Wait a minute! Do you hear that? The pop of catchers’ mitts, the chatter around the diamond, the glorious thud of flipped bats crashing onto the grass ... baseball is back, baby!
Welcome to year two of The 30 here at SI.com. All season long, I’ll rank all 30 major league teams and delve into the biggest stories swirling around the game. The rankings will change, but one thing will always remain the same: No matter who you root for, I am horribly biased against your favorite team.
With spring training underway, let’s survey the landscape. Which teams could make playoff runs? Which teams could get caught in limbo? And which ones are a year (or 12) away from contending? All that and more, right after we celebrate the Marlins relaxing their facial hair ban, clearing the way for ... Mattingly sideburns!
30. San Diego Padres
Of the 73 pitchers who qualified for the ERA title last season, only knuckleballer R.A. Dickey threw a slower fastball than the 83-mph offering delivered by Jered Weaver. Only James Shields fared worse by park-adjusted, fielding-independent pitching. So the Padres … gave Weaver a one-year, $3 million deal? It makes sense when you consider the alternatives. The Friars will likely run out the worst rotation in baseball this year, with such thrilling options as Jhoulys Chacin, Clayton Richard, Trevor Cahill, Christian Friedrich, Jarred Cosart and Paul Clemens making up the rotation. Even if Weaver gets cuffed around (which he probably will), the Pads will take 30 starts and 150-plus innings wherever they can get ‘em.
You can watch this team to see how promising young outfielders Manuel Margot and Hunter Renfroe develop and to enjoy Wil Myers finally emerging as one of the best all-around players in the league. Just make sure to time your beer runs for when the Padres are playing the field.
29. Cincinnati Reds
Set the over/under line on combined stolen bases for Billy Hamilton and new starting second baseman Jose Peraza at 110. After finishing second in the majors in steals last year, the Reds might lead the majors in that category if the trade of longtime veteran Brandon Phillips to Atlanta allows Peraza’s slap-and-dash game to flourish as hoped. Granted, the over/under on combined home runs for Hamilton and Peraza should be set around five, and the Reds don’t have anything resembling a star player on the roster other than Joey Votto and (maybe) slider-of-death-wielding reliever Raisel Iglesias.
Given that state of play—and with the Reds being at least a couple years away from sniffing contention—it’d be cool to see them go all the way and build the equivalent of Whitey Herzog’s 1985 Cardinals, with one slugger in the middle of the lineup and jackrabbits everywhere else. Get RajaiDavis and a few other speedy friends to Queen City, and let’s have some fun.
28. Philadelphia Phillies
One-quarter of the way through the 2016 season, the Phillies were contenders. Sure, much of that early success was built on a flukish and unsustainable 14–3 record in one-run games. But there were flashes of potential, especially when young righthanders Vince Velasquez, Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff were at the top of their game. The next step is to see how good those three starters and the rest of the team’s most promising young players can be. Will Maikel Franco develop enough of a batting eye to become an elite power threat? Is Odubel Herrera the poor man’s Bobby Abreu, or could his excellent on-base skills help him develop into something more closely resembling the original version? How will likely 2017 callups J.P. Crawford, Roman Quinn, Jorge Alfaro and Nick Williams fare in their first extended taste of big league action? If the Phillies get more hits than misses off those questions, this could be an intriguing team as early as 2018.
27. Atlanta Braves
The new orthodoxy in sports holds that the middle is the worst place to be; either push hard for a championship, or strip everything down to the nub and go into total rebuild mode. When I asked Braves general manager John Coppolella last year about that all-or-nothing tack, he winced. Losing over and over can be incredibly painful—so much so that it can scar everyone involved, from players to management to fans who might get so turned off that they stop supporting the team. Also, trying to tank outright might not carry a big payoff if there are no Bryce Harpers at the top of the draft board in a given season.
Sure, the Braves are still going primarily with a youth movement as they move into their new, publicly financed boondoggle of a stadium. But they’re vying for respectability too, acquiring starters Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey and Jaime Garcia to eat innings, plus Brandon Phillips and catcher Kurt Suzuki for experience up the middle. If any of those veterans somehow run into 100 strong innings or 300 great plate appearances to start the season, expect an all-out blitz to cash in on any shred of trade value they may have.
