The Tenth Inning
 The Tenth Inning Blog
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2017 Preseason MLB Picks: It's Like Deja Vu All Over Again

Last year’s MLB season ended in dramatic fashion, when the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians faced off against each other in the World Series that came down to the tenth inning in Game 7.  Both the Cubs and the Indians had been among the most World Series-starved teams in the history of the Fall Classic, with the Cubs not having won the championship since 1908 and the Indians since 1948.  The tables could have easily been turned in favor of the Indians, who held a 3-1 advantage after four games.

Well, I’m predicting Yogi Berra’s legendary quip, “It’s like déjà vu all over again,” will apply to the 2017 World Series.

Yeah, I’m picking the Cubs and Indians to make return trips to the World Series.  I just don’t see anybody in either league who has a better all-around team than both of these clubs.  The Cubs lost two key members from last year’s club, outfielder Dexter Fowler and reliever Aroldis Chapman, but have able replacements in Kyle Schwarber and Wade Davis.  The Indians improved their roster in the offseason with the acquisition of slugging first-baseman Edwin Encarnacion from Toronto, plus they get back outfielder Michael Brantley and catcher Yan Gomes from injuries.  However, I think both clubs’ pitching staffs and their astute managers will be the main reasons for their returns.

So, what are the odds of the same two opponents repeating World Series appearances in consecutive seasons?  The last time occurred in 1977 and 1978, when the New York Yankees defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in both Series.

And what are the chances the Cubs can repeat as World Series champion in 2017?  The last time a team won back-to-back World Series was the New York Yankees who defeated the San Diego Padres in 1998, the Atlanta Braves in 1999, and the New York Mets in 2000.

There have been other recent instances of a single team going to the World Series in back-to-back years, such as the Kansas City Royals in 2014, losing to the San Francisco Giants, and in 2015, when they defeated to the New York Mets.  Prior to that, the Texas Rangers appeared in consecutive World Series in 2010 and 2011, losing both to San Francisco and the St. Louis Cardinals, respectively.  So a repeat by either club wouldn’t be a huge surprise.

I don’t think there any real “sleepers” in the upcoming season division races.  Sure, there are some sentimental favorites that I might personally like to see challenge the Cubs and Indians, but the reality is each division seems to have one or two clear-cut favorites and the rest of the teams are generally not in the same ballpark to be contenders.

 

American League East (2016 order of final standings: Red Sox, Orioles, Blue Jays, Yankees, Rays)

The East Division remains the toughest of all—in both leagues.  The other 25 major-league teams are thankful they don’t have to play in this division.

The Boston Red Sox will be the only real challenger to the Cleveland Indians returning to the World Series this year—even without the retired popular and productive David Ortiz.  Outfielder Mookie Betts is a real challenger to Mike Trout and Kris Bryant as the best player in the majors.  Chris Sale will be even better in the Red Sox environment than he was with the Chicago White Sox, which is hard to believe.  David Price’s arm situation is a bit worrisome, so the Red Sox will need another stellar season from Rick Porcello.  The Red Sox didn’t even bother to try to upgrade their catcher position because they don’t need the bat in the starting lineup.  While perhaps not as outwardly vocal and visible as Ortiz, veteran Dustin Pedroia is the unquestionable leader in the clubhouse.

Toronto will edge out the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees for runner-up in the division.  Even though the Blue Jays lost one of its top hitters, Edwin Encarnacion, to free agency, they still have enough offensive punch to go along with a solid starting rotation that flies under the radar because it lacks the big-name ace.  But a lot of other clubs would love to have Estrada, Stroman, Happ, and Sanchez on their roster.

Toronto gets the nod over the Orioles and Yankees because these two teams don’t have the dependable starting pitching like the Blue Jays.  Sure, the Orioles have the best overall record in the division for the last 4-5 years and led the league in home runs last year, but that will only be good enough to possibly get them a wild-card spot like last year.  The Yankees have a revitalized, young squad now, but did nothing in the off-season to improve their starting pitching.  Maybe they thought they didn’t need to address this because they got back one of the best closers in Aroldis Chapman, whom they essentially rented to the Cubs last fall.  The Tampa Bay Rays wish the “good fairy” would magically move them to another division, because they’re destined for last place yet again.

 

American League Central (2016 order of final standings: Indians, Tigers, Royals, White Sox, Twins)

The Indians will repeat as Central Division champs because of their pitching staff, both starters and relievers.  Corey Kluber and Andrew Miller, who showed the world just how good they were during the World Series last year, will lead a quality staff again this year.  Then the Indians acquired Edwin Encarnacion big bat during the off-season.  Manager Terry Francona had this club clicking on all cylinders last year despite the significant absences of outfielder Michael Brantley and Yan Gomes and some injured pitchers late in the season.  Francona came within a few innings of winning it all last year in the dramatic World Series.  He’ll have his team hungry to get another shot.

