Monday, April 3, 2017

2017 MLB Preview: The Odyssey Starts Again

By Alex Hale, @ThatCLESportGuy

When you walk outside right now, the temperature isn’t freezing cold, but it isn’t blazing hot.  It’s that temperature right in the middle and you can smell that it is finally Spring.  That can only mean one thing, it’s Baseball season once again.  We had an unforgettable 2016 season that saw the Chicago Cubs finally end their 108 year drought beating the upstart Cleveland Indians for the World Series crown.  It would be tough to top last year, but 2017 looks like it could do that and then some and we’re going to break down what I think is going to happen this season.  Like last year we’re going to do this division by division giving out our projections for the 2017 season.  We’ll also be projecting who I think is going to win your major awards along with my dark horse picks.  So I think it’s time to play ball now!

NL East
1. Washington Nationals
2. New York Mets
3. Florida Marlins
4. Atlanta Braves
5. Philadelphia Phillies

This could be considered as one of the most interesting divisions in all of baseball.  The Washington Nationals clearly are still the favorites for the divisional crown.  One would expect that Bryce Harper to have a bounce back year and regain his MVP form in 2017.  On top of that, they still have a dominant front end of the rotation.  What concerns me is their bullpen especially with the fact that they failed to address the closer spot in the offseason.  This would make one thing that might be a target for them at the deadline.  When it comes to the Mets, everything really comes down to the dominance of their starting rotation.  We all know Noah Syndergaard and Jacob DeGrom will carry them, but it’s the continued development of Steven Matz that will truly carry the Mets back to the World Series.  While I have some concerns about their offense, Yoenis Cespedes is a major force in the lineup that has always balanced out everything.  The Marlins head into the year with a heavy heart still grieving over the tragic loss of Jose Fernandez.  The Marlins have a potentially potent offense led by Giancarlo Stanton.  The emergence of Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna shows the Marlins have that going for them.  Although the rotation is a mess and their bullpen is about average.  The Braves dived into their rebuild and are slowly starting to turn it around with one of the deepest farm systems in baseball that is finding its way into the Majors now.  Led by top prospect SS Dansby Swanson, the future looks extremely bright in Atlanta especially in their brand new Sun Trust Stadium.  For the fighting Phillies, the franchise is a mess with only a few things to get excited about.  They are mostly consisted of mediocre players and prospects that are talented but not close to major league ready.  With the way the division is trending I would expect the Phillies near the bottom of the division for the foreseeable future.

NL Central
1. Chicago Cubs
2. St. Louis Cardinals
3. Pittsburgh Pirates
4. Milwaukee Brewers
5. Cincinnati Reds

The NL Central might be the most talented division in Major League Baseball.  While it’s a true statement, it’s telling that the Cubs are just on a completely different level as a team.  Stacked with talent all over the lineup and with NL MVP Kris Bryant leading the way and Kyle Schwarber expected to play a full season now, they should run away with the division.  The Cardinals always find a way to compete near the top of the standings, although they aren’t as good as they’ve been in previous years.  Their lineup is very well balanced and should be able to put up a lot of runs.  Their rotation seems to be a concern as it isn’t the same as what it was 4-5 years ago, plus they lost prized prospect SP Alex Reyes who was supposed to make a huge rookie impact in their rotation this year.  In the steel city, the Pirates are heading towards a crossroads.  Without question the Pirates have the talent to make a run, but are they in a position to do it in 2017?  They have Gerrit Cole as the ace of their staff and finally are starting to see the results of SP Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow who were prized prospects over the past few years.  Their offense can put up a lot of runs led by Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and Andrew McCutcheon.  They have a few young players still on the way in 1B Josh Bell who could really provide another big bat for their lineup.  The Pirates will make noise eventually, just maybe in 2018 instead of 2017.  The Brew Crew of Milwaukee have started their rebuilding process and are starting to amass a nice collection of young and promising talent.  For their big league team they still have Ryan Braun, but one would expect them to trade him at the trading deadline.  They could embrace the rebuilding process but they truly can’t do that until they move Ryan Braun.  The Cincinnati Reds are quite possibly the most interesting team in the division as they already have a bad team that definitely needs a complete rebuild.  They have Joey Votto and Adam Duvall as trade pieces, but I don’t foresee them making those moves this year.  The best teams know when it’s time to rebuild.  The Reds don’t seem to have a direction to go in and that’s going to hurt them in the present and the future.

