Rejoice, dear readers, for baseball has returned! And boy, have we missed it. Last season gave us more than we dreamed possible, with a new crop of talent taking over the game and the Cubs — Yes, the Cubs! Still weird to say! — ending their 108-year World Series drought. Can 2017 possibly match or top the thrills that 2016 brought? If Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw, and Kris Bryant have anything to say about it, maybe so.
World Series and Playoff Picks
In today’s ultra-saturated media environment, every breakout success gets a sequel. Cubs-Indians was baseball’s biggest mainstream moment in years, a matchup that appealed to hardcore and casual fans alike. And since both clubs have clear paths to the playoffs, there’s no reason it can’t happen again, aside from baseball’s crushing randomness and the tiny talent margin between teams. A second meeting wouldn’t be as big of a story, but with the Cubs’ curse ended, Cleveland’s is next in line to be broken. This time the Indians might have a whole starting rotation when the World Series starts, so I’ll take them in Round 2.
The Indians came within an inning of winning the World Series last year thanks to some incredible pitching and a managerial hot streak from Terry Francona the likes of which we haven’t seen since Bucky Harris in 1924. And they did it without Carlos Carrasco or Danny Salazar. Imagine that team, with those two pitchers, plus another year’s worth of improvement from Francisco Lindor and José Ramírez, plus getting literally anything from their catchers, plus offseason acquisition Edwin Encarnación. On the National League side, the Cubs are the best team, but picking them to repeat is boring. It’d be really nice to see Clayton Kershaw throw off the yoke of his postseason reputation once and for all to settle a rematch of the 1920 World Series, but the Dodgers’ run will end there and Burleigh Grimes will go unavenged.
Congratulations are in order for Mariners fans, who have endured the longest active postseason drought in baseball, not reaching the playoffs since the 116-win team lost in the 2001 ALCS. Congratulations also go to this year’s favorites, as every division winner on this list doubles as the projections’ favored choice — it’s boring, yes, but if it bears out, it will make for a slew of thrilling playoff matchups. The Dodgers have lost in the NLCS four times in the past decade, but they put a scare in the Cubs last year, going up 2–1 in the series on a pair of Clayton Kershaw– and Rich Hill–led shutouts, and they’re my pick to finally surmount that barrier this year and win in the next round, too. World Series MVP honors go to Vin Scully, who emerges from retirement to call the final inning in October (a guy can dream).
Baseball finally has its version of Warriors-Cavs, and we know how this story goes: A full-strength Cleveland wins Round 2. Chicago put together one of the most impressive full seasons in modern MLB history last year … and somehow still feels underrated. You can have your defensive regression; I’ll take 162 games of Kyle Schwarber launching dingers across the Canadian border. Remember, though, that if Wrigley Field had a retractable roof, the Indians would be the defending champs. They got to the brink without Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco, Michael Brantley, Edwin Encarnación, and Edwin Encarnación’s imaginary parrot. Having those players on the postseason roster this time should be more than enough to get Cleveland over the hump.
If you look carefully, all signs are pointing to a Houston World Series title. There’s the famous Sports Illustrated cover, from June 2014. There’s the notion that Taylor Swift — whose MLB magic cannot be questioned — has chosen to bestow the team with her mystical powers. And even if you’re not into the idea of taking a (really rather obvious) cue from the baseball gods, there’s the Astros roster, which is loaded with young talent: Carlos Correa (22), José Altuve (26), George Springer (27), Alex Bregman (23), and more. Other than the Cubs, no one has more firepower. And after Chicago falls to the Dodgers in an NLCS rematch, Houston will claim its first crown.
I hope that I’m terribly wrong and that my beloved Orioles somehow find a way to keep outperforming their projections on the way to another stunning postseason berth. More likely, my increasingly decrepit Birds will fall behind a handful of potent and thrilling American League foes. Houston’s lineup is arguably the most potent and thrilling of all — so stacked one through nine that George Freaking Springer is going to hit leadoff. The Astros, unlike their eventual World Series opponent, still desperately need to boost their starting rotation, but they have the prospects to cash in for an ace at any point. Cleveland-Chicago reignited something special in the baseball-viewing public last year, and even with the Cubbies falling short of a repeat championship, Astros-Cubs can stimulate us in the same way.
