The smell of hot dogs and freshly cut grass is in the air. The 2017 MLB season is here. Now that it’s here, what storylines should we be following?
Of course, every team has its own storyline, but some are certainly bigger than others.
We know that the Chicago Cubs’ quest to repeat is one of the top storylines. But what’s worth following for the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox? What perennial playoff disappointments are looking to break through? Can the Cleveland Indians take that one final step? Will anyone remotely challenge the Dodgers and Giants in the National League West? Who should we be watching closely in the early season?
Here, we take a look at that and a whole lot more in our top-10 storylines to follow for the 2017 MLB season.
1. Those young Yankees
What a difference a year makes.
In 2016, the Yankees’ lineup was often older than the ones other teams were throwing out on old timers day. It featured players like Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, and of course, Alex Rodriguez. But things are different now. McCann and Beltran are on the Houston Astros while Teixeira and A-Rod have retired.
In their stead are youngsters like Aaron Judge, Greg Bird and Gary Sanchez. Gleyber Torres — MLB’s third-ranked prospect — is coming soon.
— New York Yankees (@Yankees) March 30, 2017
Now, are the Yankees a threat in 2017?
They’ll be good, but it’s hard to see them cracking into the American League Playoffs unless a few teams disappoint. The starting pitching is just not dependable outside of Masahiro Tanaka.
But for the first time in a great while, New York can say that it has a young, emerging roster.
It’s going to be fascinating to see how these youngsters develop through 2017. The Bombers may not have a huge impact on the 2017 season, but how well this team develops will have a lot to say about how things go in 2018 and beyond.
2. The Indians’ quest to take the final step
Few teams have come closer to winning a World Series without actually doing so than the Cleveland Indians did in 2016. For baseball fans it Cleveland, another tough loss stings. The Indians’ championship drought is not quite on the same level as the one that the Cubs recently snapped. Still, 1948 was a long time ago. Is it their time to break through and end the futility?
Recent karma is on Cleveland’s side. Remember, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost the NBA Finals in 2015, only to come back and win in 2016. Within baseball, a division rival of the Indians — the Kansas City Royals — lost a heartbreaking World Series in 2014, only to win in 2015.
The even better news for Cleveland’s baseball team is that it has more than just karma on its side. The Indians are loaded. Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar both missed most (in Carrasco’s case) all of the 2016 postseason. Those two are now healthy and along with Corey Kluber, give Cleveland’s starting rotation a formidable top three. They’ll give the Indians a lot of late leads, which Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen and Andrew Miller are not likely to blow.
Offensively, Cleveland will be buoyed by the return of Michael Brantley and Yan Gomes. Making matters even better, the Tribe also replaced a good slugger in Mike Napoli with a great one in Edwin Encarnacion.
But like the Dodgers and Nationals, having the pieces to win a championship and actually winning it are two different things. The Indians’ quest will be something to follow as 2017 progresses.
3. Angels trying to build something around Mike Trout
In Trout, the Los Angeles Angels have more than just the game’s best player. They have someone who’s doing things at an essentially unprecedented level.
If Mike Trout adds just 1 WAR this year, he'll already be among the 30 most-productive center fielders of all time. https://t.co/kvQM2QTKRP
— FanGraphs Baseball (@fangraphs) January 10, 2017
So, what’s the Halos’ problem? Basically, everything else.
Sure, they have some other solid pieces on offense like Kole Calhoun, Albert Pujols and Andrelton Simmons. But the pitching is a mess. Ricky Nolasco is the Angels’ Opening Day starter. No, that’s not a typo. Yes, we wish it was. At this point of his career, Nolasco is at best a No. 4 or No. 5 starter.
Making matters worse, Los Angeles has one of the game’s worst regarded farm systems.
Something has to change. The Angels’ players (especially the young ones) need to step up and show that they may have been overlooked. The Halos need to have a reason to think that a winning team can be built around Trout. Otherwise, he’s being wasted and really, should be traded at season’s end.
While Trout has only made one playoff appearance, Los Angeles has only suffered through one losing season in his career. So, it was relatively easy for the front office to get tricked and think things are headed in the right direction.
