How They Can Win: Each AL team's guide to a 2016 World Series title
Want to know how your team can win the World Series? You've come to the right place. Below, you'll find just how each team in the American League can play its way to a title this season. Some fixes are easy; some are a little more complicated. But if your team follows my advice, then 2016 will be a season to remember.
Teams are listed alphabetically. For the National League teams, go here.
Baltimore Orioles: Hit even more home runs
By trading for Mark Trumbo and signing Pedro Alvarez, Baltimore has doubled down on an offensive approach that has produced middling results under Buck Showalter: all homers, all the time. The Orioles have led the majors for the past two seasons in the percentage of runs they score on dingers, with almost half (47.8%) of their total coming on long balls. They've ranked in the top two in all five full seasons with Showalter. Now they've added two players who can hit 30 homers in Trumbo and Alvarez, but both are one-dimensional sluggers in a lineup already low on everything else. Baltimore was in the bottom four in the AL in walks, doubles, triples, steals and OBP last year; this season it could be just the second team (after the 2010 Blue Jays) to score half its runs on homers. To win the World Series that way, the Orioles are going to have to hit even more homers: say, 250. If they can clear the fences that often, they might have a shot.
Boston Red Sox: Keep the core healthy
The Red Sox have sandwiched a 2013 World Series title between last-place finishes in '12, '14 and '15. What they need to do to win this year is repeat what happened in '13: have the long-term core of David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, and Clay Buchholz be healthy and productive. In that championship season those three players combined for 15 WAR as Boston led the majors in wins and runs scored. In the two seasons since then, the three have totaled just 14.1 WAR. As deep a roster as the Red Sox have crafted, they don't have ready replacements for Pedroia at second or for Ortiz's lefthanded power, and they start the year with no clear No. 2 starter behind David Price—a role a healthy Buchholz could fill. For all the focus on Hanley Ramirez's new position and Pablo Sandoval's expanded paunch, it's that trio of veterans whose performance will be essential to Boston's success.
Chicago White Sox: Win the low-risk gambles on veterans
A year ago the White Sox were expected to contend after a winter in which they spent big on free agents Melky Cabrera, David Robertson, Adam LaRoche and Zach Duke. That money produced just 76 wins and a fourth-place finish, as all four newcomers combined to take home $39.5 million while producing just two wins above replacement. GM Rick Hahn took a different tack this time around, eschewing big contract commitments and filling in around the edges with small deals for Jimmy Rollins, Austin Jackson, Mat Latos and two new catchers, Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro. For Chicago to win the World Series, Hahn is going to have to be Executive of the Year, with all his low-risk gambles on veterans paying off big. It can be done: Just two years ago Dan Duquette of the Orioles helped build a 96-game winner—and garnered Exec of the Year honors himself—with a similar approach.
Cleveland Indians: Upgrade the outfield
The Indians are the AL's version of the Mets, with a power rotation—Tribe starters had the highest average fastball velocity in the majors last year—that could carry the team through the playoffs if it could only get to them. The Mets put just enough offense around their pitchers last year to get it done, whereas the Indians were 11th in the AL in runs scored. To win, Cleveland will have to improve its woeful outfield. The 2015 Indians were 25th in the majors in OPS by centerfielders, 26th in OPS by rightfielders. Leftfielder Michael Brantley is a star, but he won't be back until May following shoulder surgery. The many tank—... sorry, "rebuilding" teams in the NL could provide options, including the Braves' Nick Markakis, the Rockies' Carlos Gonzalez and the Reds' Jay Bruce. Any of these players project to be worth two wins to Cleveland this season, and those two wins could be the difference in a crowded AL Central.
Detroit Tigers: Get a better bullpen
Dave Dombrowski is gone, but his monster remains. The Tigers' roster—and payroll—will bear the fingerprints of their old GM for years to come. It's what's changed that could make the difference in 2016. For the team to win the World Series, its revamped bullpen will have to be an asset for the first time since '06. Not once since that pennant-winning campaign has Detroit had a bullpen ERA better than the AL relief average. The Tigers were 14th in relief ERA last year, 13th in '14. New GM Al Avila spent his winter trying to fix that, trading for Francisco Rodriguez and Justin Wilson and signing Mark Lowe, completely transforming the last three innings for Brad Ausmus. On paper it's a deep pen, but Lowe is a journeyman and these days, and Rodriguez is more reliant on his changeup than the heat that once earned him the K-Rod moniker. Detroit will need that group to be strong to support their weakest rotation in years.
