The Hot Corner
MLB 2016: Youth takes over
While the 1970’s are widely considered the Golden Age of baseball, the recent MLB youth renaissance has restored prosperity in America’s pastime. As an era plagued by PED’s and a lack of competitive balance ends, baseball is now dominated by teams with homegrown talent and youthful rosters. With Spring Training looming, I give 16 bold predictions for the 2016 MLB season that reflect baseball’s changing landscape:
16. No team will repeat as division champions
Generally speaking, none of the six division champions from last season struck a deal to improve upon their 2015 roster. Toronto’s David Price, Los Angeles’ Zack Greinke, and Kansas City’s Johnny Cueto each signed megadeals with a division rival of their 2015 squad. Ace starting pitching wasn’t the only center of attention in free agency this year though; centerfielder Jason Heyward, widely considered the National League’s best defensive player, left St. Louis in favor of an eight year deal in the Windy City with the rival Cubs. Meanwhile, postseason hero and former Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy will take his talents to an NL East foe in Washington.
While New York managed to secure arguably the driving force in their playoff push, Yoenis Cespedes, through the 2016 season, there’s plenty of question marks on this Mets team. A lifetime suspension to former closer Jenrry Mejia and losing Tyler Clippard in free agency creates a huge void in the Mets bullpen. Although their rotation is the deepest in baseball entering 2016, inability to close out late-innings games may cost this team a chance to repeat as NL East Champions. Overall, the influx in parity across the league has drastically improved the difficulty to win a division in consecutive seasons.
15. Chicago deals Chris Sale at the trade deadline
Typical big spenders in free agency, such as the Yankees and Red Sox, remained unusually quiet this winter (with the exception of Boston’s David Price signing). Rather than doling out nine figure contracts, New York and Boston built elite bullpens and enhanced their infield depth through trades. The next two free agent classes are comparatively weak to markets from the last decade, forcing contending teams to acquire big name talent at the trade deadline or at the Winter Meetings in December. Since most of the players presumed to be available are currently under affordable contracts for multiple seasons, larger prospect packages will be required to pry away cornerstone players.
Though I expect a below average amount of activity at this year’s deadline, a few big names could depart from the Windy City. Despite acquiring Todd Frazier from Cincinnati to play the hot corner, the White Sox struck out on this winter’s stacked free agent market. Chicago simply doesn’t have enough talent around their star players to contend, and with a low supply of starting pitching on the market, now is the time to depart with Chris Sale. Plenty of contenders desperate for starting pitching (Rangers, Twins, Yankees) possess the prospects necessary to complete a deal, but if Chicago fails to find a suitable prospect package for Sale, Jose Quintana would also warrant a sizeable return.
14. Jose Fernandez wins NL Cy Young and Comeback Player of the Year awards
Insert the “promising young starter triumphantly returns from Tommy John surgery but faces challenges from controversial innings limit” cliche here. The alarming increase in pitchers requiring TJ surgery has placed a huge emphasis on protecting the longevity of baseball’s best young arms. Thus, more managers and GMs are setting innings limits for pitchers coming off major arm surgery as a measure of precaution. The controversy arises, though, when these teams become engaged in a tight playoff chase. Do contending teams prioritize a player’s health or the potential success for the organization?
Miami enters 2016 as an x-factor in a relatively polar National League. Outside of South Beach, every team is considered either a serious playoff contender, or a talent-derived rebuilding project. A potential full season with Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton should improve upon the Marlins 71-91 mark from 2015. However, this team will be within in reach of a division title entering September, likely leading to an increase workload for an extremely talented Fernandez. With his first 30 start big league season under his belt, the Marlins ace will cement his elite status and capture a Cy Young, regardless of Miami’s placement in the division and wildcard standings.
13. New York finishes below .500 for the first time since 1992
Yes, I made this same prediction in my 2015 MLB season preview, but the inevitable demise of America’s team seems imminent. Acquiring Aroldis Chapman for a huge discount was easily the steal of the offseason. Combined with Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, Chapman rounds out arguably the best relief trio in baseball. Late-inning pitching won’t be the downfall of the Yankees in 2016, but rather their starting rotation. In the final year of his contract, CC Sabathia’s personal issues with addiction are seemingly resolved, but how effective can this once dominant left hander be after a long absence from baseball?
Masahiro Tanaka is unlikely to pitch on Opening Day due to lingering arm injuries, forcing New York to rely on Michael Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi at the top of their rotation. The once potent Yankees offense is now too suspect to account for liabilities in their rotation. New York appears to be focusing on the future, specifically planning ahead for a loaded 2018 free agent class. With Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez off the books following the 2017 season, the Yankees will be working with roughly 70 million dollars in open cap space. A few seasons of mediocrity in the Bronx could prove painful, but may potentially pay huge dividends in two years.
