Best-case scenario

The 2016 National League preview can be found here.

Some years ago, the American and National Leagues started blurring together. You probably know the history. The American League was founded more than 100 years ago as a counterexample to the rough-and-tumble National League. In the AL, swearing was banned, arguing with the umpire was strongly discouraged and no salary ceiling was placed on players. And for years, the American League was viewed by many as the more entertaining league.

Then, in the late 1940s and 1950s, the National League proved to be much more open to signing black players. While many American League teams held out, the National League became the far-more-exciting league with the addition of players like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente and Frank Robinson and Bob Gibson and Willie McCovey. You might remember that between 1963 and 1981, the NL won all but one All-Star Game. The league just had better players overall.

In 1973, the American League broke away by adding the designated hitter — this remains the defining divider between the two leagues.

But, as of late, the DH has proved to be just about the ONLY divider. There is no league pride now. Players easily travel back and forth between the AL and NL. Interleague play has taken away much of the mystery that used to tantalize baseball fans (what would happen if Bob Gibson faced Reggie Jackson?). The All-Star Game has become so insignificant in everybody’s minds that baseball now attaches World Series home-field advantage to it. There has been more and more talk of breaking down the last AL and NL walls and just making it one big superleague.

Well, this year there’s a big difference between the AL and NL.

This year, every single American League team is in it to win it. All fifteen teams come into the season with at least moderate hopes of winning their division. Some of those hopes are, as British announcers like to say about wild soccer shots from 40 yards away, “ambitious.” Some might even be “delusional.” But, as one general manager says, you wouldn’t be too surprised if any team in the American League wins 90 games this year. And you wouldn’t be too surprised if any team in the American League loses 90 games this year.

This isn’t true in the National League. A quick rundown suggests that the five worst teams — maybe the six worst — all play in the National League. Six or seven or possibly even eight teams in the league are in rebuild mode, so much so that people inside the game do believe that tanking could become a major problem. There are probably eight teams playing for five playoff spots.

And so, as far as overriding predictions go, you can predict that the teams with the best records will all be in the National League. Last year, you will recall, the National League Central was the first division ever to have three teams win 97-plus games. Meanwhile, no team in the entire American League won 97. There will be a lot of free victories in the NL this year; a 110-victory team could happen.

Meanwhile in the American League, each division should be a dogfight, every team will be playing as a contender at least until reality exceeds hope. Don’t be surprised if an 85-win team makes the playoffs.

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Back when I was columnist for The Kansas City Star, I used to write a column every year predicting that the Kansas City Royals would win the American League Central. This column was wrong every single year — the Royals did not become any good until I was long gone — but it was fun to think up best-case scenarios, even for lousy teams.

Why even HAVE an Opening Day if you can’t hope?

So here you go, team-by-team best-case scenarios. I start in the American League because, obviously, it is a lot easier to come up with these best-case scenarios. I’m already dreading coming up with some reasons to believe for a few National League teams.

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American League East

Favorite: Toronto, I guess, though it could be anybody.

Contenders: All five teams could win 90 games or lose 90.

1. Toronto will win the division because …

… power is back in baseball, baby, and the Blue Jays mash baseballs. You probably heard that last year, in August and September, home run numbers skyrocketed. The good people at FiveThirtyEight looked into it without really figuring out what happened. It could have been the weather. In any case, no team took better advantage of that power surge than the Blue Jays.

Look: On July 28, the Blue Jays were at 50-51 and eight games back in the division. They hit 131 homers in 101 games, which is a lot, and averaged 5.25 runs per game, which is also a lot. Their pitching improved considerably with the acquisition of David Price, and that was the general narrative — the Blue Jays finally got enough pitching and so they started winning. The narrative is, in part, true.

But in addition to that, let’s not forget that Blue Jays started CRUSHING baseballs The Blue Jays averaged six runs per game over the last two months and hit an astounding 1.7 homers per game over that span. Edwin Encarnacion hit 20 homers the last two months, Jose Bautista mashed 19 homers, Josh Donaldson hit 16. Throw in a healthy Troy Tulowitzki (this is a best-case scenario story, remember) and this is a lineup that could hit 250 homers this year.

