April 01, 2017
CLEARWATER, Fla. – While there’s a strong likelihood that pieces of confetti can still be found flying around Wrigleyville this weekend, the 2016 season ended five months ago.
Sure, the Cubs made baseball great again in Chicago last fall and could easily win the World Series again in 2017 after going 108 years in between their last two titles, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s a new season, last year’s records and accomplishment have been wiped clean from baseball’s slate.
In Philadelphia, the Phillies will begin a season without anyone from the 2008 championship club on their roster for the first time since 2000. Ryan Howard (unemployed) and Carlos Ruiz (Seattle Mariners) are gone and the team’s rebuild could take an important step this season with a young lineup and rotation getting opportunities and more than a couple of prospects on the verge of breaking into the big leagues this summer.
In the National League East, the Nationals and Mets are primed to do battle all season. Can the Mets’ rotation remain healthy? Can the Nationals win a playoff round for the first time … ever? (They last won a playoff series back in 1981, when they were called the Montreal Expos). If Clayton Kershaw is healthy all year, is there any stopping the Dodgers?
Ditto in the American League, if Cleveland’s assembly of arms are healthy, is there a team that can keep pace with them in the league, let alone in their division? How about the Yankees, who have reeled off 21-straight winning seasons? Will they be contenders, or will they finish with a losing record for the first time since 1995? Can anyone predict the always volatile American League West?
Here’s one man’s attempt to sort through some of those questions (teams listed in order of predicted finish; asterisk notes wild-card winners):
The Nationals are easy to hate from Philadelphia, what with all of their young, in-their-prime talent, their often unhittable ace atop the rotation and their brash former MVP winner. They almost sound like the 2010 Phillies, right? Except by 2010, the Phillies core had won a World Series and its share of playoff series. I got burned by picking Washington to go to the World Series last year. The Nationals will be better than the uncertain Mets, but even with Max Scherzer and Bryce Harper as the best versions of themselves this season, which I think they’ll be, it’s difficult to be confident this bunch can ever realize it’s full potential as a team.
Really, how exactly can the Cubs top their 2016 season, when they won this division by 17 1/2 games (!!!) and then, you know, did the whole win the World Series for the first time in over a century thing? Here’s how: continue to ride the best core of young hitters in baseball to regular success to stave off a hungry Pittsburgh team destined for perhaps its last run in the Andrew McCutchen-Gerrit Cole era and a pesky St. Louis team that is pretty much the baseball version of Michael Myers. Even with a once-in-a-century hangover, the Cubs are talented enough to do that pretty easily.
Not only have the Dodgers not won a World Series since the October classic that featured this iconic moment in 1988, but they also haven’t appeared in a Series since ’88. They showed some moxie against the Cubs last postseason that should give them the confidence to roll through the West, even with the pitching-rich Giants annoying them regularly. The Rockies will be fun with a rising core of you and exciting talent, both in the rotation and in the lineup, but not fun enough to keep up with the former New York city rivals atop the division.
Those alarm bells you hear in the distance are coming from Boston, which has a baseball team close to rivaling the Cubs with an assemblage of young talent, but who saw their celebration of adding Chris Sale to the rotation come to a quick end when David Price missed the entirety of the Grapefruit League schedule with elbow woes. Yikes. This doesn’t ever end well, does it? The Sox are still talented enough to reach the postseason without Price, but not to topple a Toronto team with a complete lineup and underrated, deep rotation. As for the Yankees, they’ll win more games than they lose yet again, but not enough to contend.
The Indians might have the best and most underrated starting pitching staff in the American League. I actually stole that exact sentence from last year’s preview. The same can be said again minus the underrated part. Plus they upgraded a lineup (that includes dynamic young shortstop Francisco Lindor) by adding Edwin Encarnacion, who has averaged 39 home runs per year in the last five years to go alongside a .912 OPS. Sounds like a decent MVP candidate for a World Series hopeful team.
