2017 MLB season preview: The best reason to watch all 30 teams

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MLB preview: Tom Verducci's sleeper team is...
Friday March 31st, 2017

As Opening Day approaches, the one thing every team can count on for the long season ahead is hope, whether to make the postseason this year or to build toward a brighter future in days ahead. Yet no matter how competitive they are, all 30 teams will have at least one reason for their fans to stay interested for the next six months. Before the season kicks off, SI.com explores the best reason to watch each team in 2017. Jay Jaffe wrote about the AL East, the NL East and the NL West; Jeremy Fuchs examined the AL Central, Jon Tayler took the AL West and Stephanie Apstein broke down the NL Central.

More Season Preview:

VERDUCCI: Home runs, young stars fuel new era

PREDICTIONS: Playoff, World Series picks | Every major award

 

Baltimore Orioles: The Manny Machado Show

Whether he's at the plate or at the hot corner, Machado is simply one of those players you can't take your eyes off of. Last year, he hit a career-high 37 homers (up from 35 the year before) and served as a human highlight film at third base—routinely making spectacular plays by charging to barehand grounders or backhanding and then throwing from foul territory. For good measure, he more than held his own in 45 games at shortstop, his natural position. The scary thing is that at 24 years old, Machado may still be getting better.

Boston Red Sox: Setting Sale with a formidable staff

Even with David Ortiz's retirement, there's no shortage of reasons to watch the defending AL East champions. Their rotation features a pair of AL Cy Young Award winners (reigning honoree Rick Porcello and 2012 recipient David Price), and they offer strong candidates for AL MVP (rightfielder Mookie Betts) and Rookie of the Year (leftfielder Andrew Benintendi). That said, the arrival of Sale in a blockbuster off-season trade with the White Sox offers something new. Sale will be pitching for a contender for the first time since 2012, and the side-arming southpaw will be battling to avoid the first-year struggles that have plagued Porcello, Price and many other hurlers upon arriving in Boston. He's finished in the top-six of AL Cy Young voting for five straight years; a sixth would help ensure the Red Sox return to October.

New York Yankees: The Baby Bombers power a Bronx revival

The Yankees have transformed their lineup from one weighted down by aging stars to an exciting group of potential cornerstone pieces. The most promising pair are 24-year-olds Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird. Despite not arriving for good until early August, Sanchez took over the starting catching job and nearly won AL Rookie of the Year honors by launching 20 homers in 53 games last season. Bird, a first baseman, hit 11 homers in just 46 games in late 2015 and is back after missing all of last year due to a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Add in 6'7" outfielder Aaron Judge, the versatile Tyler Austin and perhaps even top prospect Clint Frazier, and New York appears to be laying the foundation of its next championship club.

Tampa Bay Rays: Kevin Kiermaier's Spider-Man impression

The Rays are at a low point, coming off a 68–94 season that marks their worst record since they exorcized the Devil from their name after the 2007 campaign. Still, Tampa Bay has a solid foundation in its rotation and secured a piece of its future this month by signing Kiermaier to a six-year, $53.5 million extension. The wall-scaling–27-year-old centerfielder is perhaps the game's most entertaining fly chaser and one of its most valuable, according to defensive metrics: He has led all outfielders in Defensive Runs Saved (81) and Ultimate Zone Rating (60) over the past three seasons. He's even provided solid offensive contributions (105 OPS+) as well.

Toronto Blue Jays: Marcus Stroman is worth shouting about

Stroman's first full season in the rotation was not a stellar one, as he finished with a 4.37 ERA and 3.71 FIP with 7.3 strikeouts per nine, but he was much stronger in the second half (3.68 ERA, 3.01 FIP, 8.4 strikeouts per nine) than the first. This year has already gotten off to a strong start, as he earned MVP honors at the World Baseball Classic by tossing six no-hit innings in Team USA's finals win over Puerto Rico. The pint-sized–26-year-old righty still has the talent to be a frontline starter, and he brings a special energy to the mound every time he pitches that can both electrify fans and teammates and help move baseball into a more exciting era.

Chicago White Sox: Something great is being built on the South Side

In time, the core of the White Sox will feature Jose Abreu, Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada in the lineup and Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech, Reynaldo Lopez and Carlos Rodon anchoring the rotation. That might not be until 2018 or perhaps even '19. Until then, enjoy Abreu's power, take delight in the five-tool promise of Moncada and salivate over the potential of those young pitchers, none of whom are older than 24. This season will be like a trailer before the movie starts, but at least it’s a preview of something that looks to be great.

