Back in 1990, the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves both finished in last place. In 1991, they played in the World Series, the famous worst-to-first World Series.
Has the game changed so much in 26 years that we can’t have those types of immediate turnarounds? Maybe it has. Or maybe 2016 was that rare season that pretty much went as expected. I’d like to believe we can still have surprises and unexpected playoff teams, and while everyone is pretty much picking the same teams (mostly the same teams that made the playoffs last year), I’m not sure 2017 will unfold so predictably. Last week, Jayson Stark wrote why your team won’t win the World Series. Luckily, he drew the short straw. I get to write why the first week of the season still features rays of hope (amid a few rainstorms) across baseball.
In the second game of the season, the Cubs rolled out a starting lineup in which the oldest position player was Anthony Rizzo, who is a day older than Jason Heyward. Neither turns 28 until August. If all eight of those players in the lineup end up receiving at least 400 plate appearances — Albert Almora, who is in a job share in center field is the one most likely not to get there — they would become just the fourth team since 1901 with eight position players in their age-27 season or younger receiving that many PAs. That’s not reason for hope — that’s reason for a dynasty.
ZiPS projects the Indians to go 87-75, but I’ll take the over on that win total, thank you very much. The additions of Edwin Encarnacion and a healthy Michael Brantley could make the offense — which was second in the American Leagne in runs last year — even stronger. Then there’s the obvious reason to like this team: They reached Game 7 of the World Series without Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar in the rotation. Get to the playoffs with those two lined up behind Corey Kluber — and Andrew Miller sitting down there as that huge weapon in the bullpen — and the Indians can believe they’ll go one win further in 2017.
David Price is out, the bullpen is still patched together as the Red Sox await the returns of Tyler Thornburg and Carson Smith, and going from David Ortiz to Mitch Moreland is a loss of about 30 to 50 runs. But don’t panic, Red Sox Nation! There is still plenty of depth in the rotation, the offense may still be the best in the AL with the emergence of Andrew Benintendi to hit between Dustin Pedroia and Mookie Betts, and the bullpen still could be great once everyone is healthy.
They won 91 games last season despite running through 15 starting pitchers. Obviously, we’re looking at a lot of the same guys, so injury concerns will remain a cloud, but odds are they’ll get better results from the bottom of the rotation. Consider this: The worst eight starters made 43 starts, posted a 6.26 ERA and went just 11-18 in those games. Get 85 starts from Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill and Julio Urias (who starts the season in the minors to help save innings), and you can dream of 100 wins. Of course, none of that matters if the team with the sport’s highest payroll can’t make it to its first World Series since 1988.
Not only are the Astros the most fun team in baseball, they’re also good! It looks like they’ll avoid the 7-17 April that dug them an early hole in 2016, and the first starts from Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers were extremely promising. They have MVP candidates in Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa and a deep bullpen that can absorb all those innings required for a long playoff run.
It seems like everyone has focused on what could go wrong: There’s no proven closer. Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth are a year older and not that good. Stephen Strasburg always gets hurt. Anthony Rendon is already injured. Dusty Baker will find a way to do something stupid in the playoffs. This column, however, is all about being positive! So let’s focus on Bryce Harper returning to MVP status, Trea Turner becoming a full-fledged star, Adam Eaton showing why he’s a great all-around player, Strasburg and Max Scherzer both competing for the Cy Young Award, Tanner Roark remaining an underrated starter, Daniel Murphy doing his thing again and Dusty … well … let’s just say the man is due.
Just get to the wild-card game and anything can happen! Madison Bumgarner pitched four-hit shutouts in that game in 2014 and 2016, and while it’s nice to have him in your back pocket, it would make for an easier playoff run if the Giants could win the division and line up their ace to pitch twice in the National League Division Series. For that to happen, it’s mostly about doing the same things as last year except with a bullpen that doesn’t blow the most leads (30) in the majors. It also would help if Buster Posey has a better year, manager Bruce Bochy mixes and matches in the outfield to get at least average production and Matt Moore gives the team a strong fourth starter.
Yu Darvish wins the Cy Young Award. Rougned Odor improves his plate discipline and slugs 40 home runs. Adrian Beltre tells Father Time to take a hike. Nomar Mazara taps into his sweet swing and becomes an All-Star. Carlos Gomez plays like he did down the stretch for the entire season. Matt Bush turns into Andrew Miller. Everything suddenly comes together for Joey Gallo, who hits himself into an everyday role. Cole Hamels pitches in the postseason like he did for the Phillies in 2008.
They had the best rotation in the AL in 2016, and while you’d normally project some regression from the group, the optimist would point out that the rotation could easily be a little better if Marcus Stroman simply improves — a decent bet after going 9-10 with a 4.37 ERA last season — while everyone else holds form. Throw in Jose Bautista returning to 40-homer production, and a third straight postseason trip is realistic.