Lindbergh: Mike Trout. On the most recent episode of The Ringer MLB Show, I agonized over the question of whether Trout would lead the AL in WAR and finish no worse than second in MVP voting, as he has in each of the past five seasons. Then I was wrestling with whether Trout was more likely to do both of those things than every other AL player combined. Now I’m just deciding whether Trout is more likely to win the award than any other individual AL player. This question is comparatively easy.
Baumann: Trout. I’m going to pick Trout for AL MVP every year until he gives me a reason not to.
Kram: Carlos Correa. Trout will remain the world’s best player, but with the Astros winning a division title for the first time since 2001, when they were still in the NL Central, Correa will gain the slightest edge in the MVP race. That the young shortstop was still worth 4.9 WAR last season while disappointing relative to expectations speaks to his immense potential, and entering his third season, he’s younger than MLB Rookie of the Year candidates Andrew Benintendi, Dansby Swanson, and Robert Gsellman. Correa will reach his first All-Star Game and win the MVP with a star-making campaign.
O’Hanlon: Trout. Here’s the thing about Manny Machado, Francisco Lindor, and Carlos Correa: They’re not Mike Trout.
Glicksman: Correa. Correa put up a .274/.361/.451 slash line with 20 homers and 96 RBIs in his second MLB season, and that was considered underwhelming. This suggests that (a) the 6-foot-4 shortstop and former no. 1 draft pick possesses once-in-a-generation-type talent, and (b) people’s expectations are goddamn absurd. Correa isn’t Mike Trout, but MVP voters have proved very good at growing bored with Mike Trout.
Rubin: Manny Machado. I’m on the record: This is the year that Machado’s unrivaled power-glove combo earns him baseball’s highest individual honor. And I’m saying that just because of the 40-homer potential and nightly webgemitis at the hot corner: If Machado ever decides to run again, or if the O’s ever decide to permanently shift him to shortstop, his natural position, this’ll go from shameless homer pick to lock in a hurry.
Lindbergh: Kris Bryant. Yes, I’m picking the other 25-year-old superstar who won an MVP award last year. My forecasts are so safe and predictable that I like to think that my editor regrets making me publish them a couple of calls in.
Baumann: G.D. “Buster” Posey. I wanted to go off the board, but to some extent, an MVP candidate still has to play on either a good team or in a big market to get noticed. There are only four, maybe five good NL teams, they all play in big markets, and their best players — Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Corey Seager — are all just the same guys from the MVP races of the past two years. A second MVP for Posey would be more fun, and since all these predictions are going to be wrong anyway, let’s have some fun.
Kram: Corey Seager. A bit of baseball poetry: In 2015, Bryant won the NL Rookie of the Year Award by unanimous decision; the next year, he led his team to the best record in baseball and a World Series title while winning NL MVP honors. In 2016, Corey Seager won the NL Rookie of the Year Award by a unanimous decision, also placing third behind Bryant in MVP voting; the next year, he will lead his team to the best record in baseball and a World Series title while winning NL MVP honors. Mountain Dews for everyone!
O’Hanlon: Seager. Let’s just make sure he gets one of these before he eats himself out of the league, OK?
Glicksman: Bryce Harper. Harper won the 2015 NL MVP after hitting 42 home runs and registering a 1.109 OPS. He then opened the 2016 season on a tear, smashing nine bombs in his first 19 games, before struggling the rest of the way. In December, Harper spent time around the Duke University men’s basketball team. It’s only fitting, then, to steal a line of questioning from The Ringer’s own Mark Titus: Is Bryce Harper back?
Rubin: Bryant. I came really close to picking Seager, but the thing is, you can’t be the most valuable player in the league if you’re not the most valuable player on your own team, and as great as Seager is, he’s not Clayton Kershaw. Bryant, meanwhile, is the best player on the NL’s best team, which counts (even if it shouldn’t) with old-school voters. He also seems totally unfazed by both personal and team hype and by where Joe Maddon plays him. Barring injury, he should match or surpass the production that earned him MVP honors in his sophomore campaign.
AL Cy Young
Lindbergh: Chris Sale. By any WAR measure, Corey Kluber has been the most valuable AL starter since 2014. From a performance perspective, this is a toss-up, but I’ll wager (so to speak) that Boston’s superior run support combined with the buzz that comes from being the best player to change teams over the winter make Sale the more likely award winner.
Baumann: Lance McCullers. We all know that McCullers won’t throw 200 innings this year, but what this prediction presupposes is … maybe he will?