Cleveland Indians: Andrew Miller-led bullpen hoping to finish the job

The Indians may have built the bullpen of the future, but it happened purely out of necessity. After starting pitchers Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar were shelved by injury late last season, manager Terry Francona was forced to navigate the postseason by trying to get five innings out of his starters before turning games over to his lights-out bullpen trio of lefthander Andrew Miller and righties Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen. It worked so well that Cleveland made it to Game 7 of the World Series despite getting nearly as many innings from its relievers (64 2/3) as its starters (69 1/3) in its 15 postseason games.

With a 162-game schedule and the return of Carrasco and Salazar, that structure isn't likely to be sustainable. But Francona has seen how effective it can be to not hold his relievers, especially a weapon like ALCS MVP Miller, to predetermined roles. The same amoeba-like structure—Miller in the fifth! Miller in the eighth!—could be a difference-maker for the Indians this summer and get them another chance at a title in the fall, to say nothing of the impact it could have on how games are managed and rosters are constructed across baseball in years to come.

Detroit Tigers: The Two Justins

Detroit has other pieces who will have to play key roles if the Tigers are to return to the postseason in 2017 after a two-year absence, such as slugger Miguel Cabrera, second baseman Ian Kinsler and pitcher Michael Fulmer, the reigning AL Rookie of the Year. But their chances at reaching October will increase if ace Justin Verlander and outfielder Justin Upton can show the kind of consistency that made both of them stars but has eluded them in recent seasons. Verlander rebounded from a pair of down seasons to go 16–9 with a 3.04 ERA and a league-best 254 strikeouts, helping him to a (controversial) second-place finish in the Cy Young voting. He's entering his age-34 season, his 13th in Detroit. Upton, meanwhile, played his first year in Motown in 2016 and, at 29, still has time to be an impact player for years to come. And while his OPS+ declined for the second straight year last season, he hit 13 homers and drove in 28 runs in the season's final month and is entering what could be the walk-year of his contract.

Kansas City Royals: Is this the last dance for the former world champs?

Outfielder Lorenzo Cain, shortstop Alcides Escobar, first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas are all free agents after this season. It is unlikely the Royals will sign all four (a humble prediction: they lock up Cain and Hosmer and let Escobar and Moustakas walk), so this will almost certainly be the last run for the group that helped Kansas City win the AL pennant in 2014 and the World Series the next year. After slumping to a .500 finish last season, do the Royals even have one more title chase in them? With uncertainty surrounding the health of catcher Salvador Perez, who hurt his knee in the World Baseball Classic, and with the tragic loss of pitcher Yordano Ventura, it's unclear if Kansas City will even make it through the July 31 trade deadline with all those pieces in place. Catch them while you can.

Minnesota Twins: Byron Buxton is ready for his breakout season (right?)

The No. 2 pick in the 2012 draft, Byron Buxton was ranked as the game's top prospect by Baseball America prior to the '14 season before tumbling all the way to No. 2 in both '15 and '16. Yet in 138 major league games over the past two years, he has hit just .220 with a .672 OPS and 12 home runs. He hit nine home runs in 29 games in the final month of last season, however, and at 23, this could finally be his breakout year. The Twins don’t have a lot going for them, and their pitching—featuring an AL-worst 5.08 ERA last year—is atrocious. Watching the development of Buxton and dreaming about where he might one day lead this team might be the only reason for Minnesota fans to tune in after the All-Star break.

Houston Astros: Carlos Correa, take 3

In retrospect, too much may have been expected of Carlos Correa in 2016, but he set a high bar in '15, when he won the AL Rookie of the Year award after batting .279/.345/.512 and bashed 22 home runs in just 99 games; not bad for a 21-year-old. By comparison, last year’s .274/.361/.451 line and 20 homers in 153 games can’t help but look like a disappointment. But keep in mind that he doesn’t turn 23 until September and that his power at the plate, speed on the bases and defense at shortstop help make him one of the most complete players in baseball already. He'll start this season looking to prove everyone who doubts him wrong; that’s worth the price of admission.

Los Angeles Angels: The one and only Mike Trout

Here is why you buy an MLB.tv subscription and stay up later than you probably should to watch a team that won 72 games last year and isn't likely to crack .500 this year: Michael Nelson Trout, the American League's reigning MVP and the closest this game has seen to Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays since both were in their prime more than half a century ago. Trout's game lacks the panache of Bryce Harper, or even Ken Griffey Jr., and his personality is muted to the point of silence; his biggest hobby is talking about the weather, for crying out loud. But when you watch him play, you see someone who does everything—from hitting to fielding to running the bases—as close to perfect as a player can. Don’t pass up your chance to watch him, even if it means getting a little less sleep.