26. Chicago White Sox
If the Braves are clinging to a veneer of respectability in their rebuild, the White Sox seem on their way to a far more aggressive teardown. The Pale Hose didn’t merely trade away 30-something free agents-to-be over the winter; they dealt two cornerstone players in their 20s who offer multiple years of team control. The thinking behind flipping staff ace Chris Sale and multi-tool outfielder Adam Eaton was that the Sox could be best equipped for sustainable success if newly acquired top prospects like Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech, Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez all come of age around the same time.
GM Rick Hahn is far from done, too. In third baseman Todd Frazier, first baseman Jose Abreu, leftfielder Melky Cabrera, closer David Robertson and especially supernaturally consistent and value-priced lefty Jose Quintana, the Sox have multiple other attractive trade pieces who don’t figure to make it to August in the same uniform. A Robertson trade could happen any minute after this column goes live: The Nationals and White Sox have been discussing a deal for the veteran reliever for a while, and Washington nabbing Matt Wieters on a two-year contract could create enough catching depth to make a Robertson-for-young backstop deal a reality.
25. Milwaukee Brewers
Trading away high-priced veteran stars isn’t as easy as it used to be. Mega-revenue clubs like the Yankees and Red Sox, as well as next-tier teams like the Giants, are now butting up against the luxury tax, with great motivation to stay under that threshold and avoid major financial penalties. Even the Dodgers—arguably the most well-heeled team, given an $8.5 billion TV deal everyone hates and the theoretically unlimited wealth that comes with insurance money—don’t seem eager to make it rain anymore.
That leaves the Brewers in a potentially tricky spot. Not long ago, Ryan Braun might’ve seemed like a perfect chip: a middle-of-the-order slugger whose production outpaced his hefty annual salary, which multiple teams would seem likely to pay anyway. With multiple big-market clubs now watching their spending and gearing up for the free agency orgy coming in the fall of 2018, Milwaukee figures to have fewer suitors for their franchise player. Braun is also 33 and a bit past his prime at this point. Still, don’t count out brainy Brewers GM David Stearns and his skilled front office. They’ve made a bunch of nifty moves already; Braun being owed $76 million over the next four years (with $18 million deferred until 2022–31) might not be that prohibitive given how quickly contract values are rising; and the former MVP remains one of the top hitters in the National League and a defensive asset (he was the seventh-best leftfielder in the majors by Defensive Runs Saved last year) even at his advanced age.
One more wrinkle to watch: Braun gains full veto rights over any trade on May 14, when he reaches 10-and-5 status (10 years in the majors, five or more with one team). How many Melvin Upton Jr. strikeouts would it take for the Blue Jays and Brewers to make a pre-Victoria Day (May 22, for all our American readers) blockbuster to happen?
24. Oakland Athletics
Most bottom-rung teams don’t bother building good bullpens. That strategy makes some sense: Relievers are notoriously unreliable and volatile, and locking down late-inning leads becomes far less valuable when you’re only going to line up for handshakes 70 times in a season. The A’s are likely to finish at or near the bottom of a loaded AL West this year, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at their pen. The addition of veteran righthander Santiago Casilla, along with a potential full season of health for electric lefty Sean Doolittle, gives Oakland one of the deepest relief corps in the league. That’s a big reason why you should bet the over on the rock-bottom A’s lines being floated by sportsbooks, and why this team will be more competitive than many pundits expect.
23. Minnesota Twins
During his time writing for Baseball Prospectus, then-writer (and now-Cubs special assistant to the GM) Jason Parks wrote a column entitled “Prospects Will Break Your Heart.” As much as we get carried away with the potential of kids in A-ball, the bottom line is that the failure rate for highly-touted young players is disturbingly high. The rebuilds these teams at the bottom of these rankings are banking on? They all rely heavily on top draft picks and other kids blossoming into stardom—which is anything but a sure thing.
