Baseball’s Hot Stove season officially comes to an end when pitchers and catchers report to major league spring training camps in Florida and Arizona this week. Looking back to 2016, it’s hard to imagine there will be a more dramatic World Series this year. We’ll miss Big Papi and Vince Scully who provided baseball fans tons of thrills over the years. We saw newly-minted stars like Cory Seager and Gary Sanchez emerge in the game. What will the 2017 season hold for us? Here are a few things to watch for.
During the off-season, several key players found new homes. It will be interesting to see how they impact their new teams. Will Edwin Encarnacion be the big bat the Cleveland Indians were missing last year? Will the Red Sox’s addition of Chris Sales to their pitching staff, which by the way already includes two Cy Young Award winners, make them unbeatable? The Yankees essentially rented out closer Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs last year, and he helped them gain World Series championship rings. As he returns to the Yankees this season, can he do it again?
Several teams made changes in managers over the winter in the hopes of moving their teams in a new direction. Tory Lovullo gets his first shot at the helm of the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team whose enormous potential for 2016 went unrealized. Bud Black returns in a managerial role with the Colorado Rockies, after having been the skipper of the San Diego Padres from 2007 to 2015. Rick Renteria takes over the reins of the Chicago White Sox, who traded several of their veterans for a new crop of prospects. None of these teams are likely to be relevant in 2017, but can these managers set a new course for the future?
The latest crop of rookies offer some hope for a few struggling teams. Outfielder Hunter Renfroe is somewhat of a sleeper for the San Diego Padres. He was a late bloomer coming out of college, but had a breakout year in the minors last season. If his eleven games in a late-season call-up is any indication (4 homers and 11 RBI), he will be someone to watch. Philadelphia Phillies shortstop J. P. Crawford, unlike Renfroe, has been on top prospects lists since he got out of high school. A very athletic player, he will get a shot on a team that still needs a lot of help rebuilding its roster. In dealing away several of its veterans, the White Sox picked up two of the top pitching prospects in the game, Lucas Giolito and Michael Kopech. Don’t be surprised to find them in the White Sox starting rotation sometime during the season. In his brief stint in 2016, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Alex Reyes demonstrated he will find a spot in an already crowded rotation.
The Miami Marlins and Kansas City Royals suffered severe setbacks to their pitching staffs with the tragic deaths of Jose Fernandez in a boating accident late last season and Yordany Ventura in an automobile accident over the winter. Both teams will be hard-pressed to replace them in the short-term, affecting their ability to be playoff contenders.
The Atlanta Braves began re-building their team of the future a couple of years ago, to coincide with their move into their new stadium in 2017. They stocked up on prospects, particularly their pitching, but it’s not looking like they will actually be competitive for another couple more years. However, their rookie shortstop Dansby Swanson appears to be major-league ready now, and figures to be the face of the franchise.
Several of the top major-league players had disappointing or injury-plagued seasons in 2016. Their ability to effectively rebound this season could be the difference in their teams being a contender. Tops on the list is Bryce Harper. After his MVP season in 2015, his offensive production was considerably down for him. Thanks to newcomer Daniel Murphy the Washington Nationals still managed to win the East Division, but didn’t advance past the first round of the playoffs.
Similarly, Dallas Keuchel was the Cy Young Award winner in 2015 for the Houston Astros, but a shoulder problem kept him from turning another good season last year. He is key to the Astros being able to return to the playoffs. Michael Brantley of the Cleveland Indians missed the entire season except for eleven games, due to shoulder surgery. Even though the Indians acquired Encarnacion to bolster the lineup, the Indians will also need Brantley back on the field to repeat as division champs.
The Mets’ Matt Harvey was affected by a health condition called thoracic outlet syndrome, which contributed to his losing four of his fourteen decisions. Surgery caused him to miss the rest of the season after July 4. The Mets need him to have rebound year in order to compete with the Nationals for the division title. Other players looking for comeback seasons include the Diamondbacks’ Shelby Miller, the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig, the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen, and Oakland’s Sonny Gray.
Gary Sanchez had one of the most remarkable seasons ever for a rookie in 2016. In only 53 games, mostly during the last two months of the year for the Yankees, Sanchez slammed 20 home runs and drove in 42 runs. A lot of baseball folks are wondering if he is the real deal or just another flash in the pan. The Yankees have a long legacy of outstanding catchers, including Dickey, Berra, Howard, Munson and Posada. Yankees fans are hoping Sanchez is the next in the line of backstops to lead the Yankees to World Series titles.
The ageless Bartolo Colon, pitching in a staff of twenty-something-year-olds, was instrumental in the New York Mets’s resurgence in the past two seasons. Now in his twentieth major league season, Colon (actually 44 years old this season) is now pitching for the Atlanta Braves, hoping to bring the same magic there.
Ryan Braun, Brian Dozier, and Andrew McCutchen were among a handful of players who were the subject of trade talks during the winter, but nothing ever happened. Don’t be surprised to see them on the trading block sometime during the season. Each of them could be just the player a prospective team is looking for to keep them in contention.
Which teams are going to be the new contenders for the World Series this year? I’ll provide my picks for division winners and wild card teams as spring training draws to a close in March. Stay tuned.