Oakland Athletics: Khris Davis powers up

If you squint just so, it’s possible to look at the latest collection of little known names that the Athletics have on their roster and imagine them flirting with contention. More likely, however, is a sub-.500 team of moving parts, many of which will be discarded or dealt as Billy Beane continues to defy convention in hopes of a title that has eluded the A's since 1990. Focus, then, on the one player who seems as likely as any to stick around Oakland all year: outfielder Khris Davis, who quietly bashed 42 homers last season (tied for third in all of baseball). That included this monster shot against the Royals back in September, when he sent a Dillon Gee offering 473 feet deep into the fountains in Kauffman Stadium’s centerfield. That power will play.

Seattle Mariners: The streak stops here (maybe)

Mariners fans have endured 16 long, sad, frustrating years since their team last reached the postseason. The franchise's glory days—Griffey and the Big Unit, A-Rod and Ichiro—resulted in four playoff appearances from 1995 to 2001, but since then Seattle has mostly been a blip on the radar, with only six winning seasons in that time. But after finishing 86–76 last year, this season's edition looks like one that is finally ready to break through. With sluggers Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz in the lineup, an offense that led the AL in runs last season, the all-around excellence of third baseman Kyle Seager, a strong rotation fronted by longtime ace Felix Hernandez and a bullpen anchored by the electric arm of Edwin Diaz in the ninth inning, Seattle's drought may be coming to an end. 

Texas Rangers: Adrian Beltre's ride to Cooperstown

There’s no doubting Beltre’s Hall of Fame worthiness; the Dominican star will, once he retires, go down as one of the greatest defensive third basemen ever and a consistently excellent hitter, particularly in his later years. Thankfully, we’re still a few years away from Beltre hanging up his spikes, but 2017 will see him hit a milestone that will make his Cooperstown induction all but automatic: 3,000 career hits. Beltre begins this season, his 20th in the majors, just 58 hits shy of the mark, so if he stays healthy he should get there well before the All-Star break. So come for the history and stay for Beltre’s dazzling glove work, his delightful if unusual swings at the plate and his tussles with Elvis Andrus, the shortstop who functions as the Costello to Beltre’s (occasionally scowling) Abbott.  

Atlanta Braves: The Fabulous Freddie Freeman

The 2017 Braves may not be good, exactly, but they should improve upon last year’s 68 wins and offer several reasons to watch, including migratory cult hero Bartolo Colon, aging knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, staff ace Julio Teheran, defensively dazzling centerfielder Ender Inciarte and potential franchise cornerstone/Rookie of the Year candidate Dansby Swanson. But the most consistent reason to tune in is the one lineup regular who was part of the last two Braves squads to make the postseason (in 2012 and '13): Freeman. The 27-year-old first baseman is coming off a career year in which he set highs for home runs (34, fifth in the NL), WAR (6.5, third), on-base percentage (.400, fourth), slugging percentage (.569, third) and OPS+ (157, second). While there's an argument to be made that the team should have furthered its rebuilding effort by trading him, with production like that, one can certainly understand general manager John Coppolella's resistance to doing so.

Miami Marlins: The Dinger Machine comes to life

The Jeffrey Loria-owned Marlins have shown themselves to be capable of all kinds of nonsense, including a wavering commitment to competitiveness, but one thing the nefarious owner got right—possibly the only one during his tenure—was the $2.5 million spent on artist Red Grooms's sculpture in Marlins Park's centerfield. Informally known as the Dinger Machine (or the Marlinator), the colorful animatronic fountain comes to life every time a member of the home team homers—which, alas, was less often than any other NL team except the Giants in 2016. Still, there are few things more satisfying in all of baseball than a towering Giancarlo Stanton drive that's punctuated by this carnival of flashing lights, rotating marlins and water. Bonus: Marlins Park will host the 2017 All-Star Game, which means hosting the Home Run Derby, too.

New York Mets: The Yoenis Cesepdes Show

Cespedes was a talented player before he came to New York, but since the July 31, 2015 deadline deal that brought him to the Big Apple, he's taken his game to a new level both quantitatively—a 122 OPS+ and a homer every 24.6 plate appearances before the deal, a 140 OPS+ and a homer every 16.5 PA since—and qualitatively. Whether it's showing off his unique collection of cars, punctuating his home runs with epic bat flips, or signing the winter’s biggest free-agent deal, the 31-year-old Cuban slugger carries himself with a swagger not seen in New York baseball since Reggie Jackson. Now that he won't be playing out of position in centerfield (where he’s 24 Defensive Runs Saved below average in 178 career games), he should be more valuable and more available, since leftfield will take less toll on him physically.

