The Chicago Cubs' encore to a historic, curse-breaking campaign is just one of the storylines to watch on the diamond this season
It may seem like the World Series just ended, but the start of spring training in Florida and Arizona signals the countdown to the 2017 MLB season has begun. While no doubt much attention will be paid to the reigning world champion Chicago Cubs, the potential dawn of baseball’s latest dynasty is just one of several exciting storylines that will help shape the upcoming season on the diamond.
1. Start of a Cubs dynasty?
For a team that waited 108 years between championships, the Cubs’ triumph in the 2016 World Series seemed as much like a beginning as an end. Yes, they concluded a monumental quest. But did they also begin a dynasty? It’s not a crazy question. The Cubs’ dazzling young infielders — Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Addison Russell and Kris Bryant — are all under club control through 2021. Theo Epstein proved in Boston that he could build an elite player-development system, and he’s done so again in Chicago. A trove of prospects, plus ample funding from owner Tom Ricketts and an extremely savvy baseball operations department, should make the rest of the league fear a long run of Cubs success. Whether that translates to a dynasty can only be determined in October, baseball’s most unpredictable month. But these Cubs overcame several tense moments in their run to the title last fall, strengthening their mettle for future pursuits. And there’s every reason to think this group will have many more chances to add to its trophy case.
2. Pulling up a new chair
A generation ago, it seemed like a big deal when Jay Leno replaced Johnny Carson as host of “The Tonight Show.” Now, another transition behind an L.A. microphone will make that seem trivial. For the first time since 1949, the Dodgers will open a season without Vin Scully on their broadcast team. Scully, 89, is retired now, and Joe Davis, 29, will be his primary replacement. Davis called 50 road games for the Dodgers’ cable network last season and now inherits the full-time gig. Scully worked without an analyst, but Davis will work alongside Orel Hershiser or Nomar Garciaparra. A native of Michigan, Davis has called baseball, college football and basketball for Fox and was once the voice of the Class AA Montgomery Biscuits. Now he’s replacing The Voice, and Hershiser thinks he’s up to it. “It’s ridiculous how confident he is, how prepared he is, how much passion he has for the job,” Hershiser told the Associated Press. “That’s going to serve him really well.”
For casual observers, the 2016 home run explosion might have seemed subtle. No individual came close to reaching the absurd heights of the steroid era. Yet while nobody hit 50 home runs, everybody seemed to hit 30. Just one season in history featured more home runs: the 2000 season, with 5,693. The 2016 total was close behind, at 5,610. Overall, players hit 701 more homers than they did in 2015 and 1,424 more than they did in 2014. Commissioner Rob Manfred insists the ball has not been altered, and baseball’s steroid-testing program has been praised as the toughest in sports, with players scheduled to be tested even more frequently in 2017. So what’s the cause: lacquered bats, hitters with leg kicks, pitchers relying too much on fastballs over secondary stuff? We’ll keep a close eye on the home run trend in 2017. If there’s another upward spike, suspicions about juice — in the ball or in the players — will grow stronger.
4. Preller’s punishment?
Fans of the stumbling Padres must have wondered what might have been as they watched the last World Series. The Indians’ ace, Corey Kluber, and the Cubs’ slugging first baseman, Anthony Rizzo, were both traded by the Padres before they could prove themselves in the majors. General manager A.J. Preller didn’t make those deals, but his aggressive moves upon arriving in San Diego failed to shake the team from its slumber. Preller has reversed course and tried to restock the Padres’ farm system, but in doing so, he instructed trainers to keep two files on players’ medical records: one to be shared with rivals, one to be kept private. When the scam became public, specifically stemming from last summer’s trade of Drew Pomeranz to Boston, the commissioner’s office suspended Preller for 30 days. More significant than that lenient sentence could be the loss of trust from rival executives. If the Padres struggle again and Preller tries to peddle his players, will other teams be too skeptical to make strong offers? Most trades are motivated by desperation, so the guess here is that Preller will still command solid returns. But his deception will surely give teams pause, creating another obstacle to improvement for the Padres.
