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Indians are among teams that have replaced Cubs as MLB's lovable loser
2:48 | MLB
Indians are among teams that have replaced Cubs as MLB's lovable loser
Tuesday January 3rd, 2017

Just before 2016 Opening Day I ranked these are the three biggest questions heading into last season:

1. Can the Cubs win the World Series?

2. How great is the Mets’ rotation?

3. Does a new generation of young sluggers continue the uptick in offense we saw in the second half of last season?

The answers to 1 and 3 were overwhelmingly affirmative. In addressing 2, I compared the 2016 Mets’ pitchers to the 2004 Marlins’ pitchers—a young group that broke down and fizzled the year after a World Series push.

This year, with the Hall of Fame election results coming this month and meaningful games in March because of the World Baseball Classic, I figured, why wait until Opening Day? Now that the calendar has flipped, it’s time to turn to the biggest questions of 2017 as the new year begins.

Take a look at this: the three longest championship droughts in baseball history have been wiped out in the past dozen years.

Team Years Between Titles Status
Chicago Cubs 107 Ended in 2016
Chicago White Sox 87 Ended in 2005
Boston Red Sox 85 Ended in 2004
Philadelphia Phillies 77 Ended in 1980
Cleveland Indians 68 Active

Your turn, Cleveland. The Indians are good enough to win it all this year, which they might have done last year if starting pitchers Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco didn’t go down with injuries late in the season, forcing manager Terry Francona to use Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin and then Corey Kluber each on short rest one win away from the title. (In those three games, all Cleveland losses, those starters allowed 13 runs in just 10 1/3 innings.) The second-highest scoring team in the American League added Edwin Encarnacion in free agency and should get Michael Brantley back from a shoulder injury. Über reliever Andrew Miller is in Francona’s bullpen for a full season. The AL Central figures to be a rather weak division. Yes, the Indians, winners of 94 games last year, should be even better in 2017.

For you fans of symmetry, let’s not forget how a one-run home loss in World Series Game 7—with the tying run on base for the last out—helped inspire Kansas City to become world champions the next year. Royals manager Ned Yost said he saw the team’s resolve from the first day of spring training in 2015.

By the way, the Astros have a place in this land of epic droughts, too. If you consider droughts for a franchise without relocation, Houston comes in right behind Cleveland at No. 6 at 54 years in one place waiting for a title, which would be its first.

It’s silly to ask if the Cubs can repeat as World Series champions. Last year, Chicago became the first team to start five or more players under age 25 in four World Series games, including a record six in Game 2. All are back except 24-year-old outfielder Jorge Soler, who was traded to Kansas City in exchange for one of the best closers in baseball, Wade Davis. The Cubs also ranked second in the league in runs last year without slugger Kyle Schwarber, who returned from his torn ACL in time for the World Series. This is still the best team in baseball.

The key for the Cubs will be maintaining their extraordinary run prevention infrastructure that’s now been in place for two years. No team has been better at marrying scouting and quantitative analysis when it comes to preventing runs. But the backbone of the system is reliable starting pitching. In 2016, Chicago became the first team since the 2012 and '13 Reds to post two straight seasons with four pitchers making at least 30 starts each.

Now the Cubs will have to defy the age and workload curve after two postseason runs. Jon Lester, who will be 33 this year, and Jake Arrieta, who will be 31, have each made 71 starts the past two years, postseason included, and combined for 925 1/3 innings.

VERDUCCI: How Theo Epstein ended the Cubs' title drought

Enough talk. Commissioner Rob Manfred and MLBPA executive director Tony Clark just went through months of negotiating a collective bargaining agreement and talked about putting chefs in every clubhouse, but they did nothing about modernizing the game. This “talking phase” has been going on for years. As games become more bloated with dead time—unlimited timeouts, conferences on the mound, pitching changes, pitchers and hitters dallying, expanded September rosters, etc.—a younger generation with more entertainment options doesn’t connect with baseball on the same emotional, love-it-no-matter-what level. Giving people less action (with the ball or people in motion) spread over more time is a business plan nobody in entertainment would even think about executing in today’s world, but that’s what baseball is proffering.

After the CBA agreement was reached right before the Dec. 1 deadline, Manfred said MLB could reach side agreements with the players on issues related to pace of action, September roster size and a potential pitch clock. We’re waiting.

