Author Archive: Jason Dore

MLB’s 25-and-Under Team

Today’s baseball landscape has perhaps a larger group of young superstars than any other time in the game’s history. Shortly after the Hall of Fame voting results were released in January, I took a look at the 25 active major leaguers who stand the best chance of eventually reaching the Hall of Fame. What I found was that there were very few who could be put into the category of “shoo-ins”. The only active players you could really say have a near 100% chance if they retired today are Pujols, Beltre, Cabrera, Ichiro, and possibly Kershaw. A large part of that is because the star power is shifting more towards younger players who have burst onto the scene the last few years. In fact, of the last six MVP awards winners (three AL and three NL), only Josh Donaldson was over the age of 25.

Because of all the incredible new talent entering the game, I went position by position to determine an all-star team of players who are 25 years of age or younger. Some choices were extremely tough, as you can imagine. For each position, I asked myself which player I would want to have for the next ten to fifteen years if I were building a team today.

Catcher: Gary Sanchez, Age 24 (Yankees)

This was a rather obvious choice, unless you count Kyle Schwarber as a catcher. Few rookies make as grand of an entrance as Sanchez did last season. He bashed 20 home runs in just 201 big league at bats, and with the dearth of good hitting catchers around the game, Sanchez already has a claim as one of the game’s top five backstops, regardless of age or experience. Keep in mind that only five catchers in all of baseball hit more home runs than Sanchez in 2016, and he only played 53 games. The Yankees are undergoing a youth movement and the 24-year old is front and center.

First Base: Greg Bird, 24 (Yankees)

First base happens to be one of the least represented positions when it comes to players under 25, so Bird gets the nod here over Ryon Healy of the Athletics. Unfortunately, Bird missed the entire 2016 season due to a shoulder injury, but he demolished opposing pitchers in Spring Training and now has a firm grasp on the Yankees’ first base job. Hitting left-handed pitching is still an area he needs to improve in, but it’s not unrealistic to envision Bird hitting 30 home runs this year, especially given the luxury of Yankee Stadium’s right field porch.

Second Base: Jonathan Villar, 25 (Brewers)

Honorable Mention: Rougned Odor, 23 (Rangers)

Many people probably would have gone with Rougned Odor here, but Villar was also one of baseball’s true breakout stars last year. Odor is still just 23 and coming off a 30-homer season, but Villar was the superior player in 2016. After struggling to establish himself in parts of three seasons with the Astros, Villar came out of nowhere to score 92 runs for Milwaukee and led the NL with 62 stolen bases. He also displayed good power for a middle infielder by hitting 19 home runs. The biggest disparity between Odor and Villar is their ability to get on base. Villar walked 79 times in 2016 to the tune of a .369 on-base percentage, while Odor walked only 19 times. The one flaw in Villar’s game is his high strikeout rate; he was second in the NL with 174 strikeouts and has always struck out frequently, even in the minors. Regardless, he is among the game’s most underrated players and is young enough that he can continue to develop as a player. He’ll make the move from shortstop to second base this year.

Third Base: Nolan Arenado, 25 (Rockies)

HM: Manny Machado, 24 (Orioles); Kris Bryant, 25 (Cubs)

This was another toss-up. There are four third baseman, three of them 25 or younger, who have a legitimate claim as a top ten player in all of baseball. How can you choose between, reigning MVP Kris Bryant, Manny Machado, and Nolan Arenado? I ultimately went with Arenado, who has led the NL in home runs, RBI, and total bases each of the last two seasons. Some of that is attributed to Coors Field, but when you out-RBI the rest of the league by 20 in consecutive years, that should leave no doubt about your offensive prowess. Arenado has also gained a reputation as one of the premier defensive third baseman in the game; four Gold Gloves in four years back it up. Bryant, Machado, and Arenado are all extremely close in value, making way for some good debates. But as of now, Machado doesn’t walk nearly as much as the other two and Bryant is the most strikeout-prone, so Arenado gets the very slight edge. Regardless, it wouldn’t be a surprise if any one of them took home an MVP in 2017.

Shortstop: Carlos Correa, 22 (Astros)

HM: Francisco Lindor, 23 (Indians); Corey Seager, 23 (Dodgers)

Shortstop was easily the toughest position to choose. There are at least half a dozen shortstops under 25 who have the look of perennial All-Stars, but three especially stand out. Among those three, Corey Seager may currently be the best pure hitter, but I’m going with the all-around upside of Correa and Francisco Lindor, with Correa getting the edge. Lindor already does everything his team could ask for and is the type of player who can have a Derek Jeter-like impact on a franchise. However, I’m going with Correa because I think he’ll develop more power, improve defensively and on the basepaths, and become one of baseball’s top five players for a long time. Regardless, Seager, Lindor, and Correa all have monumental potential and perform well in nearly every aspect of the game, meaning any one of them could emerge as the best. Correa is the only shortstop in baseball history to hit 20 home runs in each of his first two seasons. Only nine other have done it in either of their first two years, including Seager. The talent level of young shortstops in today’s game in reminiscent of the mid-to-late 1990s, when Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Nomar Garciaparra all entered the league around the same time.

Left Field: Christian Yelich, 25 (Marlins)

HM: Andrew Benintendi, 22 (Red Sox)

Yelich hasn’t gotten the publicity he deserves, maybe due to the presence of his outfield partner Giancarlo Stanton, but all he’s done in his four seasons is hit and get on base. He’s always been known for his high batting averages, but Yelich greatly increased his power output in 2016. He also drove in 98 runs, and has a chance to score and drive in 100 annually now that he’s added more power. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Yelich named to his first of many All-Star teams in 2017.

Center Field: Mike Trout, 25 (Angels)

HM: Odubel Herrera, 25 (Phillies)

There are a number of good young center fielders, but Trout towers above them all. Although he won’t celebrate his 26th birthday until August, he has already built a compelling Hall of Fame case. What Trout’s been able to do so far has been nothing short of incredible. Since 1942, only Alex Rodriguez and Mickey Mantle scored more runs through their age-24 season than Trout. The five-time All-Star has finished first or second in AL MVP voting in every season of his career and could wind up as one of the greatest players of all-time.

Right Field: Bryce Harper, 24 (Nationals)

HM: Mookie Betts, 24 (Red Sox)

It was nearly impossible to choose between Harper and Mookie Betts for right field. Both are among the best players in baseball and Betts vastly outplayed Harper in 2016, nearly winning the AL MVP. But Harper has already won an MVP in 2015, a season which was historic for a player at his age on so many levels. For whatever reason, Harper doesn’t get the credit he deserves for what he’s already accomplished. Maybe it’s because he hasn’t quite been on Mike Trout’s level (yet) or because people don’t like his personality, but neither argument makes a whole lot of sense. Critics tend to forget that Harper is still only 24, an age when most players are just getting started. Here’s some perspective on how good Harper has been since his debut; only six players have had at least 2,500 plate appearances prior to their age-24 season and had an on-base percentage over .380 and slugging percentage over .500 – Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Trout, and Harper.

Starting Pitcher #1: Noah Syndergaard, 24 (Mets)

There were so many great pitchers who could have been picked here, but Syndergaard is the one I believe has the highest ceiling of the bunch. It’s hard to believe 2017 is only the second time that Thor has made an Opening Day roster, but the big right-hander is already one of baseball’s most marketable stars, blessed with a breathtaking arsenal of pitches and a persona that fits perfectly in the Big Apple. Syndergaard is nearly untouchable when he’s on top of his game, with his triple-digit fastball and wicked slider that routinely reaches speeds in the low 90’s. Very rarely does a pitcher possess his strikeout ability and pinpoint control this early in a career, which makes Syndergaard one of the early frontrunners for the NL Cy Young award. With less than two full seasons of big league experience, there’s every chance Syndergaard continues to get even better, and that’s frightening to think about, especially if you’re a hitter in the NL East.

Starting Pitcher #2: Aaron Sanchez, 24 (Blue Jays)

The Southern California native burst onto the scene as a reliever in 2014, but has quickly emerged as one of the AL’s best starters. It’s no wonder the Blue Jays were so resistant to include him in trade talks while he was moving through their system. Sanchez led the league in ERA in his first full year as a starter in 2016 and may have had a shot at the Cy Young Award had Toronto not limited his innings down the stretch.

Starting Pitcher #3: Carlos Martinez, 25 (Cardinals)

HM: Michael Fulmer, 24 (Tigers); Marcus Stroman, 25 (Blue Jays); Steven Matz, 25 (Mets); Lance McCullers, 23 (Astros)

While the Cardinals enter 2017 amidst much uncertainty with their pitching, Martinez has become the team’s new ace and most reliable starter. The 2015 All-Star has turned in a 3.02 ERA the past two years. Martinez’s electric fastball and off-speed pitches have even drawn comparisons to Pedro Martinez.

