We are now at a point in the calendar year where every team in Major League Baseball has played at least a pair of games. That. Is. Music. While some teams are still waiting to play their home opener, the official “Opening Day” has come and gone.
In this small sample of games, it’s
hard impossible to make any longterm judgements, unless it’s about some new feature to a stadium or a terrible new uniform that a ball club will undoubtedly come to regret.
However, it’s in this window that we can start to understand the cohesion and history that can create the early foundation for a strong season. While the season is chaotic and much like Forrest Gump and his oh-so-famous box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.
Normally, baseball/sports writers make predictions BEFORE the onset of a season, but it’s the MLB and there are 162 games per team (pending rain delay or one of those weird play-in games). I feel as though my negligence in being 1.86% percent late doesn’t mean any reasonable deduction to my credibility or timeliness.
Additionally, if you’re a Cincinnati Reds fan (like yours truly) and you’re looking for some positive notes (which I would welcome in my inbox, if you can find some, which I can’t), you’re looking in the wrong place (I’m a Cincinnati guy though and through, so you’re going to hear a lot about the Reds this year one way or another).
Year-to-year, baseball’s star landscape can change, so this might have some of that, while the same 15 clubs from the previous season will still be in the mix, so also make sure you tag that during your read.
So, without further ado…
Chris Archer wins the AL Cy Young Award as the Tampa Bay Rays win the American League East
In the first game of the 2017 season, as in the first game in ALL of baseball, the Tampa Bay Rays took on the New York Yankees at Tropicana Field, or “the Trop”, or “the-second-worst-stadium-in-all-of-baseball” (see Oakland). In the game, it was Rays righty Chris Archer who went 7 innings allowing just 2 ERs, 7 Hs, 2 BBs, and produced 5 Ks.
Archer’s great Opening Day start isn’t some sort of new-found success; entering his fourth full year at the big league level, the righty has posted a career 3.50 ERA, and averages 9.3 strikeouts per start.
If Archer is to win the Cy Young this season, he’s going to have to rebound from his career-low year in 2016, when he finished 9-19 with a 4.02 ERA after being named an All-Star in 2016, a year in which he finished 5th in Cy Young voting.
The 28-year-old Archer, who signed a 6 yr/$25.5 million dollar deal in 2014 could be trade bait for a small market team like Tampa Bay, but if he continues to pitch well in tandem with success from the rest of the team, it’s incredibly likely that Tampa Bay would keep their young pitcher.
For Tampa Bay, its an arsenal of young talent with a splash of talented veterans that could make up the fundamentals of runs of teams past. The key variable will come from the shift in management. As Joe Maddon is now two years removed from Tampa Bay, a team which last arrived in the playoffs in 2013, are looking for their first apperence under Kevin Cash.
Kevin Kiermeyer, Evan Longoria, and Steven Souza are guys who the Rays have been able to tag for offensive production over the last few seasons, but it’s young pitchers like Archer, Black Snell, and Jake Odorizzi who could make all the difference if they can throw solid innings.
I think this Rays team has some of the “it” factor that made a team like Cleveland great last year; it’s a lot of young guys who have high ceilings and could be coming to an ESPN reel near you as the season develops.
… but the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees will head-off in the Wild Card
The last time both of these teams were in the playoffs, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte all still wore Yankees uniforms, while Mike Lowell, David Ortiz, Jonathan Papelbon, and Daisuke Matsuzaka all still wore Red Sox uniforms.
In 2009, it was the New York Yankees who won the World Series, but it’s the Red Sox who won the title last in 2013 and have made the playoffs in 2016 before being swept in the ALDS by the Indians.
While these rosters are highly unrecognizable to the teams we binged from 2003-2011(ish), there are a lot of talented pieces on both sides of the aisle that have all the makings of a three-team playoff year for the American League East.
Mariano Rivera retired in 2013 as the greatest closer in Yankees’ history and perhaps the greatest closer in the history of the game. However, if he were to leave a proverbial baseball will to the New York Yankees with the notion of “Make the Bullpen Great Again”, his baseball spirt has been done right by the Steinbrenner family.
Aroldis Chapman, who is the best closer in the game, is flanked by Dellin Betances, Adam Warren and Tyler Clippard, all of which have proven fine closers or set-up guys in their time as major leaguers.