The starting pitching has some holes, no question — not a lot of strikeouts in that rotation, and they couldn’t keep Price — but I think the bullpen will be better than many expect with the acquisition of Drew Storen, who the Nationals mishandled in near-criminal fashion. The pitching will be good enough, and the Blue Jays will batter their way to the division title.

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2. Boston will win the division because …

… of the kids and the bullpen.

The Red Sox are weird. Think of the players they have drafted or signed over the last 15 or so years. A glimmer: Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia; Jacoby Ellsbury; Josh Reddick; Brandon Belt; Anthony Rizzo … and you can add the core young players on this year’s team, which includes the fantastic Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Blake Swihart, Rusney Castillo and Jackie Bradley, Jr.

With scouting and development that good, why do the Red Sox keep insisting on spending ginormous piles of cash on panda bears and Hanley monsters and so on?

There seem to be two reasons:

1. The Red Sox have not been nearly as good at developing pitching as they have every day players. Boston was 14th in runs allowed last year, 11th the year before that and sixth in 2013 when they won the World Series. The only starter on this year’s team drafted and developed by Boston is Clay Buchhholz, and he has had a quirky, injury-plagued career. When you aren’t developing pitching, you will have trouble.

2. You may have heard: The Red Sox sort of expect to win every year. Theo Epstein, when he was GM,  famously talked about having a bridge year to allow the kids a chance to mature. That just about set off a riot. Boston has no stinkin’ bridge years. Next thing you know, Theo’s Sox were throwing money in all directions in the hopes it would hit a Carl Crawford or something. Ben Cherington was GM when the Sox won the World Series, and he helped build the best farm system in baseball … and he was canned for Dave Dombrowski after two down years.

So, that upward pressure always blows in Boston … and this year the Sox brought in David Price to anchor the rotation. That will help. But the Red Sox will win this year because of those young players. Betts and Boegarts are both superstars in the making, and several others will play big roles. Also, the Red Sox could have a killer bullpen with the acquisition of super-closer Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith, who throws one wicked slider. Please read that last part in a thick Boston accent.

3. The New York Yankees will win because …

… the old guys will have have one more ride together, and are you even kidding me with that bullpen?

I made a promise to my PosCast partner and Yankee-hater Michael Schur that I would say only good things about the New York Yankees this year. Last year I said that the Yankees were done, and those words filtered into the atmosphere and rained down as a karma whirlwind that turned Alex Rodriguez young and created Yankee heroes on a nightly basis.

So enough of that. The Yankees win the division because this season turns into one of those old-Hollywood buddy movies where Clint Eastwood and Tommy Lee Jones and James Garner all get together to do some sort of space rescue. Thirty-five-year-old C.C. Sabathia will have a renaissance year as will soon-to-be-36-year-old Mark Teixeira and and soon-to-be-39-year-old Carlos Beltran. And 40-year-old A-Rod will lead the way.

Plus: That bullpen. Holy cow, that bullpen. I’m of the belief that the Kansas City Royals set off a revolution by creating inning-by-inning closers for the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. The Yankees are like a 2.0 version of that with the unhittable Andrew Miller, the more unhittable Deilin Betances and the 294-mph-throwing Aroldis Chapman after he serves his suspension. Good night.

4. Tampa Bay will win because …

… they have the best starting pitching in the division.

You will ask: How will they find a way to score enough runs?

Well, um, Evan Longoria and, um, Evan Longoria. Corey Dickerson came over in a trade, and he has some power; he hit 34 homers the last two years in about 660 at-bats. Steven Souza has long had massive power potential. They will find a way — and that rotation is superb. Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi are both Cy Young Award candidates.

Also, Kevin Kiermaier plays symphonic defense in center field. That may seem off-topic, but I don’t care, it has to be said: The guy catches everything out there. He had a .298 on-base percentage last year and STILL got MVP votes and ABSOLUTELY deserved them. If he finds a way to become even a good offensive player, he could win an MVP award.

5. Baltimore will win because …

… all their weird plans will work! Mark Trumbo will become a 30-double, 30-homer guy again. Pedro Alvarez will regain the form that saw him lead the National League in homers three years ago.Yovani Gallardo will start striking out people again, like he did four years ago, and be a Cy Young contender.

