2016 World Series - Chicago Cubs v. Cleveland Indians: Game Seven

MLB on Sling: Cubs Mount Title Defense, Dodgers Have Other Ideas

The Chicago Cubs come into the 2017 season aiming to do something they haven’t done since 1909: defend their title. It was an incredible season for the North-siders, who dominated the National League, spending just one day out of first place despite losing starting leftfielder Kyle Schwarber in the third game of the season. They withstood progressively more resistance throughout the playoffs, against the Giants, Dodgers and Indians. Not much changed in the NL for 2017, with nobody making so big a splash as to change the landscape too much. But to paraphrase a wise man, GMs plan, God laughs.

NL East

The Washington Nationals declared their intention to go for it this year with the trade of pitching prospect Lucas Giolito to the White Sox in exchange for centerfielder Adam Eaton, who might be the best player in baseball yet to make an All-Star team. Eaton was brought in to replace Ben Revere and his anemic career OPS+ of 83. But those gains will be offset behind the plate by the loss of Wilson Ramos (who signed with Tampa after seeing his value plummet thanks to a season-ending ACL tear), leaving catching duties to Matt Wieters. Nats fans have plenty more to worry about, like the ability of Bryce Harper to find his way back to being the world beater he was before Cubs manager Joe Maddon intentionally walked the life out of him, and they also need for Ryan Zimmerman to regain form.

The biggest cause for hope in our Nation’s capital is the chance to watch a full season of Trea Turner at short, after seeing him put up .342/.370/.567 in 324 PA, with 8 triples and 13 home runs while playing solid D in the half-season. They have about as much talent in their rotation as any team out there, but Gio Gonzalez faltered last year, Stephen Strasburg got hurt again, Joe Ross missed 10 weeks of the second half, and Max Scherzer is mending a busted knuckle this spring, though he’s slated to start the third game of the season.

NL Central

Five months removed from winning one of the most exciting and dramatic World Series in history, the Cubs bring back largely the same cast of characters from last year, though they’ve bid adieu to centerfielder Dexter Fowler, starter Jason Hammel, and closer Aroldis Chapman. Fear not, however, as they’ve been replaced respectively with returning slugger-in-waiting Kyle Schwarber, Brett Anderson/Mike Montgomery, and Wade Davis. The Cubs were easily the best hitting, pitching and fielding team in the National League in 2016, but it seems unlikely that they’ll be as dominant in those latter two phases of the game.

Their defense last season was the best ever at converting batted balls into outs, and there’s no way they’ll remain that efficient, especially with Schwarber manning left. And there’s also no way the rotation will be as good (not just because the defense will regress), given that they were uncommonly healthy, becoming just one of 19 teams in MLB history to have five guys with 29 or more starts. Even manager Joe Maddon expects a “slight regression” from Kyle Hendricks, who’s coming off a breakout 2016. Still, Schwarber should be an upgrade offensively in left, and Davis is one of the few relievers who might be better than Chapman. The Cubbies won the NL Central by 16 games last season, there’s little chance of anyone getting within 5 games of them this season, and they are the team to beat in the NL.

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NL West

The Los Angeles Dodgers are the most disappointing team of this era, having spent more than a billion dollars over the previous four seasons, without winning so much as a pennant. This year they’ve upgraded at 2B, where they’ve replaced Chase Utley with Logan Forsythe, in left, where Andrew Toles takes over from Howie Kendrick, and in their rotation, where full(-ish) seasons from Rich Hill and Jose Urias supplant a patchwork of stopgap guys like Alex Wood, Ross Stripling and Brandon McCarthy. Will Clayton Kershaw and Hill stay healthy? Will reigning NL Rookie of the Year Corey Seager get even better? Will Yasiel Puig get back his stolen jewelry? Can Joc Pederson continue to dial back on the K’s? If the answer to three of these questions is “yes,” the NL West is the Dodgers’ for the taking, as the Giants haven’t done nearly enough this off season to close the gap.

Wild Card

This is once again a three-team race for two spots in one game, with the Cardinals, Mets and Giants all jockeying for position. Last year it was the Mets and Giants with 87 wins apiece besting the Cards at 86. This year will play out a bit differently.

The Giants’ big acquisition this past winter was reliever Mark Melancon. Yes, the Giants’ bullpen gave manager Bruce Bochy fits last year, but the back of the rotation remains a shambles, Jarret Parker takes over in leftfield with Angel Pagan leaving town, and Eduardo Nunez isn’t that much better than Matt Duffy at third. Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford form a great core, Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto are among the very best 1-2 punches atop the rotation, giving the Giants the inside track on the Wild Card, but little more.