Relief Pitcher: Roberto Osuna, 22 (Blue Jays)

HM: Edwin Diaz, 22 (Mariners); Cam Bedrosian, 25 (Angels)

One of the strengths the Blue Jays have is some great young starting pitching, but Osuna has been just as outstanding in the early part of his career as the team’s closer. What Osuna has done in his first two seasons is nothing short of historic. It’s rare enough for a pitcher this young to be a team’s undisputed closer; Osuna has already compiled 56 career saves, making him the youngest player ever to reach that total. In fact, among all pitchers who compiled 50 or more innings before turning 22, Osuna and Jose Fernandez are the only two to post an ERA under 2.75, WHIP under 1.00 and allow a batting average under .200.

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The Next Generation: Baseball’s Potential Breakout Stars

Nothing is predictable in baseball. Virtually every season, surprise teams contend for playoff spots and supposed favorites falter. As far as individual players go, established veterans can have down years and new stars emerge as key contributors.

Breakout stars are among the most intriguing players to follow, especially if they play for your favorite team. Here are 15 players who, for the most part, are not household names but have a chance to have outstanding seasons. Some of them have been around a few years or have been highly regarded prospects, and others are almost completely unknown, but all of them are players who I believe can take a huge step forward on the field in 2017.

The first group of players consists of ones who have yet to reach their full potential, but have still shown some talent in their brief time at the big league level…

Greg Bird, 1B (New York Yankees)

After missing the entire 2016 season with a torn shoulder labrum, the Yankees’ first base job is now Bird’s to lose. Any concerns over his ability to recover from that injury were quickly laid to rest after Bird abused Grapefruit League pitching, leading all of baseball in extra-base hits, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and finishing tied in home runs. There’s little doubt that he’ll hit for power, but if he can make improvements against left-handed pitching and cut back on his strikeouts, Bird will quickly become a franchise cornerstone for the Bronx Bombers.

David Dahl, LF (Colorado Rockies)

Although Dahl is starting the season on the DL, he’ll provide a major boost to an already good Rockies lineup upon his return. As a rookie in 2016, Dahl started hitting right out of the gate, finishing with a .315/.359/.500 slash line in 63 games. He may face some competition for playing time, but the plan was for Dahl to be the everyday left fielder and nothing will change as long as he hits the way he’s capable of. The 10th overall pick in the 2012 draft has solid power and speed that could make him an annual 20-homer/20-steal player.

Maikel Franco, 3B (Philadelphia Phillies)

In his brief big league career, it’s already obvious that Franco has a ton of power. But at age 24, the Phillies’ prized third baseman still has plenty of room to improve. Despite hitting just .255 in 2016, Franco still hit 25 home runs and struck out only 106 times, which is not bad at all for a young slugger in today’s game. He needs to find some way to get on base more in order to become a truly elite player, but don’t be surprised if Franco has a huge year and approaches 35 home runs.

Jon Gray, SP (Colorado Rockies)

Gray quietly had a very good rookie season in 2016. It’s not surprising that his 4.61 ERA failed to open many eyes, but that’s the life of a Rockies’ pitcher. Look a little further and you’ll recognize that his 1.26 WHIP is quite impressive for a pitcher who spends half his time in Coors Field. Gray also struck out 185 batters in 168 innings for a rate of nearly 10 per nine innings, good for sixth in the NL. He actually pitched better at home, leading further credence to the idea that he can succeed in Colorado and break the curse which is often placed on the team’s young pitchers.

Aaron Nola, SP (Philadelphia Phillies)

Nola, along with Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez, leads a group of young Phillies’ starters who could be the key to a quick franchise turnaround. Although he faltered in the second half of the season and dealt with injuries, Nola was fantastic in the early part of the year and in his 2015 debut. One of Nola’s best assets is his ability to limit walks. In 188.2 big league innings, Nola has only issued 48 walks and has struck out just over a batter an inning. This type of control led to him being considered one of the most major league ready pitchers in the minors prior to his debut. Nola is one of a few Phillies pitchers who has a chance to take a huge step forward in 2017.

Hunter Renfroe, RF (San Diego Padres)

If nothing else, Renfroe figures to bring plenty of excitement to San Diego this season. His awesome talent was on full display during a late season call-up in 2016, highlighted by his cannon arm in right field and one memorable home run he hit on top of the Western Metal Supply Co. building at Petco Park. Renfroe hit 30 home runs in AAA last year, and should get every chance he needs to carry that over to a Padres’ team that is in heavy rebuilding mode.

Kyle Schwarber, LF/C (Chicago Cubs)

Schwarber is a very logical pick to have a breakout 2017 season, since he has already proven he can hit for power in the major leagues. Although he only had four at bats before missing the rest of the 2016 regular season, Schwarber miraculously returned in the World Series to collect seven hits in 20 at bats. It’s not known how much he will catch going forward, but Joe Maddon will try to get him into the lineup anyway possible. The slugger’s awesome power will play well in Wrigley Field and he also gets a boost by hitting in the Cubs’ juggernaut offense. He could easily reach 30 home runs in his first full season, and has the look of someone who can hit 40 when he reaches his prime. Fun fact – Schwarber actually holds the Cubs’ franchise record for most postseason home runs with five. All five of them came in 2015, where he also became the youngest player to hit that many homers in a single postseason.

Dansby Swanson, SS (Atlanta Braves)

Swanson continued the influx of fantastic young shortstops in baseball in 2016 and will attempt to take his game to new heights in his first full season. The 23-year old looks like he’ll be a fixture for the Braves for years to come and should be one of the biggest factors in Atlanta’s return to contention. Offensively and defensively, Swanson showed poise beyond his years in his debut season.

Jameson Taillon, SP (Pittsburgh Pirates)

The Pirates are relying heavily on Taillon to provide quality innings in their rotation, and they have good reason to. In 2016, the tall right-hander became the first rookie pitcher of the century to post a strikeout rate greater than 20%, ground ball rate greater than 50%, and walk rate under 5% (per ESPN). Prior to joining the Pirates last year, Taillon was just as good in the minor leagues. In 61.2 innings with AAA Indianapolis, he walked just six (!) batters in total. Taillon has long been considered one of baseball’s very best prospects, touted as a “near perfect pitching prospect” way back in his high school days in 2009 and drawing comparisons to Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole. Now he gets to be part of the same rotation as Cole. His development was slowed down by the Tommy John surgery he underwent in 2014 but it obviously didn’t stop him, if last year was any indication. Taillon is a special talent that doesn’t come around too often and truly has a chance to develop into a future Cy Young Award winner.

Next is a trio of guys who are slightly more well-known, since they’ve all been around a few years. However, while all three have already excelled at times in certain aspects of the game, there’s reason to believe they can elevate their games even further…

Billy Hamilton, CF (Cincinnati Reds)

Hamilton’s situation is different than the previous names on this list, as he has been an established big league player for a few years. In fact, he’s one of only six players since 2000 to have three different seasons of 50 stolen bases. But while, he is a nightmare on the basepaths for opposing teams, he hasn’t exactly been a great player. Hamilton’s baserunning ability will always give him value, but his career on-base percentage sits at a lowly .297. However, last year was Hamilton’s best offensively, and he drastically improved after the All-Star break, reaching base at a .369 clip. If Hamilton can get on base at even an average rate, he’ll be a legitimately good player rather than just a one-dimensional speedster. And if he performs like he did in the second half of 2016, he has a chance to steal north of 80 bases.

Yasiel Puig, RF (Los Angeles Dodgers)

How can someone who hit finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting and started the All-Star Game the following year possibly be a breakout candidate? Well, despite these accolades, Puig has never driven in 70 runs, hit 20 homers, or stolen 12 bases. The past two seasons, he’s been in and out of the starting lineup, and even got demoted to Triple-A last August. Following his recall, however, Puig had one of his best months of the season (although he had been hitting very well prior to his demotion). Maybe getting sent down will serve as a wake-up call for a player who has been known to be unpredictable at times. There is talk that Puig may have difficulty finding a spot in the Dodgers’ lineup every day, but I don’t buy it. Puig should be in lineup regularly and will be in a great position to have his best season to date and finally get the most out of his immense talent.

Devon Travis, 2B (Toronto Blue Jays)

For Travis to have a “breakout year”, he doesn’t actually need to be any better than he’s been. The challenge, of course, is staying on the field for a full season. Because Travis has missed so much time in his first two years, his accomplishments have not been so widely noticed. In two seasons, Travis has missed just about half of the Blue Jays games, but has put up the following numbers in what amounts to the equivalent of one full season – .301/.342/.469, 19 home runs, 85 RBI, and 92 runs scored. Pair that with his solid defense at the keystone and you have a high-caliber, All-Star second baseman. If Travis can play even 130-140 games, he could place among the AL’s top second basemen, which is no small feat when you run through the other names on that list. By the way, the trade Toronto made to get Travis in the fall of 2014 goes down as a major steal; he was acquired in a one-for-one swap for Anthony Gose.

