NL Central Preview 2017

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The Chicago Cubs are world champions! As you’ve probably heard by now, the 2016 season ended with the Cubs winning their first championship in 107 years. With the longest drought in history snapped, that leaves none other than the reigning runner-up Cleveland Indians’ 68-year skid as the longest active dry spell. Defending their championship won’t be easy though. The Cubs face stiff competition in the NL Central before they start to consider other potential division champions. The St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates are proud franchises that boast historic resumes near the top of the MLB. Meanwhile the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds have been stuck in the lower half of the league for the past few years and want to turn their luck around. Let’s take a look at how the NL Central might shake out…

 

Cincinnati Reds (2016: 68-94, 5th Place)7690132.jpg

Lineup: Despite what looks like a decent roster on paper, the Reds finished 2016 in last place in the National League. This in large part was probably due to a horrid pitching rotation. I know I say that a lot, but just wait. As for the lineup, longtime Red Joey Votto is still one of the top sluggers in the league. Last year, he was only topped by Miguel Cabrera and Freddie Freeman in OWAR for first baseman. Votto also routinely contributed the majority of his team’s run support until Adam Duvall came out of nowhere and actually surpassed Votto in home runs and RBIs. A pleasant surprise for Cincinnati, Duvall is sure to be the future face of the franchise. You may have also heard of the speedster Billy Hamilton. Probably the fastest player in the league, Hamilton is on pace to top 75 bases throughout a full 162-game season. In fact, even though he’s only played 368 games in his career, his 184 bags are good for 23rd of all active players. If not for his atrocious batting average and his lack of durability, who knows what he could be capable of? He deserves to be in the conversation for potentially breaking the all-time stolen base records throughout his career.

 Pitching: If you were wondering why there is no comment on veteran Brandon Phillips, it’s because he finally got traded after years of rumors. The longtime second baseman was sent to Atlanta for a pair of pitching prospects. This move was desperately needed as the Reds are left with a severe dearth of talent due to the fact that their two best pitchers will start the season on the DL. One won’t return until at least June, and the other is in danger of missing the season with Tommy John surgery. So, that leaves Scott Feldman as the ace. Who?? Feldman who was relegated to bullpen duties in Houston last year. Feldman who has never posted an ERA below 3.81 since his rookie season of 2005. That’s the best the Reds have. Yikes. With opposing teams expected to score 6 runs per game, there is no way the offense will be able to keep up, even on their best days. To try to explain just how bad this rotation is, their 3rd best pitcher (I won’t mention his name for fear of embarrassing him) went 0-7 over his 10 starts while posting an astronomical 7.36 ERA. And somehow it still gets worse from there. The Reds could have a very rough season.

2017 Goals: I imagine the Reds are just trying to gather some talent. Besides the 33-year-old Votto, Cincinnati is relatively young. It’s clear that the organization does not have hopes of anything too exceptional in the next few years, as they are preparing for the new era of Reds baseball to be as strong as possible. In order to gain leverage in the trade market, I think Cinci will need to win as many games as possible to show that they have aspirations of being contenders someday. With more value on their current players, the better the chance they have to milk their men for as much as they can.

 My Expectations: With that in mind, I do not recommend tanking. Often teams with little hope of success will purposefully underperform to get a better draft pick. This is more prevalent in the NBA and NFL, but it happens in MLB too. Sometimes it’s a good strategy, and while it’s sketchy, it is technically legal. But for the Reds, whom already own the 2nd overall pick in the 2017 draft, they do not benefit from staying in the cellar any longer. Hopefully they can fight hard to improve in 2017 despite their horrible rotation, but with a lack of morale Cincinnati could be trending in the wrong direction if it’s possible.

 

Milwaukee Brewers (2016: 73-89, 4th Place)5-Things-to-Take-Away-From-Milwaukee-Brewers’-Win-on-Opening-Day.jpg

Lineup: When 2017 is in the books, Brewers fans may not be any happier than Reds fans. While they have a mediocre pitching staff, the batting is where the real trouble lies. Yes, Ryan Braun is a stud. Braun leads his current teammates in home runs, RBI, batting average and slugging percentage. With the departures of Chris Carter and Jonathan Lucroy, the Brewers don’t have much else to lean on. Many suspect rookie Eric Thames could be the NL Rookie of the Year, but as of now, he’s just an unproven young talent. The only other known variable is Jonathan Villar. He’s a nice utility man who has a similar game to Ian Kinsler and Logan Forsythe. If those names don’t mean anything to you, basically he’s got a quick glove and a solid batting average. He won’t kill you with speed, but if a pitcher ignores him, he’s been known to rack up a few steals throughout the season. But besides Braun and Villar, I just don’t see a lot of production from the rest of the Brew Crew. With so many 1st and 2nd year players in the starting lineup, it’s anyone’s guess how the games will go day in and day out.

Pitching: Milwaukee’s rotation is a little more steady. Junior Guerra pitches first, but the rotation seems pretty even. Guerra has a respectable career ERA of 2.81, and the rest of the rotation floats around a 4.00. Nothing special, but it’s certainly nice to know what to expect each game. If the hitters can rely on giving up four runs max per game, that goal could drive up the hitting numbers with some small ball. Another issue will be the bullpen. Veteran closer Neftali Feliz probably pitched his last good season many years ago. Still, he’s always imposing on the mound, and his blazing fastball’s reputation precedes him. Everyone else follows suit with the inconsistency. Relievers like Taylor Jungmann and Tommy Milone have bounced around the league through plenty of different kinds of roles. so even if the starters can set up the Brewers to close out some games, the bullpen might not be reliable enough to get the job done… and that can be very demoralizing to a young squad.

2017 Goals: The Brewers are in full rebuilding mode. Shipping two of their three top players is proof that they’re starting from scratch. 2017 will be the first step in this process. Expect a lot of playing time for a litany of players as they work formulas and set up their roster for the future. Hopefully the season-long tryout is enough to keep morale high in Milwaukee.

My Expectations: In a way, I expect catastrophe with all of the instability, but that’s fine. After underperforming last season, even with their key players, they could definitely challenge the Reds for last place in the division. As bad as it looks in Cinci, maybe the Brewers can salvage fourth place, but it’s going to be embarrassingly close.

 

Pittsburgh Pirates (2016: 78-83, 3rd Place)

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Lineup: Speaking of underperforming, many expected the Pirates to make their fourth straight playoff appearance. Instead, they finished below .500 and after a chaotic offseason, Pittsburgh could be in a heap of trouble for 2017. The tension is palpable between the Pirates and 5-time All-star Andrew McCutchen after a tumultuous offseason. McCutchen has spent his entire 8-year career in the Steel City, but there were rumors throughout the winter about trading him. None of these talks came to fruition, but surely it left McCutchen feeling unwanted by the Pirates organization. The 4-time Silver Slugger has also earned an NL MVP and Gold Glove award during his tenure. So why in the world would Pittsburgh risk unrest with their star player? Well, he had a down year last year, and there is fear that his best days are behind him. Also, he too will be a free agent in 2018 along with seemingly most of the MLB, and the Pirates might have been afraid that they’d have to let him walk and get nothing in return. Besides Cutch, the Pirates will be known for their scrappiness. Starling Marte and Josh Harrison are excellent base runners who are always a tough out at the plate. Rookie Josh Bell performed exceptionally at the end of 2016, so the Bucs hope he can keep up his average in 2017. Unfortunately, the Pirates could be without embattled third baseman Jung Ho Kang who was unable to obtain a visa to return to the U.S. after some more off-the-field incidents, and is in danger of missing the entire season. So, all in all, the Pirates will continue to be fighting adversity in the form of tough opponents… and themselves.

Pitching: Gerrit Cole is the entire story of Pirates pitching. What I mean is, they have a staff  that has potential to throw great games, but sometimes collapse late. At just 26 years old, Cole has potential to be one of the best pitchers in the league.  When wondering why his ERA skyrocketed in half as many innings as his MVP candidate year in 2015, just look at his right arm. On and off the DL three times throughout the season due to elbow inflammation and tricep tightness, there’s no question as to why he couldn’t find his rhythm. When the third injury arose in September, the Pirates shut him down in hopes he can be 100% for 2017. The best news is that he avoided Tommy John surgery and can hopefully be a Cy Young candidate for Pittsburgh again soon. Also, Pittsburgh has a relatively rock-solid bullpen. Veterans Juan Nicasio and Antonio Bastardo will hold down the late innings for closer Tony Watson. That said, Watson has a very short leash after a disastrous end to his 2016 in which he posted a 2-5 record, a 3.06 ERA, and only got 15 saves across 67 2/3 innings. With even more unknown throughout the pitching staff, the Pirates need to figure out their identity quickly.

