Welcome to Part I of SI.com’s 2016 MLB picks and predictions. Before the coming season, we asked our stable of MLB experts to choose their playoff teams and World Series winner for this year and name their winners for the MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards in each league. Be sure to check out Part II, too, where they make their choices for this season’s surprise teams, breakout players and free-agent flops before giving a bold prediction for the year ahead. On to the picks!
World Series pick: Rangers
After a 16–23 start last season, Texas went 72–51, finished third in the league in runs and, with Cole Hamels on the mound, was nine outs away from advancing to the ALCS—until the Rangers’ infield made errors on three consecutive plays. This year, Texas has an even better offense, a better bullpen, better depth (prospects Joey Gallo, Nomar Mazara and Jurickson Profar could start for many teams) and, if Yu Darvish returns to form, a championship-worthy rotation. Now all the Rangers need to do is keep cool in the biggest postseason moments.
World Series pick: Indians
I liked the Indians last year, and I still like them this year. The bet here is that Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar emerge as a fire-breathing troika, the AL’s most dominating top-of-the-rotation. Despite another quiet winter, Cleveland has enough talent—a lineup without any glaring holes, a rotation with massive upside and a sneaky good bullpen anchored by a closer, Cody Allen, who will become the AL’s top ninth-inning finisher by season’s end—to emerge from the cage match that is the AL Central. The Indians seem built for October.
World Series pick: Nationals
These guys again? There is no reason to write off Washington, besides the small fact that it has been among the most massively disappointing clubs in baseball history in two of the last three years. While that shouldn’t be discounted, it’s only fair to look at the 2016 Nationals as a discrete entity, with a new manager, Dusty Baker; a newly minted MVP, Bryce Harper; a newly healthy second baseman, Anthony Rendon; new depth, including two of the game’s best prospects in shortstop Trea Turner and pitcher Lucas Giolito; and the same dominant rotation-topping duo, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Past results are not always indicative of future performance—that’s a good thing for Washington.
World Series pick: Cubs
The best team on paper will, for once, also be the best team in October, thanks to the Cubs’ rare combination of star talent, terrific depth and an elite manager in Joe Maddon.
World Series pick: Cubs
On paper, the Cubs are by far the best team in baseball heading into the 2016 season. They added Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey to a roster that won 97 games last year and is rich with young players whose best years are still ahead of them (a description that fits the 26-year-old Heyward, by the way). That well-rounded roster boasts both talent and depth, and Chicago’s leadership, from the dugout to the front office, is among the smartest and most savvy in the game. Seventy seasons have passed since the Cubs last reached the World Series, 107 since they last won one, and the road to the Fall Classic is far more precarious in this age of multiple rounds of playoffs than it has ever been before. Still, this feels like the year.
World Series pick: Cubs
Sooner or later, the Cubs are going to overcome not only the Curse of the Billy Goat to make it back to the World Series but also their 107-seasons-and-counting championship drought. After taking an aggressive approach on the free-agent market this winter to land Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey, why not now? This is a young team on the upswing, with five regulars and a couple of key bench pieces who are 27 or under, including Heyward, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. It wouldn’t be a surprise if several players from last year’s 97-win team improve incrementally, and the versatility that Zobrist offers only adds to Chicago’s depth. The Cubs also have a pair of co-aces in reigning NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester, and the addition of Lackey gives the team a rotation with five starters who can miss bats. If the bullpen is the weak link at the moment, it’s still good enough for manager Joe Maddon to work with, and easy enough to upgrade for the stretch run.
World Series pick: Cubs
The best team in baseball over the course of the season doesn’t always (or even especially often) win it all, but it’s hard to pick anyone else this year. The Cubs took huge strides in 2015 and have added a group of useful free agents in Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey. They have a stacked, powerful lineup to go with the reigning Cy Young winner and what should be a solid-enough rotation behind him. Chicago will face stiff competition in the NL and even in its own division, but on paper, the Cubs look like the most complete team in the game. Just ignore all those hissing black cats.