Not all successful players started out as high draft picks or can’t-miss prospects. These next two players are in their late twenties and probably not known to casual fans. Yet, both put in the work necessary at every minor league stop they’ve been to and are now getting an opportunity to showcase their talents in the majors…

Stephen Cardullo, 1B/OF (Colorado Rockies)

The Rockies have perhaps been hit harder by injuries than any team at the onset of the season. Two of the players who are starting the year on the DL are David Dahl and free agent acquisition Ian Desmond, which creates a hole in left field and at first base. The silver lining for Colorado is that Stephen Cardullo can play both positions. The 29-year old had torrid spring training, placing near the top his team’s leaderboard in nearly every offensive statistic. Cardullo starred for the Can-Am League’s Rockland Boulders from 2013-2015, earning him a minor league deal with the Rockies, where he had a brilliant season for Triple-A Albuquerque last year. If Cardullo can find a way into Colorado’s lineup on a more regular basis, he’ll reward the Rockies with his ability to make contact and collect extra-base hits.

Brock Stassi, 1B (Philadelphia Phillies)

One of the biggest surprises of Spring Training was the performance of the Phillies’ Brock Stassi who tied Maikel Franco for the team lead in home runs (6) and RBI (17). The Phillies likely didn’t plan on Stassi winning their final bench spot, but his sensational spring gave them no choice. The 27-year-old has spent the last six seasons in the minors and was understandably overcome with emotion upon hearing the good news (his reaction is a must-watch). But while it’s easy to dismiss the former 33rd-round draft pick’s chances of getting significant playing time, that may not be the case. Stassi has real skill. Across Double-A, Triple-A, and winter leagues over the last two years, Stassi averaged 34 doubles, 16.5 home runs and 91 walks per season. Plus he’s only struck out 179 times over those years, which is quite impressive, especially next to his 182 walks. The Phillies’ incumbent first baseman, Tommy Joseph, slugged over .500 in 2016 with 21 home runs, but doesn’t have anywhere close to the plate discipline Stassi does. If the left-handed hitting Stassi starts to outperform the right-handed hitting Joseph, this could quickly develop into a platoon, with Stassi eventually winning the job full-time.

Last but not least is a player who hasn’t played in the United States since 2013, but became an instant legend in South Korea over the last three years. Now he’s getting a chance to prove his recent performance was no fluke…

Eric Thames, 1B/OF (Milwaukee Brewers)

Thames is one baseball’s most intriguing players to follow in 2017. Once a promising prospect in the Blue Jays organization, Thames signed with the Brewers in November after a trio of extraordinary seasons in South Korea’s KBO. From 2014-2016, Thames hit a robust .348 with 124 home runs and 379 RBI for the NC Dinos. His 2015 season was one for the ages – 47 homers, 40 steals, 130 runs scored, 140 RBI, and a video game-like slash line of .381/.497/.790. Although the KBO is a notoriously hitter-friendly league, other players from Korea have performed well in the major leagues, and none of them came with the offensive numbers that Thames has. At age 30, Thames hasn’t played a big league game since he was 25, so it’s very possible his mid-career turnaround is the result of true growth as a hitter and not just a disparity in competition.

Opening Day 2017: American League

Few people would have picked the Cleveland Indians to come within one game of winning the World Series in 2016. This year, Cleveland is among the favorites, but there’s plenty of other American League ball clubs who are well equipped to challenge them. Here is Part II of my MLB Opening Day Outlook, plus one player from each team who is either destined to have a huge season or whose performance will be critical to his team’s success.

For “Opening Day 2017: National League”, click here.

AL EAST

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

The Orioles will once again boast one of the most powerful lineups in baseball, but they also went through another offseason where they passed on improving their mediocre starting pitching. There are some good arms in the rotation and the bullpen remains elite, but a shortage of trusted starters could become this team’s undoing.

Player to watch: Baltimore chose to bring back reigning MLB home run king Mark Trumbo on a three-year deal. That deal will be a boon for the Orioles if he can replicate his production from a year ago, but Trumbo also has a history of inconsistency from year to year.

BOSTON RED SOX

For the first time since 2002, the Reds Sox will enter a season without David Ortiz. Luckily, they still have plenty of offense to fill the void, led by MVP candidate Mookie Betts. The acquisition of Chris Sale also adds another ace to an already strong pitching staff, making Boston one of the most talented teams in the AL.

Player to watch: David Price may have escaped Tommy John surgery, but the left-hander will still begin the season on the DL. Although he performed adequately last year, the Sox need for him to perform better to justify his contract. If he does, Boston will possess one of the most imposing pitching staffs they’ve had in quite some time.

NEW YORK YANKEES

Unlike the Yankees’ teams of old, this year’s roster is filled with younger players who could form the next core of great talent. Although the future is bright, the starting lineup isn’t strong enough in 2017 to overcome a severe lack of pitching depth. For what it’s worth, the Yankees did hit have a better record and hit more home runs than any other team in Spring Training.

Player to watch: Gary Sanchez has already emerged as a fan favorite, and will get a chance to prove his rise to stardom is legitimate in his first full season. It’s not hard to imagine Sanchez taking the crown as baseball’s best hitting catcher by season’s end.

TAMPA BAY RAYS

The Rays had an interesting offseason, signing veterans like Colby Rasmus and Wilson Ramos on short-term deals but also trading away one of their best players in Logan Forsythe. The Rays just don’t appear to have enough tools to compete in a tough division, but they will certainly try to. If it doesn’t work out, they can deal some of their more established players at the trade deadline.

Player to watch: Chris Archer struggled in 2016, so if the Rays want any chance of keeping pace in the tough American League, they need their ace to get back to form. There’s no reason to think he can’t do it.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

Toronto made a mistake in not bringing back Edwin Encarnacion, but at least they were able to retain Jose Bautista. Even without Encarnacion, Toronto’s offense is still good enough to carry the team at times. Much less heralded is their pitching, which may be the best in the American League. If the starters can build upon their success from a year ago, that will be the real key to reclaiming the AL East crown. The Red Sox have been labeled as the odds-on favorite to win the division, but the Blue Jays have a far better shot than they’re given credit for.

Players to watch: Bautista has something to prove after a down year and he’s the type of player that will make the most of it. He is still an incredibly disciplined and powerful hitter, so don’t be surprised if he surpasses 35 home runs again. Also, Marcus Stroman is a big game pitcher and will have a huge bounce back year.

AL CENTRAL

CHICAGO WHITE SOX

After trading two of its best players from a team that lost 84 games a year ago, Chicago will be tough to watch in 2017. More trades should come too, as the White Sox are undergoing a full teardown. As tough as it can be, it’s the right decision, as the team was going nowhere with the core they had in place. Instead, the White Sox have stockpiled a collection of talented prospects in hopes of a quick turnaround.

Player to watch: One of those prospects, Yoan Moncada, has higher upside than just about anyone in baseball. The speedster, who was acquired in the Chris Sale trade, will likely be called up to the White Sox sometime during the summer. That will give White Sox fans a look into what the future could hold, along with a lengthy list of other potential impact call-ups.

CLEVELAND INDIANS

Cleveland may have been a surprise World Series team last year, but a repeat would hardly be stunning. When Cleveland reached the Fall Classic, they did it without two of their top three starting pitchers in the postseason and without Michael Brantley for nearly the entire season. With those players returning, plus the addition of slugger Edwin Encarnacion, this isn’t only the best team in the AL, but maybe the best in all of baseball.

Player to watch: How well Brantley will play is still a huge question mark, but if he perform anywhere close to the level he was at before his injuries, Cleveland will be adding one of the most underrated, dynamic players in the game to an already great lineup.

DETROIT TIGERS

While it was thought that the Tigers might slash payroll, they chose to keep mostly all or their regular players, but didn’t add anybody of note either. Detroit certainly boasts one of the strongest lineups in baseball, but there aren’t many reliable pitchers in the rotation beyond Justin Verlander and Michael Fulmer. The bullpen has been a concern for years, and many of Detroit’s best players throughout the roster are getting on in years. The Tigers certainly have the capability to make a playoff run, but the window could be closing.

