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2017 MLB Preview: Stories, Races and Milestones

The 2017 MLB season is upon us. For the next six months, 30 clubs will play 162 games in 180 days, and along the way, answer some lingering questions. It has yet to be seen what a healthy Mets rotation could look like. What could Joe Girardi’s lineup card become in September with a crop of talented young guys knocking on the door to don pinstripes at 161st and River Avenues? Can teams withstand injuries to star players? Who could be this year’s dark horse(s)?

2016 left us on an incredible note with the Cubs winning their first World Series in 108 years. Teams like the Indians —  who were oh so close to ending their own — are looking to end their title droughts. The Indians last won a title in 1948, and now own the longest title drought in baseball. Five teams — Rangers, Astros, Brewers, Padres and Nationals — have yet to win a title since being founded.

More than half of the aforementioned teams have a credible shot at seeing a parade in November.

Teams like the Red Sox, Indians, Cubs, and Dodgers have the looks – at least on paper — to see itself in a dogpile near the mound at season’s end. No need to remind fans of these clubs what can happen in a six-month span. They’ve seen too much already.

From the first pitch Sunday in Tampa Bay until a team raises the World Series trophy, there will be walk-offs, highlight reels, explosive offense and terrific pitching on any given night. Baseball is here and these are just a few of the things to keep an eye out for the upcoming season:

Storylines

Mets’ rotation: It’s no secret the Mets have the most talented bunch of pitchers in all of the land. It’s also no secret that they are all injury plagued. Steven Matz will start the season on the DL, and Zach Wheeler made the rotation cut. Matt Harvey has been battling injuries for the last few seasons. Syndergaard will act the part of the team’s ace, but he too has battled arm injuries in the past, and nothing it out of the question. Maybe one day Mets’ fans won’t have to hold their breath with every pitch this electric staff throws. Maybe. If you want more Mets coverage, we have you covered.

Yankees youth movement: For the first time in what seems like forever, Yankees spring training mattered to the fans. Yes, the same fans that had grown to expect World Series or bust have something new to be excited about. Aaron Judge and Greg Bird break camp as starters in the Bronx, but there is still plenty of talent that will begin play in the minors awaiting their opportunity. There is a lot of money being poured into Jacoby Ellsbury, but struggles from him, Chase Headley and Brett Gardner could make the lineup card in September — especially with the 40-man rosters — a little more intriguing. If the Yankees are not in playoff contention come September first, it’s not out of the question to see Clint Frazier, Gleybar Torres, and Rob Refsnyder push the Baby Bombers movement that has begun with Judge, Bird and Gary Sanchez. If you want more Yankees preview criteria, we did a season preview just for you!

Slumps: We’ve seen exciting things from Sanchez, Corey Seager, Michael Fullmer, Trea Turner and Kenta Maeda in their rookie campaigns last year. It’s still to be seen if they can continue down that path their sophomore season or if their numbers will slip for their second year. The sophomore slump isn’t uncommon in sports with the opposition making necessary adjustments, and the young professionals learning to master their craft for anything thrown their way.

New kids on the block: Every year, baseball has a new wave of talent looking to make its splash. 2017 should be no different with the likes of Yoan Moncada, Dansby Swanson, Andrew Benintendi and Bradley Zimmer all potentially getting playing time in The Show this year. Pitchers Jose De Leon, Jharel Cotton and Tyler Glasnow are hoping to have the same instant impact Maeda had with the Dodgers last season.

Plaguing injuries: Injuries have and always will play a factor in a team’s playoff chase. Some teams have the depth to make up for the injuries. The Red Sox are still favored despite not knowing what could come out of David Price’s elbow injury this year. Others can’t afford to miss a star for longer than 15 days due to lack of depth in the system.

Puzzle pieces: Baseball is arguably the most exciting sport around the trade deadline. There always seems to be a number of top-notch players that have upcoming expiring contracts for teams out of playoff contention midseason looking to replenish the skills with a deep talent pool. There are also some teams with high talent knocking on the door and looking to move players to make room. Some names that could be on the trading block this year include Andrew McCuthchen, Todd Frazier, Matt Holliday, Jay Bruce, Carlos Gonzalez, Eric Hosmer and Sonny Gray.