Verducci: Carlos Correa, Astros
If this pick turns out to be true, Correa, who turns 22 in September, would be the youngest MVP ever, displacing Vida Blue (22 years, 64 days on the final day of the 1971 season). But after Correa hit 22 homers and 22 doubles in just 99 games last year en route to AL Rookie of the Year honors, why not pick him?
Chen: Manny Machado, Orioles
He didn’t have the same start to his career as Mike Trout or Carlos Correa, but 2015 proved that Machado is no longer a baby; he’s a superstar who now belongs in the same conversation as Trout and Bryce Harper. Machado’s already elite power numbers (35 home runs last season, a year in which he turned 23 years old) can get even better, and let’s not discount the premium defense he’ll provide the O’s. Remember this, too: Machado is younger—by seven months—than Kris Bryant.
Reiter: Mike Trout, Angels
Michael Jordan won only five MVP awards; Trout has just one so far, because it’s fun to think up reasons to vote for Charles Barkley or Karl Malone. This year, the reason could be that Trout’s Angels look very bad. At 24, though, his performance might be so overwhelming that he’ll add a second trophy to what ought to be a more crowded mantelpiece.
Keri: Carlos Correa, Astros
Mike Trout ends up leading the league in Wins Above Replacement, but the voters again find a different winner in Correa. When it’s a shortstop smashing 30-plus homers and leading his team to a division title, it’s by no means a terrible pick.
Corcoran: Carlos Correa, Astros
For the fifth straight season, Mike Trout will be the most valuable player in the AL, and for the fourth time in those five years, the underwhelming play of the other 24 men on the Angels’ roster will prevent the voters in the BBWAA from acknowledging that fact. That will pass the award down to Correa, who will necessarily be a crucial part of any Astros team that might make the playoffs this year. If you prorate Correa’s performance as a 20-year-old rookie last year over 162 games, you get 36 home runs, 111 RBIs and 23 stolen bases. The only shortstop in major league history to collect at least 30 home runs, 100 RBIs and 20 stolen bases in a single season is Alex Rodriguez, who did so for a pair of losing Mariners teams in 1998 and ’99.
Jaffe: Carlos Correa, Astros
While it’s entirely possible that Mike Trout will be the most valuable player in the AL—he’s led the Junior Circuit in WAR for four straight years—the Angels look more like also-rans than contenders, and we can expect the voters to hand the hardware to someone on a playoff-bound team. In 99 games after being recalled last June, Correa hit 22 homers, stole 14 bases and played solid defense. Extrapolate those over a full schedule, and you’ve got the kind of contribution from a shortstop that hasn’t been seen since Troy Tulowitzki had 32 home runs and 20 stolen bases for the Rockies in 2009.
Span: Mike Trout, Angels
Yes, the Angels probably aren’t going to be any good, and that will hurt Trout with some voters. But as Bryce Harper demonstrated just last year, if you’re that much better than everybody else, it doesn’t matter. Manny Machado is another strong contender, but the Orioles may not be any better than the Angels; Carlos Correa could pull it off, but he’s still only 21 with just 99 major league games to his credit. Trout is far and away the best player in the league, and he’s on a truly historic pace after four full seasons (and somehow he’s still only 24). In the worst of those seasons, 2014, he had 7.9 WAR and won the MVP. Lots of AL players could win the award in their best year, but only Trout can pull it off while slumping.
Verducci: Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
Still only 26, Rizzo is an ascendant star: He has been cutting his strikeouts and improving his rate of extra-base hits. As with Josh Donaldson last year, he will benefit from an improved lineup with more opportunities to drive in runs.
Chen: Kris Bryant, Cubs
A 40-home run (or maybe more) threat in the heart of a juggernaut lineup, Bryant is going to put up big numbers in his second season. I may be a year or two early with this prediction, and the hype for the Cubs is getting a little out of control, but if Bryant can improve his contact rate (he had 199 strikeouts last year) and his batting average, he’ll have a monster season.
Reiter: Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks
Goldschmidt’s not overlooked anymore, not with three straight All-Star appearances and a pair of second-place MVP finishes on his resume. Tony La Russa, Arizona’s team president, likes to describe him as the perfect player: the Gold Glove first baseman and stealer of 20 bases who plays like he’s got five tools even though he was born with about two. His flawless game should be duly rewarded.