NL West
1. Los Angeles Dodgers
2. San Francisco Giants
3. Colorado Rockies
4. Arizona Diamondbacks
5. San Diego Padres

When it comes to the NL West, it still runs through Dodger Stadium and the Los Angeles Dodgers.  With their deep farm system that continues to develop great talent and almost an unlimited checkbook that can retain and acquire new talent, the Dodgers aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.  Plus they got that Clayton Kershaw guy who I’ve heard is really good.  The Giants have a very strong rotation led by Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto.  They also added a shutdown closer in Mark Melancon to solidify the bullpen.  They have a solid offense, but not one that blows you away.  Without question though, the Giants remain a sleeper for the NL Pennant and will definitely be fighting for the NL West crown or at least the NL Wild Card.  The Rockies are a team that is ready to make a major move in the NL West.  While they lost their big Free Agent acquisition in Ian Desmond for the first few months of the season, he should return and be another big bat in a lineup that features Carlos Gonzalez, Trevor Story, Charlie Blackmon, and Nolan Arenado.  Their pitching staff continues to be a bit of a concern and I’d love for them to enter the Jose Quintana sweepstakes at the Trade Deadline if they’re in the mix.  Down in the desert in Arizona, the Diamondbacks were expected to be a big player last year after major moves.  They now are a team with the hope of making a playoff run, but no real direction.  They have some nice young arms in their rotation that is led by veteran Zack Greinke.  On top of that they have AJ Pollack and Paul Goldschmidt leading their lineup as two of the most under appreciated talents in baseball.  It may mostly be sunny in San Diego, but the future of the franchise looks cloudy.  They are trying to rebuild the franchise, but it doesn’t look like there’s much young talent ready to go right now.  They have depth in the lower levels of the Minor Leagues, but they’re going to be in the basement of the NL West standings for the next 2-3 years.

AL East
1. Boston Red Sox
2. Baltimore Orioles
3. New York Yankees
4. Toronto Blue Jays
5. Tampa Bay Rays

After the addition of Chris Sale, the Boston Red Sox clearly become the favorites in the AL East.  Although they lost David Ortiz this past year due to retirement, they have a very promising young offense led by MVP runner up Mookie Betts who quickly is becoming one of the best players in baseball.  The rest of the division you could easily put it all up in the air.  I would give the slightest edge to the Orioles finishing in second.  The Orioles still have a talented offense, a shutdown bullpen, and I was impressed with the development of Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy last year.  If they can get consistency from the rest of their rotation, I could see them once again contending for an AL Wild Card spot.  When it comes to the Yankees I’m really liking what they’re up to.  They have a lot of young talent slowly making its way up their farm system.  The Yankees have a great bullpen to go with a strong top of their starting rotation.  With Gary Sanchez coming back for a second year and Greg Bird coming back from injury their offense looks to have a lot of upside.  The future looks extremely bright in the Bronx.  Toronto lost a major piece of their lineup in Edwin Encarnacion and are betting on guys like Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce to pick up the slack.  They have a very underrated rotation led by Aaron Sanchez and an okay bullpen.  Unfortunately the rest of the division is much stronger and one would expect after losing Encarnacion for the Blue Jays to take a major step back.  Tampa Bay is the one team you can never predict where they’re going to finish.  They always have the most underrated talent and looking at their roster, they could very well be a major surprise once again.  Anytime you have Chris Archer leading your rotation and Evan Longoria as your clubhouse leader, you will at least have a chance.

