MLB 2017: One prediction for each team
As the calendar turns to 2017, it’s never too early to start thinking about the new MLB season and making predictions for each team.
What a year 2016 was for MLB. The Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians played in one of the best World Series in the past 50 years, culminating in arguably the best Game 7 in baseball history. For the first time in 108 years, the Cubs enter the 2017 season as defending MLB champions.
So far, the offseason has seen many key moves made, and rosters are taking shape for next year. Chris Sale gives the Boston Red Sox a bonafide ace, and the Chicago White Sox began a major rebuild with a handful of elite prospects. Seeing Edwin Encarnacion in a different uniform will be strange.
There has been enough roster movement, and many teams are ready to look ahead to Spring Training. With so much clarity, it’s time to make the best shot at predictions for all 30 MLB teams for 2017.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Greinke bounces back
After signing the largest contract in MLB history in terms of annual salary, Zack Greinke struggled to live up to the impossible expectations. When you’re paid roughly the same amount as the entire gross domestic product of several small nations, there’s very little margin for error. In his first season with the Diamondbacks, Greinke missed over a month with an oblique strain and struggled to match his epic 2015 season.
All told, Greinke finished 2016 with a 13-7 record, 4.37 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and allowed a .750 OPS to opposing hitters. These numbers were a far cry from 2015, when he finished with a 1.66 ERA and allowed a microscopic OPS of .507. After returning from the oblique injury, Greinke struggled even more than he had in the first three months of the year. In August and September, he made nine starts and posted a 6.02 ERA in 49.1 innings. He also allowed 11 home runs in the process.
One of the biggest questions facing Greinke last year was how well he would fare away from Dodger Stadium, a noted pitcher’s park. As a flyball pitcher, Greinke has historically excelled at minimizing home runs, but saw an unsustainable rise in 2016 where 10 percent of his flyballs were leaving the yard. That trend will not continue in 2017.
Is Greinke the ace he appeared to be with the Dodgers? Probably not, but he was 10-3 with a 3.62 ERA in the first half last season before his injury. That aligns well with his career numbers outside of his time with the Dodgers, and the Diamondbacks should expect over 200 innings of solid pitching from Greinke next season. Now, whether or not he’ll ever be worth $206 million again is an entirely different question.
Atlanta Braves: Matt Kemp finally gets traded to an AL team
For the Braves, a team in the midst of a deep rebuild, trading for Matt Kemp last summer was a real head scratcher. Sure, having the Dodgers and San Diego Padres combine to pay $6 million of his nearly $22 million yearly salary helps, but Kemp is nowhere near the 40-40 threat he was earlier in his career. He’s now a massive defensive liability with eroding on-base skills.
Kemp’s bat still plays, as evidenced by his 35 home runs and 108 RBIs last season in 156 games. He has also proven to be healthy for three years in a row, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. In the field, Kemp’s value as a defender is completely gone. In only 54 games in the field for the Braves last year, he managed a shockingly awful -12 defensive runs saved. At best, Kemp’s range is gone. At worst, his interest in playing the field is gone. He needs to be a DH.
It’s hard to say what exactly motivated the Braves to trade for Kemp other than dumping Hector Olivera. Adding Kemp instead of just waiving Olivera and getting nothing has to be worth something. The Braves are moving into a brand-new stadium in 2017, and putting another 90-loss team on the field is not going to help bring out massive crowds. In addition to Kemp, the Braves signed R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon to eat up innings next year, which points to a desire to be slightly competitive in the first year at SunTrust Park.
The point of a rebuild — a complete and total gut job — is not to sign two pitchers in their forties and trade for a broken-down outfielder in Kemp who is at worst a clubhouse cancer. None of this is going to excite the Atlanta area enough to pack the new stadium. The Braves are still going to be bad, and having Kemp around the clubhouse with youngsters like Dansby Swanson, Ender Inciarte and Ozzie Albies is just a bad idea. The Braves need to showcase Kemp’s bat for three months and then find an American League trade partner where he can play out his career as a DH.
Baltimore Orioles: Chris Davis comes back strong
In year one of his seven-year, $161-million contract, Chris Davis did a whole lot of walking back to the dugout without making contact. He struck out 219 times, just four away from the league record. The record would have easily been his had a flu bug not kept him out of a few games in the second half.
Over the past four years, Davis has been up and down as much as a thinly-traded biotech stock. Since 2013, he has led the league in home runs twice and in strikeouts twice. He has a season with an OPS of 1.004 and a season with an OPS of .704. In the second half of 2015, Davis batted .293/.409/.669 with 28 home runs in 74 games. After the All-Star break last season, he batted .200/.313/.412 with 16 home runs and 97 strikeouts in 71 games.
The biggest problem for Davis in 2016 was his pitch selection at the plate. In far too many of his at-bats, the big first baseman watched fastballs early in the count, battled breaking balls with two strikes and then struck out looking on a fat fastball right down the middle. All told, Davis struck out looking 79 times and swung at a career-low 42.8 percent of all pitches.
Davis has to go back to the drawing board this winter and get back to what made him successful in 2013 and 2015 when he was aggressive early in the count. Despite the holes in his swing, he’s one of the best in the league at jumping on mistakes early in the count. It’s when he gets too fine at the plate and starts looking for walks that Davis puts himself in hitting counts that he just can’t work out of.
