Posted by Jonah Gardner on March 31, 2017
When we last left Major League Baseball, one of its oldest franchises had broken the most storied title drought in American sports. It took over 100 years, not to mention the second 3-1 championship comeback in four months, but, for the first time since William H. Taft's inauguration, the Cubs have a title to defend.
This year may not end in the same kind of joyous history-making, but there's still plenty to look forward to. In fact, between the influx of young stars over the last couple of years and the continued greatness of many of the game's biggest names, baseball in 2017 is as good as it's ever been.
So, as we look ahead to the season, I wanted to take a look at some players. But this list will forgo the Mike Trouts and Clayton Kershaws of the game. Instead, I've picked my 2017 all-intrigue team. These are the players who, to me, represent the most interesting storylines heading into 2017.
Some of them are young stars looking to take the leap to the next level, others are trying to bounce-back from down years, and a few are youngsters who could emerge as MLB's next big thing. In picking the team, I've filled out a typical MLB lineup (with no DH, since this is a blog for only the most sophisticated, intelligent, reasonable, and morally sound readers), a well as a full rotation and a closer. I also limited myself to one player from each team, in order to stop myself from picking nothing but Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres.
Without further ado, let's meet the All-Intrigue team's starting nine:
There are any number of good options at this position, starting with Buster Posey, who will be looking to improve on a 2016 that, by his lofty standards, was a bit of a disappointment. But I settled on Grandal because, even though he's not even the best catcher in his state, he may be the one who ends up having the largest impact on the NL pennant race.
That's because, while the Dodgers have a lot of depth, they're a little bottom-heavy. They only had three hitters on their roster in 2016 who were worth 3 WAR or more in 2016 and one of them, Justin Turner, may have a hard time doing it again at age-32, especially considering last year was the first time he played over 130 games in a season.
If the Dodgers want to win their fifth straight NL West title and finally get over the hump in the NLCS, they'll need another position player to take a leap. There's plenty of options on the roster, from the ever-enigmatic Yasiel Puig to the burgeoning Andrew Toles, but I'm most intrigued by the possibility of what a peak-year Grandal might look like.
Last year, even though he didn't make an All-Star team like he did in 2015, Grandal improved across the board. His Defensive Runs Saved, which accounts for things like framing for catchers, doubled and, at the same time, he started hitting for power. Grandal mashed 27 homers, making him the first Dodgers catcher since Mike Piazza to break 25 in a season.
If Grandal can keep up his power and defense, while getting on-base at a clip closer to the .353 on-base percentage he posted in 2015, he could be the second all-around star the Dodgers need next to Corey Seager.
The obvious Yankee for this list is Gary Sanchez, who was having a somewhat disappointing 2016 until he very suddenly wasn't. In the first two thirds of the season, Sanchez toiled in AAA where his slugging percentage had fallen from .500 in 2015 to .468 in 2016. Despite that, Sanchez got the call to the majors, where he proceeded to make major league history by hitting 20 homers in 53 games and making a shocking late push for AL Rookie of the Year.
But in the aftermath of Sanchez's meteoric rise, it seems that everyone's forgetten about the other Yankees prospect who got to the majors and immediately starting mashing dingers. In his first 46 major league games in 2015, Greg Bird hit a mere 11 home runs and only managed to cobble together an adjusted OPS+ of 131, a mark which would be the best by a Yankees rookie since 1990 were it not for Sanchez's scorching 2016.
Bird missed all of 2016 with an injury and didn't look super impressive in the Arizona Fall League, but he's come back with a vengeance in Spring Training. If Bird and Sanchez, at just 24 and 22, can keep hitting, the Yankees will be well-positioned to kick off another generation of dominance in the AL East.
Even by the standards of a list like this, the range of potential outcomes for Javier Baez in 2017 is extremely wide. The defensive wizard had a solid 2016, filling the kind of Swiss Army Knife role that often comes with playing on a Joe Maddon team. But then came an October in the spotlight of a title run, one that showcased both Baez's tremendous upside (an .892 OPS and a number of jaw-dropping defensive plays in the NLDS and NLCS) and the frustrating stretches that have prevented him from seizing a full-time, regular role on the team (.433 OPS in the World Series).