But 2016’s 74-88 season was disastrous. If another season goes in the can, the Angels may not have much of a choice but to trade Trout for (hopefully) a king’s ransom.
4. Opening part of the Royals’ season
Generally speaking, placing too much importance on the early part of the season is ill advised. The best teams generally start to show themselves when the weather gets hot, arms get tired and the injuries start.
But how the Kansas City starts 2017 is quite important.
Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain are all free agents following the season. The Royals may bring a few of those guys back. But realistically, some of those players are in their final year with the team.
When teams lose their stalwart players, getting something back is important. When it’s a small-market team like Kansas City, a solid return is vital.
If, however, the Royals start strong and appear to be legitimate playoff contenders, the sale may be put on hold. The sting of losing so many key players in 2018 will be somewhat negated by a playoff appearance in 2017, especially if it’s accompanied by another deep run.
But if Kansas City is hanging around .500 (or worse), look for a firesale. If that happens, this season becomes significantly less predictable. These are impact players that can all be the difference between a mediocre and good, or even good and great.
5. Royals and Marlins playing for more than just baseball
As exciting as the upcoming baseball season is, parts of the 2017 season will have a decidedly melancholy feel to it.
Of course, this is due to the late season death of Marlins ace Jose Fernandez, and the offseason death of Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura.
Kansas City infielder Raul Mondesi Jr. knows it will be hard, but has stated that he wants to honor his late friend.
“Everybody knows how he was with me,” Mondesi said, via Rustin Dodd of The Kansas City Star. “We were like brothers. So it’s pretty tough. It’s not easy. But I know he’s going to be proud of me if I keep doing my stuff.”
Meanwhile, Miami honored Fernandez in the final week of the 2016 season. So, we’ve already seen plenty of fantastic on-field tributes (including Dee Gordon’s chill inducing lead-off home run in the Marlins first game back). Another will certainly come on July 11, when the Marlins host the All-Star Game.
For both of these teams, 2017 will be defined by more than wins and losses. Honoring these fallen young men will be just as important.
While it will be sad, it will be nice to see the way Miami and Kansas City (the communities and their teams) do that.
6. Diamondbacks, Padres and Rockies try to break the monopoly
Technically speaking, the National League West is a five-team division. But if you’ve only been following it since 2012, we wouldn’t blame you for thinking otherwise.
To say that the Dodgers and Giants have owned the NL West is like saying President Trump enjoys the occasional tweet pic.twitter.com/yHqS1ppnGw
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) March 31, 2017
For some perspective, consider the following points.
One, the NL West is the only division in baseball to send only two teams to the playoffs in the last five years. Other than the National League East and American League Central, every other division has sent four.
Two, in that five-year span, only five teams have failed to post a winning record: the Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, San Diego Padres, Miami Marlins, and Philadelphia Phillies. Three of those teams occupy the NL’s western division.
That kind of futility gives the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers a tremendous advantage. Getting to play so many games against teams that can’t ever crack 82 wins gives the division’s second-place team a tremendous leg up in the Wild Card hunt.
Technically speaking, San Francisco edging Los Angeles would be a shakeup. The Dodgers have won the division in each of the last four seasons. But really, these are two of the best teams in baseball. Them finishing 1-2 in either order would be far from a shakeup. The shakeup will come when one of those other three teams steps up to at least challenge these two.
Can it happen in 2017?
7. Dodgers quest for October success
Since 2012, the Giants and Dodgers have owned the National League West. But beginning in 2013, the division has belonged to Los Angeles. But unlike San Francisco, the Dodgers haven’t done much celebrating in the postseason.
That’s been left to their opponents.
It's. Done . pic.twitter.com/r75FALBo9W
— John Cusack (@johncusack) October 23, 2016
Los Angeles has done a lot to cut its payroll over the last few years. But the Dodgers still rank No. 1 in that regard by a large margin.