Keri: Bryce Harper, Nationals
Harper could very well bag five of these awards by his 30th birthday.
Corcoran: Bryce Harper, Nationals
The Harper era has begun. He was the youngest unanimous MVP in major league history last year in his age-22 season, and he should be the perennial favorite for this award in the NL for the foreseeable future.
Jaffe: Bryce Harper, Nationals
It’s pretty clear now that Harper’s only just begun to find his level. In 2015, the production (42 homers, a 195 OPS+ and 9.9 WAR) surpassed the hype; in fact, no player in his age-22 season or younger ever reached 40 homers, a 180 OPS+ and 9.0 WAR in the same season, with Mike Trout (10.6 WAR at age 20), Ted Williams (10.6 WAR and 235 OPS+ at 22), Joe DiMaggio (46 homers at 22) and Eddie Mathews (47 homers at 21) the closest comparisons. Harper is going to own a few of these awards very soon.
Span: Bryce Harper, Nationals
No need to get cute here. Harper, still only 23, went from excellent to spectacular last season, fulfilling the potential everyone knew was there with 42 home runs and a .330/.460/.649 line. The only thing that can stop him at this point is injury.
AL Cy Young
Verducci: Chris Archer, Rays
Archer’s slider is one of the nastiest pitches in the game. He struck out more batters in the AL last year than anybody but Chris Sale and finished fourth in the Cy Young Award voting. And now Archer might be even better if the changeup he used more often toward the end of last season becomes a legitimate weapon.
Chen: Carlos Carrasco, Indians
One big reason I’m all in on the Indians is the intimidator known as Cookie. He was good last year, with a 10.58 strikeout-per-nine rate and a 2.66 xFIP that ranked fourth among starters (behind only Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale and Jake Arrieta). But in his age-29 season, Carrasco is primed to take a bigger step forward and bloom into the most dominant starter in the league.
Reiter: Chris Archer, Rays
Archer’s strikeout rate jumped from 8.0 in 2014 to 10.7 per nine innings last year, putting him behind only Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer. He’s 27 now, in the thick of his prime, and a continuing improvement in his walk rate (which dropped from 3.3 in ’14 to 2.8 per nine last year) could put him at the top of the pack.
Keri: David Price, Red Sox
Price will overcome the threat of the Green Monster in Fenway Park and win his second AL Cy Young (and first since 2012), though it’ll be a dogfight with Chris Sale.
Corcoran: Chris Sale, White Sox
In his four seasons with Chicago, Sale has finished no lower than sixth in the Cy Young voting in any of those years. Last year, he led the AL in fielding independent pitching, strikeout-to-walk rate and strikeouts, and he was tops in the majors in strikeouts per nine innings. With the White Sox upgrading their offense at second base and third base and their outfield defense with the addition of Austin Jackson, the 27-year-old Sale should receive the additional support needed to turn his well-established dominance into his first Cy Young award.
Jaffe: Corey Kluber, Indians
Terrible defensive support early in the season and a hamstring strain late in the year prevented Kluber from making a run at a second straight Cy Young after his breakout 2014, but his strikeout-to-walk ratio actually improved slightly even while battling those factors. With a full season of shortstop Francisco Lindor—and an upgraded infield defense—behind him, he should rediscover his top form.
Span: Sonny Gray, Athletics
Gray was already among the best pitchers in the league last season, but part of what kept him from the award—aside from the greatness of Dallas Keuchel and David Price—was Oakland’s generally dismal defense behind him. While there still aren’t too many Gold Glovers backing Gray up, the team has been working hard on its defense this spring, with an assist from guru Ron Washington; the results haven’t been too inspiring just yet, but hey, it’s early. At age 26 heading into his third full major league season, Gray is set up for his best year yet, especially if he can count on even a little less sabotage from his fielders.