If Chris Davis comes back in 2017 ready to be aggressive at the plate, another solid year should follow. The last three years of the long-term contract may turn out to be an unmitigated disaster, but if the Orioles can get the most out of Davis over the next two years, it won’t be quite as painful for the front office.
Boston Red Sox: BoSox run away with AL East
In 2016, the Red Sox muddled along for most of the year, giving the Orioles hope they could win the division. When it mattered most, Boston turned it on and went 19-8 in September while outscoring their opponents 150-85. Offensively, the Red Sox are a juggernaut, and led the league last season in every major offensive category.
Seeing the Red Sox swept out of the playoffs in the first round was a complete and total shocker. This looked like a team that was on a collision course with the Chicago Cubs, but even the most potent lineups can hit a slump in a short series. Boston had the best team in the American League last year regardless of final result, and that fact remains unchanged.
Adding Chris Sale only makes the Red Sox more dangerous. More importantly, Dave Dombrowski didn’t have to trade any players from the MLB roster to acquire a second ace to pair with David Price. The 2016 AL Cy Young winner, Rick Porcello, now slides down to third in a loaded rotation that also includes one of the top young left-handers in baseball in Eduardo Rodriguez.
Losing David Ortiz will hardly slow the Red Sox down next season. Mookie Betts has emerged as an annual MVP candidate. Hanley Ramirez was rejuvenated by a move back to the infield last year, and reminded everyone why he was worth $88 million in the first place. Xander Bogaerts won his second straight Silver Slugger award at shortstop, and Dustin Pedroia had his best OPS since 2011. The Red Sox have not had a core of players this exciting since the early 2000s. Now, they finally have the pitching staff to back it up, something that has plagued the franchise on and off since the 2012 season.
Chicago Cubs: Jason Heyward comes closer to living up to his contract
One of the alleged reasons for Jason Heyward picking the Cubs over the St. Louis Cardinals was his desire to play for a team where he wouldn’t be “The Man.” While that same pressure may not be on him with the Cubs, signing for $184 million pretty much guarantees massive expectations regardless of place in the batting order.
In his first year with the Cubs, Heyward slashed an ugly .230/.306/.325 with only seven home runs. He also stole only 11 bases and didn’t have a massive impact defensively in right field. Everyone who thought Heyward would struggle to live up to his massive contract can point to last season as a colossal “I told you so” moment.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon tried all year to downplay his new right fielder’s struggles, calling Heyward unlucky and hiding him at the bottom of the order. Unfortunately, luck played no part in Heyward’s measly .266 batting average on balls in play. His swing was off all year, leaving him with a below-average exit velocity of 88.25 mph. He also had a career-high soft-contact rate of 27.0 percent. His hard-contact rate of 26.4 percent matched his career-low from 2014 where he also slugged below .400.
Heyward is hard at work this offseason tweaking his swing. The early results look promising, and Heyward has had success in his career tinkering with his swing. His new swing looks more relaxed, losing the bat wrap that may have slowed down his swing path last year. If Heyward keeps his hands loose and doesn’t press as much, he’ll begin seeing better results.
Chicago White Sox: The rebuild isn’t nearly as painful as it could be
The rebuild is in full effect on Chicago’s South Side. With Chris Sale and Adam Eaton moved for two massive prospect hauls, the White Sox have made their intentions clear. Their farm system is now one of the best in the league, and the front office may not yet be done stripping away the pieces left over from the recent attempts to build a contender.
The White Sox have timed this rebuild to perfection. Unlike some other rebuilders around the league, like the Philadelphia Phillies or Cincinnati Reds, Rick Hahn and the front office pulled the plug before it got too late. Sale and Eaton were dealt with plenty of years of team control left, upping their value. This allowed the White Sox to acquire at least three prospects — Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez — who could be ready for the major leagues as soon as this year.
There are still a handful of players to be traded for the White Sox before the rebuild can move into its next phase. Todd Frazier, David Robertson, Melky Cabrera, Jose Quintana and Jose Abreu could all be dealt before the end of next year. Robertson and Quintana are most likely to be traded before the start of the 2017 season. Frazier should be held onto for now and flipped to a power-hungry team at the deadline. Only Abreu should be held for the long haul. He’s still under control for three years, and the farm system is lacking power bats. Let Abreu stick around for at least one more year and mentor Moncada.
As the White Sox rebuild, there will definitely be more than a few ugly losses, but the tide will turn quickly. The hardest thing for a team to acquire during a rebuild is a starting rotation, and the White Sox already have a handful of potential aces. Focus on offense for the rest of the process, and Chicago can be ready to strike when rebuilding efforts begin in Kansas City and Detroit.
Cincinnati Reds: Joey Votto is still tired of losing
As the Reds go about their rebuild, the most interesting thing about them is seeing Joey Votto take out his frustration on unsuspecting fans. It’s hard to blame Votto for being more than a little salty as he plays out his prime on 98-loss teams. Unfortunately, his $225-million contract that runs through his age-39 season makes it almost impossible for the Reds to trade him, even if he were willing to accept a trade to a contender.