Player to watch: Miguel Cabrera is too obvious of a pick, but he truly is a joy to watch hit. Even at age 33, Cabrera still finished third in the AL in OPS+ (157), fifth in on base percentage (.393), and second in slugging (.563). With no signs of slowing down, the four-time batting champion will once again be the focal point of Detroit’s offense.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS

The 2015 World Champions fell short of the postseason last year, but they are ready to make another run at the AL Central. With a nearly unprecedented number of notable free agents-to-be, the Royals could have done a full fire sale, but GM Dayton Moore knows that the current roster is too good not to try for another run. Instead, Moore sold high on some veterans, kept others, and added depth around the roster. The Royals have a decent team, but a Wild Card berth may be their best chance with powerhouse Cleveland in the division.

Player to watch: The Royals added a former top prospect in Jorge Soler in exchange for Wade Davis this winter. If Soler finally reaches his great potential, Kansas City will have a nice, controllable power bat to put in the middle of their lineup for years to come.

MINNESOTA TWINS

After narrowly missing the playoffs in 2015, it all fell apart for Minnesota last season. The Twins lost 103 games, which was nine more than any other team in baseball. There were very few contributions from veteran players outside of Brian Dozier, and many of the young Twins who stood out as rookies the previous season struggled. This year’s Twins will probably find themselves near the bottom of the standings yet again, but it will be encouraging if players like Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Max Kepler, and Jose Berrios can make big strides in their development. On a side note, the decision to outright Byung-Ho Park off the 40-man roster and subsequently keep him in the minors after a scorching hot spring makes little sense at all for a team like the Twins that has little chance to compete.

Player to watch: All of the aforementioned players (Buxton, Sano, Kepler, and Berrios) are expected to play a big role for Minnesota going forward and are all immensely talented in their own right. This is the perfect year to give them a long leash and see what they can do in a full season.

AL WEST

HOUSTON ASTROS

The biggest question surrounding the Astros is if their pitching will be able to support their explosive offense. Can Dallas Keuchel bounce back to where he was prior to 2016? How big of a factor will pitchers like Collin McHugh and Lance McCullers be? Offense should be no problem as Houston has a nice blend of enviable young talent and power-hitting veterans. The Astros spent big on offense, but didn’t add much pitching outside of Charlie Morton, who barely pitched last year.

Player to watch: Carlos Correa has already been unbelievable in his first two years, but he’s still just 22 and not even close to hitting his ceiling yet. That puts him among the early favorites for AL MVP.

LOS ANGELES ANGELS

The Angels chose to prioritize defense this offseason, so we’ll see if that helps to change their fortunes. Still, there isn’t a whole lot of productivity in their lineup outside of Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, and their starting rotation is one of weaker ones in the AL.

Player to watch: With Huston Street sidelined for the start of the season, Bedrosian will step into the Halos’ closer role. Bedrosian broke out in a big way in 2016, striking out an impressive 51 batters in 40.1 innings with a miniscule 1.12 ERA. If he can repeat that performance, it will alleviate some of the pressure off of a shaky starting rotation.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS

Oakland isn’t expected to compete in 2017, but the team did get some nice results last year from rookie starting pitchers Jharel Cotton and Sean Manaea. Sonny Gray is still dealing with injuries after a lost season, but he was one of the AL’s best starters from 2014-2015. Pitching could be a strength for this team, but they probably won’t have enough offense to support it.

Player to watch: Outfielder Khris Davis hit 42 home runs in 2016 and represents a bright spot for Oakland’s offense. His power outburst dates back to 2015, when he hit 21 homers after the All-Star break, giving him 63 in the last year and a half.

SEATTLE MARINERS

The Mariners currently have the longest playoff drought in baseball, but it again feels like this could be the year. Seattle had an extremely active offseason, even if the majority of their moves came from smaller trades. You may not find a better trio of hitters than Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager in all of baseball, and the pitching has the potential to be very good, especially if Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma can stay healthy. Without a clear front-runner in the AL West, this division could be for the Mariners’ taking.

Player to watch: The Mariners parted with a talented pitcher in Taijuan Walker to acquire Jean Segura, who had a quietly excellent season. The shortstop hit .319 with Arizona, while also belting 20 home runs and stealing 33 bases. Seattle has a lot invested in Segura, so his performance could be a major deciding factor for whether or not Seattle finally reaches the postseason.

TEXAS RANGERS

The Rangers may be the team most likely to regress in 2017. Despite winning an AL best 95 games, the Rangers amazingly gave up four more runs than they scored, resulting from a combination of both great luck and elite late-game pitching. That’s not entirely sustainable, so to make the playoffs again, Texas will need to play better than they did last year, which may be a tall task. There isn’t much to count on in the rotation beyond Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish and while Texas added some solid position players to fill their many roster vacancies, their lack of a bigger acquisition is a little puzzling.

Player to watch: Adrian Beltre is within reach of multiple milestones this season, including 3,000 hits, 450 home runs, 600 doubles, 1,500 runs, and 1,600 RBI. Only Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, and Carl Yastrzemski have accomplished this.

 

AL Division Winners: Blue Jays, Indians, Mariners

AL Wild Card: Red Sox, Astros

The American League is slightly more wide-open than the National League in terms of teams that have a realistic chance at the playoffs. The best bet to win their division is Cleveland, since they are so good on paper, and because the AL Central could be the weakest division.

The AL East should come down to the wire, but I gave the edge to Toronto based on the strength of their starting pitching, which is also why I have the Orioles narrowly missing the postseason.

Seattle’s offense is so exceptional that 2017 is as good a year as any for them to snap their postseason drought, especially if the Rangers take a step back. However, the Astros will give the Mariners a run for the money in terms of whose offense is better. The Tigers and Royals should at least be in the Wild Card race as well if things go right.

The 2016 World Series featured two teams that hadn’t won in a combined 176 years. If that proves anything, it’s to expect the unexpected when it comes to baseball.

Opening Day 2017: National League

The turning of the calendar into April means it’s time for Opening Day and while it’s impossible to predict how every team will fare come October, it’s still fun to try. Here is a brief outlook for each National League team, plus one player from each club who is either destined to have a huge season or whose performance will be critical to his team’s success.

NL EAST

ATLANTA BRAVES

The Braves have been undergoing a rebuild, but they brought in a number of veterans to mentor their younger players and stay competitive at the same time. They did perform very well towards the end of last season, so it remains to be seen whether or not they can carry that momentum into 2017. Atlanta is a team on the rise, and although they probably won’t be in contention come September, they could improve to around .500 as they debut their brand new ballpark.

Player to watch: Dansby Swanson was impressive in his brief debut last year and looks primed to become one of game’s best shortstops.

MIAMI MARLINS

Miami has an intriguing collection of offensive talent, from speedster Dee Gordon to the outfield trio of Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna. The Marlins spent big on the bullpen, but the starting rotation is a huge area of concern following the tragic loss of Jose Fernandez.

Player to watch: We know about Stanton’s tape measure power, but Yelich is getting better and better each year. Yelich more than doubled his career high in home runs last season and although he’s never made an All-Star team, that’s about to change.

NEW YORK METS

The roster the Mets will open the season with is a true rarity in the modern game, since it’s nearly identical to the one that clinched a Wild Card berth last season. That could be a good thing, since the 2016 Mets were devastated by injuries, yet still won 87 games. If they can stay healthy, New York should be on par with the Nationals and could very well have the best starting pitching in baseball.

Player to watch: Yoenis Cespedes was the star the Mets needed to keep, so they handed him the largest contract of the offseason. Cespedes has grown tremendously as a hitter in his year and a half in the Big Apple. There’s a chance he has his first 40 home run season and could make a run at the NL MVP.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

The Phillies’ had one of baseball’s worst offenses in 2016, but there are reasons for fans to be optimistic. Maikel Franco has the skills to become a perennial 30 home run bat and former Rule 5 pick Odubel Herrera has become a fine player. Prospects J.P. Crawford and Jorge Alfaro should also help in the coming years. On the pitching side, Philadelphia has three good young arms in Aaron Nola, Jerad Eichkoff, and Vince Velasquez, along with veteran Jeremy Hellickson. In all likelihood, the Phillies won’t be serious playoff contenders for another year or two, but this team isn’t far off.

Player to watch: Franco has already shown to have serious power, but he’s a good candidate to have a huge breakout in 2017.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS

The Nats made it back to the postseason in 2016, but this is a team that surely has greater aspirations in mind and there’s certainly no shortage of star power in Washington. The pitching duo of Maz Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg is as good as any in the game. The lineup is very deep, anchored by Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, and Trea Turner, who is on his way to becoming one of the best all-around players in the game. From one to eight, it’s arguably the deepest lineup in the NL.

Player to watch: After a down season, Harper should have no trouble getting back to his MVP form from 2015. It’s easy to see him entering the MVP conversation once again and if that happens, the rest of the National League has another reason to be worried about the Nationals.

