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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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?
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.
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 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.