Year in preview: The 10 biggest stories to watch in MLB in 2016
It's impossible to know exactly what is in store for major league baseball in 2016, but if this past year is any indication it will be filled with historic performances (Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy), breakthrough teams (Astros, Cubs) and another exciting October. Those exact storylines would have been tough to predict in 12 months ago, which means the best moments next year will likely be those we don't see coming. In that light, what follows is a best guess as to the hottest topics of the coming year, listed in rough chronological order.
1. The Hall of Fame adds at least one new member and could make history.
On Jan. 6, the results of this year's Baseball Writers Association of America balloting will be revealed during a 6 p.m. ET show on MLB Network. Of the 32 candidates on this year's ballot, newcomer Ken Griffey Jr. is the only lock to reach the 75% needed for election, but Mike Piazza, who received 69.9% of the vote last year, is very likely to join him based upon current exit polling as well as electoral history. If the early returns are any indication, fellow holdover Jeff Bagwell could make the jump all the way from 55.7% as well. Should all three men be elected, it would mark the first time the writers have ever elected at least three candidates in three straight elections.
Even if it's only Piazza joining Griffey for the July 24 induction day in Cooperstown, it will still be the first time since 2003 to '05 that the writers have elected multiple candidates in three straight years. If you're hoping that traffic might abate to help your favorite candidate's cause, note that come next November, top holdovers Trevor Hoffman and Tim Raines—the latter will make his final appearance on the writers' ballot—will likely have to vie for attention on the 2017 ballot with newcomers Vladimir Guerrero, Manny Ramirez and Ivan Rodriguez.
2. Cuba becomes land of opportunity for MLB.
In December 2014, President Obama announced plans for the United States to begin normalizing relations with Cuba after more than a half-century of embargo, and in the year since then, we've seen signs of the ways that baseball will be at the vanguard of such changes. Last spring, infielder Yoan Moncada signed with the Red Sox, becoming the first young Cuban star to sign with a major league team without having to defect. In December, a group of major league officials and stars—including the White Sox' Jose Abreu, the Cardinals' Brayan Pena and the Dodgers' Yasiel Puig, who were able to reunite with family members for the first time since defecting—embarked upon a three-day goodwill tour of the island, welcomed by Antonio Castro, the vice president of the Cuban baseball federation and the youngest son of former Cuban President Fidel Castro.
The changes will keep coming in 2016. Last week, MLB asked the U.S. government for special permission to sign Cuban players in an effort to provide a safe and legal path for them to play baseball stateside. The goal is to eliminate the danger of defections, cutting out of the equation human traffickers and perilous journeys at sea. That would pave the way for the next Abreu or Cespedes—somebody such as 22-year-old shortstop Lourdes Gourriel Jr., the youngest member of Cuba’s “first family” of baseball—to make a much easier transition than his predecessors.
There's even hope that a major league team could play an exhibition against the Cuban national team in Havana during spring training, with commissioner Rob Manfred having chosen the Rays via a lottery. If the exhibition comes together, it will be the first time major leaguers play in Cuba since the Orioles squared off against the national team in 1999.
3. Sluggers finally find new homes.
The biggest dominoes in the market for free agent starters—David Price, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, Jeff Samardzija and Mike Leake—fell before Christmas, but aside from Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist, teams have yet to strike deals with the premium position players. Among those still available are Yoenis Cespedes, Chris Davis and Justin Upton. So far, 12 of the top 15 contracts in terms of total dollars have gone to pitchers; relievers Darren O’Day, Joakim Soria and Ryan Madson have all received more guaranteed money than the fourth-largest position player contract, that of Asdrubal Cabrera (who got $18.5 million from the Mets).
Sooner or later, some team will take the plunge with a nine-figure deal for one of these sluggers, with other moves following in short order. Both in total dollars and average annual salary, the deals could be among the highest ever for position players, landing somewhere in the $22-to-$25 million per year range.