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Terry Francona said it best: There’s no way relief pitchers would hold up physically if managers used their bullpens as aggressively in the regular season as they did in the 2016 postseason. One explanation: the Indians had as many off days to play 15 postseason games as they did to play their last 142 regular-season games.

So don’t look for closers getting six-out saves. But what you can expect are more and more relievers picking up more and more innings. Managers last season set all-time records for relievers used (590), pitching changes (15,307), relief innings (15,892 2/3) and relief wins (799).

The game has changed dramatically in a short period. In just five years, the number of relievers has increased 15%, the innings they pitch have increased 12% and the appearances they make have increased 10%. Why is this happening? Because of a growing supply of pitchers who throw hard. Why is that inventory growing? Because we’ve learned that throwing a baseball hard is a very specific skill that with specialized training can be enhanced.

Last year, there were 156 more relief pitchers than were needed 20 years ago, and yet the average fastball velocity keeps climbing. Bemoaning the loss of “the good old days” when starting pitchers threw 250 innings is like bemoaning the loss of typewriters.

Couple better training with the application of more advanced analytics, and you begin to understand why managers are so quick to go to their bullpen. The game today typically pivots on what happens when a team’s lineup turns over for a third time. Now more than ever, that means the manager trusts his bullpen more than his starter in that spot. Starters faced fewer batters for a third time, on a per-game basis, than ever before. Here’s a snapshot of the change just in the last five years—the number of third plate appearances in a game against the starting pitcher:

2011: 33,837
2012: 32,094
2013: 32,232
2014: 32,589
2015: 30,820
2016: 29,240

Presented in alphabetical order:

Bryce Harper, Nationals

Entering a series in Milwaukee from June 24 to 26, Harper was having the kind of season (.884 OPS) that resembled his career norm (.883). Then he hurt his upper right shoulder, near the neck area, diving headfirst into a base. His OPS after that series dropped to .760, and he hit just .238, playing an extremely shallow rightfield to compensate for diminished arm strength. Harper missed only 12 games playing through Washington’s final 86 games, and he never acknowledged being physically compromised.

Harper’s biggest flaw was that he could not hit velocity at the belt and above, and opposing teams kept pounding at that weakness. Harper hit .178 on four-seam fastballs at the belt and above. The previous year he hit .371 off those same pitches. Something was clearly wrong.

Jason Heyward, Cubs

I can’t say I was surprised that Heyward hit .230/.306/.325 after signing a $184 million contract with Chicago before last season. At the 2015 winter meetings, when Heyward was on the free-agent market, I polled managers and executives about Heyward. It was alarming how many of them told me that thee was a chance he simply would not hit well because of his poor swing mechanics. That’s exactly what happened. His awkward re-gripping of the bat—which takes away the looseness of his wrists—the slow path to the ball, the locked front side, the spinning off his front heel ... his swing prevents him from getting to any velocity middle in.

The Cubs decided to leave Heyward alone in spring training last year rather than overhaul the swing of somebody new to the team. All bets are off now. Hitting coach John Mallee is working with Heyward this winter to keep his hands lower, ditch the re-gripping and create a shorter path to the ball. Heyward is only 27 years old. He was so bad last season that it shouldn’t be hard to improve.

Andrew McCutchen, Pirates

It’s hard to recall a great player who fell so far so fast without a significant injury. (McCutchen did play through a mid-season thumb injury, but that was well after he was deep into his down year.) The most stunning part was not that McCutchen hit like someone who hadn't finished in the top five in the NL MVP voting four years running—off years happen—but that his defense and base running were abysmal. The Pirates’ experiment to have McCutchen play a shallower centerfield was a disaster. And I don’t know how you explain his lack of aggressiveness on the bases. From 2009 to '14, McCutchen advanced from first to third on 31% of singles. Over the past two years, that percentage dropped to 14%—below the first-to-third rate of Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina (16%).

It’s possible that either McCutchen, 30, is aging quickly, or that he simply had 3 1/2 bad months and already is on the way back. After all, after the middle of August, McCutchen’s numbers (.297/.368/.492) were back to tracking along his career numbers (.292/.381/.487). This year he’ll have one more battle on his hands: playing with trade rumors hanging over his head all season.

