Add that all up, and the Diamondbacks’ big winter may not have actually improved the team that much at all.​

MORE MLB: NL breakout candidates | NL busts | NL rookies to watch

Rick Scuteri/AP

X-Factor: Team defense

According to park-adjusted defensive efficiency, the Diamondbacks were merely an average defensive team in 2015, ranking 15th in the majors with a nearly league-average rate of turning balls in play into outs. That’s surprising given that two of their outfielders, Pollock and Inciarte, and their four primary infielders—Goldschmidt, second baseman Chris Owings, shortstop Nick Ahmed and third baseman Jake Lamb—all rated above average individually, with Ahmed, Enciarte and Pollock all ranking among the best fielders in baseball at their respective positions. That gives you an idea of just how poor Arizona’s other fielders were, and how much damage Tomas was able to do in just 92 starts in the field.

This year, Enciarte is gone, to be replaced full-time by Tomas, and Ahmed may lose a significant amount of playing time to Segura, who is a good defender but not on Ahmed’s elite level. Having Welington Castillo behind the plate for a full season will bring stability and a respectable performance to the lineup, but he is a sub-par pitch framer who cost his teams (the Cubs, Mariners and Diamondbacks) more than a win in lost strikes alone last season per Baseball Prospectus’ Framing Runs statistic. It’s not clear that the Diamondbacks are a good enough team to overcome all the runs they are likely to give away in the field this year.​

Number To Know: 2.1

That was the top WAR total by a Diamondbacks pitcher in 2015, and it belonged to 35-year-old submarining closer Brad Ziegler. Greinke, Miller and Corbin all stand a good chance to surpass that figure this season, and Greinke could easily more than double it. For all of the concerns about Arizona's shortcomings and questionable decision making, it’s important to remember that the team's pitching staff—and its starting rotation, specifically—is indeed dramatically better this season than it was a year ago.​

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Yasmany Tomas, OF

"He is more of a one-dimensional player—he has power—that would fit better in the American League. They thought coming into camp last year he was going to play third. That didn't last long. He's adequate at best defensively. In leftfield, he's going cost you some out there. He had to get his body under control last year, but reports are he's in better shape. There were strides toward the end of the year—his patience, his pitch recognition, his power started showing up. He's the guy they've got money into, but he just doesn't have the versatility to move him around defensively.​"

Most Underrated: Paul Goldschmidt, 1B

"He's arguably the best in the game at that position and he doesn’t quite get the love he should. He's as good as it gets on both sides of the ball. He has special hands to hit. His bat control is elite. He's able to use the whole field. He doesn't try to do too much—he'll hit the mistakes for power and hit pitchers' pitches the other way. He has above-average range, very good hands, good feet around the bag. I've got no reason to think he's not going to be in the mix for MVP—and he's just scratching the surface and entering his prime.​"

Wednesday March 23rd, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 16: the Seattle Mariners.

2015 Record and Finish:
76–86 (.469), fourth place in American League West (20th overall)

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
82–80 (.506), third place in AL West

The Case For

Poised to break what is now the longest postseason drought in the majors at 15 years, Seattle had a productive off-season under new general manager Jerry Dipoto. The club signed Nori Aoki and Leonys Martin to bolster what was a weak outfield, and both should fit in nicely on the bookends of what is, on paper, a strong lineup. Fellow winter addition Wade Miley will provide stability in the back end of the rotation.

Aside from Nelson Cruz and his career-high 44 round-trippers in 2015, there wasn’t a whole lot to be excited about from an offensive standpoint with the Mariners last year. That should change this season with a healthy Robinson Cano, who battled a stomach ailment and a sports hernia for most of last year. Kyle Seager, meanwhile, saw a slight regression in his production despite a solid line-drive rate; he should see a return to form if he can get some better luck on batting average on balls in play (his .276 mark last year was 20 points under the league average).

In the rotation, Dipoto gave Felix Hernandez some needed support with the re-signing of Hisashi Iwakuma and the addition of Miley. King Felix posted a putrid 4.48 ERA in the second half last year, which could be the beginning of an ugly decline. But if those post-All-Star break struggles were merely a speed bump in what's been a dominant career, then this season should be a fruitful one for the team’s rotation.

The Case Against

There does exist the possibility that Hernandez is worn out. The veteran righthander will be 30 in April, and he’s thrown an ungodly amount of innings over the course of the last seven seasons, including a league-leading 249 2/3 in 2010 and more than 230 frames in five out of the last seven years. Decline happens to everyone, and it’s only a matter of time before King Felix decides to abdicate his throne.

While a bad season from Hernandez is a tough sell, a wobbly campaign for the Mariners' bullpen is not. Steve Cishek blew five of the nine save opportunities he had last season with Miami before the Marlins demoted him, rookie righthander Mayckol Guaipe is unproven, and while Joaquin Benoit has held off Father Time for years, asking a 38-year-old to be your top reliever is certainly a gamble. It’s time for someone here to break out, whether it’s Guaipe, lefty Charlie Furbush (who missed a large chunk of last season with a rotator cuff injury and will start the season on the disabled list) or hard-throwing righty Tony Zych.

MORE MLB: AL breakout candidates | AL busts | AL rookies to watch

Ted S. Warren/AP

X-Factor: Taijuan Walker, SP

It seems like Walker has been on the verge of breaking out for three years now, but he’s only 23. Packaged as a future ace, the flamethrower came up at the age of 20 in 2013 and hummed along in short stints before finally taking on, and fumbling, a big workload last season. Walker had his flashes, but ultimately his 4.56 ERA left already-depressed Mariners fans sinking deeper in their chairs.

Considering the end to Hernandez’s 2015, Walker looking the part of a future No. 1 would settle many stomachs in Seattle. After starting with a 7.33 ERA in seven starts, he did post a 1.68 ERA over his next seven, and his 169 2/3 innings did feature 157 strikeouts. He got hit hard last season, there’s no way around it, but if he can cut down the gopher balls (1.3 per nine) and retain what was a solid strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.93), he should be fine. Walker is firmly in the conversation for the league’s biggest breakout of 2016.

Number To Know: 79

In 2015, Cano drove in just 79 runs, a seven-year low, and the 33-year-old has seen his season RBI totals deteriorate since his move to Seattle from New York. The addition of Aoki coupled with the consistent production of Seager, however, should help Cano return to the RBI levels to which he is accustomed.

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: James Paxton, SP

"This is a guy they raved about with a big arm, they thought he could pitch in the middle of the rotation, but he just hasn't been able to live up to expectations. He could find himself in the bullpen."

Most Underrated: Kyle Seager, 3B

"This dude hits third or fourth in most lineups. He may not get the notoriety he probably deserves.​"

Wednesday March 23rd, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 15: the New York Yankees.

2015 Record and Finish:
87–75 (.537), second place in American League East (ninth overall), first place in AL wild card (lost wild-card game to Astros)

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
83–79 (.512), fourth place in AL East

The Case For

Do what you want to the Yankees: Lock them in a safe and toss it into the ocean, tie them to railroad tracks ... it simply doesn’t matter. New York will stagger its way toward contention every season anyway. The Yankees proved that once more last year, when an aging roster full of question marks nonetheless found its way to 87 wins and a wild-card spot—and that was only after a red-hot Blue Jays team knocked New York out of first place in the AL East late in the year.

Little has changed from 2015. The veteran core that drove that team remains in place, led by the seemingly ageless Alex Rodriguez, who shocked the league by hitting a team-high 33 home runs at age 40. At 35, Mark Teixeira pulled out of his late-career nosedive to bash 31 homers and lead the team in OPS+ (147) and Wins Above Replacement (3.8). Carlos Beltran, 38, suffered through an abysmal April (.162/.216/.265), then posted an .862 OPS from May 1 onward. Brian McCann, in his age-31 season, saw a modest uptick from his uninspiring debut year in pinstripes, hitting 26 homers and improving his on-base percentage by nearly 40 points. Everyone is a year older, but all remain dangerous and capable hitters in a lineup with no easy outs.

It’s not just the old guard that kept the Yankees chugging forward. For the first time in what felt like ages, New York got an injection of youth in its lineup and rotation, particularly with Didi Gregorius at shortstop and with Luis Severino in the starting rotation. The 25-year-old Gregorius struggled mightily in his first six weeks as Derek Jeter’s replacement, but he rebounded to finish third on the team in WAR with 3.3. The 22-year-old Severino, meanwhile, made his major league debut in August and provided a huge boost to a thin rotation, with a 137 ERA+ and 8.1 strikeouts per nine in his 62 1/3 innings down the stretch. Both will be counted on heavily this season.

To that young group, the Yankees add Starlin Castro, just 26 years old and now manning second base instead of shortstop. A three-time All-Star for the Cubs, Castro was a revelation for Chicago in the second half after moving to the keystone, hitting .353 from Aug. 11 onward. He wasn’t a fit in the Cubs’ crowded infield, but in New York, he could be the solution at a position that has been in flux since Robinson Cano left for Seattle after the 2013 season.

The youth parade doesn’t stop there. The Yankees’ farm system bore fruit last year, as Severino, outfielders Mason Williams and Slade Heathcott, infielder Rob Refsnyder and first baseman Greg Bird—the latter two of whom started the team’s wild-card game loss to the Astros—all made their big-league debuts. There’s more talent headed to the Bronx in the coming seasons. Outfielder Aaron Judge, 23, is a 6’7” monster boasting the kind of raw power that makes scouts drool; shortstop Jorge Mateo, 20, is a lightning-fast runner with an aggressive bat. Together with 2015 first-rounder James Kaprielian, a righthanded pitcher out of UCLA, and catching prospect Gary Sanchez, they provide minor league depth should New York’s veteran horses stumble this summer.

But the Yankees’ greatest strength lies in the three men who will make opposing lineups come to dread the late innings: Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances. Together, those three—each among the best strikeout artists in baseball—should dramatically shorten games, and if New York once again defies age to make the playoffs, that trio could have a Royals-like impact for manager Joe Girardi in October.

The Case Against

Despite reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2012, the Yankees’ age did seem to catch up with them, even before they were easily dispatched from the postseason by Houston. Rodriguez, after a blistering start, wheezed his way to a .216/.344/.448 line in the second half as the grind of his first season of more than 150 games since 2008 seemed to wear him down. Teixiera once again was unable to avoid injury, suffering a season-ending broken leg in late August. Injuries also spoiled Jacoby Ellsbury’s season, as the centerfielder posted a career-worst .663 OPS and just 1.9 WAR in the third year of what’s looking like a colossally bad eight-year, $153 million contract for the 32-year-old outfielder with a history of injury problems.

It’s hard not to be concerned about the durability and productivity of a lineup in which Castro and Gregorius are the only hitters under 30 and that features such injury-prone players as Teixeira, Ellsbury and Brett Gardner (who has been dealing with a persistent wrist ailment this spring). Depth will be crucially important to this year’s Yankees, and while the likes of Judge and Sanchez could help, they’re still unproven. Worse, the one young hitter who did get an extended taste of the majors last season—Bird—will miss the season after injuring his shoulder, robbing New York of a competent fill-in at first base or designated hitter if either Teixiera or Rodriguez go down.

Durability and depth are the key concerns in the rotation as well, where Girardi will have to cobble together 1,000 innings out of the quintet of Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi and CC Sabathia. Whether anyone in that group will even break the 175-inning mark is up in the air. Tanaka and Pineda have been stellar when healthy, but their careers to date have been been as notable for MRIs as ERAs. Both Sabathia’s physical condition and velocity are in steep decline, and it will be something of a minor miracle if he can make it through the season in one piece. That puts a heavy load on the young arms of Eovaldi, 26, and Severino, and while the latter has fantastic stuff, his peripherals (a 4.37 FIP and 1.3 home runs per nine last year) are a scary sight.

MORE MLB: AL breakout candidates | AL busts | AL rookies to watch

Chris O'Meara/AP

X-Factor: Starlin Castro, 2B

New York’s biggest (and only) off-season addition to the starting lineup, Castro wore out his welcome in Chicago’s North Side after six frustrating seasons. There’s no denying his talent, but there’s also no denying these uninspiring factors: a career 97 OPS+; a .321 on-base percentage and 4.9% walk rate; an alarming propensity for bad base running decisions; lackluster defense; and an at-times poor attitude. While the cost for acquiring Castro wasn’t high, the Yankees did have to surrender a useful arm in righthander Adam Warren, who gave New York valuable innings out of the bullpen and in the rotation last year.

The move off shortstop last August seemingly reinvigorated Castro, but he’s still a largely unproven second baseman with a history of mental lapses and a less-than-sterling clubhouse reputation who was one of the NL’s least productive hitters over the last three years (his 89 OPS+ in that span ranks 17th-lowest in the Senior Circuit among hitters with at least 1,000 plate appearances). Castro represents a major project for the Yankees, albeit one who offers immense upside. It’s hard to tell if his resurgence was the result of a real change at the plate or simply a small-sample-size success story. But if Girardi and his coaches can get Castro properly motivated and back on track, he can be a difference maker.