All that will happen, along with Chris Davis again hitting 50 or so homers, Matt Wieters staying healthy for the first time since 2013, Adam Jones regaining his form of two or three years ago. And the Orioles bullpen will repeat its superb 2015.

Also, Manny Machado.

This might sound sarcastic — well, not the Manny Machado part but the rest of it — but I’m serious: Every year, things just work out for one team. It was the Cubs last year. Everything went the Cubs’ way, players developed faster than expected, the bullpen kept getting outs, the pitching dominated when the lineup was down and the lineup dominated when the pitching faded. It happens, and this year it happens for the Orioles.

And Buck Showalter will win manager of the year … and he will deserve it.

* * *

American League Central

Favorite: Kansas City, no matter what the projection systems say.

Contenders: Everybody has an outside shot, but Cleveland and Detroit have to feel especially frisky about their chances.

1. Kansas City will win because …

… of course they will. The Royals always win. This is the new world order, my friend.

The Royals will win despite whatever skepticism is still out there for the same reasons they won the World Series last year and the American League pennant two years ago. They will still play some of the best defense in baseball, especially in the outfield. They will still get fantastic bullpen work, especially out of the cyborg Wade Davis.

That is to say: They will still play some of the best defense in baseball, especially in the outfield. They will still get fantastic bullpen work especially out of the cyborg Wade Davis. They will still get ENOUGH decent starting pitching out of Edinson Volquez, Yordano Ventura and newly acquired Ian Kennedy. Perhaps the most stunning thing about the Royals’ run the last two years is that they have won without even a single four-WAR season out of a starter. They’ll do that again.

They will still get enough runs out of the same scrappy, high-energy, contact-driven offense. Last year, they were third in doubles, fourth in triples, sixth in runs behind the forceful play of Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon and the like. They’re all back, ready for a reprise.

The Royals have created a new formula for winning. It might not make sense to everybody, but it works.

More: Posnanski on Royals’ secret to success | Has Ventura lost White Sox clubhouse? | MLB’s fastball obsession

2. Cleveland will win because …

… oh, man, look at that rotation. Just look at it.

Remember what the Mets did last year? Yeah, the Indians are doing that this year.

The Mets won with four staggering arms. This Cleveland rotation has staggering arms. Corey Kluber has 514 Ks in 457 innings the last two years. Danny Salazaar closes in on 100 with his fastball; Carlos Carrasco throws just about as hard, and Cody Anderson seems to have the Bugs Bunny changeup. Anderson so wowed the Indians this spring that they moved the quirky Trevor Bauer out to the ‘pen, where he might throw 137 mph.

The Indians have to find a way to score runs, but there are some weapons here. Jason Kipnis has been a superb offensive player two of the last three years.  Michael Brantley is one of the league’s most underrated playerers, Francisco Lindor as a rookie last year looked an awful lot like a young Derek Jeter in just 99 games — he’s special. They could use a resurgence from Carlos Santana and newly acquired Mike Napoli.

But with that rotation, it won’t matter. They will blow people away with their arms. And they’ll score enough.

3. Detroit will win because …

… the top five or six in that lineup is still crazy good, and Justin Verlander is ba-a-a-ck.

Five years ago, Verlander was Superman. He was the first starting pitcher in almost 25 years to sweep the Cy Young and MVP awards. It was no fluke; in 2012, he was almost exactly as good, though some of that was cloaked by his win-loss record. People still look at that.

Then, he took a significant step down. He was still GOOD in 2013, but not great. And then, in 2014, voila, he was kind of terrible. There was no real warning for that. He gave up the most earned runs in the league in 2014. He struck out less than seven per nine innings for the first time since he was a semi-clueless rookie. His fastball lost velocity. He wouldn’t admit it, but he was almost certainly pitching hurt.

Last year, he began the season on the DL and when he returned, well, ugh, straight fastballs. Straight curveballs. Hitters teed off. And this went on until late July when, suddenly, he had his first 10-strikeout game in a year and a half. The “Is Verlander Back” storyline began. And for the rest of year he looked remarkably like the old Verlander, pitching 91 innings, striking out 88 with a 2.36 ERA and holding the league to a .204 batting average and just five home runs.

