- The Dodgers should bank on homegrown talent, the Cubs should place their trust in Albert Almora Jr., and more points of interest as the season gets going.
Even after a long off-season and six weeks of spring training, each team still has plenty of questions to answer, and some that they might not even have considered. Hence these possible fixes to help all 15 American League clubs and each of the 15 National League teams.
It's rarely a good sign that your team has signed Fernando Rodney; and when Kevin Jepsen joins him on the roster, it usually means that team has bullpen issues. Rather than mess around with veteran retreads, the Snakes should pull from their farm. Lefty Anthony Banda had a 2.88 ERA and a 24% strikeout rate at two levels last year. Also, they might as well see if Archie Bradley, who has never panned out as a starter, has the stuff for one inning at a time. The bullpen is the team's weak link, but there is enough raw material to turn it into a strength.
If you're going to sign Bartolo Colón and R.A. Dickey as rotation ballast while your young pitchers come along, you may as well get the most out of them. Since Colón is an ultradurable strike-thrower and Dickey is a knuckleballer, the Braves should lean heavily on the two for innings on an otherwise low-endurance staff—especially when contention isn't really likely. Getting seven innings per start from each of the 40-something righties would take pressure off a young, promising bullpen and free manager Brian Snitker to handle Aaron Blair, Mike Foltynewicz, Jaime Garcia and Matt Wisler with more care.
Last year's world championship owed as much to the Cubs' elite defense—which turned nearly three of every four balls in play into outs—as anything else. The return of converted catcher Kyle Schwarber to leftfield and the loss of Dexter Fowler in center are reasons for concern in 2017. One way to bolster the defense is to play Albert Almora Jr. every day in centerfield. An excellent defender, Almora has been sharing time with Jon Jay and even Jason Heyward. Playing Almora regularly would protect Schwarber and allow the 22-year-old Almora's bat to develop. Jay is a better fit for fourth outfielder.
Two of the best relievers in Cincinnati's bullpen were starters in recent years: Tony Cingrani (2014) and Raisel Iglesias ('16). Manager Bryan Price should leverage their endurance to manage his bullpen—one of the worst ever last season. Instead of forcing the two into the modern one-inning-at-a-time model, let them work multiple frames per outing, if perhaps less often. Iglesias was used this way for a while last season, averaging 1 2/3 innings per appearance, to great success, but the Reds could go even further. Getting more from their best relievers is one way to squeeze value from a thin staff.
Injuries have already eroded the Rockies' optimism. Newly signed Ian Desmond will miss at least a month with a broken left hand after he was hit by a pitch. Catcher Tom Murphy broke his right forearm and is out until May. Outfielder David Dahl, who raked as a rookie last year, has a rib injury that has prevented him from playing yet this season. It's time to reassess the plan for 2017. Rather than push for a wild-card slot, Colorado can take this chance to shop Carlos González and Charlie Blackmon again, in an effort to add to what could be one of the game's best homegrown corps in '18 and '19.
If there was a lesson the Dodgers could learn from last season, it's that turning important jobs over to homegrown talent is a winning strategy. Shortstop Corey Seager nearly won the NL MVP Award as a rookie, while lefthander Julio Urías had a 3.39 ERA in 77 innings after making his debut at 19 in May. The 2017 team can do the same; Cody Bellinger and Alex Verdugo are two of the top hitting prospects in the game, and both could be ready for major league jobs this summer. Bumping outfielders Yasiel Puig and Andre Ethier for budding stars could elevate the offense—and possibly make Los Angeles the best team in baseball.
There may be no team in baseball with a larger gap between the quality of its bullpen (potentially dominant) and the quality of its starting rotation (potentially disastrous). For the Marlins to chase down the Mets and the Nationals in the NL East, manager Don Mattingly will have to push as many innings as possible to his deep corps of relievers, from David Phelps, Kyle Barraclough and Junichi Tazawa starting in the sixth inning—or earlier—to A.J. Ramos and Brad Ziegler later on. Miami just can't ride its mediocre rotation, tragically missing late ace José Fernández, much past five innings a night.