Houston Astros: Get on base to take advantage of the lineup's power
Perhaps no team better represents the way the game is typically played now than the Astros, whose hitters led the AL in strikeouts, were fifth in walks and were second in home runs last year. Hitting 230 bombs is special. Hitting 144 solo shots—the most in baseball, and the sixth-highest solo- shot percentage—isn't. Too often Houston's offense was a series of three strikeouts wrapped around a long homer. Their .315 OBP was about league average, but their lineup consisted of three players up top who got on base, followed by six who didn't. The Astros are two good OBP guys away from having a great offense. To justify SI's World Series pick, they'll need to mix their OBP and power better, with the bottom two-thirds of the lineup—Evan Gattis, Colby Rasmus and Luis Valbuena in particular—reaching base far more than they did last year. Whoever wins the first base job, Jon Singleton or rookie A.J. Reed, will need to do that as well.
Kansas City Royals: Stay healthy
The Royals have won two pennants and a World Series by going against the grain stylistically, striking out less and walking less than any team in baseball. They've ridden power bullpens and strong defenses to victory and changed our thinking about how to win in modern baseball. To snag another championship, however, they'll have to continue doing something essential that hasn't gotten quite as much attention: staying healthy. For all of the team's positives, they haven't had good benches and they don't have many prospects ready to step in should a regular suffer an injury. Kansas City leads MLB over the last two years in players having 500-PA seasons, with 15; just one other team, the Yankees, even has 12. Last year, among the team's regulars, only Alex Gordon and Alex Rios had to spend time on the 15-day DL. That's a credit to the Royals' training staff, to the condition and youth of their players and to good fortune.
Los Angeles Angels: Make defense a priority
The Angels' best path to glory this year would have to involve cloning technology, as Mike Trout finds himself "supported" by a weak roster and the worst farm system in baseball. Absent that, though, the way they can win is by being the best defensive team in the game. They start with Gold Glove winners in rightfield (Kole Calhoun) and at shortstop (Andrelton Simmons), plus Trout, a great centerfielder who's never won the award. L.A. should choose defense over offense everywhere it can—Cliff Pennington at second base, Craig Gentry in leftfield and Albert Pujols getting most of his time at DH with C.J. Cron at first. The Angels were already fourth in the AL last year in turning balls in play into outs, and they can improve on that. The Blue Jays rode a similar advance last year to a division title. Like them, Los Angeles needs excellent glovework, because their pitching staff doesn't strike many out.
Minnesota Twins: Get more strikeouts from the rotation
The trends that define baseball in this decade—a bigger strike zone and higher velocity leading to all-time highs in strikeouts—have largely escaped notice in Minnesota. Twins pitchers have finished last in the AL in whiffs for five straight seasons. In a related story, they've allowed more runs than the league average in each of those years. If they're going to win the World Series, they have to embrace the K. That means promoting fireballing rookie Jose Berrios at the start of the year, and creating room in the bullpen for power righty Nick Burdi and converted starter Alex Meyer, both of whom pitch in the upper 90s. Come July, if they're in contention, they have to go out and get not another of the Sons of Radke they love, but a power starting pitcher in the mold of No. 1s around the league. Minnesota's approach on the mound—throw strikes, pitch to contact—worked for a long time, but now it's an anachronism.
New York Yankees: Lesser stars must produce
Brian Cashman continues to deal with the hangover from New York's 2009 title, paying CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez $69 million this year. He's trying to keep an aging team competitive, without pushing the payroll to $250 million, as he waits for a new crop of prospects to arrive. To compensate, Cashman has become adept at making small deals for prime-aged players no longer favored by their teams, like Didi Gregorius. For the Yankees to win the World Series, they'll have to make Cashman's latest Dumpster diving look good. Starlin Castro, Aaron Hicks and Dustin Ackley have to play well while making peanuts relative to the 10 players, seven of them 32 or older, making at least $10 million. Hicks and Ackley, former first-round picks whose bats never quite developed, are particularly important: They're backing up three outfielders and a first baseman who missed an average of 35 games last year.
