After a thrilling 2016 season that concluded with the Chicago Cubs winning their first World Series since 1908 (and being named Stiles on Sports Sportsmen of the Year), it’s time for the 2017 season to commence.
The season begins today with a trio of games on the ESPN family of networks (N.Y. Yankees at Tampa Bay, San Francisco at Arizona, Chi. Cubs at St. Louis), before Opening Day around the country tomorrow.
As usual, there are many storylines entering the season. With the Cubs no longer having a century-long curse without a title, the longest drought now belongs to the Cleveland Indians, but they have positioned themselves well to potentially end their own dry spell this year.
Meanwhile, the Cubs remain strong and have a legitimate chance to repeat, while every other team that made the playoffs in 2016 has very good shot to return, with nearly all favored or co-favored in their respective divisions.
That’s not to say there can’t be risers from 2016’s non-playoff teams. That group includes the Cardinals, Royals, Pirates, Tigers and Astros, all of whom have had recent success, as well as teams on the rise like the Braves, Rockies, Yankees and Mariners.
So without further adieu, here are my predictions for each division race in the 2017 season.
P.S.: don’t take these to the bank–last year’s picks missed all over the map, with some picks missing badly.
Editor’s note: instead of boring you with a detailed description of the depth of each roster, I’ve only included a few key points. Links to each team’s MLB.com depth chart are included if you would like to see how each individual position stacks up.
1. Washington Nationals
2016: 95-67, lost to Dodgers in NLCS
The Nationals have a rotation–Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez at the top and the underrated pair of Tanner Roark and Joe Ross at the bottom–to match that of the division-rival Mets. Scherzer is the defending NL Cy Young winner, but it was Roark who had the staff’s best ERA last year (2.83). The bullpen, however, will be a question mark.
With the additions of OF Adam Eaton and C Matt Wieters, which helped offset a few bench departures, their lineup is better than New York, and should give them the slight edge in a tight division race. It’s hard to believe, but the Nationals have still never won a playoff series in franchise history, including last year’s 5-game NLDS loss to the Dodgers; that fact could change in 2017.
2. New York Mets
2016: 87-75, lost to Giants in NL Wild Card Game
After a Wild Card Game loss to the Giants, if the Mets stay fully healthy, they could very easily top the Nationals. But over the last couple of years, injuries have ravaged this team on both sides of the ball. Their rotation, when healthy, may be the best in baseball, but all five of their young arms have an injury concern, and oft-injured 3B David Wright is out for now with a shoulder injury. That said, Robert Gsellman, who may not have even made the roster if not for Steven Matz’s elbow inflammation, is a sleeper candidate for NL Rookie of the Year.
Offensively, the Mets return last year’s lineup, which was at times too reliant on the home run–no regular starter hit higher than .282 (Neil Walker); for their best shot at the Nationals, more consistency in the offense and their health will be important.
3. Atlanta Braves
2016: 68-93; last postseason appearance: 2013
The Braves were a different team last year after the trade-deadline acquisition of Matt Kemp (37-68 before, 31-25 after), which gave Freddie Freeman some “protection” in the lineup. 2017 Rookie of the Year favorite Dansby Swanson was also effective in a short late-season stint, and the bullpen got better as the year progressed.
Now, with no significant roster losses and the interim tag removed from manager Brian Snitker, the Braves pitching staff has added Jaime Garcia and former Cy Young winners Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey to the rotation short-term to bridge the gap to 2018 and beyond, when the strong pitching in baseball’s top farm system will continue reaching the majors. In the meantime, this team should be more competitive than the last two years, and if it all comes together could be a sleeper in the East.
4. Miami Marlins
2016: 79-82; last postseason appearance: 2003
The September death of pitcher Jose Fernandez was tragic, as a shining young star in the game was lost much too soon. But beyond just the emotional loss for the Marlins, they now have a hole to fill in the rotation. The team tried in free agency, but the aging Edinson Volquez is unlikely to match Fernandez’s effectiveness or spirit.
