Amid this weekend’s Final Four, let’s not overlook the MLB season that has snuck up upon us. On Sunday, the Cubs will start their title defense on the road (for some crazy reason) against the Cardinals, while the Yankees and Rays along with the Giants and Diamondbacks will open up their new campaigns as well. But now that the Cubs have won, where’s the drama going to come from this season? I’m not sure where it come from exactly, but given the MLB’s plethora of young stars (e.g. Trout, Bryant, Seager), dominant pitchers (e.g. Kershaw, Bumgarner, Scherzer), and hungry franchises still searching for a long-awaited title (Cleveland, Washington, Texas), this season is poised to be just as exciting as 2016.
One of the main things I don’t like about baseball, though, is that predictions are hard to make. Nonetheless, I have seventeen of them to kick off the 2017 season.
1. The Red Sox will not win the AL East
Boston seems to be the popular choice to repeat as AL East champions. Here’s why I’m in the minority. First, David Ortiz is gone. There’s simply no replacing the guy that led the majors in slugging percentage last year, and I could picture his departure having adverse effects on guys like Hanley Ramirez, who had big seasons in 2016 batting behind Big Papi. I’m also not sold on a few other guys the Red Sox project to lean on this year. Jackie Bradley’s solid season at the plate in 2016 was largely a mirage, as he had an unusually high Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) for the better part of last year. Same goes for Sandy Leon. Mark my words, Leon will not come close to hitting over .300 again, as his .392 BABIP far outpaced the league average (roughly .300). Plus, why is everyone so high on Andrew Benintendi? I’ll believe it when I see it.
Ironically, Boston’s lineup could still be the strongest aspect of their team, particularly with David Price’s health in question. Plus, I’m selling Rick Porcello stock after his Cy Young season. Remember what happened to Dallas Keuchel last year after he came out of nowhere to win the Cy Young in 2015? Wouldn’t be surprised if something similar happened to Porcello, who was 9-15 with a 4.92 ERA in 2015. And as for the Sox’s bullpen, I like Craig Kimbrel, but they don’t have anyone spectacular after him. That could haunt them in the postseason, particularly if Kimbrel himself continues to be unreliable.
I’m going out on a limb and picking a team I’ve been high on for the last couple years now: Toronto. I love their lineup even without Edwin Encarnacion and I think people are sleeping on their pitching, which ranked sixth in WAR last season.
2. On topic, Toronto’s Marcus Stroman will win the AL Cy Young
I know what I saw in the final of the World Baseball Classic: The twenty-five year-old took a no-hitter into the seventh to lead the USA to the title, and he will use that performance as a springboard to greater success in 2017. Moreover, Stroman was underrated last year. Underlying indicators beneath his seemingly average campaign (9-10, 4.37 ERA) show that Stroman had a Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) that ranked just outside the top 20 in baseball to go along with a WAR that ranked 18th. Plus, as evidenced by the past two Cy Young winners mentioned in the previous paragraph, the AL tends to produce some unlikely winners. I’m betting that Stroman will be added to that list.
3. Both the Nationals and Mets will beat up on the NL East to make the playoffs with ease
Washington and New York are two of baseball’s strongest teams. The Nationals are good in just about every category, and they even improved their defense (arguably their weakest link last season) with the addition of outfielder Adam Eaton. That, along with what I project to be a bounce-back season from 2015 NL MVP Bryce Harper, will be enough for the Nats to repeat as division champions.
The good news for the Mets, though, is that they’ll still win upwards of 90 games thanks to their terrific pitching staff and, admittedly, the weakest division in baseball. Unfortunately for Miami, they have no pitching now after Jose Fernandez’s sudden death. As for the Phillies and Braves…well, they’re still in that “rebuilding” stage.
