Spring training is winding down, and rosters are being finalized. As each of the 30 Major League Baseball clubs prepares to leave sunny Arizona or Florida, we take a look at five clubs capable of putting poor past results behind them. Expect these clubs to be on the rise in 2017.
Tampa Bay Rays
Following a competitive 2015 and led by a strong starting rotation, underrated position players and face of the franchise Evan Longoria, the Rays began last season with postseason aspirations. Unfortunately, almost nothing went right and Tampa Bay slumped to a 68-94 record – the worst for the franchise since 2007 when they were still the Devil Rays.
Longoria had one of his best seasons, and Brad Miller hit a surprising 30 home runs, but otherwise the Rays struggled to score runs. Injuries were a major issue. Outfielder Kevin Kiermaier – the elite defender that has been the team leader in WAR the past two seasons – broke his hand and missed 48 games. The team was 14-34 without him, including an especially dreadful 3-27 mid-summer stretch.
Health also was an issue for the pitching staff. Brad Boxberger, who led the AL in saves in 2015, made just one appearance before the trade deadline and Alex Cobb pitched in only five games all season – all in September when a losing record had already been guaranteed.
Also, the Rays were a bit unlucky. Looking at the Pythagorean win-loss record, the number of runs Tampa Bay scored (672) compared to the runs the team allowed (713) suggest the Rays should have won 77 games last season. Base Runs indicates the club should have posted a .500 record, which equated to a minus-13 total that was the most in the big leagues. Simply put, the Rays didn’t play as badly as their record, and there should be a natural rebound this year as that luck evens out.
A healthier 2017 would do wonders, and the team also made some intriguing offseason moves that should help reverse its record. Losing Logan Forsythe and Drew Smyly stings, but newcomer Colby Rasmus is a bounce-back candidate, new catcher Wilson Ramos should provide a spark when he joins the lineup in May, and pitcher Jose De Leon (the return for Forsythe) has promise. Also, Mallex Smith (a key piece in the Smyly deal) is a sparkplug with the speed and defensive ability the Rays love.
Like Tampa Bay, the Twins took a nosedive in 2016 despite confidence gained through a strong ‘15 campaign. Also like the Rays, the Twins were a bit unlucky. Minnesota posted a 59-103 record – the worst in baseball by nine games – though the club’s Pythagorean win-loss record was 66-96 and Base Runs suggests the clubs should have won 65 games.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the Twins were good. Thanks to poor pitching and terrible defense, Minnesota struggled mightily to keep opponents off the scoreboard. However, the Twins should be better in both aspects in 2017.
Byron Buxton is a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder, and he should hopefully, finally, put together a full season in the big leagues. Max Kepler isn’t a great defender, but the 24-year-old has shown improvement and will be far better in right field than slugger Miguel Sano, who started 2016 there but has shifted back to third base, his natural position. Eddie Rosario was average in left field last season, but was terrific in 2015.
An infield consisting of Sano, Jorge Polanco, Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer may not put together a ton of Web Gems or win many Gold Gloves, but it should be more than adequate and fairly productive, especially if Sano can realize his potential as a middle-of-the-order impact bat. But, the biggest reason the Twins should prevent more runs is new catcher Jason Castro. Castro is one of the best pitch framers in baseball, and he takes over for Kurt Suzuki, who despite a solid defensive reputation was one of the worst. The move was one of the few made by Minnesota’s new, more analytical front office over the winter, but it is a good sign for the future.
In the starting rotation, Ervin Santana was solid, but Phil Hughes, Tyler Duffy, Kyle Gibson and Jose Berrios all finished with ERAs over 5.00 – but also posted lower FIPs – so there is hope that Castro can get the unit in line. There’s particular anticipation for Berrios to regain the form that made him one of baseball’s top pitching prospects – as well as provide strikeouts the rotation desperately needs.
Also, Hector Santiago’s track record in Los Angeles (a 3.82 ERA across three seasons with the Angels) and Chicago (a 3.41 ERA in three years with the White Sox) means the lefty should be better than the 5.58 ERA he posted in 11 starts with the Twins last season.
Finally, the Twins should score more runs in 2017. Though it’s unlikely Dozier will hit 42 home runs again, Buxton was brilliant in September, giving a glimpse into why he was often compared to Mike Trout as a minor leaguer. A healthy Sano can take any pitcher deep, Kepler will benefit from being in the lineup every day, and Mauer looked like his old self in both April and August last year.
Sensing a theme yet? Tampa Bay, Minnesota and Oakland all suffered disastrous 2016 seasons, but all three have hope for ‘17 and beyond. For the A’s, the best chance for a turnaround can be found with a dynamic, young starting rotation.
Though Sonny Gray suffered through a disappointing campaign and will begin 2017 on the DL, Sean Manaea and Jharel Cotton showed top-of-the-rotation potential, and Kendall Graveman got stronger as the season wore on. In 16 starts from June 12-Sept. 4, Graveman posted a 2.90 ERA with 53 strikeouts and just 19 walks in 105.2 innings. The 26-year-old had an 8-3 record in those games, and the A’s were 12-4.