This team will hit, especially if Giancarlo Stanton stays healthy (he hasn’t for a full season since 2014), and has added veterans Brad Ziegler and Junichi Tazawa for depth in an already strong bullpen. This team is not terrible, and should hover at or just below the .500 mark again, but there is no reason to believe this is the year they make the leap to contenders.
5. Philadelphia Phillies
2016: 71-91; last postseason appearance: 2011
The Phillies added some experience to their young roster this offseason, adding P Joaquin Benoit in free agency and trading for P Clay Buchholz, P Pat Neshek and OF Howie Kendrick. However, these moves essentially just offset the players lose in free agency, leaving the Phillies with a similar roster composition to their team from last year.
This organization is moving in the right direction, although they are doing it slowly. There is talent on the major league roster, and those players will get better with more experience, while more young talent comes through a strong farm system.
1. Chicago Cubs
2016: 103-58, defeated Indians to win World Series
A year after breaking the most famous drought in professional sports, the Cubs are fully capable of winning the World Series again in 2017. The core of the 2016 champs is intact, with the exception of free agent departure Dexter Fowler, whose place in center field will be taken by a Jon Jay/Albert Almora platoon. Kyle Schwarber will also be with the team a full season after missing the entire regular season then becoming a World Series hero.
The Cubs rotation, with the 2015 Cy Young Winner (Jake Arrieta) and two of the top three in last year’s Cy Young voting (Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks) held a remarkable 2.96 ERA. The bullpen lost free agent closer Aroldis Chapman, but after signing Wade Davis and Koji Uehara have three of the last four pitchers to record the final out of the World Series (along with returning Cub Mike Montgomery).
2. St. Louis Cardinals
Projected Wild Card #1
2016: 86-76; last postseason appearance: 2015
The Cardinals missed the playoffs by one game last season, snapping a five-year postseason streak, and they’ll be motivated after their rivals from Chicago won it all. Free agent OF Dexter Fowler left the Cubs to come to St. Louis, giving the Cardinals the true leadoff hitter they’ve lacked the last couple of years.
The pitching staff doesn’t have the depth they’ve had in previous years, especially in the bullpen, but should still be strong; Carlos Martinez has emerged as the staff ace, and free agent signee Brett Cecil will help in the ‘pen.
This is still the typical Cardinals roster full of players they have drafted and developed (with a few exceptions), and while they don’t quite match up with the Cubs, they are still capable of a successful season and a wild card berth.
3. Pittsburgh Pirates
2016: 78-83; last postseason appearance: 2015
The Bucs took a big step back last year, winning 20 games less than in 2015, and this year they continue to look fairly mediocre. The pitching staff features young talent, including Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow, who may experience some growing pains.
Offensively, while no position stands out as a glaring weakness, there aren’t many strengths either. How Andrew McCutchen plays after the Pirates tried to trade him in the offseason could be a big key to whether or not the Pirates have any shot at contending, although being in the same division with the Cubs, said contention would more likely be for a wild card spot.
4. Milwaukee Brewers
2016: 73-89; last postseason appearance: 2011
The Brewers understand their situation as a rebuilding team, and instead of punishing manager Craig Counsell for losing seasons his first two years, extended him through 2020. A pitching staff full of young players and reclamation projects is potentially no better than last year, especially after losing free agent reliver Tyler Thornburg.
Offensively, the team does have a couple of things going for them, even after the loss of free agent slugger Chris Carter. Ryan Braun continues his very solid career, and Jonathan Villar has established himself at the top of the order. An intriguing player is Eric Thames, who hasn’t played in MLB since 2012 but signed as a free agent after a successful stint playing in Korea. But even if it all clicks offensively, it’s unlikely to be enough to contend.
5. Cincinnati Reds
2016: 68-94; last postseason appearance: 2013
The Reds are also in a rebuild, and I wrote about their indifferent long-term outlook when they traded Brandon Phillips in February. After going a combined 132-192 in the last two seasons, they return virtually the same roster (with the exception of losing Phillips).
