As spring training’s initial allure begins to fade and teams begin to finalize their 40-man rosters, the preseason buzz surrounding all of baseball’s 2017 favorites and storylines is peaking.
The MLB is riding the frenzy of the Cubs’ World Series victory into the new season and there are a number of developments headed into 2017 that should interest the both casual and hardcore fans.
In the National League, the Cubs are still the team to beat. Despite losing Dexter Fowler to the Cardinals and Aroldis Chapman to the Yankees in free agency, their roster still shapes up as one of MLB’s best after adding Wade Davis and Koji Uehara to bolster their bullpen. The Cubs will also enjoy their first full season of Kyle Schwarber — barring another injury — and they return reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant and a 2016 Silver Slugger Award winner in Anthony Rizzo.
Of course, the Cardinals and Pirates will both compete for the NL Central’s top spot again this year, and they can hope that the Cubs suffer from a World Series hangover, as over the last five years, the World Series champs have posted a meager .493 combined win percentage in the subsequent year. The Pirates will retain Andrew McCutchen — at least until the trade deadline — and the Cardinals are hopeful that Wainwright can return to form and strengthen their rotation alongside Carlos Martinez in order to offset a devastating season-ending injury to young starter Alex Reyes earlier this offseason.
Outside of the NL Central, the Dodgers and Nationals are the early favorites to win their respective divisions. The Dodgers inked long-term deals in the offseason to retain third baseman Justin Turner, closer Kenley Jansen, and — most controversially — starting pitcher Rich Hill. The Giants are their most likely challenger in the NL West and though they did not make a big splash in the free agency, they still post a formidable one-two rotation punch in Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto.
The Nationals made some moves of their own, most notably trading highly touted RHP prospect Lucas Giolito for White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton. The Nationals are hopeful that this move brings the extra lineup piece they need alongside 2016 All-Stars Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy to propel them past the New York Mets and their impressive young rotation to a repeat NL East title. Washington’s window is closing, however, as Atlanta and Philadelphia are both close to being competitive again, so failing in the NLDS again is not an option in D.C. this season.
The American League’s reigning champions, the Cleveland Indians, have reloaded for another championship run following their devastating Game 7 loss to Chicago. Cleveland’s biggest offseason addition was power hitter Edwin Encarnacion, who hit 42 homers with Toronto last season and signed a very team-friendly deal with the Indians. Cleveland will also be aided by the return of All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley, who only played 11 games before being forced to undergo a second shoulder surgery last season.
Given these additions, Cleveland is the obvious favorite in an AL Central, featuring an aging Tigers roster, a thin Royals club and two rebuilding teams in the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox. No one would be surprised by a rematch of last year’s World Series.
The AL East and AL West are both more-or-less wide open, but each division features a couple teams who appear to be favorites. The Red Sox traded away Cuban prospect Yoan Moncada to obtain five-time All-Star Chris Sale, who bolsters an already daunting rotation that featured the 2012 and 2016 AL Cy Young Award winners in David Price and Rick Porcello, respectively.
Toronto lost a huge bat in Encarnacion, and they will require solid years from starters Marco Estrada and Marcus Stroman to compete with the talented Boston club.
Baltimore will once again live and die by the long ball and their rotation will have to be strong enough this year to help the bullpen into the ninth inning. The Orioles can then hand the ball to Zach Britton, who led Baltimore to a perfect 75-0 when leading through eight innings in 2016.
The Yankees will have high entertainment value this year, as they are packed with young talent, but they will likely not be completely competitive until 2018.
In the AL West, Houston, Seattle and Texas could all come away with the title. While Mike Trout is forced to squander his prime while playing for a weak Angels team, each of the other previously mentioned clubs will be locked in an unpredictable division race.
The Astros added catcher Brian McCann in the offseason, who is past his prime, but will bring a veteran presence and great defense to an Astros team featuring three of baseball’s great young stars: second Jose Altuve, shortstop Carlos Correa and right fielder George Springer.
The Mariners made a plethora of small moves this offseason and the addition center fielder Jarrod Dyson will add plenty of speed to the lineup and an outstanding piece to the outfield.
The Rangers, who won the division in 2016 will again rely on Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels to carry an otherwise weak rotation and they will require another excellent season from Adrian Beltre, who turns 38 in April.
The 2017 MLB season will certainly feature some familiar faces in the playoffs and in the individual award races, but there will be parity this year in the division races and there will be breakout young names coming from this season’s emerging teams