With Opening Day quickly approaching and teams making their final roster decisions, tweaking their lineup, and setting up their rotation for the season, it’s time for our MLB season preview.
Feel free to leave your thoughts and surprise teams in the comment section below. NOTE: All stats in parenthesis throughout the post are that player’s numbers from 2016.
THE FAVORITES: First, let’s start in the AL East where the Pirates Opening Day opponent Red Sox are the favorite to win the division at 3/2 odds. They’re young lineup is loaded with talent and enough firepower that should be able to shoulder the loss of David Ortiz. The Red Sox also acquired Chris Sale in a trade this offseason at the Winter Meetings to go along with David Price and reigning AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello in the rotation. Price’s injury to miss the start of the season is a bit concerning, but the Sox are hands down the most talented team in the division.
Moving to middle America to the AL Central, the Indians are the clear cut favorite to repeat as division champs and AL champs. Is their a more obvious repeat division winner than the Indians? This team basically lost no one of significance except Mike Napoli (113 wRC+), but signed mega slugger Edwin Encarnacion (134 wRC+), who’s better than Napoli to replace him and returns a healthy rotation of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer. Oh, and Andrew Miller is still signed for a couple years and Michael Brantley may actually be back on the field this year. This team is loaded and the only thing stopping them would be a barrage of injuries or the pressure of being the favorites this time around. I think the only team that gives the Indians a run for their money in this division are the Tigers, who will make one more run at glory with an aging lineup that can mash if healthy.
In the AL West, it’s the Astros as the 5/4 favorite to win the division. This team has young stars all over the field, but after falling flat a year ago thanks to the pitching staff, the Astros will be relying on their young stars and rotation to get the job this time around. The Astros look to win their first division title since joining the AL and first overall since 2001. They’ll have company in what should be a good division with the Rangers looking for their third straight AL West crown. I don’t think it’ll just be a two-team race either as I think the Mariners will be there along with the Angels, which is already ahead of most teams in the outfield with the best player in the game in Mike Trout.
THE OTHERS: No, this isn’t the Hollywood film, but the rest of the rest from the American League. The Blue Jays have lost a bit of luster losing Encarnacion to Cleveland after misreading the market and now their hopes fall on a young, but talented staff of pitchers. I’m about ready to officially write off the Orioles. Every year they stay in it hitting a million home runs, but striking out a ton and somehow find themselves at the end of the season with a winning record. I think that ends in 2017. The Orioles with their suspect rotation might be in for a down year and with one of the worst farms in MLB (No. 27 by Baseball America), this could be the Orioles last run at the playoffs for quite a while. I feel like the Royals are on the same line with Baltimore as this is their last run at glory, and if things go wrong early, they could be major sellers at the deadline with the impending free agents they have. The Yankees, while very talented with a lot of young prospects ready to take off, are most likely a year away from competing for division title. The Twins won’t be an 103-loss team this season and they’re lineup should be tough, but they’ll most likely have the worst pitching staff in the AL once again. The A’s are just….well, there. They need a lot of things to go right for them to compete in a strong AL West. First and foremost, Sonny Gray being healthy and proving last year was a blip in the start of a strong career.
THE SURPRISE TEAM: Why not the Rays? The Rays own a young and sneaky good rotation led by Chris Archer, a healthy Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi, Jose DeLeon and other young pitchers in Blake Snell and Brent Honeywell. If things fall right, this rotation could be stellar. They also have a stud defender in center, Kevin Kiermaier (+25 DRS), Matt Duffy, Corey Dickerson and star Evan Longoria (4.5 fWAR). You always kind of feel like the Rays are on the border of competing again, and I think the ball bounces their way this year and could surprise the American League with stellar defense and pitching.
THE FAVORITES: The Nationals ring in as the 5/6 favorite to win the NL East with what should be one hell of a 1-5 top of the order in (in no particular order) Adam Eaton (115 wRC+), Trea Turner (147 wRC+), Bryce Harper (112 wRC+), Daniel Murphy (156 wRC+) and Anthony Rendon (112 wRC+). The rotation is loaded, the bullpen has some nice arms but will have to come together to replace the loss of Mark Melancon and Felipe Rivero. But a full season of Turner is scary along with Eaton’s stellar defense in center and think about this—The Nationals won 95 games and Harper had a down year for his standards…197 wRC+ to 112. If he bounces back, which you know he will, the Nationals run away with the East. Oh, and they still have Mad Max. The Mets will be around if their rotation stays healthy (unlike last year), but they’ll need to have some hitters step up to catch the Nats.
