10 MLB teams facing make or break seasons in 2016

By Michael Dixon
Kim Klement, USA Today Sports

Just like there are no shortage of MLB players facing make or break seasons in 2016, plenty of MLB teams face the same expectations.

In some cases, the teams are aging. Others have been highly successful but haven’t quite gotten over the hump while some of these franchises are dealing with short championship windows due to the stiff competition they are facing from division rivals.

These teams have different reasons for calling 2016 a make or break season, but these are the 10 MLB teams facing said reality this year.

10. Boston Red Sox

We start with the list’s most recent World Series champion. The Red Sox followed up their 2013 championship with consecutive last place finishes. So, it’s really time for this group to show that they can consistently contend.

It’s also important because franchise cornerstone David Ortiz will retire at season’s end. Another great Boston player, Dustin Pedroia, is 32 and has had a hard time staying on the field for the last two seasons. This season is also important for Boston’s two big prizes of the 2014-15 offseason — Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval — to show that they won’t be colossal busts in Beantown.

The Red Sox do have a good young foundation. But for their veteran-laden core, 2016 is likely their last stand. Otherwise, the team will get younger and enter a semi-rebuilding period.

9. Toronto Blue Jays

Josh Donaldson

The Blue Jays have a potent offense, but age is not their friend. Jose Bautista is 35, Edwin Encarnacion and Russell Martin are both 33, Troy Tulowitzki is 31 and Josh Donaldson is 30.

Now, if that were the only issue, it wouldn’t be so problematic. You never want to see that many hitters on the wrong side of 30 and the Blue Jays are the oldest team in the league, but power hitters like that tend to age a little better than guys who rely on speed.

What makes 2016 so vital for the Blue Jays is not just the age of so many of their best players, but also the contracts. Both Bautista and Encarnacion are entering the final year of their deals in Toronto. And if they move on in free agency, neither will be easily replaced.

One thing Toronto can do in order to quiet uneasiness over this aging roster is to win again in 2016. That will not only help achieve the “make” part of “make or break,” but it will also be a good sign to potential free agents (like Bautista and Encarnacion) that they can consistently compete with the heavyweights that man the American League East.

8. Los Angeles Angels

The Angels haven’t exactly taken advantage of having the game’s best player in Mike Trout. Since his rookie season of 2012, the team has a grant total of one playoff appearance and hasn’t won even a single postseason game.

Trout is young and players like outfielder Kole Calhoun and pitchers Garrett Richards, Andrew Heaney, and Matt Shoemaker are good building blocks for the future.

Unfortunately, the Angels have some other important players who don’t have much of their primes left. Albert Pujols is 36 and while it now looks likely that he’ll play in the team’s opener, he fought through injuries in the offseason.

Pitcher C.J. Wilson is 35 and has thrown 175.2 and 132 innings over the last two seasons. Jered Weaver is 33, threw only 159 innings in 2015 and has failed to hit 200 in three of the last four seasons. He’s also topping out at 81 on his fastball during the spring.

Much like the Red Sox, the Angels have long-term building blocks in place, but much of their talent is nearing the end of the careers. That leaves 2016 as an extremely important season.

7. Seattle Mariners

We stay in the American League West, working our way up to Seattle. A lot of the issues that applied to the Angels apply to the Mariners, but there are some key differences here.

One, the Angels made the playoffs in 2014. They were swept, but they’ve still been to the playoffs on a relatively consistent basis over the last decade. The Mariners, on the other hand, haven’t made the postseason since 2001, which is MLB’s longest active postseason drought.

Two, the Mariners don’t have Mike Trout.

The Mariners two best starting pitchers — Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma — both have birthdays in April and will turn 30 and 35, respectively.

Their two best hitters are Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz. Cruz is 35 and coming off of a massive season. On the other hand, the 33-year-old Cano hasn’t performed anywhere near the level of the massive contract he signed with the team prior to 2014.

The time for the Mariners to make the leap and play into October is right now. If it doesn’t happen in 2016, it’d be awfully hard to make a case that it’ll happen any time soon.

6. Los Angeles Dodgers

Clayton Kershaw Dodgers

The 2016 season will be one with many questions in Los Angeles.

Was the decision to cut payroll (and in turn, lose Zack Greinke) a good one? Is Yasiel Puig worth the drama and attention he brings? Was the decision to let Don Mattingly go to Miami a good one?

If the Dodgers fail to win the National League West, then it would be hard to spin those decisions as anything other than bad. This is especially true if they completely miss the playoffs.

If the Dodgers win their fourth straight division title but are again sent home early in the playoffs, the decisions may not be judged as poor, but they can’t be judged as good either. That would be a lateral move for Los Angeles.

The one thing that the Dodgers could do to make those decisions unquestionably good ones is to get to the playoffs and win once there. For the sake of this argument, that probably means a trip to the World Series.

The talent is certainly adequate for Los Angeles to do just that. But that performance is necessary in 2016, which defines make or break.

5. Pittsburgh Pirates

More than anything, the makeup of the National League Central puts the Pirates on the hot seat in 2016.