AL Central
1. Cleveland Indians
2. Detroit Tigers
3. Kansas City Royals
4. Minnesota Twins
5. Chicago White Sox

Without question this is probably the easiest division to call this year.  After the additions of Edwin Encarnacion and Boone Logan, plus the return of Michael Brantley, the Indians are head and shoulders above everyone else in the American League Central.  With their strong starting rotation and a budding superstar in Francisco Lindor the Indians should run away with the division this year.  The Tigers should be the Indians biggest threat this year with a solid veteran team that has the potential to fight for a Wild Card spot.  With 2016 Cy Young runner up Justin Verlander, plus a lineup lead by a still potent Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers wouldn’t stun me making a playoff push.  The Kansas City Royals enter the year at a crossroads, with the tragedy of losing Yordano Ventura, who was the future of that rotation, the Royals must rely on Danny Duffy to lead the staff along with veterans like Ian Kennedy.  On top of that, the Royals bullpen has been completely redone leaving only Kelvin Herrera as the last piece of their feared 3 headed monster for late in the game.  Add with the fact that part of their core is in the last year of their contracts (Moustakas, Hosmer) it might be time for the Royals to retool for hopefully a quick turn around.  When it comes to the Twins, they went from a potential breakout 2015 season to being the worst team in baseball in 2016.  Their entire pitching staff is suspect and even the lineup has question marks.  While I’m betting on the continued growth of Miguel Sano and hopefully Byron Buxton, the Twins still are a mess and need to figure out what direction they’re going in soon.  As for the White Sox, the rebuild has begun and it’s going to continue throughout the season.  They did an amazing job getting huge hauls for CF Adam Eaton and SP Chris Sale and will be a major player in the AL Central in the future.  With Jose Quintana and David Robertson still on the roster and potential major Trade Deadline pieces, expect a lot of growing pains for the young players and the veterans to be shopped around at the deadline to give the future of the franchise as much playing time as possible.

AL West
1. Texas Rangers
2. Houston Astros
3. Seattle Mariners
4. Los Angeles Angels
5. Oakland A’s

In the AL West, it’s going to be a dogfight between Texas and Houston for the AL West crown.  I really like the front of the Rangers rotation with Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels with their solid bullpen that gives them an edge over the Astros.  On top of that the Rangers have an strong lineup that will cause problems for opponents.  When it comes to the Astros, they really need Dallas Kuechel to rebound and return to his Cy Young form from 2015.  I would say their lineup is one of the best in all of baseball and their bullpen is underrated.  They are a clear favorite for a Wild Card spot.  The Mariners continue to be a curious case as there’s plenty of talent there, but they can’t put it together.  They traded Taijuan Walker to get Jean Segura to bolster the offense.  The Mariners though are not even close to the same level as the Rangers or the Astros to really make a strong run at the playoffs.  The Angels always will win games because they have Mike Trout but they are so erratic and also injury prone with their pitchers you can’t trust them to do much better than 4th place.  Oakland is once again trying to put the pieces together in their rebuilding process.  They have some young exciting talent to build on, but still are 2-3 years away from really making any noise in the AL West.

MLB Playoff Predictions

NL Wild Cards: San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals
AL Wild Cards: Houston Astros, Detroit Tigers

NL Wild Card Game: San Francisco Giants over St. Louis Cardinals

In a matchup between Madison Bumgarner and Carlos Martinez, the Giants have the clear edge with Bumgarner, who have not forgotten the heartbreak of last year and want to face the Cubs again.  The Cardinals would put up a good fight, but Bumgarner’s clutch ability as a playoff starter will be too much.

AL Wild Card Game: Houston Astros over Detroit Tigers

The Tigers will have the more experienced starter in Justin Verlander here, but Dallas Kuechel will continue a strong bounce back year by going 7 strong innings and the lethal Astros lineup eventually gets to Verlander boosting them past the Tigers 

NL Divisional Series: Chicago Cubs over San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers over Washington Nationals

In rematches from last year’s NL Divisional Round, the same results will come of that this year.  The Cubs offense and strong overall pitching staff will be enough to get by the Giants.  As for the Dodgers, unless the Nationals eventually can fill that closer’s spot sometime during the year, the Dodgers will have no problems taking down the Nationals again.