Yasiel Puig, Dodgers

This is a bit of a trick choice: Puig never has put up star numbers over a full season and is more likely to continue along his same career path, which is not bad. The mythology of Puig derives from his first month in the big leagues, when opponents had no information about how to pitch to him. Puig hit .407 in his first 34 games. He is a .276 hitter since. Last year he found himself on the trading block and in the minors, a demotion from which he recovered nicely after his promotion, batting .281 with a .900 OPS in the final month of the season.

Puig is 26 and has 1,751 career plate appearances under his belt. He’s still learning, though, about how to play baseball and how to take a professional approach over the six-month grind of the season. There’s been very little growth in his game so far, so he’s more likely to remain the same kind of player than he is to have a breakout season.

New York's pitching staff entered the year coming off a pennant but couldn't stay healthy enough to match that performance again, though the team did reach the NL wild-card game. Noah Syndergaard was the only member of the Mets’ vaunted rotation to make it through the season without getting hurt, though even he dealt with the annoyance of a mild bone spur. Lefthander Steven Matz (bone spur) and righties Jacob deGrom (ulnar nerve) and Matt Harvey (thoracic outlet syndrome) all underwent surgery, while another righthander, Zack Wheeler (Tommy John surgery), still hasn't pitched in the majors since 2014. All are expected back in 2017, though Harvey faces the steepest challenge, if only because he has had two major surgeries, having already undergone Tommy John surgery.

Until last season, there had never been a season in which more than two shortstops no older than 23 hit 15 home runs. Suddenly there were six of them: the Red Sox' Xander Bogaerts, the Astros' Carlos Correa, the Indians' Francisco Lindor, the Cubs' Addison Russell, the Dodgers' Corey Seager and the Rockies' Trevor Story.

Shortstops last year hit 493 home runs, a whopping 17% more than the previous record, set back in 2002 with 423. Their slugging percentage of .407 was one tick off the record of .408 set in 2006. (They also, ahem, blew away the record for most strikeouts at the position.)

The next wave is right behind this one. Dansby Swanson of the Braves, J.P. Crawford of the Phillies, Amed Rosario of the Mets and Franklin Barreto of the Athletics could make an impact this year, with Yankees prospect Gleyber Torres not far behind them. But the best answer to the question is Trea Turner, who moves back to his natural position at short after hitting 13 homers and stealing 33 bases in half a season playing centerfield for the Nationals.

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Look who was still on the free-agent market as the calendar turned to 2017: Jose Bautista, 36; Mike Napoli, 35; Brandon Moss, 33; Luis Valbuena; 31, Mark Trumbo, 30; Colby Rasmus, 30; and Pedro Alvarez, 29. All of them have hit 25 homers or more in a season. The isolated skill of hitting home runs has lost some appeal, especially when age and the lack of a strong defensive component work against the player. This year, the glut of these similar types of sluggers created a buyers’ market. You know that old saying about “the back of the baseball card”? The buying power is now in the hands of whip-smart general managers with slightly more information at their disposal and who are so young they might ask, “What’s a baseball card?”

At least two deserving candidates should reach the 75% threshold for election—probably Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines—though Trevor Hoffman and Vladmir Guerrero should be right there with them. Bagwell, Raines and Hoffman each received more than two-thirds of the vote last year, and Guerrero is the ballot newcomer with the best chance at reaching Cooperstown this year. He is a Hall of Famer because he was a true outlier when it came to hitting the ball hard and often with longevity. He was a career .318 hitter with 449 home runs. Nobody else born in the past 95 years combined the abilities to hit for average and power like that.

Hey, it’s better than spring training. I know, that’s hardly an ideal marketing slogan, but it’s fun to watch some of the biggest stars in the game, right next to many you’ve never heard of, playing with pride and passion in March, when games otherwise are meaningless scrimmages. The tournament does a good job selling the game internationally, though Americans have been blasé about it because they are so tribal when it comes to following their favorite major league team. The tournament really needs the the U.S. team to advance to the finals, which it has never done in any of the first three versions of the tournament. In fact, Team USA's highest finish is fourth, and its overall record is .500.

The Americans will reportedly field another strong team, as Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer are among those expected to participate.

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