Baseball season is drawing ever-nearer, with opening day scheduled for April 3. February 18 has pitchers, catchers, and injured players reporting to their teams and shortly thereafter, the remainder of teams’ players will arrive. Spring Training games officially kick off on March 1, making the wait for the official regular season slightly more palatable. Ideally, warm weather is on the horizon, and the remainder of the offseason will fly by. Heading into 2016, here are the 10 most compelling stories to watch.
10. Can The Giants’ “Even Year” Success Continue?
Since 2010 (Buster Posey’s rookie season), the San Francisco Giants have alternated World Series victories. During their odd years, they have failed to make the playoffs. Now that it’s 2016, will the Giants continue their pattern as World Series champions? In 2010, Posey took the league by storm, winning National League (NL) rookie of the year and carrying the team to the championship. Unfortunately during 2011, Posey fractured his ankle during a controversial slide at home plate and missed the entire season. Since then, it’s been clear that Buster Posey must carry this team if they wish to succeed. This season, the Giants have the necessary pieces as an underrated signing of Denard Span fills their gaping hole at leadoff and Johnny Cueto gives them a very competent 1-2 punch with Madison Bumgarner at the top of the pitching rotation. This is an underrated team with star power that can certainly take advantage of a weak division. Their alternating year pattern may well hold true to form.
9. Diamondbacks Spending
It’s often difficult to purchase championships in Major League Baseball, as the most effective recipe for winning has proven to be a mix of developing homegrown talent with shrewd, unheralded signings. No teams are more indicative of this than the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals, two teams without massive budgets that have profited heavily from excellent drafting over recent years. When the Arizona Diamondbacks decided to spend significant amount of money on Zack Greinke and Tyler Clippard while acquiring the hefty contracts of Shelby Miller and Jean Segura this offseason, they surely did so with the intention of competing. However, one need not look far past 2015 to when the division-rival Padres (Kemp, Upton, Shields) and the Chicago White Sox (Samardzija, Cabrera, Robertson) made big splashes and had been anointed World Series favorites, only to both miss the playoffs. If the Diamondbacks are to avoid the same fate, their homegrown crop in Archie Bradley and Jake Lamb must be the ones to step up.
8. Can The Tigers Bounce Back?
After four straight playoff berths that included three trips to the ALCS (2011-2014), the Detroit Tigers were on the verge of a baseball dynasty. Despite the big-spending White Sox and the presence of the defending AL champion Kansas City Royals in their division, the Tigers were expected to return to the playoffs last season. Unfortunately, 2015 was a season of frustration for the Tigers, as a major injury to their star player Miguel Cabrera proved catastrophic and Victor Martinez played hurt all season. This led to them throwing in the towel at midseason and shipping off stars David Price, Joakim Soria and Yoenis Cespedes. Despite acquiring multiple prospects in these deals, the Tigers are still viewed as team ready to compete now. Somewhat forgotten from their 2015 “reboot” is that the Tigers actually led the entire MLB with a .270 team batting average and were second in OBP to the Blue Jays. Those are hallmarks of a playoff team and the Tigers are as safe a bet as any to rebound back into the postseason.
7. Cubs Are A Favorite
Chicago Cub fans have waited a long time to see their team return to glory, and what a magnificent season they are now primed for. Possessing a historic offense set to feature sluggers Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Jason Heyward, Jorge Soler, Ben Zobrist, Kyle Schwarber and Miguel Montero, there isn’t a hole in the group. Not only are all eight positions filled with upside, all except Zobrist have youth on their side and are all seemingly in their prime (Montero may be just exiting). The Cubs’ offense is set to compete for major league records and will be terrorizing opposing pitchers all season. The rotation, set to be led by reigning Cy Young Jake Arrieta and the great Jon Lester, is in good hands as well. It’s no surprise that Las Vegas has set the Cubs to be the World Series favorites entering Spring Training, something Cub fans are not accustomed to seeing. Will the Cubs meet expectations or buckle under them?
6. Royals Dynasty
With two consecutive World Series appearances (one grueling seven-game loss and last year’s championship), the Kansas City Royals are quietly building the case for a dynasty. Seemingly coming out of nowhere in 2014, the Royals caught nobody by surprise in 2015 and were able to repeat their success, even taking it one step further during their final series in order to win it all. With spectacular team defense, a great approach in getting on-base, fantastic pitching, and an elite bullpen, this Royals team isn’t flashy but has all the intangibles needed to succeed. If they can get back to the World Series again, fans will no longer care that the Royals aren’t viewed as a “sexy” team, and will have no choice but to respect them. After all, the New England Patriots were once viewed as unflattering winners in the NFL during the early 2000s prior to becoming the most popular team and biggest favorites in the league. Winning has a way of swaying naysayers onto your side.