The good news for teams like the Twins is that they get to play the numbers game. Miguel Sano is a 23-year-old beast who is emerging as one of the most potent power hitters in the league. Byron Buxton, the former No. 1 draft pick, started flashing his all-world potential in the second half of last season. Twenty-four-year-old German rightfielder Max Kepler impressed as a rookie. Top pitching prospect Jose Berrios should finally get a shot at sticking in the major league rotation all season long at age 22. These and other young Twins come with holes in their resume, but the sheer number of talented youngsters poised for major playing time this year in Minnesota portend at least some improvement. Baseball Prospectus actually pegs the Twins winning 80 games (!) and finishing second in the AL Central (!!) this season. That’s an optimistic scenario that assumes big things from a lot of unproven commodities. What we can say with more certainty: This could, on many nights, be a fun team to watch.
22. Tampa Bay Rays
For the 47th billionth year in a row, computers and human beings disagree wildly on the Rays. An amalgam of multiple difference projection systems—including BP’s PECOTA, Fangraphs, ZiPS and others—project the Rays to win 82 games this season. That’s a tough one for a lot of us humans to swallow, since Tampa Bay finished dead-last in the AL East in 2016 with just 68 victories.
Here’s where a stat called Base Runs comes in handy. Base Runs measure how many runs a team should have scored and allowed based on a number of component stats. Through that, we can deduce how many games a team should have won, assuming a league-average distribution of events (i.e. the team’s hitters and pitchers produced average results, rather than terrific or awful results, in high-leverage situations). The 2016 Rays were spectacularly unlucky in a bunch of different ways, most notably going an MLB-worst 13–27 in one-run games. Normalize all of that miserable luck, and Base Runs pegs them as an 81-win team last year—a full 13 games better than their actual record, and just about right in line with this year’s computer projections.
There are still plenty of real-life reasons to believe the Rays won’t finish above .500 this season. They traded away one of their best players in Logan Forsythe as well as one of their most talented young starters in Drew Smyly, and the bullpen hasn’t changed much after finishing dead-last in the American League last season in park-adjusted, fielding-independent pitching. Still, there’s upside here, from a rotation that’s still talented even without Smyly to young players like the already underrated Kevin Kiermaier carrying breakout potential. If you’re the type who likes to wager on sporting outcomes, split the difference and figure the Rays for something like 75-plus wins. That would still probably leave them in last place in the East, but also competitive more often than not.
21. Arizona Diamondbacks
In 2015, A.J. Pollock was one of the best players in baseball, hitting .315/.367/.498, blasting 20 homers, swiping 39 bases and saving more runs with his glove than all but three major league centerfielders. By advanced metrics, that made Pollock roughly a seven-win player; in other words, the Diamondbacks could expect to win about seven more games with Pollock putting up those numbers than they would have with a generic Triple A callup or backup outfielder type. Led by Pollock (and his burly running mate Paul Goldschmidt), the D-Backs won a respectable 79 games in 2015. On April 1, 2016, Pollock fractured his elbow—an injury forced him to miss all but 12 games last season. As a result, Pollock’s impact on the team was basically nil, and thanks largely to that injury, the D-Backs won just 69 games last season.
There’ll be other factors in play of course, such as whether newly acquired Taijuan Walker can lead a stronger showing for Arizona’s four under-28 starting pitchers. Who knows, maybe the team could snag better attendance (and more revenue to buy players) from a stadium they claim requires $187 million in renovations they’d rather not pay for (or that they would pay for, in exchange for weakening taxpayers’ position). But if Pollock returns to peak form and plays 150 games this year, that alone could swing the D-Backs from terrible to semi-respectable.
20. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
The Angels are another team with a lot of starting pitching variance, enough to swing their 2017 results by a lot. It starts with righty Matt Shoemaker, who’s making his return after suffering a fractured skull last September. Still, the biggest question mark is Garrett Richards. As Yahoo’s Jeff Passan reported, Richards underwent stem cell therapy in lieu of having Tommy John surgery to repair his damaged right elbow. If successful, the procedure could greatly help a Mike Trout-led squad that improved a very shallow roster over the winter.
With the Rangers, Astros, and Mariners all projected to be potential playoff teams this year, even a best-case scenario for Richards and the Halos probably doesn’t end with October glory. But if Richards can return and sling 96-mph fastballs all year long, both the Angels and the future of sports medicine stand to reap major long-term benefits.
