We’ve considered why Mike Trout isn’t more famous. We’ve asked Terry Francona about his teeth. And we’ve even wondered whether or not Clayton Kershaw might be able to reach another level. Now, with the 2017 MLB season — somehow — kicking off in just two days, we polled The Ringer’s baseball enthusiasts about what they were looking forward to ahead of Opening Day.
Rooting for the Cubs, Post-Curse
Robert Mays: Before I wade into what I feel are potentially dangerous waters, I want to make this clear: I wouldn’t change anything about the 2016 Cubs season. Whenever Cubs fans imagined it in the past — the moment the North Side would win its first World Series in more than a century and exorcise millions of demons in the process — the how never seemed important. That it happened in the most enthralling way possible only made the best moment of our sports (and for some, our actual) lives even sweeter.
It was magical, in ways no other Cubs season ever can be again, which is oddly what has me so excited for this Cubs season. Most of the elements that made Chicago the best team in baseball are back. Again, they’ll start the year as the favorites, and again, no one would be shocked to see them pile up 100 wins and barrel their way toward another World Series. Only this round, there would be no talk of black cats, Bartman, or billy goats. Instead, it’ll be filled by chatter about Kris Bryant, the reigning MVP; Javy Báez consistently being the best baseball show in town; and Kyle Schwarber clubbing balls onto the roof at Murphy’s.
For the first time, the Cubs can be like any other great team, defined by the staggering talent of right now rather than the wailing ghosts of back then. Among all the perfect pieces that made up last season, none was more comforting than feeling how much a group of young men from all over the country and the continent shouldered the burden that is 100-plus years of pain. Last year, the Cubs won a World Series for every broken soul that had ever trudged through Wrigley Field. This year, I can’t wait to watch them try to win it for themselves.
The Real Bryce Harper Finally Standing Up
Ben Lindbergh: In the past several seasons, we’ve seen Bryce Harper be one of two things: (a) a pretty good, if injury-prone hitter who, like Kole Calhoun, is good for 3–4 wins a year, or (b) the best player in baseball. To this point, the former has greatly outnumbered the latter, which leaves us wondering who Harper really is.
Harper’s mystifying 6.0-WAR drop-off last year was tied for the 25th-largest any hitter has ever suffered in consecutive qualifying seasons. That he was still Calhounesque after plummeting by an amount more than most players produce at their peaks is a testament to how great he was in 2015, even if parsing of his Statcast data suggests he also got a little lucky on batted balls in the air. But the source of his 2016 struggles remains an unknown. Was he psyched out by the Barry Bonds treatment that greeted his hot start? Or was he hiding an injury, as the Nationals and agent Scott Boras denied but Harper declined to talk about publicly?
Here’s one thing we can say with some certainty: Another superstar season before Harper turns 25 would cement his status and settle the (a) or (b) debate. This spring, he’s hitting .304/.412/.786 with more walks than strikeouts and a Grapefruit and Cactus League–leading eight dingers. So far, Harper’s bringing his B-game.
Rougned Odor’s, Uh, Rudeness
Michael Baumann: It’s easy to forget, because he’s seemingly already lived a full MLB life and he’s already going bald, but Rougned Odor is only 23. He’s already had more than 1,500 big league plate appearances, played in two postseasons, posted a 33-home-run season, and punched the shit out of José Bautista. And more and better is yet to come.
Odor plays with Adrián Beltré, Elvis Andrus, and Mike Napoli on the happiest infield in baseball — seriously, those guys are like something out of a light-beer commercial — and he is that unit’s id. His 2016 slash line, .271/.296/.502, describes perfectly the high-impact/low-patience, all-killer/no-filler way he plays the game. If he’s not socking dingers, Odor is starting fights. He is the Leeroy Jenkins of baseball, and I’m thrilled to spend another summer watching him.
Corey Seager’s Dietary Habits
Danny Chau: Dodgers wunderkind Corey Seager is, by all accounts, a physical marvel. At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Seager is built like an Olympic 100-meter freestylist despite playing at a position historically reserved for sprightly, little people. He is a people pleaser who happens to be preternaturally talented at batting and fielding. He is also a child.