5. This time, it doesn’t count
For 14 seasons, baseball allowed home-field advantage for the World Series to be determined by the winning league in the All-Star Game. By linking the two, MLB hoped to improve All-Star TV ratings while producing more inspired competition. The first goal didn’t happen. As for the second, it was hard to tell. Some of the All-Star Games were thrillers, but mostly, nothing changed — managers still tried to use as many players as possible, and players just tried to have fun. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, the All-Star Game will return to being a pure exhibition, with home-field advantage going to the World Series team with the better record. It will be a shame if players abuse the event on July 11 by grooving pitches or failing to run hard on the bases. The guess here is we won’t tell the difference, and can go back to celebrating the best in baseball without fretting over what it will mean in October.
6. Championship for Sale?
In the last five seasons, just one major-league pitcher has a lower earned run average than Chris Sale’s 3.04, with more strikeouts than his 1,133: Clayton Kershaw. The difference is that Kershaw led the Dodgers to four division titles in that stretch, while Sale has never pitched in the playoffs. Expect that to change now that Sale works for the Red Sox, who acquired him from the White Sox in a December trade. The Red Sox didn’t really need Sale, but they had the prospects to get him and could easily afford the three years and $39.5 million left on his contract (including option years). So they parted with Yoan Moncada and three others to give themselves a trio of aces, with Sale, David Price and Rick Porcello. Expectations are always high in Boston, and Sale — a famously intense competitor — will have to get used to the glare. But replacing an elite run producer (the retired David Ortiz) with an elite run preventer could be a stroke of genius for the Red Sox as they seek their fourth championship in 14 seasons.
7. A pitcher will lead them
The Rockies suffered their sixth losing season in a row in 2016, but they had their best record (75–87) and highest NL West finish (third place) within that span. Their offense was typically fearsome, with batting champ DJ LeMahieu (.348) and a lineup of prime-age sluggers leading the NL with 5.22 runs per game. Their pitching, while posting a 4.91 ERA, also appears to finally have some answers. Jon Gray, Tyler Chatwood, Chad Bettis, Tyler Anderson and Jeff Hoffman are all 27 or younger, and each had an ERA+ of better than 100 while combining for a winning record. Now, they’ll have one of baseball’s best pitching minds leading the dugout in manager Bud Black. The Rockies have had six other managers in their 24-year history, but Black is the first former pitcher. “I think that will be huge,” star third baseman Nolan Arenado told the Denver Post, and Black sounded just as enthusiastic. “I see the game through the pitchers’ eyes,” he said. “The information I’ve gathered is we have some talented pitchers. I’m just a piece of the puzzle to help these guys along.” The Rockies hope Black is the piece they’ve been missing as they try to wedge themselves into the annual fight between the Dodgers and the Giants for NL West supremacy.
8. Reversing the Texas curse
We’ve now had a century’s worth of baseball in the Lone Star State — between the Astros (first known as the Colt .45s in 1962) and the Rangers (who moved from Washington in 1972) — with exactly zero championships.
It’s not the kind of drought to inspire poetry, cinema and song; there’s no Bambino or Billy Goat to blame for a curse. But it is striking to think of two franchises, neither in a small market, both located in a state with such a vibrant amateur scene, having such a history of futility. Now, though, the Rangers and the Astros sit squarely in a championship window. Though they were swept by Toronto in the division series, the Rangers had the best record in the American League last year and have reached the playoffs in five of the last seven seasons. The Astros fell just short of the postseason last year, but they made it in 2015 and added veteran stabilizers Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Josh Reddick to an impressive young core of Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Lance McCullers and more. Yes, one of these years, possibly soon, there will be a championship parade in Texas. Let’s just hope it doesn’t conflict with a high school football game.