12. The Royals and Mets are both eliminated in wildcard games
Facing a Mets rotation consisting of Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, and Steven Matz in a playoff series appears unfavorable on paper. Any National League team would struggle to eliminate the Mets, if at all, in a best-of-five or best-of-seven series given their starting pitching depth. However, in a wildcard game where victory is instant, New York’s weaknesses are exposed. Beyond Yoenis Cespedes, the Mets lack a reliable bat, despite boasting former MVP contenders in David Wright and Curtis Granderson.
While Kansas City’s offense demonstrates consistency with exceptional depth throughout their batting order, pitching now raises a red flag. Without Johnny Cueto, KC is without an ace, unless Yordano Ventura breaks out far beyond his projected potential. Don’t forget that late-inning specialists Greg Holland and Ryan Madson have also departed this offseason, surrounding the Royals’ bullpen with a few question marks. Both leagues feature several high-powered offenses that thrive in one-and-done situations like a wildcard game. In general, these teams are built for durability over a series, not single game performances.
11. Bryce Harper wins 2nd MVP Award; NL Triple Crown
Last year, I correctly predicted that Bryce Harper would win the NL MVP Award after his first full season. In 153 games, Harper produced a .330/42/99 slash line despite his team, a popular preseason World Series pick, finishing at a subpar 83-79 record. However, the Nationals added a pair of players to their lineup this offseason to further Harper’s success. First, GM Mike Rizzo snagged Daniel Murphy away from the rival Mets following his unprecedented 2015 postseason campaign. If Murphy continues his postseason success, he’ll provide a power bat two or three spots behind Harper in the lineup, furthering the protection for Washington’s franchise player.
Additionally, the Nats acquired speedster Ben Revere from Toronto to plug in at the top of their order, replacing Denard Span. Revere’s high average and aggressive base running will provide Harper with more at-bats with runners in scoring position. Behind Revere, a returning Anthony Rendon will provide another potential .300 hitter to further set the table for Harper. Although this team lacks a true cleanup hitter that specializes in power, Washington’s lineup is deep enough for opposing pitchers and managers to think twice before intentionally walking Harper. After finishing in the top five in all Triple Crown categories last season, the former top pick is primed to add another achievement to his record at 23 years old.
10. MLB implements a set number of “timeouts” for the 2017 season
Pace of play remains a hot topic among experts and league officials. Commissioner Rob Manfred has taken major strides towards accelerating the speed of undoubtedly the slowest of the “Big 4” sports. Among ideas discussed this offseason, the implementation of a timeout system has seemingly drawn the most positive reception. For example, each team would receive five timeouts per game, presumably each timeout representing a visit to the mound by a catcher, pitching coach, or manager. When all timeouts are exhausted, managers would be forced to make pitching changes or dispute calls from the dugout.
This system ultimately eliminates excessive visits to the mound that either attempt to break the rhythm of an opposing offense or stall while bullpen pitchers continue to loosen their arms. The total time shaved off each game would only account for a few minutes, but increases the proportion of action to non-action times in the game. Although this concept appears promising on paper, there are a few details to work out. Do injury timeouts count against a team? Will losing a manager’s challenge result in the loss of a timeout? Are additional timeouts rewarded in games that extend into extra innings? These details would all likely be resolved in meetings throughout the summer and into next offseason, but an organized system for stoppage of play seems to be inevitable.
9. Phillies become first team since 2003 to lose 110+ games
Philadelphia’s farm system ranks among the top ten in baseball, largely expected of a team that has expressed its intentions to rebuild. However, few Phillies prospects are projected to be ready for the 2016 season, barring a call-up when rosters expand to 40-men in September. Shortstop J.P. Crawford could crack the major league roster out of Spring Training, entering 2016 as MLB.com’s #5 prospect. After batting .392 in AA last season and displaying phenomenal defensive skills, Crawford is on track to be a valuable top-of-the-order big league shortstop.
However, Crawford’s ability to reach base won’t be fully effective until the Phillies find high-average and power hitters behind him. Most optimism surrounding a Ryan Howard comeback has vanished, along with the other veteran players on this team. Behind Jeremy Hellickson, Philly’s rotation lacks experience, a theme that also applies to their bullpen that is now without Ken Giles. The talent level of this squad is eerily similar to the 2003 Detroit Tigers, who finished at an abysmal 43-119. I expect the Phillies to crack 50 wins due to the number of non-contending NL teams, but projecting a 60 win season would be generous.
