2017 NLCS Predictions

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It’s a rematch of last year’s NLCS in which the Cubs won in 6 en route to their 1st World Series championship in 107 years. The Dodgers made quick work of the upset-minded Diamondbacks in 3 short games, while Chicago gutted out 5 tough games against the Nationals in NLDS play. You may wonder who has the advantage: L.A. had nearly a week off while the Cubs have a rhythm going even on short rest. Let’s take a look at who’s got the edge in the NLCS.

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The Dodgers enter Saturday Night five days removed from their sweep of the Dbacks. It’s hard to generate a report on L.A. because there isn’t much to go off of. However, we do know that Clayton Kershaw continues to struggle in October. He got the win in Game 1 of the NLDS, but not before allowing four long balls which were luckily solo shots for Arizona. He is still in search of his first World Series trophy, and that search could continue if he doesn’t improve soon.

The Dodgers need him, too. Rich Hill wasn’t great in Game 2 either, and Alex Wood and Hin Jin Ryu have very limited postseason experience. Luckily, Yu Darvish came to play after a disappointing playoff stint with the Rangers. Whether or not he keeps up his 1.80 ERA remains to be seen, but it won’t get much more difficult than a series-clinching Game 3 win on the road.

The late-season struggles of the Dodgers appear to be behind them as they tore up Arizona’s aces. Five starters are currently hitting over .333, but again, this is only over the course of 3 games. However, L.A. had an MLB-best 6 All-Stars, so they are definitely not slouching at the plate. As well as the Cubs pitched against the Nats, the Dodgers will be a different story.

Lastly, phenom Corey Seager has been left off of the roster for the NLCS citing a back injury. The Dodgers will surely miss his glove at shortstop as well as his base running ability. He can still be a fiery leader from the dugout, but it’s a huge loss not to have him in the lineup this week. Los Angeles is hoping they can keep up their stellar team play without him.

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The grittiest team in baseball keeps on grinding as they survive and advance past the Nationals. I could go on forever about D.C.’s woes, as their last chance to finally win a playoff series may come down to next year despite consistently dominating the NL East. Hopefully the Nats can get a good playoff manager to get them over the hump.

Anyway, Chicago is back in the NLCS with a chance to repeat as champions behind some really good starting pitching and Wade Davis. Kyle Hendricks shutout the Nats in Game 1, but let up 4 runs in Game 5. Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta performed admirably in losses, but Jose Quintana has emerged as a game changer as he has yet to allow a run in his short postseason career.

The Cubs are surely a bit gassed after a long week and flight to L.A. from D.C., but they’re fired up to bring back the Commissioner’s Trophy. After Quintana squares off against Kershaw, the rotation gets a bit foggy.  Regardless, I really question their bullpen. Wade Davis has been great, but Joe Maddon is already pushing him to his limit.  It’s only a matter of time until he blows up.

For the most part, Chicago hitters had a tough time against Nationals’ pitching, and it barely gets easier in Los Angeles. The bottom of the lineup was picking up most of the hits, but unlike the Dodgers, Chicago only has one player hitting .333 or above: Albert Almora Jr. I’m not counting out Chicago, but they are probably too tired to hang with the Dodgers in this NLCS.

PREDICTIONS:

Game 1- Jose Quintana at Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers win 5-4

Game 2- John Lackey at Rich Hill, Dodgers win 8-6

Game 3- Yu Darvish at Jake Arrieta, Dodgers win 3-2

Game 4- Alex Wood at Kyle Hendricks, Cubs win 5-1

Game 5- Clayton Kershaw at Jose Quintana, Cubs win 4-2

Game 6- Jon Lester at Rich Hill, Dodgers win 10-7

Dodgers in 6.

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2017 ALDS/NLDS Predictions

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I really can’t explain to you how excited I am. I’ve been waiting most of the year for these playoffs to finally begin, and here we go. All six of my preseason picks to win their divisions are joined by the Yankees and Diamondbacks in what will be some really entertaining games. Let’s take a look at what we can expect in the Division Series.

Red Sox vs. Astros

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If you like offense like you saw in Arizona last night, this one is for you. However, the Sox have a distinct advantage in the form of Chris Sale. Yeah, the Astros have Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel, but they can’t match the perennial Cy Young candidate who thrives in any environment he’s thrown into. What remains to be seen, however, is if Sale is a David Price postseason pitcher or a Madison Bumgarner.