Offensively, a lineup including 1B Joey Votto and young slugger Adam Duvall was mid-pack in the National League, and should continue to be. However, the pitching staff had a team ERA of 4.91 a year ago, including 5.09 in relief, and is no better this year. Some of that is due to playing in a small ballpark, but the struggles of this pitching staff still can’t be ignored entering 2017.
1. San Francisco Giants
2016: 87-75, lost to Cubs in NLDS
After having the best record in MLB at the All-Star break last season, the Giants ended up as a Wild Card team; the main reason was a horrendous bullpen. That unit improved with one offseason move–the signing of closer Mark Melancon. Now, when the solid Madison Bumgarner-Johnny Cueto-Matt Moore trio in the rotation gives the Giants a lead, there’s a better chance the team will keep it.
Last year’s Giants offense, led by C Buster Posey and OF Hunter Pence, was above average in batting average and below average in home runs. That combination had that offense, which is essentially unchanged, ranking ninth in the NL in runs. With a strong rotation and improved bullpen, that could be enough to win the West.
2. Los Angeles Dodgers
Projected Wild Card #2
2016: 91-71, lost to Cubs in NLCS
The Dodgers have won four straight NL West titles, and have the longest active postseason streak in baseball. Last year, they did it offensively with young players, like Joc Pedersen, Andrew Toles and NL Rookie of the Year Corey Seager. They’re all back, with another year’s experience under their belt, although they lose OFs Josh Reddick and Howie Kendrick.
The pitching staff couldn’t stay healthy last year, and still had a 3.70 team ERA. The best pitcher in the game resides at Dodger Stadium in Clayton Kershaw, but he also has a very deep unit behind him (so much so, Alex Wood is starting the season in the bullpen). The bullpen lost some of its depth in free agency and is the team’s biggest question mark–even with the re-signing of closer Kenley Jansen, the unit’s instability moves the team just behind the Giants in the West.
3. Colorado Rockies
2016: 75-87; last postseason appearance: 2009
The Rockies have improved their win total the last two years, and have one of the best offenses in the game–their offensive stats, including a .275 average, are spectacular, even for a team that plays half its games at altitude–led by MVP candidate Nolan Arenado. That offense now adds veteran Ian Desmond, a player who is used to being on successful teams, although he’ll start the season on the DL.
Pitching at Coors Field is tough, and while this team (or any Rockies team, for that matter) is highly unlikely to lead the league in ERA, their young rotation has a shot to be really good, while a bullpen that had a 5.13 ERA in 2016 has bolstered itself by adding Greg Holland, Jake McGee and Mike Dunn. The Rockies are probably still a year away, but some teams have gotten “ahead of schedule” in recent years, so Colorado could be a sleeper team out west.
4. Arizona Diamondbacks
2016: 69-93; last postseason appearance: 2011
After looking like a potential contender last year, the Diamondbacks’ season was about as horrendous as their uniforms. Former Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo comes in as manager, and faces a tough task in the desert. The offense was not the problem in 2016–led by 1B Paul Goldschmidt, the D-Backs were above average in batting average, OPS, homers and steals–and should still be good, even without NL hits leader 2B Jean Segura.
A 5.09 staff ERA was main cause of last year’s struggles, including a 5.19 rotation ERA. This year’s staff may be moderately better with the additions of Taijuan Walker in the rotation and Fernando Rodney in the bullpen, but mostly consists of the same cast of characters and lack of depth that plagued them last year. Those struggles are likely to continue, keeping them from contention once again this year.
5. San Diego Padres
2016: 68-94; last postseason appearance: 2006
The Padres have lost at least 85 games every year since 2010, and after a rough 2016 campaign have lost OF Jon Jay, C Derek Norris, P Edwin Jackson, P Brandon Morrow and P Tyson Ross (who was injured in 2016 but was a key piece previously).
Jhoulys Chacin, who was the #4 starter to start the season last year for an Atlanta team that lost 93 games, is now the Opening Day starter for the Padres, and former catcher Christian Bethancourt has made the roster as a reliever, both of which tells you all you need to know about their lack of pitching depth. The offense, which was well below average last year, has solid young players like OFs Hunter Renfroe and Manuel Margot, in addition to established 1B Wil Myers, but this team looks worse than last year’s 94-loss team, and is miles away from contention. Three Rule 5 Draft players made the roster; the last such team was the 2003 Tigers (43-119).