Philadelphia Phillies: Odubel Herrera, the unlikely cornerstone

It's a rare day that a Rule 5 pick turns into a foundational piece, but Hererra has been one of the most pleasant surprises amid the Phillies' long-overdue rebuilding effort, going from being buried in the Rangers' organization to becoming an All-Star centerfielder inside of two years. In 2016, Herrera hit .291/.353/.419 and showed off significantly more power (15 homers, up from eight in '15), speed (25 steals, up from 16) and patience (an 8.6% walk rate, up from 5.2%); including his above-average defense in centerfield, he was worth 4.2 WAR. He'll be an important part of the next contending Phillies squad; in December, the 25-year-old Venezuelan signed a five-year, $30.5 million extension that includes a pair of club options covering 2022 and '23.

Washington Nationals: Trea Turner the burner

Bryce Harper has the talent to add another NL MVP award to his collection if his health cooperates, but he's not the only must-watch player in town. After being called up for good last July, Turner quickly established himself as one of the game's most exciting players, hitting .342/.370/.567 with 13 homers, a 144 OPS+ and 3.5 WAR in just 73 games. What's more, he made a case for himself as the majors’ fastest player by averaging 3.4 seconds to first base (righties average 4.3), stealing 33 bases in 39 attempts and hitting eight triples; not only did both rank fifth in the league in both categories, but within 10 days of returning from the minors, he also owned two of the three fastest triples to that point in the season and capped one by stealing home. More of this, please.

Chicago Cubs: Can you say 'repeat'?

Generations of fans have been born and died without ever seeing the team on the North Side win a World Series. Even as the rebuild seemed to bear fruit, producing the only 100-win team in baseball last season, the Cubs came up just short, as always. And what a heartbreaking loss! Down three games to one, they took it to extra innings in Game 7 before history caught up with them. Blame billy goats or black cats or Bartmans, but the longest-running curse in sports lives to see another—wait, what’s that? Oh. Well, they’re the best team in baseball again this season, so gear up for nine months of the word repeat.

Cincinnati Reds: The bullpen of the future?

You thought the Indians’ use of Andrew Miller in the playoffs was innovative? Just wait until you see the Cincinnati bullpen this season. Manager Bryan Price has said he doesn’t want to get “cliché” with his relief corps. He seems to be in no danger of that: The plan for the moment is for righthanders Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen to share duties as multi-inning firemen/closers. The key with arrangements like this is personnel: It’s a great idea, but it only works if your players can—and want to—be used this way. Iglesias and Lorenzen seem like a good fit; if they have success in these roles, they might be the first members of the bullpen of the future.

Milwaukee Brewers: Fresh from Korea, it's Eric Thames

There is not likely to be much to celebrate in Milwaukee this season. Mired in the midst of what may become a decade-long rebuild, the team and its fans may have begun to wonder if someone watching from above has forsaken them. Enter Eric Thames, who was given the nickname of "God" by fans of the KBO's NC Dinos, for whom he hit .348 and slugged .720 over the last three seasons. The Brewers signed him for three years and $16 million this past off-season—jettisoning last year’s NL home run leader, Chris Carter, to make room—and will install him at first base. Even if Thames can’t translate that success to the major leagues, tune in for a season-long competition among broadcasters to see who can figure out the correct pronunciation of his last name.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Starling Marte and the new-look outfield

Even factoring in Andrew McCutchen’s terrible, no good, very bad 2016, Pittsburgh has had baseball’s fourth best outfield since the start of ’14, when he, leftfielder Starling Marte and rightfielder Gregory Polanco joined forces. This year the band will be back together, but in a different arrangement: Polanco in left, Marte in center and McCutchen in right. The Bucs’ chances in the wild-card race probably depend on whether this experiment—initiated to help halt McCutchen’s decline—works. Either way, Marte should be a joy to watch in centerfield.

St. Louis Cardinals: Better baserunning

If you tuned into a Cardinals game last year, there’s an excellent chance you saw a batter hit a single with a runner on second. There’s much less chance, though, that you saw the runner score: St. Louis was seventh-most likely to be thrown out at home (20 times), sixth-least likely to take the extra base (38% of the time) and second-least likely to successfully steal a base (59% success rate). According to Fangraphs’s all-encompassing baserunning metric, the Cardinals were the second-worst team in baseball in that facet of the game. Expect that to change in 2017, starting with new centerfielder Dexter Fowler, who ranked 12th in that stat. 

