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Taking another swing - A 2017 MLB season preview

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Boston Red Sox's Deven Marrero, right, and Hanley Ramirez warm up during a spring training baseball workout in Fort Myers, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. Boston Red Sox's Deven Marrero, right, and Hanley Ramirez warm up during a spring training baseball workout in Fort Myers, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Once again, spring has sprung. Regardless of what the weather outside brings, there's no escaping the fact that we're just days away from the beginnings of another baseball season. Spring training is almost at an end. The crack of the bat and the smack of the mitt will soon surround us.

There's a lot to look forward to in 2017. We get to see the Chicago Cubs take the field as defending champions for the first time in over a century. We get to watch as generational talents such as Mike Trout and Bryce Harper and Mookie Betts and Clayton Kershaw offer their own definitions of greatness.

As for what that future holds in 2017, who can say? Hell, the Cubs won the World Series; it’s safe to say that all bets are off in terms of guessing what’s going to happen. The truth is that major league baseball has proven surprisingly unpredictable in recent years.

Obviously, that means going ahead and making some predictions. Here are a few thoughts on the upcoming season.

(Division winners – x; wild card teams – y)

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American League

AL East

Boston Red Sox - x

Toronto Blue Jays - y

New York Yankees

Baltimore Orioles

Tampa Bay Rays

I might be an unapologetic homer, but sometimes, the homer pick is also the correct one. The Red Sox might have lost the big bat and spiritual leadership of David Ortiz, but they also made some pretty strong acquisitions – Chris Sale first and foremost – and have a collection of wildly talented youngsters led by 2016 MVP runner-up Mookie Betts. Even with David Price delayed by injury, the presence of Cy Young winner Rick Porcello ensures a strong rotation, while guys like Xander Bogaerts, Hanley Ramirez and the ageless Dustin Pedroia lead the offense. This team is poised to excel across the board. The Blue Jays might have lost Edwin Encarnacion’s big bat, but they’ve still got a strong offense led by Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, newcomer Kendrys Morales and aging-but-still-effective Jose Bautista. And their rotation might surprise you; youngsters like Aaron Sanchez and Marco Estrada could be poised for big production this year. There’s actually a fair amount to like about this team – if nothing else, they know how to exploit their home ballpark. They’ll score fewer and give up fewer; I’m betting it’s a wash and Toronto contends for a playoff spot. Believe it or not, I’m actually higher on the Yankees than a lot of people this season. They’re in youth movement mode right now and guys like catcher Gary Sanchez and first baseman Greg Bird might turn out to be legitimate stars. Of course, this IS the Yankees, so there are some vets sprinkled in there – Matt Holliday and Chris Carter and, of course, closer Aroldis Chapman and his massive contract. Still, while you might be wary of this bunch in a year or two, 2017 will likely end with New York sitting right around .500. The Orioles have been making me look foolish for a few years now, but despite all the evidence, I’m still not convinced this is a good team. They’ll hit a ton of homers – guys like Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis and Adam Jones can hit some bombs. And they’ve got one of the most talented players in MLB in Manny Machado. But they strike out a lot and they don’t have much depth in the rotation; if they don’t get serious bounce from a couple of guys at the front end, it’s going to be a long season in Baltimore. As for the Rays, well … the less said, the better. They’ve got some intriguing young players – including some arms that could prove to be quite good – and Evan Longoria is still around doing his Evan Longoria thing, but there’s just not enough here. Of course, this means that the young pitchers will make the leap and make me look foolish.

AL Central

Cleveland Indians - x

Kansas City Royals

Detroit Tigers

Chicago White Sox

Minnesota Twins

The Indians won the AL pennant last year … and they might be even better this year. Assuming that their rotation injuries are no longer an issue, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar will join ace Corey Kluber to form a formidable starting trio. On the offensive side, they’ve got studs like new addition Edwin Encarnacion and shortstop Francisco Lindor holding it down; if oft-hurt outfielder Michael Brantley can stay on the field, the Cleveland offense has a shot at being even better than the club that made it to the World Series. I might be going high on the Royals simply because I’ve enjoyed Kansas City’s return to relevance. They’ve still got a TON of talented players – guys like Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain and Salvador Perez and Alex Gordon – and they’ve made some potentially interesting moves with regards to the starting rotation. However, they traded lights-out bullpen guy Wade Davis among others and a lot of key core guys – Cain; Hosmer; Mike Moustakas – are free agents after the season. The window is closing for KC; we’ll see if they can push through one more time. I put Detroit in the middle because I don’t really know what to do with them. They’re getting older, but their offense is still elite – Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Justin Upton and the Martinezes (J.D. and Victor) are all likely to remain productive. They’ve got the reinvigorated Justin Verlander and ROY Michael Fulmer in the rotation. But they’re vulnerable on the back end, both offensively and pitching-wise. If a couple of guys falter, whether it be age or injury or whatever, the Tigers could collapse. The White Sox have clearly turned their eyes to the future; they’ve been making deals for prospects left and right. And there’s more of that to come – don’t be surprised when Todd Frazier and Jose Abreu and Melky Cabrera and Jose Quintana are on the move. Chicago has already stockpiled some legitimate prospects in the Chris Sale and Adam Eaton trades; expect more of the same moving forward through the season. The Twins are one of those teams that almost can’t help but be better in 2017. They’re not likely to lose 100 games again, not with the wealth of budding talent they’ve got. Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Max Kepler, Jose Berrios – the odds are good that at least one of those guys (and probably more) lives up to the hype. That said, they’re still kids; they’ll move forward, but they’re a year or two away.