The Chicago Cubs are not only very talented, but very young. Even if they regress in 2016 (don’t bet on it), they’re not going away any time soon.

The St. Louis Cardinals don’t look as strong heading into 2016 as they have in past seasons. Still, they’re not bad. More importantly, the Cardinals are never down for long. Even if 2016 is a complete disaster (again, don’t bet on it), they’ll be fine long term.

The Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers are in rebuilding projects, which only makes the long-term future for the Pirates more challenging. But for argument’s sake, let’s say that those two rebuilding projects are complete busts. That would still leave Pittsburgh with two very good teams to compete with every year.

With Andrew McCutchen still in his absolute prime, the window may not be wide open in 2016, but it’s more open than it’ll likely be in the near future.

Also, as the Pirates learned the hard way in 2014 and 2015 that the National League Wild Card game is no way to make a long, playoff run. In a five or seven-game series, Pittsburgh’s pitching makes it hard to beat.

In a one-game scenario, the Pirates would have to deal with the likes of San Francisco Giants starter Madison Bumgarner or Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, among others. As good as Gerrit Cole is, he’s not nearly as accomplished as the top pitchers for other contending NL teams. That’s the importance of avoiding the one-game wild card playoff.

4. Arizona Diamondbacks

Courtesy of Rick Scuteri, USA Today Sports

While we’re on the subject of a team that has to compete with two titans within the division, meet the Diamondbacks.

The 2016 season is not only important for Arizona because of the prowess of the Dodgers and Giants, but also because of everything the organization invested into it.

In total, the Diamondbacks surrendered three first-round draft picks to acquire pitchers Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller. As good as those pitchers are, moves like that signify that a team is looking to win and win immediately.

If Arizona wins this year, then the moves were worth it, almost no matter what eventually happens with all of the talent it lost. If the Diamondbacks don’t win this year, especially if it comes in the form of a completely disastrous season — à la the 2015 San Diego Padres — the moves then become a complete disaster.

3. Detroit Tigers

Going back to 2011, the Tigers have four American League Central championships, three ALCS appearances, and have made one trip to the World Series. The one thing they have not done is win a World Series. If it’s going to happen with this group of veterans, it pretty much has to be in 2016.

Miguel Cabrera is one of the game’s best hitters but missed 43 games in 2015. That’s definitely not an encouraging sign from someone who will turn 33 in April.

Justin Verlander is already 33 and much like Cabrera, had an effective yet injury riddled season in 2015. Can he do it again and can he do it for about 200 innings? He’ll need to.

Cabrera is not the only Tigers’ hitter that could be called long in the tooth. Designated hitter Victor Martinez is 38 while second baseman Ian Kinsler will be 34 in June.

Similarly, Verlander isn’t the only old pitcher manning the mound in Detroit. One of the Tigers’ two big offseason prizes, Jordan Zimmermann, is 30.

Even with Zimmermann, the Detroit pitching staff is not as deep as it has been in recent seasons, so a good year from Anibal Sanchez will be important. The problem there is that Sanchez is 32, has never thrown 200 innings in a season, and hasn’t thrown more than 182 since 2012.

There is young talent in Detroit, but the Tigers are aging throughout their roster and again, need to win a World Series to truly complete this run. The 2016 season is the last realistic chance at that.

2. New York Yankees

Aging is a theme of many teams on this list, but the Yankees are in a class by themselves in that regard.

Of the hitters currently expected to be New York’s starters, only Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius come in at under 30. Actually, third baseman Chase Headley is the only Yankees’ regular who’s yet to hit his 32nd birthday, and he’ll reach that milestone in May.

Others key Yankees, like Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, and pitcher C.C. Sabathia are over 35.

New York made the playoffs in 2015 and the American League East should be a pretty open race in 2016, so contending for a championship isn’t exactly a pipe dream.

But as the saying goes, “Father time is undefeated” and if the Yankees can’t contend in 2016, it’s certainly not happening for much of this group in 2017.

1. Washington Nationals

Courtesy of Jason Getz, USA Today Sports

Once one of the game’s most talented, promising teams, the Nationals need to win and win now to fulfill that promise.

Three of their best players, starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg, closer Jonathan Papelbon, and starting catcher Wilson Ramos are in the final year of their contracts.

Starting left fielder Jayson Werth turns 37 in May. Ace pitcher Max Scherzer and starting first baseman Ryan Zimmerman each turn 32 during the season. Yes, they have younger players (namely Bryce Harper), but this is a nucleus very much built to win now.

It’s hard enough to believe that the Nationals haven’t won a World Series over the last four seasons and nearly impossible to believe that they haven’t won a playoff series. This team has been as talented as any in the league since winning 98 games in 2012, but has consistently underachieved.

The National League looks to be very strong at the top this year so it won’t be easy. But if the Nationals can’t do it this year, the 2012-2016 run can best be viewed as bitterly disappointing. Based on the age and contract situations of so many key players, the window won’t be any more open in the next few years than it is right now.

The 2016 MLB season is important for all of these teams, but the Nationals enter it with the most at stake.