NL Cy Young
Verducci: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
Chalk defined. Kershaw is five years deep into one of the greatest pitching runs of all time, and he’s still only 28, or just three months older than Jacob deGrom. He owns five of the 26 best ERA+ seasons since 2011. In the worst of those seasons, 2012, he led the league in ERA (2.53), ERA+ (150) and WHIP (1.023) and finished second in the voting.
Chen: Max Scherzer, Nationals
Mad Max reached new heights in 2015, even as he won his fewest games since ’10 (14) and posted an ERA (2.79) that was not far off his previous career low. But his strikeout rate surged, he cut down his walk rate and he threw harder than ever.
Reiter: Max Scherzer, Nationals
Clayton Kershaw is the perennial favorite here, but Scherzer was virtually his equal last year, trailing him by very slim margins in categories like WHIP (0.88 to 0.92) and batting average against (.194 to .208) while showing better control. Scherzer also couldn’t escape the Nationals’ late summer malaise, as his ERA jumped from 1.76 on June 20 to 3.03 on Sept. 7, before settling at 2.79. An improved club could help Scherzer, the AL Cy Young with the Tigers in 2013, to become the sixth pitcher to win the award in both leagues.
Keri: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
Kershaw is still the best pitcher on Earth. No sense overthinking this.
Corcoran: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
It took seasons of historic significance from Jake Arrieta and Zack Greinke to push Kershaw down to third in the Cy Young voting last year, his lowest finish in the last five years. The attention those two drew last year hid the fact that Kershaw had arguably the second-best season of his remarkable career. Greinke and Arrieta are both likely to experience some regression this year, but I expect no such thing from Kershaw his age-28 season.
Jaffe: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
Despite not winning the award for the first time since 2012, Kershaw still reeled off a 1.39 ERA and 8.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio from May 26 onward, and finished with numbers—including league-best totals in innings (232 2/3), strikeouts (301) and FIP (1.99)—that wouldn’t have been out of place within his 2013 and ’14 Cy Young-winning campaigns.
Span: Jacob deGrom, Mets
Clayton Kershaw could easily be the pick for this every year, but just for the sake of variety, let’s pick deGrom, who has quietly become the best pitcher in the game’s best rotation (although Matt Harvey gets the headlines—good, bad and urine-related). Last season, only his second in the majors, deGrom had a 2.54 ERA, striking out 215 and walking just 38, and he held up fine as he approached 200 innings for the first time in his career. Even modest strides forward in his age-28 season would land him right in the middle of the race.
AL Rookie of the Year
Verducci: Jose Berrios, Twins
The last Minnesota righthander to strike out 200 batters was Bert Blyleven 30 years ago. Berrios may not get to 200 this quickly—not when he will start the season in the minors—but he finally gives the Twins swing-and-miss stuff. Despite being in his age-21 season a year ago, Berrios logged 166 1/3 innings with 175 punchouts, so he should be fine to throw near 190 innings.
Chen: Byron Buxton, Twins
I still believe in Buck. He still possesses some of the most exciting tools in the game—80 speed and an 80 arm—and is so talented that he’ll be an All-Star even as his batting average hovers around .250.
Reiter: Jose Berrios, Twins
The odds are good that this award will go to a member of the Twins, as outfielder Byron Buxton and first baseman Byung-ho Park will also be strong candidates. But the 21-year-old Berrios is polished—he had a 2.87 ERA in the minors last year, with 175 strikeouts against just 38 walks—and he has not at all been rushed, as Minnesota declined to make him a September call-up in 2015. When he does debut (likely a month into the season or so), he’ll be ready to go.
Keri: Byung-ho Park, Twins
Opportunity (Park will start the season with Minnesota as the team’s designated hitter) plus more professional experience than most other candidates (he comes to MLB after nine seasons in Korea Baseball Organization) adds up to hardware.
Corcoran: Byung-ho Park, Twins
Byron Buxton may be a future star, but I do not expect the Twins’ 22-year-old centerfielder to make a sudden and remarkable adjustment to the majors. That leaves room for someone else to take this award, and Buxton’s teammates Park and righthander Jose Berrios are among the top candidates to do so. I’m going with Park here because he will open the season in the Twins’ lineup (Berrios is already back in Triple A) and because he hit .324/.434/.701 with 105 home runs in 268 games in Korea over the last two years. He won’t put up those kinds of numbers as a 29-year-old major league rookie, but Jung-ho Kang, who finished third in last year’s NL Rookie of the Year voting, proved that hitters can make the jump from the KBO to the majors and have an immediate impact.
