Welcome to Load ‘Em Up with Joe Rivera! Your weekly ramblings on the latest ongoings within The Show.
Stepping Up to the Plate
A month that personifies hope, love and our dislike for local governments and their seemingly superhuman inability to plow our streets after legendary snowstorms. Alas, I digress.
February is also a month that spawns eternal optimism amongst baseball fans. With pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training in just over two (TWO!!!) weeks away, fanatics and diehards across the country are all glued to MLB Network, sending texts to their friends and family that read, “this could be our year.”
Unfortunately, for fans of 29 teams in The Show, this WON’T be your year. But before you start thinking World Series, ticker-tape parades and wasting a few days of PTO in October, your team is going to have to survive their division. These are the three divisions to watch in the 2016 MLB season.
First Base: The American League West
Billy Beane has made some questionable moves the last two seasons. After back-to-back AL West division titles in 2012 and 2013, the Oakland A’s looked like they were heading in the same direction in 2014. This was before a baffling trade that sent avid golfer – and occasional destroyer of baseballs – Yoenis Cespedes to the Boston Red Sox for starting pitcher Jon Lester. It was a move that sent the A’s, who were struggling offensively prior to the trade, into a tailspin before losing in the AL Wild Card play-in game.
Then in Nov. 14, Beane had baseball writers scratching ther heads and A’s fans breaking stuff when he traded eventual American League MVP, the Bringer of Rain and Rejector of Haircuts, Josh Donaldson to the Toronto Blue Jays. Now, the A’s are stuck in a rebuilding loop, with a farm system that has ranked at 23 in 2015 by Baseball America (2016 rankings should see them higher, but not solidified yet), and a division that has gotten better around them.
The rift between Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim manager Mike Scioscia and GM Jerry Dipoto became insurmountable in 2015, eventually leading to the resignation of Dipoto. The clashing of ideologies, oldschool Scioscia vs. the analytic approach of Dipoto, seemed doomed to fail from day one. Now in Seattle, Dipoto has made fire sale changes to the Mariners roster, with over a dozen moves made in a single offseason to rebuild their roster and bolster their farm system.
But this division really may come down to two teams – the Houston Astros and their REIGNING, DEFENDING AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, who shocked the world with their .Houston Astro-ness last season, and the Texas Rangers, who went from worst to first in 2015 under new manager Jeff Bannister.
The Astros are known for some of their youth: 25 year old Jose Altuve at second base, 26 year old George Springer in right and 2015 AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa (only 21 years old). But here’s the kicker: what many failed to realize about the Texas Rangers is that they were the youngest team in MLB as of Opening Day 2015, with the average age at just under 28 years old. Does this mean anything? Probably not. But what it does mean is that these two teams are going to be fun to watch for a while, and that battle for the AL West begins and ends in the heart of Texas.
Second Base: The National League West
Remember when watching the NL West was like that episode of Seinfeld, when George was being chased by the old folks on the motor scooters? Times have changed.
Whether you believe in weird baseball mumbo-jumbo, voodoo, superstitious stuff or not, there are two things for certain in the West: Brandon Crawford has awesome hair, and the San Francisco Giants rise to the occasion in even seasons.
The Giants, who aren’t typically known for spending boatloads of cash on free agents (Barry Zito, line one), they sure did back up the truck for a few guys this offseason. Starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija (five-years, $90 million) and Johnny Cueto (six-years, $130 million) both signed by the bay this offseason, bolstering a staff that features budding ace Madison Bumgarner. They also added centerfielder Denard Span, who is coming off an injury riddled 2015, who is only going to help the lineup filled with a talented and young core.
And then, there’s the Arizona Diamondbacks. It’s unclear whether or not the Diamondbacks are really going for it all this year (sarcasm) but the moves they made have surprised many across the baseball universe. Signing starting pitcher Zack Greinke away from their division rival Los Angeles Dodgers showed that the Diamondbacks are ready to get serious about chasing a Series and not wasting talent they have on their team.