Seager, like many 22-year-olds, is powered by a fear of failure, according to a recent ESPN The Magazine cover story. Seager, like many 15-year-olds, is also powered by Mountain Dew, an industrial-grade solvent capable of disintegrating mice into a “jelly-like substance” over time. The writer notes what sounds like a typical meal for Seager: a “chicken-bacon-ranch” (?) pizza with clam chowder (??) and two Mountain Dews (!!!). It’s unclear if we’re talking 24 fluid ounces or four liters here, but dude has eaten enough chocolate cake in Oklahoma City to be able to name a definitive favorite — I’m not about to underestimate him. It’s one thing to go on a Phelpsian diet; it’s another to tempt fate by overloading on the worst shit for your body and still expecting to get better over time. But I’m hoping that’s exactly what happens with Seager. Professional sports are better when its stars seem immune to the physical concerns of a normal person.
A-Rod Getting to Be His True Self
Katie Baker: Alex Rodriguez has a special talent, and it does not involve hitting home runs. Sure, the former Yankee is still making starting-lineup money this season — the team owes him $21 million — but at spring training he was there not to bat, but to chat; not to be an All-Star shortstop, but to serve as a “special spring instructor.” Which is fine, because as great as A-Rod once was at playing baseball, he might somehow be better at talking it.
Just look at this man. Record scratch, freeze frame:
This is the face of a man who has always longed to be a real boy. This is the face of a soul who has found his true place in the world: in a studio conference room, getting clowned on by Pete Rose. This is a baseball nerd through and through who just wants to geek out on the specifics of facing lefty pitchers, sound proud about coming up with bad puns, and engage his fans. A-Rod has signed a deal with Fox for this season that will include time on the FS1 studio show, as well as periodic stints in the broadcast booth as an in-game analyst. And we are all luckier for it.
When these guys chat about hitting, they sound like three neighbors in Texas staring into a barbecue pit, or three moms on my Facebook feed discussing essential oils. And I say that 100 percent as a compliment. If you want to be informed about a niche topic, you need to learn from the true, weird believers. Listening to A-Rod on TV makes you feel like you’re right there in the dugout, learning from a baseball savant who is part genius and part awkward lurker.
Aaron Judge’s Forearms and Thighs
Ben Glicksman: There are plenty of reasons to get excited about the Yankees’ youth movement, from the development of catcher Gary Sánchez (whose ability to throw out baserunners is every bit as impressive as his ability to hit bombs) to the emergence of first baseman Greg Bird (who’s clubbed seven home runs this spring and owns a hairless cat named Mr. Delicious) to the plight of utility player Rob Refsnyder (who might never see another at-bat, because the Yankees freaking hate him). Most exciting of all, though, is the pure power of outfielder Aaron Judge, pictured below on the far right.
Judge’s forearms are the size of a normal human’s thighs, and his thighs are the size of the foul poles in most MLB ballparks. Marlins masher Giancarlo Stanton is officially listed at 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds; Judge is 6-foot-7 and 275. If you’ve ever wondered what it would look like if Rob Gronkowski played right field instead of tight end, well, Judge is the answer.
Judge hit just .179 in limited action last season, but when he connected he did things like this. Watching him alternate between whiffing and smashing dingers all summer will be a constant source of joy — unless New York gives a ton of his at-bats to fourth outfielder Aaron Hicks, in which case baseball might really be as boring as people say.
Manny Machado’s “MVP” Campaign
Mallory Rubin: I told myself I wouldn’t do this. I swore that I’d branch out, try new things, find a different player to gush about on the eve of the season. But then I read this, and saw this, and sure enough, when my colleague Ryan O’Hanlon solicited topics for this shootaround, my muscle memory kicked in and I responded instantly, going to my old happy place:
“I apologize for being the most predictable human being alive, but I am who I am, and thus I claim: Manny Machado emerging as the AL MVP.”
I’m a diehard Orioles fan and a Manny Machado obsessive, and for years, my favorite March pastime has been shouting into the void about how this would be the season in which Machado surpassed Trout and Harper as the best player in baseball. This March is different. Not because I’ve come to terms with Trout’s unrivaled dominance, or because I’m subbing Kris Bryant into the conversation in place of Harper, but because I believe what I’m saying in a way that I never have before. This is it. I’m sure of it. This is the year in which Manny goes from being the guy who’s mentioned in the conversations about The Guy to actually being The Guy. He’s going to sign a record-breaking contract in 2018, but before he does, he’s going to hit 40 homers and save 40 runs in 2017. He’s going to win the AL MVP. And he’s going to bring a smile to my face every day from April through (hopefully) October. If that’s what being predictable gets me, I’m good with it.