NL Central

CHICAGO CUBS

The defending World Series Champions will enter the season as the favorites once again. Perhaps no team has as deep of a 25-man roster as the Cubs, with superstars all over the roster on both sides of the ball. It would be a big surprise if Chicago didn’t win the NL Central.

Player to watch: The nation got a chance to witness the immense talent of Javier Baez in the playoffs. Joe Maddon can play Baez almost anywhere on the diamond, and will surely try to get him into the lineup as much as possible. The Cubs may have more accomplished stars, but Baez’s ceiling is still incredibly high.

CINCINNATI REDS

Reds’ fans will get a look at what the future holds, as the departure of Brandon Phillips opens the door for infielders like Jose Peraza and Dilson Herrera. Billy Hamilton showed some improvements late last year and Joey Votto remains an on-base machine, but Cincinnati’s patchwork pitching rotation eliminates any chance of being competitive this year.

Players to watch: The Reds intend to use Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen as multi-inning bullpen options, sort of like a throwback to an earlier era. If they follow through, each pitcher could exceed 100 innings out of the pen. It will be interesting to see if other teams adopt a similar strategy if the Reds have success with it.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

Milwaukee is another team in rebuild mode, but Jonathan Villar has developed into a franchise cornerstone. Villar led the NL in stolen bases a year ago, while also hitting 19 home runs to go along with a .369 on base percentage. The Brewers have done a nice job stockpiling prospects the past few years, but this year’s club will more than likely be battling the Reds for last place in the NL Central.

Player to watch: Eric Thames will be a fascinating player to watch as he returns to the states after three monster seasons in South Korea. Can he carry the momentum over to Milwaukee?

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

Much of the low-budget Pirates’ offseason revolved around speculation over whether Andrew McCutchen would be dealt. McCutchen is still in Pittsburgh and it’s a very similar team around him, at least offensively. Pitching , on the other hand, is a big question mark. The Pirates have some intriguing talent on their staff, including rookie Jameson Taillon, but a lot is unproven. Rotation ace Gerrit Cole has become injury prone and the decision to deal Francisco Liriano near the end of last season didn’t make much sense.

Player to watch: Starling Marte has played much of his career in McCutchen’s shadow, but his blend of power and speed make him one of the best, and underappreciated, outfielders in the National League.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

The Cardinals fell short of the postseason in 2016 and played uncharacteristically poor defense. That should improve this year, but St. Louis also led the National League in home runs in 2016, which is hard to see happening again. This team should be solid, but will need a lot to go right in order to make a postseason run.

Player to watch: Free agent acquisition Dexter Fowler improves the Cardinals in all areas of the game. He could be the difference maker that puts St. Louis into the postseason.

NL West

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

Arizona’s high hopes crashed miserably in 2016, en route to a 69-93 season. The D’Backs didn’t add a whole lot to their team in the offseason, so their success remains tied to the expectation that a number of players can rebound from bad seasons.

Player to watch: If A.J. Pollock can make a strong comeback after missing nearly the entire 2016 season, Arizona’s chances of reaching the playoffs will drastically improve. Even in that event, however, the Diamondbacks will still need much better contributions from players like Zack Greinke.

COLORADO ROCKIES

Colorado looked like a team on the rise last season, with as much offensive talent as any team in the game. If Colorado’s pitching can even be average, they should be a playoff team. However, the Rockies already have multiple key players injured before the season has even begun. The Rockies focused on bullpen help this offseason in the hopes of giving their starting rotation a greater margin of error.

Player to watch: Colorado’s best pitcher is probably Jon Gray, who opened eyes last year with his adept strikeout ability (9.9 K/IP). He has the kind of stuff that can help him overcome the difficulties most pitchers face when pitching in high altitude.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS

Like the Mets, the Dodgers put most of their resources into signing their own free agents. Since these included a lot of the top players on the market, why not? Health concerns still linger over their pitching rotation, but the Dodgers are an extremely talented team, so it appears only bad luck with injuries will keep this team out of the postseason.

Player to watch: No active pitcher is better than Clayton Kershaw. He’s been on an unreal run over the course of his career, but did miss some time last year with a herniated disc in his back. The Dodgers will hope he is fully healthy, in which case he’ll once again be the favorite for the NL Cy Young Award.

SAN DIEGO PADRES

San Diego might have the worst roster in major league baseball. However, Andy Green will use the opportunity to give substantial playing time to young, unproven players who could play a role for the team in the future. Wil Myers finally broke out last year and is now a key building block for the Padres.

Player to watch: The Padres do have one of baseball’s most intriguing players in pitcher/catcher/outfielder Christian Bethancourt. Two-way players have been nearly nonexistent in the last century, so it would be pretty cool if Bethancourt succeeds with it.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

Since it’s not an even numbered year, do the Giants even have a chance? They certainly do if their bullpen can stop blowing leads and their offense is more consistent. But the Giants also failed to add a big bat to a lineup that went through prolonged dry spells in 2016, especially in the power department.

Player to watch: The Giants gave a lot of money to Mark Melancon in order to bolster the back of their bullpen. This was San Francisco’s only major offseason addition, so the team is placing relief pitching at a very high value.

 

NL Division Winners: Mets, Cubs, Dodgers

NL Wild Card: Nationals, Rockies

Like last year, the National League appears to be very top-heavy, with only about seven or eight teams that have a real shot. I’m guessing the NL East race will be the tightest of all the divisions, and it could come down to whose players stay healthier. If the Mets starting pitchers can avoid lengthy stints on the disabled list, they will be awfully tough to compete with. But if their elite pitching is compromised at all, the Nationals, who have the superior offense, could start to run away with it.

The Rockies are my surprise NL team in 2017. With an abundance of offensive talent and some promising young pitching, it’s easy to envision them ending their seven-year playoff drought, especially in a year when other competitors like the Cardinals, Giants, Pirates, and Marlins all have some major flaws.

Breakout Stars Shine Bright in March Madness

When the country was drawing up their March Madness brackets, not many would have predicted South Carolina to be in the Elite Eight. Yet this afternoon, the Gamecocks will take on fourth-seeded Florida in their first ever Elite Eight game as they find themselves on the cusp of the vaunted Final Four. Losing in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament, South Carolina was not even a lock to make NCAA Tournament at all, but was ultimately chosen as the seventh seed in the East region. Since then, South Carolina has put the nation on notice, cruising by Marquette, downing heavily-favored Duke, and rolling past Baylor, all while masterfully controlling both ends of the floor. Perhaps more people would have seen this coming had they known more about the 6’5” guard from Lancester, South Carolina, SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell.

Thornwell has put on a show in three tournament games, accumulating at least 24 points and six rebounds in each one. But the senior’s game is much more than that. He’s also shown a knack for getting steals and playing rock solid defense, something that has been a staple for the Gamecocks throughout their run.

Those who doubted them have in many ways fueled Thornwell and his South Carolina teammates. “I’ve been an underdog ever since high school,” he says. “No one expected much from me. No one expected much from South Carolina basketball. No one thought we’d beat Duke. People didn’t take us seriously.”

South Carolina isn’t the only team that has surprised people in this tournament. On the other side of the bracket, the Oregon Ducks just reached the Final Four for the first time since 1939 – the inaugural year of the tournament. While the Ducks, who were seeded third in the Midwest region, wouldn’t be considered a major shock to reach the Final Four, they have done it without their excellent shot blocker Chris Boucher, who was lost for the season with a torn ACL.

Someone had to step up for Oregon and as it would turn out, the whole team did in March. But one player who has particularly stood out is the junior forward Jordan Bell. Bell has had a historic tournament, grabbing at least twelve rebounds in each of his four games. Oregon’s win over perennial favorite Kansas may have been where Bell shined brightest. In addition to his 13 boards, Bell blocked eight shots in total, showcasing in ability to go up and down the court and make impact plays on both ends. Seven of his rebounds were of the offensive variety; no other Oregon player had one.

While the Ducks are celebrating up in the Northwest, reaching the Finals Four was just as special for another school in the Northwest. After years of falling just short, Gonzaga is headed to their first Final Four in school history. Among the Bulldogs’ most recognizable players is Przemek Karnowski, the hulking 300-pound center from Poland. Karnowski is an intimidating presence for anybody trying to defend him and is certainly difficult to win a battle against in the post. But Karnowski is also quite athletic and quick with his feet for a man his size. Here’s a cool tidbit about him – Karnowski has played in more victories than any other player in NCAA Division I history.

There are always impact players who fly under the radar throughout the year, and this year’s tournament has no shortage of them. NBA stars such as Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Kawhi Leonard would not have been the first guys that came to mind as future stars until they put on a show in March Madness, and still got drafted lower than they should have. NBA teams in the latter parts of the draft are always looking for a diamond in the rough, and players like Thornwell, Bell, and Karnowski fit that bill.