2017 Goals: Pittsburgh wants to win. They’re the city of champions for a reason, and the Pirates haven’t put a trophy on the mantle since 1979. In fact, besides the 2013 Wild Card game, they haven’t even won a playoff series since ’79. However, it doesn’t look like the Bucs will be getting any closer this year. The Pirates probably thought they could compete in October before this offseason, but now it’s more realistic to just stay within 10 games of .500 and save some money for 2018.

My Expectations: If indeed the Pirates don’t push themselves too hard to make the playoffs, I think a 70-win season will be a success provided there isn’t too much injuries or other drama. It’s clear that the front office is trying to shake things up, so it’ll be interesting if they’re buyers or sellers at the trade deadline. One thing’s for sure, in eight months time, all hell will break loose.

St. Louis Cardinals (2016: 86-76, 2nd Place)slide_322421_3042704_free.jpg

Lineup: The Cardinals are a staple of postseason success. Their 11 World Series titles are 2nd all-time behind the New York Yankees. They’ve made the postseason all but just 4 times since 2000, trailing only New York. But even more impressive, they went one-and-done just twice in that span. They could’ve made the playoffs a 13th time too, if not for one game. Just two well-timed runs throughout the season would’ve been enough to flip an L to a W and take the San Fransisco Giants’ playoff spot. St. Louis will hope to come back strong and maybe even surprise their arch-rivals at the top of the division. They definitely have the tools to do so, as they are as even a team as any in the MLB. All 9 players work harmoniously to get run support and help each other. The downfall of perfect balance is they don’t have that leader that can come in and deliver that clutch hit. That pressure is on everyone. The oldest and perhaps most recognizable player is Yadier Molina. His bat has slowed in recent years, but his cannon behind the plate is still feared around the league. He has an incredible 42% pickoff rate for his career. That is 5 points higher than the next best active catcher. That’s a huge advantage for St. Louis pitchers because they can keep their focus squarely on the batter knowing that Molina can handle any steal attempts. I could mention any of the other 8 players too, but if I have to choose a couple, look out for Aledmys Diaz, Randal Grichuk, and newly-acquired Dexter Fowler to be difference-makers.

Pitching: It almost seems as though the Cardinals rotation never changes. That goes to show just how dominant and durable manager Mike Matheny keeps his staff. The aging Adam Wainwright will give way to Carlos Martinez to be the ace in 2017. The promotion is well-earned as the 25-year-old is quickly becoming a dominant force in the MLB. As his ERA dips and his WAA climbs, his best years are still to come. Wainwright is no slouch either, as he’s still one of the most savvy pitchers in the game. Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha round out the rotation. At similar points in the career, they routinely get double digit strikeouts. However, that takes a lot of pitches and leaves them unable to go the full 9 innings. So, the Cardinals rely on their veteran bullpen to close out games.  After Trevor Rosenthal’s sudden fall from grace, Seung Hwan Oh has done a masterful job as the new closer. Thriving in the new role, the Cards will hope Oh’s good fortune continues. And if Rosenthal can gain Matheny’s trust again, that’s a huge boost to an already solid group of relievers.

2017 Goals: The Cardinals have every intention of making it back to the postseason. Falling one game short has to hurt. Expect that pain to drive them. There is an unbelievable spread of talent throughout their roster, and they have every intention of improving upon last year’s 86 wins.

My Expectations: I think they can certainly improve upon last year. In order to unseat the defending champs, they’ll need a lot of luck, but they have a great chance of gaining some ground and earning a Wild Card spot. Knowing their track record, it’ll be tough to knock them out in that elimination game. Barring any more injuries, St. Louis will easily be in the hunt for October.

 

Chicago Cubs (2016: 103-58, 1st Place) Image result for cubs celebrate world series

Lineup: The Cubs bring back their historic lineup, except for two small notes. Obviously the beloved David Ross retired after the World Series victory,  but you may have forgotten that Kyle Schwarber is no longer injured. After missing the entire 2016 season with a knee injury, he will replace Dexter Fowler in the outfield. The move replaces speed with power and adds another dangerous threat to the lineup. This lineup featured a record-tying 7 All-stars, including 5 starters. These stars are led by Anthony Rizzo and reigning MVP Kris Bryant. It’s hard to comprehend how young and talented this team is, and scary to think they may not have even peaked yet. With playmakers from top to bottom, Chicago is loaded. The only team that can beat them is themselves. While the former lovable losers will try to go back-to-back, the main concern would be that they might lack the hunger that a 107-year drought provides. If they find themselves celebrating too much and losing focus on the big prize, there are quite a few other teams vying for that trophy. It’ll be very important to avoid the dreaded hangover.

Pitching: As stacked as Chicago’s lineup is, their rotation could be even better. Headlined by former Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, the Cubs don’t have single pitcher that opposing teams hope to face. If they’re lucky enough to avoid Arrieta, they’ll still face veteran fireballs Jon Lester, John Lackey, or Kyle Hendricks. All excellent students of the game, coached by future Hall of Famer John Madden, the sky remains the limit for the Cubs. It doesn’t get any easier as they turn to the bullpen. Even though they lost Aroldis Chapman to free agency, they saved enough money to scoop up Wade Davis. Davis is also a World Series champion with the Royals, and he can hit triple digits like Chapman. It’s a slight downgrade, but Davis is one of the best values in baseball. And hey, even if he struggles on his new team, the Cubs have 3 former closers in their bullpen who could take over. I cannot put into words how talented of a group president Theo Epstein has put together. It took over a century, but Chicago suffocates opponents because it’s so hard for them to have a bad day. If they’re having trouble hitting, the rotations throws a shutout. If a starter has a bad day, the big bats can make up for it. Look out world, the Cubs are here to stay.

2017 Goals: There is no doubt the Cubs will settle for nothing less than a championship. After waiting so long for their 3rd ring, they want a 4th.. and a 5th.. and a 6th.. you get the idea. If you can believe it, the team in 2017 could be better than 2016. You know they want to repeat, but do they want it as bad as other top contenders?

My Expectations: I think the Cubs could definitely repeat. They have the talent along with some of the best fans in baseball. However, there is a huge target on their back, and there’s a reason no one has repeated as champions since 1999-2000. It’s hard to be focused when your dreams have already come true, and with so many enemies, it won’t be so easy to fly the W again…

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NL East Preview 2017

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Now on to the National League. We start in the upward-trending NL East which seems to crown a new champion every year. The last repeat came when the Philadelphia Phillies dominated the East by winning 5 straight years from 2007- 2011 and claiming a World Series title in 2008. However, they’ve been in a steady decline ever since and are now joined by the Atlanta Braves in the basement. Currently the Washington Nationals and New York Mets are the clear favorites to represent the division in the NLDS while the Miami Marlins are just a little short of being a contender. Let’s take a look at how all of that might change in 2017..

Atlanta Braves (2016: 68-93, 5th Place)freddie_freeman-1.jpg

Lineup: After so much turmoil and struggle when their old lineup turned over and the organization made questionable trades, the Braves might finally be moving in the right direction. Freddie Freeman had once stood alone as the only good player in Atlanta, as he perhaps questioned signing an unprecedented 8-year contract with the dead-end franchise. Now, things are beginning to change as the Braves begin the long process of restoring their former glory. The face of this rebuild is rookie shortstop Dansby Swanson. A standout at Vanderbilt, Swanson quickly rose through the minor leagues to earn an Opening Day roster spot for the Braves this year. He’s a young, energetic player who fights for every ground ball and never wastes a pitch thrown his way. He’s not a superstar yet, but I believe he’ll be the integral reason the Braves become a winning team again. It’ll also help for the younger prospects to learn from veteran hitters like Brandon Phillips and Matt Kemp. The biggest key for the Braves will be not making the same mistakes they made in years past when these veterans ultimately retire.

Pitching: Much like Freeman is the majority of Atlanta’s offense, Julio Teheran is the Braves’ best bet to pitch. Teheran’s claim to fame is his inexplicable ability to avoid walking batters. He walks less than two opponents per game, and boasts a career WHIP of just 1.159… incredible. Best of all, he’s only 26! On the other side of the spectrum, the most beloved player in baseball is right behind him, soon-to-be-44-year-old Bartolo Colon. The 285-pounder is still going strong and fans love to watch him pitch every 5th day. The oldest player in the MLB, the Braves will milk every second they can with the legendary “Big Sexy”. Following the pattern, Jim Johnson is the reliable arm from the bullpen. The longtime pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles has been a journeyman as of late. This is probably a reason for his struggles, so the Braves will hope that as he gets comfortable in Atlanta, he’ll return to his dominant form. In case Johnson truly is past his prime, Arodys Vizcaino waits in the wings as he learn the ropes and prepares to be Atlanta’s marquee closer in the next few years.