9. End of the Royal run?
The Royals have made the most of their competitive window, winning two AL pennants and the 2015 World Series for their first title in three decades. But after they slipped to .500 last season, it’s reasonable to wonder how much longer the team can stay a contender. The Royals have Sal Perez and Alex Gordon signed to long-term deals, but after this season, all of the following players can be free agents: Lorenzo Cain, Danny Duffy, Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Jason Vargas. That’s the guts of a championship roster, and if the Royals start slowly, you have to wonder if GM Dayton Moore will sell off those stars and start re-shaping the team with an eye on the long term. He’ll have plenty of interested trade partners if he does.
10. Brave new home
When the Braves moved to Turner Field in 1997, they had won four of the last five NL pennants and seemed destined to return regularly to the World Series. Yet they never won a World Series game in 20 seasons at The Ted, and now they’re off to a new home, SunTrust Park, in suburban Cobb County. The Braves arrive in the midst of a vast rebuilding effort, but they’ve assembled a nice collection of young prospects who should help the team compete again soon. While fans wait for that, they’ll enjoy what the team calls “the perfect marriage of classic ballpark feel, modern amenities and southern hospitality.” The team, which had played only downtown since moving from Milwaukee in 1966, believes it will be closer to its fan base now, with the ballpark as the hub of a mixed-use development plaza featuring dining, shopping, residential and work areas, and year-round entertainment. With 188 losses the last two years, there hasn’t been much entertainment on the field. But the Braves are making progress, and their new venue should give them more financial muscle when the time is right.
11. The (WBC) Hangover
Players get hurt every spring training, no matter where they are working out. But the prevailing thought is that players who take part in the World Baseball Classic put themselves at greater risk. For one thing, they’re breaking from their established routines and leaving the cocoon of team supervision. They’re also, perhaps, trying to do too much too soon in the games. The last time the event was held — in 2013, when the Dominican Republic won — the USA had so much trouble recruiting starting pitchers that the only ones on the roster were Gio Gonzalez, Derek Holland, Ryan Vogelsong, Ross Detwiler and knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. This year, Max Scherzer and Chris Archer have agreed to take part, but Noah Syndergaard backed out, noting his responsibility to the Mets and citing the injuries that ravaged their rotation last season. Others — and not just Americans — will surely follow Syndergaard, leaving the event to be a fun but muted competition, and holding the health of the participants up to scrutiny as the actual regular season wears on.
12. The Marlins move on
It was all set up for 2017 to be a memorable year for the Miami Marlins, who host the All-Star Game this summer at their gleaming postmodern ballpark. The Home Run Derby will feature Giancarlo Stanton, trying to defend his title. And the game should have been a showcase for Jose Fernandez, one of baseball’s most electrifying young players, who very well could have been the NL’s starting pitcher. Horrifically, Fernandez was killed with two friends last Sept. 25 in a boating crash in Miami. The immediate aftermath was devastating for the Marlins, who all wore Fernandez’s No. 16 in an emotional victory over the Mets the next day. Owner Jeffrey Loria vowed that no other player would ever wear the number, and there was lots of talk about how to honor the memory of a player who brought such verve and passion to the game. During the World Series, news came down that nobody wanted to hear: Fernandez was drunk at the time of the crash, with cocaine also in his system. Will those revelations impact the way the Marlins honor their franchise icon? And how will the Marlins move on without their ace? The human toll of the tragedy will resonate deepest, of course. But the Marlins have the longest playoff drought of any NL team (their last appearance was 2003), and the task of returning is a whole lot tougher now.
13. Sonny with a chance of moving
It’s a fact of the baseball life: When a young player rises to stardom with the Athletics, he inevitably prices himself out of Oakland’s range, making it only a matter of time until the A’s trade him. Considering the weak class of free-agent starters over the winter, Sonny Gray should have been a prime trade candidate — but injuries and underperformance diminished his value. Gray was limited to 117 innings last season because of a strained right trapezius and inflammation in his right elbow and forearm. He went 5–9 with a 5.69 ERA, hardly resembling the pitcher who starred in the 2013 postseason and won 14 games in each of the next two years. Gray was shut down after Aug. 6 but returned for one inning on Sept. 28, hitting 95 mph on the radar gun. If he returns to his old self and the A’s struggle as expected, look for Billy Beane to work aggressively to make a deal. A healthy and productive Gray — who cannot be a free agent until after the 2019 season — should command a huge bounty of young players in return.