National League Playoffs Prediction
NL Wild Card Game: Cardinals def. Dodgers
NLDS: Cubs def. Cardinals, Nationals def. Giants
NLCS: Cubs def. Nationals
1. Boston Red Sox
2016: 93-69, lost to Indians in ALDS
After winning the AL East last year, the Red Sox got even better in the offseason. While they lost David Ortiz to retirement, 1B/DH Mitch Moreland is a worthy addition to mostly fill that void, and the young outfield of Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi will be a year older and more experienced after each were solid in 2016 (Benintendi is still considered a rookie, and is AL Rookie of the Year favorite).
The pitching staff boasts 2016 AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello, but he is not even the best pitcher on the staff after the acquisition of Chris Sale; a top three featuring those two and David Price, also a former Cy Young winner, is as good as any. In the bullpen, trading for Tyler Thornburg (although he’ll start on the DL) offsets some losses in free agency. The Red Sox are favored to repeat as AL East champs, although it will, as always, be a very tough division to win.
2. Toronto Blue Jays
Projected Wild Card #1
2016: 89-73, lost to Indians in ALCS
The Blue Jays return mostly the same roster that has gone to the ALCS the last two years, with one glaring exception. DH Edwin Encarnacion became an Indian in free agency, and the aging Kendrys Morales, who signed with Toronto, won’t replace all of Encarnacion’s production. Otherwise, the team’s offense remains intact.
While the Blue Jays are known for the high-flying offense of the last two years, their pitching staff is quietly one of the best in baseball. Their 3.78 ERA last year was the best in the AL, with a strong five-deep rotation (Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada and Francisco Liriano) and a bullpen anchored closer Roberto Osuna and former closer Jason Grilli. Beating Boston won’t be easy, but it’s doable if everything comes together.
3. New York Yankees
2016: 84-78; last playoff appearance: 2015
The Yankees are transitioning into a team with a young core capable of a sustained run, a solid development for a team whose main criticism the last couple of years was its increasing age. Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira retired and Brian McCann was traded, clearing the way for young guns such as C Gary Sanchez, 1B Greg Bird and RF Aaron Judge. This trio will make the Yankees formidable in the years to come.
The Yankee rotation is still old, led by Masahiro Tanaka and C.C. Sabathia. The bullpen is bolstered by Aroldis Chapman, who was dealt to the Cubs in July for prospects and returned to New York on a lucrative five-year free agent deal. The ‘pen, which also features Dellin Betances (who would close almost anywhere else) and Tyler Clippard, pitched to a 3.67 ERA last year. The Yankees are probably a year away from threatening a deep playoff run, but if the young players adapt quickly and the veterans stay healthy they could pose a threat to Boston and Toronto now.
4. Baltimore Orioles
2016: 89-73, lost to Blue Jays in AL Wild Card Game
The Orioles under Buck Showalter have made the playoffs every other year; if the trend continues, they’re due to miss the postseason this year, and after a quiet offseason that is realistic. Offensively, C Wellington Castillo replacing the departed Matt Wieters is the only major change to an offense right at the league average in batting average and on-base percentage, although they only stole 19 bases all season.
Rotation depth was questionable last year, with a 4.72 unit ERA, and is worse this year after Yovanni Gallardo was traded and Tommy Hunter became a free agent. Making matters worse, two of their five projected starters are on the DL to start the season. The bullpen is good (3.40 ERA in 2016), and closer Zach Britton is great (), but how many leads will they get? Sure, this is somewhat the same team that won 89 games last year, but after their stagnant offseason they’ve lost ground in the AL East.
5. Tampa Bay Rays
2016: 68-94; last playoff appearance: 2013
After losing 94 games in 2016, the Rays also had a tellingly uneventful offseason. An offense that hit a league-worst .243 last year is no better, and while the team did make one signing to try to improve themselves, it was C Wilson Ramos, who is out until at least the All-Star break with a knee injury from last year.