19. Miami Marlins
The death of Jose Fernandez is something we won’t forget for a long time, and his obvious love of the game and joie de vivre made his untimely passing that much more painful. But the cold, hard, crass reality is that the Marlins figure to struggle on the field as a result. Miami trotted out a thin rotation even when Fernandez was around; with him gone, the de facto staff ace is erratic lefty Wei-Yin Chen. The No. 2 starter is probably Edinson Volquez, who rated as one of the worst pitchers in the AL last season with the Royals by just about every measure. Picking up righty Dan Straily from the Reds in a January trade should help a bit, but this will probably be another also-ran year for the Fish despite trotting out what should again be one of the best outfields in all of baseball.
18. Kansas City Royals
The most interesting middle-of-the-road team in baseball this year, the Royals could dramatically impact multiple pennant races, even if not their own. A .500 team last season that was considerably worse than that (73 wins) per Base Runs, Kansas City will try to find a way to topple the loaded Indians in the AL Central as well as several skilled rivals in the wild-card race. It'll do so despite some of its biggest advantages of recent years eroding. The three-headed bullpen monster that served the Royals so well during their World Series runs in 2014 and ‘15 now has just Kelvin Herrera left. Their impenetrable outfield defense isn’t as strong with formerly all-world leftfielder Alex Gordon advancing into baseball’s equivalent of middle age. Yet faced with the prospect of seven key players eligible for free agency after the 2017 season, GM Dayton Moore refused to fold. Instead, rather than deal walk-year players Wade Davis and Jarrod Dyson for prospects, he traded both for major league-ready talent in the form of slugging outfielder Jorge Soler and back-end starter Nate Karns.
With the core four of first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, centerfielder Lorenzo Cain and shortstop Alcides Escobar (as well as lefty starter Jason Vargas) still wearing royal blue, Moore might be faced with a lot more difficult decisions in July. If the diminished Royals stumble early and Moore fears losing several of those players to free-agent suitors, Kansas City could suddenly blow past Brooklyn and San Francisco for the title of hottest rental market in the country.
17. New York Yankees
The slow, methodical trot toward The Bryce Harper and Manny Machado Sweepstakes continues apace. A Yankees team that not long ago shot the moon at every opportunity for the likes of Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, Jacoby Ellsbury and other veteran players who aged horribly has taken up fiscal prudence and patient roster-building over the past couple years. Avoiding more megadeals for players in their 30s keeps the organization (mostly) free of major commitments beyond 2018. Trading away Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, Brian McCann and others has netted a slew of exciting prospects, giving the Yanks arguably the deepest farm system in the AL.
For this season, that means we’ll get a chance to see more of Baby Bombers Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Aaron Judge and others. Those young guns, combined with a talented bullpen that’s been replenished by bringing Chapman and his history of domestic violence back to the fold, should some half-decent results this season. When Harper, Machado, Josh Donaldson and others hit the open market at the end of next season, expect a feeding frenzy, with the Yankees looming as the biggest shark in the herd.
16. Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates’ run of three straight playoff appearances from 2013 through ‘15 marked a terrific time for the team’s history. That first postseason berth ended two decades of Bucco futility, including a thrilling wild-card game win and a competitive NLDS versus St. Louis that went the distance. Though each of the next two seasons ended with losses in that wild-card game, three straight tastes of October baseball was something few other teams could claim.
Still, you wonder if this era of Pirates baseball will be defined by what-ifs. Pittsburgh is coming off a return to sub-.500 baseball in 2016. One of the greatest players in franchise history, Andrew McCutchen, might never again approach the MVP form he flashed in 2013 and seems destined to leave soon—whether by trade or via free agency after the ‘18 season. GM Neal Huntington has stubbornly held onto his best prospects, and we’ll see the fruits of that approach this year as Gregory Polanco, Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and other dynamic young players make their mark. But for a team that got the immaculate new ballpark it so craved to increase revenue streams—in an MLB environment in which smaller-market clubs gets tens of millions of dollars every year from the league between revenue sharing, national TV deals and the massively lucrative MLB Advanced Media—you wonder what might have happened if the team hadn’t stopped short. Could just one big-ticket free agent have been enough to push an already analytically opportunistic team to greater heights? Would a couple of ambitious deadline deals have resulted in World Series runs? If the Cubs are indeed poised to dominate the NL Central for the next half-decade, did the Pirates miss a window they might not get to open again for a long time?
15. Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles are the AL equivalent of the Pirates: a good team that plays in a beautiful ballpark, with three playoff appearances in the past five years, a management team (and manager) that squeezes the most out of less-than-elite talent and an owner that frustratingly hasn’t been willing to spend the extra buck to push the club over the top. In Baltimore’s case, at least the spending part has picked up more recently. A year after hiking Opening Day spending by nearly $30 million, the O’s re-signed 2016 AL home-run leader Mark Trumbo to a three-year deal, keeping the team’s core of sluggers intact.
That leaves the biggest difference between the Pirates and Orioles as a possible stumbling block: a lack of front-line, homegrown pitching. The hope is that Kevin Gausman can seize the role of ace this year after hurling 179 2/3 quality innings in 2016. A breakout by former top-five draft pick Dylan Bundy (1.5 homers per nine innings and some of the worst fielding-independent results of any AL starter last year) would be most welcome, too. If Chris Tillman’s shoulder injury lingers beyond the first week or two of the season, standout performances by Gausman and Bundy would become less of a luxury and more of a necessity for Baltimore to make it back to the playoffs.
14. Detroit Tigers
The death of Tigers and Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch on Feb. 10 will be felt in many corners. For Detroit sports fans, it means losing a win-at-all-costs chief executive who wasn’t afraid to spend money in a manner more befitting a team in New York or Los Angeles. More remarkably, Ilitch’s death means we say goodbye to a man who knew how to combine enormous wealth with real empathy, as in his quiet but substantial support for civil rights heroine Rosa Parks.
As with Jose Fernandez (and recently deceased Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura), we try to assess the on-field implications, too. Over the winter, rumors circulated that Detroit might be willing to trade a number of stars, from walk-year outfielder J.D. Martinez to superstars Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander. With both Ilitch and win-now former GM Dave Dombrowski out of the picture, Al Avila could conceivably look to build around 2016 AL Rookie of the Year (and part-time plumber) Michael Fulmer, the live arms acquired in the ‘15 David Price trade with the Blue Jays and other young talent—that is, if the Tigers don’t come through. After all, this is a team that finished just two games behind Toronto and Baltimore in the wild-card race last year.
13. Colorado Rockies
Ladies and gentlemen, your hot sleeper pick of 2017!
To understand why the Rockies are getting some love after six straight sub-.500 seasons, let’s take a trip through Advanced Stats Land. At first glance, last year’s team looked like the same old flammable Rox, with the team’s starting pitchers posting a 4.79 ERA—fifth-worst in the majors. Adjust for the pitcher’s nightmare that is Coors Field, though, and a very different picture emerges: By park-adjusted ERA, Colorado actually fielded the eighth-best rotation in baseball last season and finished ninth-best by park-adjusted, fielding-independent pitching. Now here’s the best part: They’re probably going to get better. With no starter older than 27, the Rockies will run out one of the youngest rotations in the league this season (assuming talented rookie righthander Jeff Hoffman makes the rotation as hoped). Twenty-five-year-old righthander Jon Gray emerged as the staff ace last year, wielding a 95-mph fastball and punching out an eye-popping 26% of the batters he faced, and rotation-mates Chad Bettis, Tyler Anderson and Tyler Chatwood all showed flashes of promise in their own right.
For all the debate about park effects and outsmarting a home environment that swells ERAs, the solution has always been simple and obvious, yet out of reach: build a pitching staff with guys who can actually pitch. This is the best collection of starting pitching talent the Rockies have ever assembled in their 24-year history. That’s why this team could get really interesting, really soon.
12. Toronto Blue Jays
Here’s another team like the Pirates and Orioles that’s followed up recent success by puzzlingly stopping short of addressing gaping roster holes. In Toronto’s case, the holes consist of two outfield spots that will likely produce middling to terrible offensive results, a defensive liability at the other outfield spot and a first baseman who hits like a second baseman from the 1970s. The fact that the Blue Jays play in a far bigger media market than Pittsburgh or Baltimore—with the added revenue that comes with it—makes these half-measures even more frustrating.
