If you're joining us late because you spent your Monday honoring the legacies of such great U.S. presidents as John Hancock, Samuel Adams and Benjamin Franklin, fear not! There's still time to immerse yourself in a history book and also to read my list of the top 10 pitching staffs going into 2016.
Just as the goal in that piece was to evaluate a club's total pitching staff -- rotation and bullpen -- the goal here is to look at lineups both for what they deliver at the plate and in the field. You can't simply bash your way onto this list … though you can certainly bash me if you don't like how it turned out.
Here we go.
Armed with Prince Fielder's bounce-back season following 2014 neck surgery, they finished third in the Majors in runs last year despite a brutal April. Beyond Prince, Mitch Moreland also bounced back from injury woes, Shin-Soo Choo shook off a slow start and wound up with a .375 OBP and 54 extra-base hits, and Rougned Odor was a revelation (41 extra-base hits after a mid-June promotion). Adrian Beltre regressed statistically, though it's quite clear that was related to issues with his thumb. And Elvis Andrus showed improvement in the second half after making some changes to his swing mechanics.
The reason I don't have the Rangers higher (or lower, as it were, given that we're counting down) is some question about the upside of the projected Opening Day lineup. Odor is entering his age-22 season, so he's just scratching the surface, but Choo, Fielder, Beltre and Josh Hamilton are all north of 31 and have all endured injury issues in recent seasons. The Rangers do have an exciting wave of position players looming -- Joey Gallo, Nomar Mazara and Lewis Brinson -- but for now it's hard to say how much impact those guys will have in 2016. So I'll conservatively rank the Rangers here for now.
9. Red Sox
Last year was a disaster. Pablo Sandoval showed up fat and didn't hit. Hanley Ramirez raked in April, then got hurt playing a position he had no business playing and never really recovered. Mike Napoli slumped. David Ortiz started abnormally slow. And yet, when you looked up at the end of the year, there they were -- fourth in the Majors in runs.
There is some obvious reason for optimism for the Red Sox to finish with a similarly satisfactory run total in 2016, because two of their four position players who ranked above average in OPS+ -- Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts -- will play this season at age 23. Catcher Blake Swihart will play it at 24. Jackie Bradley Jr., entering his age-26 season, appeared to make serious offensive strides last year, too. Ortiz will hope to go out on a high note, and Dustin Pedroia, despite continuing to battle nagging injuries last year, did see gains in his power production (his .150 isolated power mark was his best in three years). The addition of Chris Young gives the lineup added depth.
How much of this optimism is offset over the concern about Ramirez and Sandoval -- not just offensively, but defensively? Well, enough to rank the Red Sox low but not enough to keep them out of this top 10. FanGraphs gives Boston its third-highest position player WAR projection.
They missed out on Yoenis Cespedes, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist in free agency. They unsuccessfully tried to trade for Brandon Phillips. That's a lot of swinging and missing.
But give the Nats credit for adding a viable leadoff candidate in Ben Revere to replace the departed Denard Span. And while Daniel Murphy won't do much to improve this club's defensive reputation, he does help balance out the lineup, and he does seem to have made legitimate adjustments that better tap into his power potential.
Beyond that better balance, I'm also putting the Nationals on this list because they finished in the top 10 in runs per game last season despite getting less than 1,250 at-bats combined from Span, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon. One of those guys is gone and two are old, but it's hard not to be bullish on a bounce-back year for the 25-year-old Rendon, who finished fifth in the National League MVP voting in 2014. Further upside exists in outfielder Michael Taylor and shortstop Trea Turner, both of whom are excellent defenders.
Oh, and in case you forgot, the Nats have Bryce Harper, who just put up Barry Bonds-like numbers in his age-22 season. I mean, that's got to count for something, right?
No superstars other than Buster Posey and not a lot of homers, but the Giants consistently generate runs by putting the ball in play, avoiding the lofty strikeout totals accepted by some peers and constructing quality at-bats. You pair this approach with a dynamic defensive infield, and you understand all the even-year optimism associated with San Francisco.
A word on Posey: He's getting better in subtle ways, drawing more walks (56) than strikeouts (52) last season while improving his defensive metrics, including his pitch framing. If it's possible for a former MVP and Rookie of the Year and three-time World Series champion to be underrated, Posey might qualify.
Now, whether Posey will be surrounded by a championship-caliber lineup is ultimately dependent on health in the outfield (Span, Hunter Pence and Angel Pagan have all missed significant time in recent seasons) and at second base, where Joe Panik battled back issues in the second half of an All-Star campaign. But Span's offensive skillset was a perfect addition to a club that has shown it prioritizes the things that seem to matter most come October.