As for the rest of the squad, the A’s lineup has a lot of power, particularly outfielder Khris Davis and shortstop Marcus Semien, who combined for 69 home runs last season. Ryon Healy hit 13 bombs in 72 games as a rookie. The front office added Rajai Davis, Matt Joyce and Trevor Plouffe to the mix, which should help the team’s defense and clubhouse atmosphere, both of which were issues in 2016. Also, a veteran bullpen features four pitchers with closing experience.
Unfortunately for the A’s, the AL West is one of the toughest divisions in baseball. The Rangers posted the best record in the American League last season, the Astros are a legitimate World Series contender, and the Seattle Mariners made huge strides in 2016 while Jerry DiPoto’s never-ending wheeling and dealing have the M’s poised for a postseason run. Plus, the Angels have the best player in the world on their team.
Nevertheless, as the old saying goes, good pitching beats good hitting. Therefore, the A’s have a chance to significantly improve their record thanks to a strong pitching staff.
Los Angeles Angels
If you’re trying to build a postseason contender, having the best player in baseball on your team is an excellent place to start. Mike Trout has been in the majors just five full seasons, but he has already established himself as the top player in the game and is well on his way to becoming one of the all-time greats. Last season, Trout hit .315/.441/.550 with 29 home runs, 100 RBIs and 30 stolen bases on his way to a second career AL MVP Award. He led majors in on-base percentage (.441), runs scored (123), OPS+ (174) and walks (116).
Of course, having Trout in the lineup hasn’t been enough for the Angels to establish themselves as a dominant force in the AL West. He’s led them to the playoffs only once (2014), and the team was promptly swept out of the ALDS. The club’s record has fallen sharply in the two years since, and last season’s 74-88 mark was the worst for the franchise since 1999.
However, there are reasons to be optimistic about the Angels in 2017. Opponents outscored the Angels by just 10 runs last season, meaning its Pythagorean won-loss record was 80-82. That suggests the team played better than its record indicated.
Trout isn’t the only capable hitter, either. Albert Pujols is a Hall of Famer that the team hopes has plenty left in the tank, Kole Clahoun made huge strides in terms of getting on base in 2016, Luis Valbuena has plenty of pop and newcomer Cameron Maybin posted some of the best numbers of his career with the Tigers last season.
Also, the defense is solid. Andrelton Simmons is a two-time Gold Glove winner and has recorded 131 Defensive Runs Saved over the course of his five-year big league career – more than anyone else in the game. Danny Espinosa is smooth at second base and Martin Maldonado and Carlos Perez are a solid defensive combination behind the plate. Also, despite poor numbers last season, Calhoun and Maybin have shown defensive prowess in the past.
The pitching staff is a work in progress, particularly the bullpen, though a healthy Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs at the top of the starting rotation would go a long way towards flipping the record back to the right side of .500.
Four of our first five MLB teams on the rise hail from the American League, which appears to be in a more unstable state in early 2017 than the NL. That likely stems from the overwhelming odds associated with overtaking the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs, the four-time defending NL West champion Los Angeles Dodgers, and the heavyweight NL East rival Washington Nationals and New York Mets. However, despite a big step back last season the Pirates can break through and shake up the senior circuit.
After Pittsburgh made it to the postseason three straight seasons from 2013-15, the Bucs fell to a surprising 78-83 record last year – a dramatic 20-win slide from their 2015 results. The Pirates weren’t even unlucky. Unlike the Rays and Twins, Pittsburgh hit its Pythagorean projection on the nose. The NL’s version of the Moneyball A’s suddenly became the current post-Moneyball A’s.
While many pointed fingers towards a subpar season from superstar Andrew McCutchen, the offense wasn’t an issue. In fact, Pittsburgh scored 729 runs in 2016 – more than the franchise managed in any of the previous seven years. Instead, the Pirates’ biggest area of concern was a sudden inability to prevent runs. After holding opposing teams to 631 runs or fewer in each of the three previous seasons (including two seasons of sub-600 totals), the Pirates allowed 758 in 2016.
A mediocre pitching staff was largely to blame. Of those that remain from a mid-season shakeup that continued over the winter, Gerrit Cole was good, but not great like he had been in 2015, and multiple injuries led to considerable time missed and a disappointing campaign. Cole should show ace form if healthy in 2017.
Ivan Nova posted a solid 3.06 ERA and an even better 2.62 FIP in 11 starts. Jameson Taillon finally made his big league debut following a long and injury-plagued road through the minors, and flashed the brilliance that made him the No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft. Current top prospect Tyler Glasnow also debuted and though he may not begin the season in the majors, the 22-year-old right-hander should be a key piece of the rotation soon. Chad Kuhl showed promise as well.
There are questions on the infield, given the uncertain status of third baseman Jung Ho Kang, the development of young first baseman Josh Bell, and underperforming second baseman Josh Harrison, but the Pirates have one of the best outfields in the majors. Expect McCutchen to bounce back, and his shift to right field should strengthen the defense as a whole. Starling Marte, who hit .311/.362/.456 and added 47 stolen bases takes his rightful spot in center. Right fielder Gregory Polanco busted out with 22 home runs and 86 RBIs last season.
Also, Francisco Cervelli is one of the most respected catchers in the game. Injuries plagued Cervelli last season, which disrupted the pitching staff, so his health will be a major factor as the Pirates take aim at climbing back into the postseason race in 2017.
Others to Watch (alphabetical order)
New York Yankees
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.