Votto has led the league in on-base percentage in five of the past seven seasons and is the active leader at .425 by 20 points. He has also finished with an OPS of 1.000 or better three times. After a small dip in production in 2014, Votto has gone back to being a walks, doubles and home run machine.
Unlike the Chicago White Sox, the Reds have not done a good job of executing their rebuild. Even after trading Aroldis Chapman, Johnny Cueto and Jay Bruce, they didn’t have a top-10 farm system after the trade deadline. They’re behind every other rebuilding team in the National League and are almost out of trade chips. All they can do now is hope Votto has enough of the losing to accept a trade to a contender. He’s comfortable in Cincinnati, but will not play for a winner in his prime years. Most big-market teams would be willing to take him on at $25 million per year as that is starting to look like a bargain by today’s standards.
Nov 2, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor throws to first base against the Chicago Cubs in the first inning in game seven of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
Cleveland Indians: Francisco Lindor wins a Silver Slugger
Stashed away in Cleveland, Francisco Lindor was a treasure waiting to be fully discovered by the masses in his sophomore season. He got his chance to be seen by a national audience in the World Series, and didn’t disappoint. Lindor batted .310/.355/.466 in October, and almost willed the Indians to the title.
As Lindor made his way up to the big leagues in 2015 at the age of 21, his bat was supposed to be behind his impeccable glove. That has hardly been the case, as he has slashed .306/.356/454 with 52 doubles, 27 home runs and 31 steals. Of course, the glove has sparkled for Lindor, and he won the Gold Glove in his first full season at the major-league level.
Lindor came up at the same time as Carlos Correa, with Correa being viewed as the more impressive prospect. Both have had postseason success, and their rookie numbers compared well. In their second year, however, Lindor stood out. We still haven’t seen the best of both of these young shortstops.
If Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra and Alex Rodriguez defined the late 1990s and early 2000s, Lindor, Correa and Bogaerts will define the second half of the 2010s. Bigger, power-hitting shortstops were all the rage during the Steroid Era, but the league is flipping back to the more dynamic, speedy shortstops who can also hit for some power. Lindor’s power stroke is going to continue developing, and he will grab the Silver Slugger at shortstop from Bogaerts in 2017.
Colorado Rockies: Nolan Arenado wins the MVP
Nolan Arenado has led the National League in home runs, RBIs and total bases in each of the past two seasons. He’s also won the last three NL Gold Gloves at third base and established himself as the best defensive third baseman in the league. That hasn’t quite translated to the MVP vote because the Rockies haven’t been relevant. Arenado’s best MVP finish is fifth.
The Rockies are trending in the right direction, and could have their first winning season since 2010 next year. If they can eke out 83 wins, Arenado could vault over MVP candidates from Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. There’s some inherent bias against hitters from Coors Field, but Larry Walker was able to win the 1997 MVP, and Todd Helton, Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez have all managed high finishes in the vote.
In Colorado, Arenado is surrounded by a video-game lineup. Gonzalez, batting champion DJ LeMahieu, Charlie Blackmon and Trevor Story are all the types of talent that transcends the thin air of the Mile High City. Throw Ian Desmond into the mix and possibly Mark Trumbo or Edwin Encarnacion, and Arenado has protection for days.
Building a pitching staff has always been the biggest problem for the Rockies, but they’re making progress in that department as well. Jon Gray appears to have the power arsenal needed to lead a staff in Denver. In 2017, the Rockies will get one step closer to contending, and that will push Arenado to the top of the MVP vote.
Detroit Tigers: back to the playoffs
Last year, the Tigers finished four games behind the Indians in the AL Central and 2.5 games out of the Wild Card. Close, but no cigar for a talented, expensive and aging roster. This disappointing campaign came on the heels of a last-place finish in 2015 that saw the Tigers begin to retool their roster. Owner Mike Ilitch couldn’t contain himself, spending more money on Jordan Zimmermann and Justin Upton last winter.
The Tigers enter the 2017 season with over $179 million committed to just 12 players. Unless something drastic happens, they will top the luxury tax once again. There have been rumors about addressing the payroll through trades, but with cumbersome contracts for players like Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, it’s hard to see the Tigers getting anything major done. To top it off, Ilitch doesn’t seem all that interested in saving money considering he sunk almost $250 million into Upton and Zimmermann last offseason.
Detroit’s roster has its flaws, namely the starting rotation and bullpen, but the lineup is made to contend. The core of Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, Victor Martinez and Ian Kinsler can carry a team. Upton is streaky, but he’s still good for at least one three-week stretch a year when he’s impossible to get out. Where the Tigers must get better results is from their third through fifth starters. Getting a full season out of Daniel Norris, who made 13 very good starts last year, and a healthy Zimmermann should be enough to push the Tigers back over 90 wins.
In the AL Central, Detroit doesn’t have to be the best team in the league to make the playoffs. They’ll benefit from 19 games each against the Minnesota Twins, White Sox and Kansas City Royals, who are all in various stages of rebuild.