For a moment, let’s check out the lineups. The Red Sox bats aren’t as hot as we’ve seen in the past, but they’re still scoring an impressive 4.85 runs per game. Mookie Betts leads a balanced group of talented sluggers like Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, and Hanley Ramirez to name a few. There is no containing the depth of this team which makes every at-bat stressful on the pitcher.

Luckily for Houston, they can probably do better. Jose Altuve, my pick for AL MVP, George Springer and Carlos Correa make an unstoppable trio. You don’t even have to mention role players like Alex Bregman and Josh Reddick who can contribute any night. As good as the Red Sox lineup is, the Astros undoubtedly are the best hitters in baseball.

Right…so there is going to be a lot of scoring. There is going to be some good pitching, too. Where’s the edge? Boston’s bullpen. The Red Sox made a lot of moves at the deadline and among those were insuring that they have a strong bullpen for the postseason. Well, here’s where the fruits of their labor pay off. Craig Kimbrel is probably the best closer in baseball besides Kenley Jansen, and he has a lot of strong arms to set him up. For the Astros, Chris Devenski is a really good long reliever, but he can only do so much by himself.

Game 1- Chris Sale at Justin Verlander, Red Sox win 4-3

Game 2- Drew Pomeranz at Dallas Keuchel, Astros win 8-5

Game 3- Lance McCullers at Rick Porcello, Red Sox win 9-7

Game 4- Justin Verlander at Chris Sale, Red Sox win 4-2

Red sox in 4. Disclaimer: As my preseason World Series champion pick, I have to go with Boston. If this series goes to Game 5 without Sale, I’m in trouble.

 

Yankees vs. Indians

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The age-old rest vs. play debate. The Yanks just played and scored a huge victory over the Twins to now face the best team in the American League. What don’t the Indians have going for them? They have stacked starting pitching, a solid bullpen, and some of the best clutch hitters in baseball. BUT…they haven’t played in 4 days… their longest rest since the All Star break.

The Yankees just played on Tuesday and are riding high on momentum. The bats are there, and they were hardly perturbed by Luis Severino failing to get out of the 1st frame. Aaron Judge homered, Brett Gardner came up big, and the bullpen locked down the Twins when they had to. Doing so against the Indians is a different story, but with a day off before Game 1, they should be healthy and ready to go.

I must say, the Indians are going to start on the wrong foot by starting Trevor Bauer against Sonny Gray, but I’m sure that’s by design. Either they steal Game 1 against the Yanks’ ace and go for the sweep, or they win it in 4. Their rotation is simply that good. Honestly, they could probably square up Corey Kluber against Sonny Gray and win, but whatever.

The Yankees are up against a juggernaut of a baseball team right now. They have an awesome bullpen that really shortens the game, but the Indians aren’t far behind in that aspect. The Bronx Bombers are going to have to come up with some really good, consistent situational hitting which has been very hard for them to do this season. It’s not something that comes naturally for anyone… except the Indians.

Game 1- Sonny Gray at Trevor Bauer, Yankees win 8-4

Game 2- CC Sabathia at Corey Kluber, Indians win 7-1

Game 3- Carlos Carrasco at Masahiro Tanaka, Indians win 3-2

Game 4- Trevor Bauer at Luis Severino, Indians win 6-5

Indians in 4.

 

Cubs vs. Nationals

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They may be friends in the picture, but this is business. The defending world champs were the final team to clinch their division and for their efforts will face the Nationals on the road. Primarily, they bring the same roster as last year, but without the same ‘pop’. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo aren’t MVP-caliber anymore.  The chemistry is there, but they just aren’t as hungry… as is the case with most defending champions.

On the other hand, the Nationals are starving just to get past the first round. They boast one of the best offenses in the National League with Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy, Trea Turner, etc. Each pack their own skill set to compliment the others, and Jayson Werth is one of the most clutch hitters in the MLB in my opinion.

It doesn’t get better than Nats pitching either. Max Scherzer is a 50/50 shot to win the Cy Young Award against Clayton Kershaw; Stephen Strasburg is healthy and on the top of his game, and Gio Gonzalez is a strong #3 pitcher. The X factor is Scherzer’s tight hamstring. He injured it on his final start of the regular season and D.C. is taking it slow with their ace. If Strasburg gets the win in Game 1, I imagine manager Dusty Baker will be even more cautious before bringing Scherzer back, but if they get in a 0-1 hole early, we’ll see Scherzer for Game 2.