8. Chris Davis becomes latest case of $150,000,000+ contract busts
Baltimore happens to be a victim of circumstances in 2016. Outside of the AL East and NL Central, this team could easily be considered a contender for the division crown. However, vast improvements made by New York and Boston this offseason, the defending champion Blue Jays keeping most of their core pieces, and a healthy young Rays rotation leaves the O’s as the odd men out. Recently adding Yovani Gallardo, Baltimore capitalized on the rare late-February free agent market that featured three players eligible to receive qualifying offers.
Above all else, Baltimore’s biggest offseason splash came with the re-signing of Chris Davis to seven-year deal worth 161 million. Davis emerged in 2013 as a premier power hitter, leading the AL in home runs twice in the last three seasons. However, in 2014 the Orioles’ star was suspended 25 games for PED use, effectively ending his season with a .196 batting average. Although he rebound last season, Davis’ lifetime average has dipped to .255. Given his inconsistent track record and impending 30th birthday, the Orioles likely won’t be able to capitalize before Davis’ window closes given the competition in the AL East. This foundations of this deal will slowly unravel this season, with potentially disastrous implications beyond 2017.
7. Cubs finish with MLB’s best record…but the curse will continue
The biggest question coming out of Spring Training for the Cubs for nearly 70 years now remains “Is this finally the year the Cubbies break the curse?” Entering this season, Chicago is actually the Vegas favorite to win the 2016 World Series following the team’s 97-win campaign last year. A full year of Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, and other former top prospects are enough reasons to be excited for the northsiders. This lineup became even scarier this offseason with the free agent signings of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist. In fact, the Cubs could realistically have an All-Star at every position.
As powerful as this offense looks on paper, the biggest weakness of this team remains the lack of starting pitching depth. The signing of John Lackey provides this team with an above average number three starter behind Arrieta and Lester. Beyond the newly acquired Lackey though, this lacks reliable pitching. Middle infielder Javier Baez finds himself as the odd man out among Zobrist and Russell, surviving an offseason filled with trade speculation. However, if Russell continues to produce in 2015, the Cubs may sell low on Baez for a number three or four starter at the deadline – solidifying their playoff rotation. The stars are aligning for a Cubs’ World Series victory, but a few holes must first be filled for this team to get past the NLCS.
6. Jose Bautista hits career high 55 home runs en route to winning AL MVP
As I mentioned earlier on, this upcoming free agent class is well below average in terms of quality and quantity of talent. However, Jose Bautista is quickly emerging as the gem of next winter’s market. Several reports have surfaced from Toronto regarding Bautista’s negotiations with the Blue Jays, but the star outfielder has stated that he hasn’t met with team officials since expressing his contract demands. Given his stubborn responses in Spring Training interviews, it appears Bautista is unwilling to alter his asking price. In fact, Toronto’s slugger was quoted stating there will be no hometown discounts for his current club.
Power hitting first baseman Edwin Encarnacion will also hit free agency following the 2016 season. Meanwhile, reigning AL MVP Josh Donaldson’s recently signed two-year deal will expire after 2017. Keeping the heart of their order in Toronto beyond this season will be extremely difficult for the Blue Jays. Various insiders report Bautista wants a multi-year extension worth 30 million annually – rumors speculate Joey Bats’ ideal contract is 150 million over five years, likely out of Toronto’s price range. Given the strong-will and determination of this six-time All-Star, expect Bautista to drive up his price tag this winter with a career season.
5. Dodgers place 3rd in NL West behind Giants and Diamondbacks
A large portion of the offseason buzz surrounded around moves that the notoriously high-spending Dodgers didn’t make. After watching Zack Greinke sign a six-year deal with the rival Diamondbacks, LA missed out on the free agent sweepstakes for David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, John Lackey, and other highly touted starting pitchers. Hollywood’s team supplemented these missed opportunities with Japanese sensation Kenta Maeda and Scott Kazmir, largely considered “consolation prizes” in a market loaded with top pitchers.
Adding insult to injury, the Dodgers missed out on a pair of trade opportunities. Arizona’s monumental offer for Shelby Miller landed arguably the most coveted trade target of the offseason. Following the Winter Meetings, a deal for closer Aroldis Chapman fell through after legal allegations made against the Cuban flamethrower. The improvements made by San Francisco and Arizona this offseason will be too much for the Dodgers to overcome and repeat as division champions. A full season of baseball’s top prospect, Corey Seager, will give this team a fighting chance for most of the season, but LA simply has too many anomalies to trust as a contender.