Houston Astros: the improvements don’t mean much
Every year, there’s a team that makes a handful of splashy moves in the offseason only to come up well short of expectations in the regular season. The Astros are poised to be that team in 2017. So far this winter, Houston has traded for catcher Brian McCann, signed outfielder Josh Reddick, signed DH Carlos Beltran and signed starting pitcher Charlie Morton. The front office has been saving its money for years as the rebuilding process morphed into a contending roster, and this was the year they elected to go for broke.
The Astros missed the playoffs last year due to a slow start and mediocre pitching rotation. The bullpen performed well after almost costing the team a playoff berth down the stretch in 2015. None of the additions to the team represent major improvements. McCann is a better hitting backstop than Jason Castro, but a worse defender. He actually had a lower OPS than Evan Gattis last year, but Gattis is now being shopped due to the addition of Beltran. The depth chart lists Beltran as a left fielder for now, but he’ll be 40 soon after Opening Day and played only 67 games in the field last year. How much of an improvement in right field is Reddick over Colby Rasmus?
Houston’s rotation is still a major question mark. Dallas Keuchel will have to prove he’s more than a one-hit wonder after struggling to duplicate his Cy Young season. Colin McHugh, Charlie Morton, Mike Fiers, Brad Peacock and Joe Musgrove are all back-end options. The big question mark is Lance McCullers’ health.
Instead of spreading their money around on incremental improvements, the Astros should have bit the bullet and paid Edwin Encarnacion then traded for Chris Sale or Jose Quintana. That would have pushed them ahead of the Texas Rangers. For now, they’re the second-best team in a crowded division. That may not be enough to reach the playoffs.
Kansas City Royals: the rebuild is on
As a small-market team, the Royals only have so many shots at maximizing their window to contend. Over the past four years, they haven’t had a losing year and have been to two World Series, winning one. Now, that may be starting to wind down.
Kansas City went all in on the 2015 season, and it paid off with a title. They reached deep into their farm system to acquire Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist, and both played a major role in delivering the championship. There are some nice pieces in the minors, but the Royals don’t have a single player in the MLB Top100. For the Royals to continue winning in the future, they must have a strong farm system.
After the 2017 season, the Royals will face a day of reckoning. Their pending free agents include Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Jarrod Dyson, Danny Duffy and Alcides Escobar. It will be impossible for them to retain even half of those players as they become more expensive.
The 2016 Royals limped to an 81-81 finish thanks to injuries and poor starting pitching. Seeing Duffy blossom into an ace was nice, but Yordano Ventura continued to struggle with inconsistency and maturity. The rotation for next year will not be much better, and the bullpen has already been weakened by the trade of Wade Davis for Jorge Soler. The “everything must go” sign has not been placed in the window at Kauffman Stadium just yet, but it will be there if the Royals are hovering around .500 at the trade deadline.
Los Angeles Angels: Mike Trout’s team is still not very good
In the NBA, having the best player in the league makes you a championship contender. In MLB, not so much. Mike Trout is a historically-great player, but his team has still missed the playoffs two years in a row. The Angels placed some very bad bets on C.J. Wilson, Jered Weaver and Josh Hamilton. Their bet on Albert Pujols has only been half bad so far.
If the Angels could do it all over, they’d use their money much differently, and be more careful about who they signed to surround Trout. They have a middling lineup, a questionable starting rotation, and a bad bullpen. Their best pitcher, Garret Richards, is coming back from an unproven stem cell procedure to repair his UCL. His innings will have to be monitored closely. Behind Richards, the Angels will trot out a handful of pitchers more suited to make spot starts or fill a number-five slot on a contender.
There is a legitimate chance Trout doesn’t play in the postseason again for at least two years. The MVP awards are nice, but the Angels have wasted their chance to capitalize on the game’s best player ever under the age of 25. Trout’s fairest comparison is Mickey Mantle, except with more speed. Certain things were out of management’s control, but they’ve been unwilling to bite the bullet and spend through their mistakes to make the team around Trout better. Instead of trading for Danny Espinosa, Cameron Maybin and Yunel Escobar, why not go out and pursue Yoenis Cespedes or Justin Turner? Obviously, it’s no one but Arte Moreno’s money to spend, but the Angels don’t have the look of a playoff contender in 2017. Another year wasted as Trout’s free agency clock ticks down.
Los Angeles Dodgers: this is Puig’s year
For the past two years, we’ve been waiting for the Dodgers to cut ties with mercurial outfielder Yasiel Puig. Injuries and general malfeasance have kept him wearing Dodger blue. Puig is now 26, and this may be his make-or-break season in the big leagues.
Puig checks all the boxes with his raw tools, but has been trending in the wrong direction as a big leaguer. His OPS has declined from .925 his rookie year to .740 last year. Along the way, there have been flashes of prolonged good behavior and maturity. He struggled to make consistent hard contact in the first half of last season, prompting the Dodgers to send him down to Triple-A for close to a month. In the minors, Puig hit .358/.422/.605 with five home runs. When he was recalled in September, he looked like his old self.
In 23 games in September, Puig slashed .281/.338/.561 with four home runs. He went on to play in all six games in the NLCS and recorded four hits. For all of the money the Dodgers have spent on their roster over the past five seasons, they still have a patchwork outfield. Puig has to step up and carry the load in right field because players like Andrew Toles and Trayce Thompson simply are not good enough to be full-time players on a team that expects to contend for a World Series.
