With Spring Training and the World Baseball Classic well underway, opening day for the 2017 MLB season is inching closer and closer. That means its time to peek into the crystal ball and take a stab at predicting which teams will exceed expectations and become a factor in the postseason picture. To clarify, “exceed expectations” means teams that have the potential to outperform the general level of success expected of them among the baseball community. Therefore, teams that are likely to do well such as the Chicago Cubs will not be listed. Rather, the purpose of this article is to examine a handful of clubs that have the potential to greatly improve upon last season’s results. Here is a look at five candidates primed to raise eyebrows in 2017:
Top MLB Teams Primed to Exceed Expectations in 2017
Starting pitching is a concern, but the Astros young, well balanced lineup has the potential to give opposing pitching staffs nightmares. That will be especially true if George Springer, Alex Bregman and Yulieski Gurriel can take the next step in their development and insulate Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa in middle of the order. But even if those five aren’t enough, the Astros also added to the mix outfielders Nori Aoki, Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltran (likely to make the bulk of his starts at DH) along with catcher Brian McCann over the winter. That will push Evan Gattis, Jake Marisnick and Preston Tucker to the bench, who instantly become elite pinch hitting threats.
Add it all together and you have one potent lineup. The Astros can hit for average, and for power. They have an abundance of speed threats on the bases, and they have the perfect mix of youthful energy and veteran leadership. And they have the depth necessary to handle the rigors of a 162 game season. For all accounts, this Astros team has the potential to formulate one of the top offenses in baseball this season.
Now, the aforementioned starting pitching question mark is certainly a weakness, and whether Dallas Keuchel can return to his 2015 Cy Young form will play a big part in the rotation’s success. But nothing masks a fragile rotation better than a strong bullpen, and the Astros have exactly that with Ken Giles, Luke Gregerson and Will Harris anchoring the back end. A.J. Hinch won’t need his starters to pitch deep into games knowing he has options to turn to should they run into trouble the third time through the order. Plus, Houston’s electric offense will take even more pressure off their starters and give them plenty of run support to work with. The Astros young core has been building gradually for some time, but they now appear ready to explode into an MLB juggernaut in 2017.
New York Yankees
Becoming sellers at the 2016 MLB Non-Waiver Trade Deadline was the best decision Brian Cashman and the New York Yankees could have made. Less than a year ago, the Yanks found themselves with a mediocre, aging Major League ball club and a relatively unimpressive prospect pool in the minors. Last year’s deadline changed all that, and the results have already started to pay off. With Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin all expected to stick with the big club, the next wave of Bronx Bombers have already arrived. And that list doesn’t even include some of the top prospects in all of baseball Cashman fetched in the Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller trades last July such as Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield, all of whom could potentially make an impact as a call-up later in the year.
The building process is ongoing for the Yankees, who will experience their fair share of road bumps as they insert these prospects into the big league lineup. But the talent is there, and it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see them excel right out the gate. The unfortunate reality for the rest of Major League Baseball is soon going to set in; it won’t be long until the pinstripes are putting another Evil Empire on the field.
Most people assumed that the Pirates window to contend had slammed shut with back-to-back home field losses in the 2014 and 2015 NL Wild Card games, followed by missing the postseason altogether a season ago. But despite the criticism surrounding the club’s decline – the brunt of which falling on the shoulders of GM Neal Huntington – one area the Pirates have excelled at is ensuring their prospect cupboard remained well stocked and developing those prospects through their Minor League farm system. So although Andrew McCutchen is no longer the same player he was in his 2013 NL MVP campaign, the Buccos have set themselves up with more than enough young talent to get back on the upswing as soon as this season.
Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco are ready to take on the bulk of the offensive load, and top prospect Josh Bell also has breakout potential should he be deemed ready to take on the everyday job at first base. Meanwhile on the bump, former second overall pick Jameson Taillon, 23-year-old Tyler Glasnow and 24-year-old Chad Kuhl will add a youthful new look to the rotation behind ace Gerrit Cole. It’s safe to say the Chicago Cubs are the odds-on favorite to once again take the NL Central, but don’t sleep on the Pirates. They have the tools to stay in the hunt for the division crown, or at the very least be a factor in the NL Wild Card race.
The likes of Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Justin Verlander aren’t getting any younger, but the Tigers don’t need the prime versions of those three to claim a Wild Card spot in 2017. So long as Cabrera and Verlander can stay on the field and produce at a stable rate, the Tigers supporting cast have the ability to pick up the slack. Any batting order consisting of J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, Ian Kinsler and Nick Castellanos to supplement Miggy and V-Mart is downright scary. But like the Pirates, the area with the greatest potential for improvement is in the rotation, with three young hurlers looking to establish themselves as capable big league starters in Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd.
No, the Tigers don’t appear as dangerous as the 2011, 2012 and 2013 teams that made three consecutive ALCS appearances. But former President Dave Dombrowski and his successor Al Avila have done an excellent job of retooling over the past couple of seasons, and they are now ready to take a run at the postseason once again.
Expectations were sky high in the desert at the outset of 2016 after acquiring the services of Zack Greinke via free agency and Shelby Miller in a trade. But the sizable off-season investment didn’t pan out for the D-backs, who stumbled out the gate and would never recover en route to a 69-93 season. Miller was particularly disastrous, posting a 6.15 ERA and 1.67 WHIP in 20 starts before eventually being optioned to Triple-A Reno to find his game. Patrick Corbin’s numbers were equally ugly, allowing the most earned runs in all of baseball before being ousted from the rotation on August 12th and moved to the bullpen.
Needless to say, the D-backs prospects entering 2017 hinge almost entirely on the collective revival of their starting rotation. But with new skipper Torey Lovullo at the helm, there is reason for optimism. Miller and Corbin will start the year back in the rotation looking to rebound, having proven their merit at the MLB level in the past. Meanwhile, Lovullo and company also have high hopes for 24-year-old Taijuan Walker who still has plenty of potential yet to be fulfilled after being acquired from Seattle in the off-season.
The Diamondbacks offense has never been a question, with the criminally underrated five-tool stud Paul Goldschmidt leading the charge complimented by a healthy A.J. Pollock. Plus, the emergence of sluggers Jake Lamb and Yasmany Tomas last season bodes well for another strong year offensively at the hitter’s paradise that is Chase Field. Although expectations were understandably lowered back down to earth after Arizona’s catastrophic 2016, this D-backs team isn’t nearly as bad as their record indicated. They have the talent in place on both sides of the ball to challenge for a Wild Card spot, and perhaps 2017 will be the year they put it all together.