With Spring Training officially starting this week at MLB team complexes around Arizona and Florida, optimism for the upcoming season is high. However, optimism also brings expectations – both realistic and not so realistic.
Whether it’s fueled by last year’s performance or the moves made (or not made) this winter, the pressure to win is higher than normal for a handful of teams. Here’s one team from each division that needs to see results once September rolls around.
AL East: Boston Red Sox
While the Red Sox are only three years removed from their most recent World Series title, patience has worn thin in Beantown. Three last-place finishes in four seasons will do that. That’s why ownership changed course late last summer and hired Dave Dombrowski to be the team’s president of baseball operations. His presence signaled a significant philosophical shift in thinking with regard to acquiring big-league talent.
Plus, designated hitter David Ortiz is taking the field for the last time this year, and just getting out of last place isn’t a great sendoff. They want to reach the postseason so Papi can have one last moment in October before riding off into the sunset.
AL Central: Detroit Tigers
It was a toss-up between the Tigers and Chicago White Sox here, but given the nature of Detroit’s offseason spending and future payroll commitments, they won. So, hooray for them!
We already touched upon this earlier in the winter, but Tigers owner Mike Ilitch wants to win and wants to do it right now. He said as much during Jordan Zimmermann’s introductory press conference, and then backed those words up by dishing out a second $100-million contract this offseason to outfielder Justin Upton.
With Miguel Cabrera beginning to exit his prime, the Tigers must do everything possible to take advantage of his last bit of elite production before it’s too late. It may already be too late, but with the amount of money already committed to him and some others over the next few seasons, the only real choice left was to go all in right now and worry about the consequences of it later.
Rising back to the top of the division will be tough with the defending champion Kansas City Royals mostly bringing back the same squad from 2015, along with clubs like the White Sox and Cleveland Indians, who should be very competitive.
AL West: Los Angeles Angels
Nobody should expect the Angels to compete for a playoff spot this season, but since they have a 24-year-old Mike Trout anchoring their lineup, they’ll be expected to anyways. It’ll probably just be another year of watching them fall short, though.
Where would Los Angeles be without Trout? Since he’s produced an 8.0-plus fWAR in each of his last four years, it’s easy to see how valuable he is. Unfortunately, they’ve only made the playoffs once during that time, which is the same amount as the Houston Astros.
Albert Pujols will likely start his season on the disabled list, Yunel Escobar isn’t a huge upgrade over David Freese, the rotation has question marks after Garrett Richards and the left-field platoon is less-than-inspiring, especially since they had chances to make a major upgrade. This is probably one of those times where the Angels wish the whole Josh Hamilton thing worked out. Either that, or just wishing it didn’t happen at all.
David Schoenfield of ESPN recently talked about how Los Angeles could be wasting Trout’s best years. With a barren farm system, there’s no real immediate help on the way, either. Something has to be done, and quickly. Unfortunately for the fans, it won’t be happening in 2016.
NL East: Washington Nationals
It would’ve been easy to put the New York Mets here, but the Nationals are racing against time in a way their divisional foes aren’t feeling yet. Despite being virtually everyone’s preseason World Series pick last year, they missed the playoffs with a disappointing 83-79 record.
And that was even with Bryce Harper playing in a career-high 153 games and producing a 9.5 fWAR during an NL MVP campaign. Similar to Trout, can you imagine how bad Washington would’ve been without him?
The front office tried making a big splash this winter by pursuing free agents such as Upton, Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Yoenis Cespedes, but fell short each time. So, following a forgettable 2015, the biggest change was replacing manager Matt Williams with Dusty Baker, which should make a huge difference in the clubhouse. Other than that, basically the same squad that had those sky-high expectations last year is returning for another try.
With Stephen Strasburg set to hit free agency at year’s end and Harper’s big payday coming in a couple seasons, the opportunity for Washington to win with them is closing fast. There’s no way they can conceivably commit to both for the long-term, meaning this is likely the last hurrah with the whole gang together.
With other pieces like Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy and Max Scherzer, they can rebound and get back into the postseason, but seemingly now have an uphill battle to fight in what appears will mostly be a two-horse race with New York.
NL Central: Chicago Cubs
After years of being patient during a significant rebuild, the Cubs are back, and Theo Epstein and Co. is certainly acting that way. In what should be another interesting year for the NL Central, Chicago improved upon its 97-win squad with additions of Zobrist, Heyward and John Lackey, costing them over $250 million in total commitments.
The moves to acquire both Lackey and Heyward are especially impactful, though. Why? Well, they not only improved their own roster, but also gave the St. Louis Cardinals significant holes to fill.
On paper, it appears that neither the Cardinals nor the Pittsburgh Pirates got a whole lot better this winter, while the Cubs put the pedal to the floor. With an elite young core in place, manager Joe Maddon and his squad will be expected do things no Cubs team has done in quite some time.
Fresh off their first trip to the NLCS since 2003, they’ll attempt to punch a ticket to the World Series for the first time since 1945. Oh, and if they get to the Fall Classic, Chicago hopes to break that 100-plus year championship curse.
That’s a lot to ask for a young team.
NL West: Arizona Diamondbacks
When you spend $206.5 million on one starting pitcher and give up a king’s ransom in a trade for another, you better believe the pressure to win is high.
After a 79-83 campaign, the Dbacks had one of the NL’s top-performing offenses last year, but were hampered by one of the league’s worst pitching staffs. Viewing themselves as being close to serious contention, they made substantial rotation upgrades by adding Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller, along with bringing in Tyler Clippard for the bullpen and Jean Segura to play shortstop.
Based off what the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants also did to reload for this season, it’ll be fun to watch the NL Central and NL West battle for the two available Wild Card spots.
The only true way for Arizona to justify all the spending they did this winter (in prospects and money) is by winning in 2016, which is what general manager Dave Stewart said himself. But what if they don’t? Hopefully they don’t regret these moves by this time next year, but there’s no time to worry about that – they just have to focus on meeting expectations right now.
Spring Training is a time to be optimistic, but sometimes, that optimism is a little too unrealistic. Which teams do you think are facing the most pressure to win this season?
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