Greg Bird will win AL MVP. This is as bold as it gets, right? Well, it is not as far fetched as may you think. In 2017, Bird will be manning first, as well as batting third for the New York Yankees this season, and with just strikeout prone Chris Carter behind him, he will have about as long of a leash as anyone could imagine. Of course, if he wins MVP, that leash won’t be a concern.
With a short porch in right, protection behind him in Matt Holliday, a full offseason of work, a healthy shoulder, and more than enough contact ability, who’s to say Greg Bird WON’T hit .290+ with 35+ home runs.
Consider this: When Mark Teixeira broke his leg in August of the 2015 season, Bird was called up as a 21-year old to help continue the push to the 2015 playoffs. That he did, hitting .261 with 11 HRs in just 157 at-bats, six of which either tied the game, or gave the Yankees the lead after the seventh inning. Greg Bird showed a propensity to come up big when the Yankees needed him most, becoming a crucial part of the Yankees pushc earning a start in the AL Wild Card game loss, in which he went 1 for 3.
Later that offseason, it was revealed that Bird had played the entire 2015 season with shoulder discomfort, and that his injury would now require surgery, effectively ending his upcoming 2016 season. After spending the whole offseason rehabilitating the shoulder, he shook off the rust in the Arizona Fall League, and after a healthy offseason of work and working on his craft, he blew up Spring Training, hitting to the otherworldly tune of .451/.556/1.654 with 8 HRs, 12 walks, and just 8 Ks. A healthy, rehabilitated Greg Bird will most likely have no trouble at least replicating his rookie 2015 season. How much better than that .261/.343/.871 batting line he ends up being will ultimately determine if he can be an MVP candidate or just settle for being a Yankees fan favorite.
The Boston Red Sox will not win the AL East. If you were alive and well during this past MLB offseason, you probably heard about the Red Sox acquiring Chris Sale from the Chicago White Sox. The Red Sox ended up trading away a couple of big parts of their future in Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech, in addition to two other lesser prospects, in turn for a more sure thing in Sale. All this came just a few months after the Red Sox won the AL East, only to lose to the eventual AL Champs, the Cleveland Indians, in the first round, and lose convincingly.
However, they didn’t just add Sale, they lost future Hall of Famer David Ortiz, who once again was the center point of an excellent Red Sox lineup with a .315 average, 38 HRs, and 127 RBIs. They traded Travis Shaw, and lost staples of their bullpen like Koji Uehara, Brad Ziegler, and Junichi Tazawa. It has become consensus to think that adding Sale gives the Red Sox a “super team” as Yankees GM Brian Cashman called them, and vaults them onto Cubs and Indians level.
But that is not as set in stone as you think. The Red Sox have holes at third base and catcher, positions that belong to Pablo Sandoval and Sandy Leon currently and have a few players due for inevitable regression. Is Mookie Betts really on Mike Trout level? Is Rick Porcello going to contend for a CY Young again? Is Jackie Bradley a .296 hitter like he hit in the first half of 2016, or closer to the .233 he hit in the second half? Is Hanley Ramirez capable of another career season at age 33, without the threat of Ortiz in the lineup? Of course, this Red Sox team will win games. This is not to say they will be a complete bust. With Rookie of the Year favorite Andrew Benintendi, and Top 5 shortstop Xander Bogaerts, and of course, a perennial Cy Young candidate in Sale, the Red Sox will blow by teams simply based on talent on some nights.
But injuries to David Price and Drew Pomeranz and a slow recovering Steven Wright have already led to the season getting off to a sour note for the Red Sox. A weaker bullpen, black holes like Leon and Sandoval in the lineup, and no true replacement for Ortiz’s production will leave the Red Sox feeling vulnerable at times during the season. But who can get to them?
The AL East is the deepest division in baseball. You could make an argument for every single team in the division making a run at the playoffs. The Orioles and Jays played each other in the Wild Card game, the Yankees finished the season on a 34-26 run, and the Rays have a lineup full of power and still one of the best young rotations in baseball. Why can they all compete with Boston? The Orioles have the righty bats to diminish the Sox’s strongest asset of lefty pitching in Sale, Price, and Pomeranz, with their own murderer’s row of Adam Jones, Manny Machado, and Mark Trumbo. The Yankees have their own string of young talent with Sanchez, Bird, Judge, Severino, an elite bullpen, and an ace who has given the Red Sox problems in the past in Masahiro Tanaka, along with more than enough assets to flip a deal before the July 31 deadline are they in contention by then. The Blue Jays have the starting pitching depth, a strengthened bullpen, and despite the loss of Edwin Encarnacion, enough offense in the form of Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and sneaky good Devon Travis. Not to mention the experience coming off of 2 straight American League Championship Series to knock off the Sox again. And the Rays, albeit the least likely team to truly “knock off” the Red Sox, have the upside in their pitching with Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Blake Snell, and Alex Cobb to make things interesting. Would you be surprised if Chris Archer AND Jake Odorizzi were in the argument for CY Young by the end of the season? I know I wouldn’t.