The Dodgers will have to enter the 2017 with Puig as their right fielder. When he came back and hit well in September, he was able to hit fastballs for power, while still hitting them at roughly the same average. He hit sliders well the entire year, but continues to have problems with the curveball and changeup. Puig was called up by the Dodgers after only 83 games in the minor leagues. Had he been given more time to develop, he may not have had as much difficulty hitting offspeed stuff.
There has always been too much pressure on Puig to carry the Dodgers. In 2017, he’ll finally have a year with lowered expectations. This is Corey Seager’s offense now, and Puig can bat in a slot in the order where he’ll not be pressured to drive in runs. For all his flaws, Puig always plays the game with passion and joy. Management has stuck with him long enough, and that patience will finally be rewarded in 2017.
Miami Marlins: the bullpen bails out the pitching staff
The Marlins were all in on elite closers Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman, but came up short. Without Jansen and Chapman, the Fish still have one of the best bullpens in the National League. Closer A.J. Ramos is very capable, and David Phelps and Kyle Barraclough pile up the strikeouts. Adding veteran Brad Ziegler to the mix gives the Marlins four dependable options.
After the tragic death of Jose Fernandez, the Marlins starting rotation is lacking an ace. Manager Don Mattingly will be lucky to get more than five innings out of his starter on most nights. Even if Fernandez had not passed away, the Marlins would still have four question marks in their rotation. Adam Conley had a fine first full year in the big leagues, but is still not ready to lead a rotation. Wei-Yin Chen struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness in his first year in the NL.
Even with the questions in the starting rotation, the Marlins have the bats to contend in 2017. They can look to the Orioles and Royals as example of teams that have made the playoffs with a good offense, dominant bullpen and questionable pitching staff. With an improved bullpen, the Marlins will once again be viewed as a potential sleeper team. Now, if only they hadn’t included Carter Capps in that ill-advised trade for Andrew Cashner last summer.
Milwaukee Brewers: Ryan Braun gets traded
The rebuilding Brewers have held onto their last big trade chip, Ryan Braun, so far. At 32, he’s coming off his best season since his steroid suspension. In 2016, Braun finished with an OPS of .903 — his best since 2012. He also hit 30 home runs and stole 16 bases.
It took Braun almost five years to re-establish his value after the scandal and suspension. He’s never going to bring a better trade return than now. At the age of 33, Braun still has two or three good years left in him. The latter years of his long-term contract are actually fairly manageable –$76 million over the next four years with a buyout for $4 million in 2021.
For the Brewers to truly move into the next phase of their rebuild, they must find a way to trade Braun. He’s been a fit for the Dodgers for years, and they’re one of the teams he can be traded to. The other California teams are on the list, as are the Marlins. The San Francisco Giants also make sense for Braun, as they continue to search for a left fielder.
The Brewers may have to take on a few million a year from Braun’s contract to maximize their prospect haul, and they should be prepared to do that. It’s all about maximizing Braun’s value to contribute to the rebuild. The Brewers should work closely with Braun to find the best fit for him to play out his contract. Both sides benefit from a mutual parting, and a trade finally goes down in 2017.
Minnesota Twins: Byron Buxton continues to disappoint
At different times over the past three years, Buxton has been viewed as the top hitting prospect in baseball. On paper, he has it all — speed, power, defense — but the results have been underwhelming to date. In his first two years with the Twins, Buxton is a .220/.274/.398 hitter who has struck out in 162 of his 427 at-bats.
Buxton has looked completely overmatched at the plate, swinging at almost everything. He’s batting below .200 against big-league breaking balls. In the field, Buxton has also looked lost at times. That will be a little easier to correct as his instincts improve.
In recent years, baseball fans have been spoiled by all of the young prospects who hit the big leagues and immediately turned into All-Stars. Kris Bryant won the Rookie of the Year and followed it up with an MVP. Corey Seager won Rookie of the Year and finished third in the MVP vote last year. Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa are playing shortstop and batting third for playoff teams.
It’s too early to label Buxton a bust. He has all the tools, but hasn’t been able to put it all together. Having seen him now for parts of two seasons in the big leagues, the best comparison may be Melvin Upton, another player who has frustrated managers, GMs and fans with his raw potential and underwhelming results.
Buxton is in a difficult spot with the Twins. They bungled their rebuild and lost 103 games in 2016. Brain Dozier appears to be on his way out. Buxton is going to be at the top of a lineup that doesn’t include much pop or protection. Opposing pitchers will continue attacking his weaknesses until he shows an ability to lay off breaking pitches in the dirt. It could be another long year for one of baseball’s most tantalizing prospects.
New York Mets: the Amazins miss the playoffs
Bringing back Yoenis Cespedes again was great, but the Mets still have plenty of unaddressed questions on their roster. The Mets have a one-dimensional lineup with question marks at first base and third base. Either Jay Bruce or Curtis Granderson still needs to be traded. The health and ability to produce of David Wright, Travis d’Arnaud and Lucas Duda is also up in the air.