At the end of the day, baseball teams are run like a business, and it isn’t uncommon to see players don new uniforms due to a playoff chase. Of course, not every team will take part of the chase, but it is guaranteed 10 teams will make the cut. Here’s a look at some of those contenders:

Flying high

Red Sox: Boston has talent both in the batter’s box and on the bump. The team added Chris Sale to a rotation that featured David Price and reigning Cy Young award winner, Rick Porcello. The lineup consisting of underrated Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts, and Mookie Betts will continue to put up big numbers despite the face of the franchise for the last decade, David Ortiz retiring. The main questions for the high expectation loom around the rotation. Is Price — who is slated to begin the season on the DL — going to be able to come back fully healthy? How will he fare in bigger games now that he is most likely going to be the No. 2 guy? And just what should we expect from Porcello following his award-winning season?

Indians: On paper, this team looks like the best team in the American League, and for good reason. The team is coming into the season as defending league champions — only to fall in one of the most dramatic filled World Series of all time —  and managed to bolster its lineup with the addition of slugger Edwin Encarnacion. Francisco Lindor could, er, should find himself in MVP discussions throughout the campaign with pitchers likely having to deal with the switch-hitter as Encarnacion hits cleanup behind him. The pitching will continue to be the strength of the team, and they still have dependable Andrew Miller to close matters. Health will obviously be the biggest factor for the team owning the longest championship drought in MLB of 68 years.

ANAHEIM, CA – AUGUST 03: Francisco Lindor #12 of the Cleveland Indians dives for a ball off the bat of Mike Trout #27 of the Los Angeles Angels during the sixth inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on August 3, 2015 in Anaheim, California. The play resulted in a single and an RBI for Trout. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Cubs: Speaking of ending droughts, in case you were stuck under a rock, the team won its first World Series in 108 years with a talented young core of players. A majority of that same core is back, and they’re again favored to win it all. History is against them … again. No team in baseball has repeated as champions since the Yankees dynasty (‘98, ‘99, ‘00), and in the National League, it’s only been done once — by the Cincinnati Reds in ‘75 and ‘76 — in the last 95 years. It’s safe to assume we’ll see the same numbers from prominent names like Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. The biggest question is whether Jason Heyward will rebound from a poor offensive 2016 season.

Dodgers: Justin Turner and Kenley Jansen re-signed with the club to keep its strong core together. The club has the best pitcher on the planet Clayton Kershaw taking the ball every five days. Corey Seager established himself as a star at the shortstop position, finishing third in the NL MVP race his rookie year. The biggest questions around the team is its consistency and health. Can guys like Yasiel Puig, Joc Pederson, and Yasmani Grandal stop themselves from having a number of bad hitting streaks? In 2016, the Dodgers had set the MLB record for having the most players on the DL with 28. Surely can’t have that again if they look to contend not only for the NL West but for their first title since 1988.

Of course, with the high expectations stamped on each of those four teams in spring training, it will interesting to see if they’ll fold under the pressure — especially as they supply a lot of young players — or live up to the hype. There will most certainly be a lot of competition to top them, especially in October where in recent history, we’ve seen anything can happen.

Contenders

Mets: SBNY did an X-factor for the Mets in 2017. The team’s biggest X-factor and the brightest bunch is the rotation. The pitching staff — despite not getting a good look at them all staying healthy at once — is the core of the team. Noah Syndergaard has established himself as the No. 1 ace with the talented staff, and IF healthy, could be in Cy Young talks. They’re two years removed from appearing in the World Series, and the lineup — led by Yoenis Cespedes — could be lethal at times. Curtis Granderson has looked better at spraying the ball, rather than just pulling.

Blue Jays: Marcus Stroman showed his upside early in the World Baseball Classic, and if he pitches like that for six months, expect much different numbers this year. The team will put up some lopsided results as long as Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin and Kendrys Morales are in the lineup. Can the pitching help and make sure the Jays aren’t winning high scoring games because of its explosive lineup all the time?

Astros: Many thought they would be contenders in 2016 after the success they found in 2015. Sports though can do that to a team — especially a young one — when the expectations are high. They never rebounded from a slow start and watched the in-state Rangers win the division. On paper, this team is arguably the most balanced in the AL West with Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran adding some veteran experience to an excellent group of young guys. Carlos Correa should rebound nicely at a demanding position and in the middle of the order after his sophomore slump.

Rangers: Won the division in 2016, and shouldn’t be underestimated this year. Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish have both proven they can pitch well in a ballpark that gives up its fair share of home runs in the summer heat.  To compliment the pitching, the lineup is deep enough to put together scoring rallies at any point of a game. They should be contenders in an exciting NL West all season.

Mariners: Pitching had the boys from the Pacific Northwest in the playoff picture a season ago. In the massive Safeco Field they play home games in, that trend should continue. They bulked up their lineup to help Robinson Cano — coming off a career year — and Nelson Cruz. Jean Segura will bring his 200 hit season to shortstop, and sure glove, speedy outfielder Jarrod Dyson will hit leadoff and shag fly balls in left field. The 16-year — and league’s longest-standing — playoff drought could end this year.