In 2017, it's easy to imagine Baez finally becoming a full-time second baseman, filling in enough holes in his swing to become a productive hitter, and joining Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo as a mainstay of the next great dynasty in baseball. But it's just as easy to imagine Baez plateauing, getting stuck in a utility role, or perhaps even being traded by a team that already has a full infield between Rizzo, Bryant, Ben Zobrist, and Addison Russell.
Yes, I'm aware of the fact that Carlos Correa, not Alex Bregman, plays shortstop for the Astros. But while Correa has played like a future Hall-of-Famer in his first two seasons and George Springer emerged as a possible superstar in his own right in 2016, it may be Bregman who holds the key to unlocking the Astros' championship potential.
With Correa and Jose Altuve up the middle, the Astros moved Bregman to third base, where the early returns have been promising. Playing 40 of his first 49 games in the majors at the hot corner, Bregman saved 5 runs of DRS and racked up half a win of defensive WAR, excellent numbers for someone who logged just 13 games at the position in the minors.
The bigger questions were with the bat. Bregman posted a decent enough .791 OPS, but his minor league mark of .986 across AA and AAA in 2016 indicates the potential for much more. But Bregman wouldn't be the first highly touted prospect to need some time to adjust to the offensive demands of the majors while learning a new position. Another top prospect named Manny Machado posted an OPS+ around 100 in his first couple of MLB seasons as he shifted from SS to 3B, and it ended up working out pretty well for him.
If Bregman can increase his offense to match his shift down the positional spectrum, the Astros will have a lineup that can go blow-for-blow with any of the AL's top teams.
The reason I cheated Bregman's position was so I could put Beltre on the list. But why waste a spot on a proven commodity who's been the picture of reliability for years? He's here less for this season itself and more for what it could represent for his career.
Adrian Beltre should be able to clear 3,000 hits this season (he's at 2,942 and has had triple digit hits every year since 1998) but he'll probably need to keep playing for at least two more seasons to amass the 55 more homers he needs to reach 500.
Ticking those boxes would help enormously with Beltre's Hall of Fame case, but he shouldn't need the help. By Jay Jaffe's WAR-based JAWS system, Beltre grades out as the fifth best third baseman of all-time, ahead of first ballot no-brainers like Paul Molitor and Brooks Robinson (not to mention Chipper Jones, a likely first-balloter in 2018).
However, a lot of Beltre's WAR comes from the fact that he was probably the best or second best defensive third baseman of his era (depending on how you feel about Scott Rolen). His OPS+ was a more pedestrian 116 and his resume includes zero MVP awards, just two top-five MVP finishes, and merely four All-Star Games.
My instinct is that Beltre will make it to the Hall, especially if you expect the HoF voters to continue trending in a more forward-thinking direction. But it would make things a lot easier to have round numbers like 3,000 and 500 on that resume.
After a 2015 that earned comparisons to Ted Williams, it seemed that Bryce Harper had arrived as the next great baseball superstar, ready to lead the Nats to playoff glory again and again.
The Nationals made it back to the playoffs, but it was largely despite Harper, as we had to suddenly slam the brakes on the Bryce Harper is the Best Player in Baseball Train. Harper struggled to break 1.5 WAR last season and he wasn't even one of Washington's 10 most valuable players by that measure.
What's even more disturbing is that Harper got worse as the season went on. He had an .891 OPS before the 2016 All-Star Game, but just a .709 after it. And it kept getting worse, as his OPS sunk to a dismal .648 in September.
So is Harper the 9.9 WAR player he was in 2015 or is the guy who couldn't even crack two wins in 2014 and 2016? The key may be returning to a more aggressive approach. In 2015, Harper took 21.0% of his strikes looking, compared to 21.3% swinging. In 2016, that ratio shifted, as he had a 26.4% looking strike rate versus 17.0% swinging strikes.
Judging on the results, that conservative approach did a great deal of harm to Harper's performance at the plate. If he can get his aggressive groove back in 2017, maybe things will get on track for the young superstar-to-be.
While the Cubs largely stood pat this offseason, their World Series opponents may have added two middle-of-the-order bats to their lineup. One is Edwin Encarnacion, their big free agent signing, but just as important an "addition" could be Brantley.