AL West

Houston Astros - x

Texas Rangers - y

Seattle Mariners

Los Angeles Angels

Oakland Athletics

I love this Houston Astros team. They might have the most raw talent of any group in the American League. Diminutive second baseman Jose Altuve is one of the best all-around hitters in baseball, while guys like shortstop Carlos Correa and outfielder George Springer are superstars waiting to happen. Toss in veterans like Carlos Beltran and Evan Gattis and you’re looking at a phenomenal offense. If ace Dallas Keuchel can bounce back and Lance McCullers can continue to develop, the pitching might come close to matching that lineup. And if that happens, watch out for Houston. The Rangers might not have the raw talent of the Astros, but that hasn’t mattered much in recent years. They’ve lost a number of contributors – Ian Desmond, Mitch Moreland, Carlos Beltran – but they’ve still got young stud Rougned Odor and the ageless Adrian Beltre alongside newcomer Mike Napoli and rising stars like Joey Gallo and Jurickson Profar. The rotation is thin after the one-two punch of Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels. They’ll probably fall back to earth a bit this season. I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of us are going to wind up wrong about the Mariners, but I can’t rank them any higher than this. Robinson Cano still swings a mean bat, while Kyle Seager is a star and Nelson Cruz has legitimate power. But an aging rotation – led by Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma – is counting on guys like inury-prone lefty James Paxton to get over. They’ll be a good team – a winning team – but that just isn’t enough in this division. The Angels have Mike Trout and … well, hey – they have Mike Trout. It’s likely that we’re going to watch Los Angeles waste yet another historic-type season from their young outfielder, relying on a patchwork rotation and a lineup whose second-best hitter is probably the rapidly-deteriorating Albert Pujols. However, all is not lost – this team looks like it might have a pretty good defense with guys like Andrelton Simmons on the case. Still, this looks like a group that’s going to be in – and lose – a lot of close ones. As for the Oakland A’s, the sad reality is that this team is probably going nowhere in the immediate (and likely intermediate) future. There are some interesting players – slugger Khris Davis and pitcher Sonny Gray spring immediately to mind – and a handful of intriguing youngsters, but it isn’t nearly enough. A’s fans should expect to spend the summer looking up from the basement.

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National League

NL East

Washington Nationals - x

New York Mets

Miami Marlins

Philadelphia Phillies

Atlanta Braves

It seems like the Nationals have been teasing us for years. Yes, they make the playoffs. Yes, they have some of the game’s best young talent. And yet … don’t they seem a bit disappointing? This might be the year, though – they are stacked offensively, with Bryce Harper leading a group that includes Daniel Murphy, Trea Turner and newly-acquired Adam Eaton. If the health of rotation matches the talent – Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez and so on – Washington will be a force to be reckoned with. They might even get out of the first round of the playoffs. Any conversation about the Mets has to start with that rotation. One could argue that New York has four potential aces – Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Stephen Matz – and if that quartet is healthy and effective, the Mets are going to be no fun to play. Granted, the offense looks a little thin, so guys like Yoenis Cespedes and Jay Bruce and Curtis Granderson and Lucas Duda need to really pull their weight. Still, with that level of starting pitching, the Mets are one dangerous team. The Marlins are going to spend 2017 marked by the tragic death of pitcher Jose Fernandez; it remains to be seen how they might react going forward. There’s talent on the offensive side – Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna are good players, while oft-injured Giancarlo Stanton is a superstar when he can stay on the field. However, the loss of Fernandez leaves the rotation ace-less and made up of serviceable, unspectacular arms. It won’t be enough to push Miami beyond the middle of the pack. It has been a decidedly rough patch for the Phillies over the past few years. However, the departure of contract albatross Ryan Howard allows for a twinkle of hope for Philadelphia fans. Not for this year, mind you – other than a few young guys like Tommy Joseph and Vincent Velasquez and Maikel Franco, the cupboard is pretty bare. Hell, they traded for Clay Buchholz. That is not the move of a contending team. Meanwhile, the Braves are the only thing keeping the Phillies out of the cellar, because Atlanta has the potential to be BAD this year. Sure, they’ve got the great (and criminally underrated) Freddie Freeman and the odds-on ROY favorite in Dansby Swanson. But the rest of the lineup feels spare-partsy. Julio Teheran is an excellent pitcher, but counting on elderly innings-eaters like Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey isn’t exactly ideal. They’re another team that will be good soon … but not yet.

