Adam Jones and the Orioles could take a step back this season
Opening Day is right around the corner, and though the 2017 MLB season has yet to officially begin, the projections and predictions on how teams will fare are being discussed and debated by both baseball experts and casual fans alike. With spring training near the home stretch, here is a look at five teams that could disappoint in 2017 – including a few inclusions that may surprise you.
Related: 5 MLB Teams on the Rise in 2017
Which team had the best record in the American League in 2016, and was second only to the Chicago Cubs in the majors? Texas finished 95-67 – a full nine games better than the second-place Mainers – to win a second straight AL West title.
The obvious measuring stick for baseball success is the win column. Overall, the Rangers did enough to win 95 games, and that’s a fantastic feat. However, when diving into the numbers, Texas might not have been as good as its record would indicate.
When comparing the Rangers’ runs scored (765) to the number of runs surrendered (757) in 2016, Texas’ Pythagorean win-loss record was 82-80. No big league team had a larger difference in the number of games it won compared to the number it was expected to win based on run differential, and no playoff team surrendered more runs. Also, the Rangers posted an amazing 36-11 record in one-run games, which was the best record in baseball, but also nearly impossible to replicate.
Traditionalists may scoff and point to a team’s “grit” and “will to win,” or “doing the little things” necessary to win, but such a lucky outcome one season often means a regression to the mean.
On paper, the Rangers are solid. The infield is one of the best offensive units in the American League with Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Rougned Odor and Mike Napoli around the horn, plus Jonathan Lucroy behind the plate. Jurickson Profar is slated to start in left field, but could also help out elsewhere, center fielder Carlos Gomez hit .284/.362/.543 with eight home runs in 33 games with Texas after coming over from the Astros, and right fielder Nomar Mazara hit 20 home runs and finished fifth in the AL Rookie of the Year vote as a 21-year-old.
Defensively, Beltre is one of the best all-time, and the rest of the group is adequate overall. Add DH Shin-Soo Choo to the mix and there’s no easy out in the lineup. However, there’s not a ton of depth, either.
The starting rotation also has its fair share of big names, most notably Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels, and the bullpen was dynamite last season. But, the starting staff also has its fair share of injury concerns (including three pitchers expected to begin the season on the DL), and bullpens are capable of blowing up (in a bad way) at any time. With apologies to Sam Dyson, who was fantastic in the closer role last year, there’s no dominant reliever in the bunch.
Also, the AL West is becoming increasingly difficult. The Astros are the Las Vegas favorite to win the division, and could make a World Series run, the Mariners are a legitimate postseason contender, and the Angels and A’s are two teams that could start to turn things around in 2017.
Coming off an overachieving season, don’t be surprised to see the Rangers take a natural step back. If injuries strike and expose depth issues, or the bullpen struggles, a .500 record or worse is possible.
No team in baseball has been as underrated as the Orioles this decade. The good folks at Baseball Prospectus, whose PECOTA player projection system is often considered the gold standard in the industry, has underestimated Baltimore’s win total in each of the past five seasons. Over that span, the O’s have won more games than any AL team.
This year, BP projects Baltimore to win 74 games – which would be a dramatic 15-game downturn. While such a drop-off appears unlikely for a club that has made the postseason three times in the last five years, a step back is very possible.
On the surface, like the Rangers, the Orioles feature a fearsome lineup. The team’s top six sluggers – Mark Trumbo, Chris Davis, Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Jonathan Schoop and Pedro Alvarez – are all back. While there’s no reason to expect the group will fall dramatically short of the 198 combined home runs they totaled in 2016, Trumbo was a surprise last season and could take a step back. Alvarez isn’t currently on the active roster participating in camp as a spring training invitee, and Davis is a strikeout machine that has led the league in punch outs in each of the last two years.
There are other concerns as well. The O’s won quite a few slugfests in 2016, but Baltimore allowed 715 runs last season. That’s a small increase from 2015 (693), when the Orioles finished 81-81, but a huge jump over the 96-win team in 2014 (593) that made it to the ALCS. Baltimore’s 4.22 team ERA was the second highest among all playoff teams in 2016 (Texas).
Starter Chris Tillman is expected to miss at least the first month of the season with a sore shoulder, and Kevin Gausman was the only other full-time member of the starting rotation that posted a sub-5.00 ERA. Depth is a concern, and it’s unreasonable to expect closer Zach Britton to carry the bullpen with a second straight historic season.
And, while run prevention is often seen as a pitching issue, defense plays just as big a role. Machado and J.J. Hardy are well-respected defenders on the left side of the infield, and Jones is a solid center fielder, but the rest of the unit is lacking – especially in the outfield corners.
It’s disappointing to include the Marlins on this list. It’s also disheartening to give such a reason as to why, but it’s unavoidable. There is simply no way to replace Jose Fernandez. The tragic death of the young superstar pitcher reaches beyond his performance on the mound, as the impact stretches into the dugout, the clubhouse and out into the community.