With that Verlander back and the addition of Jordan Zimmermann — who Washington could not have treated worse — and with a lineup that features the still-fierce Miguel Cabrera along with Victor and J.D. Martinez and the newly acquired Justin Upton, the Tigers win this thing.

4. Minnesota will win because …

… the kids will emerge. We’ve been waiting for a while now for Byron Buxton to become Willie Mickey or Joe Hobbs. This is the year. Miguel Sano has freakish power. This is the year he blasts 35 home runs. Jose Berrios led the minor leagues in strikeouts with a 95-mph fastball and a slam-on-the-brakes changeup. This is the year he emerges in the big leagues.

The Twins somehow won 83 games last year, even with a negative run differential, and you could definitely begin to see the beginning of that youth movement that has been promised for a few years now.

Yes, it’s true, the Twins have some fundamental flaws. For instance, the pitching staff was dead last in the league in strikeouts for the third straight year (they were second-last four years ago).

Then, by the numbers (Dewan’s Teams Runs Saved is my number of choice), they were a dreadful defensive team for the third straight year. If you don’t strike ’em out and, you don’t catch the ball, it’s gonna be awfully hard to keep ’em from crossing the plate.

But happy thoughts: This is the year for Buxton to bust out and become a star. And all the good things follow.

5. Chicago will win because …

… there won’t be any kids hanging around the clubhouse.

No, sorry, we’re staying positive. The White Sox will win because they have perhaps the best pitcher in the American League in Chris Sale. That’s the starting point for good things. Jose Quintana and Carlos Rodon could make this a terrific rotation. The White Sox should bang a few home runs with Jose Abreu and newly acquired Todd Frazier in the middle of the lineup. This will work.

The White Sox were a trendy pick last year coming off their active offseason, and that didn’t work. So they had another active offseason. That’s one thing you have to love about the White Sox — they will just DO things. True, those things might include bringing in a 37-year-old Jimmy Rollins, along with a bunch of guys trying to rebuild a career like Mat Latos and Austin Jackson and Alex Avila.

But, there is a “Don’t just stand there, DO something” energy in Chicago that you have to admire. In 2005, it all just came together magically. The magic is back this year.

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American League West

Favorite: Houston with Texas a close second choice.

Contenders: I suspect the other three teams believe they have a shot, but with a bad start any of the three could pack it in.

1. Houston will win because …

… have you seen this team? The Astros are ridiculously good. They might have the league MVP this year (Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer are ALL viable candidates). They have defending Cy Young winner Dallas Kuechel, and Lance McCullers at age 21 showed remarkable stuff. And the Astros have a farm system LOADED with top-level prospects. This team is preposterously loaded now.

The Astros seemed to get here by following a pattern that several teams — particularly in the National League — are now following: Spend no money on the big league club; lose big; cash revenue checks; take advantage of all the safety-net programs that baseball offers the downtrodden such as high draft picks. This Astros collapsed enthusiastically. They lost 106, 107 and 111 games from 2011-13, and no team had lost that many games in three consecutive seasons since the expansion Mets.

There is unquestionably resentment around baseball about the Astros tanking, a resentment that I think comes from the gap in people’s feelings about the LETTER and SPIRIT of rules. The Astros certainly followed the letter of the laws; nobody argues that. They cynically but smartly built their way up.

People who admire what the Astros have done feel like they followed the spirit of the rules too — they saw that this was the one way to turn around the franchise, and they did it effectively. “You can’t blame them,” one executive told me. “They took advantage of the rules.”

People who disapprove of what the Astros have done believe they did not follow the spirit of the rules because they did not fulfill their basic task of fielding a competitive team. As a different executive said, “You have to try at least. It’s bad for the game. They just about killed baseball in Houston.”

Either way, the Astros are going to win the division this year.

2. Texas will win because …

… the Rangers have one hot-hitting team, top to bottom in the lineup, and, with Cole Hamels, they now have a legitimate ace.

Ponder for a moment the wonder of Shin-Soo Choo. He is the greatest everyday Major League baseball player ever from South Korea. That’s not especially close at the moment — Choo has about 30 career WAR, putting him in the class with guys like Don Baylor and Bobby Bonilla and Tim McCarver. The next-highest South Korean player on the list is Jung Ho Kang, who earned four WAR as a rookie last year for Pittsburgh.