Thornwell is an especially intriguing player who wasn’t very much on the radar before the tournament. However, he’s shown an ability to be an impact player both offensively and defensively, and the senior would be a major steal for whoever is lucky enough to grab him. Karnowski is a unique physical presence who could provide a valuable role to an NBA team. And while Bell is only a junior and could very likely return to Oregon next year, he should be a major player to watch a year from now.

One of the truly great things about March Madness is that is it allows standout players to get noticed. Thousands of people who don’t watch much college basketball get to see these players. Those standout players who haven’t received a great deal of attention throughout the year get a chance to showcase their skills against the best competition in the country and put NBA scouts on notice. But one of the most satisfying parts of it is when a player like Thornwell, Bell, or Karnowski is able to lead their college to uncharted territory and never-before-reached heights. When that happens, they become immortalized in their school communities forever.

One for the Ages: Wisconsin-Florida Game an Instant Classic

For everyone who’s been waiting for an all-time classic game in this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, it’s happened, courtesy of last night’s showdown between Wisconsin (8) and Florida (4). The Sweet Sixteen round saved the best for last, as the final game of the night resulted in an overtime thriller that will likely be remembered as the iconic game of this year’s tournament.

Wisconsin had already opened the nation’s eyes by taking down top-rated Villanova in the Round of 32. That set up a matchup with a dangerous Florida squad who had coasted past their two previous opponents, outscoring them by a combined 41 points. The two prestigious basketball schools went back and forth up until midway through the second half, when the Gators opened up a 12-point lead at one point. Wisconsin slowly crawled back and got a timely steal with 18 seconds left, down by three. With the clock winding down, senior guard Zak Showalter was forced to take a desperation three-pointer. Amidst the heavy defense, Showalter connected on a beautiful running jump shot from behind the arc that sent Madison Square Garden into pandemonium.

In overtime, Florida attempted to stop Wisconsin’s momentum by fouling their worst free throw shooters. Although the Badgers are a very experienced team, they are among Division I’s worst free throw shooting teams, ranking near the bottom 5% on the nation with only a 64.4% success rate on the season. However, the Badgers performed admirably in this area during the overtime period, considering their widespread struggles. The game appeared to be in Wisconsin’s favor until Florida coach Greg White subbed in Canyon Barry, who would provide a major boost. Barry converted a sweet layup with about a minute and a half to play, and later proceeded to make two underhand free throws and authorize one of the highlights of the game.

After Barry’s second successful free throw, Wisconsin’s Khalil Iverson appeared to be wide open on the other end. But Barry flew in out of nowhere to make a sensational block and allow Florida to tie it up. With 24 seconds left, Wisconsin opted to run down the clock. With four seconds remaining, Nigel Hayes made a move to the basket, missing the bucket, but picking up the foul. Hayes is among the Badgers’ best players, but like most of his teammates, free throws are not his strong suit. Yet, with the season on the line, the senior found it within himself to convert both tries and put Florida behind the eight ball.

The man tasked with getting the basket would be Chris Chiozza, a speedy guard with a .312 three point percentage on the season. Chiozza got the inbound and sprinted up to the three point arc. Almost a mirror image of Showalter’s shot to send the game into overtime, Chiozza heaved up a last second shot on the run. As the clock expired, the crowd silenced for a split second, waiting to see if the ball would drop in. It fell straight through the net as the arena once again broke into madness and Florida punched their ticket to an Elite Eight matchup with South Carolina.

This game perfectly exemplifies the nature of March Madness, from the thrilling high stakes nature of each and every game, to the massive exhilaration for one side and devastating heartbreak for the other. Nowhere else in sports do we get such a fast-paced format with as many games of importance as this tournament provides. There are 67 games in total, and each one of them is do or die. There’s no coming back tomorrow, and for many of the players involved, no next season. Not every game is down to the wire, but with so many elimination games played over two and a half weeks, fans are bound to get some treats like last night’s.

For Florida, this game represents an unbelievable high for a program looking to reign again as national champions. KeVaughn Allen exploded for 35 points and will look to lead the Gatos to their sixth Final Four appearance and third NCAA title. Should they win it all, last night’s game will represent one of the most historic games in tournament history. Despite the jubilation felt by one side, there’s always another side in sports. Four of Wisconsin’s five starters are seniors and have now played their last game. Losing a game by the slightest of margins will always have athletes wondering what could have been, but nothing can take away from the fact that the Badgers played one heck of a game. They were part of an all-time classic, and even though they ended up on the wrong side of it, Wisconsin has a lot to be proud of. They played their hearts out last night to cap off an outstanding season. Many fans and media tend to overlook this side of sports, but ultimately all but one team will end up falling short.

If you missed the late night game, go out and find a replay of the fourth quarter and overtime, because reading this description doesn’t do it justice. It’s something you have to see to believe, the type of game that represents why people are so obsessed with March Madness.

World Baseball Classic Marks a Perfect Start to Baseball Season

Each spring, baseball fans can look forward to the unofficial return to baseball that is spring training as they eagerly await Opening Day. But every four years, there is an entirely different brand of baseball going on. Some people will say it’s just exhibition, but the World Baseball Classic’s intensity and competitiveness is a drastic contrast to the more easygoing nature of spring training games.

Even though the WBC has its critics, I personally think it’s a great thing for everyone involved. It showcases the best players in the world and allows fans a chance to see the game from all over the globe, where they can get a look at international stadiums and unique local fan traditions. It’s impossible to watch a game from South Korea or Japan and not feel the energy of the ballpark even from your couch at home. Whether it’s dancing or hyping up the crowd from atop the dugout in South Korea or the emphatic celebrations of the Dominican players, the WBC has a different level of energy from even MLB regular season games. Plus, there’s nothing quite like waking up at five in the morning and tuning in to a baseball game.

Although baseball will be returning to the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020, the setup is far from ideal. The Olympics are played in conjunction with the MLB season, so there’s no reasonable way that MLB players would be able to participate. It only makes sense that one of the most widespread sports in the world has a competition where the very best players each country has to offer can go head to head. That’s what the World Baseball Classic provides.

As a baseball fan, the first week of spring training is great due to the thrill of being able to finally watch baseball again. But the middle weeks of spring baseball tend to lose some appeal, so the WBC comes at a perfect time for fans that are eager to watch some real competitive action with a lot at stake. And if you don’t think it’s competitive, then you haven’t watched it. Many of the players have explained how they take great pride in putting on the uniforms of their countries and just how much it means to them.

Bruce Chen, who pitched 17 seasons in the major leagues, is competing for Team China. Chen also competed for Panama, his home country, in two previous WBC’s, but now he’ll be playing for his country of ancestry. For Chen, putting on the Chinese uniform has a special meaning. “I can only imagine how proud my grandparents would be if they were still alive, to see me give something back to the country”, he explains.

While many top players have declined to suit up for the WBC, the same cannot be said for the Dominican Republic. The Dominican lineup is so rife with major league superstars that it’s hard to think of any stars who aren’t participating. After the team’s first round win versus Canada, Jose Bautista said, “It was great energy from our fans, from our people. When you play for your country, it cannot be compared to many things.”

Some observers have been critical of the WBC for a variety of reasons, including the risk of players suffering injuries or being overworked too early in the spring, as well as the various rule changes. However, the number of benefits can easily be forgotten. For some players, the tournament provides an opportunity to improve their standing within their own organizations. A great showing in the tournament could definitely turn some heads, especially since it is in highly competitive competition. Furthermore, the WBC could very well serve as a valuable audition for players like Justin Morneau, Jason Marquis, and Sam Fuld, all of whom are free agents looking for a place to play in 2017. Also, there’s something pretty unique about seeing former stars like Canada’s Eric Gagne make a comeback to compete against today’s brightest talent.

Players are not the only ones who are using the WBC as a showcase. The tournament can serve as a way to drum up interest in the sport for an entire nation. For global baseball powerhouses like the United States, Dominican Republic, and Japan, that might not be the case. But for countries with a much shorter track record in baseball, such as China, Italy, and Israel, the Classic can be hugely significant in growing the game nationwide.

Israel, which was one of four nations that had to play in the qualifying tournament to earn a spot, entered the tournament as heavy underdogs in Pool A. Yet, they have shocked the world by going undefeated in the first round, and have already defeated Cuba in the second round. One of the teams they beat to get there, South Korea, is considered one of the top baseball countries in the world, so many were stunned to see a much less experienced baseball nation take them down. That’s part of the beauty of the WBC. If South Korea and Israel played a seven game series, South Korea would likely win most of the time. But when you’re playing just one single game against each of your three pool opponents, anything is possible. For a short tournament like this, it’s thrilling and adds to the competitive nature. We’ve already seen a number of matchups in which teams consisting mostly of minor league and foreign talent have held their own against MLB All-Star quality rosters.