5. Labor Talks
The ugliest storyline of 2016, ideally this conversation will be settled quickly, rather than lingering throughout the season. The current collective bargaining agreement is set to expire in December 2016 following the conclusion of this season. Owners have gotten the jump on labor talks and are currently engaging in meetings to rectify the situation. Revenue sharing for smaller market teams and the luxury tax are the most contentious topics to be discussed; however, criminal case proceedings for athletes investigated under the domestic violence policy is another situation that needs to be addressed. Currently, star players such as Jose Reyes and Aroldis Chapman are in limbo, not knowing their playing situation for 2016. Owners would like to feel comfortable allowing prosecutors to carry on these cases without the interference of Major League Baseball. As for the luxury tax (the alternative to a salary cap), owners are divided, but as MLB grows and continues to become more profitable, one can’t imagine owners accepting work stoppage as an alternative.
4. Resurgence In D.C.
The Washington Nationals were the biggest division favorites heading into the 2015 season, but despite the emergence of Bryce Harper (taking home his first MVP trophy) they missed the playoffs in spectacular fashion, completely crumbling during the final two months of the season. All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon, who they traded for at the deadline, struggled while blowing several saves prior to engaging in a heated exchange with Harper, who he grabbed by the throat while in the dugout. The soap opera concluded with Papelbon suspended for the final seven games of the season and the entire coaching staff dismissed. With 2016, clean slates and new expectations arrive. The Nationals still expect to make the playoffs, as anything less would be a disappointment. With Harper, Max Scherzer, and Stephen Strasburg in tow, they have the top-end talent to compete with anybody. Hiring experienced manager Dusty Baker should calm the clubhouse, even if he isn’t the game’s greatest strategist. This is a team that can’t be discounted.
3. “AL BEast” Is Back
The American League East, at one time referred to as the AL Beast, has undergone drastic changes over the last several seasons. Once known as the toughest division in baseball for the strength of all five teams residing in it, the quality of the AL East fell of the wagon for awhile, but the title of “Hardest Division To Win is theirs once again — there isn’t a truly weak team among them. The Yankees may be old, but have the league’s best bullpen and star power to match any team. The Red Sox are set for a major bounceback from their aging stars, while receiving an infusion of top-end free agent talent. The Blue Jays are the most exciting offense in baseball and return mostly intact. The Orioles have proven consistently strong all-around and possess one of the league’s best managers, Buck Showalter, who always gets the most of his teams. Finally the Rays are a young team with speed, elite defense, and strong pitching, all prerequisites for championship teams. This race will go down to the wire.
2. Sophomore Slumps
MLB was blessed with a tremendous crop of rookies who had immediate success in 2015. Kris Bryant and Carlos Correa were the headliners, as they led their respective teams to the playoffs while posting eye-popping statistics, but the class was as deep as it was talented. Matt Duffy, Kyle Schwarber, Eduardo Rodriguez, Jung Ho Kang, Noah Syndergaard, Randal Grichuk, Francisco Lindor, Miguel Sano, Billy Burns, and Roberto Osuna were all rookies that arrived with immediate impacts. That may be the greatest rookie class of the century. In the past, a rookie such as Justin Bour coming up and hitting 23 home runs in 446 plate appearances would merit discussion — yet, due to this class — is a little-discussed afterthought. For these rookies, avoiding a dreaded sophomore slump is imperative. They have all proven to have the talent necessary to succeed; now the test is to see if they can make the necessary adjustments once the opposition has more information on them.
1. David Ortiz Farewell Tour
As Derek Jeter showed in 2014, hometown heroes announcing their retirement before a season begins makes for a captivating story. Unlike Jeter, who posted an abysmal .617 OPS in his final season, Ortiz seems ready to go out on top, having just completed another fantastic season. His 37 HR’s in 2015 were the most he had hit since 2006 and he once again dominated on the field. Assuming he remains healthy, Ortiz now has a legitimate chance of passing Mickey Mantle for 17th on the all-time HR list. Ortiz is currently 27th and needs 33 home runs to tie the Yankee legend. This is made even more impressive knowing Ortiz didn’t bust out until the Boston Red Sox acquired him from the Twins in 2003. He spent six middling seasons with the Twins having to fight for playing time, let alone gaudy statistics. Ortiz’s impending HR race will be discussed all season as the league says farewell to one of the greatesthitters to ever play the game, an ambassador for the game, and a true representative of the Boston Red Sox.