The quirkiest move of the off-season was the Brewers' decision to bring Eric Thames in from South Korea, install him as their first baseman and give him a three-year contract—dumping NL home run leader Chris Carter in the process. Thames did hit 124 homers in three seasons in Korea, but that's a hitters' league with a level of play roughly comparable to A ball or Double A in the U.S. With a number of young hitters on their way to the majors, Milwaukee should give Thames a short time to prove he can handle big league pitching and,if he can't, move Ryan Braun to first base, thereby creating space in leftfield for top prospects Lewis Brinson and Brett Phillips.
For all the attention paid to their young rotation, the Mets' everyday lineup is now among the oldest in baseball—and more than half of the starting lineup can depart at the end of the season. This feels like the last chance for this group. With that in mind, New York should move from developing its starting pitchers to riding them. The team's chances hinge on big seasons from Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz. Those three made 76 starts and threw 464 innings in 2016. Let them carry full workloads, rather than managing them for a future the Mets may not even own.
The Phillies brought in veteran infielder-turned-almost-outfielder Howie Kendrick to bolster the corners beside centerfielder Odubel Herrera. Their future rightfielder, though, was already in house. Converted shortstop Roman Quinn brings leadoff skills (a .353 career OBP and 159 steals in the minors) and a rightfielder's arm. Health is the major concern; a slew of injuries have kept Quinn from playing a full season in any of his five pro seasons. But with Philadelphia bringing along a number of young starters who give up fly balls, there is every reason the team should maximize its outfield defense. Quinn does that better than Kendrick.
Power-hitting Josh Bell is ready for the majors, which makes incumbent first baseman John Jaso an excess piece. While having Jaso around to pinch-hit helps, he's too good a hitter to be a reserve. Pittsburgh, a strong wild-card contender with an unstable rotation, should look to move Jaso, his .359 career OBP and his $4 million salary to an AL team for a starting pitcher. The Mariners and the Angels could use the OBP boost, but it's the Rays who have the need, the open lineup spot and the extra pitcher—righty Matt Andriese. A one-for-one trade would improve both teams.
Injuries allowed Aledmys Díaz to emerge as an All-Star shortstop last year. With everyone healthy now, though, there's pressure for playing time. The Cardinals have chosen to move Matt Carpenter to first base, but a better idea would be to leave him at third so Matt Adams can take most of the time at first. Shuffling Carpenter to allow a declining Jhonny Peralta (.260/.307/.408 in 2016 at age 34, with bad defense) to keep a job is playing the contract rather than the player. Adams, who has battled various injuries the last two years, can still rake and is just 28.
San Diego has assembled its starting rotation with chewing gum and tongue depressors, bringing in Jered Weaver and Jhoulys Chacin to fill out an expansion-team-quality group. The weak rotation makes the Padres a perfect test case for a very modern idea: Most starting pitchers should go through a lineup only twice, because they're likely to get hit hard the third time through. With a deep bullpen, including former starters Paul Clemens and Jarred Cosart, manager Andy Green can hook his starter after 18 batters and still have enough pitching to finish a game. With no chance to contend, why not use the season to experiment and learn something?
BeliEVEN is dead, but the hopes of the Giants' homegrown core, which returns intact for another run, are not. A strong lineup could be undercut, however, by a leftfield platoon of Jarrett Parker and Mac Williamson. Both project as replacement-level players, and San Francisco needs more. The future is now at AT&T Park, so dealing a top prospect like pitcher Tyler Beede to fill the hole (say, with the Tigers' J.D. Martinez or the Brewers' Ryan Braun) would be justified. A trade like that could add three crucial wins to a team within striking distance of the Dodgers in the NL West.
After years of having no true leadoff hitter, the Nationals now have two: Trea Turner was promoted last summer, and Adam Eaton was acquired in a trade over the winter. Dusty Baker seems committed to Turner in the No. 1 slot, which is fine, but he has been less sure of Eaton's place, batting him as low as seventh this spring. Balance is a concern, with lefties Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy in the middle of the order, but batting Eaton low in the lineup is a waste of his OBP. He should be no lower than second; if breaking up the lefties is a concern, bat him leadoff with Turner second.