The Detroit Tigers have gotten the label of “aging team” similar to what the Yankees experienced for the last few years.  Many analysts are questioning how much longer pitcher Justin Verlander, first-baseman Miguel Cabrera, and DH Victor Martinez can carry the team.  That may indeed be an issue at some point, but these guys still figure to be significant contributors in 2017.  The Tigers will again finish as runner-up to the Indians in the division, but the question remains whether they can win enough games to snatch a wild-card spot.

A couple of years ago, I was calling the Kansas City Royals the “new” New York Yankees when they had back-to-back World Series appearances, including a championship in 2015.  They appeared then to be set with a core of good players for the next several years.  But they finished at .500 last year and figure to be a middle-of-the pack team again.  The tragic death of starting pitcher Yordano Ventura to an offseason automobile accident and the loss of closer Wade Davis to free agency will hamper this team.  But they will still be better than the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox.

 

American League West (2016 order of final standings: Rangers, Mariners, Astros, Angels, A’s)

The Houston Astros were one of the most active teams during the off-season, with the acquisition of veterans Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and Josh Reddick to complement a team with some of the best youngsters in the league—Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Alex Bregman.  However, their starting pitching staff needs to return to 2015 form.  In any case, the Astros will move past the Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners this year to win their first division title since 2001.  They have depth and versatility on the roster that will be a huge advantage for manager A. J. Hinch during the season.

The Mariners and Rangers will duke it out for second place.  The Mariners get the edge because they have Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Jean Segura, and Kyle Seager powering their offense, although they didn’t get much help from their outfielders.  Last year pitcher Felix Hernandez had an off-year for him.  Look for him to rebound and pair off well with Hisashi Iwakuma at the top of the rotation.

Although the Rangers get ace pitcher Yu Darvish for a full season in 2017, they will fall back to a third-place finish this year.  They have one of the best second basemen in Rougned Odor, but will be lacking in overall power in order to put up a lot of runs.  Future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre seems to be ageless, but expect him to start slowing down.  Having catcher Jonathan Lucroy, acquired at the trade deadline last year, for a full season will be a big improvement at the catching position.

The Los Angeles Angels, despite having the best player in baseball in Mike Trout, can’t seem to find a consistent direction as a team.  Along with the Oakland A’s, who are in a perpetual re-building mode, they will drag up at the bottom of the division.

 

National League East (2016 order of final standings: Nationals, Mets, Marlins, Phillies, Braves)

Dusty Baker was just what the Washington Nationals front office ordered for a new manager last year, when he captured the division title and turned around the attitude of the team.  Outfielder Bryce Harper had an uncharacteristically down season and they still won 95 games to win the division.  The Nationals have another rising superstar on the horizon in Trea Turner, who will play at his natural shortstop position this year.  Two big off-season acquisitions, Adam Eaton and Matt Weiters, strengthen an already good lineup.  Daniel Murphy had a near-MVP season last year; if he can repeat that, along with a revived Harper, the Nationals will be unstoppable on offense.  The Nats have one of the best starting pitching staffs in the league, but they will have an untested closer to start the season.  In any case, they will win 95-96 games again this year to win the division by 6-8 games.

Like the Nationals, the New York Mets are strong in pitching, too.  They feature several young flamethrowers, but the injury bug has bitten a few of them.  Steven Matz is not medically ready to begin the season, while Matt Harvey is coming off a shortened season last year due to surgery for a condition called thoracic outlet syndrome.  Zach Wheeler hasn’t pitched since 2014, because of Tommy John surgery.  So the main question for the Mets will be who will be healthy and available throughout the season.  However, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob DeGrom still anchor the top of the rotation, and they are both big-time pitchers.  Yoenes Cespedes remains the Mets’ best hitter, and two years ago he showed he could practically carry the offense on his back.  He could well do it again.  The Mets will finish in second place, but may not be able to claim a wild-card spot again.

The Miami Marlins were on a seemingly rising path, but the tragic death from a boating accident by its pitching ace and fan-favorite, Jose Fernandez, at the end of last season will take a lot of steam out the club.  Outfielders Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich are excellent offensive players, but they aren’t enough by themselves.  Still, the Marlins will likely finish ahead of the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies, both of whom are 3-4 years into their re-building plans.  Maybe next year one or both of them could be more of a contender, but not now.