I had the Astros pegged as the 2016 World Series winners in this space last year and got burned. But perhaps it wasn’t surprising that a young team got off to a slow start (7-17 in April). Wasn’t that a regular occurrence for a pretty good young Phillies core not that long ago? The Astros probably have the best lineup in the American League (next to Boston?) and should be a force in this division for the next decade.
National League: Bryce Harper, Washington
American League: Mike Trout, Los Angeles
Sometimes the obvious choices are the right choices. These two were crowned the game’s most marketable young stars when they played in their first All-Star Games in 2012 and they’ve won a combined three MVP awards since that season. Trout is the reigning AL champ and Harper is coming off a monster spring and in line for a bounce-back year (and one closer to his monster 2015 season).
National League: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles
American League: Chris Sale, Boston
Like Trout, you can pretty much plug Kershaw’s name into this space every year as long as he’s healthy. He missed time last season and still finished fifth on the ballot after a ridiculous 172-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Sale is probably the best pitcher in baseball who hasn’t won a Cy Young Award or World Series MVP. He’ll meet the massive expectations in Boston and claim at least one of those awards in 2017.
National League: Hunter Renfroe, San Diego
American League: Yoan Moncada, Chicago
I like a little symmetry every now and again, so why not go with the uber-talented Moncada, the jewel of the Chris Sale trade? Even if he’s not called up until early June, he can pile up the counting numbers ROY voters like to see. As for Renfroe, he had a nice showing in his debut last September (four home runs in 11 games) and in case you weren’t aware, 2017 has been a big year for guys named Hunter Renfrow.
National League: Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh
American League: Carlos Beltran, Houston
So you’re saying a former MVP and a possible future Hall of Famer are surprises? Well, let’s consider them surprises in this context: Beltran turns 40 next month and, in a hitter-friendly ballpark surrounded by other formidable bats, will post numbers no 40-year-old (non-David Ortiz Division) should ever post while the 30-year-old McCutchen will rebound from a down year and nagging winter trade rumors by returning to MVP form.
National League: Daniel Murphy, Washington
American League: Mark Trumbo, Baltimore
The 31-year-old Murphy was the NL MVP runner-up after hitting 25 home runs with 104 RBI and a .985 OPS in 2016. You know what he did in the three previous years combined? He hit 36 home runs with a .744 OPS in 434 games. Trumbo led all major leaguers in home runs last season, with 47, but also hit .229 with a .305 OBP after July. Feels like a player destined to let long-suffering Orioles fans down.
Los Angeles over Washington
If the Nationals were to match up with the Cubs in the National League Division Series, perhaps winning that would be just the kind of mojo they’d need to get over their postseason monkey and send them to the Series. Sorry, Nats. I’m not picking a team standing in the way of Clayton Kershaw as he wills his way to his first career trip to the World Series.
Cleveland over Houston
Even though the 2011 Phillies are the antithesis of this line of thinking, we like elite starting pitching depth in the postseason and Cleveland obviously showed it had that a year ago. Oh, and the Indians have Andrew Miller, too. If all of their pitchers are healthy (which they weren’t when their postseason run began last year), the Indians are set up pretty nicely for a return trip to the World Series. If the Astros trade for a top-of-the-rotation starter before the trade deadline, they’ll be a more formidable foe that could knock off the reigning pennant winners.
Los Angeles over Cleveland
Looking at old major league drafts is fun because you can do stuff like this: what do Luke Hochevar, Greg Reynolds, Evan Longoria, Brad Lincoln, and Brandon Morrow have in common? They were all picked before Andrew Miller (6th overall) and Clayton Kershaw (7th overall) in a 2006 draft that also saw Tim Lincecum (10th) and Max Scherzer (11th) selected in the first 11 picks. Just a fun fact for this upcoming World Series matchup, pitting the team with the highest Opening Day payroll (Dodgers) with a team that hasn’t won a World Series since 1948 (Indians). Kershaw, budding superstar Corey Seager, and the Dodgers will prevail. We’d say Chase Utley rides off into the sunset with the World Series trophy (after wrestling it away from Indians utility man Michael Martinez) but we’re not certain that guy is ever actually going to retire.
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21
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