Evaluating the rotation, which is headlined by Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Michael Piñeda aren’t especially daunting, but getting into the sixth inning with a lead is a situation the Yankees have under control.
While the status quo for the Yankees line-up has been to sign veterans to headline the batting order since the Jeter-era, there seems to have been a change of priority with the emergence of a young catcher in Gary Sanchez, who hit 20 HRs in 53 games last season. In tandem with Greg Bird, the Yankees have a lot of young power.
On the side of the Red Sox, it’s a lot of opposite day and not a lot of mirror.
The Red Sox rotation is neck-and-neck with the Chicago Cubs for the best in all of baseball. Adding lefty Chris Sale in a trade with the Chicago White Sox during the offseason added to an already stacked bunch that includes fellow lefty knock-out David Price, 2016 AL Cy Young Winner Rick Porcello, and the impressive Steven Wright, who at 32-years-old found his first spot of success in 2016, when he finished 13-6 with a 3.33 ERA in 24 starts.
Opposite the Yankees, the Red Sox are less worried about what their rotation might produce and are more likely concerned with what sort of production they might get out of their bullpen.
Outside of 5x All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel, the Sox will be looking to Joe Kelly as one of the few veterans in the bullpen, although it was Kelly who spent time in the minors last season en route to his 5.40 ERA in 2016.
Again, on the flip side from their Manhattan rivals, the Red Sox lineup is compiled of high-level home grown talent including baseball’s top prospect Andrew Benintendi, 2016 All Star/Gold Glover/Silver Slugger Mookie Betts, 2016 All-Star/2x Silver Slugger Xander Boegarts and 2016 All-Star Jackie Bradley Jr in addition star veteran talents like Hanley Ramirez, Dustin Pedroia, and Pablo Sandoval.
The key variables for the Red Sox will be Sandoval, who missed a majority of the 2015 and 2016 season due to injury, but he was signed away from the San Francisco Giants to be a post-season catalyst. If Sandoval can get 120+ games played, in addition to getting as many October and November at-bats as the Red Sox can get on their schedule (win and advance), Sandoval can push the Sox as far as the ship can sail.
Aroldis Chapman will play the same role for the New York Yankees. Chapman, who was part of a pseudo-heist in which the Yankees acquired a ton of young talent from the Chicago Cubs, only to sign Chapman at the end of the season. Chapman was huge in the postseason for the Cubs, pitching big innings, even if it took more than just the 9th. If the Yankees can get to the postseason with a tie or lead, Chapman could but a nail in their opposition’s coffin.
Clayton Kershaw will have a Russell Westbrook season
There are records which baseball pundits have deemed unbreakable. Well, guess what, not only does Kershaw put that notion on hold, he makes it seem within reach… if he can pitch a full season.
Last season, as Kershaw found his first amount of postseason success in 2016, where he made five appearances (four starting, one in relief), posting 29 Ks, a 4.44 ERA (although his actually performance indicate better success), and went 2-1 with a save between the NLDS and NLCS.
Although Kershaw has been a dominant pitcher since his sophomore season in 2009, he’s missed at least 6 weeks in two of the last three years, leading to questions of his elbow’s durability over the long run.
When he’s healthy, Kershaw has a career 2.36 ERA and a career 127-60 record, which puts him among the best southpaws in baseball history.
In 2016, Kershaw made 21 regular season starts, which is about 12 less than the league standard for pitchers of his tier, but posted a league-low 1.69 ERA with 172 Ks, only 11 BBs, and gave up just 8 HRs.
Just 19 days removed from his 29th birthday, Kershaw is cruising into the prime of his career in his 10th season of professional baseball, a season in which he’s riding on the heels of 6-straight All-Star games, 3 Cy Young Awards (2011, 2013, 2014) (by the way, he’s finished in the top-five for Cy Young voting each of the last 6 seasons), an MVP (2013), and has had a sub-2.60 ERA each season over the span.
Clayton Kershaw could be on pace to once again attain the pitching Triple Crown (as to replicate Westbrook’s Triple-Double), leading the league in wins, strikeouts, and ERA, which he did in 2011 in the NL alone (Verlander and Kershaw split atop certain categories, as they held each other from the complete throne), but is looking to match fellow Dodgers southpaw Sandy Koufax as the only LA men to ever accomplish the feat twice.