Brantley's not a new acquisition, but he missed essentially all of 2016 with a shoulder injury. We're only three years removed from Brantley posting close to seven WAR and finishing third in the voting for AL MVP. And while he wasn't quite up to those standards in 2015, he still had an OPS+ of 129 and 3.4 WAR.
Even if the Indians only get that level of performance from Brantley, it would be a huge boost, essentially for free, to a team with a relatively clear path back to the AL Central title and a good shot at a return trip to the World Series.
From 2011-2015, the only position players who were better than McCutchen were named Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera. And yet, seemingly out of nowhere, Cutch's ability evaporated, as he was shockingly worse than replacement level in 2016.
Seemingly every part of Cutch's game tanked, although he did the most damage to his value in the field. McCutchen was 28 runs worse than an average fielder in 2016, costing Pittsburgh nearly 3 wins on defense.
Yet that's also why there's hope that he can turn it around in 2017. For one thing, while Cutch has always been a below average fielder, his 2016 performance was 17 runs worse than his previous career low, meaning last year could simply be an outlier.
More to the point, the Pirates seem to have recognized that Cutch's best days as a defender are behind him. They're moving him to right field and, while it will be hard for him to have the same kind of value that he did while holding down a premium defensive position in his prime, it's also likely that playing a less challenging position will make it easier for him to get his old groove back.
If McCutchen can go back to just being neutral in the field, while improving his offense a bit from his 103 OPS+ in 2016, he can go back to being a positive contributor for the Pirates. And with their defense fortified, Pittsburgh has a solid chance at chasing a Wild Card spot.
It's not often that the reigning Cy Young winner is the third or fourth most buzzzed about player in his team's rotation, but that's what's happening in Boston. While he probably wouldn't have gotten my vote, Porcello did win the AL Cy Young Award in 2016, yet this offseason he's kind of been an after-thought, as Boston acquired the flamethrowing Chris Sale to join their current superstar, David Price, and the intriguing young Eduardo Rodriguez.
Yet with Price's injury problems and Rodriguez's youthful inconsistency, the Red Sox are going to need another great season out of Porcello to make some noise in the highly competitive American League.
The intrigue is doubled by the fact that Porcello himself has been such an inconsistent pitcher. Before going on his award-winning tear last year, he seemed to be a high-priced bust for Boston, posting 0.6 WAR in his first year with the Red Sox. Before that, he had a 4.0 WAR season in his final year in Detroit, but that was essentially as much as he had racked up in the previous four years combined.
Adding to the confusion is how different his two peak seasons look. In 2014, he struck out just 5.7 hitters per 9 innings, while walking 1.9 and giving up 9.3 hits. When he took his step back in 2015, his strikeout numbers actually improved greatly, to 7.8 strikeouts per nine IP, but he gave up an additional hit per nine and, most damaging of all, his home runs per nine IP soared to 1.3.
In 2016, Porcello kept the good parts of 2015 and threw out the bad, replacing them with a more 2014ish home run rate. But most of all, his hit rate sunk to 7.8 hits per nine IP.
Was his 2016 a batting average on balls in play fueled run of luck or is Porcello now a pitcher who can strike guys out and induce weak contact when the bats don't miss? The Red Sox may need him to be the latter if they want to go all the way in 2017.
I could have gone with just about any member of the Mets staff here, but in most cases, their 2017 best and worse case scenarios are obvious. Unless the Mets' rotten injury luck continues, it's safe to assume that Noah Syndergaard will continue to dominate NL hitters. And, unless Matt Harvey's velocity can recover, it's safe to assume he won't be the same pitcher we saw in flashes of brilliance.
But given the fragile state of many of their pitchers and the fact that their depth took a hit with the departure of Bartolo Colon, it may turn out to be the young Gsellman who has the most impact on New York's 2017 fortunes.
The good news is Gsellman excelled in his first brief major league stint. In 44.2 innings pitched, he posted a sub-2.50 ERA and racked up nearly a win and a half, a torrid pace of over six wins if you extrapolate it out to a full season.
But there's reason for some skepticism. In the majors, Gsellman struck out 8.5 hitters per nine innings, a sharp increase of his 2016 minor league rate of 6.9 K/9. Additionally, his HR/9 rate shrunk to 0.2, from a minor league rate of 0.8.
