As the hoopla and reaction from the Super Bowl dies down, the talk of baseball season begins to emerge. There are several major topics to look out for as spring training games are just a few weeks away.
Are Cubs primed to break the jinx?
Everything’s in place, right? The NL Cy Young Award winner, the Rookie of the Year, the Manager of the Year, along with a lineup of blossoming talent and skilled veterans. That century-plus hex may be seeing its last days. The team that beat the Cardinals in the playoffs and reached the NLCS would have been good enough – based on the improvements of its young players – to be a World Series contender had the roster stayed put. Now, with Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist entering the fold, expectations are through the roof.
Free agents still available
After all the dust settled from the winter whirlwind of free agent signings, there remains a group of notable players without an MLB home for 2016. Most prominent among them is 29-year-old outfielder Dexter Fowler (previously on the Cubs) – who has drawn interest from the White Sox and Rangers. Ian Desmond strikes out far too often and is a major question in the field. However, he has more power than most shortstops possess and can be counted on to play a majority of the season. Yovani Gallardo is the most desirable of all the pitching free agents left, and the Rockies might be the club to snatch him up.
Sizing up the rookies
Most of the freshman talent preparing to take the plunge into the big leagues have already had a toe in the MLB waters. Minnesota’s Byron Buxton, the AL favorite for Rookie of the Year, his just .209 in his 138 plate appearances for the Twins in 2015. But there are many cases in which future stars struggle to get on track. Joey Gallo of Texas should be Buxton’s closest competitor. In the NL, Steven Matz may be the most seasoned – having already gone through the pressure of a World Series start. But Corey Seager (batting .337) emerged as a key member of the Dodger lineup over the course of just 27 regular season games.
It’s impossible to predict if any – or all – of the top first-year standouts from ’15 are set to regress in year No. 2. Kris Bryant and Carlos Correa, the two most recent recipients of the Rookie of the Year Award, can afford to have growing pains – mainly because the teams they play for have so much else to offer. Still, the pressure to improve further and become key contributors should be their main challenge. The same can be said for Francisco Lindor of Cleveland and the Twins’ Miguel Sano.
Rebounds for Panda and Hanley?
The two most disappointing free agent acquisitions from the previous off-season both had signed with Boston – a good reason why the Red Sox are coming off a 78-84 campaign. Pablo Sandoval quickly discovered that it’s hard to hide from the criticism of this fervent baseball city, especially when you balloon to near 300 pounds. His offensive numbers, contrarily, were quite thin: a .245 average and just 10 home runs. Equally in the spotlight is Hanley Ramirez, as he deals with the transition to playing at first base.
The curious case of Yasiel Puig
Despite enormous talent, his antics provide more headaches to his own team than the teams he plays against. Thanks to a solid outfield already in place, the club can afford to part with Puig – regardless of the potential he may bring. Can new manager Dave Roberts have more of a positive effect on him than his predecessor, Don Mattingly? Or will President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman strike a deal either before or during the season? Talk of his trade out of Los Angeles has been swirling for months – and it’ll continue as long as he remains in Dodger blue.
St. Louis remains MLB’s model franchise. But that sterling reputation was tarnished when Cardinal executive Christopher Correa plead guilty in January to hacking into a database an e-mail system of the Houston Astros in order to steal closely guarded information about their players. This is unlikely to be a distraction. Not having a healthy Yadier Molina would be far more disruptive. The stabilizing unit of the Redbirds is still recovering from a second left thumb surgery. Molina’s health is vital to the Cards’ chances of contending in the NL Central – especially with Jason Heyward joining the rival Cubs.
How will the Dodgers rotation play out?
Opponents who were forced to face Los Angeles’ 1-2 pitching punch of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke now only have to deal with a single jab. But that one jab still has plenty of power. You can pencil in the Dodgers’ lefty legend for another season of high strikeouts and low ERA. What to expect from the rest of the starting staff is the real question mark. Scott Kazmir, age 32, and 27-year-old Japanese import Kenta Maeda provide a wealth of experience. Neither alone will replace Greinke. However, they could collectively fill the void.
New faces, new places
As Greinke departs L.A., he breathes life into Arizona – and adds to his monetary value at the same time. The Diamondbacks inked Zack for $206 million over six years with the hope that he’ll carry a rotation that was one of the worst in the N.L. in 2015. A similar amount of pressure is on David Price, who was brought in to erase the Red Sox pitching woes. Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist add tremendous depth to a talent-laden lineup in Chicago, while Dusty Baker inherits a Washington Nationals club with plenty of potential…not to mention the NL MVP.
The Mets’ super staff
For several seasons, the New York Mets had bragged about the wealth of pitching talent that would soon arrive to Queens. As we all saw last year, that claim was very real – and it’s just the beginning. The rotation of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz will get the chance to be together from April through October – each not having yet reached peak potential. It’s hard to forget Zach Wheeler, who underwent Tommy John surgery 11 months ago, is set to return in the summer. The re-signing of middle-of-the-order slugger Yoenis Cespedes to provide offensive support only reaffirms that the Mets are the clear favorites to win the NL East again.