14. Short stories
Two decades ago, a group of dynamic young shortstops began to make their marks in the majors. Their impact turned out to be extraordinary: Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, Miguel Tejada and Edgar Renteria provided unforgettable careers and moments. Another gang of shortstops has come onto the scene in the last two years, and we’re already enjoying the show. The Cubs’ Addison Russell hit a grand slam in the World Series. The Indians’ Francisco Lindor hit .368 in the ALCS. The Astros’ Carlos Correa won the AL Rookie of the Year award in 2015, and the Dodgers’ Corey Seager took the NL honor in 2016. There’s even more to the bounty: Trevor Story was a slugging sensation for the Rockies last season, Aledmys Diaz was an All-Star for the Cardinals, and Dansby Swanson — a former No. 1 overall pick, like Correa — emerged as a cornerstone for the Braves. The athleticism, power and savvy of these newcomers — plus others with a bit more service time, such as Xander Bogaerts of the Red Sox, Brandon Crawford of the Giants and Didi Gregorius of the Yankees — make this another golden age for the shortstop.
15. D.C. speedway
It’s been a decade since any player reached 75 stolen bases in a season. (Jose Reyes had 78 for the Mets in 2007.) Pitchers have gotten quicker and quicker to the plate, and most front offices believe runners must be safe at least 80 percent of the time for the gamble to be worth it. In Washington, though, Trea Turner could defy the modern trend. Turner electrified the Nationals as a rookie last season, hitting .340 with 35 stolen bases in 78 games (postseason included). He was caught only six times, giving him an 85 percent success rate. Manager Dusty Baker, 67, played in the era of stolen base kings Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines, and perhaps he will encourage Turner to be even more of a difference maker on the bases. The Nationals have a good chance to return to the playoffs, and if they meet the Cubs there, Turner might do what the Dodgers could not last fall: use his legs to disrupt Jon Lester in a big spot.
16. Knuckling into the future
While R.A. Dickey keeps going, signing to join Phil Niekro’s old team in Atlanta at age 42, the latest All-Star knuckleballer had a discouraging second half — through no fault of his own. At 32, Boston’s Steven Wright emerged last season as the man to keep the knuckleball flame burning, earning a trip to the midsummer classic and going 13–6 with 3.33 ERA in 24 starts. Because his fluttering pitch is so easy on the arm, Wright should have many more years to use it. Problem was, he hurt his shoulder when diving into a base as a pinch-runner and never pitched after Aug. 31. Here’s hoping Wright makes a full recovery and carries the knuckleball into the next generation. The pitch will always endure as a last-chance beacon for failing conventional pitchers and even washed-up position players. But if Wright struggles, the best hope for the knuckleball’s post-Dickey era — whenever that begins — could be Tampa Bay’s Eddie Gamboa, who made seven relief appearances last September.
17. The Dark Knight returns
The Mets’ Matt Harvey pushed past his recommended innings total in 2015, working into the ninth inning of the final game of the World Series until everything collapsed in Queens. It was a noble effort, and nobody would ever again question Harvey’s toughness or commitment. Then came 2016, when Harvey’s earned run average rose by more than two runs in a disastrous half-season. Harvey was 4–10 with a 4.86 ERA in 17 starts as his strikeout rate dropped, his walk rate rose, and his trademark consistent, high-end velocity abandoned him. Harvey’s season ended mercifully with a shellacking by the Marlins on July 4, his final outing before surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. As the Mets have learned from Zack Wheeler — who has now missed two full seasons after Tommy John surgery — no operation guarantees that a pitcher will return to full strength. With the steady Bartolo Colon off to Atlanta, and Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz also coming off arm surgery, the return of a swaggering, ace-level Harvey is essential for the Mets to challenge Washington for divisional supremacy and, they hope, get a playoff rematch with a Cubs team they overpowered in those glory days of October 2015.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)