The remarkable competitive balance in Major League Baseball came sharply into focus last October when six teams -- the Astros, Blue Jays, Cubs, Mets, Rangers and Yankees -- crashed the postseason party after missing out in 2014.
With a calculating eye fixed on 2016, let's take a look at six clubs poised to make it to the big show after being forced to sit and watch in '15.
We're all familiar with what manager Bruce Bochy and his troupe have done in even-numbered seasons. San Francisco held parades in 2010, '12 and '14, and there are reasons to believe it can happen again in '16.
Upgrading a rotation behind ace Madison Bumgarner, the Giants struck body blows to the three-time defending National League West-champion Dodgers by landing Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija in free agency. Both should benefit immensely from AT&T Park, the most difficult place to score runs in the game last year. Bochy and pitching coach Dave Righetti always work wonders with arms, and now they have a formidable rotation. The bullpen is deep and first-rate.
A return by driving force Hunter Pence, limited to 51 games last year, should be a major lift in every respect. When Joe Panik, reduced by injuries to 95 starts at second base, is healthy, the Giants' infield anchored by brilliant shortstop Brandon Crawford is as good as it gets. No player in the game brings more total value than catcher/first baseman Buster Posey.
Baseball's mystery team, plunging to 83 wins after being favored by many insiders to win it all, the Nationals import an upbeat, proven new leader in three-time Manager of the Year Award winner Dusty Baker. He'll love 2015 NL Most Valuable Player Award winner Bryce Harper and a potentially dominant rotation fronted by NL Cy Young Award candidates Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.
Tools-rich center fielder Michael Taylor might take flight. An analytics study in 2008 concluded that Baker was "the greatest manager in history with hitters." Another statistical probe by Bill James shows that Dusty is the 10th-best manager ever in handling bullpens. Jonathan Papelbon will put Baker to the acid test if he's not dealt.
The star power is aligned. If Baker can work his familiar clubhouse magic and power-up the mojo, the Nats of 2016 could be what so many expected the Nats of '15 to be: championship contenders.
Ranked 23rd in starting-pitching ERA last season, the D-backs climb into the elite category with Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller arriving to ease the pressure on gifted lefty Patrick Corbin. The signing of Greinke, coming off a historic season with the Dodgers, immediately stamped Arizona as a potential contender, and the blockbuster swap bringing Miller from Atlanta put a stamp on it.
Only the mile-high Rockies produced more runs in the NL last year than the D-backs, who boast two of the game's premier all-around players in Paul Goldschmidt at first base and A.J. Pollock in center field. The defense, with Nick Ahmed perhaps ready to challenge Andrelton Simmons as the game's best at shortstop, is first-rate.
Coming off a 79-win season, the D-backs are poised to be a force with respected Chip Hale at the helm and the executive tandem of Tony La Russa and Dave Stewart boldly going for the gusto.
A return to the top of the heap by the Red Sox after a last-place finish would be no surprise, with David Price fronting the rotation and closer supreme Craig Kimbrel shutting down games. No club has made two more significant additions this offseason than Boston with those two stars.
The Red Sox still have that abundance of talent in the outfield, and the infield is among the game's best if Dustin Pedroia plays significantly more than the 93 games he managed in 2015.
New England would love to see David Ortiz walk away with another October for the ages. The pieces are in place to make "Big Papi" happy.
Falling one game behind the Astros and two behind the Yankees, the Angels spent the offseason trying to figure out how they can support Mike Trout and lift the game's best performer back into postseason play along with the legendary Albert Pujols.
Joe Smith and Huston Street are rock-solid at the back-end of the bullpen. Southpaw Tyler Skaggs, back from Tommy John surgery, should enhance a deep rotation with Garrett Richards the emerging ace. If Skaggs and C.J. Wilson, also returning from surgery, show they're in prime form, the Halos will have the luxury of moving a starter for a bat. Some backup for Trout, Pujols and Kole Calhoun would be a plus.