Imagine being the greatest at something in your country’s history. Everybody who plays Major League Baseball is the pride of a community somewhere, but Choo is the pride of a nation of 50 million people. And he’s such a fun player to watch.

What does any of this have to do with the Rangers winning the division? Nothing, but hey they won it last year so you know exactly why they will win it this year.

3. Seattle will win because …

… it all has to work sometime.

The Mariners have been poking and prodding and trying to figure out any way they can to win for their long-suffering fans and their great ace Felix Hernandez. It is staggering how good King Felix has been for the last 10 or so years. And it is even more staggering to see how little the Mariners have done with his genius.

The Mariners owe this man some glory … and they’ve tried to make something good happen in their own halting fashion. They spent huge money for Robinson Cano and only slightly less huge money for Nelson Cruz. They have fired managers, switched up plans, tried to build around offense, tried to build around defense, tried to stack their bullpen.

Well, this is the year that the plan will work. They completely re-tooled the bullpen, brought in starter Wade Miley, added a few offensive pieces including the ever-solid Adam Lind. And with Cano and Cruz primed for big seasons, the Mariners win the division.

4. Oakland will win because …

… Moneyball. Whatever that means in 2016.

Moneyball has come to represent a specific philosophy — put aging catchers at first base, draft fat players, throw chairs through walls, never bunt and so on — but it always has MEANT something elusive: Find inefficiencies in the marketplace.

The trouble with marketplace inefficiences is that, like rabbits, they move really fast, and they hide under bushes, and they eat out of your garden at night. For a time, on-base percentage was the grand market inefficiency, something general managers didn’t care too much about. But that isn’t true now. For a time, college pitchers were a market inefficiency — the scouts wanted to draft rawer high school kids. But that changed.

It’s not entirely clear what the market inefficiency is now — but of course, that should be obvious. If you can SEE it, well, it wouldn’t be a market inefficiency. So when I say that it’s not entirely clear what the A’s are chasing right now, you can see that as a great compliment.

The A’s have one of the best pitchers in baseball in Sonny Gray. They have other pieces to make the pitching staff formidable. They have a few good players like Stephen Vogt and Josh Reddick. They have …

… yeah, it will take some magic. But that’s the Moneyball way, right? It works in the movies.

5. The Los Angeles Angels will win because …

… Mike Trout.

You know that sales trick where you always push the customer’s attention back to the one good thing about the product your selling? They ask about the mileage on the car, and you point out the sun roof. They ask about the data plan, you point out how good the camera is.

So go ahead: Ask me any quesiton you want about the Angels.

You ask: How are they going to score any runs when their double play combination at the moment is Johnny Giavotella and Andrelton Simmons?

My answer is simple: Mike Trout.

You say Albert Pujols is now 36 years old and has finally conceded that he’s a DH. Well, Mike Trout to you too. Their rotation is looking a bit thin after Garrett Richards — and that’s even if Jered Weaver can somehow rediscover something. Yes, uh huh, Mike Trout, Mike Trout, Mike Trout.

The Angels won 85 games last year despite being outscored by 14 runs, despite finishing 12th in runs scored and not having a single pitcher with a two WAR. How do you turn that into a winner? Mike Trout, of course.

The Angels look absurdly shaky and old and … did I tell you how good Mike Trout is? Here are your all-time WAR leaders through age 23:

1. Mike Trout, 37.9

2. Ty Cobb, 36.0

3. Ted Williams, 34.2

4. Mel Ott, 31.4

5. Ken Griffey, 30.1

They are followed by guys named Mantle, A-Rod and Kaline.

Put it another way: Two more seasons at this pace and Trout will already have put up a viable Hall of Fame career — THE WHOLE CAREER — and he will be coming his age-25 season.

You say Mike Trout ain’t enough. Well, I’ll tell you this, Trout is, as my friend Jeff Garlin likes to say, a big bowl of awesome sauce. And yes, I did name drop Jeff Garlin’s name to distract you from the fact that I haven’t given you a viable way for the Angels to win the division. That’s another sales technique. Also: Mike Trout.

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