Oakland Athletics: Close out the close games
Last year the A's had the worst bullpen in the AL, with a 4.63 ERA. That cost them dearly late in games; just one AL team, the Mariners, lost more games they were leading after seven innings. For Oakland to win the World Series, its revamped bullpen will have to shine. The return of a healthy Sean Doolittle, who made just 12 appearances last year due to shoulder problems, anchors the back end. The A's have completely rebuilt the pen in front of him, signing free agents Ryan Madson and John Axford, and trading for Marc Rzepczynski and Liam Hendriks. A relief corps that was 14th in the AL in fastball velocity a year ago now has four guys who can throw 94–96 when healthy. Oakland probably isn't going to get a lot of innings from its starters (non-Sonny Gray division) or a lot of runs from its offense, so the bullpen's ability to lock down the games that they have a chance to win late is going to largely determine their fate this year.
Seattle Mariners: Get on base more often
The Mariners are one of two teams (the Expos/Nationals are the other) to have never appeared in a World Series, and they now have the longest active streak—14 seasons—of missing the playoffs. If they're going to win in 2016, they have to do something they haven't done since '03: reach a league-average OBP. Seattle has the worst OBP in baseball in this decade: .300, six points worse than the 29th team, the Astros. Over the winter new GM Jerry Dipoto acted to change that, trading for first baseman Adam Lind (career .332 OBP; .354 vs. RHP) and leftfielder Nori Aoki (.353 career), and signing catcher Chris Iannetta (.351). The upgrades give the Mariners their best projected offense since Edgar Martinez retired, and a fighting chance in a division with no unbeatable team. Dipoto rebuilt the bullpen and added lefty starter Wade Miley, but it's his work with the lineup that will make or break Seattle this year.
Tampa Bay Rays: Improve the offense
During their run of success from 2008 to '13, the Rays had good balance. They were known for their pitching, but they only once finished below ninth in the AL in runs scored, cracking the league's top five twice. They've slipped to last and next-to-last over the past two seasons, finishing under .500 both times. Tampa Bay's pitching and defense remain strong, so to win the World Series, they will have to find hitters, the way they did for the bulk of the Andrew Friedman regime. The Rays had a knack for turning up a Carlos Peña, a Ben Zobrist, a Matthew Joyce to provide depth in the lineup at low cost. That need has been exacerbated by the way Evan Longoria's career has stalled; he has just a .262/.324/.420 line over the past two years. Maybe for the '16 team it'll be Corey Dickerson or Steve Pearce or a forgotten prospect like Tim Beckham or Nick Franklin. The Rays need some surprises at the plate to compete.
Texas Rangers: Get good years from Derek Holland and Martin Perez
It wasn't long ago that the Rangers seemed to have a dynasty in the making, with two AL pennants on the wall, one of the best offenses in the majors and a crop of young pitchers set to take over. Well, that pitching went sideways as Derek Holland, Martin Perez and Matt Harrison saw their careers derailed by injury. Last year Harrison was dealt to Philadelphia while Holland and Perez combined for 24 starts and a 4.66 ERA. Texas won the AL West despite those performances, but if it's going to win it all, it will be because those two southpaws get back on track. The Rangers' rotation has been their weak spot, the worst in the AL over the past two years. A full season of Cole Hamels and four months of the rehabbing Yu Darvish, expected back by June, will help that. It's essential, though, that the products of their farm system—Holland and Perez, Nick Martinez and Chi Chi Gonzalez—pitch better in 2016 than they did last year.
Toronto Blue Jays: Upgrade first base
Even as they scored the most runs (891) of any team this decade, the Blue Jays' 2015 offense had some holes. They were heavily righthanded, and they were weak at first base, with Justin Smoak getting most of the playing time and hitting just .226/.299/.470. Toronto could solve both problems by trading for the Reds' Joey Votto. Votto is one of the best lefthanded hitters in baseball and a good glove man. While he's expensive—averaging $23.6 million a year through 2023—the Jays have almost that much coming off the payroll after 2016 as the Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion deals expire. Acquiring Votto for a package built around righty Aaron Sanchez would help the Jays push 1,000 runs, which they'll need to support their so-so starting rotation. Votto has said he wants to stay in Cincinnati but might make an exception to bring a championship to his hometown.