Nationals: Max Scherzer may be the best pitcher in baseball not named Kershaw. The rotation has the likes to keep up with the Mets, but have a deeper, more consistent hitting lineup. Bryce Harper (reminder —  he’s only 24 years old) looks like the player that won MVP two years ago in spring training. Back-to-back NL East titles are not out of the question.

Cardinals: There is no team better at finding success with non-prominent players than the Cardinals. The team came short of the playoffs a year ago, but Dexter Fowler gives them an edge of defense they lacked in 2016. As long as Yadier Molina is catching and managing the pitchers every step, the rotation and bullpen should be able to put up some decent numbers. Much like we saw from the NL Central a couple of years back with three teams winning 90 games, the Cardinals could give the Cubs a run for the division.

Giants: The team will get defense from Brandon Crawford, Buster Posey, and Brandon Belt. Madison Bumgarner is a game-changer with his left arm — especially when the games/moments seem bigger — and has a sure-fire No. 2 behind him with Johnny Cueto. This team may not have the same talent pool as the Dodgers, but it’s one of those teams that you can’t leave out of the playoff discussion.

There is, of course,  always a chance for under the radar teams to make a surprise appearance in the standings come August. The Diamondbacks, Pirates, Rockies, Orioles and Tigers quickly jump to mind, but it would take a good push and some luck to make things happen.

Milestones

Mr. 3000: Rangers’ third baseman Adrian Beltre is 58 hits shy of joining Ichiro as the only active players with 3,000 hits. According to MLB, the future Hall of Fame player is expected to join the elusive club in early June. He would become the 31st member. For how hard he swings the bat and with the high possibility of chasing the milestone in a hitter’s friendly home in Arlington, joining Wade Boggs, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez as the only members to enter the club on a home run is certainly not out of the question.

Nine for 600: Albert Pujols is quietly chasing 600 home runs. He currently sits at 591, and according to MLB, he’s likely to hit the milestone sometime around Independence Day. Don’t be surprised if he joins the names of Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Rodriguez, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Sammy Sosa and Jim Thome sooner than expected.

Once upon a time, it was debated whether or not Albert Pujols was the most feared hitter in baseball history. Ten consecutive 30 home run – 100 RBI seasons to go along with a .300 average will do that. He was a man that never let the pressure get to him, and did some magical things with the bat.

Switching homes from St. Louis to Los Angeles has quieted his coverage a lot. In the past two years, he’s clubbed 40 and 31 home runs, respectively — and drove in another 119 runs in 2016. When it’s all said and done, he’s likely to be a 2-time world champion, 3-time MVP to go with 650 home runs, 3,000 hits, and 2,000 RBIs. Oh, and a call from Cooperstown on his first ballot.

Hit parade: Four players — Matt Holliday (1,995 hits), Jose Reyes (1,972), Adrian Gonzalez (1,954) and Victor Martinez (1,936) — are all less than 100 hits away from getting 2,000 in their career. Free agent Carl Crawford also has 1,931 hits. Nick Markakis (1,889) isn’t far behind and should hit the milestone late this year.

Whiffed: Yankees’ pitcher C.C. Sabathia — an SBNY X-factor — has a good chance to jump into the top-20 all-time in strikeouts. He currently has 2,726 in his career, and when he reaches 2,855, he’ll be 17th all-time that category.

Kershaw — putting together arguably the best 5-year stretch for any starting pitcher in history — is 82 strikeouts away from becoming the second youngest pitcher to strikeout 2,000 hits. If achieved this year, only Randy Johnson would have struck out as many batters at a younger age.

Bartolo Colon is 135 strikeouts shy of joining Sabathia in the active 2,500-strikeout club. He would be the 33rd member. With under 900 walks — 888 to be exact — Colon would be just the ninth pitcher to record 2,500 strikeouts to go with fewer than 1,000 walks.

Not even a handful: Tigers’ closer Francisco Rodriguez needs 20 saves to record 450 in his career. Only three other pitchers — Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman and Lee Smith — have recorded as many. It comes as a surprise to nobody that K-Rod —owner of the single-season save record — is soon to join the elite closer’s list.

It’s easy to see this year won’t be short on the headlines, setting up another exciting season. The journey is a long one, and there are a lot of questions that remain to be answered, but in the mean time, sit back, relax and as Ham Porter from the Sandlot best says … Play ball!

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