In Major League Baseball, there is a growing divide between the haves and the have-nots. The Have-nots can contend for a few years at a time if they are able to develop and grow the right prospects. When it’s time for those homegrown stars to test the market, MLB teams have begun taking an NBA-like approach, stripping their roster down to the studs and accepting a few years of losing.
Los Angeles Angels
Any team that has Mike Trout on it has at least an outside shot at contending in a give year. The two-time MVP is just that good. Unfortunately, the Angels have not been able to surround him with the type of talent to contend year in and year out. The massive contracts handed out to Josh Hamilton, Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, and Albert Pujols have not worked out. The Angels are clear of Weaver and Wilson’s contracts, and are almost done paying Hamilton. Pujols is obviously in decline, but when he is able to get on the field, he is still a threat for 30 home runs and 100 RBI.
Because they have had so much money tied up in long-term deals, the Angels have not been able to give Trout the type of supporting cast he needs. Baseball is not a sport where one star can truly carry a team to a championship. There are better pieces in LA for this season, though, and the Angels should have a good offense in 2017. Kole Calhoun is an underrated asset in right field, and the addition of Cameron Maybin will stabilize left field, a position that was a black hole for the team last year.
Oh boy, did the Diamondbacks go for it last winter, signing Zack Greinke to a $206-million contract and trading away Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte for Shelby Miller. With a star-studded lineup led by the best star you’ve never actually seen play live, Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona just needed some pitching to put itself over the top, or so went the reasoning from Dave Stewart and Tony La Russa.
The pitching never came together last season. The Diamondbacks lost 93 games. Greinke battled injuries and ineffectiveness, and Miller was a complete mess. Arizona’s pitchers finished the year with a 5.09 ERA, the worst in the league. Their starters had a 5.19 ERA, which was better than only the Minnesota Twins. The only pitcher the Diamondbacks added over the winter was Taijuan Walker, who was inconsistent with the Seattle Mariners. Trading an All-Star shortstop in Jean Segura who had 20 home runs and 33 steals in 2016 for a pitcher who has an ERA close to 4.50 the last two years (in a pitcher’s park, no less) is less than ideal.
Doesn’t it kind of feel like the Marlins are a trendy pick each year? The Fish haven’t had a winning season since 2009, but they always feel like a team on the verge. Having a lineup full of young superstars does that.
This season will be different in Miami. The Marlins will be playing with a heavy heart after the tragic death of ace Jose Fernandez. He left a massive hole at the top of the rotation, and an even bigger hole in the clubhouse, where his infectious energy and passion gave the team a special feel every fifth day. Edinson Volquez was signed to help provide stability to a rotation in flux, but he is not an ace. Wei-Yin Chen was signed last year, and struggled in his first season in Miami. He should be able to rebound if healthy. From there, it gets dicey. The Marlins will need continued growth from Adam Conley.
New York Yankees
The Yankees are definitely not in an active championship window, but being who they are, the front office can never fully wave the white flag and tear the roster down completely. Last year’s team still managed to win 84 games even after dealing away Andrew Miller, Carlos Beltran, and Aroldis Chapman at the deadline.
Offensively, the Yankees remain strong. Gary Sanchez will be looking to prove he can build on his record-breaking rookie season. No, he won’t homer every 10 at-bats like last season, but Sanchez could hit 30-40 home runs in a division filled with small ballparks. Up the middle, DiDi Gregorious and Starlin Castro are solid veteran bats. Greg Bird and Chris Carter will form a strong platoon at first base, and Matt Holliday should provide consistent production at DH. Brett Gardner, Chase Headley, and Jacoby Ellsbury are still around because they offer very little value on the trade market. Of the three, Gardner may have the most upside at the plate.
Tampa Bay Rays
Every year, the numbers and projection models seem to love the Rays. Their pitchers pile up strikeouts, and their offense is respectable. That works well in a vacuum of statistics, but the on-field results over the past three years have not played out that way. Tampa Bay has not made the playoffs since 2013, and has three losing seasons in a row, including a 68-win performance in 2016.
Starting pitching is what the Rays are built on, but the rotation struggled last year. Chris Archer did not look like himself for long stretches of the season, and lost 19 games. Jake Odorizzi was solid, finishing with a 3.69 ERA. As a whole, the staff finished eighth in the AL with a 4.20 ERA. They have to be better for the Rays to have a shot at contending. If Blake Snell and Alex Cobb can hold up over 30 starts, Tampa Bay has a real shot.
Kansas City Royals
The end is near for the mini-dynasty put together in Kansas City. The Royals are staring down free agencies of their three best hitters, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, and Mike Moustakas. All-Star closer Wade Davis was already dealt away, and steady starter Edinson Volquez signed with the Marlins.
There are still enough pieces in place for the Royals to convince themselves they have a shot at contending in 2017. Alex Gordon must bounce back from a horrendous season in 2016. The return in the Davis trade, Jorge Soler, needs to have the breakout season that has been in the works for years. New addition Brandon Moss should do a passable job imitating Kendrys Morales and giving the middle of the contact-first lineup some pop.
The Rockies are the hottest sleeper pick for 2017, and for good reason. The starting pitching is finally showing signs of being able to handle the rigors of pitching at altitude in Coors Field. On a park-adjusted basis, the Rockies were exactly league-average as a staff last year. That’s big for a team that has never quite been able to develop the right type of arms for their unique situation.
Jon Gray is the one to watch in a young rotation. He went 10-10 last year, and struck out 9.9 per nine. Gray has outstanding stuff, and looks like a budding ace. Tyler Chatwood and Tyler Anderson both managed ERAs below 4.00 last year, which is astounding. The bullpen also got an exciting addition with former All-Star closer Greg Holland getting into the mix. He is coming off Tommy John, but has the type of strikeout stuff that plays well in a place like Coors.