Kram: Sale. Boston’s new ace has finished in the top six in AL Cy Young voting every year he’s been a starter, and after spending his career thus far in U.S. Cellular, he’s one of the few left-handed pitchers for whom a move to Fenway isn’t a sign that his numbers will decline. Add in the team support that just propelled Rick Porcello to 22 wins and a Cy of his own, and Sale is the safest bet to take this year’s trophy.
O’Hanlon: Sale. Note: If the Red Sox decide to wear these duds at any point in 2017, my pick automatically defaults to Yu Darvish.
Glicksman: Danny Duffy. The past three pitchers to win the AL Cy Young — Rick Porcello, Dallas Keuchel, and Corey Kluber — each entered their respective award-winning seasons as relative long shots. While Duffy isn’t the favorite, he’s certainly on people’s radar: He went 12–3 with a 3.51 ERA for Kansas City last year, and over a 16-start span from June 1 to August 21 he struck out 113 batters in 108 innings and posted a 2.50 ERA. Look for Duffy to maintain that caliber of performance throughout the entire 2017 campaign, and to celebrate his hardware by busting out the bear suit.
Rubin: Sale. Never, ever forget that Porcello, a middling starter who finished 19th (19th!) in strikeouts per nine innings in the AL last year, won the Cy Young. When an actually dominant strikeout artist like Sale has the power of the Red Sox behind him, what chance does anyone else have?
NL Cy Young
Lindbergh: Clayton Kershaw. This is slightly less obvious than the Trout and Bryant picks, if only because of the back injury that kept Kershaw out last year. It’s still extremely obvious, because when he was on the mound, the best pitcher in baseball was better than ever before.
Baumann: Kershaw. See my explanation for Trout.
Kram: Kershaw. Just because I’m not picking Trout doesn’t mean I’m completely foolish. Bad back and missed months and all, Kershaw still should’ve won this award last season, and he’ll reclaim it in 2017 even if his numbers slip a bit from their otherworldly peak a year ago.
O’Hanlon: Kershaw. He didn’t throw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title in 2016, but he still produced more full-season value than any other pitcher in baseball. I can’t wait to tell my kids about how the two best players in baseball history played in the same city at the same time … and no one here gave a shit.
Glicksman: Kershaw. If the Dodgers ace stays healthy and no pitcher whom the Orioles gave away for Steve Clevenger and Scott Feldman puts up the best second-half ERA in MLB history, Kershaw is a virtual lock.
Rubin: Madison Bumgarner. I fully acknowledge Kershaw’s unrivaled excellence, but I also believe that great players eventually get their due, and it’s past time that MadBum got his. It’s unconscionable to me that the Giants ace has never finished better than fourth in Cy voting, and while that track record probably guarantees that he once again won’t, I’m too blinded by his 11-strikeout, two-home-run (just to be clear: AS A HITTER) Opening Day showcase to care.
AL Rookie of the Year
Lindbergh: Andrew Benintendi. He’s the game’s no. 1 overall prospect and the no. 2 hitter in one of the best lineups in baseball, and he played well in his first exposure to the big leagues last year. Even Dave Dombrowski wouldn’t trade him, despite dealing a typical farm system’s worth of young talent since taking over the Red Sox. Rookie of the Year candidates don’t come much more qualified than this.
Baumann: Benintendi. I’m all in. A top-10 MVP finish is not out of the question, nor is Benintendi eventually becoming better than Mookie Betts.
Kram: Benintendi. It’s an obvious choice, but Benintendi is so, so good. As the top-ranked prospect in baseball, he already showed he can hit in the majors, slashing .295/.359/.476 in 34 games last season; this year, he’ll put up counting stats in a potent Red Sox offense, do fun celebration dances with Mookie Betts in the outfield, and earn lots of hype featuring on a division champ in Boston.
O’Hanlon: Benintendi. He’s 2015 Kris Bryant: an immediate All-Star-level talent with the haircut of a 14-year-old.
Glicksman: Jharel Cotton. Having great, under-the-radar young pitchers is extremely Oakland’s thing. Cotton is no exception, recording a 2.15 ERA over 29.1 innings in 2016. For all the obsessing over the league’s incoming crop of flamethrowers, the 25-year-old righty throws a changeup that clocks in nearly 20 mph slower than his fastball. That’s pretty dope, too.