2017 Goals: The Braves are well on their way to continuing the tough rebuilding process. They have young stars in the infield, a bright ace, and veteran leadership to keep everyone focused. As long as fans don’t expect to win right away in the new Sun Life Stadium, everything will be just fine.

My Expectations:  I was once very skeptical of the Braves, but it appears they’ve turned the page and want to start fresh in 2017. A new stadium, a new young prospect, and lots of hope for the future have Atlanta in prime position to be back on top by 2019. If they have enough money in their budget, the chaos of the 2018 free agency market could provide ample opportunity to even expedite their plans.

Philadelphia Phillies (2016: 71-91, 4th Place)8789471-freddy-galvis-odubel-herrera-mlb-atlanta-braves-philadelphia-phillies-850x507.jpg

Lineup: To understand the Phillies game plan, you must understand what happened to one of the most dominant forces in the National League. The likes of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins were running roughshod through the MLB a decade ago. So where did they go? They didn’t retire… they just got old. When the entire core of your organization gets old and loses the spunk they had to win batting titles and claim pennants, you need to fill in the gaps with younger stars. Well, the Phillies were way behind on that turnaround. When the best infield in baseball lost its luster, Philadelphia was in free fall. At the time, they had a budding farm system, but the prospects just weren’t ready to make waves in the MLB yet. Now, those prospects have found themselves in the Show and hope to be big names within the next couple years. In fact, speedy center fielder Odubel Herrera is already an All-star. Powerful corner infielders Maikel Franco and Tommy Joseph also have tons of potential to anchor the Phillies’ lineup. While there is a less-than-ideal gap between the success of the past and the success of the future, Philly has finally turned the page and looks forward to returning to greatness.

Pitching: The pitching is an eerily similar story to the lineup trouble. Veteran stars Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels suffered the same fate as Howard and Co., and the Phillies had nobody to replace them. Stuck with washed-up older guys to fill their rotation slots, the Phillies hastily monitored the future of their pitching. For 2017, they have a very young lineup consisting of Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, and Aaron Nola. Their wins have been stymied due to a lack of offensive production, but their above average ERA and ability to produce strikeouts show they are capable of making an impact. The best move of the offseason was acquiring a solid veteran in Clay Buchholz. While he is past his prime, it’s necessary for such a young rotation to have a mentor to guide them through the daily struggles of being on the mound. The bullpen is young too, and the closer position is relatively up in the air. Manager Pete Mackanin expects Jeanmar Gomez to be the closer on opening day, but due to his struggles to end 2016, Hector Neris could take over at any time. In any case, the Phillies still have a lot of inexperience that will be taken care of in 2017.

2017 Goals: Philadelphia has developed a plan to get back on top of the NL. It’s unfortunate that it took this long to formulate, but with perhaps the most potential in the MLB, the Phillies could be scary down the road. After finishing dead last in 2015, Philly showed tremendous progress by jumping up to 22nd in the league last year. While still not very good, it goes to show just how quickly the Phillies might be moving up in the ranks.

My Expectations: I think the Phillies should be gunning for winning within a few games of .500. Going from a 63-win season to 71 was astounding, especially considering that many analysts projected that they’d do even worse. So, the realistic expectation of adding another 8-10 wins in 2017 would put Philadelphia squarely on pace to perhaps take back the title in 2019. That is, if the Braves’ similar plan doesn’t surpass them.

 

Miami Marlins (2016: 79-82, 3rd Place)fernandez-tributes-7.jpg

Lineup: The Miami Marlins are another one of those teams stuck in the middle. Slowly on the rise since 2011, the Marlins have finished 3rd the past two years and are itching to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2003. In fact, the only 2 times they made the playoffs (1997 and 2003) they won the World Series. With an undefeated record in the postseason, you can bet Miami would have high hopes if they could just squeak in. The highlights of the Marlins’ lineup are the playmaking ability across the outfield. However, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna still barely hold a flame to the powerful Giancarlo Stanton. Known for his ability to hit the ball nearly 500 feet on any given swing, Stanton is always a scary matchup for opposing pitchers. To balance the tremendous power, Dee Gordon routinely ranks in the top of the league in steals. It is a true asset to be able to rely on his ability to swipe bags.

Pitching: Both the Marlins and Major League Baseball suffered a huge loss at the end of the 2016 season. The young pitching sensation José Fernandez passed away suddenly in a boating accident when coming home from a fishing trip with his friends. Fernandez always showed tremendous passion and love of the game, and the loss of his energy will be felt for many years to come. Hopefully the loss of the Marlins superstar can motivate Miami to perform, but it’s truly a gut-wrenching loss. Now, their pitching staff is left in ruins, with Edinson Volquez and Adam Conley being their best bets. Volquez has been suspended in the past for PED use, and Conley is still very young and working on command of his breaking balls. A.J. Ramos is a solid closer, though. He anchors a very talented bullpen featuring sidearmed Brad Ziegler and Kyle Barraclough. Look for them to be pitching a lot due to the poor starting rotation.

2017 Goals: The Marlins probably want to be competitive and break through into the playoffs. Unfortunately, with the state of the organization right now, I’m just not sure that’s realistic. They either have to start making some big name trades to try to fill the void Fernandez left, or reassess their position in the league. They are very close, but I think the more they try to scrape up those few extra wins, the more they’ll move backwards.

My Expectations: Miami has the potential to be a dark horse in the NL East, but it’s a long shot. They have a lot to play for to avenge the loss of their teammate. I’m just not sure they have the talent to do so. I expect the Marlins to push to the last minute to make the postseason, but that could be a mistake. Falling short again keeps them in this tough position, and it may be better to be sellers before they go all-in.

 

New York Mets (2016: 87-75, 2nd Place)image.jpg

Pitching: I’m going to start with pitching for this team, as it’s more appropriate considering the end of their 2016 season. After a relatively solid year, albeit facing much adversity with injuries, the Mets fought just hard enough to get the last spot in the playoffs. In a gritty battle between Mets ace Noah Syndergaard and San Francisco Giants legend Madison Bumgarner, the Mets found themselves shut out of the playoffs. It was Bumgarner’s third playoff shutout in as many years, and unfortunately for New York, they just ran into a buzzsaw. Nobody was more torn up about it than Syndergaard who tweeted, “Baseball has a way of ripping your (heart) out, stabbing it, putting it back in your chest, then healing itself just in time for Spring Training.” That’s just what the Mets have to do. No one can put into words how the heartache of a loss like that feels (well, maybe the Orioles),  but they have to collect themselves and push that much harder this year. As for now, they have a completely healthy rotation. Syndergaard gets help from cool hands like Jacob DeGrom and Matt Harvey. When healthy, they are one of the most dominant rotations in the league, piling up approximately 42 wins by themselves during a full season. But, the closer role will be up in the air to start the season. Jeurys Familia was one of the best 9th inning men last year, but he faces a TBD suspension to start 2017 for alleged domestic violence. The Mets will need to fight through the uncertainty and gain stability quickly so they can lock in on making it back to the playoffs.

Lineup: New York has a very balanced lineup. In fact, it very much coincides with the New York Yankees. The outfield boasts bombers in Jay Bruce and Yoenis Cespedes. The former Yankee Curtis Granderson covers centerfield extremely effectively, and he’s known for his speed on the base paths, too. First baseman Lucas Duda is another strong hitter, but he is prone to strikeouts. Manager Terry Collins loves to put him in the heart of the lineup where his big swing is most utilized, but if that swing doesn’t connect, it can be detrimental. The most unique thing about New York’s roster is the fact that they have not one… not two… but three switch hitters in their lineup, the most of any team in the league. Jose Reyes was given a second chance by the Mets after his domestic violence dispute forced him into free agency, and Neil Walker and Asdrubel Cabrera are savvy hitters who know how to stretch counts to get on base.

2017 Goals: New York will try to move past the bad draw they got last year by advancing farther in the postseason. The only thing that stands in their way is health, the Washington Nationals, and Madison Bumgarner. The last thing they want is to face another single-elimination game with Mad-Bum, so they’ll be gunning for the division title.

My Expectations: It’s all about staying healthy and finding stability. If the Mets keep their rotation together and Familia returns to the team in good standing, the sky is the limit. But if their rotation crumbles and Familia fails to find his lockdown pitch upon his return, the Mets could be a huge disappointment. All in all, there is a lot of talent here, and they certainly have a legitimate shot to surpass the Nats even with a few setbacks.

