It seems as though Giancarlo Stanton has been on the comeback trail for the better part of two seasons. After suffering a scary beaning at the end of the 2014 season, Stanton has battled hand and groin injuries. He has been limited to just 193 games over the past two years.
When he has been on the field, Stanton has been inconsistent. He has slashed .250/.334/.536 with 54 home runs and 191 RBI. He has also struck out 235 times. Stanton struck out over 30 times in each of the first three months last season, but appeared to find some more comfort at the plate in the second half before injuries cut his season short.
In his seven-year career, Stanton has played in 150 games or more just once. The beaning was out of his control, but he may still be dealing with the aftereffects of it. It has taken him a long time to appear comfortable in the batters box, even with a face shield on his helmet. Now in the third year of his $325-million contract, Stanton needs to have a healthy season. He still boasts the best raw power in baseball, and his laser-beam homers are a sight to behold.
The Houston Astros are a trendy pick to win the AL West this year after an aggressive offseason. While the Astros appear to be much improved offensively, their starting rotation was not addressed. Houston finished 15th in the league last year with a 4.37 starter’s ERA.
The rotation failed to live up to expectations last year mainly because 2015 AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel was largely ineffective. He went 9-12 with a 4.55 ERA a year removed from winning 20 games and posting a 2.48 ERA. Keuchel went 32-17 with a 2.69 ERA in 2014 and 2015 while throwing 432 innings. That heavy workload may have taken a toll in 2016, and Keuchel battled shoulder pain all year.
Keuchel’s velocity was noticeably diminished last season due to the shoulder pain. He did not have any major structural damage, but is being brought along slowly in Spring Training. Keuchel does not have overwhelming velocity, and gets by on the heavy movement of his sinker. Last season, his pitches were elevated due to an inability to properly finish them. With a return to health, look for Keuchel to regain the form he showed in 2014 and 2015. The Astros need their ace leading the rotation if they are to live up to lofty expectations in 2017.
Entering his age-30 season, there is no reason to believe the skills that made Andrew McCutchen a top-five player in the league and an MVP at the age of 26 have abandoned him. From 2012 to 2015, McCutchen finished in the top-five of the MVP vote each year, and put up a .313/.404/.523 line with stellar defense. Last season, he slumped all the way down to .256/.336/.430.
McCutchen never fully let on last year that he was injured, but it’s reasonable to believe something was bothering him. After an extended break at the beginning of August, the All-Star outfielder showed signs of life, and got close to the .300/.400/.500 player he is down the stretch. In his final 56 games of the year, McCutchen drove in 36 runs and drew 34 walks.
Having reached the age of 30, it’s reasonable to expect a modest decline from McCutchen. There is plenty of wear and tear on his body thanks to his hard-charging style of play in the field and on the bases. That being said, he will have a much better year in 2017. The Pittsburgh Pirates may have bungled their attempted trade of their superstar and his move from center field to a corner, but he is a professional and will bounce back to prove the doubters wrong this year.
Your own personal views on advanced pitching metrics will determine just how bad you think Chris Archer was in 2016. The right-hander led all of baseball with 19 losses and saw his ERA rise from the low-3.00s to 4.02. On the other side of the coin, his strikeout rate stayed very high at 10.4 per nine, while his FIP was better than his record and ERA would indicate.
Archer’s dominant stuff obviously did not abandon him last year. He still throws a power fastball with outstanding life, wipe-out slider, and fading changeup. This arsenal is devastating against hitters from both sides of the plate, but he had a difficult time commanding it last year, especially in the first half. Before the break last year, Archer had walked 48 in only 110 innings while suffering 12 of his 19 losses and pitching to a 4.66 ERA.
As with any pitcher who relies heavily on a slider or changeup, Archer can be prone to giving up the home run. He gave up 30 last year, including 20 on the road in less than 100 innings. Even with the best stuff, a pitcher who does not locate will get hit hard, and Archer found that out at times last year.
Coming off his MVP season of 2015, one in which he slashed an incredible .330/.460/.649 with 42 home runs, Bryce Harper appeared set to continue tearing up the league. Through his first 27 games, Harper had hit 10 home runs and driven in 26 with a .649 slugging percentage. Then, something weird happened. The Washington Nationals went to Chicago to play the Cubs, and Joe Maddon decided not to pitch to Harper.
What happened after that four-game series where Harper was walked 13 times in 19 plate appearances is a sport’s psychologist’s wet dream. From that point on, Harper just stopped hitting. Over his final 116 games, he batted just .238/.358/.395 with only 14 home runs and 59 RBI. Nothing appeared to be physically wrong with Harper, but the experience of being completely taken out of the game offensively seemed to rattle him. His contact for well over half of the season was just weaker.
Perhaps Harper’s epic season in 2015 raised the bar and expectations in an unreasonable way. Remember, most scouts and talent evaluators pegged him as a .260-.270 hitter with plenty of power. No one saw him exploding to put up a 1.109 OPS in 2015 after gradually plugging along around .800 for the first three years of his