NL Central

Chicago Cubs - x

St. Louis Cardinals - y

Pittsburgh Pirates

Milwaukee Brewers

Cincinnati Reds

Choosing the Cubs to win their division is probably the biggest no-brainer in this preview. They’re stacked with talent across the board. Their lineup might be the best in the league top-to-bottom, led by MVP Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo and young guys like Javier Baez and Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber to go along with stalwart vets like Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward. Their rotation features top-end guys like Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and breakout star Kyle Hendricks. They’ve even got a stud closer in Wade Davis. Chicago is easily the favorite to make a return trip to the World Series. When I look at the 2017 Cardinals, I’m not necessarily blown away by what I see. They’ve got some really good players – guys like Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler and Yadier Molina and breakout guys like Aledmys Diaz and Stephen Piscotty. They’ve got an ace in Carlos Martinez and a steady vet in Adam Wainwright leading their rotation. They look pretty good, but not GREAT. Doesn’t matter – no one in the 21st century has gone broke betting on a strong showing from St. Louis. They just missed the postseason last year – they won’t do it twice in a row. The Pirates give me the same feeling that the Royals do in the AL – I like it when they’re good. And they will be. I’m calling a legitimate bounceback year from Andrew McCutchen and continued good offensive performance from Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, among others. I think Gerrit Cole will be good and Jameson Taillon might be even better. Unfortunately, they’re behind the best team in baseball and the nigh-unkillable Cardinals. They’ll be a winning team, but it won’t be enough. There’s not a lot going for the Brewers these days. They’ve got Ryan Braun, who’s still pretty good. Jonathan Villar was a nice story last season and Eric Thames might be a nice story this year. But the rotation overperformed just to reach mediocrity in 2016; the likelihood of regression seems fairly high. There’s just not a lot of reason to be hopeful in Mliwaukee. Ditto Cincinnati, where the Reds look to be (slightly) worse than even the Brew Crew. Joey Votto is still one of the best hitters in the big leagues, while outfielders Adam Duvall and Billy Hamilton bring a degree of excitement to the offense. But the Reds rotation is already struggling with injuries, leaving them depleted; the bullpen’s potentially brutal as well. Expect tough times in Cincy this season.

NL West

Los Angeles Dodgers - x

San Francisco Giants - y

Colorado Rockies

Arizona Diamondbacks

San Diego Padres

The Dodgers look great going into the season. They’ve got best-pitcher-in-the-world Clayton Kershaw leading a strong rotation. Shortstop Corey Seager is an absolute stud. Joc Pederson, Adrian Gonzalez and Justin Turner all contribute to a lineup with big scoring potential. They also added Logan Forsythe, resigned closer Kenley Jansen and get to see what the hell Yasiel Puig is going to bring to the table this season. They got stung hard by the injury bug last season; if they can keep their best guys on the field, this has a chance to be a huge year for Los Angeles. It’s an odd year, so it feels weird to pick the Giants as a playoff team, but they sure do look solid. The offense is led by Buster Posey, while players like the Brandons (Belt and Crawford) and Hunter Pence look like contributors. Madison Bumgarner leads the rotation, with Johnny Cueto and Matt Moore slotting in behind him. Write it down – 2017 is when San Francisco gets off the even/odd year train and makes a run for the playoffs. There might be more excitement surrounding the Rockies than we’ve seen in years. They always score, but this year, they could score a TON – Nolan Arenado is one of the five best players in the majors, while guys like Trevor Story, D.J. LeMahieu, Charlie Blackmon and the still-dangerous Carlos Gonzalez (along with new addition Ian Desmond) can all hit the cover off the ball. As always in Colorado, it comes down to pitching. Jon Gray and Tyler Anderson look like potential aces; if they can combat the altitude effectively, the Rockies might contend. The Diamondbacks are one of those teams that never seems to get it together. They shelled out big money for starter Zack Greinke and traded for Shelby Miller, but neither pitcher lived up to the investment. Paul Goldschmidt remains one of the best players you rarely hear about, while a hopefully-healthy A.J. Pollock and powerful Yasmany Tomas will anchor the offense, but the rest of the lineup is decidedly blah. This is another team kept from the basement only by the presence of a worse squad. That squad? The San Diego Padres, who look to once again have a terrible season in front of them. The rotation might be the weakest in all of baseball – they added broken-down Jered Weaver and actually improved. Their lineup is Wil Myers and little else; Myers is a nice player, but if he’s the centerpiece of your offense, you’ve got troubles. Suffice it to say, if you’re a Padres fan, well … at least the weather is nice.

Last modified on Wednesday, 22 March 2017 12:47

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