Loaded with young talent, the Astros have a power-packed lineup that is defensively adept (third in the Majors in Defensive Runs Saved last season). Their fans are about to be treated to the first full season of a Carlos Correa-Jose Altuve middle infield, and the thought of an outfield featuring a healthy and emerging George Springer alongside two valuable veterans in their walk year (Carlos Gomez and Colby Rasmus) is enticing.
Alas, the Astros did not address any of the three positions in the field where they rated negatively in Baseball Reference's WAR calculations in 2015 -- first base, third base and catcher. In letting Chris Carter walk, they began to deconstruct their boom-or-bust reputation, but they also embraced some uncertainty at first, where Jon Singleton will try to re-establish himself as a franchise cornerstone and A.J. Reed looms as a long-term option. At third, Luis Valbuena gave Houston some unexpected power last season, but his overall inconsistency might lend him best to a platoon role. And at catcher, Jason Castro has regressed offensively each of the last two seasons, while dealing with some injury issues. The Astros also rated negatively at designated hitter, where Evan Gattis hit 27 homers but only got on base at a .285 clip. He's now recovering from sports hernia surgery.
That's a long-winded way of saying this is a very, very good lineup that also still has some clear holes/concerns. How those concerns are addressed, internally or externally, as 2016 rolls along will dictate how elite this lineup really is.
For the first time in recent memory, the Tigers acquitted themselves well defensively last season, rating above average on the Defensive Runs Saved scale after some horrendous showings in prior years. That was attributable to getting a full season from Jose Iglesias to pair with Ian Kinsler up the middle, plus the arrival of James McCann behind the plate. So the Tigers are no longer the designated hitter of baseball teams.
And oh yeah, they can still hit -- all the more now that Justin Upton is bringing his solid combination of power and on-base ability to a lineup in which he doesn't need to be a superstar. The superstar here, of course, is Miguel Cabrera, who had his first healthy, unrestricted offseason in recent memory and will be back to build on the .974 OPS he posted in 119 games in his age-32 year. Then there's J.D. Martinez, who proved his '14 power outbreak was no fluke with a Silver Slugger season in right in '15. Two key questions are whether Victor Martinez's left knee will cooperate or continue to compromise him from the left-hand side and whether Nick Castellanos will ever develop into the offensive contributor the Tigers expect him to be.
But it's not controversial to suggest this lineup, right-handed though it may lean, is quite good -- and more balanced (in terms of the offense vs. defense equation) than it once was.
They led the Majors in Defensive Runs Saved last season, though there's reason to suspect they sacrificed some of that defensive prowess (as well as some baserunning prowess) in order to augment their rotation, with Ender Inciarte included in the Shelby Miller trade. This is what makes Yasmany Tomas, who is attempting to stick in the corner outfield after a less-than-inspiring arrival to the big leagues on both sides of the ball in '15, such an X-factor in Arizona.
But the D-backs' run-production and run-prevention capabilities are still very, very strong, and it is the belief in this lineup that compelled the front office to act so proactively with the pitching staff. Paul Goldschmidt is on the short list of best pure hitters in the sport -- and somehow keeps getting better (his 1.005 OPS and 170 OPS+ in 2015 were both the best such marks of his career). A.J. Pollock is an on-base machine whose power emerged in '15. David Peralta's .312/.371/.522 output was one of the game's unsung gems. And catcher Welington Castillo arrived midyear and surprisingly delivered 17 homers in 80 games.
The big offensive questions come in all infield spots not occupied by Goldy, and the addition of Jean Segura arguably did little to satisfy those questions (if the D-backs do employ him as their leadoff hitter, it's possibly poor casting). But again, we're talking about total packages here, and, even in the spots where they're weakest offensively, the D-backs should deliver with their gloves.
By now, it's well established that despite the obvious difficulties posed by their home park, the Royals have what can only be described as an elite offense. Because the front office has done such a good job tailoring this team to Kauffman Stadium, it's not going to bowl you over in the power department, and the most conspicuous single-season record in the sport (Steve Balboni's 1985 homer mark … of 36) endures.
But Kendrys Morales' impact last season helped bring the overall slugging percentage up to a more respectable total (.412, versus .376 in '14), and upside still exists as 26-year-old Eric Hosmer and 27-year-old Mike Moustakas continue to mature as Major League hitters. The Royals' contact-hitting prowess helped them generate the seventh-highest run total in the game last year, and retaining Alex Gordon was huge.