Perennial MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt is entering his age 28 season after a 2015 campaign that saw him hit .321 with 33 bombs and 110 RBIs. In any other parallel dimension where Bryce Harper doesn’t exist, Goldschmidt would have easily won the National League MVP. Couple Goldy’s status with burgeoning center field star A.J. Pollock and a rebuilt rotation that features Greinke, the recently acquired Shelby Miller via the Atlanta Braves, Patrick Corbin and likely top 100 prospect Archie Bradley, the Diamondbacks are ready to rattle in the West.
The Dodgers and front office wiz kid Andrew Friedman continue to confuse the world. After dismissing manager Don Mattingly (who, amidst apparent chemistry issues, lead the Dodgers to three straight NL West titles) and replacing him with rookie manager Dave Roberts, Friedman let Greinke walk in favor of Scott Kazmir, Joe Blanton and Japanese pitcher Kenta Maeda. All things considered, the Dodgers made some fairly lateral moves and their roster hasn’t been improved greatly this offseason, especially as opposed to the two aforementioned teams.
The Rockies, after trading superstar shortstop Troy Tulowitzki to the Blue Jays in 2015, have stayed mostly quiet this offseason. They did sign outfielder Gerardo Parra, who had a fairly mediocre stint with the Baltimore Orioles in the second half of 2015, where he hit only .237 after batting .328 with the Brewers earlier that season. And despite all of the huge moves that then rookie GM A.J. Preller pulled off last offseason, the San Diego Padres seem more patient in their approach, looking to develop what they have in their farm system. Only problem is, they’re looking at a minor league system that was ranked in the bottom 10 of Major League Baseball last season.
Third Base: The National League East
Make no mistake: the time is now for the New York Mets.
Their rotation has a chance to be not only historical, but legendary. Matt Harvey in his…conquests both on and off the field personifies what New York is about. He has guts, he has grit, and his arrogance is backed by his talent. Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and even Steven Matz (though a smaller sample size) all have potential through the roof. Not to mention, Zack Wheeler will be rejoining the rotation at some point this season, to solidify a rotation that is going to attract Met fans to the ballpark every night.
The Mets re-signed outfielder Yoenis Cespedes (in a move that HAD to be made) and added professional hitter, second baseman Neil Walker via trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates. While their lineup is suspect, mostly hinging on the consistency of slugger Lucas Duda and the health of David Wright, their starting pitching has the ability to carry them through the entire season, and likely to another NL East Division title. Truthfully, the Mets alone are enough reason to watch the NL East closely this year.
An NL East title for the Mets isn’t without its roadblocks, however. The Washington Nationals still have a scary lineup, highlighted by 23 year old NL MVP Harper. However, the rotation took a huge hit when GM Mike Rizzo let Jordan Zimmermann walk and eventually sign with the Detroit Tigers last season. With the departure of shortstop Ian Desmond, expect to see top prospect, 22 year old Trea Turner take the shortstop position in our Nation’s Capital this year.
But the real team to keep an eye on is – bear with me, here – the Miami Marlins. It’s a lineup that’s loaded with young talent, obviously and clearly anchored by right fielder Giancarlo Stanton. Marcell Ozuna, Adeiny Hechavarria, Christian Yelich, Derek Dietrich, Dee Gordon and Stanton are all under 28 years old. The main problem with the Marlins roster is its lack of pitching depth. With a rotation anchored by a healthy Jose Fernandez (and being followed by free agent acquisition Wei-Yin Chen), the rotation is lacking in names and depth. But with four of the Marlins top 10 prospects being pitching, they could be set to make a move this season.
While the Atlanta Braves continue to retool in preparation to open a new stadium in 2017 and the Philadelphia Phillies following suit, as they have finally cut ties with GM Ruben Amaro (and sent stud closer Ken Giles to the Houston Astros), this could quite possibly be a three team race in the NL East.
Rounding Third, Heading Home
Truthfully, you can make a case for any division in baseball today. Parity, a word that the NFL prides itself over, is most apparent in Major League Baseball. Especially with the addition of the second Wild Card, the emphasis on winning a division has increased, and any team can catch fire and make a run at a title (cc: Kansas City Royals). With teams finding the perfect balance of rebuilding and staying competitive, the window for making a great baseball team has shortened significantly, giving us fans the best baseball we have seen in recent memory, and moving forward.