The big elephant in the room is the health of the starting rotation. Noah Syndergaard was the only hurler to make it through the entire season unscathed, and even he began wearing down in the second half. Matt Harvey will attempt to come back from a difficult shoulder procedure. Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz have both already had Tommy John surgery once. Zack Wheeler was only able to make one appearance in the minors while coming back from his own TJ.
The Mets have built a house of cards on their starting rotation, and it can all come crashing down in a hurry. Bartolo Colon, who could be counted on to eat up innings, is gone. When an entire team’s hopes hinge on the health of young power pitchers, even the slightest hiccup can derail a season. Next year will be another winning year for the Mets, but with the rest of the division and other playoff contenders improving, it will end short of the postseason.
New York Yankees: Gary Sanchez comes back down to earth
In his two months with the Yankees last year, Gary Sanchez put up the type of numbers no rookie in MLB history has ever even come close to touching. In only 53 games, he hit 20 home runs and compiled an OPS of 1.032. A third of his hits left the yard, for crying out loud. Sanchez homered every 10 at-bats.
Sanchez had an impossibly good start to his career, and was able to finish second in the Rookie of the Year vote despite playing in less than a third of his team’s games. He set the bar ridiculously high for his first full year in the big leagues. There will be a drop in his numbers as the league figures him out, but how far remains to be seen.
After batting .389/.458/.832 in August, Sanchez dropped off to .225/.314/.520 in September. In the final month of his season, he was still hitting home runs, but the strikeouts started piling up at a much faster clip. It only took a month for the best pitchers in the world to figure out where to attack the rookie.
Over a full 162-game schedule, Sanchez may very well come close to hitting 40 home runs, but his batting average will recede down into the .260-.275 range. He still needs to work on developing his ability to work an at-bat and lay off pitcher’s pitches. As a rookie, most pitchers were willing to challenge him, and the fact the Yankees were beginning to rebuild gave them more willingness to attack. The league adjusted to Sanchez, and next year it will be up to him to make his own adjustments. The Ruthian start to his career has set the bar in the stratosphere, unfairly so. If Sanchez doesn’t hit 40 home runs or slug over .600, his 2017 won’t necessarily be a disappointment.
Oakland A’s: ¯_(ツ)_/¯
Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to figuring out what exactly is going on in Oakland. If all the reports are to be believed, the A’s were the runners up in the bidding for Edwin Encarnacion. That wouldn’t have made much sense for a rebuilding team coming off two straight seasons with fewer than 70 wins.
Not much has made sense with Billy Beane and the A’s the past three years. They blew up their farm system to acquire Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel in 2014. Trading away Yoenis Cespedes, their best player, hurt the first-place A’s that year, and they were forced into the Wild Card game, where Lester’s inability to control the running game cost them. That playoff disappointment was followed up with a trade for Ben Zobrist and a signing of Billy Butler. Beane also traded away Josh Donaldson for Brett Lawrie, a deal that will haunt the A’s forever.
After the A’s flamed out in the 2014 playoffs Beane should have pulled the plug on his roster and begun a full-scale rebuild. He tried to make incremental improvements to a roster that was massively overachieving to even make the playoffs. It can be difficult to even pull off a rebuild with the type of roster Beane had, where the sum of the parts was much greater than the parts themselves.
Entering 2017, the A’s are not much closer to winning than they were last year. It makes little sense for them to bid so heavily on Encarnacion. Taking a flier on Rich Hill last year made sense because he was so easy to trade for prospects. Encarnacion will not be easy to trade, and his value may take a hit moving out to the pitcher-friendly environs of Oakland. Beane is way smarter than almost everyone when it comes to assembling a roster with whatever resources his budget allows, but his recent moves have been all over the place.
Philadelphia Phillies: Clay Buchholz proves to be a valuable investment
No pitcher in the American League has been a bigger enigma to his fanbase than Clay Buchholz was to the Fenway faithful. He threw a no-hitter in his rookie year and carried a sub-2.00 ERA for over 100 innings in 2013. Buchholz also had three seasons where he failed to make 20 starts, has never made more than 30 starts, had a season with an ERA over 5.00 and two more with ERAs over 4.50.
Buchholz was supposed to be an ace in Boston, but was maddeningly inconsistent. Through 10 years, he has an 81-61 record and a 3.96 ERA. Those are perfectly acceptable numbers for a number-four starter, but the Red Sox expected so much more from him. A change of scenery and a league switch will do him well.
The first half was ugly for Buchholz last year. He pitched in 18 games and had a 5.91 ERA. He eventually accepted a demotion to the bullpen, worked things out, and went 5-1 in the second half with a 3.22 ERA. His biggest problem was pitching at Fenway Park, as he finished with a 5.60 ERA at home and allowed 14 home runs in only 72.1 innings. On the road, Buchholz was much better.
The Phillies are hoping they get the good Clay Buchholz for a few months before flipping him to a contender for prospects. They almost pulled off a similar move last year with Jeremy Hellickson, but couldn’t find the right package on the trade market. Hellickson proved that even the best laid plans sometimes go for naught by accepting the qualifying offer. The Phillies won’t make the same mistake twice, and will eventually sell Buchholz for more prospects to help their rebuild.