Rubin: Benintendi. It’s going to be really annoying to hear Red Sox fans gush about Sale and Benintendi all season — and even more insufferable if Benintendi earns the award by edging out former fellow Boston über-phenom Yoan Moncada.
NL Rookie of the Year
Lindbergh: Dansby Swanson. They don’t come much more qualified than Swanson, either: no. 1 overall draft pick, no. 3 overall prospect, .302/.361/.442 slash line in 145 plate appearances in Atlanta last year (missing the rookie cutoff by one at-bat). He probably won’t make enough contact to keep that average up, but as a shortstop who can play the position, he doesn’t have to hit that well again to win.
Baumann: Swanson. There’s a non-trivial chance that Philadelphia’s J.P. Crawford ends up being a better player, but we don’t know when he’ll get called up, and his game isn’t as conducive to basic stats as Swanson’s is. When top Cardinals pitching prospect Alex Reyes went down, this race became Swanson’s to lose.
Kram: Robert Gsellman. The newest long-haired member of the Mets’ rotation is a divisive presence among baseball minds, but count me among his believers. Even coming largely against the Phillies and Braves, Gsellman’s 2.42 ERA and 2.63 FIP in 44.2 innings last year are impressive numbers, and his sinker is already one of MLB’s best. He’ll join fellow hirsute, non-prospect Met Jacob deGrom as a Rookie of the Year.
O’Hanlon: Gsellman. I once thought that the Yankees’ personal-grooming policy was corporate overreach. Then I saw Andrew Benintendi and Robert Gsellman take off their hats.
Glicksman: Josh Bell. In his first major league at-bat, the Pirates prospect ripped a single off Cubs hurler Jake Arrieta. In his second major league at-bat, Bell did this:
The raw power is there, as he hit 14 dingers in Triple-A last season before being called up to the bigs. The plate discipline is there, as Bell struck out just 19 times in 152 major league plate appearances. If he can learn to play first base even somewhat competently, he could be a major addition to the middle of Pittsburgh’s lineup.
Rubin: Swanson. Only haircuts are eligible for top rookie honors this year.
Lindbergh: Byron Buxton. I just wrote a column about the Minnesota outfielder’s status as the spring’s most obvious post-hype breakout candidate, and I’m nothing if not obvious when it comes to preseason predictions. I also started that column by declaring that “breakout-player picks are all little lies” and casting doubt on the idea that anyone could reliably detect real breakouts before they happen, so you might have been better off skipping this paragraph.
Baumann: Carlos Rodon. I’m going to keep predicting a Rodon breakout until the White Sox pitcher finally breaks out.
Kram: James Paxton. With Félix Hernández attempting a rebound, the Mariners might need a new ace if they want to actualize their latent playoff hopes. Meet James Paxton. The hard-throwing lefty managed only a 3.79 ERA last year, but that mark was hurt by an unlucky BABIP and one of the worst runner-strand rates in the league. To see his breakout bona fides, focus instead on Paxton’s FIP, which ranked fourth in MLB (minimum 120 innings) and hews closer to his true talent level, and to his dynamite fastball — among starters, only Noah Syndergaard and the now-injured Nate Eovaldi threw theirs faster.
O’Hanlon: McCullers. With the kind of “stuff” that inspires fan fiction among the MLB-scout Tumblr community, all the Astros pitcher really needs to do is stay healthy. The guy throws a baseball like he’s trying to shatter the Antarctic ice sheet.
Glicksman: Adam Conley. Miami’s 6-foot-3 lefty was a popular breakout candidate last spring, when he was likened to Cliff Lee and Chris Sale. And while he had control problems at times — he walked seven batters in a loss to the Nationals last May — he was good more often not, putting up a 3.85 ERA and an 8.4 K/9 rate over 133.1 innings. Conley will begin the year as the Marlins’ fifth starter, but could very well emerge as their ace if he can string together a series of outings like this.
Rubin: Jon Gray. It’s tough to strike out nearly 200 batters while keeping your WHIP below 1.3 as a 24-year-old starter. It’s close to impossible to do that while calling Coors Field home. Gray was quietly great in his first full season, and if he can continue to fan better than a batter per inning while keeping the home-runs-allowed total in check, he could help Nolan Arenado propel a surprisingly competitive campaign for the Rockies, becoming a household name in the process. Better still, sticking with the theme of this entire staff post: Colorado’s Opening Day starter doesn’t appear to have a barber.