Number To Know: 0

For the first time in the four decades of free agency, the Yankees went an entire off-season without signing a single player on the open market to a major league contract. Instead, all of New York’s winter shopping came via trades or minor league deals, with Castro, Chapman and reserve outfielder Aaron Hicks (acquired from the Twins for backup catcher John Ryan Murphy) as general manager Brian Cashman’s lone additions to the big-league roster. The reasons for Cashman’s apparent disinterest in the free-agent market make sense (the money could be better spent on 2018’s potential winter bonanza, and ownership has made no secret of its desire to get the team’s perennially bloated payroll under the luxury tax limits). But regardless of why the Yankees weren’t as active on the hot stove as they have been since the dawn of time, the results are the same: New York enters the season with much the same roster as it had last year.

It’s hard to argue against the idea that signing over-30 free agents to nine-figure deals for multiple years is a fool’s gambit, especially for a team that’s been burned by that approach countless times. For proof, look at the money still being handed out to Sabathia ($25 million guaranteed this year and, if he reaches his vesting option, next), Rodriguez ($20 million each of the next two years), Teixeira ($22.5 million this season) or Ellsbury ($105 million through 2020). With the contracts for the first three of those players set to expire no later than the end of 2017, Cashman and his team are well set up for future free-agent runs at young superstars like Bryce Harper and Jose Fernandez. But the top players on this past winter’s market, like starting pitcher David Price and outfielder Jason Heyward, could have helped the Yankees right now, turning what looks like an also-ran into a true World Series contender.

Time will tell if Cashman’s strategy will pay off, but it’s odd to see a winter go by without the Yankees spending millions like Montgomery Brewster. And if the team falls short once again this season and the championship window for New York’s veterans shrinks by one more year, that spending clampdown could feel like an instance of being penny wise but pound foolish.

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Michael Pineda, SP

“I don’t think he’s overrated, but he’s underachieved—his inability to go out and give them what they thought they were going to get on a regular basis.”​

Most Underrated: Dellin Betances, RP

“What he’s done has been amazing. Two years ago at this time, he was out of options and throwing just okay, and now he’s an All-Star who averages 15 strikeouts per nine innings.”​

Wednesday March 23rd, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 14: the Cleveland Indians.

2015 Record and Finish:
81–80 (.503), third place in American League Central (15th overall)

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
83–79 (.512), second place in AL Central

The Case For

The Indians have amassed a core of quality players under 30 years old, both in their lineup and pitching staff, and while injuries and slow starts have derailed them in recent years, the AL Central race appears to be wide open. Both the FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus projection systems pick Cleveland to win the division, with the latter forecasting them for the best record in the entire AL at 93–69.

With a full season of shortstop Francisco Lindor—simply one of baseball's brightest young stars as he heads into his age-22 season—and the additions of Juan Uribe and Mike Napoli at the corners, the infield defense should be much improved over the unit that effectively buried the team last April. Add that to a high-strikeout rotation featuring Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer (more on which below), and this team could be even better than last season's, which ranked fourth in the league in run prevention at 3.98 per game. Meanwhile, a healthy season from catcher Yan Gomes, who sank to a 74 OPS+ after an early-season MCL tear following two years of exceptional production, could provide an additional boost on the offensive side.​

The Case Against

The projection systems were notoriously wrong when it came to the AL Central last season, severely underestimating the Royals. Some other folks—we can't remember who—were just as far off base when it came to picking the Indians to win it all.

The lineup already has some issues. Abraham Almonte, who provided a significant upgrade in centerfield over the final two months in place of the traded Michael Bourn, will miss the first 80 games of the season due to a PED suspension. Michael Brantley, the offense's top full-time player last year with a 130 OPS+, tore his right labrum last September and underwent surgery in November; his Opening Day availability is in question, though his progress has quelled fears that he might not return until May. If Brantley starts the year on the disabled list, the likely season-opening outfield of Will Venable, Rajai Davis and Lonnie Chisenhall—with Collin Cowgill and Joey Butler also in the picture—includes just two players who managed a 100 OPS+ last year (Davis and Butler), both in limited duty.

As for the infield, Napoli and Uribe are both in their mid-30s and coming off seasons that fell short of their 2014 performances. Lindor, who hit .313/.353/.482 and finished with 4.6 Wins Above Replacement in 99 games—that prorates to 7.5 for a 162-game season, lest your calculator be out of reach—bunts too often for manager Terry Francona’s tastes, having led the league with 13 despite not debuting until June 14.

MORE MLB: AL breakout candidates | AL busts | AL rookies to watch

Jason Miller/Getty Images

X-Factor: Carlos Santana, DH

Santana once ranked among the game's most promising young players—a convert to catcher whom the Indians stole from the Dodgers, then watched blossom into a lineup staple who averaged 22 homers and 4.0 WAR from 2011 to '13, his age 25–27 seasons. Once it was clear he'd reached his ceiling as a catcher, the team's decision to move him back to the infield did not go smoothly. He struggled to hit during the first two months of 2014 while splitting time between third base and catching, and while he rebounded to finish with 27 homers and a 122 OPS+, his defense at both third and first base—previously his haven when he wasn't catching—suffered, and his value dipped to 3.0 WAR. Serving as the team's primary first baseman in 2015, he declined to .231/.357/.395 with 19 homers and career worsts in OPS+ (104) and WAR (1.1).

Now that he's slated to serve as the team's regular DH, Santana's level of production isn't really an asset, yet his numbers in the field (-8 DRS at first base in 215 games over the past two seasons) don't support the idea that he should be spending much time with the leather, particularly as he was part of that record-setting pace for the lowest defensive efficiency in the past century. Underlying his offensive slide is a pull-happy approach from the left side that has been increasingly counteracted by defensive shifts, depressing his batting average on balls in play into the .230-ish range over the past two seasons; his .255 BABIP overall in that span is the majors' sixth-lowest among players with at least 800 plate appearances. Given their other offensive question marks, the Indians could certainly use a return to form here.

Number To Know: 23.8%

That's the rate at which Indians pitchers struck out opposing hitters last year, breaking the all-time AL record set just the year before by the Rays (23.44%, barely edging the Indians' own 23.41%). With strikeout rates continually on the rise, that's in part a sign of the times, but the extent to which the organization has turned things around over the past half-decade is impressive nonetheless.

From 2009 to '12, the Indians' pitching staff ranked among the league's bottom three in strikeout rate every year and among the bottom four in run prevention each time; they finished below .500 in all four seasons, losing at least 93 games three times. Since then, trades for high-strikeout hurlers Kluber, Carrasco and Bauer have come to fruition alongside the successful development of the homegrown Salazar and closer Cody Allen, with others such as Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir coming and going as well. The team has placed ether second (2013 and '14) or first in the league in strikeout rate and their run prevention has climbed into the league's upper half. As a result, they've finished above .500 three years in a row for the first time since 1999–2001. Last year, Carrasco ranked second in the league among qualified starters in strikeout rate at 29.6%, with Kluber fourth at 27.7, Salazar sixth at 25.8 and Bauer ninth at 22.7. Of course, there's more to run prevention than just missing bats, but the first three of those hurlers were at least 18% better than league average in ERA.

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Trevor Bauer, SP

Most Underrated: Cody Allen, RP

"Cody Allen’s got really good stuff. Nobody really knows about him. He throws hard, he’s got a quick, hard breaking ball. He’s a real closer​."

Wednesday March 23rd, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 13: the Washington Nationals.

2015 Record and Finish:
83–79 (.512), second place in National League East (13th overall)

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
83–79 (.512), second place in NL East

The Case For

So long as Bryce Harper wears a Nationals uniform, Washington will contend. That was proven last year, when a dysfunctional and inconsistent team stayed in the race for the National League East title almost solely thanks to Harper’s superhuman season. The 22-year-old outfielder put together the kind of historic year we’ve been waiting for since his 2012 debut: .330/.460/.649 in 654 plate appearances, with his on-base and slugging percentages leading the majors; an NL-high 42 home runs; 124 walks; a major league-best 195 OPS+; 9.9 Wins Above Replacement; and a unanimous first-place finish in the NL MVP voting. Mike Trout may still be the best player in the game, but Harper’s ascendance into superstardom has made it a true debate.

For as good as Harper is, the team around him isn’t bad, either. The Nationals have a top-five starter in Max Scherzer and a former No. 1 pick in Stephen Strasburg to anchor one of the best rotations in baseball. Anthony Rendon returns healthy after losing most of 2015 to oblique and knee injuries; if he can get back to his near-MVP form from ‘14 (125 OPS+, 6.6 WAR), he and Harper will give the lineup a tremendous 1-2 punch.

That lineup has started to sag a bit thanks to injuries and age, but it still boasts plenty of power between Harper, Rendon, Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa and new addition Daniel Murphy. Fellow free-agent signee Ben Revere, meanwhile, will act as the table setter, something that last year’s team routinely lacked due to Denard Span’s inability to stay healthy.

That’s not the youngest group of players (Harper and Rendon aside), but the Nationals’ deep and productive farm system (ranked fifth by Baseball America this winter) should help fill in where needed. In particular, shortstop Trea Turner and righthander Lucas Giolito will be big pieces for this year’s Washington team. Turner, the organization’s top positional prospect, got a cup of coffee last season and, after a stint in Triple A, should be up by the second half as the everyday starter who will provide speed, defense and solid hitting. The upside for Giolito is even higher: Arguably the best pitching prospect in the game, Giolito mixes an outstanding fastball and curveball and projects as a No. 1 starter—not a bad piece of depth for the Nats.

The Case Against

For as brilliant as Harper and Scherzer were last year, they couldn’t do it alone. Picked by many to run away with the NL East, win the pennant and finally capture the first World Series title in franchise history, Washington instead sputtered and flailed its way to a barely-above-.500 record and an embarrassing second-half collapse. Arguably the biggest story during the Nationals’ season wasn’t Harper’s dominance on the field, but his being assaulted in the dugout by closer Jonathan Papelbon, who put his hand around the throat of the team’s superstar during a dugout skirmish in late September.

Though his $13 million salary for 2016 made him tough to trade, it’s inexcusable that Papelbon remains with Washington. Manager Matt Williams, however, is gone, having been replaced by 66-year-old Dusty Baker, a veteran skipper who should help fix what was a fractured, miserable clubhouse. But even if Baker can get his players to put their bad feelings aside (and avoid overtaxing his starting pitchers, which has been a problem for him), he still has to contend with an aging lineup that will likely be Washington’s downfall. Jayson Werth (36) and Ryan Zimmerman (31) broke down last season, with Werth managing just 88 games, an 84 OPS+ and -1.6 WAR, and Zimmerman limited to 95 games, a 105 OPS+ and 0.7 WAR. Despite their advancing years and increasing fragility, the Nationals opted to stick with their veterans; aside from Murphy and Revere, the team made no other notable additions to the roster, hoping instead that last year’s group would bounce back and play up to its potential.

That’s a safe bet with Harper and a healthy Rondon, but that decision could backfire terribly if Werth, Zimmerman and the rest of the veterans in the lineup get hurt again or simply fail to produce. The same is true in the bullpen, where Washington stuck by the irascible Papelbon and dealt displaced and disgruntled former closer Drew Storen to the Blue Jays. Whether Storen was a fit on this roster and in the eighth inning is an open question, but Washington’s shaky relief corps has been thinned out his by loss. Scherzer, Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez will be counted on to carry a heavy load in the rotation, and for the injury-prone Strasburg and command-challenged Gonzalez, that may be too big of an ask.​

MORE MLB: NL breakout candidates | NL busts | NL rookies to watch

Greg Fiume/Getty Images

X-Factor: Trea Turner, SS

Giolito’s path to the big leagues is complicated by a full rotation (though injuries or a failure by either Tanner Roark or Joe Ross to handle a full-season workload could open the door). Turner, too, has a major leaguer standing in his way in the form of Espinosa, but taking his spot shouldn’t be too difficult. Espinosa’s defense at shortstop is merely average, and his bat hasn’t been much better, as he has just an 87 OPS+ across six seasons. The mustachioed 28-year-old does have pop (13 home runs last year), but he lacks plate discipline and struggles to make contact.

All of Espinosa’s failings make it more than likely that, should Turner handle Triple A pitching this spring, the Nationals will turn to him to be their second-half starter at shortstop. That’s not a given, but Turner fared well in his first taste of the International League last season, slashing .314/.353/.431 in 205 plate appearances at just 22 years of age. If he can replicate or better those efforts, he’ll move up to Washington, where he’ll get a chance to put his game-changing speed (70 on the 20–80 scout grading scale), strong bat and solid defense on display. For a team that just lost its starting shortstop of the past six seasons in Ian Desmond, Turner could provide an immediate boost this year and cement himself as the shortstop of the future.