Pittsburgh Pirates: McCutchen is an All-Star and finishes the year with the Buccos
For some reason, the Pirates seemed hell-bent on trading All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen at the Winter Meetings in December. Their trade talks fell apart, and McCutchen is still in Pittsburgh, albeit feeling a little unsure of his future. The tables have turned quickly, though, and the Pirates re-signed Ivan Nova, and are in hot pursuit of Jose Quintana of the White Sox.
The 2017 season is a chance for McCutchen to prove his poor showing in 2016 was an anomaly. In his age-29 season, the 2013 NL MVP slashed .256/.336/.430 with declining speed and defense. He did turn things around in August and September after a few days on the bench. Over the final 56 games of the year, McCutchen hit nine home runs and drove in 36 while posting an OPS of .852 — numbers that are very much in line with his career norms.
We may never know for sure what held McCutchen back during the first half of the 2016 season. He may have had a minor hand or wrist injury. Regardless, at his age, and with his pedigree, McCutchen should be back to playing at an All-Star level for an entire year. One thing the Pirates must do, however, is allow Starling Marte to take over in center field with McCutchen shifting to a corner.
The Pirates should be able to compete for a wild-card spot next year, especially if they’re able to acquire Quintana. Trading McCutchen this winter would have been an ill-advised move, and Pittsburgh will be lucky the talks never went to the next step.
San Diego Padres: Wil Myers goes 30-30
For the first time since winning the AL Rookie of the Year in 2013, Wil Myers was able to put together a full season without injury. He made the All-Star team and batted .259/.336/.461 with 28 home runs and 28 stolen bases. Myers also made the move to first base permanent, and played mostly positive defense at his new position.
In the second half, Myers slowed down. After batting .286/.351/.522 with 19 home runs in the first half, he tailed off to .223/.316/.381 with only nine homers and a ballooning strikeout rate. He wore down while playing his first full season without injuries, and the Padres’ weak lineup didn’t do him any favors. The lineup will be weak once again in 2017 as the Padres kick off a full-scale rebuild, but Myers should handle the rigors of playing a full 162-game schedule much better.
When Myers came up with the Tampa Bay Rays, he was billed as a complete five-tool player. Moving to first base takes away some of his potential defensive value, but will help keep him healthy. His speed and power were on full display last year. Myers showed good instincts on the bases, and was only thrown out six times while attempting to steal. He should have the green light to go whenever he wants next season as the Padres will have to get creative to plate runs. With that freedom and an ability to hold up for a full year, look for Myers to join the elusive 30-30 club.
San Francisco Giants: the Dodgers are toppled
The Giants have won three World Series titles in the past seven years, but only two division titles. The Dodgers have won the last four NL West crowns, with San Francisco missing the playoffs twice in that span. The Giants made a run at the division before nearly missing the playoffs as they collapsed in the second half.
By adding Mark Melancon, the Giants addressed their biggest weakness. Closer was the one spot where management could spend big this winter, and the Giants made Melancon their primary target early on. San Francisco got Melancon for over $20 million less than Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen. Melancon doesn’t have the gaudy strikeout numbers, but he’s been just as good as Chapman or Jansen.
Around the diamond, the Giants are solid. Most of the core remains from the World Series teams, and the rotation has quality through the first four slots. The recipe for success remains the same by the bay — timely hitting, strong defense, dominant starting pitching and a lock-down bullpen. A healthy Hunter Pence will be the biggest factor in pushing the Giants to the top of the division. The Dodgers and the Giants essentially return the same teams next year, but LA has more questions in their starting lineup. This will be the year the Giants end the Dodgers’ run of division titles. Both teams will make the playoffs, but the Giants won’t be playing in the one-game playoff this year.
Seattle Mariners: Nelson Cruz keeps proving the doubters wrong
When Nelson Cruz signed his four-year, $57 million deal with the Seattle Mariners, most smart baseball analysts wrote it off as a bad contract that would look ugly after two years. Instead, Cruz has had the two best years of his career since joining the Mariners. Entering his age-36 season, the DH has three straight years of 40-plus home runs. The gamble has paid off in a big way, and the Orioles have to be kicking themselves for being unwilling to offer Cruz a fourth year.
No one thought Cruz’s power would translate to spacious Safeco Field, but he has the type of swing that plays in any park. He swings with the type of lift that generates great backspin and line drives that carry. This ability is becoming easier to quantify as baseball gets better at tracking launch angle on batted balls.
Cruz will be 37 in July, but will not slow down this year. The Mariners have quietly built one of the best lineups in baseball tucked away in the Pacific Northwest. With Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager for protection, Cruz should turn in another season with 40 home runs. Full-time DHs have been able to buck the aging curve in recent years, and Cruz will continue doing just that in 2017.
St. Louis Cardinals: Stephen Piscotty is an All-Star
Since the departure of Albert Pujols, the St. Louis machine has chugged along steadily with a cast of solid but unspectacular players. The Cardinals farm system has churned out a steady stream of quality players who perform well in almost every facet of the game. What they’ve lacked, however, is a legitimate power source. Entering his third year in the big leagues, Stephen Piscotty is ready to be that power source.
In his rookie year, Piscotty gave us a taste of what could be to come when he homered three times in the NLDS. He followed up a solid half season in 2015 with 35 doubles, 22 home runs and an OPS of .800. Piscotty has the upside to be a 30-homer threat. The addition of Dexter Fowler at the top of the lineup will give Piscotty more chances to hit with runners on base. He put up his best numbers last year batting in the number-two hole.