 

National League Central (2016 order of final standings: Cubs, Cardinals Pirates, Brewers, Reds)

The Cubs’ organization plan put in place in 2012 by club president Theo Epstein paid off last year with their first World Series championship in 108 years.  Because their team from last year has largely stayed intact, they are favorites to win the NL Central Division and get to their second straight World Series.  Their starting pitching staff headed by John Lester, Jake Arrieta, and Kyle Hendricks will be a key component in their expected success.  Wade Davis, who was brought in over the winter to replace free-agent Aroldis Chapman, along with Hector Rendon, Koji Uehara, and Mike Montgomery, give them good depth in the bullpen.  The offense is led by sluggers Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, who have a supporting cast of young aggressive hitters.  Super utility player Ben Zobrist provides them many options in the lineup.  Unless the Cubs get struck by injuries to a number of their players, they will be hard to beat in 2017.  Manager Joe Maddon will find ways to keep the team loose to avoid any major meltdowns.

There will be a close race for second place in the division between the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals. But the Pirates will finally finish ahead of the Cards by a couple of games, but behind the Cubs by at least 10 games.  With outfielder Andrew McCutchen on the trading block over the winter, it wasn’t clear the Pirates were “all in” for making a run for a playoff spot this year.  They have the best outfield in the game with McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco.  The Bucs have a young home-grown pitching corps, led by Gerrit Cole, which is finally coming into its own.  Their main weakness could be in the bullpen, where they lost Mark Melancon, one of the best closers in the game.  However, they did acquire A. J. Ramos from the Marlins (40 saves in 2016) to offset that loss.  If the Pirates should fall out of contention early in the year, look for McCutchen to be traded during the season.

Last year the Cardinals failed to get into the post-season playoffs for the first time since 2010.  Noted for developing players within their highly-touted farm system, the Cardinals continue to field a team largely comprised of home-grown players.  However, one deficiency is the overall lack of power hitters and run producers.  Catcher Yadier Molina is still one of the best game-callers in the business, but his starting pitching staff presents some uncertainty, with the exception of Carlos Martinez, who assumed the role of ace last year when Adam Wainwright struggled with his control.  Lance Lynn missed the entire season in 2017, while Michael Wacha pitched only 138 innings for the year.

The Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers will again finish far behind the rest of the pack.  The Brewers appear to be assembling a team that could be more competitive in a couple of years.

 

National League West (2016 order of final standings: Dodgers, Giants, Rockies, Diamondbacks, Padres)

The Los Angeles Dodgers will win their fifth consecutive division title this year.  Their biggest off-season deals were the re-signing of relief pitcher Kenley Jansen and Justin Turner, keeping the roster intact from last season.  They did also add Tampa Bay second baseman Logan Forsythe who will play every day and allow aging veteran Chase Utley to become a role player off the bench.  Pitcher Kershaw is still the best pitcher on the planet, and has the same cast as last year surrounding him on the hill.  Corey Seager, the NL Rookie of the Year in 2016, is quickly making his way to become the best shortstop on the planet, too.  The main question for the Dodgers is whether they can ever win a pennant, but that isn’t in the cards for them in 2017 either.

After starting last season as though they were headed toward their usual even-numbered year World Series (having previously won titles in 2010, 2012, and 2014), the San Francisco Giants suffered a meltdown during the second half of the season, losing a lot of late-inning games.  They solved their closer problem with the acquisition of Mark Melancon.  Their starting rotation is the same as last year, headlined by Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto at the top.  They will put up more than their share of wins, but the guys filling the 3rd, 4th, and 5th slots have seen their better days.  The Giants’ offense doesn’t have much power, and that will hurt them in the end.  They may get close to the Dodgers for the division title, but ultimately will fall short again.

The Arizona Diamondbacks were one of the most disappointing teams in baseball last year.  After having such high expectations generated by the acquisition of pitcher Zach Greinke and Shelby Miller, they fell flat on their faces.  A season-long injury to outfielder A. J. Pollack didn’t help much either.  The D’backs’ front office had a big turnover during the off-season, and they have first-time manager Torey Lovullo at the helm this year.  So, despite having some very good talent like first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and Pollack, expectations this year should be tempered.  Their breakthrough to being a strong contender for the division title will be delayed for at least another year.

There’s a lot of noise coming out of Colorado that suggests the Rockies might be a “sleeper” this year.  They did make some improvements in their roster over the winter, but it still won’t be enough.  However, they will finish ahead of the lackluster San Diego Padres.

 

To recap my projections for the 2017 playoff situation, it’s going to look a lot like last year.  Déjà vu, Yogi.

AL East – Red Sox; AL Central – Indians; AL West – Astros; Wild Cards – Blue Jays and Mariners

AL pennant winner -- Indians

NL East – Nationals; NL Central – Cubs; NL West – Dodgers; Wild Cards – Giants, Pirates

NL pennant winner – Cubs

World Series winner -- Indians

 

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