AL Divisional Series: Houston Astros over Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians over Texas Rangers

Houston’s offense is too much for the Red Sox, especially with the Red Sox rotation a little skeptical after Chris Sale.  Houston wins the series in 5 games backed by Dallas Kuechel winning 2 games.  The Indians take care of the Rangers in 4 games thanks to outstanding pitching and timely hitting by Edwin Encarnacion and Michael Brantley.  Also Jonathan Lucroy admits his mistake to turn down the Indians after the series loss.

NLCS: Los Angeles Dodgers defeat Chicago Cubs
Sweet revenge for the Dodgers in 2017 as the Dodgers really suffered through injuries in 2016 that really effected the Dodgers against the Cubs.  As long as they stay healthy, the Dodgers will be an extremely big threat for the Cubs as long as they can get enough out of their bullpen.  The Cubs are extremely talented, but I think the bitter taste in the Dodgers mouth from 2016 will push them past the Cubs and finally puts Clayton Kershaw into the World Series.

ALCS: Cleveland Indians defeat Houston Astros
This is a matchup nightmare if you’re an Indians fan.  The Astros have a lethal lineup and if they can get just enough pitching can be a matchup nightmare for the Tribe.  This could potentially be a classic 7 game series if the Astros can get the pitching.  As it stands now I would give the Indians the edge over the Astros because of their overall pitching from Rotation to Bullpen.  The Indians should have enough offense as well to counter the Astros lineup as well, putting the Indians back in the World Series

World Series: Cleveland Indians defeat Los Angeles Dodgers
The more I debated over this, the more I kept coming up with the Indians.  History has shown us recently in Baseball that the team with the biggest chip on their shoulder in that season is most likely going to win the World Series.  For the Indians, they match up extremely well with the Dodgers and would cause headaches for them.  As long as the Indians can get to Kershaw once, it’s over.  This isn’t what you call a, “homer” pick, this is going by recent trends of World Series champions and seeing the Indians have made the moves to position themselves to get back here.  The Indians finally win their first World Series in 69 years in 2017.


NL MVP- OF Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals- Last year was a down year for Harper who will need to prove last year’s struggles were a fluke.  Harper is a perfectionist as a player and will strive to be the absolute best he can possibly be.  It also should be mentioned that the Nationals will only go as far as Harper will take them.  While it would be the easy thing to pick Kris Bryant or even Corey Saeger, but I’m going to go with the rebound season for Harper who has all the talent in the world to not just win this award, but be the clear cut MVP in a potential race that looks to be stacked with talent.

NL MVP Darkhorse- 3B Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies- The Rockies have looked to be on the rise for the past few years and it’s because of Nolan Arenado.  Arenado is a Gold Glove 3B, but is one of the most productive hitters in baseball.  Most may say that his numbers are inflated because he plays at Coors Field, I disagree.  Arenado is a special hitter who can hit for average and for power and most importantly just knows how to drive in runs.  If the Rockies take that next step, it will be in part to this guy and would definitely be in strong consideration of the MVP.

AL MVP- OF Mookie Betts, Boston Red Sox- Last year I was considering Mookie Betts as my dark horse and honestly I feel he should’ve been the MVP last year.  Mookie has quickly developed into one of the most gifted players in the American League.  He can do it all and potentially could be the next 40-40 player.  On top of that he showed last year during the regular season he has that clutch gene to take over for David Ortiz.  The Red Sox will rely on Betts to fill that void and take the next step and the way he’s developed, I’m not questioning how good he’s going to be.