And of course, the Royals don't have a defensive liability at any position. That's as important as anything.
We'll see if Jarrod Dyson can handle an everyday opportunity in the outfield and if Omar Infante can win back the faith of the Royals and their fans. But while I stopped short of putting the Royals in my top 10 pitching staffs, I'm afraid I can't continue to contribute to their collective chip on the ol' shoulder here. Unless, you know, they legitimately feel they belong at No. 1.
This lineup -- especially by NL standards -- is absolutely stacked. Adding the on-base threats of Zobrist and Heyward -- either of whom could lead off Joe Maddon's lineup -- to a group still paced by the excellent Anthony Rizzo (148 OPS+ over the last two years) should keep the Cubs steady even in those stretches when Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant and Addison Russell endure their inevitable sophomore struggles. And obviously, what we saw from Bryant (.361 OBP, .505 slugging) and Schwarber (.352, .476) in the second half last season bodes well for their immediate future (though Schwarber, in particular, has improvement to make against left-handed pitching). There's also major upside here, as Jorge Soler and Javier Baez find their big league footing.
Defensively, the Cubs were understandably prone to some rookie mistakes in 2015, but here, again, the additions of Heyward and Zobrist are key in the effort to stabilize the situation.
Outfield defense, however, remains an area of pressing concern, because we don't yet know if Heyward will be quite the impact defender in center that he was in right. He might have to cover a ton of ground, because Soler surprisingly rated as a defensive liability last season, and Schwarber had some messy moments in October in left. Still, you've got to love this Cubs lineup.
1. Blue Jays
Finally, an easy decision. Not only did the Blue Jays bash their way to a Major League-best runs-per-game average (5.50) that was 0.78 higher than the next-closest club, but, thanks in no small measure to the emergence of Kevin Pillar in center field, they also had the third-most defensive runs saved above average in the American League.
This lineup returns intact. All the principal figures (Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Russell Martin and the underrated first-base tandem of Chris Colabello and Justin Smoak) from the franchise's first playoff run in 22 years are back for more, and Troy Tulowitzki will be on-hand for a full season (on a dirt infield, no less). There is hope that second baseman Devon Travis can get back to full health with his shoulder to build on his outstanding rookie showing early in 2015, and Michael Saunders is back to potentially form an effective left-field platoon with Dalton Pompey.
The Blue Jays take care of business on both sides of the ball and, therefore, are as obvious a No. 1 as you'll find -- even on a subjective list such as this.
Honorable mentions: I'm going to get crushed by New York baseball fans, and that's understandable. At one point in drafting this column, I had both Big Apple clubs in this top 10. Ultimately, I left the Mets out because I don't feel they've improved their defense up the middle with Asdrubal Cabrera and Neil Walker, and -- while I love a motivated Yoenis Cespedes in an opt-out year -- there's no denying his streakiness on both sides of the ball. Generally, I worry the Mets just won't get on base enough. … The Yankees finished second in the Majors in runs last year, but I'm subjecting them to unabashed ageism and gloveism. While they tried to get younger where they could (Starlin Castro at second, Aaron Hicks in the outfield), their three highest OPS+ contributors last year (Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran) were 35 or older, and they lost an important depth piece in Greg Bird (though maybe Aaron Judge will do in 2016 what Bird did in '15). They also were the worst team in the AL last year in Defensive Runs Saved (minus-40). … The Pirates do a superior job with their defensive positioning and have a lot of consistent bats. … The Orioles prioritize booming bats and good gloves and might have an argument for entry. … If Byung Ho Park's power translates and Byron Buxton becomes what we think he can become, the Twins could field an elite lineup. … For what it's worth, the Dodgers have FanGraphs' third-highest projected position player WAR. But the second-half falloff from Yasmani Grandal and Joc Pederson, the questions about what they'll get from Yasiel Puig, and some age issues involving infielders not named Corey Seager kept them off this list. … The Angels project well in the WAR tally, but that's mostly attributable to Mike Trout. We'll see if Billy Eppler's emphasis on contact and defense, a la the Royals, in his offseason strategizing moves the needle. … We all know the Rockies will pile up the run totals, and they've got one of the best two-way talents in the game in Nolan Arenado. But their continued sizable split (.841 OPS at home last year, .652 on the road) leaves them out of the top 10. … The Cardinals play good D, but we'll have to see if a full season of Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty improves their power production.
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Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor and an MLB.com columnist. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.