The Cubs have a really good rotation too, but they’ve just underperformed. Kyle Hendricks is getting the nod for Game 1 while Jake Arrieta will get the 4 seed. It seems backwards relative to last year, but Joe Maddon is going with the hot hands early on. Honestly, they are no match for the Nats. Washington finally revamped their bullpen too, so Chicago has their work cut out for them if they’re hoping to repeat.

Game 1- Kyle Hendricks at Stephen Strasburg, Nationals win 4-3

Game 2- Jon Lester at Gio Gonzalez, Nationals win 6-4

Game 3- Max Scherzer at Jose Quintana, Nationals win 7-2

Nationals in 3. Note: I’m not sure who’s pitching Game 2 at the time of this article. If Scherzer pitches Game 2 and Gonzalez goes in Game 3, I think Quintana can win at home and force a Game 4. If that’s the case- Nationals in 4.

 

Diamondbacks vs. Dodgers

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I’m telling you, this is going to be “can’t miss TV.” My dark horse rides on to the NLDS and has a legitimate chance to knock off the slumping Dodgers. The nation saw how explosive the Dbacks’ offense was last night when they were able to outlast the Rockies. Colorado threw the kitchen sink at Arizona and hung around all game, but the Dbacks just kept scoring. And they look to do the same against L.A.

However, the pitching staff did give up 8 runs. Pitching wins championships, and Arizona doesn’t have it. Clayton Kershaw isn’t the best postseason pitcher, but the Dodgers’ rotation is still deep. Kenley Jansen is still the best closer in the MLB, and there are some hard throwers in that bullpen.

The problem is that their offense is so unpredictable. They have the ability to put up 15 on an opponent, but they might get shutout the next night. Cody Bellinger has had a phenomenal rookie season as he eagerly awaits his first playoff appearance. Meanwhile, veterans like Justin Turner and Corey Seager have been here before, and they know what it’s like to lose. Experience definitely helps in October, so I’m excited to see if L.A. can put it all together now that it matters the most.

The series comes down to how hot Arizona will be. If they have an off night, the Dodgers will win no question. If they’re hitting like they did last night, L.A. doesn’t have a chance. No one has been more consistent than the Diamondbacks, but again, the playoffs are different. The Dodgers have the best record in the National League. This one is going the distance.  Are the Dbacks consistent enough to overcome subpar pitching?

Game 1- Taijuan Walker at Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers win 6-3

Game 2- Robbie Ray at Rich Hill, Diamondbacks win 10-5

Game 3- Yu Darvish at Zack Grienke (HELL YEAH), Diamondbacks win 3-2

Game 4- Clayton Kershaw at Zach Godley, Dodgers win 7-5

Game 5- Taijuan Walker at Alex Wood, Dodgers win 8-6

Dodgers in 5. Note: I have no idea how the Dbacks are doing their rotation after expending their #1 and #2 options in the Wild Card game. That’s my best guess.

National League Midsummer Report

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If you thought the American League was crazy, wait until you hear about the NL. With injuries abound, the defending World Champs floundering, and a few dark horses emerging, it’s anyone’s guess what the second half of the season will hold. Luckily for you, I think I can help sort through the mess. Let’s take a look at what’s happening in the National League.

NL West

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We start with the best division in baseball, and we’re not even talking about the Giants. The top 3 teams in the National League at the All-star break all hail from the NL West. While it’s no surprise that this was going to be a competitive division, until game 162 I never expected the race to be this high-profile.

I knew last year that the Diamondbacks were primed to shake up the MLB, and if it wasn’t for A.J. Pollock’s injury during 2016 Spring Training, they may have been in this position sooner. In any case, the stars are aligning in Arizona. The Zack Greinke of old has returned, Paul Goldschmidt has a chance to capture MVP honors, and most importantly, they’re healthy. I’m eager to write more about my preseason dark horse as the trade deadline approaches, as I expect them to continue to push the pedal down and try to make a run in the NL that’s completely up for grabs. So until then, do yourself a favor and keep an eye on the Dbacks.

UPDATE: The Diamondbacks have acquired slugger J.D. Martinez from the Tigers to beef up their roster. Awesome. Keep it up, Arizona.