The Return of the One True Met
Sam Schube: Noah Syndergaard is incredible. He’s easily the most talented Met I’ve ever rooted for. But — and I say this with all apologies — he is not the One True Met. (It’s not David Wright, either. Sorry.) No, the One True Met is Manhattan’s darkest knight. The late-night demon of the East Village, the Ribless Wonder of Citi Field. I’m talking about Mystic, Connecticut’s finest: Matthew Edward Harvey.
Harvey’s short Mets career has been clipped by injuries (Tommy John took his 2014 season, and thoracic outlet syndrome stole an otherwise uninspiring 2016). But when my dude is on, no one better evokes the Mets I love most: the assholes, the clowns, and the world-beaters who populated the 1986 Series-winning team, and who have been few and far between in Flushing ever since. Noah Syndergaard eats the Bowl of Doom; Matt Harvey eats all of the penne. Syndergaard does yoga; Harvey sneaks cigarettes in the locker room. Here’s an advance look at me during Matt Harvey’s first start this year:
The Dark Knight is back. He’s throwing absolute gas again. He’s the hero New York needs — and the one it deserves.
Trea Turner’s Transformation Into a Star
Jack McCluskey: Baseball, it has been said (again and again), is slow. So its instances of speed — pure, unbridled acceleration on the base paths, catlike reflexes leading to snag hot grounders, and demolished pitches screaming toward the bleachers — stand out. And so does Nationals shortstop Trea Turner, who is one of the fastest players in the game.
Entering his first full season in the bigs, TT has gone from player to be named later — in the three-way deal that also brought Joe Ross to D.C. and landed Wil Myers in San Diego and Steven Souza in Tampa Bay — to potential star in a flash. In just 73 games in 2016, the speedster ran off a .342 average, eight triples, 13 homers, and 33 stolen bases. And though he’s a true burner, Turner says in this Whistle Sports video, “I don’t like to bunt. I like to hit the ball … [when I bunt] I feel like I could’ve hit that pitch for a double.”
That kind of attitude helps explain why Turner is worth watching, even if he’ll likely regress from his blistering start. Blink and you might miss something astounding.
The Prospect of the Twins Making — Er, Breaking 60 Wins
Megan Schuster: Ringer colleague Ben Lindbergh has given me hope, friends. Hope that the Minnesota Twins, last year’s Worst Team in Baseball, may finally be something worth rooting for.
After years of excusing Byron Buxton’s and Miguel Sano’s lackluster recent performances in the majors, trying to forgive Ervin Santana for earning an 80-game suspension right after he’d been signed to the largest free-agent contract in club history, and watching from afar as the Big Papi Who Got Away hit homer after homer in Fenway, I spent this spring training differently: I witnessed impressive performances by Kyle Gibson; I read insightful columns about Buxton potentially turning things around; I saw photos of Glen Perkins holding large fish; and I became optimistic. Not optimistic in the sense that I think the Twins will make the playoffs, or even finish above .500. Just optimistic that they could win more than 59 games.
The Brewers Wreaking Havoc on the Base Paths
Zach Kram: Plenty of MLB teams will be out of contention by about Tax Day this year, as clubs around the league continue to rebuild in the hopes of replicating the Cubs’ World Series–winning strategy. That makes for some unwatchable baseball — outside of a Freddie Freeman fantasy owner, nobody wants to invest in a Braves-Padres game in June.
The Brewers, though, boast a fascinating roster and thrilling playing style, even for a team projected to win only 70 games. Last year, Milwaukee tallied the most stolen bases of any team this decade. The team also recorded the most stolen base attempts of the decade (only five teams were caught more often) and had the highest attempts-per-opportunity ratio in that span.
