We’re a month from the start of a baseball season that will present a question we haven’t heard in more than 100 years: can the Chicago Cubs repeat as champions? The Cubs’ rampage through the National League, and dramatic World Series victory, were the big stories of the 2016 season. In 2017, all eyes will still be on Joe Maddon and his boys, who bring back most of the team that won 103 games and ran away with the NL Central.
The Cubs are favored to repeat, but they’ll be tested. The Dodgers, by some projection systems, are just as good as the Cubs. The Dodgers have the best pitcher in baseball — best pitcher ever, you could argue — in Clayton Kershaw, along with last year’s MVP runner-up in shortstop Corey Seager and a potential Rookie of the Year in slugging outfielder/first baseman Cody Bellinger. The Indians, who fell a run short against the Cubs in the Series, upgrade with the addition of first baseman Edwin Encarnacion and can expect better health from left fielder Michael Brantley, and starters Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. Their top challengers in the AL are the Red Sox, who added one of the best left-handed starters in baseball for the second year in a row, trading uber-prospect Yoan Moncada to the White Sox for Chris Sale.
Those four teams are a level above the rest of the field, and it would not be a surprise at all to see those be the last four teams standing in the middle of October. Here’s a look at all six divisions in what shapes up as a fascinating season.
AL East: The Red Sox, even with the loss of David Ortiz to retirement, project to have the best offense in the division, led by near-MVP Mookie Betts and shortstop Xander Bogaerts. This is not your father’s AL East; the scary monsters in New York and Toronto are a bit less scary, and the division is defined as much by a lack of bad teams — all five could finish above .500 — as a plethora of good ones. Keep an eye on the Rays, whose young, inexpensive rotation, led by Chris Archer, could make them the surprise challenger to the Sox.
AL Central: It’s the Indians’ time, with the best starting rotation in the league and an offense that, thanks to homegrown talent like Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis, and Jose Ramirez, has become one of the most productive ones in the league. Credit them for spending some of that World Series money on a big bat in Encarnacion, rather than hiding behind the “small market” excuse. If any team challenges the Tribe, it will be the Tigers, who are trying to squeeze one more run from the Justin Verlander/Miguel Cabrera core. Bounceback seasons by free-agent disappointments Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmermann will be key to any deep run by Detroit.
AL West: The best race in all of baseball will happen here, where the Astros and Mariners were among the busiest teams in the league over the winter in an effort to close the gap on the Rangers. Houston’s rebuilt offense, with Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and Josh Reddick, will try to match a pitching staff that allowed just 701 runs last year, fourth-lowest in the league. The Mariners’ Jerry Dipoto made more than a dozen trades, but his team’s chance to break the game’s longest streak of missing the postseason will come down to the core of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Felix Hernandez fending off the aging process. The Rangers, last year’s champs, will lean heavily on their internal depth and hope for improved health, especially from ace Yu Darvish, to repeat. All three of these teams could win 90 games, and it would not be a surprise to see two of them in the AL Wlld Card Game. The Astros have a small edge on the other two.
NL East: The Nationals won the NL East last year despite an off-year by Bryce Harper, the 2015 NL MVP, thanks to a Harperesque performance by free agent Daniel Murphy. The strength here is the rotation, which with a healthy Joe Ross in the #5 slot has five average to good starters. The trade for Adam Eaton to play center field and bat leadoff, filling two huge holes, depleted the Nats’ rotation depth. With a shaky bullpen, they’ll go as far as the starters take them. It should be enough in a division in which the Phillies and Braves are rebuilding. The Mets bring back the same team that won a wild card last year, with the same questions about health up and down the roster, and the same problems on offense. The Marlins simply have no way to replace Jose Fernandez, who died in a boating accident last September.
NL Central: The Cubs should slip from last year’s 103-58 mark, which was spurred by one of the best team defenses in baseball history. The return of Kyle Schwarber to play left field chips away at that strength, while promising dingers in the exchange. If there’s a concern, it’s a lack of upper-level pitching depth, especially starting pitching; injuries to any of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks or Jake Arrieta would leave the Cubs exposed. Even at that, it’s hard to see the Cardinals, who already lost Rookie of the Year candidate Alex Reyes to Tommy John surgery, winning 95 games. The Pirates have one of the best outfields in baseball, but questions about their pitching and their commitment to spending the way a contender should plague them. In a league loaded with teams focused on the future, however, both the Cards and Bucs will be wild-card favorites.
NL West: If baseball were played two-on-two, you might take the Dodgers, with Kershaw and Seager, over everyone else. The Dodgers have won four straight NL West titles, but have not won an NL pennant since 1988. They’ll need better pitching health to break that streak, with Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir, Rich Hill and Hyun-Jin Ryu all working back from injuries. The risk of collapse here is high because of the rotation issues. If not the Dodgers, the Giants, as stable a team as you’ll find in today’s game, are positioned to win again behind their own twosome of Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey. Keep an eye on the Diamondbacks, who were wracked by injuries a year ago and should benefit from new management in both the front office (Mike Hazen) and dugout (Torey Lovullo). In an NL lacking surprise candidates, the Snakes stand out as one.