One of the allures of baseball is its predictable unpredictability: Each day brings a new game, or rain, and each game follows the same basic structure, but develops uniquely. The difference between a seeing-eye ground ball and a spectacular defensive play is inches. So while one could predict a matchup of the reigning World Series champion Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox, a Washington-Texas confrontation in the 2017 Fall Classic is equally plausible.
While waiting for the calendar to flip over to March and for baseball to begin again, some wild thoughts can cross the mind: are the Padres loaded with young talent or challenging for worst team in history? Does anyone in the National League stand a chance of dethroning the Cubs? Does Edwin Encarnacion make the Indians prohibitive favorites in the American League? Who is ready to break out and become a huge star? These questions and more right after we look at this picture of Pablo Sandoval looking svelte:
Pablo Sandoval shrinking down to Altuve-like size. Two weeks or so before we see how it plays on the field. pic.twitter.com/6xD86n8h7z
— Pete Abraham (@PeteAbe) January 30, 2017
The Padres Are Running Houston’s Playbook, Poorly
San Diego’s Opening Day payroll is projected to be CHUMP CHANGE. While top-rated prospects like Manuel Margot, Hunter Renfroe, Luis Urias and Austin Hedges all figure to play prominent roles this season, the rest of the roster is historically bad. The Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Arizona offenses will all fatten up on the Padres’ young pitching while their hurlers will rack up outs with ease. The plan in San Diego is not to win games – it is to bank another high draft pick and explore the international free agent market.
The Houston Astros played the game the same way, and their continued ascension on the fruits of their patient labor makes the Padres’ plan both sensible and precedented. That doesn’t mean it also doesn’t suck. The NL West leaders will again benefit from the Poor Padres, as will their interleague and NL opponents. And while Margot and Renfroe might grow into stars someday because of the experience gained on this bad team, it still should be treated with contempt. To quote a great philosopher: “You play to win the game!” Playing not to win sucks, even when it makes sense.
Andrew Miller of Cleveland Changed The Game
The phrase “change the game” is overused, but in Miller’s case it is true: Everyone saw the value in a dominant mid-game reliever on display as Playoff Tito deployed Miller as his signature weapon during the Indians run to extra innings of Game 7 of the World Series. Miller won’t be used in the same way during the season: Terry Francona, regular season manager, is a different creature than Playoff Tito, and wouldn’t risk the health of his best postseason weapon. But Miller will get used in situations that will maximize his skillset – and teams around baseball will be desperately copying the strategy and usage pattern of Francona’s bullpen management.
A smart, adept bullpen manager – like Francona – will put Miller into situations where he can rack up cheap wins: The addition of Edwin Encarnacion to the lineup addresses Cleveland’s biggest weakness in their narrow loss to the Cubs. With a fragile starting rotation, getting Miller into tie games will be a cinch for regular season Francona – and voters love wins.
Paul Goldschmidt of Arizona Could Win NL MVP
The Diamondbacks have been awful in recent years, which is why Goldschmidt isn’t a household name yet. But he’s a phenomenal baseball player toiling in relative obscurity as he racks up impressive stats – 24 home runs, 32 steals, and a .297/.411/.489 line in 2016 – that will catch the attention, if Arizona can be competitive. Newly-installed General Manager Mike Hazen has a couple things going for him: first, he can’t possibly be dumber than the previous regime, and two, A.J. Pollock is returning from injury. The rest of the roster might not be as terrible as they’ve played in recent seasons, and a rising tide lifts all boats.
Say Arizona contends into August, battling the (on paper) superior Dodgers and Giants for the NL West crown. The best player on Arizona’s team – Goldschmidt – will garner a lot of the credit. Prime year-age plus hitter’s park plus improving team around him plus eye-catching numbers is a recipe for an MVP campaign.
Bold Prediction: Vince Velasquez Could Win the NL Cy Young
The most entertaining pitcher you’ve never heard of, Velasquez throws a blazing fastball and gets wicked movement on his breaking pitches. The numbers – 4.12 ERA, 10.44 K/9, and 3.09 BB/9 – suggest a player still harnessing his ability. Philadelphia figures to be out of the pennant race by Memorial Day, so there should be no pressure on Velasquez – other than to be the dominant force he could become. He won’t rack up big win totals, but his peripherals could jump off the charts (or to Kershaw-ian levels) and make him an easy pick.
His performance in San Diego Padres last April when he struck out 16 batters and walked none on his way to a shutout, demonstrated just how dominant he can be:
Mike Trout Is Mickey Mantle Version 2.0
Provided he doesn’t step in a drainage hole shagging fly balls or develop a drinking problem, Trout will continue to be the baseball reincarnation of Mickey Mantle. This is known.
The King of Southern California will continue to reign, and he’s not even in his prime years yet. Players peak around age 26-27 and generally have their best years from 27-32. Trout will be 25 in 2017. We haven’t witnessed Peak Trout yet. I dunno about you, fellow baseball fan, but I’m a little giddy about that. His .441 OBP from last season might improve this season, as he’ll continue to see fewer pitchers willing to challenge him. For example, pre-steroid Barry Bonds posted a .456 OBP in his age 27 season – his high-water mark to that point. Of course, post-steroid Bonds went on to post four-consecutive seasons of +.500 OBPs, peaking at .609 in his age-39 year. Bonds, pre- or post-, was one heck of a baseball player.
And Trout might be better. Mantle’s knee injuries began at age 19, and he still went on to be Mickey Mantle. But Mantle’s age-25 season might have been his best: a .365/.512/.665 masterpiece that included 146 walks and 34 homers.
Trout’s first five full seasons have seen him finish first or second in the MVP voting each year; he’s stolen 49 bases, hit 41 homers, walked 116 times, hit 39 doubles (twice), while logging a .306/.405/.557 career slash line. He has yet to put all those spectacular numbers together into one season – but he will. What if Mickey Mantle had been healthy? Is one of those bar room conversations I grew up hearing all the time. Well, we’re (hopefully) gonna find out. Viva Mike Trout.