This is still a good team though, one that could claw its way to a third straight playoff berth. If that happens, it’ll be in large part thanks to some clever shopping. After inking starters J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada to bargain multi-year deals following the 2015 season (and eschewing far more expensive but not more productive options like David Price and Zack Greinke), the dollar-conscious front office scooped up lefty-mashing utilityman Steve Pearce and veteran ground-ball specialist relievers Joe Smith and J.P. Howell to cheap deals this winter. Now the Jays just have to hope their once formidable offense doesn’t start to fade away with Edwin Encarnacion gone to Cleveland, the re-signed Jose Bautista aging and the punchless Justin Smoak not yet exiled to Esterhazy.
11. New York Mets
We got a taste of what the Mets’ rotation could do when Noah Syndergaard burst onto the scene in 2015, propelling an already loaded starting five all the way to the World Series. Two years later, Syndergaard is the undisputed ace of a rotation that’s still extremely young and extremely gifted, but also not as much of a sure thing as it once was. One-time ace Matt Harvey is coming off thoracic outlet surgery. Steven Matz dealt with both shoulder and elbow injuries last year. Zack Wheeler is coming off Tommy John surgery and hasn’t thrown a pitch in the big leagues since 2014. Jacob deGrom might be the Mets starter least at risk of injury this season after Syndergaard, and he’s coming off September surgery on the ulnar nerve in his elbow.
The Mets have several other questions to answer too. Can the bullpen survive a long absence for closer Jeurys Familia if MLB imposes a harsh penalty for domestic violence? Can Jose Reyes prove an adequate replacement if and when the next major David Wright injury strikes? Will the Mets’ lineup avoid decline and attrition, given that seven of the eight likely starters will be 30 years old or older? All that uncertainty is enough for me to leave a good Mets team just shy of a playoff prediction.
10. San Francisco Giants
As much as Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and other homegrown stars contributed to the Giants’ run of three World Series titles in five years, that mini-dynasty probably doesn’t happen without the excellent and underrated contributions of the bullpen’s core four. In Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo, Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt, the Giants trotted out four reliable relievers who stayed together longer than you’d expect, given how volatile bullpen arms can be. Last season marked the end of an era for that foursome, and it was an ugly one: The Giants blew 30 saves last season, the most by any team that made the playoffs since saves became an official stat (per Elias Sports Bureau).
Tossing $62 million at All-Star closer Mark Melancon in free agency is a start. Run out of Boston five years ago after one of the worst starts to a season by a reliever you could possibly dream up, Melancon’s been a pillar of excellence ever since, using a devastating cutter to generate tons of ground balls and fewer walks than nearly anyone in the game. The Giants’ problems extended well beyond the ninth inning last year, though, so it’ll be up to a bunch of holdovers to fill the gaps. Two setup men to watch this year: Derek Law, who allowed just nine walks and three homers all year long in his rookie campaign; and Will Smith, the big lefty acquired last summer from the Brewers who punched out 26 batters in 18 1/3 innings as a Giant after the trade. If that duo comes through, there’s enough talent here for the Giants to crash the playoffs yet again, despite a very quiet off-season outside of the Melancon deal.
9. St. Louis Cardinals
Here is something I can’t understand; how you could just slight Tommy Pham? Also not understandable: why computers hate the Cardinals this year. Round up the major projection systems, and the Redbirds are projected to win a scant 81 games this year; BP’s PECOTA system actually pegs them as a 76-win team. Here’s why I’m not buying it.
• The Cardinals won 86 last year, and by Base Runs, they were a 90-win team.
• A pedestrian 24–23 record in one-run games last year held them back, but a midseason implosion by erstwhile closer Trevor Rosenthal was responsible for some of those woes. Rosenthal lost that job, and he won’t see high-leverage work this year unless he’s fully turned things around.
• The Cards inked lefty strikeout machine Brett Cecil to a multi-year deal, further fortifying a bullpen that’s now well armed with excellent righty Seung-hwan Oh closing out games.
• Dexter Fowler was arguably the best all-around position player on the open market this off-season. He’s now a Cardinal, and he ably addresses what was the team’s biggest need in its starting eight, centerfield.
Losing Alex Reyes for the year to Tommy John surgery hurts, and there are multiple injury question marks in the rest of the rotation. But this is still a club with superior depth and with 38 chances to beat up on the lowly Reds and Brewers. The Cardinals’ long national nightmare (one year of missing the playoffs, after five straight seasons of making it) could finally be over.