4. Justin Verlander bounces back to win AL Cy Young Award
Five years ago, this prediction would be classified as “probable” rather than “bold”. In 2011, Justin Verlander captured his first Cy Young and MVP honors following a 24-5 campaign. Continuing his success into the first half of the 2012 season, the roots for Verlander’s demise came in the 2012 All-Star Game. Earning the honor of starting for the American League, JV surrendered five runs in the first inning, shocking baseball fans around the world. From there, the Tigers’ ace had seemingly lost his dominant form. The rise of Max Scherzer and the 2014 acquisition of David Price alleviated the pressure from fans, but entering 2016, Verlander is once again number one in Detroit’s rotation.
During pitcher and catcher workouts in the first week of Spring Training, number 35 described himself as fully healthy after spending the majority of 2015 on the DL. Tigers writers have reported Verlander has continued to improve his mechanics, but these reports seem to surface annually with the same hope that this former ace will regain his form. His injury from last season forced Verlander to change his throwing motion, resulting in a string of stellar performances in August and September. Now 33-years-old, this is a defining season for a future Tigers legend. Given the lower than usual expectations for this team in 2016, I believe Verlander will shock the world again with a Cy Young worthy campaign.
3. Cleveland goes from Wild Card Game to World Series with ALCS rout of Boston
The New York Mets draw the headlines praising their young rotation, but another promising staff of young arms will become well-known following the 2016 season. Cleveland is only two seasons removed from a wildcard berth and 92-win regular season. In 2014, Corey Kluber emerged as the AL Cy Young winner, and then quietly put together another solid campaign last year. Carlos Carrasco’s stellar 2015 turned heads as several teams inquired about the Indians’ number two starter at the Winter Meetings. Solid seasons from Danny Salazar and Cody Anderson, as well as promising signs from Trevor Bauer rounded out a strong rotation for the Tribe in 2015.
Offensively, the Indians will benefit from a healthy season out of Michael Brantley, who placed in the top three of MVP voting in 2014. Francisco Lindor’s sophomore season is also creating excitement, although Lindor’s biggest contribution is his defensive abilities. Boston arguably made the biggest splash this offseason among AL teams, but a homegrown Indians team will exploit David Price’s postseason struggles, along with the rest of the Red Sox inconsistent rotation, to advance to the World Series.
2. San Francisco’s rotation shuts down Cubs in NLCS sweep
Since 2016 is an even numbered year, the Giants enter this season with a significant advantage over the rest of the league. With World Series titles in 2010, 2012, and 2014, San Francisco’s even year dynasty is a strange coincidence…or perhaps part of a successful formula. In the odd numbered years, the Giants seem to lose key pieces of their championship teams over the offseason. To fill the gaps, San Fran calls up a seemingly endless supply for prospects from the minors. After making adjustments, these young future stars carry the Giants back to the Fall Classic. Undoubtedly, there’s a method behind this Bay Area madness.
Despite mediocre numbers in his 2015 run with Kansas City, Johnny Cueto is set to become an elite number two starter, a more natural fit for the former Cincinnati ace. With numerous options behind Madison Bumgarner and Cueto, such as Jeff Samardzija, Matt Cain, Jake Peavy, and Chris Heston, the Giants will seemingly have an answer for every elite NL lineup, including the heavily favored Cubs. Experience prevails over youth as the Cubs find themselves on the wrong end of an NLCS sweep in back-to-back seasons.
1. Four Titles; Seven Years
Unlike the ‘10 Rangers, ‘12 Tigers, and ‘14 Royals, the ‘16 Indians provide a different challenge than the usual San Francisco World Series opponent. All three of the Giants’ opponents were known for high-powered offenses. The only comparable rotation was Detroit’s Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, and Doug Fister. However, by shutting down Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, San Francisco was able to come away with a four game sweep of the Tigers. Similarly, Cleveland will suffer the same fate in this predicted World Series matchup.
The Indians finished 18th in the league last season in runs scored, and though Michael Brantley will return as the top contributor to this lineup, the Indians lack the depth and offensive explosiveness to knock Giants starters out in the early innings. As a result, Cleveland would especially struggle in games contested at AT&T Park where power threat Carlos Santana would either pinch hit or play as a defensive liability. San Francisco already has the makings of a team of destiny entering Spring Training. Madison Bumgarner will earn World Series MVP honors for the second time in his career as the Giants dynasty continues to dominate.
By J.T Grugen