 

Washington Nationals (2016: 95-67, 1st Place)

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Lineup: Weird fact of the day: The Washington Nationals have never won a playoff series. Never. The Montreal Expos did it in 1981 before the team moved to D.C., but they’ve never won in the history of being in the nation’s capital. So as desperate as the Mariners are to make it to the playoffs, the Nats might be just as desperate to win in the playoffs. After an offseason full of rumors and activity, the Nats hope they can field a team to get over the hump as soon as possible. The biggest move was the controversial call to send 3 top pitching prospects to Chicago in exchange for Adam Eaton. This was intriguing due to the fact they had fielded offers from stars with a much bigger upside and for less money, i.e. Andrew McCutchen. What’s also weird is that by giving away the farm (no pun intended), they lost all leverage in gaining a much-needed closer. Nonetheless, Eaton is a very consistent player that the Nats control for the next 5 years, and stability is never a bad thing. D.C. boasts many other playmakers as well. Daniel Murphy finished second in the race for the batting title last year, proving his amazing 2015 postseason was no fluke. Speaking of fluke, Bryce Harper will try to prove he simply had an off-year in 2016. Even so, he was still well above the league average in home runs and RBIs, but he is capable of much more. Other standouts include veteran Ryan Zimmerman and 23-year old Trea Turner. The Nationals will be as fun to watch as any team in the league.

Pitching: The Nationals pitching is just as phenomenal as the batting. Two-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer leads a hot young rotation. When Stephen Strasburg isn’t injured, he can hit triple digits with his fastball and mow through hitters. He averages an amazing 10.6 strikeouts per game over his 7-year career. Behind him is the quickly-rising Tanner Roark. While he lacks stamina, he’s as dominant as they come in through 6 or 7 innings. But the glaring weakness for Washington is their bullpen. Lacking a true closer, they’re likely to experiment with different relievers to find out who will get the majority of saves. Manager Dusty Baker playing a game within the game to determine which of his young relievers can best handle the late game pressure is an unnecessary distraction. Hopefully they can find their answer quickly so Baker can focus on other pressing matters. Better yet, a trade for someone like David Robertson could be beneficial if it’s for the right price. However, the Nats dug themselves a hole when they gave up as much as they did for Eaton.

2017 Goals: Often a preseason favorite as of late, the Nationals want a World Series championship. Even so, I think they’ll take simply winning their first-ever playoff series. There is no excuse for not making it into October, and they have a very good chance at holding off the Mets for their 3rd NL East title in 4 years.

My Expectations: The Nationals once again have all the makings of a World Series contender, but they simply can’t get it done in the playoffs. They thrive on flying under the radar, but once the spot light is on, the cracks in the wall begin to appear. As long as the pattern continues, I’m not sure I sense a breakthrough. The difference will be if the players buy in on owner Mike Rizzo’s plan to go all-in this year by selling their prospects, or if all the chaos demoralized the Nationals and sends them in a downward spiral.

AL West Preview 2017

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The AL West has some serious work to do. A representative from this division has not lasted past the ALDS since the 3-straight World Series losses from 2010-2012. In fact, the AL West hasn’t claimed a title since the Los Angeles Angels won their franchise’s only crown in 2002. This year’s group will try to end the 14-year drought, but it won’t be easy. With so many teams in the middle of the pack, it’s likely that they will beat each other down throughout the season so that only the division champ will advance to the postseason, rather than allowing a team to get a Wild Card berth as well. As such, the division winner will likely face the champion from the much more experienced AL East or AL Central. But hey, someone is bound to break through and surprise sometime. Let’s take a look at who that could be…

 

Oakland Athletics (2016: 69-93, 5th Place)sonny-gray-3514.jpg

Lineup: The A’s almost certainly won’t be that team. Their outdated lineup is probably highlighted by former All-stars Stephen Vogt and Rajai Davis. I emphasize former because they are nowhere close to All-star caliber anymore. In fact, everyone in their starting lineup is 29 or older except for Marcus Semien and rookie Ryon Healey. So much age makes it incredibly difficult to bring emotion and energy when your team needs it. Semien is a bright spot with a game-changing glove at shortstop, however, he lacks a presence at the dish. All in all, there simply isn’t enough talent to go around, and Oakland finds themselves in a huge hole compared to the rest of the league. Look for the A’s to start investing in their farm system, as they should be quintessential sellers for the next few years.

Pitching: I know it sounds harsh, but the A’s just might have the worst pitching staff in the league, too. With Kendall Graveman as their ace, Oakland is in grave danger. There isn’t much else to say. He’s followed by Sean Manaea and three men who have yet to make themselves known in the MLB. Who knows? Maybe these no-namers will come through and provide some kind of spark for the A’s, but I just don’t see anything to look forward to in Oakland. Also, they don’t even have a clear closer in the bullpen. Instead, they plan to have a true committee approach among three former greats way past their prime: Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle, and Santiago Casilla. There couldn’t be more instability in the Athletic organization, and I hope this season doesn’t turn into the disaster that it appears it will be on paper.

2017 Goals: I can’t imagine that the Athletics are looking short term. Their goals are focused on rebuilding and investing in their future. I know general manager Billy Beane desperately wants that elusive World Series title, but unfortunately for him that dream appears to be years down the road. For 2017, I don’t believe any result will change this course of action for better or worse.

My expectations: With such an uneven roster with little to play for, I expect the A’s to finish in last place for the third year in a row. Hopefully the unproven talent in the back of the rotation will provide hope for Oakland, but I don’t imagine it will be fun to watch the A’s in O.Co Coliseum. But hey, at least they’ll have the place to themselves pretty soon…

 

Los Angeles Angels (2016: 74-88, 4th Place)

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Lineup: Last year, the Angels probably had the most disappointing season of any team in the MLB. However, Mike Trout claimed AL MVP honors for the second time in 3 years. Despite the controversy due to his team’s lack of success (how valuable can you be if your team is still one of the worst in the American League?), no one can argue he is one of the most dynamic talents the league has seen in decades. He’s joined in the middle of the lineup by sluggers Albert Pujols and Kole Calhoun. These three combined for exactly 50% of the team’s home runs and 43% of L.A.’s RBIs in 2016. Unfortunately, there isn’t much production beyond that. As evidenced by the overwhelming contribution by just three players, the Angels have very little support elsewhere. Los Angeles will hope the acquisitions of Danny Espinosa, Cameron Maybin, and Martin Maldanado can jumpstart this lineup as they try to contend for another division title.

Pitching: The Angels don’t have great pitching, but it’s not bad either. Riddled with injuries last year, L.A. hopes their starters can stay healthy and productive throughout 2017. With many of them being forced to take the year off to heal from various ailments, it’s tough to predict how each will fair when they return to the diamond. For now, Garrett Richards will be the ace, followed by Ricky Nolasco. Richards has been pretty good as of late, averaging a 2.87 ERA over the past 3 seasons. Meanwhile Nolasco has benefitted from a trade away from Minnesota and his ERA jumped to a decent 3.33 in LA. Next up are veterans Matt Shoemaker and Jesse Chavez whose career ERA as starters are about 3.92 each. As you can see, none of these men are too dependable, but they can pitch solid innings without letting up more than 3 or 4 runs. However, the bullpen is virtually nonexistent. With closer Huston Street likely starting the season on the Disabled List, the Angels will struggle to keep games close late in games. While this provides great opportunity for growth by the rest of the bullpen, the current state of the pitching will drag L.A. to another subpar season in 2017.

2017 Goals: It’s evident by the activity during the offseason that the Angels are ready to compete at a high level again. However, due to an inability to stay off the DL and a lack of pitching talent, it’s unclear how soon they can challenge the rest of the league for a playoff spot. While they definitely want to bring some hardware to Los Angeles, I would think they should keep expectations in check about just how soon that might be.

My Expectations: I think the Angels are doing the right thing with regard to moving forward as an organization, but it just takes time. With a couple of down years and injury-plagued seasons, I think the Angels can start to try to come out of the cellar. Their success in the next couple of years will ultimately come down to the pitching staff. Their ability to perform after the season-ending injuries they suffered will make or break the Angels’ season this year. Either way, I expect L.A. to continue moving forward by making trades and building around the superstar that is Mike Trout.

 

Houston Astros (2016: 84-78, 3rd Place) GETTY-Houston-Astros_1444325661400_24959357_ver1.0_640_480.jpg

Lineup: After a season-long battle, the Astros fell just 5 games short of a playoff berth. While disappointing, I believe it sets the stage for one of the best teams Houston has ever fielded. With tons of diverse young talent and a couple of key pieces of veteran leadership, manager A.J. Hinch has all the ingredients of a title contender. Captain Jose Altuve is an on-base machine, leading the AL in hits and batting average. On the left side of the infield, upstart Alex Bregman joins phenom Carlos Correa who are both perfect utility batters that Hinch can place anywhere in the lineup to be effective. George Springer leads an outfield full of pop to balance the contact hitting. Along with Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltran, Houston has a perfect combination of hitters getting on-base and then being quickly driven in by the power hitters. No matter how Hinch adjusts the lineup from game-to-game, the Astros will be fun to watch.