It’s understandable why some fans have been resistant to the idea of the World Baseball Classic, but it’s not too late to catch up on the action with eight teams still alive in the tournament. During a time of year when fans are typically counting down the days to the regular season, the WBC serves as baseball’s version of March Madness. It might not hold the weight of the World Series, but there’s no question that the energy and passion put forth by both the players and fans across the globe is unrivaled.

Pro Football HOF Class Signals Change in Direction

Prior to Super Bowl LI, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced the seven new inductees who will make up the Class of 2017. LaDainian Tomlinson, Jason Taylor, Terrell Davis, Kurt Warner, Morten Andersen, Kenny Easley, and Jerry Jones will make up this year’s class, and in that group are some interesting selections. In particular, Davis, Warner, and Easley were all superstar talents at one time, but had very short careers by Hall of Fame standards. The there’s Andersen, who cleared a major hurdle in becoming just the third pure kicker/punter inducted and the second in the last four years, which could signal a changing of perception.

I’ll start with Davis, who was absolutely phenomenal for the first four years of his career, running for 6,413 yards, 56 touchdowns, and 4.78 yards per attempt, while earning Super Bowl XXXII MVP honors and league MVP honors in 1998. The remainder of his career is a different story, however, as Davis was derailed by injuries. He would run for 1,194 yards from there on out, or just 77 yards more than his worst season total up to that point. His 3.8 yards per carry over those last three seasons was a far cry from his four-year prime. So yes, he was incredible for the first four years of his career, but was his peak historic enough to make up for the early end to his career? In the history of the NFL, there have been nine other players who ran for 5,500 yards in their first four years.

With a quick look at this list, you’ll notice six Hall of Famers, and four others. Adrian Peterson will get into the Hall of Fame, so let’s focus on the other three. Davis has better numbers than all of them, but not by a whole lot. Two of them, Chris Johnson and Jamal Lewis, probably won’t come close to ever getting inducted, while Clinton Portis’s name isn’t brought up a whole lot in that conversation either. I suggest you take a look at Portis’s Pro Football Reference page and compare his career alongside Davis’s. With that being said, Johnson, Lewis, and Portis all had multiple 1,000 yard seasons after their first four years and lasted much longer than Davis.

If Davis can get into the Hall of Fame, what does that mean for some active running backs? DeMarco Murray and Jamaal Charles have been up and down, but have also been unstoppable at times. How much more does Le’Veon Bell need to do to enter the Hall of Fame discussion? What about LeSean McCoy?

There is one thing Terrell Davis did better than anyone else – coming through on the biggest stage. Davis averaged 142.5 yards per game over eight postseason contests and won a Super Bowl MVP. None of the other aforementioned backs can lay claim to that, although Lewis won a Super Bowl as well. Davis’s incredible playoff heroics have to count for something. After all, it is the Hall of Fame, and Terrell Davis fits that bill.

Kurt Warner’s career in many ways mirrors Davis’s. Neither was a highly regarded prospect out of college, but both proved the doubters wrong, with each of them winning regular season and Super Bowl MVP awards. But while Warner was incredible during his peak as well, he lacked the longevity of other Hall of Fame quarterbacks. It’s one thing for a running back to get inducted based off a brief but brilliant career, but quarterbacks often need to last longer to be considered among the all-time greats. Among all 10 quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame who debuted after 1970, Warner has the fewest total passing yards and second fewest touchdowns behind Troy Aikman. There’s even three Hall of Famers who debuted from 1948-1970 with more yards than Warner and six with more touchdown passes, despite playing in a time when it was much more difficult to throw the ball.

The case to be made for Warner rests on his two league MVPs and four Pro Bowl nominations. What he was able to accomplish, despite getting a late start to his NFL career is nothing short of remarkable. But it’s easier to ignore his late career start than the middle of his career, where Warner started just 31 games from 2002-2006. In fact, he only started ten or more games seven times during his twelve-year career, and only started more than eleven games four times.

If that’s enough to warrant a spot in Canton, so be it. But if that’s the case, how do some current passers stack up? The first two players that come to mind are two franchise quarterbacks from the same draft class – Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco. Believe it or not, both Ryan and Flacco have already thrown for more yards in their careers than Warner did. Ryan now has an MVP award to his name, and has led his team to a Super Bowl. Flacco is not quite as good as Ryan, but did win a Super Bowl MVP and had maybe the greatest postseason run any quarterback has ever had leading up to that game. Neither is thought of at the moment as a future Hall of Famer, but they’re not far off from Warner statistically speaking.

Warner’s induction also makes Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning near locks, whether you agree with it or nor. Then there’s Tony Romo and Philip Rivers, who have yet to reach a Super Bowl, but have had a much longer period of regular season success than Warner. The currently eligible Donovan McNabb could have a case as well.

Of course, Warner was a great player in his best years. I’m not necessarily saying him or Davis shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame, but rather trying to predict how their inductions can impact the cases of players who will be eligible in the future. The Pro Football Hall of Fame is much different than the Baseball Hall of Fame. Football tends to reward the most phenomenal performances, no matter how short they may be, over longevity, which is perfectly fine. It’s not anywhere near as exclusive either, which is one of the reasons I’m not as invested in the process as I am with baseball.

Sometimes, football does seem to be inconsistent with how players are evaluated for the Hall of Fame. The most glaring omission among this year’s finalists is Terrell Owens, who has now missed the cut two years in a row. While wide receivers usually have to wait longer than others for whatever reason, it’s baffling how the man who is second only to Jerry Rice in receiving yards has yet to be inducted.

The answer is unfortunately quite obvious; people don’t like him. A showboat who frequently caused a stir with teammates, coaches, and the media, it’s safe to say T.O. rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. But that shouldn’t be enough to keep him out. Like it or not, having a “good guy” reputation really helps your Hall of Fame case.

Last but not least, Morten Andersen becomes the second pure placekicker and third kicking specialist elected. The NFL’s all-time leading scorer deserves a spot, and it should also open the door for others. With Ray Guy getting inducted in 2014 and now Andersen, voters seem to be coming around to the idea that kickers and punters play vital roles in the game, and we should therefore honor the best who ever did it.

If the football Hall of Fame chooses to honor flashes or greatness and fame for players who lack the longevity of their peers, there’s nothing wrong with that. Terrell Davis and Kurt Warner both have fascinating stories, and it’s pretty cool that parents will be able to tell those stories to their kids when they see their busts in Canton. Davis was taken near the end of the 1995 draft in the sixth round by the Broncos. Throughout his career, he had to deal with migraines that he suffered from since childhood. Warner wasn’t drafted at all out of college and had to go through a grocery store, the Arena Football League, and NFL Europe before getting a real chance.

Some people believe a person’s Hall of Fame credentials should rest on their importance to the game. If the Pro Football Hall of Fame is going to honor those who were the best at what they did and brought the most to the NFL, Morten Andersen, who scored more points than anyone else, needs to be recognized. And if you’re going to tell the story of the NFL’s past two decades, you cannot tell it without mentioning Terrell Davis and Kurt Warner.

Extra Inning Rule Changes Won’t Solve Anything

Extra inning games will look a lot different in rookie ball this year. MLB announced that they will be testing out a new system in the Gulf Coast League and Arizona Fall League which will automatically place a runner on second base at the start of the tenth inning. The drastic new rule, which has the approval of Hall of Fame manager and current Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre, falls in line with Commissioner Rob Manfred’s efforts to improve baseball’s pace of play.

Only, it won’t really change the pace of play at all. MLB is missing the fact that pace of play and game length are two very different things. I’m all for quickening the pace of games, so long as it doesn’t change the actual rules of the game itself. There are plenty of little adjustments that could be made, some of which Manfred has already implemented, and I commend him for that. One of those is limiting the length of the breaks in between innings. Another good thing he did was requiring batters to stay in the dirt area behind home plate for the entirety of their at bat. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems as though this was working initially, until umpires decided to stop enforcing it after a few months.

Teams are already limited to one mound visit by a coach or manager per pitcher per inning, but I would also be in favor of limiting player mound visits to one per inning. The catcher shouldn’t be allowed to visit his pitcher for every single batter in the inning. If you can’t get on the same page, that’s just too bad. Making that a rule could shave off ten or more minutes from each game.