Not-so-lost in Arizona’s ascent has been the Rockies’ rise. Nolan Arenado and the Mile-High city have matched the Dbacks step-for-step as they chase down the Dodgers atop the division. I credit this climb to a host of breakout arms. All 5 starters have exceeded the loftiest of expectations, and even the veteran Greg Holland is playing like he’s in his prime again. Despite surrendering about 4 runs per game in a hitter-friendly park, Colorado’s bats seemingly always outmuscle their opponents’. If it wasn’t for Carlos Gonzalez’s season-long slump, I don’t think the Rockies would be looking up at anyone. As for now, I anticipate a tight Wild Card race among the Rockies, Cubs, and Brewers. I’m interested to see if the Rockies will sacrifice some prospects to win-now, or if they’ll throw in the towel if things get rough and go for it next year.

Finally, we focus on the best team in the MLB, the L.A. Dodgers. Currently boasting a 65-29 record along with a 10-game win streak, L.A. sent a league-best 6 All-stars to Miami. Headlined by perhaps the greatest pitcher of all time in Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers saw rookie Chris Bellinger, and stellar infielders Corey Seager and Justin Turner take at-bats during the Midsummer Classic. To complete the overall dominance, closer Kenley Jansen has been as perfect as can be by carrying an incredible 0.90 ERA into the second half of the season. The only question surrounding L.A. right now is…Can anyone stop the Dodgers??

NL Central

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Shifting gears to the NL Central, the main headline is, “What happened in Chicago?” The answer… nothing. Chill. No, the Cubs aren’t going to win an MLB-best 103 games again, and they’re only on pace for a 84-78 record. While I’m fairly certain the champs won’t repeat, I’m equally confident they will make the playoffs. The World Series hangover is real. No one has been able to repeat since the Yankees won 3 in a row from 1998-2000. Among the reasons for this are the shortened offseason. Not only did the Cubs play an extra month of baseball, but they spent most of the winter on a world celebration tour with the trophy. Before they could breathe, it was time for spring training again.  So it’s no wonder that the Cubs struggled out of the gate. The odds are stacked against them. Not only do they have a huge target on their back, but what do they have to play for? They just won the first title for Chicago in 108 years. All of their dreams came true. The value of a 2nd Commissioner’s trophy is far less than the first.

Now, as we get deeper into the MLB season, the Cubs are hitting their stride. Therefore, I’m not worried in the least about their chances of getting back to playing in October. In fact, just 2.5 GB on the division-leading Brewers, Chicago can easily win the division. Regardless, everything resets in the playoffs, so all they have to do is get there. And if you think a team as stacked as the Cubs is won’t squeak in… you’re crazy. I don’t even expect any moves late in July. The Cubs can just play at this pace and wait for the Brewers to drop down a little bit.

But wait.. will the Brewers drop? We’ve been waiting and waiting… but they’re still in first place. Milwaukee has fought off injuries in their starting pitching and continue to get great outings by their rock-solid bullpen. Not to mention… where did Travis Shaw come from?? Probably the biggest snub, I would’ve loved to see him instead of Justin Turner get an invitation to the All-star game (the 6th Dodger voted in). How a team in first place only gets to send one player (well-deserved closer Corey Knebel) is beyond me. Anyway, the world waits to see if this unpredictable production will last the remaining 65ish games, or if it will finally succumb to the Cubs’ pressure. Don’t hold your breath.

NL East

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There’s really only one team worth discussing in the NL East and that’s the Washington Nationals. But before I get into that, here’s a snapshot at the rest of what used to be the best division in the National League. The Braves, Marlins, Mets, and Phillies need to be sellers at the deadline and hope for better luck in the coming years. I love the Phillies’ and Braves’ potential, so look for them to continue to add to their youth. Meanwhile, the Mets have a strong team that was ravaged by injuries and is left wondering what could have been. So New York might be content holding their cards and hoping for better luck in 2018.

As for the Marlins, there are rumors swirling about Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna being up for sale, and I’m all for it… for the right price. Obviously with the unexpected and tragic loss of Jose Fernandez, the Marlins were looking at a tough year. It shouldn’t be time to sell your stars unless you can get proven young talent in return and set a strong base for years to come. If the deal isn’t there, be content to pack up and go at it again next year. There is always the offseason to look forward to, and…mark my words… it’s going to be wild.