AL MVP Darkhorse- SS Francisco Lindor, Cleveland Indians- The Cleveland Indians haven’t had an MVP winner in 64 years the last being 3B Al Rosen (although Albert Belle should’ve won in 1995), that might change in 2017.  Francisco Lindor has turned into one of the faces of the game itself with his talent with his glove and bat, but more importantly his energy and love for the game.  Frankie is going to take his game to another level in 2017 and be the leader of the Indians in every aspect of the game.

NL Cy Young- SP Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers- Okay…IF he stays healthy, should I really pick anyone else?  Nope…next!

NL Cy Young Darkhorse- SP Carlos Martinez, St. Louis Cardinals- We all talk about the Max Scherzer’s, the Clayton Kershaw’s, the Madison Bumgarner’s and even the Gerrit Cole’s.  Carlos Martinez seems to be a quiet rising star in the pack with dominant stuff that has gotten him a 30-16 record over the past 2 seasons.  If the Cardinals are going to even make the Wild Card game, Martinez is going to have to become a Cy Young candidate this year.

AL Cy Young- SP Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox- If Chris Sale had pitched the whole year, there probably was a good chance even on the White Sox he would run away with the Cy Young.  As long as he stays healthy, with the Red Sox he could almost be a lock for 20 wins, 2.50 ERA and 200 Ks which would almost certainly get him a Cy Young.

AL Cy Young Darkhorse- SP Danny Salazar, Cleveland Indians- Salazar was my dark horse pick last year and if it wasn’t for his mid-season struggles and injury, people don’t realize how locked in he was for a time.  Salazar can be downright dominant as a starter and is finally mastering how to utilize his outstanding changeup to get guys out.  As long as he can stay healthy all year, with his stuff, I ain’t doubting what he could do.

NL Rookie of the Year- SS Dansby Swanson, Atlanta Braves- Swanson is going to get the playing time in Atlanta and showed in September why he was such a coveted prospect.  I really cannot see anyone else catching this guy.  A 5 tool talent at a prime position, Swanson will establish himself as the future of the Braves this year.

NL Rookie of the Year Darkhorse- CF Lewis Brinson, Milwaukee Brewers- Much like Swanson, Brinson is going to get a lot of playing time this year on a rebuilding Milwaukee team.  Brinson compared to Swanson might have the higher ceiling for what he’s capable of.  He has more power than Swanson and I’d say he slightly edges him in baserunning.  The question is he’s dominated the minors and we’ve seen nothing in the majors, unlike Swanson.  Will Brinson put it all together to give Swanson a run for his money?

AL Rookie of the Year- 2B Yoan Moncada, Chicago White Sox- Without question this is my pick.  Okay we could go with Andrew Beninendi of the Red Sox, but Moncada is going to be a star and the White Sox are going to roll with him in the majors to help get a head start on their rebuild.  Moncada has been touted as the most talented prospect in baseball who can do it all.  Some are already proclaiming him as one of baseball’s biggest future stars.  The White Sox will give him the time in the majors immediately and I don’t see him letting them down.  The upside and pure talent easily puts him past everyone else.

AL Rookie of the Year Darkhorse- OF Bradley Zimmer, Cleveland Indians- Although Zimmer was sent down to the Minors to begin the year, Zimmer has 5 tool ability and if he gets a June call-up I won’t be stunned if he tore up the Majors from what I saw in Spring Training.  The big question would be if there is already a Rookie of the Year standout by the time he arrives.  That’s never a given and a lot of things have to fall into place, but Zimmer has a great opportunity if the cards fall his way.

In 2016 we truly learned anything was possible in the game of baseball and that it truly is a 6 month journey to determine a World Champion.  What 2017 promises to be is a season where the fans will remember why Baseball is the greatest sport of them all.  The game finally has some fresh faces on teams that normally aren’t your typical teams with the icons of the game.  The game always changes, but the moments never go away.  For those who say they will wait until the All-Star Break, you’re missing out because this year I wouldn’t miss a single day in what promises to be a memorable year in baseball.

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