Well, the last time the Cardinals missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons was 2007-08. They’ve won at least 86 games in each of the past nine seasons, and that puts you in the playoff hunt. The season-ending injury to Alex Reyes hurts, but they can make up for his loss with a Cy Young type of season from Carlos Martinez plus better years from Adam Wainwright (4.62 ERA) and Michael Wacha (5.09 ERA). The return of Lance Lynn, who averaged 15 wins (yes, I just cited wins) from 2012 to 2015, adds more depth to the rotation. This team should score runs: They led the NL in home runs while finishing third in runs, so it’s just a matter of improving the run prevention.
I’m writing this right after George Springer clocked a two-out, two-strike, three-run homer to beat the Mariners 5-3 in the 13th inning, dropping the M’s to 0-3. So I have to dig deep here, look past an offense the Astros shut down, a bullpen that is thin behind Edwin Diaz with a couple guys on the disabled list and an outfield that may not produce much offense. On the bright side, well, they have the longest playoff drought in the majors at 15 seasons and counting. So basically: THE BASEBALL GODS OWE THE MARINERS SOMETHING. Is this a bad time to mention Seattle hasn’t even had back-to-back winning seasons since 2000-03?
Did you see Dylan Bundy on Wednesday? Looked like a potential ace. That alone may be enough to tell the computers to take their projections and shove them you know where. Plus, how about 125 home runs from Mark Trumbo, Chris Davis and Manny Machado and another perfect season from Zach Britton?
Weak division. Justin Verlander, Cy Young winner. Miguel Cabrera being Miguel Cabrera. Michael Fulmer wins 18. Jordan Zimmermann bounces back. Daniel Norris develops into a solid No. 3. Francisco Rodriguez keeps on baffling hitters with that changeup. They find a center fielder. Did we mention the division could be very bad?
This one actually isn’t so hard. The rotation was destroyed by injuries last year, so if they can get close to 120 starts from Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Ivan Nova and Tyler Glasnow, they have a chance to have one of the better rotations in the NL, especially if Nova’s improvement under pitching coach Ray Searage last year was for real and Taillon’s first start against the Red Sox (seven scoreless innings) is a sign of things to come. Throw in a bounce-back year from Andrew McCutchen and good numbers from rookie Josh Bell, and the Pirates will be back in the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.
Here’s a weird note about the 2016 Rockies: They went 40-40 against teams that were .500 or better, but 35-47 against losing teams. They played the good teams tough and went 5-15 against the Phillies, Reds and Brewers. So beating up on the bad teams will help. A better bullpen of Greg Holland, Adam Ottavino and Mike Dunn is easily worth several wins compared to last season’s train wreck of a pen. Throw in a full season from Trevor Story, big numbers from David Dahl and Ian Desmond once they return and an MVP season from Nolan Arenado, and the offense will score more runs on the road.
Let’s start with the obvious: Gary Sanchez IS the second coming of Johnny Bench, as he hits 35 home runs, wins a Gold Glove and finishes second in the MVP voting. Not so obvious: Aaron Judge IS the second coming of Dave Winfield, as he puts it all together and cuts down on his strikeouts, while mashing 30 long balls. Most shocking of all: Michael Pineda continues striking batters out at a high rate, but he also cuts down on his hits and home runs and wins 19 games. Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman protect all the leads.
Let’s pretend those first three games didn’t happen. Hey, this roster isn’t all that different from the one that won 95 games just two seasons ago. The bullpen depth is an issue, but Danny Duffy could be better than any starter on that World Series winner. And Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez are all proven winners. Remember, they were 29-22 a year ago until the injuries started piling up.
They’re the best defensive team in the AL to help a starting rotation that actually remains healthy, with Garrett Richards leading the league in ERA and starting the All-Star Game and Matt Shoemaker replicating the 2.83 ERA he had over his final 20 starts last year. Cam Bedrosian goes 44-for-45 in save opportunities. Most importantly, Mike Trout not only wins his third MVP Award, he has the season of seasons: 45 home runs, .472 OBP, 39 steals, 125 RBIs, 137 runs, five home run robberies, followed up by nine home runs in the postseason, including a walk-off homer in Game 7 of the World Series.
Giancarlo Stanton, you can hit 50. Christian Yelich, sleeper MVP candidate. The best bullpen in the NL. No, that’s not even that crazy of an idea. Dee Gordon hits .300, steals 50 bases, wins a Gold Glove. Marcell Ozuna hits .307/.360/.533 over a full season instead of just half (he may have played through an injury after starting the All-Star Game). The rotation steps up as all five starters remain healthy and pitch to their peak ability. Clean up on the Braves and Phillies (they had losing records against both teams last year), and 79 wins can become 90.