Number To Know: .533

That was Daniel Murphy’s slugging percentage from Aug. 1 through the end of the season with the Mets—a figure that doesn’t include his historic power barrage in the postseason, when he bashed seven home runs in 14 games. It was an unexpected outburst from Murphy, a longtime fixture in New York who had been known more for his inconsistent defense and line-drive style of hitting before he transformed into the second coming of Babe Ruth. But something clearly changed for Murphy in the second half last season, and the Nationals bet the next three years and $37.5 million this winter on it being permanent.

That Murphy, who turns 31 on April 1, will blossom into a 30-homer power threat at his age is about as likely as him winning a Gold Glove at second base. But the Nationals don’t need him to do that. They just need him to maintain the approach that was so essential to his increased production. A closer look at the numbers suggests that Murphy was simply putting better swings on balls: His slugging percentage on four-seam fastballs jumped from .424 before Aug. 1 to .586 afterward. He did the same on sinkers (.500 to .660), sliders (.425 to .821) and especially curveballs (.206 to .586). The result? More fly balls in the second half (39.4% of balls put in play compared to 32.3 before the All-Star break) and more home runs (9.5% to 6.8).

Is that kind of increase repeatable? It is if Murphy sticks to the swing change implemented by Mets hitting coach Kevin Long before the 2015 season, one that Murphy credits for his October heroics. With Washington’s lineup desperately needing another power bat, Murphy could be crucial to getting the Nationals back to the postseason—and perhaps derail his old team’s chances along the way.

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Stephen Strasburg, SP

"He has not reached where he should be, and he's going into his free agency year. He's still a third starter [despite] that stuff.​"

Most Underrated: Anthony Rendon, 3B

"Maybe it's because he had the big year two years ago and then last year he was hurt, but I don't think the world knows how good of a hitter he has got a chance to be.​"

Thursday March 24th, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 12: the Tampa Bay Rays.

2015 Record and Finish:
80–82 (.494), fourth place in American League East (17th overall)

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
84–78 (.518), third place in AL East

The Case For

Truth be told, this ranking—11th in the majors, third in the AL East, third in the wild card and missing the playoffs on both fronts—is as optimistic as I can manage to be about this year’s Rays. That optimism starts with their starting rotation and is led by Chris Archer, who finished fifth in the AL Cy Young voting last year and enters 2016, his age-27 season, as one of the best pitchers in baseball thanks to arguably the best slider in the game. Behind Archer, Matt Moore appears ready to reassert himself as a front-of-the-rotation starter. After losing much of the last two seasons to Tommy John surgery. he has been dominant this spring, showing improved mechanics and command. Moore, who will turn 27 in June, is nine months younger than Archer, and the two of them could form one of the most compelling young, righty/lefty combinations in baseball.

If Moore can be the No. 2, that would allow Jake Odorizzi and Drew Smyly to settle into the middle spots, giving the Rays another impressive righty/lefty combination. Erasmo Ramirez, who posted a 105 ERA+ in 163 1/3 innings last year in his age-25 season, rounds out the starting five, and top prospect Blake Snell, the 12th-best prospect in all of baseball this spring per Baseball America, looms in Triple A to fill any holes that might emerge as the season progresses. Factor in a pitching-friendly home ballpark and the fact that centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier graded out as the best defensive player in baseball at any position last year, and the Rays have an tremendous foundation for their first winning season since 2013.

To that, you can add Corey Dickerson’s bat, a healthy Desmond Jennings, a full season of catcher Curt Casali, potential improvement from fellow sophomore Steven Souza, Jr., a possible rebound from Evan Longoria after a pair of disappointing seasons, and the chance for improved production at first base from a platoon of new additions Logan Morrison and Steve Pearce and at shortstop from trade acquisition Brad Miller. But given the quality of the competition in the division, I still can’t quite see Tampa Bay being a playoff team in 2016.

The Case Against

It’s much easier to see the Rays collapsing than surging into the playoffs. Start with the possibility that Moore’s strong spring could give way to another disappointing regular season. Mix in the injury history of the team’s mid-rotation starters—Moore had Tommy John surgery in April 2014, Smyly had a torn labrum last spring that he rehabbed rather than getting surgically repaired, Odorizzi missed a month with a strained oblique last year—and that impressive young rotation appears to be far from a sure thing. Meanwhile, the team’s underwhelming bullpen, which has already lost incumbent closer Brad Boxberger until mid-May following core muscle surgery, will likely require manager Kevin Cash to rely more heavily on the young arms in his rotation than he may otherwise have done.

The biggest concern, however, is the offense. The Rays were 14th out of 15 AL teams in runs scored last year, besting only the White Sox with 3.98 runs scored per game. Dickerson is the biggest bat the team added this off-season, but he has had a quiet spring and is a .249/.286/.410 career hitter outside of Coors Field and a .246/.299/.377 career hitter against lefthanded pitching. Miller should improve the plate production of the team’s shortstops, but only if the throwing issues he has displayed this spring don’t force him off the position or into a bench role. Morrison and Pearce combined for 32 home runs in 2015, but the former's .225 batting average and .302 on-base percentage both bested the latter's marks. Speaking of on-base percentage: Casali had a .304 mark last year, Kiermaier was at .298, and Tim Beckham (the primary alternative to Miller at shortstop) finished at .274.

Then there’s the fact that playing Morrison and Pearce over James Loney at first base will downgrade the defense beyond whatever damage Miller does in the field. Similarly, off-season addition Hank Conger, who was brought in to help upgrade the plate production of the team’s catchers, has done nothing to suggest that his 1-for-43 performance in attempting to throw out attempting base stealers last year was a fluke. He may no longer be viable behind the plate.

As for the hope of a Longoria rebound in his age-30 season, it’s minimal. His power has been markedly down the last two years, from an isolated power of .238 in his first six seasons to .158 the last two. One scout I talked to this spring said that his bat has slowed noticeably.

MORE MLB: AL breakout candidates | AL busts | AL rookies to watch

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

X-Factor: Defensive shifts

Yes, defensive shifts are widespread in the game today, with the number of them having increased 752% from 2011 to '15. But even with the strategy having gained mainstream acceptance within the game, no team shifted more in 2015 than the Rays. Per John Dewan in The Bill James Handbook, Tampa Bay led the majors with 1,462 defensive shifts in 2015 and saved 23 runs as a result. In the current run-scoring climate (in which nine runs are roughly equal to one win), the Rays improved themselves by 2 1/2 wins last year via the shift alone.

Tampa Bay was not the most effective shifting team, however. Per Dewan, the Orioles saved a major league-best 29 runs with just 899 shifts. That suggests that the Rays, who are clearly dedicated to the strategy, could benefit even more from the shift in the coming season; a boost in excess of three wins from shifting alone is a clear possibility.

Number To Know: 12

That’s where Longoria ranked among third basemen in Wins Above Replacement last year. He wasn’t close to 11th, either: His 3.2 WAR was well shy of the 3.9 of the Cardinals' Matt Carpenter and the Dodgers' Justin Turner. In fact, Longoria was as close to 14th place (Trevor Plouffe, 2.5 WAR) as he was to 11th. Longoria ranked 12th in WAR among third basemen in 2014, as well, and both years, he was just 0.1 wins away from Martin Prado in terms of total value.

Entering his age-30 season, this appears to be who Longoria is now. He is still a capable and competent everyday third baseman, but he’s no longer a star, never mind a potential MVP candidate. Rather, he’s very nearly the perfect league-average third baseman. Over the last two years, Longoria has hit .261/.324/.419, and the average third baseman has hit .264/.324/.431; correcting for pitching-friendly Tropicana Field, both of those lines work out to a 109 OPS+.​

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Evan Longoria, 3B

“It’s a huge contract, and he’s just not that player anymore. He has seven years left, $93 million, and he’s in a slight decline. He’s still a good fielder. At third base you don’t have to be the quickest or anything, his defense is still good, but just the bat, he’s just slowing down. It’s not the power or the same bat speed he had.”​

Most Underrated: Kevin Kiermaier, CF

"Kiermaier has a chance to take off.... He’s a very aggressive hitter, but he’s an athletic kid. He’s got strength. He can hit. He just has to see more pitches. He’s just super-aggressive. He probably gets himself out a lot by swinging at pitchers’ pitches. That’s kind of the final piece, to walk more and get on base. But he definitely has strength. He has bat speed. He can steal bases, and he’s the best centerfielder I think I’ve ever seen.... He’s fast, but he is just a tremendous centerfielder, long strides to cover ground, it’s really fun to watch him go get balls in the gap. Great instincts, great athleticism. He’s got the whole package. Got the arm.... I just think he’s a guy who can really impact the game defensively, and he’s getting better offensively.”​

Thursday March 24th, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 11: the Pittsburgh Pirates.

2015 Record and Finish:
98–64 (.605), second place in National League Central, first place in NL wild card (second overall); lost NL wild-card game to Cubs

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
87–75 (.537), third place in NL Central

The Case For

The Pirates are one of the best-run organizations in baseball. That much is clear after a remarkable three-year stretch in which they have made three playoff appearances and won 98, 88, and 94 games; only the Dodgers and the Cardinals have won as much. During that span, the Pirates spent a fraction of what rival league contenders have: Pittsburgh’s payrolls from 2013 to '15 totalled $270 million (the Dodgers, over the same time, shelled out $713 million). The front office under general manager Neal Huntington also have proven to be one of the best organizations at finding cheap, undervalued talent, but the core talent in Pittsburgh is also as good as any in the league.

Pittsburgh has one of the game’s true superstars in Andrew McCutchen, in his prime. Together with Starting Marte, who enjoyed a breakout season at age 26 last year (he was actually Pittsburgh’s top player as measured by Wins Above Replacement) and 24-year-old Gregory Polanco (who has all the tools to be a star), the Pirates have a dynamic supporting cast in the outfield around Cutch. They also have a rotation anchored by Gerrit Cole, who emerged as a bona fide ace last year after becoming the first Pittsburgh starter since 1991 to finish in the top five in Cy Young voting, as well as a terrific back-end bullpen combo in Mark Melancon and Tony Watson, who anchored the best bullpen in the majors (yes, better than the Royals).

Last year, the Pirates were arguably the No. 1 team in baseball—they posted the majors’ best record from May 9 on—and all the key components will be back to make another run and try to avoid that deathtrap wild-card game. The Pirates have the talent to make a fourth straight postseason, but we all know what they must do this year: Take the division and avoid that play-in game against Madison Bumgarner, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke or Jake Arrieta.​

The Case Against

Huntington faced a significant challenge this winter, with nine arbitration-eligible players—a situation that played a role in the team parting ways with Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez and limited its spending in the free-agent market, where Pittsburgh could certainly have spent money on a starter. And so the outcasts, misfits and reclamation projects that were in camp this spring included a pitcher who was not good enough to make his team’s playoff rotation last October (Jonathon Niese); a 38-year-old who has a 4.63 ERA since 2013 (Ryan Vogelsong); a former All-Star closer who posted a 6.38 ERA last year (Neftali Feliz); a 29-year-old with hard stuff but no control (Juan Nicasio); and a former ace setup man who hasn’t thrown a pitch in the majors in 2 1/2 years (Daniel Bard).

Those players may seem like Powerball tickets, but after a winter without an impact acquisition and after losing A.J. Burnett to retirement and J.A. Happ and Charlie Morton to free agency, the Pirates’ season depends on hitting big on one or two. Perhaps most critical of all is Niese, who is being counted on to log impact innings in the rotation behind Cole, Francisco Liriano and Jeff Locke. We’re used to pitching coach Ray Searage working his magic, but this year it may take a miracle for the Pirates to cobble together a staff that is good enough to keep up with the Cubs and Cardinals.​

MORE MLB: NL breakout candidates | NL busts | NL rookies to watch

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

X-Factors: Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon, SP

Glasnow, a 6'8" righthander with a power fastball and a hammer curve, dominated the lower minors and reached Triple A in 2015; all signs point to him joining the rotation at some point this season. Across three levels, he was 7–5 with a 2.39 ERA and 136 strikeouts in 109 1/3 innings. Taillon is a 6'5" righthander who also has a power fastball and big-time curve, but the 24-year-old underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014 and hernia surgery in '15, and he hasn’t thrown a professional pitch in almost three years. While it’s hard to predict where Taillon will end up this season, all indications are that he will be good to go to start the season and could be ready to make the Show at some point this year as well. If the Pirates need help in the rotation this summer, they’ll have two very intriguing options available down on the farm.​

Number To Know: 43

That's the number of home runs lost with the departures of Alvarez and Walker, who accounted for 31% of the Pirates’ home run total a year ago and were Pittsburgh’s most reliable sources of power in recent seasons. The Pirates, who ranked 23rd in the majors in homers and 21st in slugging percentage last year, are hoping that new acquisitions John Jaso and David Freese can add some thump to a power-starved lineup.

