5 MLB teams that could surprise in 2017
Every year in baseball, there are a few teams that perform better than many observers would have expected them to. That doesn’t necessarily mean they go from worst to first or jump into the postseason. Some cellar-dwellers take a huge leap forward to respectability and put themselves in contention for playoff spots in years to come, while others see it all come together and surge into the postseason.
Here are five teams with varying levels of expectations who may end up impressing in 2017.
5) Atlanta Braves
Sometimes a decent indicator of how a team is progressing is to look at how they finished the previous season. On the surface, the Braves were an unremarkable 68-93 team that finished last in the NL East. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll see that their record from Aug. 1 until the end of the season was a much-improved 31-25.
Savvy moves from their front office have given them a good base of young talent to work with, with former No. 1 pick Dansby Swanson leading the charge. Swanson joins a core of talented players either entering or already in their prime, with Ender Inciarte, Freddie Freeman, and Julio Teheran forming a strong core.
The approach Atlanta has taken for 2017 is augmenting that talent with veteran players while they wait for other young guys to realize their potential. They’ve brought in two forty-something pitchers in R.A. Dickey and the iconic Bartolo Colon, and while neither will give them ace-level production, they’ll get innings from both. Brandon Phillips isn’t the second baseman he once was, but he’s still a solid veteran hitter who will provide an upgrade. Add in Matt Kemp, who hit .280 with 12 home runs in 56 games and looked revitalized after his trade from San Diego, and Atlanta does have some talent.
A playoff appearance would likely be asking too much, but don’t be surprised if the Braves flirt with .500.
4) Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays hadn’t lost more than 85 games in a season since 2007 — until 2016, that is, when they collapsed to 94 defeats. The biggest problem for the Rays remains the fact that they are stuck in the loaded AL East, because their squad isn’t really that bad.
A lot went wrong for the 2016 Rays. Their ace, Chris Archer, lost 19 games, for one. His 3.63 ERA after the All-Star break signified a return to form, however, and Jake Odorizzi also had something of a breakout. Alex Cobb being healthy after Tommy John surgery and getting a full offseason to get back in the swing of things should help him, giving Tampa Bay three very qualified starters. Blake Snell, a highly-rated prospect, could well prove to be a fourth.
So who will hit for the Rays?
Trading Logan Forsythe did more than just make Evan Longoria sad — it left a bit of a hole in the middle of the infield on a team that finished dead last in the AL in batting average. Longoria remains a really good player, Brad Miller hit 30 home runs, and Kevin Kiermaier showed many more signs of life in the second half, which could bode well for 2017. They’re fairly strong defensively as well.
Tampa Bay won’t hit a lot and will wind up in a lot of low-scoring games, but they’re not a 90-loss team, and in a more forgiving division, they could actually contend.
3) Arizona Diamondbacks
The Diamondbacks are something of a post-hype team. After adding Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller, many expected them to contend in 2016. Star outfielder A.J. Pollock got hurt, Greinke and Miller were enormous disappointments, and the Diamondbacks finished a distant fourth with 93 losses. They have since cleaned house, and now that some of those players have settled in and are no longer battling the specter of high expectations, there may be some improvement in 2017.
There is talent on this team.
Paul Goldschmidt is an excellent first baseman, and Cuban outfielder Yasmany Tomas slowly started to come into his own late in the year. Offense was never the problem; they scored the fifth-most runs in the National League in 2016. It’s the pitching that required improvement, and they may end up getting it.
Greinke is too good to struggle like he did again, and Miller will no longer be subjected to the heavy pressure that his former GM felt hindered him after Arizona gave up so much to get him. Add in former top prospect Taijuan Walker, who is still just 24, along with another young pitcher who impressed in Robbie Ray, and there’s a good case to be made that the Diamondbacks will pitch better in 2017 than they did in 2016. If they do, they’ll improve a lot and could at least be a headache for the heavily-favored Giants and Dodgers in the NL West.
2) Pittsburgh Pirates
After three straight postseason appearances, the Pirates fell back in 2016, losing 83 games and missing the postseason. A tumultuous offseason that saw the face of their franchise constantly mentioned in trade rumors and shifted to a new position without his consent. There’s a bit of a weird feeling around the team for that reason, but much of the talent that brought them all that success is still there.
A Pirates rebound really depends on the pitching.
The Pirates were sixth in the NL in runs scored despite a down year from McCutchen. The big problem was Gerrit Cole only made 21 starts, and nobody else really stepped up to help him when he was sidelined.
If Cole and Jameson Taillon can stay healthy and Ivan Nova can continue to pitch as well as he did after he was acquired last season, a return to the playoffs is within the realm of possibility for Pittsburgh.
1) Houston Astros
Would it really be a surprise to see the Astros get better in 2017? Well, no, but this is a team that could legitimately win 90 games and be a huge factor in the American League. We’re barely over a year removed from them nearly knocking the eventual World Series Champion Kansas City Royals out of the playoffs in the ALDS, after all.
The 2016 Astros were undone by a dreadful April which saw them start 7-17. After that, they were 77-61, and the only four AL teams who had a better record than they did all made the playoffs.
Houston made big offseason moves to bring in the likes of Carlos Beltran, Josh Reddick, and Brian McCann, while their rotation should improve if Dallas Keuchel does the same. Like the Diamondbacks, there’s a bit of a post-hype factor here; the success they had in 2015 may have come a touch too soon than some of them were prepared for, and the weight of expectation was tough for some of the younger players to deal with in 2016. Now they’ve coped with it. They’re exceptionally talented, with Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa anchoring a lineup full of young studs mixed with veteran experience. Their bullpen should also improve now that highly-touted acquisition Ken Giles has settled in a bit.
The Astros aren’t just a playoff team. They could, if things go right, be a legitimate World Series contender. Don’t be surprised if they fly high in 2017.