Over in the NL Central, of course it’s the World Series Champs Chicago Cubs. Just typing that, hurts. I talked a lot about the Cubs on our podcast last week, so I won’t go into major detail here, but yes the Cubs are loaded, talented and going to be a difficult team again this season. That said, they’re the champs and it’s a little different coming into a season where you get every team’s best effort and series. Plus, the Cubs were extremely fortunate with health. How healthy were they? Four of their starter pitchers made 30+ starts and their fifth made 29 starts. I assure you, this will not happen again. Not even close. It’s going to come tougher for the Cubs, who could regress by 8-10 teams and still win the division. It’s obviously a tough division with the always pixie-dust Cardinals there and the Pirates just two years removed from 98 wins (more to come on the Pirates in our Bucs preview). I see this division as more bunched up with the Cubs, Cards and Pirates battling more closely this year. I know, it’s crazy talk that the Cubs won’t just win 100+ games and multiple championships forever and ever. It always comes harder after tasting success.
Out west, we have the Dodgers and Giants as the top two teams in the division with LA being a 2/3 favorite. The Dodgers are loaded (and they should be with a $200M+ payroll), but while a lot of pundits are taking them to dethrone the Cubs this season, I think their Achilles heal is the health of that rotation. Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in the game, but he missed time last year, Rich Hill has missed time for most of his career, Scott Kazmir already is beginning the season on the DL and Julio Urias is a top prospect, but green and starting in the minors. I still like the Dodgers to win this division, but if they falter, it’ll be because of the lack of healthy arms. Corey Seager (137 wRC+) is already a star, they picked up Logan Forsythe (113 wRC+) in the offseason to play second, Adrian Gonzalez is manning first with prospect Cody Bellinger close to contributing. This team shouldn’t have any trouble scoring runs in ’17.
The Giants, however, may be a different story. This team usually does more with less, but besides Buster Posey and Brandon Belt, I’m not a fan of this lineup. Is that Gorkys Hernandez a lock to make this roster? Panik regressed last year, Crawford is solid defensively, but where’s the rest of the production coming from? Eduardo Nunez (102 wRC+)? Giants have a top 1-2 punch in Cueto and Bumgarner, but also is rolling with a rapidly declining Matt Cain in their rotation. Giants are so up-and-down every year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the down year.
THE OTHERS: There are a lot of obvious rebuilding teams in the NL—Atlanta, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Cincinnati and San Diego. The Padres may have the worst rotation ever rolled out of spring training..it’s ugly. The Reds have a chance to be the worst in the NL along with the Padres. The Brewers and the Braves rebuilds are coming along nicely with Atlanta a little further ahead, I believe, as they signed some veterans SP like Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey to attempt to be respectable in their new suburb ballpark. The Phillies surprised early on last season with a 24-17 start before falling to 71-91. That nice start won’t happen again so they may be around the low 70 mark again or worse.
The Rockies looked to be the up-and-coming team this season with a rebuilt bullpen headline by Greg Holland and Jake McGee and a rotation that might actually not be awful in Coors Field. But then they lost Chad Bettis indefinitely as he undergoes chemo, Ian Desmond broke his hand and Tom Murphy fractured his forearm. Now, I’m starting to think this will be just like any other Rockies year and they aren’t going anywhere. We know they can hit, but can and will they ever pitch effectively enough in that ballpark? Too many people are on this trendy team, so I’ll pass as I think they fall short of .500 again.
SURPRISE TEAM: The Diamondbacks went for it in 2016, trading for Shelby Miller and signing Zack Greinke to a massive contract. It didn’t work. A.J. Pollack went down, Miller was a disaster and Greinke struggled in his D-Backs debut as they sputtered to a 69-93 record. This team isn’t that bad. They’ll be back. Greinke will settle in to his new team, Pollack is back and was a 6.5 fWAR player when healthy. His team missed him immensely in ’16. Pollack along with MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt (134 wRC+) should pace this prolific offense with lesser known, power options like Jake Lamb, Yasmany Tomas and Brandon Drury (76 combined HRs between the trio). The D-Backs canned Dave Stewart and reassigned Tony LaRussa in the offseason and then traded for young pitcher Taijuan Walker, who I think is a breakout candidate this season. Walker, Greinke to go along with Robbie Ray (11.25 K/9) have a good chance to give Arizona a solid rotation. If someone is finally going to make the NL West a three-team race or unseat the Giants or Dodgers as the top-two tandem, I like the D-Backs to be the team to do it.