Implementing a pitch clock is another idea that’s been thrown around and it sounds good in theory, but I’m not sure it would work very well in practice. Again, this is something that was attempted to some degree a few years back, but it never seemed to be enforced very consistently. A better solution would be to have coaches train pitchers from a young age to get rid of the ball quickly and practice rhythm. It would actually be an advantage to the pitcher, since it would throw some batters off more by giving them less time to prepare for the next pitch. There’s no reason it can’t be done; Mark Buehrle made a career out of it, and if you look at clips from the 70s and 80s, pitchers would routinely get the ball back from the catcher and throw the next pitch within five to ten seconds. As a batter nowadays, you can take a pitch, run to the supermarket, and get back before Pedro Baez or Clay Buchholz throws the next pitch.

The rule changes that the league has been proposing this offseason badly miss the point. Earlier this month, MLB made proposals on two different rule changes, one being the raising of the strike zone and the other the elimination of the intentional walk. Raising the strike zone approximately two inches, as has been proposed, would have more of an impact on the game, presumably leading to an increase in balls in play. While I would love to see fewer strikeouts, I’m not sure if this would accomplish just that or have the adverse effect of causing a spike in walks. Jayson Stark of ESPN notes that nearly 30% of all plate appearances in today’s game result in either a walk or a strikeout, a higher percentage than any other time in MLB history. Besides, every umpire already has their own unique strike zone, so I’m skeptical that veteran umpires would change the way they’ve been calling games for decades.

Doing away with the practice of tossing four balls to the plate for an intentional walk won’t change anything significantly and for that reason, it’s a fairly curious proposal. Stark also points out that intentional walks only happen once every 2.6 games on average. That means this new rule would eliminate one whole minute every two and a half games. That’s one entire minute. Every two and a half games.

Both of these proposals will need to be approved by the player’s union, but if MLB is serious about cutting dead time out of games, this will not solve anything. Nor will tinkering with the extra inning rules. Before you panic, the extra inning modifications are not going to be implemented in the major leagues, just the lower minors. Since it will only be implemented in the minor leagues, it does not need approval from the player’s union. However, the pessimist in me knows that there’s a possibility the rule gradually works its way up the levels of the minors until MLB adopts it.

That would be a real shame. It won’t have any effect of the majority of games, but the ones that go into extra innings are usually the most interesting and most compelling to watch. Torre says that in the event of an 18-inning game, “It’s not fun to watch when you go through your whole pitching staff and wind up bringing a utility infielder in to pitch.” Well, if managers are so concerned about that, maybe they should manage their bullpen better, instead of using five different relievers to get three out in the seventh inning. True baseball fans love the intensity and strategy that extra innings provide, and to mess with that would be inconsiderate of the sport’s fan base.

Super Bowl LI Takeaways: Brady’s Greatness, White’s Historic Game, Future of the Falcons, and More

When Lady Gaga took the stage for the halftime show, Super Bowl LI appeared destined to become one of the less memorable ones in history, unless you were a Falcons fan. With a first half completely dominated by one team, we were headed towards an uneventful ending to an uncharacteristically forgettable NFL postseason. By the beginning of the fourth quarter, the game was over, barring the impossible. Well, as it turned out, the seemingly impossible happened.

And that is why there should no longer be any argument over who is the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Last night, Tom Brady led the most improbable of victories. No team had ever overcome a deficit of more than ten points in the previous 50 Super Bowls, but the Patriots went far beyond that, capturing the dramatic victory after being down 28 – 3 at one point.

The Greatest Quarterback of All-Time

Among the many feats Brady accomplished in the game, one of his most impressive barely got a mention. Brady’s first Super Bowl win came during the 2001 season, which means he is the only player in NFL history to win championships fifteen years apart. It’s not totally surprising considering how unpredictable football careers can be. First, think about how tough it is for a player to remain at the top of their game for that long. When you then consider how much roster turnover exists in the NFL, it’s almost impossible for one player to win five championships, four Super Bowl MVPs, and remain among the very best at his position for as long as Brady has. Part of the credit goes to the genius of Bill Belichick, but Brady has been a reliable constant each and every year for the Patriots.

It’s becoming harder and harder to make a reasonable argument for any other quarterback being above Brady. Some of the legends of the past have compiled huge career passing statistics and others have made their name by winning the games that matter most, but Brady is the best of both worlds. He’s within reach of the career records for passing yards, touchdowns, and quarterback rating, and already has most of the passing records for postseason and Super Bowl play. For those who value wins more than personal stats, Brady has won more than anyone. Plus, he’s still producing at the same level he always has at an age when most players have been long since retired. That kind of longevity and consistency has to count for something. Amazingly, Brady has never thrown more than 14 interceptions in a season. Basically, if Brady is your quarterback, you’re not going to lose very often. In the playoffs alone, Brady’s teams are 25-9 when he starts. He’s now won more Super Bowls than any other quarterback and is tied with Hall of Fame linebacker/defensive end Charles Haley among all positions.

How Did That Happen?

That’s the question fans all over the country were asking following the Patriots’ 34-28 victory. Tom Brady’s poise is one reason, but far from the only one. There were dozens of factors that you can look at to explain how the Falcons possibly lost this game. It starts with defense, and to put it simply, New England’s defense stepped up in the second half while Atlanta’s crashed and burned. Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia obviously made some major adjustments at halftime, which you’d expect great coaches to do. And of course, the Falcons need to be held accountable for blowing a 25 point lead. Sometimes, there’s one person or play that can shoulder the blame for something like this, but that’s not the case here. First off, you don’t make it to overtime in the Super Bowl without playing a good game, but there were at least half a dozen mistakes made by Atlanta that, had they not occurred, could have resulted in a very different outcome.

Matt Ryan’s fumble which ignited the spark the Patriots needed was huge, just like the sack he took late in the fourth quarter. That knocked Atlanta out of field goal range, and had they been a little closer, there’s little doubt Matt Bryant would have been able to nail any attempt less than 50 yards in a dome to make it a ten-point game. But I’m not blaming Ryan for the loss. He otherwise played a fantastic game, and both plays were created by bad blocking. Then there’s the pass interference on Martellus Bennett in overtime, the defense allowing two two-point conversions, and the offense failing to shave enough time off of the play clock. The Patriots were also blessed with a combination of amazing hand-eye coordination and a little luck on Julian Edelman’s ridiculous catch, and they continued to keep the Falcons off balance with some innovative play calling. And, there was one guy who served as New England’s secret weapon throughout the entire game…

James White’s Historic Night

Tom Brady said after the game that James White deserved to be the MVP of the game. Brady may have been the one who was ultimately named Super Bowl MVP, but it just as easily could have been White. Brady did set Super Bowl records for passing yards (466) and completions (43), but White set some records of his own as well. The quick receiving back set new Super Bowl highs with his 14 catches and 20 points scored. His lunging, game-winning touchdown run in overtime will become a lasting image in both football and New England sports lore.

Silver Lining for the Falcons

It’s got to be gut-wrenching to be a Falcons fan right now, but this shouldn’t be Atlanta’s last chance at glory. This season, they saw their NFC South rivals, the Carolina Panthers, tumble to 6-10 last place finish following a Super Bowl loss, but it would be a surprise to see the Falcons suffer that same fate. Atlanta’s defense is very young and also very good, and they’re just going to keep getting better. This was only coach Dan Quinn’s second season at the helm, and he should be able to continue to develop his defense. Matt Ryan was just named NFL MVP, and if any number of events had gone slightly different, he could easily have had a Super Bowl MVP to his name as well. It was a breakout year for the veteran quarterback, who had always been very good, but never elite. He’s elite now, and it should stay that way for a while. Ryan has the right weapons around him too, including a solid offensive line, a great running back tandem, and arguably the best wide receiver in football, Julio Jones. The future looks bright for the Falcons, although they will have to compete in a very good division. It should be fun, at least, with the last two NFC champions, a young, up-and-coming Buccaneers team, and the always dangerous Saints offense battling it out.

A Place in History

Super Bowl LI is the first one to go into overtime, which immediately places it in the conversation of greatest Super Bowls of all-time. It may not have been a back-and-forth affair, but there were few dull moments. It had the buildup of a great dynasty, the so-called “evil empire”, facing off against a team seeking their very first title. Even when the Falcons went up big, there was still that thought in the back of most people’s minds that if anyone could come back from 25 points down, it was Tom Brady and the Patriots. Of course, the second half was about as good as it gets in football.

If it’s not the greatest Super Bowl in history, the past year certainly has a claim as the most thrilling in sports history. We’ve seen the Cavaliers overcome a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals and then the Cubs do the same in the World Series, ending their 108-year drought in extra innings of Game 7. Now we have the first Super Bowl overtime. Not bad for one calendar year.

We can’t forget about Lady Gaga either. Most halftime shows are pretty disappointing in my opinion, due to bad audio, not enough singing, or a bunch of other things. But her performance hit the mark so well that she didn’t even need any guest stars or distracting stunts to make it entertaining. One might say the performance was through the roof.