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: John Jaso, C/1B

"Two years, $8 million, [but] no power, no speed, no position. He’s got good strike zone discipline and he’s got some on-base percentage. He’s always been a guy that walks a good 12, 14, whatever the percent. He doesn’t strike out a lot, either. He’s not a middle-of-the-lineup bat, but he’s a guy that can get on base, and hopefully those guys are driving him in. It’s a risk.... I don’t think it was a bad get, but at the same time, I just never was a fan of the guy.​"

Most Underrated: Jung-ho Kang, SS

"This guy, if he’s playing every day [and] getting 600-plus at-bats, I think he’s going to hit over 20 home runs. This guy is a threat with the bat. I don’t think a whole lot of people know about this guy, but scouts know about him. One thing that was impressive about him last year, he struggled his butt off in spring training, but you never saw him with poor body language or pout or anything. That guy played his butt off in spring training and he was struggling his butt off and, sure enough, it paid off. I’m sure if you ask [manager] Clint Hurdle and Neal Huntington, he’s an important part of their lineup. When they lost him, that really hurt them last year.​"

Thursday March 24th, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 10: the Texas Rangers.

2015 Record and Finish:
88–74 (.543), first place in American League West (eighth overall); lost AL Division Series to Blue Jays

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
88–74 (.543), second place in AL West, second place in AL wild card

The Case For

You could make the argument that the Rangers, who were under .500 as late as Aug. 13, lucked into the postseason dance last year. They outperformed their third-order wins by nearly eight wins and posted the AL’s seventh-best run differential. There’s no denying, however, that by summer’s end, Jeff Banister’s crew—with Cole Hamels stepping into the role of staff ace, with Shin-soo Choo and Adrian Beltre healthy, with Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland raking, with a lights-out bullpen—looked like one of the most dangerous teams in the AL; Texas was, after all, one win from reaching the ALCS.

When the Rangers added Hamels at the trade deadline (a deal that at the time seemed aimed at 2016 and beyond), they knew they were getting a front-line starter, and the lefty was as advertised after arriving from the Phillies. With Hamels back in a rotation that by late May should include Yu Darvish, Martin Perez and Derek Holland, the Rangers have a chance to have one of their deepest rotations in years—maybe ever—if everything breaks right. Never in previous playoff runs did Texas have a one-two punch of the caliber of Hamels and Darvish, who is on schedule to return from Tommy John surgery in May and, when healthy, is as filthy as any pitcher on the planet.Hamels at the trade deadline (a deal that at the time seemed aimed at 2016 and beyond), they knew they were getting a front-line starter, and the lefty was as advertised after arriving from the Phillies. With Hamels back in a rotation that by late May should include Yu Darvish, Martin Perez and Derek Holland, the Rangers have a chance to have one of their deepest rotations in years—maybe ever—if everything breaks right. Never in previous playoff runs did Texas have a one-two punch of the caliber of Hamels and Darvish, who is on schedule to return from Tommy John surgery in May and, when healthy, is as filthy as any pitcher on the planet.

The bullpen should be a strength as well. A big reason for the Rangers’ surge late last season was—and this is where the work of Banister, the AL manager of the year, stood out—the remarkable improvement in the relief staff, which went from the worst in the AL to the sixth best after the All-Star break. The unit could be elite again, with Shawn Tolleson, Sam Dyson, Jake Diekman and Keone Kela all returning.

The Case Against

The Rangers finished, somewhat unexpectedly, third in the league in runs, thanks to career performances from the likes of Moreland, Delino DeShields, Jr., and Robinson Chirinos. While all three are regression candidates, the biggest reason to be nervous comes with the veterans in the lineup: Perpetually injured Josh Hamilton turns 35 in May (the hope is that he will be able to come off the disabled list at the start of that month), Choo turns 34 in July, Fielder will be 32 in May, and future Hall of Famer Beltre, approaching his age-37 season, is showing signs of slowing down (last season, he posted his worst OPS+ in six years). But you can put Darvish, who’s made a total of 22 starts over the last two years, at the top of the Rangers’ long list of injury concerns; if there are any issues in his recovery, Texas’ chances to repeat as division champs obviously take big hit.

The Rangers went from a 91-win team to a 75-win team two years ago when they were completely decimated by injuries—in 2014, Texas players lost a remarkable 2,100 days to the disabled list. While bad luck on that scale is unlikely, staying healthy will clearly be key for a team full of players who can’t seem to stay healthy.

MORE MLB: AL breakout candidates | AL busts | AL rookies to watch

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

X-Factor: Joey Gallo, 3B/OF

To much fanfare, Gallo made his arrival in Arlington last summer, and the faithful were immediately treated to a Ruth-ian show, as the 22-year-old masher (who has hit 105 home runs in the minors since 2013) blasted monster home runs in his first two games. The raw Vegas-bred power was jaw-dropping, but the problems in his approach quickly became obvious, too. Gallo struck out way too much: 57 times in just 108 at-bats, and according to Fangraphs, he posted the highest swinging strike rate of anyone with at least 100 plate appearances over the last five years. But despite all his flaws, Gallo remains one of the most fascinating prospects out there because of his power.

Gallo will start the season in the minors, at Triple A Round Rock, and he could very well stay there most of the season. But because the Rangers have injury-prone and aging starters at third base and in left and rightfield, Gallo—like fellow youngsters Nomar Mazara and Jurickson Profar—could also be taking meaningful cuts in Arlington this summer.

Number To Know: 16

That's how many home runs were hit by Rougned Odor, the second most ever by a second baseman under the age of 22 (Bill Mazeroski, at 21, had 19 in 1958.) Odor was the Rangers’ big breakout player of 2015, and he left a mark on the postseason, too, becoming the third-youngest player to homer in his first playoff game. Odor was probably rushed to the majors in 2014, at 20 years old, and he struggled to start '15 before he was sent to Triple A in May. After his June recall, he hit a superb .292/.334/.527, and he could be on the verge of a star-making season.

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Elvis Andrus, SS

"He has not fulfilled the potential that most baseball people thought he would—he has the talent and skill set to be a superstar."

Most Underrated: Colby Lewis, SP

"Any time a guy is a 17-game winner and he's still considered a fifth starter? There are No. 1s who don't win 17 games."

Thursday March 24th, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 9: the San Francisco Giants.

2015 Record and Finish:
84–78 (.518), second place in National League West (12th overall)

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
88–74 (.543), second place in NL West, second place in NL wild card

The Case For

Yes, all you believers in the power of the #EvenYear mystique: The Giants, off a postseason-less 2015, are right where they want to be heading into '16. But let’s also not overlook just how good the Giants were last year: They were only four games worse than the 2014 title team, and their plus-69 run differential was fourth best in the NL (and just three behind the Dodgers) and matched that of the '12 championship.

We’re accustomed to this team winning games with sterling pitching, but the Giants revealed themselves last year as much more than the Madison Bumgarner Show. A potent offense is fueled by an impressive core of young homegrown hitters, with the unexpected emergence of 25-year-old third baseman Matt Duffy to go with the core of Buster Posey (who turns 29 on March 27), Brandon Crawford (29), Joe Panik (25) and Brandon Belt (27). San Francisco's suddenly scary offense led the league in batting average and on-base percentage and was fourth in OPS and fifth in runs scored. Given his track record, Duffy is a regression candidate, but Hunter Pence, who played in just 52 games last year, should be healthy. So should Belt, who mostly avoided the injury bug last year and played in 137 games. There’s no reason why the offense can’t be just as good, or even better, this go around—and not just because we’re in an even year.​

The Case Against

The Giants had to find a way to replace the 335 innings they got from the departed trio of Tim Hudson, Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong, so they went and shelled out $210 million for two veterans, Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija. A year ago, those additions to a rotation headed by Bumgarner would have given the Giants a starting five that would look like the finest in the galaxy, but heading into this season, there are some real concerns as to whether it was money well spent.

On the surface, Samardzija seems like a big bounce-back candidate, as he goes from the bandbox in the South Side of Chicago to spacious AT&T Park. But it’s hard to ignore just how bad he was in 2015, when he had a disastrous season with the White Sox under the tutelage of noted pitching guru Don Cooper and posted career lows in strikeout and ground-ball rates while leading the majors in hits and earned runs allowed. The Shark’s wobbly spring—his velocity has been reportedly down this spring—only adds to the concern. Cueto may be an even bigger enigma. His ERA over the last five seasons (2.71) is second only to Clayton Kershaw’s among pitchers with at least 500 innings, but he was so inconsistent during his time in Kansas City last year that there were real concerns that he was hurt. The truth is, no one has any idea which Johnny will show up in San Francisco.

With the big question marks surrounding old horses Jake Peavy and Matt Cain in the rotation, the Giants need quality seasons from their two new hurlers. If they get the bad versions of Cueto and Samardzija, they’ll be in trouble.​

MORE MLB: NL breakout candidates | NL busts | NL rookies to watch

Brad Mangin/Getty Images

X-Factor: Matt Cain, SP

Cain was once as reliable as they came: With six straight seasons of 200 or more innings and over 30 starts in each, he lived up to his nickname, The Horse. Then bone spurs sidelined him in late 2014, followed by a miserable, injury-riddled '15 season. The statistically minded have always been skeptical of this particular fly-ball pitcher’s ability to keep the ball in the park, and perhaps his recent struggles have something to do with that luck catching up to him. Whatever the case, the Giants still owe Cain $50 million, so they have big hopes he can become a top-of-the-rotation starter once again. If he does, behind Bumgarner, the Giants will be hard to beat.​

Number To Know: 32

That's how old Denard Span is—and he's the youngest of San Francisco’s starting outfielders, a unit that suddenly seems very injury prone. Pence was once an ironman, playing 162 games in both 2013 and '14 (and at least 154 games every season before that), but he suddenly found himself hobbled by numerous injuries last year (a broken forearm, wrist tendinitis and an oblique injury). Angel Pagan did manage to stay mostly healthy last season, but the 34-year-old showed signs that he may be slowing down as a base-stealing threat (he stole just 12 last year) after dealing with knee injuries over the years. Span, meanwhile, played in just 61 games last year and is returning from hip surgery; he also may never again be the stolen base threat that he once was. Fourth outfielder Gregor Blanco is 34, and beyond him, the Giants' bench is thin. One or two injuries to the outfield, and the Giants could have some serious problems.​

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Johnny Cueto, SP

"He had a pretty hefty price tag, and there’s enough red flag indicators to wonder if they’re going to get value on that one. The ballpark should help him. He banks on deception. The margin for error isn’t as much as it used to be because his stuff ain’t as good as it once was. His velocity ticked back a little—it used to be mid-90s, now it's 92 or 93—and his slider's not as tight. He’s had to come up with more tricks. You wonder if all the stuff in his delivery has taken away from his stuff, too.​"

Most Underrated: Hunter Pence, OF

"He is my favorite guy on this team. I just don't know how he does it. It’s the most unconventional approach. To create the impact that he does is a little bit freakish to me. You watch his practice swing, and it's so awkward. I'd like to ask the scout who found him, 'How did you ever figure this would work?' I think he’s the glue guy, too. They can’t afford to lose his production or what he brings to the clubhouse."

Thursday March 24th, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 8: the St. Louis Cardinals.

2015 Record and Finish:
100–62 (.617), first place in National League Central (first overall); lost NL Division Series to Cubs

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
90–72 (.555), second place in NL Central, first place in NL wild card

The Case For

With six postseason appearances in the past seven seasons and a thriving player development system, the Cardinals are as close to a perpetual contention machine as there exists in baseball. The rotation should be a stronger one than they finished the year with: Adam Wainwright is recovered from last year's torn Achilles tendon, both Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha are more able to handle full complements of innings after some late-2015 growing pains, and Mike Leake is aboard to replace Lance Lynn, who underwent Tommy John surgery in the fall. Korean reliever Seung-hwan Oh, who led the Japan Central League in saves in each of the past two seasons, should bolster the bullpen, and he's already got two great nicknames: "The Final Boss" and "Stone Buddha."

As for the lineup, St. Louis still has one of the game's most underrated players in Matt Carpenter atop it, and while there's no getting around the loss of Jason Heyward to the division rival Cubs, the increased playing time for Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk and Tommy Pham should help to minimize it. The team can hope that both Matt Adams and Matt Holliday bounce back from injury-plagued seasons, and the acquisition of Brayan Pena gives them the Cardinals their most capable backup catcher of Yadier Molina’s tenure, and in turn, a better chance at keeping their 33-year-old, four-time Platinum Glove-winning starter healthy.

The Case Against

The Cardinals ended last season quite banged up, and they're already dealing with injuries again, having lost Jhonny Peralta until around the All-Star break due to a torn ligament in his left thumb that required surgery. With just-signed Ruben Tejada and off-season acquisition Jedd Gyorko likely to be his primary replacements at shortstop, the team’s offense and defense will both take a hit. Meanwhile, Molina is trying to come back from a pair of surgeries to his own left thumb, putting his Opening Day availability in question. That won't make it any easier to rebound from his worst season at the plate since 2006, and it may be that the 33-year-old backstop's days as a significant piece of the offense are at an end, though his defensive value and ability to handle pitchers are hardly in question.