The Rays have a solid top three in the rotation, with Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi and Alex Cobb, although below that it is less stable, and a bullpen that pitched to a 4.09 ERA last season lost Kevin Jepsen. In the AL East, facing the four teams above them 19 times each, it is going to be a long year for the Rays.
1. Cleveland Indians
2016: 94-67, lost to Cubs in World Series
The 2016 Indians lost Game 7 of the World Series in extra innings, becoming the first team to do so since the 1997 Indians. Good news for Cleveland is all three previous teams to lose Game 7 in extra innings won at least 89 games and made at least the LCS the following year. Even better news is that this year’s edition should be even better than the 2016 team.
The core of last year’s squad is intact, while free agent DH Edwin Encarnacion adds some power to the lineup. The 2016 playoff run was without OF Michael Brantley and pitchers Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar; all three of those key pieces are now healthy. Imagine last year’s playoff run with even more pitching depth, or another clutch hitter. It’s scary, and the rest of the league should be scared of what this team is capable of in 2017, as they try to win their first World Series in 69 years.
2. Detroit Tigers
2016: 86-75; last postseason appearance: 2014
Last year, the Tigers were still alive to make the playoffs on the last day of the regular season. This year, with mostly the same roster, Brad Ausmus’s team is looking to take the next step. The offense was the strength of last year’s team, led by a perennial MVP candidate in 1B Miguel Cabrera, veteran DH Victor Martinez and slugging LF Justin Upton.
The pitching staff’s 4.24 ERA last year was 11th in the AL, despite the resurgence of ace Justin Verlander and the Rookie of the Year season of Michael Fulmer. The bullpen has been a problem here for years, although it is improving, led by closer Francisco Rodriguez and up-and-coming set-up man Bruce Rondon. The Indians will be tough to catch, but a Wild Card berth is very realistic for the Tigers.
3. Kansas City Royals
2016: 81-81; last postseason appearance: 2015
After ending a 29-year playoff drought in 2014 by reaching the World Series, then winning it all in 2015, the Royals led the division after a 30-22 start, a 20-33 record in June/July doomed them to a distant third-place finish and a .500 record. Offensively, the team offset the loss of Kendrys Morales by signing Brandon Moss, traded for OF Jorge Soler, and retain most of the core from the championship team.
The biggest loss of the offseason came with the death of ace Yordano Ventura in a car accident. Overcoming that loss emotionally won’t be easy, and replacing him on the field won’t be either, especially since the team lacks the depth provided previously by departed players Edinson Volquez, Luke Hochevar and Wade Davis. The addition of Travis Wood will help, and Mike Minor, who has moved to the bullpen, could as well if he stays healthy, but it’s hard to see any better of a record than last year.
4. Minnesota Twins
2016: 59-103; last postseason appearance: 2010
2016 was not a good year for the Twins, who had a league-worst 5.08 ERA, a league-worst .979 fielding percentage, and a fifth-worst .251 batting average. On one hand, the outlook isn’t good for 2017 either, as C Jason Castro is the team’s only addition, although he essentially just replaces free agent Kurt Suzuki.
On the other hand, this is a rebuilding team, and the young core of the future is intact for another season. Sure, it can’t get much worse than a 103-loss season, but players like Miguel Sano, Max Kepler and Byron Buxton who are the all-stars of the future should be better with more experience. This team won’t win the Central, but still has some big issues in the pitching staff, but should be moderately better and could pass the White Sox.
5. Chicago White Sox
2016: 78-84; last postseason appearance: 2008
The White Sox started 2016 at 23-10 and looked like a potential contender, but as the season crumbled away the team decided it was time to rebuild. Chris Sale and Adam Eaton were traded, and Justin Morneau and Austin Jackson are among the free agent departures. Those trades netted the Sox two of baseball’s best prospects in P Lucas Giolito and IF Yoan Moncada, but they aren’t quite MLB-ready to start the season.