8. Seattle Mariners
I was all set to offer some highly cogent analysis on the Mariners, but Jerry Dipoto made 17 trades in the time it took me to write this sentence.
Thing is, Dipoto’s flurry of moves go beyond just the cosmetic. By landing Jean Segura and Jarrod Dyson, the Mariners’ GM has remade the lineup into one that will rely more heavily on speed, defense and athleticism. It’s a deeper team with Danny Valencia on board to mash lefties and Carlos Ruiz to provide insurance in case Mike Zunino falters again. It’s a team that could pitch just as well as it did last year even after trading away promising young righty Taijuan Walker, because promising young lefty Drew Smyly arrived in a deft deal with the Rays. We’ll get a full season of world-beating closer Edwin Diaz, and we’ll see if Dan Vogelbach can do a poor man’s impression of Kyle Schwarber in his first crack at extended big league playing time. Add it all up, and the Mariners have the pieces in place to end the longest playoff drought in baseball. And if they’re missing a piece or two, bet the house on Dipoto not standing pat.
7. Texas Rangers
Few teams have done a better job of mining Latin America for top-tier young talent than the Rangers have. Expect the fruits of those efforts to pay bigger dividends this year.
It starts with Rougned Odor. Just 23 years old, Odor has already banked more than 1,500 plate appearances in the big leagues, the type of precocious trajectory that often portends big league stardom. After launching a career-best 33 homers last season, look for pitchers to start handling him more carefully, which should help the one glaring weakness in his game: a shaky batting eye that netted a seven-to-one strikeout-to-walk rate in 2016.
The next two to break out could be Nomar Mazara and Jurickson Profar. The former showed flashes of greatness early in his rookie season before seeing his numbers lag a bit as the season went. Still, the 21-year-old Mazara has the same fast riser profile that Odor does and stands poised to improve on his 20-homer MLB debut. Meanwhile, don’t sleep on Profar. The top-ranked prospect in all of baseball just four years ago, Profar is still just 24 himself. He’ll get the bigger half of a platoon in leftfield, where the switch-hitter will get to swing from his preferred side of the plate. That trio’s contributions, combined with Yu Darvish and Martin Perez starting the year healthy and excellent pitch framer Jonathan Lucroy on board from day one, bode well for another exciting year in Texas. And just imagine how even more exciting it’ll be when the Rangers fleece local taxpayers for another new stadium!
6. Houston Astros
Get ready for the best three-team race in baseball. The Astros, Rangers, and Mariners all have enough talent and player acquisition wiggle room to make the playoffs; the bet here is that all three pull it off.
I’m giving the AL West crown to the Astros, though, by a hair. Like the Cubs, Houston spent several seasons bottoming out, using that time to stockpile prospects and figure out which players warranted keeping and which ones made most sense as trade assets. After one wild-card berth and one near-miss, GM Jeff Luhnow blitzed the market this winter, trading for veteran catcher Brian McCann, paying up for designated hitter Carlos Beltran and outfielder Josh Reddick as free agents and nabbing outfielder Nori Aoki as a waiver claim. With 22-year-old blue-chippers Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman poised for potential breakouts in the infield, the Astros might trot out the best all-around lineup in baseball this year.
The lingering question mark remains the rotation. The 2015 version of Dallas Keuchel is probably never coming back, so Houston will hope for the guy who pitched much better in his last 12 starts of ‘16 (before shoulder surgery brought his year to an early end) than he did in piling up a 5.54 ERA over his first 14. The X-factor here could be Lance McCullers. Few pitchers can top the 23-year-old righty when it comes to raw stuff. The big test will be if he can put together a full, healthy season after being limited to just 14 starts last year (while striking out a preposterous 30.1% of the batters he faced—second behind only Yu Darvish among AL pitchers with that many innings pitched). If the lineup can carry them into July, one more aggressive deal for a starting pitcher might make that infamous SI cover start to look prophetic.
5. Boston Red Sox
Dave Dombrowski has never been big on nuance. His management style typically consists of identifying an elite player he wants, then paying whatever high price is required to get him. He overpaid in prospects to get Craig Kimbrel. In his previous gig, he vastly and terrifyingly overpaid in dollars to get Prince Fielder. There’s some risk that the blockbuster trade he made this off-season to land lefty ace Chris Sale could prove costly, if Yoan Moncada turns into Robinson Cano and Michael Kopech is the next Max Scherzer.