Adams is coming back from a severe quad injury that required surgery, and the 36-year-old Holliday is trying to recover from quad problems that limited him to 73 games; there's no guarantee the pair will account for 35–40 homers as they did in 2013 and '14. For as impressive as Grichuk, Piscotty and Pham were in limited duty last year, none has a full major league season under his belt, and with Heyward, Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos gone, the team's considerable outfield depth has been depleted.

MORE MLB: NL breakout candidates | NL busts | NL rookies to watch

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

X-Factor: Kolten Wong, 2B

The recent recipient of a five-year, $25.5 million extension, the 25-year-old Wong is a solid player but still has some significant holes in his game. In his second full season, he hit .262/.321/.386 with 11 homers, 15 steals and a 92 OPS+, right in line with the average NL second baseman (.266/.319.384). In the field, he was five runs above average according to Defensive Runs Saved en route to 2.2 Wins Above Replacement.

There's no shame in any of that, but there's plenty of room for Wong to improve in several areas—or for manager Mike Matheny to lessen his exposure and minimize the impact of his deficiencies. Wong's 5.5% unintentional walk rate was the lowest among the team's regulars and hardly befitting a player who made nearly half his plate appearances in either the leadoff or No. 2 spot in the order. His 65% success rate in stolen bases (eight times caught stealing in 23 attempts) was subpar, and a significant drop from his 83% in 24 attempts in 2014. He also tailed off badly in the second half (.238/.292/.322) after a strong start (.280/.343/.434 before the All-Star break) as he pulled the ball with less frequency and saw significant declines in his batting average on balls in play and power. Finally, he was just dreadful (.229/.275/.277 in 178 plate appearances) against southpaws despite plenty of exposure.

The acquisition of the lefty-mashing Gyorko was aimed at offsetting that last problem, but he may wind up playing a significant amount of shortstop in Peralta's absence. Among their other shortstop/utility options who could free him up for a platoon, the righty-swinging Tejada has hit .281/.363/.355 against lefties in his career for an OPS about 90 points better than against righties, and minor leaguer Aledmys Diaz, who got a long look in spring training, hit .371/.431/.621 in 137 PA against lefties at Double and Triple A in 2015. In other words, the team has options to work around Wong’s issues against lefties, though the superiority of his glove work may carry the day, increasing the need for him to shore up his other flaws.

Number To Know: 15

That's where the Cardinals' first basemen ranked on offense in the NL last year, with a .702 OPS via a .238/.310/.392 line. Adams was hitting just .243/.281/.375 with four homers when he strained his right quad trying to run out a double on May 26—an injury that required surgery, cost him 3 1/2 months and limited him to just 31 plate appearances upon returning in September. The team used six other players at that spot, including the since-departed Mark Reynolds, deadline acquisition Brandon Moss, midseason callup Piscotty and others, but collectively, they were a drag on that offense in that capacity.

The easiest way to upgrade that spot would be for Adams to recapture his 2013–14 form (a combined .287/.327/.474 for a 121 OPS+ with 32 homers), though a platoon complement is still a necessity given his career .197/.230/.317 line in 230 plate appearances against southpaws. The team has put the righty-swinging Piscotty's further dalliance at the position on hold; meanwhile, Holliday showed up to camp having taken the initiative to start learning the position over the winter, and the early returns have been encouraging. With Peralta out in favor of what will inevitably be a lighter-hitting replacement and Molina in decline, the Cardinals simply can't punt offense at first base and expect to win 100 games again.

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Brandon Moss, 1B/OF

"He strikes out way too much, and the league will make adjustments to him.​"

Most Underrated: Mike Leake, SP

"He will give this team tons of innings and keep them in every game he starts.​"

Thursday March 24th, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 7: the Kansas City Royals.

2015 Record and Finish:
95–67 (.586), first place in American League Central (fourth overall); won World Series

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
90–72 (.555), first place in AL Central

The Case For

Modern baseball economics are supposed to preclude something like the Royals’ re-signing of Alex Gordon from happening. Having established himself as a truly top-shelf outfielder—fourth in Wins Above Replacement among outfielders since 2011, after only Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen and Jose Bautista—a player like Gordon is supposed to leave behind the mid-market club that nurtured him for every dollar he can get once he hits free agency, and no one would blame him. But that Gordon agreed to return for four years and $72 million is this winter’s biggest development for the Royals. (That other suitors were wary of his 32 years of age might have combined with Gordon’s fondness for Kansas City to result in that lower-than-expected figure.) While Lorenzo Cain is almost certainly the Royals' best player now, Gordon provides their heart and their identity, as his career—from struggling to star—has tracked their own rise to world champions.

Gordon’s return means that the Royals will be able to win in the same way as last year. They’ll do it via a relentless lineup, one led not only by Cain and Gordon but also by finally bloomed former top prospects Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas—one that refuses to wilt to modern peer pressure that suggests striking out is okay. The Royals whiffed just 15.9% of the time least year, making them the majors’ best contact club by a long shot and, in fact, the best since 2011. And they’ll win with a bullpen that is every bit as dominant as it was last year: Wade Davis is the game’s best closer, and Joakim Soria—the team’s closer between 2007 and '11—has returned to serve as one of the game’s best eighth-inning men behind Kelvin Herrera, who is one of the game’s best seventh-inning men. Projections systems still don’t like it—Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system has Kansas City winning just 76 games—but two straight World Series appearances seem like reasonable evidence that the Royals’ style works.

The Case Against

If the Gordon signing was universally praised, that of Ian Kennedy was just as widely scorned. Five years and $70 million does seem like a lot for a 31-year-old who had a 4.28 ERA last year, but it might not be so bad, for a few reasons. Kennedy surpassed 200 strikeouts just two years ago, and he goes from pitching in front of one of the majors' worst defenses (the Padres’) to its clear best. The Royals also desperately needed someone who could start games, after post-deadline rental Johnny Cueto’s departure. Other than Kennedy, they’ve got a No. 3 starter masquerading as an ace in Edinson Volquez; a No. 2 starter with an ace’s stuff who had a 4.08 ERA last year even in front of that great defense in Yordano Ventura; and the severely injury prone (though effective when healthy) Chris Young and Kris Medlen. The Royals’ rotation wasn’t great last year (a 22nd-ranked 4.34 ERA) and they won it all regardless, but if it’s much worse this year, no amount of clutch contact hitting, fielding and bullpen work will save them in a division with four other teams that all appear to be improved.​

MORE MLB: AL breakout candidates | AL busts | AL rookies to watch

Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

X-Factor: Second base

Last July’s trade of pitchers Sean Manaea and Aaron Brooks for Ben Zobrist couldn’t have worked out any better for the Royals. Zobrist batted .284 with seven homers, 23 RBIs and an OPS of .816 in 59 regular-season games with Kansas City, then kept ripping doubles in the gap in October—eight of them in 16 postseason games, during which he batted .303 with an .880 OPS.

As expected, though, the 35-year-old Zobrist left in free agency, and now second base is an issue again. Omar Infante, the likely starter, hasn’t aged nearly as well as Zobrist: He’s 34, but his .220 batting average and near complete lack of power led him to finish last year with a negative WAR (-0.8). Christian Colon, the fourth pick in the 2010 draft, could win the job, but he hasn’t developed much of a bat either, with a .744 OPS in parts of four Triple A seasons. The solution might be Raul Mondesi, Jr., who is mostly known for having made his MLB debut during last year’s World Series but whose talent should soon render that fact a footnote. Mondesi doesn’t turn 21 until July, but plays older. “He has the ingredients—a switch hitter with plus bat speed from both sides, a 70 runner with a 60 arm, a premier defender with Gold Glove actions,” says one scout. “Yeah, I think he’ll be up this year.”

Number To Know: 39.2%

That was the percentage of balls Moustakas pulled last year, according to FanGraphs—a career-low and a significant decline from 2014, when it was 50.5%. The third baseman’s change in approach was extreme: Two years ago, among players with 500 plate appearances, he was the ninth most pull-happy hitter in baseball, but last year he was 74th, below the median. Dead red power was what made Moustakas the No. 2 pick in the draft as a California high schooler in 2007, but his decision to become a better all-around hitter eight years later paid dividends. After a 2014 in which he hit .212, he set career highs last season not just in batting average (.284) but also in homers (22) and RBIs (82). The new Moustakas should only continue to improve.

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Yordano Ventura, SP

“A lot of hype, but he’s just got to be more efficient with his pitches [and] get deeper into games if he wants to be a true front-of-the-rotation guy. He gets too emotional at times. Every year in the minor leagues, they had to put their thumb on him to keep him down. Suspended him, had him skip starts for discipline reasons. They’ve managed him pretty good—he could have really unraveled at times. He’s a little like Pedro [Martinez] with his height and weight, but Pedro could command everything. When he’s on, he’s a freak, but I don’t know if he’ll ever be the guy that gives you 200-some innings—and to be a one or two, you've got to do that.”​

Most Underrated: Alcides Escobar, SS

“Plays every day, Gold Glove defender. Grinds out at-bats. I know he doesn’t have that great an on-base percentage, but you know what? They win when he’s at the top of the order. They tried to have other guys with better OBPs leading off, but [manager] Ned Yost has even said it: We win when he leads off. Statistically, it’s an anomaly. You can’t always explain the numbers, but the end result, you can’t ignore. They seem to play with more energy with him up there. Maybe it puts the rest of the hitters in their lineup in a better order.”​

Friday March 25th, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 6: the Boston Red Sox.

2015 Record and Finish:
78–84 (.481), fifth place in American League East (19th overall)

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
92–70 (.568), second place in AL East, first place in AL wild card

The Case For

En route to their third last-place finish in four seasons, the Red Sox shook things up, bringing in former Expos/Marlins/Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski as president of baseball operations, a move that resulted in the resignation of general manager Ben Cherington and, eventually, the promotion of Mike Hazen to GM. Over the winter, the new regime made two high-impact moves to shore up an underachieving pitching staff whose rotation and bullpen both ranked third-to-last in the AL in ERA: Signing David Price to a record-setting seven-year, $217 million deal and trading four prospects to the Padres for closer Craig Kimbrel. Along with those moves, Boston added setup man Carson Smith via trade, and the Sox will also get a full season of Eduardo Rodriguez, with youngsters such as Henry Owens and Brian Johnson pushing for spots in the rotation. All of that should make the team much better in run prevention.

Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, the two free agents whose shortcomings—summarized neatly in their combined -2.2 Wins Above Replacement, around nine wins short of what they provided their previous employers in 2014—played no small part in precipitating the regime change, can't help but be better than last year on both sides of the ball. Pulling Ramirez out of leftfield, where he was 19 runs below average, and moving him to first base can only help. The Sox can hope to get more than last year's total of 93 games from Dustin Pedroia, and the last lap for age-defying David Ortiz will be must-see given his penchant for rising to the occasion. The lineup is awash in young talent as well, including a trio of elite defenders in the outfield in Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Rusney Castillo; 2015 breakout Xander Bogaerts at shortstop; and a promising catching tandem in Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez (who could start in the minors as he returns from Tommy John surgery).

The Case Against

Starters Rick Porcello and Joe Kelly are coming off dismal seasons, with ERAs near 5.00; the latter has been roasted for a 4.60 ERA and 4.31 FIP since arriving from St. Louis in July 2014. The range of outcomes for Clay Buchholz—from unhittable staff ace to tomato can to disabled list denizen—is almost limitless. Aside from Price, none of the rotation's candidates made 30 starts or threw more than 172 innings last year, and Rodriguez is already slated to start the year on the DL after dislocating his right kneecap in a fielding drill in late February. In other words, the team's considerable pitching depth will quickly be tested.

Meanwhile, Castillo was a dud at the plate last year and still has to prove that he can hit breaking pitches and avoid mental errors on the basepaths. Bradley's breakout at the major league level amounts to one red-hot August (.354/.429/.734 in 91 plate appearances) propping up mediocre-or-worse stretches, some of them admittedly small in sample size. It's asking a lot to count on Ramirez to take to first base given the lack of zeal he's shown for previous position moves (though to be fair, the early reports have been good), and it's quite possible that neither he nor Sandoval will ever rebound to their All-Star caliber levels.