And last, but far from the least… the Nationals. There is a clear two sides to this team. First, batting. The Nats lead the NL in runs, hits, doubles, total bases, RBIs, OBP, SLG, and OPS. Wow. And if that wasn’t impressive enough, they only trail the Astros in each of those categories for best in the MLB. In other words, no one hits better than the Astros or the Nationals.

However, while the dominance of the Nationals’ starting rotation is unquestioned, their bullpen has been a huge point of focus for the doubters, and rightly so. Washington’s relievers rank last in the MLB with a 5.26 ERA, only 237 strikeouts, and opponent’s batting average of .277. What really sticks out to me though is the fact that they’ve pitched a league-fewest 258.1 innings, a full 18 innings fewer than the 29th team. While that seems like a good thing, it actually means that most of the innings are being chewed up by the starters. With the likes of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez expected to go 7+ innings every outing, it’s easy to assume they’ll run out of gas when the games matter the most late in the season. Unfortunately, the bullpen woes have left manager Dusty Baker with no choice but to force his stars to go deep into ball games regardless of the score. Hopefully the trade for the Athletics’ Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle can ease some pressure off the rotation, but is the damage already done?

2017 MLB Predictions

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With a few games underway this season, it’s as good a time as any to post my predictions for the 2017 season. If you haven’t already, feel free to check out my in-depth previews of every MLB team by clicking on the division listed below. Let me know what you think about my prediction for your favorite team! Without further ado, let’s take a look at what will happen this summer.

x- clinched Wild Card                                                                               y- clinched Division                                                                                 z- clinched Conference

AL East Preview 2017

  1. y- Boston Red Sox
  2. x- Baltimore Orioles
  3. New York Yankees
  4. Toronto Blue Jays
  5. Tampa Bay Rays

AL Central Preview 2017

  1. z- Cleveland Indians
  2. Kansas City Royals
  3. Detroit Tigers
  4. Minnesota Twins
  5. Chicago White Sox

AL West Preview 2017

  1. y- Houston Astros
  2. x- Texas Rangers
  3. Seattle Mariners
  4. Los Angeles Angels
  5. Oakland Athletics

NL East Preview 2017

  1. y- Washington Nationals
  2. New York Mets
  3. Philadelphia Phillies
  4. Miami Marlins
  5. Atlanta Braves

NL Central Preview 2017

  1. z- Chicago Cubs
  2. x- St. Louis Cardinals
  3. Pittsburgh Pirates
  4. Cincinnati Reds
  5. Milwaukee Brewers

NL West Preview 2017

  1. y- Los Angeles Dodgers
  2. x- San Francisco Giants
  3. Arizona Diamondbacks
  4. Colorado Rockies
  5. San Diego Padres

Playoffs:

AL Wild Card – Orioles at Rangers

The Orioles’ bats outlast Texas pitching, survive and advance.

NL Wild Card – Giants at Cardinals

Madison Bumgarner is too much once again, Giants move on.

AL Division Series

Orioles vs. Indians – Baltimore’s great run ends at the hands of Francona’s dominant rotation, Indians in 4.

Astros vs. Red Sox – In a high scoring 5 game series, Red Sox prevail in Fenway.

NL Division Series

Giants vs. Cubs – In this NLDS rematch, the Cubs fight off Cueto in game 1, lose to Bumgarner in game 3, but have enough to clinch the series on the road in game 4.

Dodgers vs. Nationals – And in this rematch, the Nationals finally pull through and win a hard-fought game 5.

AL Conference Series – Red Sox vs. Indians

In a series I’m already looking forward to, the Red Sox get back to the World Series behind Chris Sale and some clutch rookie performances in 6 games.

NL Conference Series – Nationals vs. Cubs

The Nationals’ dream ends short, Cubs sweep to try to repeat as champions.

World Series Prediction: Red Sox beat Cubs in 6 games.