One through nine, the Cardinals have a solid lineup. Adding a bat like an Edwin Encarnacion or Mark Trumbo would have been nice, but not necessary. St. Louis can find its way back to the playoffs in 2017 by continuing to follow its traditional formula. Fowler and Piscotty will key the top of the order, with both finding their way to the All-Star Game.
Tampa Bay Rays: Wilson Ramos is the steal of the offseason
Before suffering a severe knee injury in the final week of the season, Wilson Ramos was in line to lead the free agent catchers this year. Had he stayed healthy, Ramos would have been ticketed to receive at least $15 million a year over the next three or four seasons. He made his first All-Star team for the Washington Nationals in 2016, slashing .307/.354/.496 with a career-high 22 home runs.
Offseason Lasik surgery played a major part in turning Ramos from a .616 OPS hitter in 2015 to a .850 OPS hitter in 2016. At his best, he’s among the best two-way catchers in the league. The eye surgery helped make Ramos a much more effective hitter against sliders.
Because of their shoestring budget, the Rays are never able to bid on All-Star free agents unless there is some type of a catch. With Ramos, a torn ACL, his second major ACL injury, gave the Rays a way in. They were able to scoop him up for two years and $12.5 million. At a fraction of his fair-market value before injury, the Rays have the steal of the offseason in Ramos.
Tampa Bay had some of the worst production in the league at catcher last year. Replacement level would be a stretch. Ramos will be out for the first few months of the season as he rehabs, and will need to play some DH before returning to catch on a full-time basis. There’s some downside risk for the Rays, but considering Ramos is making close to half the $24 million Jason Castro, a far weaker hitter, will make over the next three years, this is one of the best buy-low contracts in the league in recent history.
Texas Rangers: one-run wins slip away
The Rangers roared to 95 wins last year. Close to 40 percent of those victories were of the one-run variety. Texas won an almost incomprehensible 36 one-run games in 2016. With a bullpen that was just good enough and an offense that can keep the pressure on for all nine innings, the Rangers managed an extremely high number of comeback wins.
Success in one-run games can often be fleeting. The 2012 Orioles made their way back to the playoffs thanks to their ability to win one-run and extra-inning games. Baltimore brought back essentially the same team in 2013 and could not replicate their success in close games.
One of the reasons the Rangers played so many close games last year was their middling starting rotation behind Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels. They haven’t yet addressed the deficiencies in the third through fifth slot in the rotation. The bullpen is not among the best in the league, and outside of Matt Bush doesn’t have many arms with dominant, strikeout stuff.
Texas is looking at a step back next year. They won’t be able to go 15-4 against the Astros again. They may win their fair share of one-run games, but going 36-11 is out of the question.
Toronto Blue Jays: Kendrys replaces Edwin
This isn’t what the newly-reinvigorated Blue Jays fanbase wants to hear, but letting Edwin Encarnacion walk was the correct decision. Keeping an aging, costly roster together just for the sake of keeping the band together is rarely the correct decision in sports, no matter how hard that is to accept for fans. For a fraction of the cost, Kendrys Morales will provide comparable production without tying up the front office’s hands.
Morales is not Encarnacion, and replacing a 40-homer, 100-RBI bat is not an easy task. For his part, Morales is coming off a 30-homer season, the second of his career. He hit 52 home runs combined between 2015 and 2016, while playing in a pitcher-friendly park and division.
Seeing Encarnacion suit up for the Indians is going to be painful at first, but seeing Morales crank out 30 home runs this season will soften the blow. The Blue Jays need to focus on preparing for the next generation of stars. Extending Josh Donaldson would be the best first step. With an excellent pitching staff and several other All-Stars, the Jays will be fine without their two franchise icons, Encarnacion and Jose Bautista (assuming Joey Bats is not forced into accepting a very team-friendly pillow deal in Toronto).
Washington Nationals: Trea Turner is the team’s most exciting player
Oh boy, Dusty Baker owes Trea Turner a big-time apology. The old school manager’s hesitance to insert a rookie shortstop at the top of his batting order probably cost Turner the NL Rookie of the Year last year. In only 73 games after a midseason call-up, Turner hit 13 home runs and stole 33 bases. Throw in a .937 OPS, and the rookie from NC State would have given Corey Seager a run for his money.
Turner’s game-changing speed was evident the moment he took the big leagues by storm. He was thrown out only six times, and made every ground ball to the left side of the infield interesting. His power was also a very nice surprise.
The Nationals may be Bryce Harper’s team, but Turner will be the most exciting player on the roster. Over a full season, he could steal 60 bases and hit 20 home runs or more. He has a polished swing, and has a feel for situational hitting. Defense might be more of a question, with Turner being handed the keys to the shortstop position. He’s rangy, and should make more than his fair share of highlight reel plays. Turner’s arm is more of an unknown, but he has quick feet, and will get himself in position to make most throws.
Turner is going to be an absolute terror on the bases for a full 162-game schedule. His time has come, and the Nationals can no longer delay his ascension to the big leagues.
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