Finally, it's worth keeping an eye on manager John Farrell. Leaving aside the encouraging news that he's back in the dugout and cancer-free after missing the final six weeks of the 2015 season due to a diagnosis of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, not many managers retain their jobs after back-to-back last-place finishes and a regime change. If the team struggles, it wouldn't be a surprise if Dombrowski makes a switch to install a manager of his own choosing.​

MORE MLB: AL breakout candidates | AL busts | AL rookies to watch

Charles Krupa/AP

X-Factor: Rick Porcello, SP

Acquired in a December 2014 swap that sent Yoenis Cespedes to Detroit, the Red Sox liked Porcello—who was coming off what appeared to be a breakout season (3.43 ERA, 3.67 FIP, 4.0 WAR)—so much that they signed him to a four-year, $82.5 million extension for 2016–19 nearly a full year in advance. Expectations were high that he could build on his 2014 performance to provide the Sox with some semblance of frontline pitching in the absence of a true ace, but needless to say, things didn't go so well. Though he posted the highest strikeout rate of his career (7.8 per nine), Porcello tied his career high with a 4.92 ERA and set a career high in home-run rate (1.3 per nine) as his ground-ball rate fell to a career-low 46%. While he pitched to a 3.14 ERA with 0.8 homers per nine and a ground-ball rate above 50% over his final eight starts after missing four weeks due to a triceps strain, his 0.6 WAR wound up as his worst showing since 2011.

Underlying Porcello's woes to at least some extent were a whole lot of sinkers that didn't sink. Throwing his two-seamer 39.1% of the time, he allowed six homers and a gaudy .441 slugging percentage on the pitch, the latter mark up from .367 the year before. Meanwhile, his changeup, which he threw 10.6% of the time, was tattooed for six homers and a .611 slugging percentage, up from two homers and a .352 slugging percentage the year before.

The Sox need Porcello to get back to pitching somewhere closer to his 2014 form, or they'll have another expensive dud on their hands. Hopefully, with a full spring with pitching coach Carl Willis (who replaced the fired Juan Nieves last May), he can build on his late-season run.

Number To Know: .195/.271/.300

That's Bradley's career batting line in his 694 plate appearances apart from his aforementioned August tear, which actually carried over into September before being offset by a .138/.247/.263 showing over his final 94 plate appearances. That “all-but-August” showing also includes 197 strikeouts, a 28% rate that’s hardly offset by his production. The 26-year-old Bradley is a spectacular defender, and if he's the one covering centerfield—the team experimented with various configurations during Ramirez's absences but now appears set with Castillo in left and Betts in right—then he doesn't have to hit all that much to justify his place in the lineup. Still, Bradley will have to find consistency at the plate and make contact more often to utilize his speed in order to hold onto a regular job.​

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Pablo Sandoval, 3B

"Sandoval is as fat as ever, and his body can betray him in a heartbeat. Making the money he's making, supposedly he was going to come into camp in better shape. Well, he hasn't. He's just an adequate offensive player now, not what he was with the Giants in any way. I don't expect more than the 10 home runs he hit last year. If he doesn't get back to hitting home runs, he's useless to them at third base."​

Most Underrated: Brock Holt, IF/OF

"Holt is one of my favorite players on this team. He's very valuable because he can play everywhere in the infield, and he's a good hitter. He can fill in for anybody."​

Friday March 25th, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 5: the Los Angeles Dodgers.

2015 Record and Finish:
92–70 (.568), first place in National League West (sixth overall); lost NL Division Series to Mets

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
93–69 (.574), first place in NL West

The Case For

The Dodgers came a one-run Game 5 loss away from beating the ace-loaded Mets and advancing to last year’s NLCS despite the fact that their lineup—the NL’s fourth-most prolific during the regular season—had by October sustained more arrow strikes than St. Sebastian. Yasmani Grandal, the catcher who batted .282 with 13 homers and 36 RBIs before the All-Star break, was virtually debilitated by a shoulder injury that ruined his second half and on which he had surgery over the winter. Howie Kendrick was enduring the lingering effects of a badly strained hamstring. Yasiel Puig, also with an injured hamstring, had one hit after Aug. 27. Even Justin Turner, the third baseman who nearly single-handedly kept the Dodgers in the series by batting .526, was playing with a bum left knee that would shortly thereafter require a microfracture procedure.

In 2016, though, Los Angeles’ offense should return mostly intact, both in health and composition; the re-signing of Kendrick to a two-year, $20 million deal means that it will feature nary a new face. It will, however, have a fresh one: 21-year-old shortstop Corey Seager, baseball’s consensus top prospect, who batted .337 with four homers, 17 RBIs and a .986 OPS after his promotion last September. Much more, too, can be expected of Puig, who batted a massively disappointing .255 with 11 homers, 38 RBIs and three steals in 79 regular-season games. Puig, though, retains all the skills that made him an immediate sensation in 2013—and perhaps, at 25, a newfound wisdom. “Supposedly he’s more mature on the field and off the field,” says a rival scout. “You would hope so. He’s a freak. He could be Yoenis Cespedes, he could be Mike Trout, he could be Bryce Harper if he could play under control [and] calm down a little bit.”

With the steady Adrian Gonzalez still cleaning up, the Dodgers’ offense should again look like the one you’d expect from baseball’s highest-paid club, though the team announced in late March that outfielder Andre Ethier will miss up to three months due to a fractured tibia. Even so, a fourth straight playoff berth—this one under new manager Dave Roberts—could be just the start.

The Case Against

Clayton Kershaw stands alone, no matter what. But on the Dodgers’ staff, at least in the early going, he’ll be out there on his own island. The loss of Zack Greinke—he of the 1.66 ERA last year—to the Diamondbacks was always going to hurt, but now, says one scout, “You got question marks in your rotation.” Brett Anderson, re-signed in free agency, had back surgery in early March that will keep him out three to five months, and Brandon McCarthy, Frankie Montas and Hyun-jin Ryu might also be out until mid-summer. Even would-be–fill-in fifth man Mike Bolsinger is likely to miss the start of the season with a strained oblique.

The Dodgers’ wealth allowed them to load up on pitching depth to try to counteract the departure of the singular Greinke, but the season-starting rotation behind Kershaw—free-agent signings Scott Kazmir and Kenta Maeda and underwhelming returnee Alex Wood and, for awhile, Carlos Frias or Zach Lee—isn’t at all intimidating. Neither is the bullpen behind closer Kenley Jansen, as Los Angeles added only Louis Coleman and Joe Blanton to a group that ranked 11th in the NL in ERA, at 3.91. It might turn out that even a club with a $250 million payroll can’t have enough pitching.​

MORE MLB: NL breakout candidates | NL busts | NL rookies to watch

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

X-Factor: Julio Urias, SP

If only all scouting trips were as productive as the one the Dodgers’ staff took to Mexico in June of 2012. That excursion yielded not only Puig, who held a series of showcases south of the border, but also Urias, who is now baseball’s best pitching prospect. The southpaw has mostly dominated in the minors, pitching to a 2.77 ERA with 10.7 strikeouts per nine over his three seasons, thanks to an advanced three-pitch repertoire that includes a fastball that sits at 94 mph, a sharp curveball and a precocious changeup. He is the exact type of weapon a pitching-thin, would-be contender might immediately turn to, except for a couple of things. For starters, he only turned 19 in August, and he’s yet to throw more than 87 2/3 innings in a professional season. Second, he worked only 80 1/3 frames last year, due in part to a mid-season operation on a benign mass in his left eye—a condition that has long rendered it nearly closed, though he says he can see out of it.

Mostly, though, Urias’s light workloads are due to the desire of the Dodgers' brain trust to handle its prize with white gloves. But if Los Angeles’ early-season starting pitching proves woeful, might the team prove unable to resist the temptation to call on Urias, with the idea that he could be sent back down later to curtail his workload and service time? It’s unlikely, but possible. It’s been 36 years since Fernandomania swept Southern California, and it could prove time to unleash another 19-year-old lefthanded Mexican phenom.​

Number To Know: 2.11

That’s Kershaw’s ERA over the past five years, a stretch during which he’s thrown 1,128 innings. It’s the lowest over that period by a full 60 points—Johnny Cueto is second, at 2.71—meaning Kershaw has been 22% better than any other pitcher in baseball for half a decade. In other words, he was Steph Curry before Steph Curry—and the two were born in the same week in March of 1988.​

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Joc Pederson, OF

“Just because of the strikeouts, the inconsistent play. This is a guy that plays out of control a lot. He can take erratic routes and just drive you crazy. There’s a lot of ball that you’re like, dang, that’s probably a catchable ball and a play your centerfielder should make. He strikes out at such a high, alarming rate that I don’t know if he can be a winning type of player. Two things kill me: walks when you’re a pitcher and high-strikeout guys. They just make it very hard to win. It’s tough for your everyday centerfielder to have 170 strikeouts and hit .210. He’s swinging from his ass, trying to hit it not just out but out of the world, into the next universe. He does get some walks, but .210 is .210.”​

Most Underrated: Justin Turner, 3B

“Last year he really helped them when they were going good. A grinder, [he] came up with clutch hit after clutch hit. He played short for them at times, [but he's] obviously much better at third. His recovery from his knee injury is going to be huge. They need him. He’s the heart and soul of that lineup—an old-fashioned, throwback baseball player. He’s better than a journeyman now. He’s a winning-type player that can play on any team.”​

Friday March 25th, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 4: the Toronto Blue Jays.

2015 Record and Finish:
93–69 (.574), first place in American League East (fifth overall); lost AL Championship Series to Royals

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
93–69 (.574), first place in AL East

The Case For

The Blue Jays fell two games shy of winning the AL pennant last season and are returning this year with 2015’s most prolific offense not only intact but also arguably improved. Full seasons from deadline addition Troy Tulowitzki and leftfielder Michael Saunders, who combined to start just 49 regular-season games for Toronto last year, should help. Toronto also hopes to get four healthy months from sophomore second baseman Devon Travis, who was active for just three months last season and fighting a left shoulder injury (one that was surgically repaired in November) for much of that time. The Jays can also reasonably expect improvement at the plate from centerfielder Kevin Pillar, who is coming off his first full major league season, in his age-27 campaign. Surely there will be some regression elsewhere, most likely from the first base platoon of Chris Colabello and Justin Smoak, but Toronto has every reason to expect to lead the majors in runs scored for a second consecutive season.

Meanwhile, a full season of Tulowitzki will also improve the Jays in the field, and a full season of Marcus Stroman, who made just four starts last year due to a torn knee ligament suffered in spring training, could give Toronto the front-of-the-rotation ace it lacked for the first four months of 2015. In the bullpen, the Blue Jays spent the early part of last year trying to establish a closer before finally landing on rookie Roberto Osuna. This year, both Osuna and veteran Drew Storen enter the season with closer experience, and each is capable of dominating in the eighth or ninth inning. Their presence will allow the Jays to keep lefty Brett Cecil in the setup role for which he is best suited and gives Toronto an impressive Big Three in the bullpen, something the team lacked until the final two months of last year.

You may have noticed a pattern above. The Blue Jays were a different team after last year’s trading deadline, when they added Tulowitzki, David Price, leftfielder Ben Revere and relief help. This year, they more closely resemble that post-deadline version of the team heading into the season, with Tulowitzki still in place, Stroman replacing Price, Saunders replacing Revere and Storen replacing free agent Mark Lowe. Tulowitzki was the first of those reinforcements to arrive last July, and from his first game with the Jays on July 29 through the end of the regular season, Toronto went 43–18—three games better than any other team in the AL—and posted a .705 winning percentage, or a 114-win pace over 162 games. The Jays won’t be that dominant this season, but they have as much of a chance as any other team of leading the league in wins and winning the pennant—and possibly even taking home their first championship since 1993.

The Case Against

“A full season of Troy Tulowitzki” is as hoary a spring training cliché as a player being “in the best shape of his life.” Expecting Tulo, Saunders (who has appeared in just 87 games over the last two years) or Travis to avoid the disabled list beyond the latter's remaining two months of rehab is cockeyed optimism.

I already mentioned the likelihood of regression from the platoon of Smoak and Colabello, who hit a combined .277/.334/.496 with 33 home runs last year. The Jays are also likely to see some regression from defending AL MVP Josh Donaldson and fellow sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, all of whom hit 39 or more home runs with an OPS+ of 149 or better last year. Donaldson turned 30 in December. Encarnacion turned 33 in January and seems to be constantly suffering from one nagging injury or another, including an oblique strain this spring that could threaten his availability for Opening Day. Bautista is 35 and has had his share of injuries as well since leading the majors in home runs in 2010 and '11. Bautista and Encarnacion, meanwhile, are both entering their walk years amid unsatisfactory extension talks with the Blue Jays, but age, injury and the simple difficulty of repeating the level of production they provided last year seem more likely to factor into their 2016 performances than their next contract. Speaking of age, catcher Russell Martin is 33 and has had postseason innings added onto his full-time–regular-season workload in seven of his last eight seasons.