Besides Jose Abreu and Todd Frazier in the middle of the order, the lineup is full of young players and reclamation projects. The rotation is led by legitimate ace Carlos Quintana, but it’s no secret the White Sox are trying to trade him for a haul of prospects, so it’s unknown if he’ll be in Chicago all season, and beneath him the pitching staff has many more questions than answers. It’s going to be a long year (or few years) in the South Side as the White Sox rebuild.
1. Houston Astros
2016: 84-78; last postseason appearance: 2015
Last year, coming off their “ahead of schedule” postseason berth in 2015, the Astros underachieved and missed the playoffs. As a result, they were aggressive in free agency to try to add to their talented core of young stars including Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve and George Springer, and added DH Carlos Beltran, C Brian McCann (via trade) and OFs Nori Aoki and Josh Reddick. This lineup is stacked, which is refreshing after they struggled to score at times last year.
The bullpen (3.56 ERA in 2016) remains a force from top to bottom. The biggest question is the rotation, which added Charlie Morton to offse tthe loss of Doug Fister. If Dallas Keuchel can return to his 2015 Cy Young form, there’s no reason the Astros can’t win the West and be a threat to go deep in October.
2. Seattle Mariners
Projected Wild Card #2
2016: 86-76; last postseason appearance: 2001
The Mariners fell just short in 2016, and still seek their first playoff appearance since 2001. Some wonder if their window is closing, as stars Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz aren’t getting any younger. In an effort to win now, the Mariners made a plethora of trades this offseason, but none were bigger than a deal to get SS Jean Segura, who led the NL in hits last year with Arizona. The Mariners stole just 56 bases last year, while Segura himself stole 33.
The back end of a good rotation was helped with the acquisition of Yovanni Gallardo, while Edwin Diaz emerged as the closer last year in a strong bullpen (3.55 ERA) that could be even better. This team has the talent to win the division, although they’ll need a solid season to beat Houston.
3. Texas Rangers
2016: 95-67, lost to Blue Jays in ALDS
The Rangers were a statistcal anomaly in 2016, at 26 games over .500 despite a run differential of just +8. Now, while the core of the defending West champs remains, some of the supporting cast is absent. DH Carlos Beltran, OF Ian Desmond, 1B/DH Mitch Moreland and P Colby Lewis are among the departures. The team did add 1B Mike Napoli and P Andrew Cashner, who will start the season on the DL.
The lineup was above average in every major category last year, but that may change without Beltran, Desmond and Moreland. A good rotation led by Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish will give way to a bullpen that struggled last year to a 4.40 ERA and is virtually unchanged. This is still a good team, but the Astros and Mariners have passed them this offseason.
4. Los Angeles Angels
2016: 74-88; last postseason appearance: 2014
Depth is a key issue for the Angels. Offensively, behind Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, there’s not much there, although they have one of the game’s best defenders in SS Andrelton Simmons. There also aren’t reinforcements coming: the Angels farm system is consistently rated one of the game’s worst.
Starting pitching depth and health was an issue in 2016, and loses depth in departed veterans Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. The bullpen isn’t bad (3.77 ERA in 2016), that won’t be enough to cure this team’s problems. The Angels are in transition; they aren’t in a all-in rebuild, but they also aren’t going to be contenders.
5. Oakland Athletics
2016: 69-93; last postseason appearance: 2014
The A’s have lost 93-plus games the last two years, and last year were well below average on both sides of the ball. The lineup adds Matt Joyce, Rajai Davis and Trevor Plouffe, and while no large holes jump off the depth chart their lineup is full of guys who would be hitting in the bottom half of the order most other places.
On the mound, ace Sonny Gray will start the season on the DL, and beneath him the A’s have no rotation depth. The bullpen isn’t much better, with journeyman Ryan Madson set to serve as closer. The “Moneyball” concept has worked at times in Oakland; this is not one of those times, as the refusal to spend much to make this team better is going to cost them for another year.
American League Playoffs Prediction
AL Wild Card Game: Blue Jays def. Mariners
ALDS: Indians def. Blue Jays, Red Sox def. Astros
ALCS: Indians def. Astros
World Series Prediction
113th World Series: Indians def. Cubs