Pitching: The pitching isn’t as explosive as the batting. Following the pattern of the rest of the AL, the formula appears to be “great hitting” and “poor pitching”. Dallas Keuchel is the huge question mark in Houston. After winning a Cy Young Award in 2015, his ERA plummeted from 2.48 to an abysmal 4.55. He also dropped 11 wins and his WAR went down a full 6.5 points. Houston will hope Keuchel gets past this hangover and ramps back up to Cy Young caliber before long. Other noteworthy starters are Colin McHugh, Mike Fiers (who threw a no-hitter last year), and Lance McCullers. The back end of the bullpen boasts two hard-throwing right handers in Luke Gregerson and Ken Giles. While Giles has been said to be overrated, there is no doubting that he can put all kinds of heat in his fastball, and Gregerson is as reliable a setup man as they come. Houston is for real.

2017 Goals: After narrowly missing the postseason last year, the Astros want to get over the hump and be back in World Series contention. They certainly don’t have a lack of tools, and whether or not Keuchel returns to MVP form, Houston can make a legitimate run in October. That said, Keuchel’s performance, as well as Hinch’s lineup moves, will be the difference between a Wild Card berth or Division crown.

My Expectations: I think Houston can easily make the jump to division champion. The road will come with adversity, but with direct competition to its rivals, the Astros control their own destiny. Altuve, Correa, and Springer have an innate ability to do all the small things right, and that’s just what you need to win big ball games. Look forward to seeing Houston squarely in the middle of postseason conversation.

 

Seattle Mariners (2016: 86-76, 2nd Place)11.jpg

Lineup:  Speaking of barely missing the playoffs, the Mariners fell just 3 wins shy of snapping the longest postseason drought in the MLB. After 16 years, Seattle believes they’re long overdue to play more than 162 games. Robinson Cano is the obvious standout; he’s known for his ability to get on base and taking opposing pitchers deep. Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager are also well-known power hitters who have eclipsed an amazing 70 combined home runs since playing together. However, like the Angels, beyond these studs the Mariners lack support. Jean Segura can provide some speed on the base paths and Jarrod Dyson and Leonys Martin have astounding gloves in the outfield, but no one can contribute anywhere close to Cano, Cruz, and Seager. The lack of depth is probably the reason the Mariners fail to make that final push into October, but they’re definitely right on the cusp of success.

Pitching: King Felix Hernandez is probably the best pitcher in the AL West. However, after finishing in the top 10 in Cy Young vote every year from 2011-2015, his numbers dropped last year. It’ll be interesting to see if he can quell rumors that he has been dethroned. In order to do so, he’ll want to limit hits and adapt the strikeout pitch that his opponents appear to have been able to connect on as of late. The Mariners will fully depend on Hernandez to provide a quality start every 5th day due to a lack of dominant pitchers behind him. Time will tell if he can handle the pressure. Even worse, Seattle has a growing bullpen that won’t be ready to carve through hitters for a while. Edwin Diaz was thrust into the closer position during his rookie year last year, which could prove to be valuable experience. I don’t think he’s ready to be a lock down save yet, but in time he will be a home-grown asset to the Mariners.

2017 Goals: The Mariners will tell you that they’ll settle for nothing less than to end their playoff drought. Well, they better. The Mariners simply don’t have the depth and big-game experience to outlast other AL giants. If they don’t taper their expectations and try to really prepare and lock down a solid lineup from top to bottom, the drought won’t be ending anytime soon.

My Expectations: Unfortunately, Seattle is stuck in the middle of the MLB – they aren’t good enough to make the playoffs and they aren’t bad enough to get a good draft pick. I give them credit for never giving up on the postseason chase, but at some point they’ll need to revamp their roster. If the Mariners are disappointed by the 2017 results, hopefully they’ll take a look in the mirror and formulate a plan to take a small step back so they can surge forward in the playoffs.

 

Texas Rangers (2016: 95-67, 1st Place)

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Lineup: Not only did the Rangers have the most wins in the division, they were able to claim the overall #1 seed in the playoffs last year. However, they failed to win a game in October as they were swept by their postseason rival Toronto Blue Jays. Now, Texas is motivated more than ever to 3-peat as AL West champs and get back to the World Series. They also have the tools to do it with a loaded roster full of big-name players. Longtime Rangers and best friends Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus have developed excellent chemistry with young second baseman Rougned Odor. Though Odor has a fiery temper, his passion for the game is undeniable. At the trade deadline last year, the Rangers also acquired one of the best catchers in the country in Johnathon Lucroy, as well as an awesome reliever in Jeremy Jeffress. Furthermore, Texas signed Carlos Gomez and Mike Napoli to complete their roster. Napoli is especially interesting because he played a key roll in the Cleveland Indians run at the American League pennant. With so much power up and down the lineup, opposing teams will want to pitch carefully to the Rangers, which can spell disaster.

Pitching: The Rangers pitching staff is led by Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish. Both are not well known for getting punch outs, but they do pitch to contact and rely on easy ground balls or pop-ups to get their outs. That said, they also both surprised last year when their strikeout tallies nearly reached career highs. Darvish has his vast repertoire firing on all cylinders after Tommy John surgery set him back in 2014 and 2015. Now these aces have their sights locked on the title. With a talented bullpen to back them up, the only weakness appear to be the back end of the rotation. The casual fan has probably never heard of names like A.J. Griffin or Chi Chi Gonzalez, and with good reason. Both had ERAs through the roof last year at 5.07 and 8.71 respectively. Yikes. Winning 2/5th of games obviously won’t cut it, but luckily their All-star lineup should bail out some bad pitching here and there.

2017 Goals: The Rangers are firmly in title contention. As back-to-back division champs, their postseason woes continue, failing to advance to the Conference Championship both years. This, of course, comes on the heels of two MLB runner-up finishes in 2010 and 2011. Always the bridesmaid, Texas wants to finally earn its spot in the lime light.

My Expectations: Not so fast. I believe they can make the playoffs, but they face stiff opposition. Their in-state rival Astros are vying for the division crown, and the AL East has plenty of serious contenders for the Wild Card spot. So, even if the Rangers make the playoffs again, they may not get a favorable seed, and then they might be packing their bags early once again. It’ll also be crucial to get some help from the back of the rotation. If they want another chance at the World Series, this team will need to stay focused all season long.

AL Central Preview 2017

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The AL Central seems to always be the underdog. First, the Kansas City Royals made an improbable run from 2013-2015 when they came out of nowhere, and went to contenders-to champions. Then, last year the Cleveland Indians shocked the world by going from .500 to Game 7 of the World Series. Meanwhile, both the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox seem to be in constant rebuilding mode, and the Detroit Tigers continue to deal with postseason heartbreak. Let’s take a look at how they can turn it around.

Minnesota Twins (2016: 59- 103, 5th Place)blog-0928281001412727967.jpg

Lineup: Not only was this atrocious record the worst in the AL Central, it was the worst in the entire MLB by a full 9 games. Ouch. Except for that stud Brian Dozier at second base and a future superstar in Byron Buxton at center, the Twins don’t have a lot going for them. The good news is that they easily clinched the first overall pick in the draft in June. But with a lot of their prospects being prematurely forced to move t0 the MLB due to the scarcity of talent, they can’t even say they have an eye to the future. Thirty-three-year-old Joe Mauer is the team leader, a lifetime Twin. Minnesota finds some power from Miguel Sano, but really, Dozier carries the team by leading in almost every hitting stat except OBP for which he is second best to Mauer. It’s stunning to see just how much Minnesota needs Dozier, and it’s a shame that they’re stuck with a major problem over the coming years. They can’t trade Dozier for a couple of other players, because Dozier is the entire offense. They can’t trade anybody else (besides Buxton, but he’s not going anywhere), because they’re not good enough to get anyone in return. So, unfortunately, the Twins have nowhere to go. Stuck in the basement, only time and hope of breakout performances can rescue this squad. Well, until the 2018 offseason that is…

Pitching: I wish I could say that the Twins at least have a good pitching staff. Their “ace” is 12-year veteran Ervin Santana, who is far past his prime. I would say the only bright spot is the potential of rookie Jose Berrios. A first round pick in 2012, Berrios is tearing up the minor leagues. After cashing in a few games at the end of 2016, it’ll be interesting to see how his skill translates to the Majors when he earns a role as a full-time starter. The Twins could desperately use his talents at the back of the rotation. As for the bullpen, some more young and potential starters down the road will put the work in. Their specific roles will remain to be seen, as manager Paul Molitor will have to find out where each arm fits best. For now, as the most experienced member of the bullpen, Brandon Kintzler will have the closing duties. At least he did okay in 2016… when he took over the role midseason and closed out 17 games. With so much unknown, time will tell just how this season will play out.