Without Fernandez, the Marlins’ rotation consists of newcomers Edinson Volquez, and Dan Straily, veteran lefty Wei-Yin Chen, and other holdovers Tom Koehler and Adam Conley. There is a bit of depth to the staff with Jose Urena and Justin Nicolino in the mix, but no one expected to start a game for the Fish in 2017 comes close to Fernandez’s skill or potential.
Volquez has been good at times, but last season was not one of them. The 33-year-old was 10-11 with a 5.37 ERA in 34 starts for the Royals. He led the AL in earned runs allowed (113) and struck out just 16.3 percent of the hitters he faced – his lowest strikeout rate since 2006. Straily posted a decent 3.76 ERA, but surrendered an NL-worst 31 home runs and posted an ugly 4.88 FIP. Chen set career highs in ERA (4.96), FIP (4.50), home runs allowed per nine innings (1.6) and hits allowed per nine innings (9.8).
The bullpen should be a strength, and the lineup has power, particularly in Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, and underrated Christian Yelich. Dee Gordon won the 2015 batting title and Adeiny Hechavarria is as good a fielder as anyone at shortstop. However, the starting rotation – like the franchise itself – lost its crown jewel in heartbreaking fashion, and the loss will hurt badly in 2017 and beyond.
Chicago White Sox
The roster teardown is a popular strategy around the majors for clubs that have struggled to sustain success, and after years on the fence, the White Sox have finally embraced the trend.
Perhaps watching their crosstown rivals win the World Series helped the White Sox’ front office decide to push the reset button. After all, the South Siders didn’t blow up their roster after the division rival Royals emerged from a long rebuild to reach the Fall Classic twice and win a ring in 2015. But between that and seeing other franchises like the Astros (on the field) and the Braves (farm system rankings) make strides, the other Chicago team decided it was time to change strategies.
Whatever it was, the White Sox have embraced the teardown – and though it is probably the best thing for the franchise in the long run, it is going to get much worse before it gets better.
With a top-heavy roster and little depth, the White Sox made modest improvement in the win column in each of the last four seasons – going from a meager 63 wins in 2013 to 73 in ‘14, 76 in ‘15 and 78 last year. But it wasn’t enough to snap a postseason drought that dates back to 2008. In early December, when the White Sox received an offer they couldn’t refuse from the Washington Nationals, they parted with outfielder Adam Eaton. The next day, the right offer came along for superstar left-hander Chris Sale, and Chicago jumped at the opportunity to ship him off to Boston.
If you don’t know them already, learn the names Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech and Reynaldo Lopez – the key pieces in the two trades. The good news is that all four are legitimate top-50 prospects (and the infielder Moncada may be baseball’s most talented prospect) and should soon become franchise cornerstones alongside shortstop Tim Anderson and starter Carlos Rodon. The bad news is that all four are likely to begin the season in the minors.
Third baseman Todd Frazier and outfielder Melky Cabrera are very likely to be traded this summer since both will be free agents after 2017. Slugger Jose Abreu, starter Jose Quintana and closer David Robertson are still around, but might not last through July as GM Rick Hahn and the rest of the front office continue to reshape the roster. Hahn has been patient enough to find the right deals, however.
Given the expected roster upheaval over the course of the season, as well as the moves that have already been made, oddsmakers set the White Sox’ 2017 win total at 69.5. The under looks like a good bet.
San Diego Padres
Speaking of low win totals, no team got less respect from oddsmakers than the San Diego Padres, listed at 66.5 wins by online sports book Bovada. The Padres finished 2016 tied for the second-worst record in the majors (68-94), slashed payroll, and set forth a plan designed to rebuild their farm system.
Like the White Sox, Padres fans should have fun prospect watching. However, watching the team in San Diego probably won’t be very fun, especially since the top pitching prospects in the organization – Anderson Espinoza, Cal Quintrill, Adrian Morejon and Jacob Nix – all played in the low minors in 2016 and probably won’t be ready for the big leagues until ‘18 or later.
Beyond young, talented starter Luis Perdomo (who was just 9-10 with a 5.71 ERA with the big league club last season), the starting rotation is a collection of veteran castoffs. Clayton Richard, Jared Weaver, Jhoulys Chacin, Trevor Cahill and Jared Cosart are all likely to start games for San Diego in 2017. Christian Friedrich and Robbie Erlin also are in the mix, but Friedrich is dealing with arm soreness and Erlin won’t be back until at least midseason as he recovers from Tommy John surgery.
All-Star first baseman Wil Myers, who hit .259/.336/.461 with 28 home runs and 94 RBIs last year and signed an $83 million contract extension over the winter, is back. Second baseman Ryan Schimpf and third baseman Yangervis Solarte combined for 35 home runs last season, and backup catcher/pitcher Christian Bethancourt will be an intriguing experiment to keep an eye on. Outfielders Hunter Renfore and Manuel Margot, shortstop Luis Sardinas and catcher Austin Hedges all are talented prospects that should be fun to watch.
However, there simply isn’t enough talent to overcome what is expected to be a poor pitching staff, as well as one of the toughest divisions in the big leagues. It’s very possible that the Padres will lose 100 games for the first time since 1993.
Others teams to be concerned about (alphabetical order)
Kansas City Royals
St. Louis Cardinals
Toronto Blue Jays
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.