In his breakout season in 2016, Jonathan Villar led the majors with both 62 successful and 18 unsuccessful attempts. Hernan Peréz added 34 steals, and Keon Broxton managed 23 in just 75 games. All those players should continue to tear up the base paths in 2017, and there’s more excitement across the roster: Broxton and Domingo Santana are Statcast darlings who crush the ball whenever they make contact; KBO star Eric Thames is back playing stateside at age 30; and the Opening Day starter, Junior Guerra, just completed a season as a 31-year-old rookie, during which time he threw for a 2.81 ERA. They won’t reach the playoffs, but the Brewers will be a blast from April through September.
The Brewers Wreaking Havoc on Your Digestive System
Erin Barney: I can’t think of another time of year when it’s as socially acceptable to eat four hot dogs in a day (or in one sitting, if you’re doing it right) as it is during baseball season. Homers and game-winning runs are much more enjoyable with Oscar Mayer’s best in one hand and a cold beer of choice in the other. The Milwaukee Brewers know and respect this tradition better than most, and they took it to a whole new level in 2013 when they debuted The Beast at Miller Park. You never knew how much you needed a hot dog stuffed inside a foot-long brat, wrapped in bacon, smothered in kraut and onions, and nestled in a pretzel bun until you tried this thing. It’s meant for at least two people, but better enjoyed by one. I believe in you.
Boston’s Core Four
Paolo Uggetti: Earlier this week, I received an MLB At Bat alert from the Red Sox’s spring training game.
Three minutes later, my phone buzzed again.
At that very moment, I was ready for baseball to start.
The Red Sox head into this season with a loaded team and the expectation to win the AL East, if not the whole thing. (You can blame me if it doesn’t happen, Sox fans.) But whether they thrive or crash and burn, this team features four young players worthy of your attention.
Three are returning All-Stars, led by Mookie Betts, a shorter-than-6-foot outfielder who blasted 31 homers and finished second in AL MVP voting last year. Xander Bogaerts posted a career-high .802 OPS last year and is quickly turning into one of the best young infielders in baseball. Jackie Bradley Jr. went from surefire trade piece to fan favorite after his hitting transformed into “serviceable” and complemented his top-notch defense. And then there’s Andrew Benintendi, the Red Sox’s top prospect who can do some of this and some of that, and is ready for his first full year in the majors after shining in just 34 games last year.
David Ortiz will no longer be at Fenway to drop F-bombs and launch H-bombs, but Benintendi is 22, Betts and Bogaerts are 24, and Bradley is 26. The only Core Four that matters now plays in Boston.
New York’s Core … One
Ryan Wright: Last season, I had a hard time staying interested in baseball. The Yankees weren’t good, and especially after they turned into sellers at the trade deadline, it just didn’t feel like they would be good for a while. I love A-Rod and Mark Teixeira, but I was sick of watching the elderly. Then, just as I was about to give up baseball for the rest of the season, Gary Sánchez entered my life. He hit dingers left and right, and it gave the team new energy. I didn’t even care that they didn’t make the playoffs; I was just happy there was finally something new to get excited about. I won’t ever forget watching Sánchez hit 20 home runs in 53 games, and with a full season’s worth of games in front of him, I can’t wait to see what he does in 2017.
Christian Bethancourt Trying to Do It All
Ryan O’Hanlon: If you read too much into current pitching and hitting trends, you could pretty quickly resign yourself to an eventual MLB season in which everyone looks roughly the same and nearly every at-bat ends in either a strikeout, a walk, or a home run. That is bad; philosophical diversity promotes interesting outcomes, and thankfully last year’s playoffs — with Andrew Miller hovering over every inning, ready to put his finger on the scale; Terry Francona’s polarized lineups; and Chicago’s positionless baseball — suggested that the sport isn’t lacking for new ideas.
So, allow me to read too much into a different trend: Christian Bethancourt is the future. This season, the San Diego Padres plan to use him as a reliever and a catcher and a corner outfielder. As Ben Lindbergh said on The Ringer MLB Show, Bethancourt’s über-utility has to thread a weird needle — he can’t be too good at anything because then the Padres would just have him do that one thing, yet he still has to be good enough at everything — but I’m waiting for the day when that kind of versatility is valued as much as your overall output. Give Mike Trout the next 15 MVPs, but once he’s gone, give it to someone who can throw a decent knuckleball and turn a double play.