Jaffe: Byron Buxton, Twins
Given that his top competition—teammate Jose Berrios, the Rays’ Blake Snell, the Astros’ A.J. Read, the Athletics’ Sean Manaea and the Rangers’ Joey Gallo—is ticketed for the minors to start the season (with some of those players having less-than-clear paths to jobs), the prudent choice is to go with Buxton, the game’s consensus second-best prospect. The 22-year-old centerfielder struggled mightily at the big league level last year (.209/.250/.326 with a 44/6 strikeout-to-walk ratio) in just enough playing time to fall short of losing his rookie status, and he hasn’t overwhelmed anybody this spring either. Still, his 80-grade speed and powerful throwing arm will give him enough defensive value to keep him afloat until the bat comes around, and it should, given his bat speed and power.
Span: Byron Buxton, Twins
Buxton did struggle last season in his 46 debut games (to put it mildly; he hit .209/.250/.326), but that also means he has more experience than most ROY candidates. Indeed, he only barely qualifies for the title this year. The traits that made him a top prospect are still there, especially his speed, arm and range in the outfield, and even if he needs more time to figure out major league pitching, his defense should be good enough to carry him a fair way.
NL Rookie of the Year
Verducci: Corey Seager, Dodgers
The 21-year-old shortstop who posted a .986 OPS in 113 plate appearances in a pennant race is a plug-and-play star.
Chen: Corey Seager, Dodgers
Mets pitcher Steven Matz and Nationals shortstop Trea Turner will make a big impact on playoff contending teams this summer, but Seager—the Dodgers think so highly of him that not only did he make the postseason roster last October, but he also hit third in Game 1 of the NLDS—is the clear favorite here. As long as his sprained knee isn’t an issue, he’ll be one of the game’s top offensive shortstops this year.
Reiter: Trea Turner, Nationals
Corey Seager will have about a month’s head start on him, but Turner—who figures to replace fill-in Danny Espinosa early on—has the blazing speed to close the gap. The 2014 first-round pick can do much more than run, though, as his .839 minor league OPS suggests. A long rivalry between Seager and Turner, perhaps the NL’s answer to Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor, should begin this year.
Keri: Lucas Giolito, Nationals
Giolito is this year’s Noah Syndergaard, both because of his talent and because the Nats are unlikely to do the usual dithering until June to protect service time.
Corcoran: Corey Seager, Dodgers
There was no major league adjustment required for Seager last September, who hit .337/.425/.561 in 113 plate appearances before running into the Mets’ rotation in the playoffs. He’ll come down a bit from that line this season, but as a career .307/.368/.523 hitter in the minor leagues, he appears poised to run away with this award.
Jaffe: Corey Seager, Dodgers
As with Buxton, opportunity straight out of the gate is one reason to tab the game’s consensus top prospect for hardware honors. But unlike his AL counterpart, Seager made a strong showing in last year’s cup of coffee, hitting .337/.425/.561 in 113 plate appearances and putting Jimmy Rollins out of a job. The 6’4″, 215-pound younger brother of the Mariners’ Kyle Seager is considered an MVP-caliber contributor due to his plus-plus hit tool, plus power, outstanding pitch recognition and ability to stick at shortstop, at least in the short term (his size and quickness suggest a move to third down the road). He’s been slowed by a left knee sprain this spring but is expected to be ready for Opening Day and should be a key part of the Dodgers’ offense.
Span: Steven Matz, Mets
Matz certainly looked ready in his six appearances last season, when he put up a 2.27 ERA with 34 strikeouts and 10 walks (and four RBIs in his major league debut for good measure). If he can stay healthy—a phrase you have to apply to every pitcher, but Matz even more than most given his already extensive injury history—he’s set up to thrive, and to catch voters’ attention, in the Mets’ powerhouse rotation.