2017 Goals: The Twins only goal should be to avoid getting last place. Finishing 30th place by 9 games is a little embarrassing, and I’m sure Minnesota wants nothing more than to surpass at least one team in 2017. That shouldn’t be too much to ask for, but Brian Dozier can’t win 65 games by himself.

My Expectations: Honestly, I don’t know what to expect from this team. I believe they are better than their atrocious record shows, but not much better. With each year of team experience, chemistry should build and hopefully that will amount to wins. It’ll take “all hands on deck”, and more than a lot of patience to ride through the storm that Minnesota has created. Hopefully a few years down the road they can become a winning franchise again, but for now, I don’t expect much to change.

Chicago White Sox (2016: 78-84, 4th Place)Five Chicago White Sox players have agreed to play in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

Lineup: The White Sox have officially hit the reset button. Letting star players like Chris Sale and Adam Eaton leave for a multitude of top prospects leaves no doubt on where the mindset in Chicago is moving forward. Watching their cross-town Chicago rivals break their World Series drought last year has forced a massive overhaul on the South Side. The Sox will heavily rely on first baseman Jose Abreu. His stellar rookie season was followed by an above average sophomore year, and in 2017 he’ll have the full weight of the White Sox depending on him to keep the explosive power coming. He’ll get help from the veteran slugger Todd Frazier. Probably batting 4-5 in the lineup, these two will have to use their big bats to put up the majority of the runs Chicago will score this season. That’s a lot of pressure. Luckily, as one of the best farm systems in the MLB grows and matures, Abreu and Frazier will be joined by some of the best young talent of the next generation by 2018 or even sooner.

Pitching: Along with trading their ace Chris Sale, the White Sox have been shopping Jose Quintana and David Robertson on the trade market. If they are successful in letting their best remaining pitchers go before the season starts, it’ll be a scary year for the pitching staff. Of course, by trading away their franchise players, it’s clear that the White Sox are looking far past 2017. Luckily, by trading Eaton to the Washington Nationals, the Sox scored big by acquiring pitchers Lucas Gioloto and Reynaldo Lopez. These hard-throwing righties are on the verge of entering the Majors and catapulting the White Sox into a new era. The amount of talented prospects about to join the team in Chicago cannot be understated, and to think that they could acquire even more for the expensive Robertson is scary. With ample cap room and a multitude of young stars, the White Sox could be the next dominant force in the MLB before long.

2017 Goals: I don’t think the White Sox have many goals for this year. I imagine they’ll be very happy if everyone stays healthy and they don’t finish the seasons worse than the Twins. No matter what, they will scrupulously track their minor leaguers as they prepare to become the new champions of Chicago.

My Expectations: It’s anybody’s guess how things will shake out this season. Their current roster has two huge power hitters among an otherwise lackluster lineup. Currently, Quintana stands alone as the only reliable pitcher, and he is only above average. Time will tell if he stays with Chicago, but it might be better for everyone if he has a change of scenery. The collapse of James Shields was well-documented last year; a renaissance for him can salvage the Sox’s 2017 season. But again, as long as they don’t finish worse than Minnesota, this season is just a formality as they are ready to contend in 2018 and beyond.

 

Kansas City Royals (2016: 81-81, 3rd Place)bal-kansas-city-royals-pitcher-yordano-ventura-dies-in-car-crash-in-dominican-republic-20170122.jpg

Lineup: After exploding on the scene in 2015 to win the World Series, the Royals have been fairly quiet. Once coming from the cellar to the top of the world, now Kansas City finds itself in the middle of the pack, finishing at exactly .500 in 2016. Until this past offseason, the Royals have been reluctant to break up the lineup that got them to their first trophy since 1985. This includes Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakes, and the ever-reliable Salavdor Perez. In the outfield, Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain will have a new face to work with this summer. The speedy Jorge Soler was acquired from the Chicago Cubs in exchange for the hard-throwing closer Wade Davis. There isn’t much to say about these men. They’re all veterans of the game with big game experience, and the coaching staff knows exactly what they’ll bring to the team. Of course, their past success together speaks for itself. With All-star potential abound, the Royals have a solid team. The problem is that they don’t appear to play as hungrily as they did during their miraculous 2015 season. Without that drive to succeed, it’ll be hard for the Royals to break into the postseason again.

Pitching: Unfortunately, tragedy struck for the Royals this offseason. On January 22, Yordano Ventura passed away following a car accident in his home country, the Dominican Republic. Much like José Fernandez, Ventura was a fiery young pitcher whose energy sent waves through the entire MLB. The Royals will greatly miss their ace, Ventura. With the unexpected passing of this great, there is a lot of pressure on the back end of the rotation to step up. Danny Duffy is thrust into the #1 role, while Ian Kennedy, Jason Vargas, and former Cub Jason Hammel take on the added competition. As for the bullpen, the loss of Wade Davis hurts them greatly. The shutdown bullpen of 2014-2015 is now gone, and the Royals can no longer rely on just getting the lead after the 6th inning. Working through the late inning will be a struggle, and you can expect many leads to get blown by the unproven relievers. The new closer should be Kelvin Herrera. While he can fire his fastball, he is known to lack control. As high0pressure situations affect him, things may get out of hand for KC in the 9th. Pitching is the obvious weakness for the Royals.

2017 Goals: The Royals want to get back to the playoffs. The success of 2014 and 2015 was definitely like catching lightning in a bottle, and they would love to rejuvenate their team to enjoy that type of run again. They have the experience and a batting order that can hit to all sides of the field, but the pitching needs to back it up.

My Expectations: While Kansas City has the ability to provide some pop, it’s still no match for the run support of the AL East or even the Cleveland Indians. I say this because teams like the Baltimore Orioles have the luxury of sacrificing their pitching ability because they can hit so well. The Royals are a good hitting team, just not up to that caliber, and poor pitching can easily put them out of games they could otherwise win. I expect another average season around .500.

 

Detroit Tigers (2016: 86-75, 2nd Place)

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Lineup: Last season Detroit fans were probably disappointed when their team narrowly missed out on a wild card bid to the playoffs.  In 2017 the organization hopes to reward its fan base with its first post-season victory since 2013.  As for the hitting, the Tigers don’t lack in power.  First baseman Miguel Cabrera leads a group of sluggers that contains the likes of J.D. Martinez and Victor Martinez.  The Tigers rank in the top 10 in every hitting statistic in the MLB.  With tons of combined experience, Detroit has more than enough talent to make a legitimate playoff contender.  In his fourth year with the team, manager Brad Ausmus has continued a winning tradition set forth by previous manager and Hall of Famer Jim Leyland.  Despite a slight decline between the shift in power, the Tigers have the potential to become a dominant force in the MLB once again.  Thanks to a break-out performance in 2016 by Nick Castellanos, the Tigers have a diverse group of men which is always a benefit in the MLB.  With so many big hitters, the sky’s the limit for Detroit.

Pitching:  The Tigers have arguably one of the best rotations in baseball.  Justin Verlander is the star of the group, but don’t underestimate Michael Fulmer or Jordan Zimmermann.  After a stellar campaign in 2016, Verlander fell just a few votes shy of claiming his second Cy Young Award.  Fullmer came out of nowhere after a sub-par beginning of his career to surprise the AL Central with his command, despite a lack of velocity.  A long-time Washington National, Zimmermann has compiled nearly 1,000 strikeouts in his career.  Although perhaps just past his prime, he averages an impressive 1.177 WHIP and 14 wins per year.  In the bullpen, closer Francisco Rodriquez, commonly known as K-Rod, has a naturally ability to throw strikes.  The veteran ranks 4th all time in saves with 430.  However, he doesn’t have much help for the rest of the relievers often fail to keep the game close until the 9th when given the ball.   Luckily they don’t need to because the starters often go deep anyway.  It’s a lot to ask to have starters go 7 to 8 innings a night, as surely they will wear down by September.  If Detroit can lessen the pressure for the starters to continue to perform at such a high clip, they should have a spot in the postseason.

2017 Goals:  As I stated before, the Tigers would likely be dissatisfied if they weren’t playing in October.  The batting order has all the pieces to churn out runs, and the pitchers can throw strong innings if they don’t get tired.  It’s reasonable to think that the Tigers can continue to improve, but the question will be if they can unseat the defending AL Champions.

My Expectations:   One could argue that the new “Death Row” is in Detroit.  There is no doubt that the veteran rotation has plenty of skill to compete with anybody.  However this drive to succeed and push the limits could be their undoing.  If they force themselves through too many innings in early summer, they can run out of gas before they make it to the playoffs.  I expect the Tigers offense to continue to roll year after year, but like the Royals, without pitching to support, they may fall just short of their aspirations.