In the rotation, Stroman, who is 5’8” and will turn 25 in May, has never thrown more than 166 1/3 innings in a professional season and threw just 54 last year including his minor league rehab assignment and the postseason. Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ are middling journeymen in their early thirties coming off spikes in performance that they seem unlikely to repeat. R.A. Dickey is a 41-year-old knuckleballer who has been a perfectly league-average innings eater in his three years in Toronto (100 ERA+, 654 2/3 innings pitched). As for the fifth spot, that seems likely to be claimed by sophomore Aaron Sanchez, who posted a lousy 1.14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 11 starts last year before landing on the disabled list and being repurposed as a setup reliever. His backup for that spot includes Drew Hutchison (5.47 ERA in 28 starts last year), veteran Gavin Floyd (14 starts and 92 major league innings pitched in the last three years due to a variety of injuries) and swing-man Jesse Chavez (4.37 ERA in 26 starts for the Athletics last year while benefiting from a far friendlier home ballpark). The bullpen, meanwhile, gets pretty thin after that top three of Osuna, Storen and Cecil with Sanchez likely in the rotation, lefty Aaron Loup currently down with a flexor strain and Liam Hendriks and 2015 deadline additions Lowe and LaTroy Hawkins all having departed for one reason or another.

With the Red Sox ascendant, the Yankees still relevant and no clear patsy in the division, the Blue Jays could have a much tougher to the postseason in 2016 than they had a year ago.

MORE MLB: AL breakout candidates | AL busts | AL rookies to watch

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

X-Factor: The starting rotation

Even if they do suffer injuries and regression, the Blue Jays are going to hit the snot out of the ball and score a ton of runs. They are also going to play outstanding defense (they led the majors in park-adjusted defensive efficiency in 2015 and, again, should be better at shortstop this year), and they have enough back-end talent in the bullpen to expect a good performance from that unit—one that is the most malleable part of any team via in-season reinforcements and affordable deadline acquisitions, as they Jays themselves demonstrated last year.

The biggest question facing the 2016 Blue Jays, then, is the performance of their starting rotation. There is clearly upside there with Stroman as a potential ace, Sanchez as a former top prospect in his age-23 season with 125 1/3 innings of major league exposure, Dickey as a reliable innings eater and Estrada and Happ as wily veterans who appeared to make late-career gains last year. Indeed, I’ve heard praise for the Jays’ rotation from multiple sources this spring. It seems every bit as likely, however, that all three veterans will post an ERA+ below league average and that Stroman and Sanchez will combine to make fewer than 30 starts due to a combination of injury and poor performance. Simply put, the collapse potential in Toronto's rotation is tremendous, and it's why I stop short of considering them the favorite to win the pennant this season.​

Numbers To Know: 29% and 17%

I undersold the dominance of the 2015 Blue Jays’ offense. Toronto didn’t just lead the majors in scoring last year; it scored 29% more runs than the major league average and 17% more runs than the second-place Yankees. The last team to outscore the major league average by 29% or more was the 1976 Reds, better known as the Big Red Machine and widely regarded as one of the best teams in major league history. To find the last team to outscore the runner-up in run scoring by 17% or more, you have to go all the way back to the 1931 Yankees of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, who outscored that year’s Indians by 20% with 1,067 runs, good for 6.88 runs per game.

Those 1931 Yankees are the only team in the Live Ball era to outscore the second-place team in runs by as much or more than the 2015 Blue Jays. In fact, since the 1953 Dodgers outscored the second-most potent offense in baseball by 16%, only two other teams have bested the second-place offense by as much as 11%: the '55 Dodgers and those '76 Reds. That is the company the 2015 Blue Jays kept: The Big Red Machine, the "Boys of Summer" Dodgers, Ted Williams’s Red Sox and the Ruth-Gehrig-DiMaggio-era Yankees (see table below). Those are the greatest offenses in major league history, and the 2015 Blue Jays ranked among them despite getting just 183 plate appearances from Tulowitzki, 239 from Travis and 36 from Saunders.​

Most runs scored per game as a percentage of league average in Live Ball era (1920-present):

year team r/g lg. Avg. % vs. lg. Avg.
1931 Yankees 6.88 4.81 43
1950 Red Sox 6.67 4.85 38
1933 Yankees 6.10 4.48 36
1953 Dodgers 6.16 4.61 34
1927 Yankees 6.30 4.75 32.63
1976 Reds 5.29 3.99 32.58
1936 Yankees 6.87 5.19 32.40
1939 Yankees 6.36 4.82 32
1932 Yankees 6.42 4.91 31
2015 Blue Jays 5.50 4.25 29

Most runs scored per game as a percentage of runner-up in runs scored per game in Live Ball era (1920-present):

year team r/g Runner-up % vs. runner-up
1931 Yankees 6.88 5.71 20
2015 Blue Jays 5.50 4.72 17
1953 Dodgers 6.16 5.30 16.2
1927 Yankees 6.30 5.43 16.0
1936 Yankees 6.87 6.01 14

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: J.A. Happ, SP

“I’m not sold. What did he get, three years, $36 million? That’s what No. 4 starters are going for, $12 million a year. So they figure they got a pretty good deal and they’re hoping he can stay healthy and provide some innings, but we’re just going to have to see. It’s just an entirely different league. I think he’s probably more suited to the National League. In 2014 [the Blue Jays] were counting on him, but he just underachieved. We’ll see how he does in the American League.”​

Most Underrated: Marcus Stroman, SP

“He got a lot of hype last year because he came back from his knee surgery quick, but I really think this guy has a chance to win a Cy Young this year. Just because he’s 5’8” or 5’9”, people don’t realize how good this guy is. I heard about him. Then when I saw him pitch live, I was like, ‘Wow.’ I was really kind of blown away. It’s better stuff than I expected. Usually smaller guys like that, they have issues with deception, with the angle or leverage, but he overcomes all that stuff. He really is a special talent.”​

Friday March 25th, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 3: the New York Mets.

2015 Record and Finish:
90–72 (.556), first place in National League East (seventh overall); lost World Series to Royals

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
95–67 (.586), first place in NL East

The Case For

Four men will be the difference between the Mets repeating as NL East champions and making a run at their second straight World Series berth or spending October watching the playoffs from home: Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz. Thanks to the best rotation in baseball, New York pulled off its surprising division title and NL pennant in 2015, and that rotation will once again be the basis for the team's contention hopes this year.

The debate over which of those four pitchers has the best stuff or is the Mets’ true ace could go on all season, but in reality, it doesn’t matter. All four are legit top-of-the-rotation pitchers who boast elite velocity, control and command, and any team would be lucky to have any one of them, much less all four. Having that quartet gives the Mets a gigantic advantage—a group that will keep them in the playoff hunt almost regardless of what else happens. New York is also welcoming back former top prospect Zack Wheeler, who underwent Tommy John surgery in early 2015 and will likely join the team at midseason.

Luckily for the Mets, there are plenty of other positives on their roster beyond the starting five. The lineup is potent, particularly now that New York will get full seasons out of Cuban superstar Yoenis Cespedes, who was acquired in a July 31 trade with the Tigers and re-signed as a free-agent during the off-season, and highly productive rookie Michael Conforto, who made his major league debut one week before Cespedes arrived. Along with Curtis Granderson, who experienced a resurgence last season (a 125 OPS+, his highest mark since 2011), they give the Mets one of the NL’s best outfields. Travis d’Arnaud is one of the league’s better-hitting catchers, and first baseman Lucas Duda and second baseman Neil Walker (acquired this winter for reserve starter Jonathon Niese) provide plenty of power on the right side of the infield.

A healthy season from David Wright would help give that lineup more punch as well. Wright was limited to 38 games last season because of a hamstring injury and a degenerative spinal condition, but he was able to come back in time for the stretch run and the postseason and put up solid production (.277/.381/.437 from Aug. 24 onward). Should he return in form, then New York will be able to put out a batting order with all nine hitters likely producing at league average or better—a far cry from the hopeless group that slept walk through the first half of last season.

The Case Against

For as strong as New York’s rotation is, the heavy workloads logged by the top trio of Harvey, deGrom and Syndergaard in the pursuit of a championship are worrisome. Harvey, coming off 2013 Tommy John surgery, blew past his Scott Boras-suggested innings limit of 180 to throw 216 last year between the regular season and playoffs. Syndergaard and deGrom, meanwhile, both set career highs in innings (the former with 169 in the regular and postseasons, the latter with 216), and by wide margins, too. Matz is the lone youngster of the group who didn’t go above and beyond his previous limits—but that’s only because a string of injuries kept him from doing so.

The addition of Wheeler and the presence of veteran stalwart Bartolo Colon should help Terry Collins manage his starters’ innings, but there’s no doubt that, to reach the postseason again, the Mets will have to lean on their top four. A thin bullpen won’t help matters. Closer Jeurys Familia is an ace in the ninth inning, but Collins was forced to call on him often throughout the season and especially in the playoffs, possibly decreasing his effectiveness this year. Worse, there are few other pitchers Collins can trust in his relief corps. Off-season addition Antonio Bastardo is a quality arm, but the losses of Jenrry Mejia and Tyler Clippard leave the Mets lacking an impact righthander. All of that will force Collins to ask a lot of his young starters and Familia, which could leave them exhausted by the time October rolls around.

As for the lineup, the injury-prone ways of Wright, d’Arnaud and Duda could create some serious depth issues if any of them is forced to miss a substantial amount of time. Already, New York is dealing with the absence of Asdrubal Cabrera at shortstop—something exacerbated by the front office’s parsimonious decision to release slick-fielding infielder Ruben Tejada in the middle of spring training. Perhaps more than any other team, the Mets need their stars to stay healthy.​

MORE MLB: NL breakout candidates | NL busts | NL rookies to watch

Al Behrman/AP

X-Factor: Zack Wheeler, SP

It’s almost unfair that a team with Harvey, deGrom, Syndergaard and Matz should get to add a fifth top starter to its rotation. But that’s where the Mets will likely find themselves in the summer when Wheeler makes his return. His loss in spring training last year was a potential disaster, but the emergence of Syndergaard and Matz helped paper over his injury. New York came close to giving up Wheeler for good last July in the aborted trade that would have sent him and Wilmer Flores to the Brewers for Carlos Gomez—one called off at the last minute because of the Mets’ concerns over Gomez’s health. Instead, the team got Cespedes and made its run, and now it gets to have Wheeler as a potential impact addition in the second half.

Before blowing out his elbow, Wheeler showed terrific velocity (averaging 95 mph on his four-seam fastball) and outstanding swing-and-miss stuff (9.08 strikeouts per nine and a swinging-strike rate of 10%) in 2014. One potential issue was his shaky command: He averaged 3.84 walks per nine in that last healthy season, and control often takes some time for Tommy John recipients to regain. On top of that, New York will likely want to be cautious with him the way it was with Harvey. One possibility: Turning to a six-man rotation, which the Mets briefly experimented with last season when Matz was called up. That could help keep the innings down for all of the team’s important young arms and still let New York reap the benefits of having five elite pitchers. All of that is contingent on Wheeler coming back healthy, but if he can, the already-pitching-rich Mets will get even richer.​

Number To Know: 69

That’s how many games d’Arnaud has averaged in his first three seasons with the Mets, largely due to injury (aside from his rookie year in 2013, when he played in 31 games after being called up in August). In 2014, he managed just 108 games thanks to a concussion and right elbow soreness; last year, a left elbow sprain and a fractured right pinkie finger limited him to 67 contests. The 27-year-old catcher’s injury history is problematic, to say the least: To that litany of ailments at the major league level, you can add a left knee sprain and left foot fracture suffered in the minors. And while d’Arnaud has avoided injury so far this spring, it feels like only a matter of time before he gets hurt again.

The Mets are making an effort to do what they can to reduce d’Arnaud’s exposure to injury, including talk of having him play first base and the outfield, and of having rookie Kevin Plawecki take more time behind the plate. Whether or not putting d’Arnaud in unfamiliar situations or handing additional at-bats to Plawecki (.219/.280/.296 in 258 plate appearances for the Mets last year as a 24-year-old) are good ideas remain to be seen. But doing what it takes to keep d’Arnaud healthy and on the field is a good call on New York’s part. When able, d’Arnaud has shown game-changing offensive ability—he posted a 128 OPS+ in limited action last year—and strong skills behind the plate. Catcher has been a revolving door for the Mets since the last days of Mike Piazza; d’Arnaud could be the rock behind the plate that New York has been searching for at the position for a decade, but only if he can avoid the injury bug that has marked his career to date.

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Yoenis Cespedes, OF

“I think they could have been okay without him. I wonder if at some point the players there get tired of the first six or eight days of spring training, a different $100,000 car every day … the whole Yoenis Cespedes show.”​

Most Underrated: Travis d'Arnaud, C

“The value he brings of handling those four pitchers, how well he does that, calling the games, leads to a lot of their success. He also can do a little bit of damage offensively.”​

Friday March 25th, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 2: the Houston Astros.