Arizona Diamondbacks: Desert comebacks

After three straight losing seasons, including a 69–93 campaign in 2016, the Diamondbacks have moved past the retrograde regime of chief baseball officer Tony La Russa and general manager Dave Stewart, dismissing the latter and re-assigning the former. While new general manager Mike Hazen will have to flesh out his own blueprint, he's inherited a roster that's primed for rebounds on several fronts. Ace righthander Zack Greinke scuffled his way to an uncharacteristic 4.37 ERA in the first year of his six-year, $206.5 million contract; fellow righty Shelby Miller completely unraveled in his first season after a trade from Atlanta, posting a 6.27 ERA and even earning a demotion to Triple A; and well-regarded youngsters Archie Bradley, Patrick Corbin and Robbie Ray were knocked around for ERAs in the vicinity of 5.00 as well. It's hard to imagine all of them being worse, and if they're better, Arizona could have the makings of a strong rotation. On the offensive side, franchise cornerstone Paul Goldschmidt fell short of his own high standards but is still a potent slugger, and perhaps the biggest improvement could come from having outfielder A.J. Pollock back. After ranking fourth in the NL with 7.4 WAR in 2015, he was limited to 12 games last year by a fractured right elbow, but he's now healthy.

Colorado Rockies: The Nolan Arenado Experience

Baseball is currently awash in outstanding two-way third basemen—the Rangers' Adrian Beltre, the Cubs' Kris Bryant, the Blue Jays' Josh Donaldson, the Orioles' Manny Machado and the Mariners' Kyle Seager rank among the majors’ most valuable and most watchable players in recent years—and the Rockies have one who most definitely belongs in that class. One month away from his 26th birthday, Arenado is coming off two consecutive seasons in which he's led the NL in home runs, total bases and RBIs, and he’s won a Gold Glove in each of his four major league seasons while leading the NL in Defensive Runs Saved each time.

Los Angeles Dodgers: The drive for a fifth straight NL West title

Though the Dodgers haven't been to the World Series since 1988—the majors' sixth-longest active pennant drought—they have hardly been strangers to the postseason, having won the NL West in each of the past four seasons. That's already the longest streak of playoff appearances in the franchise's decorated history, and with another NL West title in 2017, Los Angeles will become just the sixth team to win a division five straight times, joining the A's (1971–75), Braves ('95–2005), Indians ('95–99), Yankees ('98–2006) and Phillies ('07–11). For better or worse, both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs project L.A. to finish with at least a share of the NL's best record, and the SI staff has picked the Dodgers to win it all. There's good reason for such optimism, as reigning NL Rookie of the Year Corey Seager and perennial Cy Young candidate Clayton Kershaw figure to again be among the game's best, and third baseman Justin Turner and closer Kenley Jansen were re-signed in the off-season to reprise their important roles from recent years.

San Diego Padres: Superduperutilityman

While San Diego's lineup features All-Star Wil Myers at first base and touted prospects Manuel Margot and Hunter Renfroe in the outfield, one needn't look further than the rotation—which includes reclamation projects Trevor Cahill, Jhoulys Chacin, Clayton Richard and Jered Waver—to know that this rebuilding team is in for a lean season. That at least gives the Padres room to experiment, and no project is more unique than their attempt to turn backup catcher/outfielder Christian Bethancourt, a .223/.253/.368 career hitter better known for his cannon-like throws, into a part-time relief pitcher. After turning heads with 95-mph heat in a pair of mop-up appearances last year, San Diego had the 25-year-old righty log innings in the Panama Winter League. Until a few days ago, his number of innings pitched this spring (7 1/3) exceeded his number of plate appearances (he’s now up to 12). Manager Andy Green sees Bethancourt as a reliever who can serve as a third catcher and pinch-hitter when he's not available to pitch. 

San Francisco Giants: A 21st-century Luis Tiant

Staff ace Madison Bumgarner, who already delivered a championship, is coming off his best regular season showing to date, and while his pitching—and hitting—offer considerable entertainment value, that of rotation-mate Johnny Cueto may surpass it. Not only did Cueto put up strong numbers (2.79 ERA, 2.95 FIP, 8.1 strikeouts per nine and 5.6 WAR) in the first season of his six-year, $130 million deal with San Francisco, but the 31-year-old righty also continued to show off an amazing and amusing variety of ways to befuddle hitters: six different pitches and four deliveries designed to upset their timing. In 2015, Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan provided a taxonomy that included the Traditional, the Quick Pitch, the Rocking Chair and the Tiant, the last named for Cuban hurler Luis Tiant, who literally put a twist on pitching thanks to a variety of unconventional deliveries during his storied 19-year career (1964–82) with six different teams.

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