4. Manfred puts MLB’s new domestic violence policy into action.
Back in August, MLB and the players' union announced a joint domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse policy, establishing a new protocol for how the league will handle alleged offenses in those areas. The policy gives the commissioner far-reaching powers to discipline players whether or not they are convicted of a crime, with no minimum or maximum punishment proscribed, though players can challenge any ruling in front of an arbitration panel. Since the policy was announced, the league is known to have opened three investigations. In November, Rockies shortstop Jose Reyes was arrested on domestic abuse charges and Puig was involved in a nightclub brawl that also included his sister, while in December, Aroldis Chapman was reported to have tried to choke his girlfriend following an October argument and to have fired gunshots in his home.
Manfred has yet to issue a ruling in any of those cases, but one has to figure that he will by the start of spring training. Particularly with Chapman having been dealt to the Yankees on Monday, the way the league handles the case is likely to fall under heavy scrutiny. In the interim, there's cause for anxiety regarding whether the commissioner can rise to the occasion, demonstrating that the league, in marked contrast to the NFL, can handle these matters with appropriate sensitivity.
5. MLB investigates another drug ring.
Last Friday, an investigative report from Al Jazeera alleged that the Phillies’ Ryan Howard and the Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman were among a group of athletes—headlined by quarterback Peyton Manning and former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson—who received banned performance-enhancing drugs from an Indiana-based anti-aging clinic called the Guyer Institute. Specifically, Howard and Zimmerman are alleged to have received a human growth hormone supplement called Delta-2 from former pharmacy intern Charlie Sly. Also in the report is Cubs catcher Taylor Teagarden, who via an undercover camera admitted to using PEDs during the past season.
A lawyer for Howard and Zimmerman has disputed the report, as has Manning, and even Sly has recanted his story. None of that is good enough for MLB, which has indicated that it will launch its own investigation. If the 2013 Biogenesis saga is any indication, the names of more athletes connected to the clinic could come to light, with 80-game (or longer) suspensions handed down even in the absence of positive tests.
6. The Royals begin their quest for the first pennant three-peat since Joe Torre’s Yankees dynasty, while the Giants look to keep their even-year magic going.
The two teams that met in a thrilling seven-game World Series in 2014 had very different seasons in 2015. While San Francisco followed up its third even-year championship of the decade by missing the postseason in the third straight odd-numbered year, Kansas City unexpectedly rolled to the AL's best record and set down the Astros, Blue Jays and Mets in three hard-fought postseason series to claim the second world title in franchise history.
In 2016, the Royals have the chance to become just the second team of the past quarter-century to win at least three consecutive pennants (the Torre-managed 1998 to 2001 Yankees are the other). At the very least, they'll have to do it without Cueto and Zobrist, both of whom have signed elsewhere, and possibly without outfielder Alex Gordon, who has yet to sign.
As for the Giants, they rebuilt their rotation by signing Cueto and Samardzija, and they will probably make at least one more move of significance in the outfield, though it's more likely to be somebody on the level of Dexter Fowler or Gerardo Parra than a star such as Cespedes, Upton or even Gordon.
With the Dodgers having lost Greinke to Arizona and seen their bids to acquire Chapman and starter Hisashi Iwakuma collapse, and the Diamondbacks having finished over .500 just once in the past eight seasons, San Francisco may have the opening it needs to reclaim the NL West and bid for yet another world title.
7. The reloaded Cubs chase their long-awaited title and lead a group of clubs looking to follow up breakout seasons with even better years.
In 2015, the Cubs' rebuilding effort bore fruit. Led by marquee free agent signing Jon Lester, eventual NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta and rookies Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber, they returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and bumped off a pair of intradivision rivals, the Pirates and Cardinals, before falling to the Mets in the NLCS. Thus far this off-season, the Theo Epstein-led front office has committed an MLB-high $276.5 million to free agents Heyward, Zobrist, John Lackey and Trevor Cahill in an effort to end a pennant drought that dates to 1945 and a World Series title drought that extends back to 1908.
Of course, Chicago wasn't the only team to end a long playoff drought in 2015, thereby raising expectations for the coming year. Toronto reached the postseason for the first time since 1993, and while it won't have Price to head its rotation again, full seasons from starting pitcher Marcus Stroman and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki should help; still, the pitching staff appears to need some finishing touches at both ends to support that fearsome lineup.