NL West Preview 2017

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The NL West was simply outmatched in 2016. With the weird San Francisco Giants’ “even-year streak” finally broken, it appears as though West was caught in a bit of a dry spell. By that I mean there is a huge gap between the Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers, and the rest of the division. The Arizona Diamondbacks suffered without AJ Pollock and the Colorado Rockies could never keep opponents from scoring. Meanwhile the San Diego Padres was in a serious funk all around. Let’s take a look at who I believe will shake up the NL West picture…

 

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Lineup: After a dismal 2016 in which one setback snowballed into another and another, the Padres fired president Mike Dee. Embroiled in controversy due to withholding medical information during the Drew Pomeranz trade, along with other questionable decisions, San Diego had to let him go before his contract expired. The Padres desperately need a change of pace as they’ve only finished in the top 2 in the division once since winning it way back in 2006. With a complete overhaul of both the roster and the front office in the works, no one can be sure of what to expect in San Diego. I will say that signing Wil Myers to a long-term deal was an excellent move. After an explosive season in which he was quietly one of the best first basemen in the NL, he has positioned himself to be an All-star for many years to come. However, he may have a big load of run support on his shoulders. Surrounded by relative unknowns on the roster besides mediocre infielders Yangervis Solarte and Erick Aybar, it’s going to be nearly impossible to gain any kind of momentum barring some serious breakout seasons by the younger players.

Pitching: After the loss of Tyson Ross to injury for what seemed to be for just a couple of starts but turned out to be season-ending, San Diego was behind the 8-ball from the start. Once Pomeranz inexplicably posted one of the best ERAs in the league throughout the first half of the season, the Padres sold him at a high price to the Red Sox in exchange for some younger talent. Upon releasing Ross over the offseason, it’s apparent that the Padres are ready for a fresh start. With the loss of their two best pitchers, San Diego is left with Jhoulys Chacin and Jered Weaver as their top gunners. This is troublesome because Chacin has only posted a winning record during 1 of his 8 seasons in the MLB. The story with Weaver is that back when he was a Cy Young candidate in 2012, his claim to fame was the strikeout. Now, his S09 has dipped sharply and he must rely on getting hitters to make contact on poor pitches. In other words, because he can’t get strikeouts, he pitches to contact and lets his fielders do the work.  With a completely new dynamic, it’ll be very difficult to pitch as well as he did 5 years ago.

2017 Goals: Like I said, the Padres just want a fresh start. They don’t need to shoot for the moon, but gaining valuable experience for the rookies and experimenting with different lineups can set a foundation for their future. They’re a long way off, but you have to start somewhere.

My Expectations: Already tied for the second worst record in the MLB last year, things probably won’t get much better. The good news is that they’re in the same boat as a number of other teams, but the bad news is that they literally don’t have a president as the season gets underway. No other team has as much uncertainty on and off the field as the Padres. Until they get that mess sorted out, San Diego won’t be going anywhere.

 

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Lineup: Bold prediction of 2017? The Dbacks will make the playoffs… and here’s why. They’re loaded at the top of the order with the likes of Paul Goldschmidt, Jake Lamb, and AJ Pollock. Arizona had plans last year to utilize these men to take control of the heart of lineup and lead them to the top. However, when Pollock broke his elbow just a game before opening day, these plans were derailed and the Diamondbacks never found their rhythm. Now, refreshed and recharged, look for them to make a huge run. It won’t be easy, as it’s a competitive league and teams like the Cardinals and Mets desperately want to be back in the postseason, but the Dbacks are a definite dark horse. With the extra year added to the grand plan, Arizona was able to strengthen Chris Owings and Yasmany Tomas to make the roster even more formidable. I know a lot of experts are sleeping on these guys, but with a new uniform and a new attitude, we might just see a new World Series contender.

Pitching: Here’s what’s going to make or break the surprise run… Zack Greinke. While in LA, the veteran was one of the best pitchers in baseball. So much so that the Diamondbacks scooped him up on a six-year deal worth $206.5 million. Unfortunately, not only did Greinke not live up to the expectations last year, he had by far the worst season of his entire career. Career highs in ERA, H9, and WHIP coupled with career lows in strikeouts and wins led to a dismal year that left Arizona looking for answers. As the sole ace on this squad, he could very well be the difference in a playoff spot or a high draft pick next June. It’s a lot of pressure, but he’s capable of handling it. Hopefully he can get accustomed to his new home in Chase Field, settle down, and get back to doing what he does best. The future of the Diamondbacks depends on it.

2017 Goals: Honestly, I don’t even think the Dbacks are worried about the postseason yet. Based on their record, it appears they’re very far off. That is not so, as they have a talented roster that rivals those of the Toronto Blue Jays or Texas Rangers. All of these teams have a talented heart, little support, and a couple of great pitchers. As the Dbacks already fit the playoff formula, they just need some wins.