4. The gap between Cleveland and second-place in the AL Central will be the largest among division winners
The AL champs will be more formidable in 2017 thanks to the addition of Edwin Encarnacion and better health from starters Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. Similar to the NL East, they also luck out by playing in one of the more middling divisions in baseball. The White Sox are
tanking rebuilding. The Twins will probably improve, but not enough to get close to .500. Kansas City is on the decline and lacks an ace. And Detroit seems content to let their aging stars, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander, guide them to 85 wins. All this makes Cleveland an even safer bet to win their division than the Cubs.
5. Speaking of the Cubs, they’re going to win the NL Central…
No surprise there. I suppose the only noteworthy thing I’d like to point out here is that I like the Cardinals to improve after regressing by fourteen wins a season ago.
6. …but they’ll fail to win 100 games again, and they won’t finish with the NL’s best record
I’m not going to deny that Chicago was the best team in baseball last season. But there was some luck involved. In short, they’re unlikely to sustain their team BABIP from last season that ranked as one of the lowest in MLB history. I mean, how else did you think a former Ivy League pitcher (Kyle Hendricks) ended up with the best ERA in the NL last year? The good news for the Cubs is that their defense should be outstanding once again. After all, they had the best fielding in baseball in 2016. But I’m betting there will be enough regression to the mean with regard to their team BABIP that causes Chicago to “only” win 95 games and lose out on home-field advantage in the playoffs.
7. Two teams from the AL West will make the playoffs, and it definitely won’t be Texas
I think the Rangers will be the most disappointing team in 2017. Sure, their roster looks good. But check out the numbers: This team over-performed by a staggering thirteen wins last season. In other words, they were a 95-win team that should’ve won closer to 82 games based on their meager +8 run differential. Practically all of this had to due with the fact that Texas posted one of the greatest records in one-run games of all-time (36-11). Their odds of replicating that would be better if they had an elite closer like Baltimore’s Zach Britton. But they don’t. Closer Sam Dyson ranked just 27th in ERA among relievers last year, and his FIP of 3.62 suggests that his ERA was actually a full run lower than it should’ve been based on batted ball luck and his paltry strikeout totals. In short, their weak bullpen is a nail in the coffin: The Rangers will miss the playoffs.
8. The one AL West squad that is the best bet: Houston
I’m very high on the Astros, as they’re solid in just about every facet, from their relief staff that ranked first in WAR in 2016 to their fielding that ranked 11th. If anything, their weakest part about their team last year was their offense. But that should only get better thanks to the presence of Jose Altuve and the continued emergence of the likes of Carlos Correa and George Springer. Simply put, this is a team chalk-full of young talent ready to explode after getting a taste of the postseason in 2015.
Many people are projecting the AL West to field three playoff teams, but I’m not as convinced. I already debriefed you on why the Rangers will underachieve, and I think the “dark horse” Mariners will ultimately fall short as well. Seattle as some strengths, such as closer Edwin Diaz and their strong lineup which boasts guys like Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager. But I don’t think their defense (22nd in WAR) last year will help them overcome a less-than-stellar starting pitching staff. With Texas and Seattle out of my playoff picture, I actually think the Angels might be a team that could swoop in. The Halos are terrific defensively, and with the return of Garrett Richards, I think their pitching will be better. Oh yeah, they have that Mike Trout guy, too. You know what? I’m picking the Angels to finish second in the AL West and surprise everyone!
One final note: Sorry Alby. Billy Beane’s going to have to work some extra magic this year to have Oakland seriously compete.
9. In addition to the Angels, I like the Rockies to contend in the NL West
The 75-win Rockies were one of baseball’s more unlucky teams in 2016, due mainly to a horrible 12-20 record in one-run games (the average MLB team, for the record, was 22-22, or .500). A turn-around in that capacity alone will be enough to bump Colorado toward 80 wins. But I think the main reason for their improvement will come from their emerging pitching staff: In rather un-Rockies like fashion, Colorado pitchers ranked a respectable 15th in WAR last season. And given that most of them are young and have progressed over the last couple of seasons (e.g. Tyler Chatwood), I think there is even more room for improvement.