In Houston, the rebuilt Astros shook off six straight losing seasons and returned to the postseason for the first time since 2005, where they gave the Royals quite a scare in the Division Series. In '16 they'll look to full seasons of youngsters such as AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa, outfielder George Springer and pitcher Lance McCullers to help them build on last year's success.
Finally, the Mets seized the advantage in a downtrodden NL East to make their first trip to the playoffs since 2006. While their stable of premium young arms will expand to include a full season of Steven Matz and the return of Zack Wheeler from Tommy John surgery—not to mention a full complement of innings from Matt Harvey, hopefully surrounded by less controversy—their cash-strapped ownership doesn't appear willing to return its payroll to a market-appropriate level. That means you can count New York out on signing Cespedes and every other big free-agent bat, thus putting more pressure on the incoming double-play combination of shortstop Cabrera and second baseman Neil Walker, plus the resurgent Curtis Granderson and the injury-prone David Wright and Travis d'Arnaud, to carry the offense.
8. The Marlins' circus introduces multiple new sideshows.
General manager-turned-manager Dan Jennings is gone, and new manger Don Mattingly has a four-year contract, but you can expect the majors' most unstable team to generate no shortage of controversy in 2016. First and foremost is the situation regarding ace Jose Fernandez, whose innings limit in his first full season back from 2014 Tommy John surgery has already generated sparks between team president David Samson and agent Scott Boras, not to mention conveniently placed rumors regarding the 23-year-old ace's so-called “attitude issues.” Given the unlikelihood of the Boras client agreeing to a long-term deal with Miami, it's not unreasonable to expect a blockbuster-level trade, though the team's asking price is said to be unrealistically high.
Beyond Fernandez, there's another Boras-related squabble regarding centerfielder Marcell Ozuna, who was demoted amid a slump last summer—a move that prevented him from becoming arbitration eligible—and who has since become the subject of trade rumors. Then there's new hitting coach Barry Bonds, who is returning to uniform for the first time since being forced into retirement following the 2007 season and who has already wondered aloud about whether he's right for such a job.
There's also Ichiro Suzuki's chase for 3,000 hits; the 42-year-old outfielder is 65 away, but having slid below replacement level in 2015 (.229/.282/.279 in 438 PA en route to –1.2 WAR), there's no way he merits regular play, particularly if Ozuna's still around and Giancarlo Stanton stays healthy.
All of this and we haven't even mentioned the one storyline that always bears watching with the Marlins, and that is that their next fire sale always seems to be just around the corner.
9. David Ortiz embarks upon his retirement tour.
On Nov. 18, Ortiz celebrated his 40th birthday by posting a video to The Players' Tribune announcing that the 2016 season will be his last. The iconic slugger, who has helped the Red Sox to three world championships, clubbed 503 homers (including 37 in 2015, his highest total since '06) and set records for hits, homers and RBIs by a designated hitter, is sure to receive the kind of league-wide sendoff reminiscent of Mariano Rivera (2013) and Derek Jeter ('14), with a boatload of parting gifts. Nowhere will the celebration be more festive than Fenway Park, where Ortiz built his legend while putting “The Curse of the Bambino” to bed and helping to heal the city in the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
10. The Major League Baseball Players’ Association and the owners hash out a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Baseball is in the midst of the longest stretch of labor peace among the major North American sports, having avoided a stoppage since the one that killed the 1994 World Series. With revenues approaching $9.5 billion on the heels of 13 straight years of growth, the sport is awash in cash, so negotiations for the next labor agreement aren't expected to get so contentious that they'll stop play. With the current agreement set to expire on Dec. 1, 2016, the players and owners will spend the next 11 months working to find common ground on a variety of familiar issues including revenue sharing, the luxury tax threshold and the qualifying offer/compensation pick system for free agents.
Additionally, the two sides could explore making significant changes in areas such as: service time; roster sizes; rules regarding instant replay and the pace of play; and amateur drafts, both domestic and potentially international. The schedule is expected to be a hot-button issue, with the two sides deciding the start and end dates of the spring, regular season and postseason, as well as exploring a possible reduction in the number of games played and discussing start times on getaway days so as to reduce the wear and tear of travel.