The good news is that it may be the minor league HR/9 rate that's the mirage, since it's fueled by a 1.5 HR/9 rate in the hitter's paradise of Las Vegas, home of the Mets' AAA affiliate. In 2015, between A and AA, and in his 2016 AA stint, Gsellman's HR/9 was merely 0.3.
If he can continue to keep the ball in the park and bring down his BB/9 rate from 3.0 (it was 2.4 in the minors and 2.0 at AA), Gsellman can be a key component in the rotation as the Mets look, once again, to battle the Nats for the NL East crown.
After an All-Star 2015, it seemed like Chris Archer was poised to take the AL by storm in 2016. Instead, he was almost perfectly average, by both Adjusted ERA+ and WAR.
The problem certainly wasn't strikeouts. Archer struck out just 19 fewer batters in 2016 than he did in 2015. And it wasn't, as you might assume with Archer, walks. His walk rate did increase, but only by 0.2 batters per 9 IP.
Instead, Archer got hit much harder in 2016 than he did in 2015. He allowed 8.2 hits per nine and 1.3 homers per nine, increases of 0.8 hits and 0.5 dingers. It had almost nothing to do with luck, too, as his BABIP jumped just three points, from .297 in 2015 to .300 in 2016.
Archer wouldn't be the first fireballer to slip into predictability. Chris Sale went through something similar in 2015, when he dropped to 3.3 WAR from 6.6 the year before. Like Sale, Archer may need to change his approach and take a slight hit in strikeout rate to get his overall pitching groove back.
For the fourth straight year, Teheran outperformed his peripherals. His 3.69 FIP was 0.49 points higher than his ERA, a divergence that's become habitual for the Braves' star pitcher:
|6 Yr||6 Yr||3.39||3.85|
While his performance itself has been inconsistent, Teheran has consistently done better than his FIP would suggest in each of his four full seasons in the majors.
There are two ways to think about this as we head toward 2017. Either this will be the year that Teheran's luck catches up to him and he finally posts an ERA more in line with where we'd expect. Or else, after nearly 800 innings, perhaps we can simply surmise that Teheran's approach induces weaker contact and allows him to do better on balls in play than the average pitcher.
The fact that Teheran pulled off the feat in 2016, without defensive wizard Andrelton Simmons at shortstop, makes the latter scenario seem far more believable than it did a couple years ago.
At the 2015 All-Star break, it seemed like Justin Verlander's career was essentially over. He had barely been worth a win above replacement in 2014, then suffered an injury that limited him to just five starts and an ERA of 5.34 in 2015.
Since that All-Star Break, however, Verlander has simply been amazing. He's posted an ERA of 2.97 in his last 49 starts and had a season in 2016 that, at the very least, put him in Cy Young contention (and, in the opinion of some, deserved the trophy).
There's nothing in his peripherals that would make one assume he'd take a major step back in 2017. As long as Verlander can stay healthy, a big ask for any 34-year-old pitcher, he could be in store for another great season.
The more interesting question is whether he still needs to do more to punch his ticket to Cooperstown. Verlander is already in the top 60 all-time in strikeouts and he has a Cy Young, an MVP award, and a pitching Triple Crown. However, his JAWS score ranks just 97th, well below decidedly non-Hall of Famers like Kevin Appier and Tim Hudson. And, for old school voters, his 173 wins won't impress.
Verlander will probably need a couple of years to build a truly solid case for the Hall, meaning, even though he's under contract through at least 2019, it's vital he continue to pitch well this season.
Finally, we'll finish with the player who had one of the most impressive reliever seasons in recent memory. By WAR, Britton's 2016 was the best season by a reliever since Mariano Rivera in 2008. By ERA+, you could argue it was the best season ever.
So what does Britton do for a follow-up? One interesting question is whether Buck Showalter, a somewhat old-school manager, would be open to getting more creative with his bullpen usage. After Andrew Miller's scorching 2016, it's hard to argue a reliever as talented as Britton isn't being wasted by only pitching in one inning save situations. And, given the iffiness of Baltimore's rotation, getting an extra 20 innings or so out of Britton could be the difference between another Wild Card spot and an early start to their winter vacation.
Unfortunately, since the last time we saw Britton, he was sitting on the bench in Toronto, waiting for the Os to take a lead in extra innings to come into the game, I think we can assume such outside-the-box thinking is unlikely.