Chris Archer is one of the best pitchers in the league, like he was in 2015. Alex Cobb is one of the best pitchers in the league, like he was before Tommy John surgery. Blake Snell develops into one of the best pitchers in the league (not that crazy considering his stuff and minor league track record). Matt Andriese and Jake Odorizzi round out what turns out to be the best rotation in the AL. Offense? You’ll be surprised when Evan Longoria, Brad Miller, Steven Souza and Corey Dickerson each hit 30 home runs. Except you won’t be surprised because you just read it here.
Zack Greinke, Shelby Miller, Robbie Ray, Taijuan Walker and Patrick Corbin all pitch better than they did last year, and I don’t even feel silly typing that. A.J. Pollock and David Peralta stay healthy and hit like they did in 2015 (.315 and .312, respectively). Paul Goldschmidt bounces back from a bit of a down year (for him) and boosts his OPS by 100 points. Jake Lamb has two good halves instead of one in which he hits like George Brett and one where he hits like George Costanza. The bullpen? As a wise man once said about bullpens, you never know.
This one is simple: Just hit like they did the final two months of 2016 (only the Rockies scored more runs) and pitch a whole lot better. Getting 60 league-average starts from Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey will be a huge improvement, and Mike Foltynewicz has big-time stuff. The bullpen? As a wise man once said about bullpens, you never know.
This is all about the potential of the young guys in the rotation — Jerad Eickhoff, Aaron Nola and Vince Velasquez — developing into one of the best trios in the league behind veterans Jeremy Hellickson and Clay Buchholz. That’s not a ridiculous proposition. On offense, they’ll need Maikel Franco to develop into a star (don’t swing at everything!) and Tommy Joseph to prove last year’s 40-homer pace wasn’t a fluke.
With Ryan Braun, Domingo Santana, Eric Thames, Keon Broxton, Travis Shaw and Jonathan Villar, there is some huge power potential in this lineup, along with a good chance to set a strikeout record. Zach Davies draws Kyle Hendricks comparisons for his command of so-so stuff, and maybe this is the year Jimmy Nelson and Wily Peralta finally put it all together. A midseason boost from Josh Hader would be a boon to the rotation as well.
Yeah, you may look at the roster and wonder if Billy Beane is still dabbling too much in soccer. But that’s what we said about the 2012 roster, and that team came out of nowhere to win 94 games. That team was built around run prevention (second-fewest runs in the AL), and that’s what this team will have to do, with a no-name rotation that could be very good. Throw in 50 home runs from Khris Davis and Ryon Healy turning into a .300 hitter, 30-homer masher, and the offense scores enough runs.
The odds are long, but here we go. Jose Quintana does his usual thing. James Shields suddenly starts pitching like the James Shields of at least 2014. Derek Holland makes 30 starts and has that one big year that’s maybe buried deep inside him. Miguel Gonzalez is solid. Carlos Rodon suddenly turns into Steve Carlton, with the best slider in the game. Then Yoan Moncada comes up in June and is an immediate star. Boom. Print your playoff tickets.
Did you see what Byron Buxton did last September? He slugged nine home runs, hit .287/.357/.653 and provided great defense. Now imagine that over six months. Now imagine Miguel Sano hitting 45 bombs, Brian Dozier slamming 42 again, Max Kepler turning into an on-base machine and Robbie Grossman posting a .400 OBP, and you can pretend you don’t need good pitching.
You start with Joey Votto and another .326/.434/.550 season — or better considering he didn’t play well the first two months last season. Then you add in some stellar up-the-middle defense from Zack Cozart, Jose Peraza and Billy Hamilton. Throw in 30-something home runs again from Adam Duvall and 30 from Eugenio Suarez, and Hamilton and Peraza getting on base at the top of the order, and the lineup could be decent. So it’s all about better pitching. Good pitching can come from nowhere! Brandon Finnegan was brilliant his first start; maybe he wins 18. Maybe Amir Garrett wins Rookie of the Year honors. You don’t even have to dream that much on Michael Lorenzen and Raisel Iglesias locking down the late innings.
Hunter Renfroe hits 35 home runs. Manuel Margot hits .300 with 50 steals. Wil Myers hits 30 bombs and steals 30 bases … Oh, who am I kidding? I can’t even fake this one. Sometimes you just have to eyeball a roster, and this one hurts my eyes. They have three Rule 5 picks on the team, one of whom played in rookie ball last season and another who hit .250 in low-A. They have four catchers, one of whom moonlights as a reliever and backup outfielder. Jered Weaver is in the rotation, which is good only if I last watched baseball in 2014. The bullpen, with the likes of Brad Hand and Ryan Buchter, will prevent the Padres from being historically bad, but even by “we’re not trying to win” standards, this is a bad team.