The simple fact is that the Red Sox are the best team on paper in this division, but still don’t come without their weaknesses. Each team in the division has the depth and strengths that are capable of playing into the the weaknesses of the Sox, and if one team out of the Jays, Orioles, Yankees, and Rays does not come out and prove to be a real threat to Boston, they are as a collective group capable of knocking the Sox around throughout the season, and if one of the teams ends up hanging around a couple games within 1st come September, things could certainly get interesting.
The Chicago Cubs will not make the World Series. Ahhhhh, this one will take people by surprise won’t it? The Chicago Cubs postseason run last year was nothing short of legendary. Capped off by coming back from a 3-1 deficit against the Cleveland Indians in the World Series, the 2016 Cubs did all when it came to playoffs. Thrilling in game comebacks, incredible pitching performances, pitchers hitting home runs, and back up catchers hitting go ahead grand slams. But the one thing they weren’t was invincible. They were taken to 4 games by the Giants, 6 games by the Dodgers, and then had to come back from 3-1 to defeat the Indians in 7. The illustrious 2016 Cubs actually lost 6 games in the playoffs, and had a lot of wins by the narrowest of margins. Baseball is like that. So why is it nearly set in stone that they will make it back to the World Series in 2017?
For all the talk of the dynasty that the Cubs are capable of being, people forget that even the greatest dynasties don’t win rings every year. The Cubs have an incredible position player core, headed by Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Javier Baez, an impressive set of versatile veterans behind them like Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward, and budding young stars like Addison Russell and Willson Contreras. They have a deep bench, an even deeper bullpen, and an excellent rotation. So, why won’t they repeat you say? They won’t even make it back.
That’s right. Since 2002, there have been 17 different teams to play in the World Series. Out of those 17 teams, only 3 made it back the next year- the Phillies (won in 2008 vs Rays, lost in 2009 vs Yankees), the Rangers (lost in 2010 vs Giants, lost in 2011 vs Cardinals), and the Royals (lost in 2014 vs Giants, won in 2015 vs Mets). 3/17=17.6%. That is the mathematic chance of the Cubs making it back next year.
Of course, not all of these 17 teams had the YOUNG position player talent the Cubs had, so there’s got to be more reason that the Cubs don’t make it back to the big dance….
Look no further than the differences between the Cubs and the 3 teams that did make it back and you’ll see the answer: pitching. And not just any pitching, young pitching. The most recent team, the Royals, had one of the best bullpens in major league history and often only needed 4-5 innings out of their starters in the playoffs. But who were the main cogs in their rotation besides 32 year old James Shields? 23 year old Yordano Ventura and 25 year old Danny Duffy. In the bullpen? Two in their prime end of game guys in their age 28 season, Wade Davis and Greg Holland, and 24 year old Kelvin Herrera. The Royals had a fortitude of young, unused arms that they were able to get through 2 postseasons. In the 2016 season, the Royals’ third season with this core, those young arms came crashing down to Earth. Davis and Holland both got hurt. Ventura was sidelined for 2 separate periods of time. Only Duffy remained healthy.
After logging a heavy load of postseason innings 2 years in a row now, the Cubs may face a similar problem this season. With the 2016 Championship in tow, it becomes easy to forget the Cubs’ failure in the NLCS a season earlier. But that is now 2 seasons in a row where the 2 main cogs, Lester and Arrieta have each had to pitch 250+ innings in total each season. If history tells us anything, the chance that one or both of them gets injured or has a sharp decline in performance is very high, and that needs to be taken into account. The same idea applies to the bullpen, Wade Davis struggled with injuries in the 2016 season, Koji Uehara is 41, Pedro Strop is 32. This trend continues looking beyond the main guys. John Lackey is in his age-38 and is not getting any younger, and the Cubs don’t exactly have the starting pitching depth to be able to replace him readily in the regular season.
