With Christmas upon us, it seems general managers around the majors have taken a breather from their offseason wheeling and dealing, perhaps introducing themselves again to their wives and kids.
There are still premium free agents out there and trades to be made, but let's look at each division and where each team stands right now in its hunt for the 2016 postseason, starting with the American League East (teams are listed in the order they finished in last season's AL East standings).
2015: 93-69, +221 run differential, lost in ALCS
2016 projection from FanGraphs: 87-75
2015 payroll: $135.7 million
2016 estimated payroll from Baseball-Reference: $139.3 million
The Blue Jays' 2015 campaign was even more dominant than their 93-69 record suggests, as their run differential exceeded the next-best team (the St. Louis Cardinals) by 99 runs and was the biggest differential since the 2001 Seattle Mariners and Oakland A's. So their path back to the postseason is simple: Just repeat everything that happened in 2015 and reap the benefits of a full season from Marcus Stroman.
What can go wrong? For starters, the offensive core isn't young: Jose Bautista will be 35, Edwin Encarnacion and Russell Martin 33, Troy Tulowitzki will be 31 with a long history of injuries. The Jays also enjoyed excellent health in 2015, as Bautista, MVP Josh Donaldson and Kevin Pillar each played at least 153 games, Encarnacion played 146 and Martin played 129. Four pitchers started at least 28 games.
The biggest change has been the shuffling of the front office: Longtime Indians executive Mark Shapiro was hired as team president and CEO, which led to the resignation of Alex Anthopoulos and the hiring of Ross Atkins as the GM.
The new regime will be more conservative -- Shapiro reportedly admonished Anthopoulos for trading away so many prospects -- and rather than cashing in on the team's playoff run and big attendance increase (more than 5,000 per game, a total that should climb even higher in 2016), the payroll has barely budged from 2015. The front office let David Price walk and instead re-signed Marco Estrada, signed J.A. Happ and traded for Jesse Chavez, rotation depth that should allow Aaron Sanchez to move permanently to the bullpen, where he'll team with Roberto Osuna and Brett Cecil for a nice 1-2-3 punch.
Thanks to a low hit rate and fewer home runs allowed, Estrada had the best season of his career. Happ went to the Pittsburgh Pirates late in the season and had an incredible 11-start stretch in which he posted a 1.85 ERA after tweaking his mechanics. The Jays are banking on those two and a healthy Stroman. If that trio performs, the Jays will go back to the playoffs.
For more on the Blue Jays, check out the Blue Jays Plus blog.
2015: 87-75, +66 run differential, lost wild-card game
2016 projection from FanGraphs: 89-73
2015 payroll: $223.6 million
2016 estimated payroll: $217.7 million
The Yankees received some inspired performances from veterans Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran in 2015 -- they combined for 83 home runs -- and rode a strong bullpen to return to the playoffs for the first time in three years. GM Brian Cashman wasn't about to double down on those old guys, however, and has brought in some younger legs: Second baseman Starlin Castro from the Chicago Cubs and outfielder Aaron Hicks from the Minnesota Twins. Add in first baseman Greg Bird, who played well filling in for the injured Teixeira late in the season; shortstop Didi Gregorius; and outfielder Aaron Judge, an in-season promotion candidate, and the Yankees could -- gasp! -- field a lineup with five players 26 or younger by season's end. Imagine that.
Of course, Yankee fans are more upset that Hal and Hank Steinbrenner haven't dipped into the offseason's deep free-agent pool. Such is life in the Bronx, where attendance fell to its lowest total since 2000; 87-win wild-card teams aren't enough to placate these fans.
The Yankees finished second in the AL in runs, and assuming some regression from those vets, that means they'll need better production from Jacoby Ellsbury (.257/.318/.345) and Chase Headley (.259/.324/.369). But their path to the playoffs most likely resides in the health of the rotation. Masahiro Tanaka's elbow held together, although he did miss time with wrist tendinitis and a hamstring pull. Nathan Eovaldi went down in early September with elbow inflammation and Michael Pineda missed time with a forearm strain. CC Sabathia made 29 starts and then entered alcohol rehab; he hasn't been effective since 2012. Rookie Luis Severino posted a 2.89 ERA in 11 starts and will carry high expectations in 2016.
The old Yankees would have undoubtedly gone after one of the free-agent starters out there. These Yankees are content to hope that the Band-Aids on the arms hold together.
For more on the Yankees, check out the It's About the Money blog.