2015 Record and Finish:
86–76 (.531), second place in American League West, second place in AL wild card (10th overall); lost AL Division Series to Royals

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
96–66 (.592), first place in AL West

The Case For

Your 2017 World Series Champs? For a while last season, it seemed as if our cover prediction from June of 2014—scorned by many—might prove two years too conservative. After six straight losing seasons, the rebuilt and reestablished Astros ranked sixth in runs scored (729) and sixth in runs allowed (618) for a run differential of +111 (the majors’ third best), suggesting that they were in fact unlucky to win only 86 games and the second wild card spot. Houston's Pythagorean record was 93–69, which would have tied them for the AL’s second-best finish were the game played by Pythagoras. In any event, the Astros topped the Yankees in the wild-card game and made it to the ALDS, taking a 2–1 series lead on the eventual champion Royals before falling in five games.

Houston had such a season despite receiving only part-time work from two of its three best regulars. Jose Altuve played 154 games and received MVP votes for the second straight year after batting .313 with 15 homers, 66 RBIs and 38 steals. George Springer, though, suffered a broken wrist in July and played in only 102 games, hitting .276 with 16 homers, 41 RBIs and 16 steals. Carlos Correa, the 21-year-old shortstop and former No. 1 draft pick, played in only 99, as he didn’t debut until June 8. The precocious Rookie of the Year hit .279 with 22 homers, 68 RBIs and 14 steals and immediately became the club’s unquestioned leader—their Derek Jeter in Yeezys and a fedora.

Had both Correa and Springer played a full season’s worth of games, their Wins Above Replacement project to over 6.0 apiece, a figure topped by just 15 regulars in 2015. Full seasons and another year of maturity should allow them to surpass that mark for real, and to lead an Astros team that remains a legitimate threat for a ring—still a year early, according to some.​

The Case Against

Lance McCullers—picked 41st in the same 2012 draft that produced Correa—was also a revelation as a rookie in 2015, pitching to a 3.22 ERA over 125 2/3 innings and striking out seven hard-to-whiff Royals in 6 1/3 innings in Game 4 of the ALDS. He was armed with a mid-90s fastball and a hard curve against which batters hit .148—one that helped him maintain a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3:1. But McCullers’s efforts meant a 56.7% jump in total innings pitched from the year before despite the Astros’ attempts to limit his use. That makes him a prime candidate to suffer from the Year-After Effect—my colleague Tom Verducci's attempt to identify young hurlers with a heightened injury risk due to significantly increased work.

Well, McCullers already has a sore shoulder, and the Astros have announced that he will miss the start of the regular season. That’s a concern for an Astros rotation that already resembles a kiddie pool: shallow and lacking heat. In fact, not one of the five men who will now comprise the early rotation—returnees Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Mike Fiers and Scott Feldman and bargain free agent Doug Fister—averages even 91 mph with his fastball. Of course, a paucity of pace hardly affected Keuchel, last year’s Cy Young winner, and the rest have experienced significant stretches of success in recent seasons. But if there’s one thing that could hold back the Astros’ ascent, a soft-tossing rotation that is now stretched thin could be it.

MORE MLB: AL breakout candidates | AL busts | AL rookies to watch

Brynn Anderson/AP

X-Factor: Tyler White, 1B

Who? The unfamiliar White could quite possibly be the Astros’ Opening Day first baseman. With last year’s starter, Chris Carter, non-tendered after batting .196, the competition for the job this spring was supposed to be between Jon Singleton—the 24-year-old, four-time veteran of Baseball America’s Top 100 list—and A.J. Reed, whose 34 bombs made him minor league baseball’s home run king last year and who is currently BA’s 11th-ranked prospect. But Singleton’s traditional struggles at the major league level have continued this spring, as he started off with three hits in his first 27 at-bats. Now, says a rival scout, “I think it’s closer between Reed and White.”

While Reed was the first pick of the second round in 2014, White wasn't taken until the 33rd round the year before, out of Western Carolina. But he’s hit at every level, including a .362 average with a 1.026 OPS in 56 games at Triple A Fresno last season. As he is a righthanded-hitting first baseman with doubles power, scouts struggle to come up with a comp for the 5’11”, 225-pound White. “Billy Butler, but less thump,” says one, before he is reminded that Butler has averaged only 12 home runs the past two years. “Billy Butler, then?” White might not have the pedigree of the Astros’ other first base prospects, but after hitting .370 through his first 10 spring games, he might get the job that was supposed to be theirs.​

Number To Know: 7.1

That is the difference in miles per hour between the average fastballs of Houston's top two closer candidates, Ken Giles (96.5) and Luke Gregerson (89.4). While the job will likely belong to the 25-year-old Giles (given the five-player cost the Astros paid to acquire him from the Phillies this winter), Gregerson’s deceptive repertoire is also very effective, as he had 31 saves in 37 opportunities last season. If he doesn't stick as the closer, he would then return to his old setup role as part of a bullpen that was sixth overall in ERA (3.27) and is now even deeper and more versatile. “It’s a strong bullpen, a strike-throwing bullpen,” the scout says. “Got some power, got some funk.”​

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Colby Rasmus, OF

“I know he hit 25 bombs last year and was great in the playoffs. But he’s still high strikeout, low walk and can be pitched to. Yeah, 25 homers and 23 doubles, but only 61 RBIs. Does a lot of his damage with the bases empty. I just think he’s never really fulfilled his potential. It’s almost like he’s always been stuck in between being a power guy and a pure hitter. He’ll probably get a few more days off this year, could be headed to a platoon role against righties, which is probably what he’s best suited for.”​

Most Underrated: Luis Valbuena, IF

“Altuve, obviously, has gotten some publicity, so he’s not really underrated much anymore. Valbuena provides that lefthanded power threat, mixes well into that lineup. Kind of a guy that once you finagle your way through Altuve, Springer, Correa, [Evan] Gattis, all of a sudden you got Valbuena, and he damages you. He’s the kind of guy you sleep on and then he parks one. He doesn’t have the profile or salary of Rasmus, but I prefer him.”​

Friday March 25th, 2016

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 1: the Chicago Cubs.

2015 Record and Finish:
97–65 (.599), third place in National League Central, second place in NL wild card (third overall); lost to Mets in NL Championship Series

2016 Projected Record and Finish:
99–63 (.611), first place in NL Central

The Case For

“They’ve sent in their ring sizes already,” says a scout for a rival team. “I don’t even know why we’re playing the season!” He’s being sarcastic, but not entirely. Every statistical projection system—and Las Vegas, too—agrees: The Cubs, having been assiduously engineered to break a championship-free streak that stretches back to 1908, are the preseason favorite to win it all.

Last year, when the club exceeded expectations by reaching the NLCS only to be swept away by the Mets, Chicago ranked just sixth in the NL in runs scored at 4.3 per game. That deserves some parsing, though. After the All-Star break—when Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant and fellow first-year slugger Kyle Schwarber had settled in—the Cubs ranked second behind the Mets at 4.7 runs per game. That upward trend should only continue. An even more comfortable Bryant and Schwarber will be joined by star free-agent signings Jason Heyward (eight years, $184 million) and Ben Zobrist (four years, $56 million), each of whom declined more money from other suitors to play for manager Joe Maddon on the North Side. First baseman Anthony Rizzo, who led the club with 30 homers and 101 RBIs last year, is firmly entering his prime at 26; a scout says he wouldn’t be surprised if Rizzo hit .300 with 40 homers, a combination only Nelson Cruz and Bryce Harper reached in 2015. The lineup is so stacked that no one even talks about shortstop Addison Russell, the game’s No. 3 prospect just last spring, much any more.

Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system projects the Cubs to score not just the most runs (749) in the NL, but more than any AL team save the Blue Jays—and that’s while having pitchers bat once every nine times. One of those pitchers is Jake Arrieta, who won the NL Cy Young award after going 22–7 with a 1.77 ERA. While it might be too early for Jostens or Balfour to put their championship jewelry into production, it might not be a bad idea to start designing diamond-encrusted “C’s.”​

The Case Against

At least one prominent and loud voice isn’t buying into the hype. “I’ll start taking ads telling them all what a rotten job they’re doing with the Chicago Cubs,” Donald Trump said in late March of the Ricketts family, the owners of the Cubs and, apparently, among the presidential aspirant’s many political antagonists. The Ricketts have done such an awful job that their club had the third most wins in the majors last year—though that was only good for third place in the NL Central, behind the Cardinals and Pirates. They’ve done such an awful job that Vegas pegs them as the 2:1 favorite to win a title. If the Ricketts have any desire to run counterattack ads against The Donald, they shouldn’t be particularly hard to produce.

A postseason miss would be deeply shocking for the Cubs, even considering their unusually stacked division, but another year without a ring wouldn’t be. Those heady 2:1 odds translate to about a 33% probability of success. Chicago is built to dominate the regular season, but doing similarly in baseball’s winding, small-sample-size-driven playoff structure might prove another story. Since the playoffs expanded to three rounds in 1995, the club with the best regular-season record has won the World Series just three times, most recently the 103-win Yankees in 2009.

The Cubs’ undoing in October could be the same as last year’s, when the Mets outscored them 21–8 in the NLCS: a pitching disadvantage. They targeted David Price, the top free agent on the market, but club president Theo Epstein has said that they fell some $50 million short of the Red Sox’ winning $217 million offer. They had to settle for John Lackey, on a two-year, $32 million deal—a proven winner, but one who is unlikely to repeat his career best 2.77 ERA at the age of 37. Other than Lackey, the staff is much the same as last year: a strong top two of Arrieta and Jon Lester; an average bottom two, in Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks; and a bullpen, in front of closer Hector Rondon, largely composed of intermittently successful swingman types, like Trevor Cahill and Travis Wood and, now, Adam Warren.

Loud bats can be muffled in the postseason. The Cubs’ bats scream, but their pitching staff, as presently constituted, might be at best the NL’s fourth strongest, behind those of the Mets, the Nationals and perhaps the Giants. In advance of election day, Nov. 8, it isn’t impossible to imagine the GOP frontrunner taking some time out of his campaign schedule to rip off a gloating tweet: "THE PATHETIC RICKETTS FAMILY HAS SCHLONGED THE LOSER CUBS FOR THE 108TH STRAIGHT YEAR. SAD.​"

MORE MLB: NL breakout candidates | NL busts | NL rookies to watch

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

X-Factor: Theo Epstein

All of a sudden, Epstein is in the final season of the five-year, $18.5 million deal he signed back in October of 2011. Given how well his tenure as team president has gone, it would be a surprise if he were not re-upped by ownership at a significantly increased salary. First, though, he’ll have some in-season tinkering to do. There’s little chance that the Cubs’ formidable Opening Day roster will prove identical to the one it fields in October.

Pitching is likely to be a deadline focus. While the Cubs’ farm system has matured, it retains enough pieces to get sellers interested, like 19-year-old top prospect Gleybar Torres, a shortstop; catcher Wilson Contreras; and outfielder Albert Almora. Combine a couple of those with one of the graduated former phenoms who now appear destined for the bench in Javier Baez or Jorge Soler, and Chicago might have its pick of the market. While the top free agent to-be, Stephen Strasburg, will likely be busy trying to get the Nationals into the playoffs, the Padres’ Andrew Cashner and the Rockies’ Jorge De La Rosa should be free. Of particular interest, albeit requiring even more of a return, should be one of the Indians’ hard-throwing duo of Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, each of whom can be controlled through 2020. That means either could become a centerpiece of not just this year’s drive to break the curse but also of four more after it.

Number To Know: 119

That’s Heyward’s cumulative Defensive Runs Saved since his rookie year in 2010, the most of any fielder at any position over that six-year period. Is Ultimate Zone Rating your preferred advanced defensive metric? He’s first in that one, too, by an even greater margin. Heyward would have almost certainly been an above-average asset in centerfield, where for most of the off-season it looked as if he’d be playing. Dexter Fowler isn’t great in center—scouts say that he has a propensity for making the spectacular play but sometimes muffs the routine ones. But his surprise late February re-signing wasn’t just important as far as the superlative on-base skills he will provide the lineup, but also in that it will allow Heyward to return to rightfield, a position at which his impact is second to none.​

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Scout’s Takes

Most Overrated: Jason Heyward, OF

“Is anybody worth nearly $200 million? Solid all-around player, no question. To me, that’s just crazy paying him that kind of money. I think he’s good, not great. Doesn’t hit for power like you want him to do. Don’t you want a guy that’s at the top of the league leaders as far as hitting? I think he is what he is right now: a solid .275 to .280 hitter, 12 to 15 home runs, 15 to 20 stolen bases. Way above average in right, no doubt. But I want a guy that’s going to battle for a batting title, [an] OPS title. I don’t think he’s ever going to be in the top five in those categories.”​

Most Underrated: Ben Zobrist, 2B

“It’s hard to be underrated on the Cubs. I’m going to go with Zobrist. I’ve seen a lot of him over the years. He really helped the Royals get over the hump, especially when Alex Gordon was injured. Other teams were after him this winter, but a concern was at this age—35—when does it shut down? I haven’t seen any decline whatsoever. Father Time is undefeated, and it could catch up to him soon, but right now he’s fine.”​

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