Lindbergh: Texas Rangers. The Rangers and the Cardinals seem like the only teams among my non-playoff picks that have strong enough reputations to qualify as flops if they fail. Regression is going to hit the Rangers hard, and while there’s no reason to think they’ll be bad, 80-something wins and an October 1 end to their season would look like a failure as a follow-up to an easy AL West title.
Baumann: Baltimore Orioles. It has to stop sometime.
Kram: Rangers. As Ben Lindbergh wrote last month, the 2016 Rangers won the AL West as just about the luckiest team ever, having won the highest percentage of one-run games and produced the second-best clutch score in recorded history. This magnitude of fortune isn’t repeatable; nor, I fear, are the Rangers’ postseason hopes in 2017. The rotation beyond the top two is ghastly, the uncommon combination of ineffective and injury-prone (A.J. Griffin? Andrew Cashner? Tyson Ross?); the young should’ve-been stars (Jurickson Profar and Joey Gallo) still haven’t hit in the majors; and the roster’s depth, once a strength, has been stripped, meaning an injury to any of the core pieces could prove fatal to the team’s playoff chances.
O’Hanlon: St. Louis Cardinals. Their most exciting player is already gone for the season, and now the coolest thing about them is … that their best player still doesn’t wear batting gloves? Wake me up when they’re not the most boring team in baseball.
Glicksman: Seattle Mariners. Think about the last time you trusted the Mariners. Did it end well? Now remember that while Seattle’s 2017 team contains lots of reason for optimism, it’s also counting on Félix Hernández to return to Cy Young form and James Paxton to stay healthy (Drew Smyly is already hurt) and Hisashi Iwakuma to not surrender 218 hits and Yovani Gallardo to not implode every fifth day. Edwin Díaz may be the best reliever in baseball, but the rest of the M’s pitching roster is full of question marks.
Rubin: Mariners. I know of what I speak: Nothing good ever came from relying on Yovani Gallardo. Here’s the good news, though: More losses means more moves, which means more renditions of “What Would Jerry Dipoto Do?”
Lindbergh: Tampa Bay Rays. None of my postseason picks would be perceived as a surprise — generally, my picks look a lot like the typical favorites, not so much because I’m copying the crowd (although that might make me more accurate!) as because the consensus becomes the consensus for real reasons. So the Rays recording a winning record and making the wild-card race interesting until the tail end of September is as close as I can come. The AL East has the highest floor of any division, and Tampa Bay, like Toronto, has the potential for a rotation that’s average or better from the bottom to the top.
Baumann: Arizona Diamondbacks. A.J. Pollock is back, the pitching almost literally cannot be as bad as it was last year, and there aren’t as many good NL teams as there are playoff spots.
Kram: Rays. The 2016 Rays’ underlying numbers reveal them as a much better team than their 68–94 record indicates, and the rotation should improve this year, with Chris Archer out of his half-season funk, Alex Cobb two years removed from Tommy John surgery, and prospect José De Leon waiting in the minors for an impact promotion. Add in the offensive breakout potential of defensive superstar Kevin Kiermaier, and even after a future-oriented offseason the Rays could stay close this year in a fluid and unpredictable wild-card race.
O’Hanlon: Rays. There’s a chance this team has both the best non–Mike Trout fielder and the best pitcher in the American League in 2017: Kevin Kiermaier is the only center fielder who’s ever made me think, “You know what? They really need to make the outfield bigger,” and, unlike last season, the wind won’t suddenly blow out every time Archer gives up a fly ball.
Glicksman: Kansas City Royals. Last April, the Royals were the defending champs, coming off consecutive World Series berths and drawing praise for their bullpen ingenuity. This April they’re being projected for 72 wins and a last-place finish in the AL Central. All I’m saying is, in a year when math is broken, there are worse bets to make than +3300 on Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, and Co. to make another deep October run.
Rubin: Diamondbacks. You’ll want to look away, because the uniforms remain an unforgivable eyesore, more at home in a kindergarten finger-painting competition than on a major league field, but you’ll be compelled to watch as the D-backs hang in the NL West race for the bulk of the season behind a sneaky-exciting rotation and a sneaky-balanced lineup. If this prediction proves accurate, though, pray for Fernando Rodney: He pulled a plantain out of his pants when the Dominican Republic opened the World Baseball Classic; if he tries to stick an actual diamondback in there for a laugh during an Arizona win streak, euphoria could turn to tragedy in a hurry.