2015: 81-81, +20 run differential
2016 projection from FanGraphs: 78-84
2015 payroll: $124.7 million
2016 estimated payroll: $114.5 million
Can we put an incomplete on the Orioles for now? As the Chris Davis negotiations stall, the Orioles' depth chart on MLB.com currently lists Mark Trumbo at first base, Nolan Reimold in left field, Ryan Flaherty in right field and Reimold and Jimmy Paredes at designed hitter. Ouch. That is decidedly not a path to the playoffs. They have reportedly agreed to a two-year, $7 million deal with Korean outfielder/first baseman Hyun-soo Kim, who hit .326 with 28 home runs and a .438 OBP in Korea. The Orioles need him to be one of the steals of the offseason.
Catcher Matt Wieters did accept the team's qualifying so he's back on a one-year deal and setup guy Darren O'Day re-signed, so the O'Day-Zach Britton duo remains to lock down the late innings. But starter Wei-Yin Chen is a free agent and given his reported asking price seems like a good bet to be playing elsewhere. Of the remaining starters, Ubaldo Jimenez had the best ERA at 4.11. The Orioles allowed 100 more runs than in 2014 as the rotation ERA rose from 3.61 to 4.53. You can win without an ace, but you can't win without a No. 2 or No. 3 as well. The O's need better results from Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez and Kevin Gausman.
Oh, and sign Davis and hope he hits 47 home runs again. As in years past, they'll otherwise wait out the free-agent market, hoping to find a bargain to fill one of the remaining outfield spots.
For more on the Orioles, check out the Camden Depot blog.
2015: 80-82, +2 run differential
2016 projection from FanGraphs: 84-78
2015 payroll: $77.0 million
2016 estimated payroll: $68.4 million
Here's my sleeper team for 2016. They were respectable last year with 80 wins, even though they finished next-to-last in the AL in runs scored. So the obvious conclusion would be: Score more runs.
I wonder if their path to the postseason is more likely by allowing fewer runs. The moves on offense have been minor and unlikely to make a major impact: Brad Miller in and Asdrubal Cabrera out at shortstop; Logan Morrison for first base and DH duties; and catcher Hank Conger. Getting more offense at catcher will help -- Rene Rivera posted a .489 OPS in 319 plate appearances -- and outfielder Steven Souza is capable of better numbers, but as currently constructed the offense doesn't appear to be much stronger.
The pitching, however, could be better. The Rays allowed the fourth-fewest runs in the league and that was with Drew Smyly making just 12 starts and Matt Moore, in his return from Tommy John surgery, making 12 poor starts. Pencil in those two for 30 starts apiece behind ace Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi and the Rays could have a formidable rotation. Of course, Odorizzi has been mentioned in trade rumors with the Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers. But behind him, the Rays have Blake Snell, one of the top pitching prospects in the minors who posted a 1.41 ERA as he climbed from Class A to Triple-A.
And if Rays fans really want to be hopeful, there's this nugget: They went 2-13 in extra-inning games. If they'd gone 9-6 they would have made the playoffs.
For more on the Rays, check out The Process Report blog.
2015: 78-84, minus-5 run differential
2016 projection from FanGraphs: 92-70
2015 payroll: $185.6 million
2016 estimated payroll: $198.7 million
This one's easy: The Red Sox rotation had a 4.39 ERA, better only than the Orioles and Detroit Tigers in the AL. So welcome to Boston, David Price.
It's not that simple. Price alone doesn't turn the Red Sox into a playoff team. They'll still need improvement from other guys in the rotation, most notably Rick Porcello, who posted a 4.92 ERA and allowed 25 home runs in 172 innings. The bullpen was just as bad as the rotation, posting a 4.24 ERA, also 13th in the AL. So new president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski traded for closer Craig Kimbrel and setup guy Carson Smith, who had a dominant rookie season for the Mariners. With Kimbrel, Smith and Koji Uehara, the Red Sox could duplicate the late-inning dominance of teams like the Kansas City Royals and Yankees.
(This impact could be overstated, however. The Red Sox's winning percentage when leading after seven and eight innings was actually right at the MLB average. But improved bullpen depth could help facilitate more late-game comebacks.)
On the other side of the ball, the Red Sox saw Mookie Betts emerge as a star. He'll be even better in 2016. After a slow start, rookie catcher Blake Swihart showed promise in the second half, hitting .303/.353/.452. Second-year shortstop Xander Bogaerts hit .320 and is capable of adding some power and OBP to his game. That trio is the new core of the Boston offense. That leaves the veterans: Does David Ortiz have one big season left in him? Will Pablo Sandoval rebound from his minus-0.9-WAR season? Will Hanley Ramirez play first base better than he "played" left field? Is Rusney Castillo actually any good?
The FanGraphs projection system likes the Red Sox as the AL East favorite right now. Of course, the projection systems loved the Red Sox a year ago as well. But with one of the best starters in the game now heading the rotation, a dominant closer and a talented group of youngsters, the Red Sox look like the surest bet to improve in 2016. And maybe the division favorite.