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Friday, July 10, 2020

5 MLB teams that could disappoint in 2017

Mike Matheny

Pitchers and catchers are reporting to spring training, and most teams have at least some optimism for the 2017 season. Some teams have higher hopes than others, with playoff appearances and World Series contention on their minds.

Only ten teams can play into October, though, and here are a few franchises that have postseason ambitions but may find themselves falling short when the time comes.

5) New York Yankees

It’s easy to be excited about the Yankees in 2017. They sold at the trade deadline and still went 84-78, with young players such as Gary Sanchez stunning the league with their power and impact. It was enough to keep the team in the playoff race, at least nominally, into September.

To be clear, the return of Aroldis Chapman does help the Yankees on the field, as does the fact that Mark Teixeira and some other dead weight has been trimmed away. What isn’t clear is how a lot of the younger players will respond to being given larger roles.

Sanchez, for instance, still hit nine home runs in September, but his batting average dropped to .225. Was the league adjusting to his hitting? Greg Bird and Aaron Judge will also likely have larger roles, and Bird definitely showed flashes in his stint with the team in 2016. Judge has little MLB experience, though, and rookies like this can struggle as often as they succeed.

Matt Holliday isn’t an ideal replacement for Carlos Beltran, which is illustrative of an issue for the Yankees. Their offensive players are either young and have yet to make an impact or older and playing with their best days behind them. The Yankees were 13th in the American League in OPS in 2016; a significant improvement will be required in 2017 for the team to contend.

They will also need the pitching staff to hold up. They have an unquestioned ace in Masahiro Tanaka, but his right arm is always a concern. He’s dealt with forearm and elbow issues, even a partial UCL tear, though none of them have ever proven terribly serious. It’s still worrisome. CC Sabathia turns 37 in October and is coming off of knee surgery. Michael Pineda has the stuff, but the results — a 4.82 ERA in 2016 — have not quite followed in New York. Put it this way: there’s a reason the Yankees continued to search for rotation upgrades during the winter.

Will the Yankees hit enough and stay healthy enough? It’s a risk. And in a strong American League East, their roster might not have enough to get them to October.

4) Colorado Rockies

It’s a bit odd that a team that won 75 games in 2016 would be on a list of potential disappointments, but there has been a lot of excitement about a potential renaissance in Colorado. Every season, it seems like there’s that one team that “wins the offseason” and ultimately disappoints once the games start. In 2017, that may be Colorado.

The enthusiasm is generally based on a few key acquisitions, led by Ian Desmond, who will be paired with a legitimately great third baseman in Nolan Arenado, and strong complimentary pieces like D.J. LeMahieu and Charlie Blackmon. Desmond is a good player, to be sure, and Coors Field may help him keep up the strong number he put up in 2016, maintaining a .285 average and 22 home runs.

In Colorado, however, offense is never the problem. It’s always pitching, and the optimism there may be misguided.

Jon Gray is the centerpiece of much of it, a former No. 3 pick who struck out 185 batters in 168 innings. Tyler Anderson was another rookie who impressed with a 3.54 ERA in 19 starts; Tyler Chatwood’s 3.87 ERA was something of a surprise; and top prospect Jeff Hoffman, acquired in 2015’s Troy Tulowitzki trade, may break through into the rotation this coming season.

Let’s suppose that Gray improves, and Anderson and Chatwood can repeat their fine seasons. That may add a few extra wins to Colorado’s total, but they’re still building from a 75-win platform. The bullpen is a huge shortcoming, and adding Greg Holland and Mike Dunn won’t change that. Dunn is essentially a replacement for the departed Boone Logan, and there’s no guarantee that Holland, who has been out for a year and a half after Tommy John surgery, will return to the heights he reached before while with Kansas City. The Colorado bullpen had a 5.13 ERA in 2016. That needs to be significantly better if this team is going to improve enough to contend for the playoffs.

Colorado is likely going to be better in 2017, but not that much better. They’re still at least a year away.