The good news when it comes to Sale is that he offers way more value than a closer like Kimbrel (or an aging, one-dimensional slugger like Fielder) could. If Moncada or Kopech or Manuel Margot or any other exciting prospect Dombrowski has given up to win now truly pans out, he’ll become an incredibly gifted and inexpensive star player who offers multiple years of control. In other words, he’ll become Chris Sale. The lanky southpaw’s addition to a rotation that already includes 2012 Cy Young winner David Price and ‘16 Cy Young winner Rick Porcello rounds out a roster that figures to have few weaknesses.
One lingering question, though: When did this annoying trend of richer-than-God franchises treating the luxury tax as if it’s a hard cap start? This team would look considerably better if it had outbid the Indians for a very affordable Edwin Encarnacion rather than dollar store-shopping for Mitch Moreland.
4. Washington Nationals
Faced with an obvious bullpen hole on an otherwise stacked team, the Nationals conspicuously bowed out of the bidding for elite free-agent closers Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman. Patience could prove to be a virtue, though: The latest rumors have the Nationals and White Sox potentially rekindling trade talks in which the former would send one of their 94,000 catchers to the latter for David Robertson. The Nats will try to resist giving up promising 23-year-old backstop Pedro Severino, and some details will need to be worked out. But that kind of deal would still make a lot of sense for a supremely well-run franchise that smartly chose to avoid an $86 million deal for a guy who served a domestic violence suspension less than a year ago.
One small item to watch: The addition of Robertson would fortify a Nationals staff that’s loaded with talent, but that crew might not get much help from whichever catchers remain on the roster. Newly acquired starting receiver Matt Wieters rates as one of the worst pitch-framers in the game.
3. Cleveland Indians
One look at the Indians’ projected Opening Day roster, and a theme emerges: This should be an even better team in 2017 than the '16 club that came agonizingly close to winning it all.
Edwin Encarnacion should provide a solid numbers upgrade over departed team leader Mike Napoli. Andrew Miller will anchor the bullpen all year long, rather than just from the end of July and on. Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar and Yan Gomes—all key players who missed major chunks of last season—look healthy in spring camp. Michael Brantley’s shoulder remains a concern, but Brandon Guyer and newly acquired Austin Jackson offer outfield depth.
Sadly, there’s no such thing as an on-paper championship. But if Cleveland falls short of the Fall Classic this time around, it won’t be because this team lacks talent. This is as fun a roster as we’ve seen in Ohio since the Jacobs Field-era juggernauts of the 1990s.
2. Los Angeles Dodgers
After the 2015 season, the Dodgers resisted the popular narrative, opting not to blow an ungodly amount of money on a front-line starting pitcher to support Clayton Kershaw. That meant not clearing $200 million to re-up Zack Greinke or court David Price. That approach looks shrewd now: 2016 in-season pickup Rich Hill is back on a three-year deal, combining with productive Japanese import Kenta Maeda, super-promising–20-year-old lefty Julio Urias and southpaw Scott Kazmir to form a deep and capable rotation for affordable prices.
That fiscal restraint facilitated the Dodgers bringing back just about everyone from last year’s run to the NLCS. In addition to Hill, Kenley Jansen returns to slam the door on ninth-inning leads (and maybe some big eighth-inning spots, too). We’ll also see a lot more of reborn and much improved third baseman Justin Turner. Add underrated second baseman Logan Forsythe (who came over from the Rays in a deal for righty Jose De Leon) and Sergio Romo (a much needed setup man who can hopefully help address the team’s one chronic weakness), and a fifth straight NL West title looks likely.
1. Chicago Cubs
Lose Dexter Fowler, Aroldis Chapman and Jason Hammel and replace them with Wade Davis, a former first-round pick in Albert Almora, several quality role players and a full season of Kyle Schwarber? Add all of that to defensive wizard Javier Baez in reserve, top prospect Ian Happ nearing the majors, solid backups at every position and enough trade pieces to load up again in July?
Best of luck, everyone else.