 

Cleveland Indians (2016: 94-67, 1st Place)michael-brantley-jason-kipnis-francisco-lindor-mlb-cleveland-indians-milwaukee-brewers.jpg

Lineup:  Believeland is alive and well in northeastern Ohio!  Although famously blowing a 3-1 lead in the 2016 World Series, the Indians are not short on hope.  With the addition of Edwin Encarnacion, Cleveland’s dangerous roster got even more scary.  Encarnacion will follow up the best season of his career by working with infielders Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor.  Lindor might be the future of the MLB.  His outstanding speed and ability to make contact make him a very tough “out,” not to mention, his quickness at shortstop can lead him to multiple Gold Gloves in his career.  Long-time Indians Carlos Santana and Michael Brantley have waited a long time for Cleveland to rise to the top.  They hope to better their performance from last year and prove that they are here to win for seasons to come.

Pitching:  Speaking of becoming more dangerous, injured players Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar rejoin the rotation for 2017.  Had they been healthy, we might be calling the Indians the “defending World Champions.”  So this year, with plenty of rest over the off-season, they are ready to make an impact on the team.  The pitching rotation also boasts Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin, and All-Star Corey Kluber.  Last year they were the best in OBP in the AL, and 2nd in wins and ERA.  This mean that not only do their opponents rarely get on base, but if they do, they hardly score.  With a batting order as stacked as theirs is, Indians fans rest easy.  After a trade with the New York Yankees bringing in Andrew Miller, Cleveland has a nearly unstoppable bullpen.  Miller and Bryan Shaw can dominate long innings to allow closer Cody Allen a comfortable lead in the ninth.  Though the starters can go deep as well, having the comfort of knowing that they have a reliable bullpen to back them up can definitely ease the burden of these pitchers.

2017 Goals:  The Indians should settle for nothing less than the Commissioner’s Trophy.  They clearly have all the ingredients to make it back to the World Series, and they have no excuse for any lack of drive or motivation.  Adding Encarnacion and controlling Miller with a long-term contract shows that the Indians are ready to win sooner rather than later.

My Expectations:  I fully believe that the Indians can win the division again, the first time they will go back-to-back since 1998 and 1999.  Furthermore, they should match up well with any opponent they face in the playoffs, and they have the depth to succeed in a long series should it come down to that.  I don’t see anything holding the Indians back apart from unforeseen injury.  Expect to see Cleveland playing in the ALCS once again.

AL East Preview 2017

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With football season behind us, it’s time to turn our attention to baseball. As players report for Spring Training, I’ll tell you who to keep an eye on in each division. Let’s take a look at the American league East, perhaps the most dominant division in baseball. An MLB high (and maximum) 3 teams made the postseason last year from this division, and a representative from the AL East has gone on to the ALCS every year since the Wild Card round was introduced in 2012. The Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Orioles look to make it back to the postseason and contend for a World Series title, while the Yankees and Rays will try to unseat their rivals and make a run of their own.

 

Tampa Bay Rays (2016: 68-94, 5th Place)

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Lineup: The Rays have one of the youngest rosters in baseball, and it’s full of power. Anchored by longtime 3rd baseman Evan Longoria, the budding stars will look to the veteran for leadership. Outfielders Colby Rasmus, Kevin Kiermaier, and Steven Souza can take anybody deep and should all surpass 15 home runs in 2017, assuming they stay healthy. However, while not known for his glove, DH Corey Dickerson can play the field in a pinch. The most intriguing roster move was a mutually beneficial trade with the San Fransisco Giants at the end of 2016 in which the Rays sent pitcher Matt Moore in exchange for a sure-handed shortstop in Matt Duffy. Duffy is sure to be a solid contributor at the bottom of the lineup who can get on base and provide a little speed. With an overwhelming amount of power and youth, complimented by some contact hitting, the Rays have a bright future in the coming years after they gain some experience in the Majors for their prospects.

Pitching: The Rays’ pitching staff is led by one of the leagues best… Chris Archer. While his numbers dipped in 2016, he looks to bounce back this year. Given some run support, Archer can be a dominant force that contends for the Cy Young Award. Behind him it gets a little questionable. Jake Odorozzi, Alex Cobb, and Blake Snell have shown flashes of brilliance, but more often than not they are average pitchers that go 6 innings and give up 3 or 4 runs per game. Matt Andriese rounds out the rotation as an unproven starter. He’ll look to make his mark this year as he was primarily used in the bullpen in 2015 and 2016. If he continues to play at a high clip with the extra work load, it can really boost this pitching staff. Despite these shortcomings, if the starters can keep the game close into the 7th and 8th innings, Shawn Tolleson, Brad Boxberger, and Alex Colome have shutdown mentality. Well in their 20s, the young arms have plenty of fire to perform. The problem will be trying to keep their emotions in check during close games and not allowing small errors like walks and singles affect their approach.

2017 Goals: Tampa Bay’s main goal should be to get playing time for its youth. It’s clear that they have invested in their future, and it’s years like these in which they need to remind themselves of the long-term expectations. No matter how things go this year, I don’t expect any drastic changes to the lineup or any big acquisitions. The Rays have talent, but in 2017, all they need to do is surpass what they did in 2016 as they look ahead.

My Expectations: I fully expect the Rays to win more than 68 games. They will continue to move forward and stay the course. GM Matt Silverman is a young executive who will learn with his team. It’s reasonable to expect Tampa Bay to continue to rebuild over the coming years before expectations of the postseason become more realistic. It’s also important to remember that they are a part of the most competitive division in the MLB, and it won’t be easy to make their way to the top. So for now, they should be content with simply improving from years past and preparing for the future.

 

New York Yankees (2016: 84-78, 4th Place)

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Lineup: The Yankees have only missed the postseason 3 times since 1995. While that’s impressive, all three times were in the past 4 years. The greatest franchise in baseball history knew it was time to make some changes. At the trade deadline and throughout the offseason, the Yankees revamped their lineup. Already with the best farm system in the league, additions of 6 top prospects, including Clint Frazier, Gleyber Torres, and Justus Sheffield, will make the Yankees a force in the next few years. As for 2017, the major league roster will not differ much from 2016. A veteran outfield with Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury look to contribute at the top of the batting order with their speed and allow the powerful infielders to accumulate RBIs. Star middle-infielders Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorious have a perfect balance of power and quickness, and will continue to contend for Gold Gloves on defense. Meanwhile, Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge look to build off explosive breakout performances last year. New York brings a little bit of everything to their organization in 2017. The question will be, can the extraordinary balance (while young) translate to wins? Or will the Yankees have to ride out another not-quite-good-enough year?

Pitching: New York’s pitching is among the most talented in baseball. An inspired rotation is anchored by a lockdown bullpen. Starters Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, and Luis Severino are the clear standouts. With a few years under their belts, together they can improve upon the already-impressive ERAs they posted last season. Best of all, by reacquiring the league’s best closer, Aroldis Chapman, the bullpen is nearly unstoppable. Tyler Clippard is a cool-headed veteran and Dellin Betances is a perfect set up man, pitching more innings than any reliever in the past 3 years. If the Yankees have the lead late, it’ll be lights out after the 7th inning stretch. Any team should fear this pitching staff. More balance of youth and leadership is sure to lead to success far beyond 2017. Trouble will come if the teams that New York frequently plays get accustomed to the staff’s pitching style. When they play their divisional rivals 18 times in a season, it’s easy for opposing hitters to catch on to the Yankees’ repertoire.

2017 Goals: The Yankees always want to make the playoffs. That’s why it was so surprising when they were sellers at the trade deadline in 2016. Surprisingly, they still continued to pull out wins and finished above .500, narrowly missing the postseason despite trading away the best parts of their bullpen for prospects. GM Brian Cashman appears to be a genius for not only acquiring these future All-stars, but remaining competitive right now. New York wants to kick-start the new era of the Yankees with a playoff appearance followed by the assumed, repeated success of the brand.

My Expectations: It’s fair to expect these goals will come to fruition. Constantly containing the highest payroll in the MLB, the Yankees are the epitome of MLB prowess. While New York has “suffered” through a couple down years, I believe the dominance of the 1990s and 2000s will return sooner rather than later. However, just how soon is yet to be seen. The balance of Yankee talent is almost incomprehensible. Following this business model, it seems Cashman’s Yankees can accomplish anything they set out to do. As for making the playoffs this year, I believe New York is missing a true star to hang their hats on. With so much balance, there is no true player to depend on. Unless they can make one more blockbuster deal at the trade deadline in July, I believe they could fall just short of the postseason in 2017. Normally I don’t recommend too many lineup changes, but Cashman has proven his brilliance in this field. Regardless, make no mistake, they will be a force to be reckoned with in October come 2018.