3) Seattle Mariners

The Mariners are another team that seems to generate excitement year after year before ultimately falling short of the playoffs. In 2014, it 87-75 wasn’t good enough; high hopes in 2015 gave way to a 76-86 record, and then they reversed that to go 86-76 in 2016, which still wasn’t good enough for a playoff berth.

In response, general manager Jerry Dipoto had one of the busiest offseasons in baseball. A whole pile of trades brought in the likes of Yovani Gallardo and Drew Smyly to help the rotation, Jean Segura and Jarrod Dyson to bolster the lineup, and a couple lower-level free agents to shore up the bullpen.

How much did it all improve Seattle? Some, but not a ton.

The middle of Seattle’s lineup was strong in 2016, and adding Segura will help. What they need is more production from fringe players like Mike Zunino, Leonys Martin, and Danny Valencia. They also need the pitching to improve. Felix Hernandez wasn’t quite his ace-level self, particularly down the stretch, in 2016. That must improve. James Paxton must show that his 3.79 ERA was no fluke. Smyly and Gallardo must show that they can be reliable pitchers at the back end of the rotation. Importantly, the Seattle bullpen must show that they can get the ball to flamethrowing youngster Edwin Diaz to close it out.

The biggest problem might be the competition. The Houston Astros and Texas Rangers figure to be strong again, and as far as wild-card spots, there are a bevy of teams in other divisions that may have a say. Seattle may, as they were in 2016, simply be crowded out by superior competition.

2) Baltimore Orioles

People say this every year, because the Orioles always seem to scratch together enough talent to contend despite it not making a lot of sense how. In 2016, they won 89 games thanks to an offense heavy on home run power, pitching that was just barely good enough, and Zach Britton.

In 2017, some of that power will be gone. While it remains possible that Matt Wieters could return to the Orioles, it hasn’t happened, and other suitors are circling. That’s 17 fewer homers, and Pedro Alvarez’s 22 have also left the scene. That leaves a team very reliant on Mark Trumbo to be close to as good as he was when he hit 47 bombs in 2016, because they don’t hit for a high average. The Orioles will sink or swim on account of their power bats.

That’s even more important because, even in 2016, the Orioles didn’t really have the pitching. Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman were both good enough, but the rest of the rotation was ineffective, and there were issues if they couldn’t get the ball to reliable relievers Brad Brach and Britton. Recall how the Orioles bullpen held up when Buck Showalter inexplicably refused to use his closer in last year’s wild card game. It won’t take a whole lot for Baltimore to fall off a bit in 2017 – and that will likely leave them out of the playoffs.

1) St. Louis Cardinals

Is the magic gone? The Cardinals were left out of the playoffs last season for the first time since 2010. They haven’t missed out for two consecutive seasons since 2007 and 2008, but it’s a very real possibility that happens in 2017.

In the past, much like the Orioles, the Cardinals have been able to find players seemingly out of nowhere to launch them into contention. Now, though, they share a division with a loaded Chicago Cubs team, have to cope with the losers of the inevitable San Francisco-Los Angeles and Washington-New York battles for their respective divisions in the wild card race, and are simply getting older.

Adam Wainwright had his worst big-league season in 2016, and at the age of 35, you have to wonder if it’s just a blip or a sign of a decline. In fact, outside of Carlos Martinez, the entire rotation failed to pull their weight, and the team did little to address that during the winter. In fact, that Cardinals did precious little when afforded the opportunity; Dexter Fowler is a nice add who will help the lineup, but the only other move of significance was the decision to give a merely decent left-handed reliever $30 million.

The Cardinals won’t be bad, but realistically, it’s hard to see where much of the improvement would come from. 86 wins was not enough for them in 2016. Don’t be surprised to see that drop into the 82-86 range in 2017 after a flat-footed offseason. Aledmys Diaz, Matt Carpenter, and Stephen Piscotty are three players who had strong first halves but couldn’t replicate it in the second, and Kolten Wong and Randal Grichuk weren’t all that strong at any point. Those five players are the key to St. Louis’s offense. If they can put up strong seasons, the Cardinals may scrape by. If not, they may miss out on October for a second consecutive year.

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