The front office is not paying that kind of money just to be the other team on someone else’s highlight reel. It’s time for Clayton Kershaw to step up and be the best pitcher in baseball in the playoffs. His reputation as a postseason choker isn’t entirely deserved. Still, he hasn’t been nearly as good in October as he’s been in April-September.
There’s a lot of pressure on the Dodgers and will continue to be until they break through to win a World Series. Los Angeles is one of the best teams in the league. It certainly can happen in 2017.
But will it?
8. Nationals going all in
We go from the team that lost the 2016 NLCS to the team it beat to get there.
In 2012, the Washington Nationals looked like a budding dynasty. Led by Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper, Washington had baseball’s best record at 98-64. Sure, that season ended in disappointment, but a decade’s worth of deep playoff wins were in this team’s future, right?
It hasn’t worked out that way.
Washington has made it to the playoffs twice since 2012. But both times, the season ended in the division series. The Nats enter 2017 with a sense of urgency. Harper will be a free agent following the 2018 season. Daniel Murphy will, as well.
As if that wasn’t enough, Washington also parted ways with two star prospects (Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez) to land Adam Eaton in the offseason. Make no mistake, Eaton is a good, young player. But trading two prospects like to get him was a “win now” move.
The good for the Nationals is that they certainly have talent. The bad news is that this team’s once limitless potential has been all too limited. And now, this run has a potential end in sight.
The 2017 season is a pivotal one for this franchise.
9. The Red Sox will be good or a sideshow
The Boston Red Sox have been one of the more fascinating teams of the decade. They’ve experienced some incredible highs (2013 World Series) and some otherworldly failures (missing the playoffs in 2011, last place in 2012, 2014 and 2015). The 2017 season is set up to be one or the other.
Boston’s starting rotation features two Cy Young Award winners in Rick Porcello and David Price. Chris Sale has never won a Cy Young, but has finished in the top-six in voting in each of the last five seasons and is probably the best of the three.
Offensively, the loss of David Oritz hurts. But even without Big Papi, the cupboard isn’t exactly bare in Boston. Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts give the Red Sox one of the game’s most-exciting outfields. Dustin Pedroia and Xander Bogaerts are still rock solid up the middle. Hanley Ramirez is coming off of a good year. Even Pablo Sandoval looked trimmer as he had a solid run in the Grapefruit League.
Boston has potential to be a juggernaut. If things go well, they Sox will be an impressive team to watch. But if things don’t go well, they’ll still be must-see TV.
How will things be handled if Sandoval doesn’t perform well? What if his gut is noticeably bigger after a few months?
Sale has flown largely under the radar throughout his career. It’s not that Chicago is a small market, but the White Sox are its least publicized team. But even with that, we all learned that he’s got something of a temper in 2016, just ask Chicago’s 1970’s throwback jerseys if you don’t believe us. Any issues adjusting to Boston are going to magnified.
Price seems like a good bounceback candidate after a down 2016. But if it doesn’t happen, watch out.
Nothing with the Red Sox is going to get swept under the rug. The juggernaut potential exists with this team. But the potential for things to go haywire is nearly as strong.
10. Can the Cubs repeat?
In case you hadn’t heard, the Chicago Cubs did something in 2016 that they hadn’t done in a long, long time.
— MLB (@MLB) November 3, 2016
In 2017, the Cubs will try to do something that nobody else has done in a while — repeat.
The 1998-2000 New York Yankees were the last team to pull it off, while the 1975-1976 Cincinnati Reds were the last National League team to repeat.
Chicago is loaded with talent. The champs enter the regular season with, by far, the deepest, most-talented roster in baseball. This team enters 2017 in better position to repeat than any defending champ since those Yankees teams.
And what a story it would be if it happened.
Think about the World Series droughts that ended this decade. The Giants (56 years) and Royals (30 years) don’t hold a candle to what the Cubs went through. Heck, even the Boston Red Sox (86 years) and Chicago White Sox (88 years) were well short of what was experienced at Wrigley Field.
Can this franchise’s turnaround keep going? Can it go from the ultimate futility, to doing something that nobody has done since president Bill Clinton (or, in the case of National League teams, Gerald Ford) occupied The White House?