 

Toronto Blue Jays (2016: 89-73 T-2nd Place)donaldson.jpg.size.custom.crop.1086x737.jpg

Lineup: Toronto has the oldest team in the MLB averaging 28.6 years per player. But with age comes valuable experience. The Jays were locked in a season-long battle with the Orioles for a playoff spot, and in the end they tied. After outlasting them in the Wild Card round, the Blue Jays made it to the ALCS before being ousted by the Cleveland Indians. That same team returns for 2017… except for one person. Cleanup man Edwin Encarnacion was not re-signed, and instead Toronto picked up former Kansas City Royal Kendrys Morales. While a downgrade, it saves the Blue Jays a huge chunk of change, and the disparity in talent is not that great. Morales may not have the firepower Encarnacion has, but he can hold his own in the middle of the lineup. Regardless, the Blue Jays had one of the best offenses in the league last year, and will continue to score in 2017. They are led by perennial MVP candidate Josh Donaldson and power-hitter Jose Bautista. Also, defensive stars Kevin Pillar and Troy Tulowitzki are sure to spark the Blue Jays as they try to make it back to the playoffs and avenge their exit in the Conference Championship.

Pitching: One of the more intriguing storylines last year was how the entire Toronto pitching staff appeared to hit their stride all at once. Without a firm ace, all 5 starters had to step up and pitch valuable innings. J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez even finished in the top 10 in Cy Young voting last year. Together, the Blue Jays’ 3.78 ERA was best in the American League. I’m truly blown-away by that fact as none of the starters are household names. You’d be hard-pressed to find people outside of Canada that are familiar with the talent of Happ and Sanchez, not to mention other starters of equal value, Marco Estrada and Marcus Stroman. These men will hope to continue to defy explanation as they go for the divisional title in 2017. The issue will be the lack of support from the bullpen. Apart from Roberto Osuna pitching the 9th, the Jays don’t have anyone to rely on. The starting rotation will have a lot of pressure to avoid slumping and getting the ball to their trusted closer.

2017 Goals: The Blue Jays will tell you their goal is to get back to the ALCS and go on to win the World Series. Realistically, I don’t think they’ll be the same team they were last year. While they have a dominant offense and an inexplicably good pitching staff, I’m not convinced they can win like they did in 2016. I think the Jays should be content at setting their goals a little lower; I’d be impressed if they even made the playoffs.

My Expectations: I know I’m contradicting myself, and here’s why. I was a believer in Toronto last season. They had a stacked lineup from top to bottom, and no matter how many runs the pitchers gave up, they were still dangerous at the plate. In 2017, while still dangerous, losing their key #4 hitter, Encarnacion, for Morales is a step down. That said, it was a smart decision to let Encarnacion walk as a free agent because the Jays couldn’t afford his asking price. Morales is a great value, but he just isn’t the same caliber as their former cleanup man. Also, last year the pitching was great, but in the end the perfect storm only resulted in a Wild Card berth. With my expectation of a couple pitchers to slump (or at least not perform at the level they did last season) I would be prepared for Toronto to take a small step back rather than forward. But hey, they’ve surprised us before.

 

Baltimore Orioles (2016: 89-73 T-2nd Place)orioles.jpg

Lineup: The key to the Orioles’ success in recent years has been their dominance at the plate. They play a similar game to the Blue Jays, and it’s fitting they tied at the end of 2016. Both teams can threaten double-digit runs any day, but Baltimore fails to secure large margins of victory due to inconsistent pitching. But who needs pitching when over half their starting lineup hits 25+ home runs each? Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis lead the team with a combined 145 home runs over the past two seasons. Along with that astronomical number, Manny Machado and Adam Jones are no slouches at the plate either. Regulars at the All Star Game, their ability to routinely get on base helps boost the Orioles’ .443 slugging percentage to 2nd best in the AL. With the variety of skill sets all over the lineup, opposing pitchers don’t relish the chance to play Baltimore.

Pitching: As for pitching, the Orioles are firmly subpar. Ranking in the bottom half of the league in ERA, strikeouts, and BAA, Baltimore struggles to find strong pitchers to turn to. Kevin Gausman and Chris Tillman are the best of their starters while Dylan Bundy is trying to learn the ropes. Ubaldo Jimenez is an interesting case, as he was dominate when he was with the Colorado Rockies and Cleveland Indians for most of his career. However, since moving to pitch in Maryland, his numbers have taken a turn for the worse. His ERA has never fallen below 4.11 and he continues to be burned by the long ball. In fact, most of the Orioles struggle to avoid giving up home runs, surrendering at least 1 per game. While lacking in starting pitching, veteran manager Buck Showalter has one of the most experienced bullpens in the MLB. As evidenced by their playoff appearance last year, it’s clear they can go deep into extra innings and bail out poor starts. Also, closer Zach Britton is a huge weapon as he has only blown 8 saves in his entire career… not to mention he has been near the top of the leaderboard in total saves since becoming the closer in 2014. With this unbelievable save percentage, if the Orioles provide him the lead… it’s game over.

2017 Goals: The Orioles plan on making the playoffs and extending their run. Last year, Showalter’s questionable decision to keep Britton on the bench late in the Wild Card game may have cost his team their season in heartbreaking fashion. Re-signing their stars and effectively replacing long-time catcher Matt Weiters with Wellington Castillo this offseason gives Baltimore a good chance to avenge that lost opportunity. With a breakout pitching performance or timely trade to improve that weakness, the Orioles definitely have a chance to reach the ALDS for just the third time since 1997.

My Expectations: As one-sided as the Orioles were last season with astounding offense and ugly pitching, they still cranked out almost 90 wins. Hoping that the starting pitching can provide some more support for their bullpen, a playoff berth is attainable. Showalter is one of the best and most well-liked managers in the league; if anyone can continue to inspire the team… it’s him. Knowing that the Orioles want to return a winning culture to their organization, I expect them to make changes to their roster if things start to go south. The front office has been traditional and tentative to make moves in the past, but come the trade deadline in July, they should be ready to seek a huge deal to put the Orioles in World Series contention.

 

Boston Red Sox (2016: 93-69, 1st Place)CkdAv4EWUAA1qvp.jpg

Lineup: The Red Sox are a force with the bat, leading the league in batting average, runs, hits, RBIs, slugging percentage, and OBP among others. Phew. How is it possible that Boston can be first in the MLB in nearly every batting category? Answer: A diverse young lineup that is stacked with talent, leadership, and they always have fun and love to play together as a team. MVP finalist Mookie Betts is accompanied by a contact machine in Jackie Bradley Jr. and rookie Andrew Benintendi in the outfield. Two proven All-star talents look to have an even bigger impact this year if it’s possible, and Benintendi is sure to make his mark on the MLB and be a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year. In the infield, shortstop Xander Bogaerts can flash the leather with beloved teammate Dustin Pedroia and a much lighter Pablo Sandoval at third. Before addressing the only glaring weakness in this lineup, take a moment to remember these names. All but Sandoval could easily hit over .300, and each have an amazing combination of speed and power. It’s easy to picture two or three of these superstars capturing Gold Gloves by the season’s end. Now, the DH spot is missing one of the greatest Red Sox players in history. Slugger David Ortiz hung up the cleats after last season, and left huge shoes to fill. I’m sorry, but there is no way Mitch Moreland is up to the task. He’ll play first base and Hanley Ramirez will probably be the DH because of his poor fielding ability, but regardless, the team takes an undeniable loss without Ortiz’s age-defying prowess. 

Pitching: As if the Red Sox couldn’t get any better, the reigning Cy Young winner is only the third best pitcher in the rotation. An excellent offseason trade with the White Sox sent a couple of A+ prospects to Chicago in exchange for Chris Sale. Sale is arguably one of the best players in the league, but was unable to accumulate wins due to the lack of support from his old team. Now in Boston, his blazing fastball and excellent command will barrel through the AL East. And let’s not forget about one the best lefties to ever play, David Price. He never disappoints during the regular season, but the playoffs have been an entirely different story. The Red Sox will have to overcome Price’s October woes if they want to get over the hump and get back to the World Series.

2017 Goals: Speaking of World Series, I don’t think the people of Boston will be satisfied with anything less than a championship. Following the Patriots’ Super Bowl title, New England fans would love to see their team capture another crown. It’s clear the management is putting their faith in its team, as they traded the best prospect in the league for Sale. This show of support and confidence by the front office can motivate the Red Sox to the top.

My Expectations: Despite the loss of Ortiz, the growing potential and talent from the rest of the roster is astounding. Besides the holes at first base and catcher, the Sox have 7 potential franchise players all on one team. Stacked with All-stars and good defense, combined with shutdown pitching, the only team that can truly beat the Red Sox is themselves. With so much leadership and hunger to return to the Fall Classic, Boston is a legitimate title contender.