Essentially every team’s chances boil down to starting pitching and health, but this is truer for the Mets than any other franchise. Noah Syndergaard is a top-five starter, but after that, things get shaky, with Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey and Steven Matz all missing long stretches of 2016. Jay Bruce’s bat in right will help bolster an unimpressive lineup, but his defense is a liability, one that is compounded by forcing Curtis Granderson back to center, where he hasn’t player regularly since 2012 – with Yoenis Cespedes in LF, the Metropolitans’ outfield D is suspect. Adding a pall of sorrow to the Mets’ season is another spring of injury woes for David Wright, who seemed destined for Cooperstown following the 2013, but has devolved into an albatross around the team’s neck. He’s made just 338 plate appearances in 75 games over the past two seasons, while getting paid a total of $40 million, and forcing the Mets to field a succession of lesser lights at the hot corner.

The Cardinals suffered a big blow in February when Alex Reyes has his 2017 aborted by Tommy John surgery. Reyes had been electric in 46 innings as a late-season swingman, fanning 10.2/9IP with an ERA of 1.57. But even with Reyes, the Cards’ rotation would be in rough shape, with Carlos Martinez the only one of the lot whose ERA was better than league average last season. Seung-hwan Oh returns to anchor a bullpen, looking to prove his incredible rookie year – 1.92 ERA, 103 K’s and 20 BB’s in 79 2/3 IP was no fluke. The Cardinals did fill the most glaring need in their lineup by signing Dexter Fowler to replace Matt Holiday, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty are both solid young outfielders who should keep getting better, but Kolten Wong needs to prove he can hit big league pitching, and Aledmys Diaz needs to see if he can come back from the injury that torpedoed his 2016 All-Star campaign.

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These team were separated by just a game last season, and difference between them hasn’t gotten much wider, but it’s hard to imagine Mets manager Terry Collins again finding enough duct tape to hold his team together for a playoff run, meaning the Cards should get a shot at losing to the SF Bumgarners in the Wild Card game.

Dark Horse

The Pittsburgh Pirates have a chance to be good. Sophomore Jameson Tallion looks to improve on an impressive debut that saw him post 3.38 ERA and a SO/BB ratio of 5.0 in 104 innings, Gerrit Cole hopes to bounce back from an injury-plagued 2016, and Andrew McCutchen tries to get back on track. Nothing went right for Cutch last year, as he saw his BABIP drop 34 points from his career mark, his strikeouts and infield flies were at career highs, and his walk rate hit a career low. And he was even worse on D, according to the advance stats, totally wiping out all of his offensive value and then some. The Pirates are also looking forward to a full season of Ivan Nova, who seemed to benefit immensely from a change of scenery after coming over in a trade last season. If Jung Ho Kang can stay out of the trainers room (and jail), and Josh Harrison can get his stroke back, the Pirates could sneak their way into October.

Playoff Predictions

Wild Card: Giants beat Cardinals
NLDS: Cubs beat Giants, Dodgers beat Nats
NLCS: Dodgers Beat Cubs
World Series: Indians beat Dodgers

Monday, April 2

New York Yankees (Tanaka 0-0, 0.00) vs Tampa Bay Rays (Archer 0-0, 0.00)
1pm ET on ESPN

San Francisco Giants (Bumgarner 0-0, 0.00) vs Arizona Diamondbacks (Greinke 0-0, 0.00)
4pm ET on ESPN2

Chicago Cubs (Lester 0-0, 0.00) vs St Louis Cardinals (Martinez 0-0, 0.00)
8:30pm ET on ESPN

Tuesday, April 3

Atlanta Braves (Teheran 0-0, 0.00) vs New York Mets (Syndergaard 0-0, 0.00)
1pm ET on ESPN

San Diego Padres (Chacin 0-0, 0.00) vs Los Angeles Dodgers (Kershaw 0-0, 0.00)
4pm ET on ESPN

Cleveland Indians (Kluber 0-0, 0.00) vs Texas Rangers (Darvish 0-0, 0.00)
7pm ET on ESPN

Los Angeles Angels (tbd) vs Oakland A’s (Gravemen 0-0, 0.00)
10pm ET on ESPN2

Sunday, April 9

Miami Marlins (Volquez 0-0, 0.00) vs New York Mets (tk)
8pm ET on ESPN

Watch baseball on ESPN by subscribing to Sling Orange, FOX Sports Regional Networks by subscribing to Sling Blue.

All stats courtesy ESPN and Baseball Reference.

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