The other reason is the Nationals, Mets, Cardinals, Dodgers, and Giants, all strong National League opponents of the Cubs, and can make a strong case that they got even better this offseason. The Nationals long search for a leadoff hitter concluded when they traded for Adam Eaton, the Mets get back a healthy Zack Wheeler and possibly Matt Harvey later, the Cardinals added their own leadoff hitter, Dexter Fowler, stealing him from the Cubs themselves, the Dodgers acquired crafty and versatile 2nd baseman Logan Forsythe, along with some key re-signings of Kenley Jansen, Justin Turner, and Rich Hill to maintain continuity for next season, and the Giants added a solution to what ailed them in the playoffs in 2016 against the Cubs, signing closer Mark Melancon.
The increasing likelihood of a decline in performance or an injury to one of the Cubs’ rotation mainstays, combined with the fact that some of the NL powerhouses considered threats to the Cubs got even better in the offseason, certainly increases the chances that the Chicago Cubs will not be playing in the Fall Classic for the second year in a row.
The Houston Astros will not make the Playoffs. Nope, not even the one game WC playoff. The Astros were bold and they were risky this offseason. They added Carlos Beltran, signed Josh Reddick for 4 years/$52 million, traded for Brian McCann, and added Nori Aoki and Charlie Morton this offseason. But they failed to recognize their biggest problems from 2016. That problem was never the offense. With Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Alex Bregman, and veterans like Evan Gattis already in place, the Astros were never going to have trouble scoring runs anyways. Signing an aging Beltran who carries risk of a hefty decline in performance, or the oft injured Josh Reddick who hit .258 with just 2 homers in 155 at-bats in his cup of coffee with the Dodgers at the end of last year, just feels like overkill. The McCann addition should help, because even if he isn’t great, he is a valuable leader in the locker room and an average defender behind the plate. But how much help? Despite being the beneficiary of the short porch in right at Yankee Stadium a multitude of times, McCann struggled to even come close to his Braves’ numbers, offensively, in a Yankees uniform and has been on a steady decline for nearly 4-5 years now. The likelihood of him hitting even worse than the .242/.335/.413 line he put up in his final year as a Bomber is very likely, and probably not the boost the Astros will be hoping for. Still, with or without an improved performance of McCann, the Astros will still probably score a lot of runs. So what’s the issue?
Pitching and improved competition. The Astros’ offense got better but by how much? Is Reddick ever gonna come close to what he did in Oakland in 2012 when he hit 32 homers? Is Carlos Beltran gonna hit close to .300 again in his age-38 season? Probably not. But with a strong core of young hitters, that’s not the problem. The real problem lies with the pitching, and Houston did little to change that in the offseason. If Dallas Keuchel once again proves his Cy Young 2015 season was a fluke, who is going to carry the load? Lance McCullers has the stuff, but does he have the control and experience? Not yet, at least. Is it gonna be Mike Fiers, that of the 4.48 ERA? Or Joe Musgrove? Charlie Morton? Unless Lance McCullers takes another big step forward or Dallas Keuchel has a huge rebound from an atrocious 2016 season, the problem is that the Astros don’t have a true stopper in their rotation. And the competition? The Astros will get plenty of that from Texas and even moreso from Seattle this season.
Not only did Seattle add one of the best all around SS’s of the 2016 season in Jean Segura, but they actually did address their rotation issues by trading for Drew Smyly and Chris Heston, in addition to an under the radar trade for outfielder Jarrod Dyson, who gives Seattle a true speed threat ahead of the big boppers of Cano, Cruz, Seager, and now Segura. Seattle has long awaited a true playoff run for years and has players with upside, like James Paxton and electric closer Edwin Diaz, and the consistency of the bats in the middle like Cano to really make a run. On paper, Seattle already looks better and more well-balanced than Houston, which means Houston may be left competing for an AL WC spot, and that’s not a spot they want to be in.
The AL Wild Card race is a complicated one with a long list of plausible contenders. But if the Astros are left to fight for a WC spot in September, likely meaning that Seattle or Texas pulled away, then Houston has a problem, and a big one at that. In September, Houston will have 3 games vs the Mets, 6 against the new and improved Seattle, 3 against Texas, and will finish the season with 4 on the road at Fenway at Boston. If playoff contention comes down to the final month for the Astros, Houston will have a very, very tough road there. Even with what may end up being a Top 10 offense, Houston’s lack of a true stopper in the rotation and their lack of moves regarding that central issue of starting pitching will ultimately be the reason why this team, despite heading into 2016 with a ton of optimism, will miss the playoffs.