However, I’m ultimately picking the Dodgers to repeat as NL West champs and the Giants to finish second, with the Rockies trailing just behind. You’ll understand my rationale behind picking Los Angeles better in a moment.
10. Clayton Kershaw will win the NL Cy Young with ease and finish in the top three in MVP voting
He’s that good. Kershaw was having the best season of his career in 2016 before a back injury derailed his pursuit of another Cy Young award. Nonetheless, his return in the fall proved that he was back to full health, as he put the Dodgers on his back to steal a Game 5 victory at Washington in the NLDS. In a league with other standout pitchers like Bumgarner, Scherzer, and Syndergaard, Kershaw still reigns supreme.
11. Kershaw’s teammate, Corey Seager, will claim NL MVP
Baseball is in the midst of a youth revolution. Mike Trout is this generation’s Willie Mays, twenty-four year-old Bryce Harper has already had one of the greatest statistical seasons in MLB history, and Kris Bryant only needed a year to win his first NL MVP award.
Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager is next in line. His WAR of 7.5 last season was fifth in all of baseball. That’s spectacular by any standard, but it was all the more impressive because he was a rookie. The twenty-two year-old is also a force at both the plate and in the field, and it’s this kind of versatility that’s not lost on MVP voters these days. After all, Seager finished 13th and 8th in offensive and defensive value among all position players last year according to Fangraphs. He should be even better in 2017, but even a mere repeat of last season could still be more than enough for him to win MVP.
12. Before I forget, the AL MVP will go to Mike Trout (again)
It basically comes down to me not wanting to look stupid for picking against baseball’s best player. Plus, I think his Angels will surprise this year, so he’ll finally have the “MVP’s team’s must win” narrative pointing in his direction!
13. Rookie of the Year: I’ll go with Yoan Moncada (Chicago) and Dansby Swanson (Atlanta)
I’m picking Moncada because I think he’ll get enough at bats with the White Sox this season to pile up the best numbers among the other AL rookies. I’m picking Swanson, the number one overall pick in 2015, mainly because he’s on my fantasy team.
14. My AL playoff picture:
15. My NL playoff picture:
16. This might be my boldest prediction of all: Madison Bumgarner will finally come up short in an elimination playoff game
It’s going to happen sooner or later. That’s why I’m picking Noah Syndergaard to out-duel the greatest postseason pitcher of all-time to send the Mets to the Divisional Round. I also like the Red Sox to beat the Angels at Fenway to set up a rematch with the Indians. From there, I’m going with a relatively upset-free playoffs. Cleveland and Houston will both hold serve in the AL, while Washington and Chicago will barely make it out alive on the other side.
17. Finally, the Indians will extract their revenge and beat the Cubs in the World Series
Are the odds of a rematch of the previous World Series great? No. But given the landscape of baseball right now, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised. The Indians are the most well-rounded team in the American League while all the other contenders have flaws. Houston lacks elite pitching. Boston doesn’t have a good bullpen and their offense will be weaker without Ortiz. And Toronto isn’t as strong offensively as it was two years ago. Cleveland, quite simply, is a great bet to repeat as AL champions.
I’m actually less sold on the Cubs, partly because I think they’ll regress in the regular season (as mentioned above), but largely because the NL is the much stronger league. Any number of teams could dethrone the Cubs, particularly Los Angeles and Washington. Given the randomness in baseball on a yearly basis, Chicago could certainly be the best team in the regular season once again, but ultimately come up short in October to another strong opponent given the thin margin for error.
Nonetheless, I think the defending champions will sneak past Kershaw and Seager’s Dodgers and then Bryce Harper and the Nationals. But from there, I think Cleveland is poised to extract their revenge. Remember: The Indians were up 3-1 in last year’s World Series, and that was without two of their three best starting pitchers. They also match Chicago’s bullpen and defense with equally strong units. Even their offense, while still inferior to Chicago’s, is improved thanks to the addition of Encarnacion, and potentially the return of former All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley.
The Cubs had their long-awaited moment last season. Now it’s time for Cleveland to make up for unfinished business.