My Expectations: While my bold prediction is that Arizona will be in the playoffs, I still wouldn’t bet on it. Greinke’s 2016 season was too scary to bank on a return to form. But like I said, the talent is there, and they’re capable of making a run, I’m just not sure they’re ready to surpass the Cardinals, Mets or even their own division. But if they do make the playoffs- you heard it here first.

 

Colorado Rockies (2016: 75-87, 3rd Place)maxresdefault.jpg

Lineup: This is another team with a top-heavy roster. In this case, you look at bombers Nolan Arenado, Carlos Gonzalez, and Trevor Story. While Arenado and Gonzalez have been Rockies greats who have taken advantage of the mile-high atmosphere for a few years, the organization stumbled upon rookie sensation Story last year. He lead all rookies in home runs, and placed in the top 3 in OPS, SLG, and runs. With the surprising production, Colorado exceeded all expectations last year and looks to build off that momentum. With speedster Charlie Blackmon leading off, they bring a little more balance to the roster than other top-heavy teams, and ironically that could be their downfall. While Arenado and Gonzalez are well-known superstars, the rest cannot be relied on in clutch situations as much. It’s a great thing to have balance, but when the team formula is set up for a core of strength, it can be a little dysfunctional. Nonetheless, this is an above average lineup…

Pitching: … with a well below average pitching staff. “Ace” Jon Gray starts first of the mediocre pack. Behind him in the rotation is Tyler Anderson, Tyler Chatwood, and a couple of no-namers. This is especially worrisome due to the fact that the ball flies in Coors Field like no other place in America. While this is an advantage for the Colorado hitting, it’s an extreme disadvantage for the subpar pitching staff. It’s even harder to gain confidence when you’re being rocked in your own ballpark, let alone hope to gain some momentum as the season wears on. Luckily, the Rockies were able to pick up World Series champion and two-time All-star Greg Holland during the offseason. With proven reliever Adam Ottavino setting him up, it’s nice to have stability in the bullpen. However, Holland is a bit shaky after an injury-riddled 2015 season, and a subsequent absence in 2016. Manager Bud Black is said to have him on a short leash to start the season, so even if Ottavino takes over, the Rockies should be in good shape for the 8th and 9th innings at least.

2017 Goals: Like so many other teams, the Rockies are stuck in the middle. Oddly, they’ve been reluctant to make any moves with regard to trades. In order to move up the ladder, they’ll need big acquisitions, and in order to rebuild they’d need to sell their stars for prospects. With the front office not doing either, it’s impossible to break the streak of being average. Look for big changes one way or another before long.

My Expectations: Unless the front office does something to help their ball club, the Rockies are going to drop a bit. They simply don’t have the pitching to go with their core hitting prowess. Meanwhile, Arizona does have the support they need to make their way toward the top of the division. Colorado either needs to give their guys some help, or let them go and start over.

 

San Fransisco Giants (2016: 87-75, 2nd Place)

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Lineup: After winning the World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014, the Giants’ “odd” even-year streak was finally snapped in the NLDS. It was their first playoff series loss since 2003. In fact, in all but two seasons in the history of the MLB, they’ve either won the World Series or lost to the team that went on to claim the title. With so much postseason success, it’s strange that San Francisco is often the underdog. As such, they return with the majority of the lineup that took them to the Final Four in the NL last year. They bring a well-balanced roster that can get on base, but rarely goes deep. This is evidenced by being top 5 in OBP, but bottom 5 in SLG in the National League. Brandon Belt and Buster Posey led the team in home runs, but neither hit more than 20. Posey in particular is capable of more pop, but tends to hit on top of the ball and drive it in gaps for extra base hits instead. Other notables on the roster are Joe Panik and Jarrett Parker who are homegrown youngsters that look to make an immediate impact. The left side of the infield houses Eduardo Nuñez and Brandon Crawford, two of the most reliable gloves in baseball. The Giants have a little bit of everything, and they’re more than eligible to be contenders in the wide-open NL Wild Card race.

