Surprising teams are a common theme in baseball from year to year. Some MLB teams come out of nowhere to contend. Others come into the season hyped as World Series contenders, only to fall flat on their faces.
The latter group gets our attention here. Which teams that seem like contenders are actually standing on shaky ground?
How many National League East teams should be concerned? What perennial contender is actually facing a steep uphill climb? Which two American League powers are regression candidates?
These five hyped MLB teams are most destined to fail.
1. Washington Nationals
While they haven’t enjoyed the same postseason success, the Nationals have been on a similar track as the San Francisco Giants. In the even numbered years, they’ve been in the playoffs. In the odd years, they’ve been golfing in October.
But 2017 being an odd numbered year is only a minor reason for our skepticism.
The Nats won 95 games in 2016. One of the big reasons why was Daniel Murphy, who had a stellar campaign and finished second in MVP voting. But while Murphy was certainly no slouch before 2016 it was, by far, a career year.
Is Daniel Murphy a 2017 regression candidate. Most of his career says yes. pic.twitter.com/O3TGTpyzjd
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) March 28, 2017
Having a career year at 31 is not unheard of. But not many players perform at a significantly higher level in their 30’s than they did in their 20’s. Murphy may have another good year, but some regression is in the cards.
Admittedly, there’s a hole in that logic.
Murphy had a great year in 2016 and indeed may regress. But Bryce Harper had a down year in 2016. Murphy’s regression could be offset (and then some) if Harper regains his 2015 form.
Theoretically that’s true, but we also have to remember how much 2015 impacted Harper’s career stats.
Harper is a .279/.382/.501 career hitter. But if we eliminate 2015, that slash line falls to .264/.357/.458. Not a slouch by any means, but far from an MVP. The 2015 season also accounted for nearly 35 percent of his career home runs, a shade under 30 percent of his career RBI and nearly 29 percent of his runs scored.
Again, that’s not to say that Harper is a bad player. But the compiled numbers in his five-year career have been significantly aided by one of those seasons. Are we really ready to bank on another 2015?
On top of that, Stephen Strasburg has topped 200 innings only once in his career. Max Scherzer’s preseason injury seems okay now, but it’s not something that can be ignored.
Washington has immense talent. But looking at the team a little deeper gives us reasons for skepticism as well.
2. New York Mets
To be fair, there’s reason to be optimistic about the Nationals, as well. Even if Washington’s struggles come to fruition, its main rival in the National League East is also a shaky team.
All-Star Jeurys Familia was arrested in the offseason in a domestic violence incident. And while charges were dropped, he will serve a 15-game suspension to star the year. That was expected, and in fact, the suspension could have been worse.
But even if we can somehow look past the domestic violence issues, Familia struggled at the end of 2016. He blew five saves a season ago. In and of itself, that’s not too many. But none of those five came before July 28. Blowing five saves in two months? That is a problem. Additionally, for the second year in a row Familia’s season ended with a massive disappointment in the postseason.
World, meet Conor Gillaspie.
— MLB (@MLB) October 6, 2016
The problems don’t stop there for the Mets.
Entering 2016, New York’s starting rotation was its unquestioned strength. Yet Matt Harvey, Steven Matz and Jacob deGrom all finished 2016 on the shelf. Harvey had a dismal year before getting shut down. On top of that, none of the Mets’ top seven starters — including the great Noah Syndergaard — has ever topped 200 innings in a regular season. That’s an issue, especially given the concerns at the back end of the bullpen that New York faces.
Offensively the Mets have some big names, but we can’t completely depend on good seasons from any of them. Lucas Duda played in only 47 games in 2016 and hit a measly .229/.302/.412 when he was there. Jay Bruce had 33 home runs and slashed at .250/.309/.506 in 2016. But most of that damage was done with the Cincinnati Reds in the hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark. After the trade to the New York and the more spacious Citi Field, Bruce hit eight home runs with a .219/.294/.391 slash line.
If those guys struggle again, it puts even more pressure on Yoenis Cespedes. The Mets are a talented group for sure but are far from flawless.
3. Texas Rangers
Over the last two regular seasons, no American League team has been better than the Rangers. During the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Texas went 183-141 and won two American League West crowns.
But we are far from sure the 2017 team will be anywhere near that good. The Rangers have an explosive offense, but the pitching staff is troubling.
Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish sit atop the Texas starting starting rotation. That’s not the problem. The problem comes after them. In 60 percent of their games, the Rangers are set to throw out any three of Martin Perez, A.J. Griffin, Mike Hauschild, Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner and Chi Chi Gonzalez.
We’d have a hard time expressing optimism in any ballpark. But given that Texas plays half its games at the notoriously hitter-friendly Globe Life Park in Arlington, that’s a real recipe for disaster.
To make things worse, the pitching problems don’t stop there.
The Rangers had one of baseball’s worst bullpens in 2016. The relievers posted a 4.40 ERA, better than only the Minnesota Twins, Arizona Diamondbacks, Philadelphia Phillies, Cincinnati Reds and Colorado Rockies — five teams that were nowhere near a winning record. Texas didn’t do a whole heck of a lot to improve that bullpen in the offseason.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, we’re expecting the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners to be tougher in 2017. So, fighting through the American League West will be a chore.
If we put all of that together, we have a Rangers team that’s quite vulnerable and susceptible to a disappointing 2017 season.
4. St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals are one of MLB’s best and brightest franchises. They almost always seem to carry postseason expectations. But this year, it’s hard to get overly excited about St. Louis.
Carlos Martinez is the team’s ace now, but Adam Wainwright will still be an important cog for the Cardinals. Wainwright missed nearly all of 2015 with an injury. He came back in 2016 but had the worst season of his career, posting a 4.62 ERA and 1.404 WHIP. Ordinarily, we wouldn’t be too concerned. The first season back from an injury is frequently a struggle. But Wainwright is 35. We can’t just assume that he’s going to come anywhere close to the ace he’s been for most of his career.
Yadier Molina is another concern. In 2016, Molina slashed at .307/.360/.427 but saw his string of eight straight gold gloves come to an end. Like Wainwright, we’re not saying that Molina can’t be an effective player, but he’s 34. We also can’t rely on him to be a superstar.
Maybe the likely call up of Carson Kelly will negate some of the issues with Molina. But Wainwright is another story.
Lance Lynn missed all of 2016 recovering from Tommy John surgery. The same surgery will keep Alex Reyes sidelined in 2017. Michael Wacha had a 5.09 ERA and 1.478 WHIP in 2016 while allowing more than 10 hits for every nine innings.
Where’s the run prevention going to come from?
Certainly, the 2017 season has ample potential to be an absolute bust in St. Louis.
5. Boston Red Sox
The skepticism around the Red Sox begins with the starting rotation.
How will David Price’s health hold up? He’s already going to miss an early portion of the season with an injury. But even when he’s healthy, a good season from Price can’t be taken for granted.
Price struggled in his first season with Boston, posting a 3.99 ERA and 1.204 WHIP — both the second-worst totals of his career. On its own, that’s not terribly alarming. Bad seasons do happen, after all. But, per Fangraphs, the fastball that averaged better than 94 mph in 2015 was below 93 in 2016. On any given pitch, one mph means essentially nothing. But for a 31-year-old pitcher, the full season drop can’t be ignored, especially when it coincides with a dip in productivity.
It doesn’t stop with Price, either. Despite Kate Upton’s objections, Rick Porcello won the American League Cy Young Award in 2016. The problem? His 2016 success came from seemingly out of nowhere.
Did Rick Porcello turn a corner in 2016? Or did he have a great season not likely to be replicated? pic.twitter.com/ScNPqpz5Og
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) March 29, 2017
He went from a middle of the rotation guy to ace in one season. It’s a nice story, but not unlike Daniel Murphy, it’s fair to wonder if at least some regression is on its way in 2017.
The third head in the Red Sox decorated triumvirate belongs to Chris Sale. And while his numbers don’t point to any regression, we can’t help but remember a few incidents a season ago. Sale was incredibly annoyed when the Chicago White Sox essentially made Adam LaRoche opt for retirement over not having his son with him. Later in the year, he took a knife to Chicago’s 1970’s throwbacks and was sent home from his start.
Between the fans and media, Boston is a notorious pressure cooker that can get under the skin of even the most poised athletes.
Offensively, there’s less reason to question the Red Sox. Still, we can’t completely neglect that for the first time since 2002, Boston will open its season without David Ortiz. The Red Sox are also going to be relying on Pablo Sandoval, who’s been an unmitigated bust for the last two years, at third base.
Boston is rich with decorated talent. But an awful lot can go wrong with this team.