Following a season in which he averaged 10.4 K/9, maintained a 1.69 ERA, and went 12-4 in 21 starts, Kershaw is more than capable of taking a seamless grab of the Triple Crown, which would inevitably lead to his 4th Cy Young Award, which ties him for 3rd all-time (he would be in good company, alongside Steve Carlton and Greg Maddux, just one behind second-place Randy Johnson with 5).
Jose Altuve has a Breakout Party to win the American League MVP
One of the true five tool guys in baseball plays for one modern history’s most atrocious franchises, the Houston Astros, who are all-of-the-sudden one of the most realistic World Series contenders, thanks in no small part to Jose Altuve (in addition to a great bunch of prospects who turned up green).
Compiling four All-Star appearances, two silver slugger awards, a gold glove, and finishing third in MVP voting in 2016 Altuve has already put together quite the resume for a 26-year-old second basemen in the badlands that has become the AL West.
While no one knows how the West will turn out year after year, Altuve is contending with heir winner and fellow five tool star Mike Trout, a two time winner of the AL MVP, is going to post a daunting act to follow.
Altuve is coming off of a season where he lead the league with a .338 batting average and 216 hits, which came in tandem with his 24 HRs, 96 RBIs, 30 SBs, .396 OBP, and had a +7.8 WAR (wins above replacement). Mind you, a wonderful year of statistics and highlight reel defense placed him at just third place in MVP voting.
The likelihood of Altuve’s MVP candidacy is fair, but not the favorite, as he’s currently at 12-to-1 odds to win the award according to OddsShark.com, but if Altuve can lead the Astros to the playoffs with similar, or even better numbers to his 2016 outing, he’s almost a shoe-in to take home the honor.
Finally shifting their October fate, the Washington Nationals win their first World Series
This is the feel-good story of the season that for some reason feels a little daunting, all things considered. The 2017 National League is one of the most set-in-stone fields, but fortunately for the Nats, it’s one that they’re in good shape to top.
Washington has an absurd amount of quality starting pitching that could path their route to eating innings from a bullpen that quite frankly has a lot of question marks following the departure of Mark Melancon in free agency this offseason.
The cluster of starters, which includes 2016 NL Cy Young winner (also won AL Cy Young in 2013)/4x All-Star Max Scherzer, 2x All-Star Stephen Strasburg, 2x All-Star Gio Gonzalez, and rising righty Tanner Roark, who has a 3.01 career ERA entering year 5 of his big league career are in the top tier of arms across baseball.
With a line-up that includes Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Jayson Werth, Adam Eaton, and Rookie of the Year candidate Trea Turner provide the base that could generate not only a lot of fireworks, but could prove lighting on the base paths with a high altitude for defensive invulnerability.
Adding 4x All Star and 2x Gold Glove catcher Matt Weiters in free agency from the neighboring Baltimore Orioles may prove to be huge add following Wilson Ramos’s departure this offseason. Weiters is just a career .257 hitter, but has an impressive .319 OBP, which comes with a great defensive weapon as well, as he’s posted a +7.0 defensive WAR.
Under-carding the Nationals’ roster is a bench that may be the best in the league, as capable veterans Adam Lind, Michael Taylor, Chris Heisey, and Stephen Drew provide flexible options in the case of injury, rest, or pinch hitting options.
Lacking any real contenders outside of Washington, the National League East could prove an easy-in for a Nats team that has equal or greater talent to any team in baseball. The opposition to Washington comes from teams that have proven conquerors to Washington’s runs in the past are all well within in play for the crown in 2017.
Opposing clubs may have a better bullpen than the Washington Nationals; the Chicago Cubs added Wade Davis, the LA Dodgers have Kenley Jansen, the Giants with Melancon. However, these clubs are going to have a hard time getting through the Nats rotation and order with such a lead.
Dusty Baker has never won a World Series as a manager, but this Nationals team is arguably his best roster yet (sorry, 2012 Reds), so it would be a treasure to see the lengthy career of Baker finally be greeted with World Series honors.