Springtime is officially upon us. While the trees are blooming and 5C students are no longer worrying about “cold weather,” spring really means one thing: baseball is back.
Coming off one of the most entertaining World Series of all time, the MLB had a quiet offseason. With a weak free-agent class that mostly consisted of older stars seeking their last major contract, teams were hesitant to hand out offers; stars like Mike Moustakas and J.D. Martinez didn’t reach deals until late in Spring Training.
However, Scott Boras’s complaining has now mostly silenced, and we are finally getting to the parts of baseball we love: the actual games. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some teams and players to watch.
As a Washington D.C. native, maybe this is a little bit of hometown bias, but I can’t imagine a team with more pressure on them this year than the Nationals. After winning the terrible NL East three of the last four years, but losing in the NLDS each time, the window for a title is likely closing for the Nats.
Bryce Harper’s expiring contract, mixed with years worth of rumors of his imminent departure, is hanging like a cloud over this team, and the fact that they’re on the hook financially for a number of aging players is just more evidence that time is running out in D.C.
The pain of these postseason losses has left scars on the Nationals franchise and fanbase. Tyler Clippard’s and Drew Storen’s bullpen collapses, the 2-1 18-inning loss to the Giants who went on to win the World Series, Clayton Kershaw coming in and closing out Game Five of the 2016 NLDS, Dusty Baker’s questionable pitching decisions and Max Scherzer’s fifth inning collapse last season are all painful memories that Nationals fans would like to forget, which would definitely happen with a World Series title. The question is, if they don’t win it all this season, will they ever?
Philadelphia Phillies/Toronto Blue Jays
Read any MLB season preview and you’ll find these two teams as the sexy “underdog to sneak into the playoffs” pick.
Philadelphia, coming off five consecutive losing seasons, is emerging from the tanking tunnel. Stocked with young talent like Scott Kingery, Rhys Hoskins, and Aaron Nola, the Phils went out and signed veterans Carlos Santana and Jake Arrieta to balance the inexperience on their roster.
With low expectations and lots of raw talent, the Phillies are in an incredibly weak NL East, so they could exceed their projected win total and sneak into the NL Wild Card. After all, looking at teams across the NL, it’s easy to see the establishment team at the top of each division: the Dodgers, the Cubs, and the Nationals. But it’s unclear who will come in second in each of these divisions, so the Phillies have a decent chance.
Toronto is very similar. The Blue Jays have the No. 2 prospect in the league, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (his dad was pretty good), and are still stacked with older offensive talent they gathered from the postseason pushes in 2014 and 2015. If infielders like Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, and Justin Smoak can stay healthy, and their AL East competitors start to sell around the trade deadline, the Blue Jays could also sneak into the second wild card spot as well.
Los Angeles Angels
While the Dodgers get most of the highlights and headlines in Los Angeles, Anaheim’s professional baseball team might be the more intriguing club this year.
Mike Trout, the hands-down best player in baseball, is now 26, and is entering the years that are considered to be a professional athlete’s peak. If Trout hits even the slightest uptick in his numbers these next few years, he’ll go from astounding to downright insane.
With just one postseason appearance, Trout’s all-time numbers have been appreciated by all the statheads, but truthfully have gone to waste.
While the Angels have continued to heavily invest in talent, with the sixth largest payroll in the entire MLB, they have struggled to get results. However, this year seems like it could be different.
This offseason, the Angels made the biggest splash of the winter by signing international sensation Shohei Ohtani. Ohtani gained prominence for his two-way ability in Japan, and many have dubbed him the “next Babe Ruth.”
While Ohtani has struggled in Spring Training, to the tune of a 27.00 ERA, the young superstar still has plenty of promise. If he can contribute, and new additions Zack Cozart and Ian Kinsler can bolster an already strong lineup, Mike Trout might finally get another opportunity to win a World Series.
It’s on everybody’s mind. Machado, a star infielder for the Baltimore Orioles, is entering the last year of his contract. Over the past year, many teams have tried to trade for Machado in exchange for young prospects, but so far the Orioles have been unwilling to part ways.
This looming saga of whether to trade Machado or not will only get more tense as the season goes on; if the Orioles continue to meddle around .500, the debate will be whether to push and grab talent for a postseason run, or just give up and trade him away and get young assets for the future.
If I’m the Orioles, I see a mediocre roster and a weak pitching rotation, and hop on the Sam Hinkie express to “tankville” and trade Machado.
Ronald Acuña Jr.
Just like Philadelphia and Toronto, if you read any writer’s preview of baseball this year, it will undoubtedly mention Acuña.
Considered the No. 1 prospect by Keith Law, ESPN’s minor league expert, and the favorite for NL Rookie of the Year, Acuña has garnered plenty of praise, despite never having played in a single MLB game. The 20-year-old outfielder has even received comparisons to Mike Trout, which really puts into perspective Acuna’s potential.
Despite a ridiculous spring, Acuña is starting the season off in Triple-A, but should get called up sometime before the All-Star break. So, if you want to sound smart when talking with your grandfather at your next family barbecue, bring up Acuña and you’ll earn major points.
It wouldn’t be a true Los Angeles article without mentioning the man of the hour. Kershaw has already solidified his legacy as one of the greatest left-handed pitchers of all-time, and even slightly shaken his postseason failures, but questions remain.
Over the past two seasons, Kershaw missed time with a number of injuries. Now, at age 30, I can’t imagine those injuries won’t pop back up again, especially with the workload Kershaw has given himself in season’s past. That’s not to say Kershaw won’t be outstanding; projections still place Kershaw with an ERA of 2.61, a WHIP of under 1, and 10 strikeouts per nine innings. However, it may be that we never see the Cy Young-version of Kershaw again if the injuries persist.
As the next chapter of the ace’s career begins, it will be interesting to watch whether Kershaw transcends age or quietly starts to head off into the sunset and decline. This, plus the Dodgers’ elusive quest for a championship, could shape Kershaw’s desires for the future.