Pitching: Where the Giants really excel is with perhaps the best complete rotation in the entire National League besides the Chicago Cubs. As a whole, they are top 5 in the NL in ERA and quality starts, and allowed the fewest walks in the MLB. Four-time All-star and perennial Cy Young candidate Madison Bumgarner leads the stellar group. Johnny Cueto is an ace too, after he had one of the best seasons of his career since coming to San Fran. The two averaged an amazing 2.77 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. Cueto actually tallied 3 more wins than Bumgarner at the season’s end, but had him beat in strikeouts with 251 in total. Behind these league giants (get it?) are workhorses Jeff Samardzija, Matt Moore, and Matt Cain. You’ll notice that there isn’t a bad name in the bunch. As for the bullpen, Santiago Casilla had a rough end to 2016, and was released over the offseason. The Giants replaced him with veteran Mark Melancon. A long-time Pittsburgh Pirate, Melancon has found success as a closer at any ballpark. San Francisco is known for having a lockdown bullpen, but after a game 4 NLDS collapse, it’s a good move to make amends and strengthen one of their biggest assets.

2017 Goals: You know the Giants have established themselves enough to be disappointed with anything besides a playoff berth. However, as previously mentioned, they have not made the postseason in an odd year since 2003. So in 2017, San Francisco will hope to break the weird trend and use their strengths to the fullest to outlast the other Wild Card contenders. Actually, the Dodgers aren’t impenetrable; they could wind up with the NL West pennant.

My Expectations: As great as the Giants are, there is something eerie about their even-year trend. There always seems to be a surplus of contenders during the odd years, and 2017 is no different. They face strong opposition within the NL West and indirectly with the Mets and Cardinals. The good news is, while the Dodgers have won the NL West four straight years, they don’t have a firm hold on the division. 2017 will play out with a wild West that will come down to game 162, and the Giants could easily come out on top.

 

Los Angeles Dodgers (2016: 91-71, 1st Place)

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Lineup: As historic and dominant as the Dodgers seem, it might be surprising that their last World Series appearance was when they won it back in 1988. I believe this is due to the fact of poor match-ups. While they have won the division each of the last four years, they haven’t earned the #1 seed in the playoffs. This forces them to play a tough NLDS team early, and if they survived that, they weren’t as rested as the better team in the NLCS. So consider it crucial for L.A. to not just when the division… but win the NL. Now, it’s a tall task to unseat the defending World Champions, but the Dodgers possess an extremely explosive lineup. Young stars like Joc Pederson, Corey Seager, and rookie Andrew Toles are being groomed by veterans Adrian Gonzalez and Logan Forsythe. You’ll notice I love the balance of both age and strengths. Seager can do just about anything as captain of the infield. He rarely makes errors and seems to always make the right play with high baseball IQ. Gonzalez has been around the block a few times, but he’s hardly slowing down. If he keeps up the pace, L.A. is extremely tough to beat. That said, while Los Angeles is explosive, they’re often inconsistent and streaky. With every confident win streak comes a debilitating losing streak. It’ll be important for the Dodgers to ride the high of their success and break out of slumps before anything gets out of control.

Pitching: L.A. has perhaps the greatest pitcher on the planet in Clayton Kershaw. His accolades stretch for miles and include 3 Cy Youngs, an NL MVP Award, and 6 All-Star appearances. Despite last year’s injury-plagued season, he was still invited to San Diego for the All Star Game, and was slated to be a starter before not being cleared to play. So, despite an already-legendary career that gets better with each game he throws, he has never started the Midsummer Classic. A bevy of young arms learn from Kershaw including Kenta Maeda and Juilo Urias. These men both have stellar careers ahead of them as long as they’re learning from one of the best to ever play the game. As for the bullpen, veteran closer Kenley Jansen has 9th inning duties. Already one of the best closers in the league, the 29-year-old has ranked in the top 10 in saves over the last 3 years. L.A. also owns Sergio Romo, the former closer of the World Champion Giants. Now, he’s a key setup man to ease the pressure of the Dodgers’ starters. With so much young talent across the board, Los Angeles is a tough series for any opponent.

2017 Goals: Without a World Series appearance since 1988, the Dodgers are more than anxious to get back. It seems that they are always the class of the National League, but falter in October. It’ll be the Dodgers’ main goal to be healthy and focused as the season ends. As such, it’s a good idea to follow through in limiting Urias early so that he’ll be ready for the big games down the stretch.

My Expectations: I don’t see the Dodgers missing the playoffs, but I do see them dropping a few wins. The NL West is probably the most improved division in baseball, and it won’t be easy for L.A. to win their 5th straight pennant. Whether or not they do, I think they’ll be a 3 or 4 seed in the playoffs… and that’s not good considering how they’ve fared in the past at those spots.

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…

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.